Women and the Bible: Look Again

My rocky relationships with religious authorities started when I was young. As a high school student who, for some weird reason enjoyed studying the Bible, I found ways to lead various Bible studies. Part of the challenge of this desire, though, was that as I got older, adults began stepping in to make sure I wasn’t teaching the wrong people. Boys were definitely out of bounds, and I can still hear the refrain used: “I do not permit a woman to teach.”

In the years since then as I have continued to study the Bible academically in college, in seminary, in my Ph.D. graduate work, my limited understanding of how to read a religious text, of how to navigate the cross-cultural worlds of the biblical era and our own, has radically and wonderfully shifted and changed. Amazing insights have emerged as I have learned to live in metaphors, no longer confined to literalism or to seeing the Bible as some kind of sacred encyclopedia yielding definitive answers to my questions.

One of the most liberating ideas first emerged in graduate school when one of my research papers centered on the parable of the lost coin in Luke 15 where a poor woman searching diligently for a coin invites the reader to see the Her as an important image for God. What followed was more in depth examinations of women in the Bible, especially when I began teaching a course on the subject in 2003.

Through this work I became convinced that our views of biblical women are seldom ones emerging from within the text and more often are shells of women created by patriarchal readers and interpreters who have draped their views of subordinated and submissive women onto female images declaring such to be godly models to be followed.

But here is the disturbing reality: while some academics have moved beyond these caricatures of biblical women and have revisited the biblical texts with open eyes, looking to see beyond the patriarchal interpretations of our past, many God-loving, church-going people remain uninformed readers, neither encouraged nor aware that their approaches to the Bible are filtered through the lens of masculine privilege.

A recent article in U.S. News and World Report will hopefully help to break through this veiled approach to Scripture. Two ideas from the article illustrate some of the revised thinking about women and the New Testament.

The narrative of Mary and Martha is a good starting point to evaluate one’s perspective. How many of us when we read the story in Luke 10 assume Martha is doing dishes, sweeping the floor, or fixing dinner? Jesus says that Mary, by listening to Jesus, is doing the better part. As readers the assumption, I think, is that Jesus wants Martha to stop her household chores and join Mary. The question, though, is what kind of work was Martha actually doing? Current research into the structure of the early church suggests Martha was just as likely doing ministerial work. This possibility shifts the narrative in very interesting and meaningful ways.

A further insight from reconsidering the Mary and Martha narrative emerges when we see Mary as a disciple of Jesus. Presented to the reader as learning at Jesus’ feet, it is difficult to overlook this common tradition that runs across many religious traditions: the positioning of teaching and student where the student demonstrates her or his devotion by kissing the teacher’s feet. Jesus is teaching Mary, a disciple, a dedicated follower of Jesus. That we as readers have instead chosen to see only twelve male disciples reveals our narrow focus and decision to see twelve men when in fact there were many more disciples than that and many of them were women.

Too, how many readers have negative views of Mary Magdalene, seeing her as a sinner, as someone Jesus forgave (barely, most likely since she has been so vilified). This image of Mary, however, is not portrayed in the New Testament itself and the U.S. News and World Report article bears this out: it was Pope Gregory who, in the sixth century through a popular sermon, put this negative assessment into motion. Using his position of authority he created for all subsequent readers a legacy of sexism that continues today to hold women and men hostage to the notion that women are subordinate, secondary, and sexual tempters.

I see Pope Gregory’s legacy each semester when I ask students to find and read all of the New Testament references to Mary Magdalene. They are astounded when they realize Mary is not referred to as a sinner even though they have been led to believe she is one of the worst sinners to occupy the holy pages of the gospels.

A few months ago when visiting a local museum on a university campus, I also saw Gregory’s lingering presence in an exhibit on Mary Magdalene. Portrayed over and over in red and in variously seductive poses, the viewer was clearly invited to see Mary as a sexual temptress: no doubt a sinner of supreme proportions.

There is an undeniable problem to be a feminist and to take Scripture seriously for there are no easy answers and for many within the church the privilege of sexism is baptized rather than identified as sin.

So we have a daunting challenge: to change our patriarchal perceptions. But, if Pope Gregory could establish a view of women with his sermon what might we change especially with our interconnected world of possibilities?