Stereotype vs. Scripture
How would today's Christianity be different if women had been given an equal seat at the table when Christianity was formulated?
BY: Amy-Jill Levine
Many of us are happier with fictionalized accounts of biblical material--from Anita Diamant's "The Red Tent" to Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" to Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code"--than we are with what the Bible actually says and historical research actually reveals. The compulsion to give credence to biblical fiction over fact, or at least history as best as it can be reconstructed, is not a sign of intellectual laziness; it is, rather, a symptom of the larger problem: biblical illiteracy. Far too many of us have no clue what the Bible says, and even fewer know anything of the history of the period in which it was written. But we are convinced we know the content and the setting nonetheless, thanks to all those novels and movies.
When it comes to the subject of the Bible and women, our general ignorance is exacerbated by our stereotypes of what the Scriptures do say. Still popular is the view that the text begins with the condemnation of Eve and that it has been downhill for women ever since. Still common is the perception that the Bible relegates women to handmaid (a fancy word for "slave"), concubine, prostitute, submissive wife, or docile virgin mother. We are insufficiently aware of women's roles as prophet (Miriam, Huldah, Elizabeth, Mary, women in the Corinthian church), judge (Deborah), queen (Bathsheba, Jezebel, Athalya, Esther), teacher (the wise women of Tekoa, Lady Wisdom herself, Priscilla), military strategist (Judith), church patron (the mother of John Mark, Lydia), deacon (Phoebe), Apostle (Junia), etc. etc.
We like to speculate on where Jesus went during his "hidden years"--between the ages of 12 and 30, which the Bible doesn't mention. Did he study with the Essenes? With the Buddhists? With the Hindus? We cannot imagine that he would have learned wisdom from his mother Mary, whose vision of social and political justice follows through into his own teaching (see Luke 1:51-53). We fail to recall that the first successful evangelist was a Samaritan woman (John 4); we forget that women were part of Jesus' movement from the beginning, and that they remained faithful at the cross and the tomb.
It is simply easier to condemn the Bible whole cloth for relegating women to a secondary status, and then confirm this relegation by looking at the practices of certain churches today. The next step is then to imagine as I was asked to explore in this essay, , "How would today's Christianity be different if women had been given an equal seat at the table when Christianity was formulated?"
But the question only prompts another list of stereotypes: Christianity would be egalitarian; it would take a stronger role in peace-making; it would have done away with slavery; it would not have persecuted Jews, Muslims, pagans, and those it considered "heretics"; it would, in effect, be completely compatible what many women today, myself included, find desirable. Alas, there is no "essential women's nature" that makes us more compassionate, or kind, or open to diversity. Praising women for our "natural" benevolence is just as misguided, and just as dangerous, as seeing us as "naturally" not analytical, intellectual, or capable of leadership.
Jesus' own movement was not egalitarian: It couldn't be, for he was clearly the leader. However, women did have a prominent place in it. Women already had a public presence in Judaism: They worshiped in synagogues and the Jerusalem Temple, where they heard Torah taught; they had freedom of travel and control over their own funds; they had access to the court system and the markets. Archaeological evidence from the broader Roman world yields inscriptions identifying women as "ruler of the synagogue" or "leader of the synagogue." Of course Jewish women who followed Jesus, and Jewish women who joined the Church, expected to teach as well as to learn, to lead as well as to follow, to prophesy and to proclaim.