Was Jesus Rude to His Mother?

John 2:4 "Dear woman, why do you involve me?" Jesus replied. "My time has not yet come."

Critics often accuse Jesus of being rude to his mother here; however, as parallel phrases in Greek literature show, this is not a phrase of derision or rudeness but of loving respect (as our NIV correctly captures). Consider this relevant data:

  1. The term here is "Jesus' normal, public way of addressing women" (John 4:21, 8:10, 19:26, 20:31; Mt. 15:28; Lk. 13:12). It is also a common address in Greek literature, and never has the intent of disrespect or hostility. [Brow.GJ, 99].
  2. The same term is used in Josephus Antiquities 17.17 by Pheroras to summon his beloved wife. [Beas.J, 34]
  3. As for the second part of the response, it reads literally: "What to me and to you?" This is a Semitic phrase that indicates that the speaker is being unjustly bothered or is being asked to get involved in a matter that is not their business. It can be impolite, but not always. (cf. 2 Kings 3:13, Hos. 14:8) [Brow.GJ, 117] The intent must be determined by the context, and the first part of Jesus' saying does point to the latter intent.

Malina and Rohrbaugh [Social-Science commentary, 299] add that such implication of distance was in fact quite proper in a society where men were expected to break the maternal bonds by a certain age. Jesus' reaction is entirely respectful and appropriate in this context.

I like to add non-Biblical examples on things like this, since we (and even Biblical scholars) are accused of making this stuff up. J. K. Campbell in Honour, Family and Patronage [164] describes how among the Sarakatsan of Greece, a young man of a certain age is expected to be even "ruder" to their mother than the critics suppose Jesus to be: He rejects her gestures of affection, and will (for example), if it rains, ignore dry clothes she puts out for him. "Particularly between the ages of thirteen and sixteen, he is given to outbursts of rudeness towards his mother and his sisters. By this abruptness to the women of his family he hopes to give a further demonstration of his growing manliness." Mothers, by the way, are not offended by this, but "are amused and also a little proud as they observe these antics of their young sons. They understand their feelings and approve of them."