Gender & voice: marriage, divorce, adultery

The classics blog, Sententiae Antiquae, published an essay on the intersection of grammar, language, and gender. The post begins with a quote from An Anonymous Grammarian, De Adfinium Vocabulorum Differentia, illustrating how differences in grammatical voice are realized in marital contexts for men vs. women:

“A Man Marries, a Woman Gets Married”

It’s worth a read, but here’s a short version:

  1. γῆμαι is for men.
    γήμασθαι is for women.

The same pattern continues in Koine texts. Indeed, even when the woman is construed as an explicit agent in the event, the one who is responsible for her actions, the pattern holds. Consider, for instance, verbs of divorce & adultery:

In Luke and Matthew, men and women in their respective marital separations each receive different voice marking, as in examples (2-3).

  1. Πᾶς ὁ ἀπολύων τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ καὶ γαμῶν ἑτέραν μοιχεύει, καὶ ὁ ἀπολελυμένην ἀπὸ ἀνδρὸς γαμῶν μοιχεύει
    Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery (Luke 16:18).
  2. λέγω δὲ ὑμῖν ὅτι ὃς ἂν ἀπολύσῃ τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ μὴ ἐπὶ πορνείᾳ καὶ γαμήσῃ ἄλλην μοιχᾶται καὶ ὁ ἀπολελυμένην γαμήσας μοιχᾶται
    And I say to you, anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another commits adultery he who marries a divorced woman commits adultery (Matthew 19:9).

Josephus describes a woman getting a divorce similarly, as in (4)

  1. καὶ πέμπει μὲν εὐθὺς αὐτῷ γραμμάτιον ἀπολυομένη τὸν γάμον οὐ κατὰ τοὺς Ἰουδαίων νόμους·
    And she immediately sent a brief letter, dissolving the marriage, not according to Jewish laws (Antiquities 15.259).

Men who divorce are: ὁ ἀπολύων, but women who divorce are ἡ ἀπολυθεῖσα.

But more striking is the voice morphology of adultery: μοιχεύω. You might have noticed that above Luke uses the active: μοιχεύει, but Matthew uses the middle: μοιχᾶται, despite the fact that both refer to the man committing adultery. Let us explore this contrast in a little more detail. Consider example (5) below.

  1. ἄνθρωπος ὃς ἂν μοιχεύσηται γυναῖκα ἀνδρός, ἢ ὃς ἂν μοιχεύσηται γυναῖκα τοῦ πλησίον, θανάτῳ θανατούσθωσαν ὁ μοιχεύων καὶ ἡ μοιχευομένη.
    Any person who commits adultery with the wife of a man, or who commits adultery with the wife of a neighbor, let them both, the adulterer and the adulteress, be put to death (20:10:LxxLeviticus 20:10).

To begin, the law assumes a male perpetrator: a person who commits adultery with the wife of a man, or the wife of a neighbor. But the event structure assumes a reciprocity of the action between the two adulterers. Both occurrences of μοιχεύσηται may be considered reciprocal uses of the middle; adultery is an act committed with someone. Notice, however, a shift in voice in the latter portion of the verse that occurs alongside a shift in the gender of the referents. The male perpetrator is expressed as active (ὁ μοιχεύων). The female perpetrator is expressed as middle (ἡ μοιχευομένη).

In Josephus, we find middle used to refer to the woman, as in example (6)

  1. γενομένης δ ̓ ἐγκύου τῆς γυναικὸς καὶ πεμψάσης πρὸς τὸν βασιλέα, ὅπως τῷ ἁμαρτήματι σκέψηταί τινα τοῦ λαθεῖν ὁδόν ἀποθανεῖν γὰρ αὐτὴν κατὰ τοὺς πατρίους καθήκει νόμους μεμοιχευμένην
    Having become pregnant, the woman sent a message to the king so that he could contrive some way of hiding her offense, for execution was the proper thing for her according to according to ancestral laws for an adulterer (Josephus, Antiquities 7.131).

Another example occurs is in LxxSirach (7).

  1. οὕτως καὶ γυνὴ καταλιποῦσα τὸν ἄνδρα
    καὶ παριστῶσα κληρονόμον ἐξ ἀλλοτρίου·
    πρῶτον μὲν γὰρ ἐν νόμῳ Ὑψίστου ἠπείθησεν,
    καὶ δεύτερον εἰς ἄνδρα ἑαυτῆς ἐπλημμέλησεν·
    καὶ τὸ τρίτον ἐν πορνείᾳ ἐμοιχεύθη
    ἐξ ἀλλοτρίου ἀνδρὸς τέκνα παρέστησεν.
    Similarly [will be punished is], a woman who leaves her husband
    and presents him with an heir from another
    For first, she has violated the law of the Most High
    and second, she has sinned against her own husband
    and third, like a prostitute, she has committed adultery,
    from another man she brought forth a child (LxxSirach 23:22-3).

Within these texts, the woman has clear agency and responsibility for her actions, but the use of -θη-, the aorist mediopassive form, aligns with her gender.

On the other hand, where Matthew and Luke retain gendered voice distinctions, Mark drops that distinction for both marriage and divorce in example (8).

  1. καὶ ἐὰν αὐτὴ ἀπολύσασα τὸν ἄνδρα αὐτῆς γαμήσῃ ἄλλον μοιχᾶται
    And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery (Mark 10:12).

It seems likely that the middle μοιχᾶται is still reciprocal rather than female-oriented, given the middle usage in Matthew in Luke for males as well.

Jacob Wackernagel notes the distinction in Lectures on Syntax, edited by David Langslow (2009, 162):

Attic made a sharp distinction between the active μοιχεύωειν and the middle μοιχεύεσθαι of the verb meaning ‘to commit adultery’, corresponding almost exactly to the difference between active γαμεῖν and middle γαμεῖσθαι (‘to marry’). γαμεῖν means ‘to take a wife’ and is used of the man marrying, while the middle γαμεῖσθαι is used of the woman. So, μοιχεύειν denotes adultery by the man, μοιχεύεσθαι that of the wife. In Biblical Greek, the active and middle of this verb are correctly contrasted at Levit. 20: 10, but elsewhere in both the Old and the New Testament, active and middle forms are totally confused. So, too, in Doric the active, μοιχᾶν, is used of the man (cf. Xen. Hell. 1. 6. 15), but in the New Testament μοιχᾶσθαι is used indiscriminately of both sexes (e.g. Matt. 5: 32, Mark 10: 12).

Language is not easily extricated from cultural contexts. Conventionalized patterns may even begin to reflect the social structures in the communities in which they are used, such that distinctions in voice come to be associated with distinctions in gender among verbs of marital union and disunion.