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.
Matters were much the same in the Gentile world. Gentile women also served as church leaders, patrons, administrators, teachers, prophets, and evangelists; those few injunctions in the canon against their leadership roles testify to the very practices they seek to prohibit.
Surely some women, as well as men, scoffed at comments such as "women should be silent in the churches" (1 Corinthians 14:34) or "I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man" (1 Timothy 2:12). Certainly those who sought to preserve their virginity found offensive, if not ridiculous, the insistence that women "will be saved through childbearing" (1 Timothy 2:15). Perhaps had women been in charge of the canonization process, such passages would never had made the final copies. Or, perhaps those early Christian women recognized that the nascent Church, persecuted for proclaiming as lord a crucified Jew rather than the reigning emperor, needed to keep a low profile, and the best way to do this was to adopt a conservative ethos. Women's second-class, submissive status was part of pagan Rome's "family values." As the Empire would be replaced by the Kingdom of Heaven, such pagan values could be replaced as well.
Further, even in antiquity, those restrictive verses were already mitigated by actual practice, as demonstrated by Priscilla, who teaches Apollos (Acts 18:26), and by numerous women in the early Church who continued to teach and preach. Other women likely pointed to the injunctions laid upon the men: they are to love their wives as Christ loves the Church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25); they are to love their wives "as they do their own bodies" for "he who loves his wife loves himself" (Ephesians 5:28). This is a different form of submission, but it is a submission nonetheless.
Rather than accept a narrative woven out of wish-fulfillment that supposedly enhances the roles of women, why not look to what the past actually yields? The news is much more encouraging than the picture of Mary Magdalene consigned to the role of "Mrs. Jesus" ," as she is in "The Da Vinci Code." The early Church did have women's voices among its leadership, and it continued to do so. The Church Fathers--Jerome, Chrysostom, and others--relied on women patrons; women found in the convent the opportunities for education often denied them in the secular culture; women were among the earliest adherents of Luther and Calvin, Wesley and Campbell. And so it goes.
And, rather than ask how Christianity would be different had women "been given an equal seat at the table," we might note that Jesus' teaching is not ultimately about getting a seat at the table. In antiquity that location easily signaled elite status. Jesus' message is not to sit at table, but to provide food for those who need it, not to be served but to serve. Christianity taught then, and it teaches now, that the hungry should be fed, that people in prison should be visited, that the sick should be cared for, and that the stranger should be welcomed. Who in antiquity did most of the feeding, the visiting, the nursing, and the welcoming? The answer has not changed over the past two millennia.
In the long run, I worry less about what the church would be like if women had greater roles in antiquity, and wonder more what it would be like if everyone, male and female, decided to serve rather than be served.