Was the woman at the well married to any of the five men?

I’ve been preaching through the Gospel of John and have recently begun chapter 4. There is one detail in Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well that caught my attention this time because I think it may be rendered incorrectly in most English translations.

The Greek word often rendered as “husband” in John 4:16-18 is the Greek term aner. While “husband” is a possible interpretation and appears in most English translations, the underlying Greek expression isn’t clearly about husbands at all. The reason for the disconnect consists in the difference between the way Greek and English convey the concepts of “man” and “husband.”

English distinguishes “man” from “husband” by the use of two different words—“man” and “husband.” Greek, however, uses the single term aner to express both concepts. Aner denotes “an adult human male” (BDAG). Thus, the term contemplates two oppositions: male in contrast to a female and an adult in contrast to a child.

Instead of using two different words to denote “man” and “husband” like English does, Greek employs aner and then uses contextual clues to specify whether the male in question is a husband. Typically, the contextual clue is an expression that indicates that the aner is somehow “possessed” by a woman as her husband.

English of course works differently, but we have a similar idiom in the old song lyric, “stand by your man.” It’s not just stand by a man or any man, but stand by your man—which has been widely understood to refer to a woman possessing a particular man as her husband. But that is a loose analogy, and the best way to illustrate the usage is through biblical examples. I will give a literal rendering of aner in each instance so that you can see how the idiom works:

Matthew 1:16, “and to Jacob was born Joseph, Mary’s man

Matthew 1:19, “And Joseph, her man, being righteous, and not wanting to disgrace her, desired to put her away secretly.”

Mark 10:12, “if she herself divorces her man and marries another, she is committing adultery.”

In each case, the possessive case shows that the man belongs to the woman in the sense that he is her husband. The same idiom seems to be in play in John 4:16-18.

John 4:16-18, “16 He said to her, ‘Go, call your man, and come here.’ 17 The woman answered and said, ‘I do not have a man.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You have well said, “I do not have a man“; 18 for you have had five men, and the one whom you now have is not your man; this you have said truly.'”

If anything is clear from this exchange, it’s clear that Jesus is telling her that it’s possible to have a man who isn’t her man. “Having a man” (i.e., having sex with him) is not to be confused with entering into a marriage covenant with her man. Even though she has had sex with five men, she cannot refer to any of them as her man. Or in our terms, she can’t refer to any of them as her husband.

If this interpretation is correct, then Jesus is telling her to call her husband, and she responds that she doesn’t have one. Jesus affirms her claim of having no husband while revealing that she has had sexual relationships with five different men, none of whom was she married to. None of whom was her man.

So the point of Jesus’ words would not be how many husbands and divorces she’s had. The point of his words is how many different men she has slept with who aren’t her husband.

For whatever reason, commentators tend not to deal with this possible interpretation of Jesus’ words. Colin Kruse is an exception, although he contends that it isn’t possible to be sure how to interpret aner in each case (Kruse, 147–148). I think he is mistaken on this last point. The presence of possessive pronouns in verses 16 and 18 show that “your man” equals “your husband,” while the absence of those possessive pronouns equals “a man” or “five men.” It’s a subtle idiom that the original readers would have understood, and one that we would do well to account for as well.