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Trying to Prove that the  Bible Is Pro-Woman

How some feminists perpetuate patriarchy

by Lena Ksarjian


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 19, Number 1.


In the August 1993 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Cullen Murphy, managing editor, wrote an article called “Women and the Bible.” The article is alluded to on the cover of the monthly by the following statement: “A new generation of scholars is bringing to light the buried history of Jewish and Christian women in ancient times—including their sometimes surprising prominence in religious life.” Murphy explores this new generation of scholars through a series of discussions with female theologians who contribute to the ongoing projects of feminist scholarship. Two theologians Murphy cites are Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza of Harvard and Phyllis Trible, a feminist theologian, from Union Theological Seminary in New York.

To the unsuspecting reader, Murphy’s article looks promising because it highlights some of the latest currents in biblical feminist scholarship and appears to be sympathetic with these trends. It focuses on certain feminist scholars who construct a case for women’s equality based on biblical texts. Indeed, to the unsuspecting reader, Murphy’s article appears to show significant strides made by feminist scholars in a field traditionally guided by patriarchy.

However, I am not an unsuspecting reader. On the contrary, I am suspicious of feminist or non-feminist scholars who attempt to create, in the words of one feminist theologian, “a discipleship of equals”1 originating from modern theological arguments that have little to do with the historical problems present in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. I am skeptical of those who lift ancient texts from their historical milieus in order to make arguments that may not be binding in the light of secular-historical analysis and of those who seek to procure a sense of equality for women from the Bible that, to quote Murphy, “is an androcentric document in the extreme.”2

A Bible-based feminism actually promotes the patriarchy it tries to eliminate. When feminist scholars seek to use the Bible as a proof-text for defining women’s identities, then these scholars are seeking legitimacy from a patriarchal document written by men, edited by men, and canonized by men thriving in male-dominated cultures. One of the motivating forces behind this type of feminist scholarship is our Jewish-Christian culture, which looks to the Bible as a document to provide answers for complex gender issues.

The Bible is so much a part of our culture that many scholars, feminist or otherwise, do not realize they are defending it when they think they are critiquing it. To quote from Alfred North Whitehead: “In each period [of human history] there is a general form of the forms of thought; and like the air we breathe, such a form is so translucent, and so pervading, and so seemingly necessary that only by extreme effort can we become aware of it.”3 To use Whitehead’s insight, feminists who look to the Bible for women’s equality are pervaded by the general form of the forms of thought known as Judeo-Christianity; and, like the air they breath, the infiltration of Judeo-Christian thinking is so translucent, and so pervading, and so seemingly necessary that only by extreme effort can some feminist scholars become aware of the ways by which their particular brand of scholarship actually limits female freedom within American culture.

A Dose of Realism

What then are the alternatives? I suggest a few possibilities. First, there are women scholars who do recognize the thoroughgoing patriarchy of biblical texts and investigate these texts on the basis of the text’s patriarchal terms. For example, Nancy Jay, educated at Harvard and Brandeis universities, wrote a ground-breaking book entitled Throughout Your Generations Forever in which she recognizes the patriarchal nature of biblical texts and, based on this historical understanding, demonstrates how ancient peoples subordinated women in both patriarchal and matriarchal cultures through a complicated system of kinship and sacrificial ritual.

Jay demonstrates how males in the ancient biblical world virtually eliminated the female’s power that comes from giving birth by coopting this power for themselves through complex social rituals that overshadowed the female’s role as creator/giver of life. By way of kinship and sacrificial rituals, patriarchies and matriarchies eliminated the primary role of the female as life-giver and created a system in which the child’s identity is based not on the one who gives it birth, i.e., the mother, but rather from whom the child descended.4 For example, in Numbers 1:2ff Yahweh says to Moses: “Make a census of the whole community of Israel by families in the father’s line recording the name of every male person. . . . You and Aaron are to make a list of them by their tribal hosts, and to assist you, you will have one head of family from each tribe.” Next the author presents a genealogy of sons and fathers, not sons and mothers (Num. 1:6–15).

Placing the child within a genealogical line of male descent gives primacy to the father in patriarchies or to the uncle in matriarchies, thereby eliminating a threatening issue for patriarchies: that children always come through the female and not the male. In attributing the line of original descent to the father or uncle, the generative power of the female is displaced and eclipsed by the male.

Furthermore, Jay demonstrates how males appropriate childbirth by way of complicated systems of sacrifice. Turning the lens toward ancient Greek, Israelite, and Roman sacrifice, Jay shows how, in unrelated settings, sacrificial ritual enacts patrilineal descent. Patrilineal kin know they are kin because they sacrifice together: they become patrilineal kin by so doing. To so create social and religious paternity is precisely to transcend a natural relation [i.e., that mothers, not fathers, give birth]. In this way, sacrifice becomes what Jay calls a “remedy for having been born of woman” or, in her still more expressive phrase, “birth done better.” Sacrifice points to distinct “social relations of reproduction.”5

Through a rigorous analysis of these complicated sacrifice/kinship rules, Jay demonstrates how males eliminated “their necessary dependence on women’s reproductive powers”6 and created a social system in which the male is recognized as the one from whom the child ultimately comes.

Thus, Jay does not draw from theology or apologetics to construct her theory. She works within the secular frameworks of anthropology, sociology, and history—and she recognizes the Bible as an uncompromising patriarchal document.

A second possible alternative to the feminist dilemma is to get away from using the Bible as a source that somehow must endorse women’s equality (because it cannot, and it does not), and to look to other evidence that documents the equality of women within culture. For example, in 1952 Ashley Montagu, an American anthropologist, published a book called The Natural Superiority of Women. Since 1952, Montagu’s book has enjoyed four reprintings, the latest of which was in 1992.

In his book, Montagu provides evidence from biology and social anthropology not only for women’s equality but also for their superiority. In the prologue to his book, Montagu states:

In the present book the mythology of female inferiority is challenged and dismantled on the basis of the scientific facts. My many years of work and research as a biological and social anthropologist have made it abundantly clear to me that from an evolutionary standpoint, the female is more advanced and constitutionally more richly endowed than the male. It seemed to me important to make that first claim. That is the scientific fact. Women, as biological organisms, are superior to men. If anyone has any evidence to the contrary let him or her state it. The scientific attitude of the mind is not one of either belief or disbelief, but of a desire to discover what is and to state it, no matter what traditional beliefs may be challenged or outraged in the process.7

Ignoring History

My third and final suggestion to those feminists who promote patriarchy by using one of the foremost texts in Western culture that creates it is to view the Bible within its historical context without theologizing away the historical problems. For example, Murphy cites Schüssler Fiorenza, who argues that:

early Christianity was built around a theology of equality; that Paul’s famous reiteration in Galatians 3:28 of the ancient baptismal formula, “There is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,” represents not a radical and temporary breakthrough in Paul’s thinking, but an expression of broad and ordinary Christian belief.8

In Schüssler Fiorenza’s view, Galatians 3:28 is the “magna carta of Christian Feminism.”9

From the historical point of view, Schüssler Fiorenza’s interpretation is vulnerable. First of all, there has been some debate about whether or not Paul actually wrote the letter to the Galatians. Most modern New Testament scholars do not question Paul’s authorship. However,

The Pauline authorship of [Galatians] was denied by a number of scholars in the 19th century. . . . In the 20th century the authenticity and integrity of [Galatians] was denied by L. Gordon Rylands [who, in 1929, wrote A Critical Analysis of the Four Chief Pauline Epistles]; Frank R. McGuire, Did Paul Write Galatians? . . . ; John C. O’Neill, The Recovery of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, who also has a survey of the history of the question.10

Furthermore, to quote one New Testament scholar:

there is evidence that Galatians 1:1–6:10 was written by an amanuensis [a copyist] who was usually a professional. But, was this copyist just a copyist, or did he have an influence on the composition of the letter itself? We have the choice of attributing Galatians either to Paul, or the copyist, or to both. Thus, the historical problem of authorship is a complicated one.11

Given the complexities surrounding the authorship of Galatians 3:28, then Paul cannot be used with complete confidence as a mouthpiece for women’s equality particularly when the letter that we know he did write places women beneath men. For example, in 1 Corinthians 11:3 Paul writes: “But I wish you to understand that, while every man has Christ for his head, a woman’s head is man, as Christ’s head is God.” 1 Corinthians 14: 34–35 states: “As in all congregations of God’s people, women should keep their place as the law directs. If there is something they want to know, they can ask their husbands at home. It is a shocking thing for a woman to talk at the meeting.”

There is some debate over whether or not Paul actually wrote verses 34–35. Some see them “as assertion[s] into the letter by someone later than Paul himself, perhaps by someone from the time of the writing of 1 Timothy.”12 One theory suggests that “Paul had been informed of feminist pressure (possibly of feminine chatter) which was contributing seriously to the disorder of the Christian assembly at Corinth, and took energetic measures to stamp it out.”13 These verses probably are an interpolation,14 but whether or not Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 is beside the point. What is significant is that 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 reflects the secondary status of women that persisted for centuries throughout ancient Greece and Rome within traditional urban societies.

The Pastoral Epistles that some attribute to Paul and others to his disciples, also characterize women’s inferior status. Ephesians 5:22–23 states: “Wives, be subject to your husbands as though to the Lord; for the man is the head of the woman, just as Christ is the head of the church.” Colossians 3:18 states: “WIVES, be subject to your husbands; that is your Christian duty.” 1 Timothy 2:11–15 states:

Their [women’s] role is to learn, listening quietly and with due submission. I do not permit women to teach or dictate to the men; they should keep quiet. For Adam was created first, and Eve afterwards; moreover it was not Adam who was deceived; it was the woman who, yielding to deception, fell into sin. But salvation for the woman will be in the bearing of children, provided she continues in faith, love, and holiness, with modesty.

I am unsure how Schüssler Fiorenza’s feminist interpretation of Galatians 3:28 accounts for these verses within the Pauline school that demand the subjugation of women.

Furthermore, even if we assume that Paul wrote the Galatian letter, it is difficult to accept it as a charter document for feminism due to the second historical problem: that of historical time and placement. “When Paul addressed his letter to the Galatians, he had in mind the inhabitants of the central plateau of [Anatolia]. . . . Although none of the events mentioned in Galatians can be dated accurately . . . the years between 50–55 may be accepted as a reasonable guess.”15 I wonder how a text, written some time between 50–55 c.e. to a group of ancient people living in Anatolia, can serve as the charter document for Christian feminists living in America, in the closing years of the twentieth century?

As for the meaning of the text, Schüssler Fiorenza says that Galatians 3:28 is a baptismal formula but her interpretation is problematic. Baptism is mentioned in Galatians 3:27 where the baptismal formula is found. However, Schüssler Fiorenza’s Pauline feminist magna carta is describing the consequences of Christian baptismal initiations—not the formula for baptism. As one New Testament scholar states, Galatians 3:28 is reflecting “social changes which [are] classified as part of the process of redemption and the result of the ecstatic experience which the Galatians as well as other Christians have had.”16 The crucial question is what sorts of changes/results does the verse reflect, particularly in reference to the slogan “there is neither male nor female in Christ.”17

Given the patriarchal nature of Asia Minor in the first century, it is improbable that Paul is advocating social equality for women. Nor does he reflect “an expression of broad and ordinary Christian belief” as Schüssler Fiorenza claims.18 In Paul’s Greco-Roman world, “The hierarchical pattern of the family, in which the male was always superior to the female, as surely as parents to children and masters unto slaves, was deeply structured in law and custom and its erosion constantly deplored by the rhetorical moralists and the satirists.”19 Hence, the Pauline injunction for “wives to be subject to their husbands” (Ephesians 5:22) reflects the gender stratification prevalent within ancient Mediterranean cultures.20 As New Testament historian Wayne Meeks observes, “Whatever ‘women’s movement’ there may have been would be suppressed early.”21 Given these historical realities, Schüssler Fiorenza’s magna carta rests on dubious historical grounds, and the case for a feminist interpretation of the text is highly improbable given the social situation.

As I demonstrated earlier, the preponderance of the Pauline material calls for the subjugation of women. “Nor are there [any] parallels to this statement [there is no longer male and female] elsewhere in the New Testament.”22 A more likely interpretation of Galatians 3:28 is that Paul is not advocating female equality but rather the elimination of the sexual differences between male and female. The erasure of gender difference would not be an unusual wish for Paul given his enthusiasms for celibacy and his general condemnation of sexuality. In 1 Corinthians he writes: “I should like everyone to be as I myself am. . . . To the unmarried and to widows I say this: it is a good thing if like me they stay as they are: but if they do not have self-control, they should marry. It is better to be married than burn with desire” (1 Cor. 7–9). In this instance to be “like” Paul is to remain a virgin or celibate.

Furthermore in 1 Corinthians Chapter 6 Paul lists the sexual behaviors that prevent individuals from entering the Kingdom of God:

Make no mistake; no fornicator . . . , no adulterer or sexual pervert, . . . will possess the kingdom of God. . . . [T]he body is not for fornication; it is for the Lord—and the Lord for the body. . . . Shall I then take parts of Christ’s body and make them over to a prostitute? Never! You surely know that anyone who joins himself to a prostitute becomes physically one with her, for scripture says, “The Two shall become one flesh”; but anyone who joins himself to the Lord is one with him spiritually. Have nothing to do with fornication. Every other sin that one may commit is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against his own body. [1 Cor. 6:9–10]

Clearly, sexuality is a thorny problem for Paul. He condones it only within the institution of marriage. To eliminate it completely would certainly be an attractive solution for him. Thus Galatians 3:28 may be a call for unbridled celibacy. The other possibility is that Paul is echoing a gnostic theology that calls for a sort of psycho-sexual spiritual surgery that spays or neuters the ancient Christian, thereby rendering him/her an asexual or perhaps an androgynous creature in Christ.

In gnostic theology, “neither male nor female” would claim the metaphysical removal of the biological sex distinctions as a result of the salvation in Christ. . . . It is, . . . , important to . . . [consider] that the abolition of [gender] differences of Gal. 3:28 is tied to the “unity in Christ.” The question arises, therefore, whether the concept of an androgynous Christ-figure lies in the background. To be sure, in the New Testament we do not have explicit references to such a Christology, but in gnostic texts it is well attested. Such a doctrine was held by several older religious traditions in antiquity.”23

Schüssler Fiorenza’s interpretation of Galatians 3:28 does not account for the possible gnostic influences reflected in the verse. Nor does her position of equality explain why the sentiments expressed in Galatians 3:28 cannot be harmonized with any other verse about women in the New Testament and the Pauline corpus in particular. From the weight of the evidence, it is clear that Paul’s real attitude towards women was one that reflected the general social attitudes of the time regarding the sexes, i.e., that women are inferior to men.

In light of these complexities I do not see how Schüssler Fiorenza’s interpretations can withstand historical scrutiny. First, she uses a text whose authorship is debatable; second, Galatians 3:28 is not a baptismal formula, but rather a possible result of baptism for a particular Christian community, living in a particular time; third, the slogan “There is no longer male nor female” is most likely not a call for gender equality, but rather a plea to abolish gender altogether; fourth Galatians 3:28 reflects an ancient culture that could hardly be construed as feminist.

However, even if we allow Schüssler Fiorenza her sanguine interpretation of Galatians 3:28 how would it account for those of us who are not “one” in Christ Jesus, who have not been “baptized” in Christ and who come from disparate religious and cultural backgrounds? The answer is that her position cannot account for such variations, and, therefore, precludes individuals outside her circle to achieve such equalities.

Biblical Illusions

Turning to Phyllis Trible, Murphy acknowledges that, “[Trible] doesn’t forget for a minute that the Bible is a thoroughly patriarchal text. . . . She believes that the Bible can be ‘reclaimed’ as a spiritual resource for women. And . . . she said ‘it must be pointed out that the Bible is sometimes not as patriarchal as translations would make it seem.’”24 One illustration of Trible’s reclamation of biblical texts is found in scriptural interpretation otherwise known as hermeneutics. For example, she indicates that in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible Deuteronomy 32:18 reads: “You were unmindful of the Rock that begot you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth.” Trible indicates that “‘gave you birth’ is from a Hebrew term for ‘writhing in labor.’” So the translation, if accurate, is tame. But here is how the Jerusalem Bible translates it: ‘fathered you.’”25

We can infer from Trible’s position that the Jerusalem Bible’s translation “fathered you” is more patriarchal than the Revised Standard Version in which God “gives birth,” or “writhes in labor”—both strong female images. The implication being that the Revised Standard Version provides a translation that may serve as a positive biblical metaphor for women. Therefore, women reading the Revised Standard Version can reclaim the Bible, or at least this passage, as a spiritual resource.

However, is the image of God giving birth or “writhing in labor” a celebration of womanhood, or is it yet another way males have coopted the one thing that women can do that men cannot and that is to give birth? I would argue that the translation the “God who gives birth” or the God who “writhes in labor” is yet another way a uniquely female capacity is eclipsed by the male. With the above images of God giving birth, men enjoy the dual imagery of impregnating and pregnancy, thereby eliminating the need for women altogether.

Thus, I cannot agree with Trible that her interpretation of Deuteronomy 32:18 serves as a way for women to reclaim the Bible spiritually. Indeed, I read it as a biblical metaphor that demonstrates that women are dispensable—if male gods can give birth, then what need for females?26

In conclusion, I am sympathetic with the feminist project. I do not believe that feminist scholars are engaging in some intellectual sleight of hand or are pulling a nonexistent rabbit out of a nonexistent hat. I do believe these scholars are well-intended.

However, some of these intentions serve to promote patriarchy rather than help eliminate it. I suggest that feminists and non-feminist scholars see the Hebrew Bible and New Testament for what they are: a compilation of differing texts written and edited by different male redactors over a period of 1,200 years in patriarchal cultures far away and different from our own.

As for Cullen Murphy’s article, parts of it might seduce the reader into thinking that biblical texts can be used to promote feminism—but like some seductions, it could lead the participant into believing in an illusion that eventually must be revealed, albeit somewhat painfully. 


Notes

1.Cullen Murphy, “Women and the Bible,” Atlantic Monthly August 1993, p. 45.

2.Ibid., p. 41.

3.Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: Macmillan Co., 1933), p. 14.

4.“It should be recognized that, although the different kinds of groups glossed as patrilineages are patriarchies, matrilineages are not matriarchies. Men ordinarily hold the major positions of authority in matrilineages as well as in patrilineages. It is the descent of authority, and of property, which differs: in patrilineages it is from father to son, in matrilineages from uncle to nephew, from mother’s brother to sister’s son. Both systems are ways of formally connecting men with women as childbearers, that is, ways of organizing intergenerational continuity between men and men in the face of the fact that it is women who give birth and with whom the next generation begins life already in close relation. Both systems are ways in which men regulate rights over women’s reproductive powers, but in matrilineal descent systems these rights are divided: the man with rights of sexual access and the man and group with the rights in the offspring are not the same” (Nancy Jay, Throughout Your Generations Forever [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992], p. 35).

5.Ibid., p. xiii.

6.Ibid., p. 31.

7.Ashley Montagu, The Natural Superiority of Women, new and rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1992), p. 2.

8.Murphy, p. 45.

9.Ibid.

10.Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Churches in Galatia Hermenia (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), n1 p. 1.

11.Ibid., p. 1.

12.R. Scroggs, “Women In the New Testament,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible Supplementary Volume (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976), p. 966.

13.C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1968), p. 332.

14.Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, Hermeneia, ed. George W. MacRae, trans. James W. Leitch (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), p. 246.

15.Betz, pp. 1; 9–12.

16.Ibid., p. 190.

17. Ibid., n82 p. 191.

18. Murphy, p. 45.

19.Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 23.

20. Those who might invoke the Amazon warrior women as possible examples of women wielding superior power over men should be aware that the nomadic Amazons were neither Greek nor urban and that their existence attested to by Herodotus ca. 450 b.c.e. may be more legendary than true. In the February/May 1997 issue of Archaeology Jeanne Davis-Kimball in her article “Warrior Women of the Eurasian Steppes” (pp. 45, 48) has “excavated 50 [burial mounds] near the town of Pokrovka, near the Kazakhstan border. . . . Here [she and her Russian colleagues] found women buried with bronze daggers and arrowheads. These finds suggest that Greek tales of Amazon warriors may have had some basis in fact. . . . [However] because the Pokrovka nomads lived 1,000 miles east of the Don and Volga Sauromatians, and the Amazons known to the Greeks lived even farther west, they cannot have been the same people. They may, however, have been one of many similar nomadic tribes who occupied the Eurasian steppes in the Early Iron Age. If one believes Herodotus, they may even have been the far-flung contemporaries of the Amazons.”

21.Ibid., p. 25.

22. Betz, p. 195.

23.Ibid., pp. 196–97.

24. Murphy, op. cit. p. 48.

25. Ibid.

26.Trible’s interpretation reminds me of a surprisingly striking observation in the film comedy Junior in which Arnold Schwarzenneger, playing research scientist Alexander Hesse, injects himself with a fertility drug that causes him to become pregnant. His love interest, Dr. Dianna Reddin, a research biologist played by Emma Thompson, eventually discovers that Hesse is pregnant with her child because he inadvertently uses one of her frozen eggs to induce pregnancy. When Reddin discovers this, she is infuriated, and in one of the film’s more significant dialogues she says to Hesse: “This is so male. . . . You think men don’t hold enough cards, you have to take this [giving birth] from us as well?” (Ivan Reitman, Nothing Is Inconceivable: Junior, 1994).


Lena Ksarjian is a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago in the Committee on the History of Culture and a lector in the university’s college. She is a member of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion and has published several articles on the critical examination of Judeo-Christianity.


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