“Two women shall be grinding together; the one shall be taken, and the other left.” (Luke 17:35″
This morning R.J. Walker posted this comment about the sexual implications of Luke 17:35:
It is an interesting idea, but for me you need a lot of additional authority for the idea that today’s slang can be applied to such a different culture in such a different age.
A number of people have noted the presence lesbians in Luke 17:35. But it isn’t sufficient to simply assert that the “two women grinding together” are lesbians. People who take their Bible interpretation seriously require evidence of some kind. In my last post I demonstrated that the word “grind” was an acceptable euphemism for sexual intercourse
in the Old Testament (Job 31:10, Judges 16:21, and Lamentations 5:13), which would be sufficient evidence for many Christians.
But Old Testament usage actually isn’t enough, as pointed out by two of my Facebook friends. Cecil Bohanon commented on the difficulty of coming “to anything but a purely speculative conclusion when dealing with multiple sources in multiple languages from ancient times.” Scott Yelvington wrote, “there was at least one, if not two, full language shifts between the manuscripts of the Old Testament and those of the new.” Several people used the word “anachronism” when responding to the idea that “grinding” had sexual content in verse 35.
Was “Grind” Actually Used Sexually in the Time of Jesus and Luke?
I could hear a potential objection ringing in my ears. “You have no evidence that ‘grind’ was used as a sexual euphemism in the time of Christ.” That would be a valid objection. I didn’t have any evidence, and if there was no evidence, then I would simply be making an interesting but unpersuasive assertion. (Being a Scribe, I know how Scribes think!)
Was there evidence to support my hypothesis? It really was just a hypothesis. At that point I was nowhere near convinced that the “two women grinding together” were lesbians. At that point I knew that there was a likelihood that they were two women grinding grain in their mills by candlelight. (Oops! Speaking of anachronisms, that should be “lamplight.”) I said to my wife repeatedly, “Diane, this is astonishing, but I wonder if I’m just being too damned clever.” But I found the evidence, more evidence than I could have anticipated.
Grind: Euphemism for Sex in Four Ancient Languages
“Grind” was used in at least four ancient languages as a euphemism for sexual activities and experiences: 1) Hebrew, 2) Sumerian, 3) Latin, and 4) Greek. I’ve already discussed “grind” in Hebrew, so I’ll move on to the next three ancient languages.
“Grind” in Sumerian
The dates for the Sumerian Empire are approximately 3500 BCE to 1763 BCE. In Sumerian, the word mú has four interrelated meanings. These meanings illustrate how one meaning can morph into other meanings. Mú‘s closely related meanings are 1) to mill or grind, 2) well-formed, beautiful, plump; 3) shout, scream, roar; and 4) woman, female.
The linguistic relationships among these meanings of mú are not hard to see. Each of the meanings is related to women and/or sexual activity. Linguists have demonstrated that words pertaining to the activities of women frequently become sexualized. Something similar to the morphing of mú in Sumerian is the morphing of a Greek word. One of the Greek words for sex, mello, demonstrates such development. Mello, the usual word used meaning “to have sexual intercourse,” originally meant “grind.”
“Grind” in Latin
In Latin, the word “grind,” and the related word “mill,” are both euphemisms for things sexual. The Roman poet Horace (65 to 8 BCE) used “grind” in his endorsement of brothels. Writing in Latin just decades before the birth of Christ, Plutarch says that
Once, when a noble left a brothel, “Blessed be thou for thy virtue!” quoth the wisdom of Cato: “for when their veins are swelling with gross lust, young men should drop in there, rather than grind some husband’s private mill.”
Notice that Horace uses both “grind” and “mill” euphemistically. His use of both “grind” and “mill” shows that even the presence of the word “mill” does not eliminate the possibility of sexual meanings in the word “grind.” Horace’s usage is very significant because it is proof of the use of “grind” as a euphemism for sexual intercourse in the Roman empire just a few decades before the birth of Christ.
“Grind” in Greek
While the evidence from Hebrew and Latin is persuasive to me, there is an example in classical Greek where “grinding the mill” refers to sex. This example is more to the point since the New Testament has come to us in Greek, not in Hebrew or Latin. This example from secular Greek is also significant because it was written at the same time Luke was probably written. This example demonstrates that the words “grind” and “mill” were used as sexual euphemisms in Greek during the time of Jesus and Luke.
Plutarch (ca A.D. 45 to 120) was born in Greece near Delphi, and was a contemporary of Luke. One of Plutarch’s essays, “The Banquet of Seven Wise Men,” is a fictional conversation among some famous men who lived around 650 BCE. After a brief lull in the conversation, Thales of Miletus speaks:
This remark arrested the attention of the whole company, and Thales said jestingly…. “when I was at Lesbos, I heard my landlady, as she was very busy at her handmill, singing as she used to go at her work:
In rhythm with her literal grinding, the landlady sings a bawdy work song: “Grind, mill,
grind.” Whether the song dates back to 650 BCE is not the point. What matters is that Plutarch records “grind” used as a sexual metaphor in the last quarter of the first century A.D., overlapping the probable years when Luke was composed.
Plutarch’s story confirms that he considered the work song to be a “lesbian joke,” since he says that Thales of Miletus told the story set on the Isle of Lesbos “jestingly.” The historicity of the story itself is not at issue here. What the Plutarchian evidence does is to testify to Greek language use during the period of Plutarch, Luke, and Jesus.
“Grind” in Plutarch and Luke: An Amazing Match
The fact that Plutarch places the line “grind, mill, grind” on the Isle of Lesbos, the home of Sappho, is quite extraordinary. In the linguistic evidence from Hebrew, Sumerian, and Latin, there has been no specifically lesbian reference. But here in Plutarch, we have “grind” 1) used sexually 2) in Greek 3) with lesbian connections. These are perfect parallels with “grind” in Luke 17:35. The fact that the parallel usage can be historically documented moves the hypothesis from the realm of speculation to the realm of actual possibility. Plutarch parallels Luke perfectly. And the fact that Plutarch and Luke were contemporaries, writing in the same decades, further enhances the case.
Plutarch wrote his collection Moralia between A.D. 75 and 100. These years overlap the estimated years of the writing of the gospel of Luke, which range from the early 60s to sometime in the second century. It is clear that Plutarch’s double entendre was amusing and needed no explanation to Plutarch’s literate, first-century Greek audience. The sexual meanings of “grind” and “mill” were common in Greek society when Luke being composed, and could have been in common usage for as long as 700 years prior to that. There is no room for quibbling over whether or not “grind” and “mill” were used sexually in the Greek language of the first century, and that this layer of meaning was familiar to literate Greeks.
[Edit note: I have deleted my “folk etymology” of the word “grind.” My thanks to Peter Kirk for his input.]
People have legitimate concerns about anachronisms, our tendency to read twenty-first century Western meanings into texts from 2,000 years to who-knows-how-many-years old, especially when it comes to slang. We are accustomed to hearing that slang is temporary and fleeting, but we hear little about enduring slang like “grinding” unless we’re students, for example, of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. When we realize that “grind” was used as a euphemism for sex in Middle English, as well as in contemporary German, Chinese, Swahili, and Arabic, we begin to realize that “grind” is not a transient phenomenon restricted to contemporary English.
The “grind” euphemism seems nearly universal. There are at least three reasons for this. The first two reasons are 1) linguistic influence and 2) the historical durability and utility of the metaphor. The third is the fact that, in a sense, it isn’t used as a metaphor at all. I can grind two rocks together, I can grind my teeth, I can grind my fist into my palm. Sexual grinding is the actually just one literal application of the word.
In this discussion of ancient languages I am reminded of the crucifixion of Christ and the sign that was nailed above his head.
And a superscription also was written over him in letters of Greek, and Latin, and Hebrew, “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” (Luke 23:38, KJV).
In the time of Jesus and Luke “grind” has a sexual usage, even a specifically lesbian usage. That fact, however, does not necessarily mean that this instance has a sexual usage. There is nothing I’m aware of that absolutely requires the sexual layer of meaning in Luke 17:35. Nevertheless, there are parallel situations in the Greek scriptures which shed light on this question.
[To read the entire series on “Luke’s Gay Apocalypse” and the gays and lesbians in Luke, click here.]