One of the biggest problems that people face when they are examining Christianity and the Bible from a modern perspective is a lack of context, or in some cases, a refusal to recognize that context. The Bible was written in a specific time and place. People asked Jesus questions based on what someone in that time period would think or want to know. The very words used in the Bible have also changed meanings. There is, for example, an entire debate over whether one of the Ten Commandments was translated correctly. As such, studies of English Bibles need to be taken with a grain of salt. A translation is, after all, by its very nature an interpretation.
When looking at Christianity through a modern feminist lens, it is important to recognize that the Bible was born to a very patriarchal society and time. With that in mind, even ancient Christianity was very feminist.
Feminism is defined as “the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes; organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.” While the word “feminism” is a modern invention, the push for the equality of the sexes is not a new concept especially in Christianity.
Some of the oldest stories in the Old Testament show that the people who would become the Israelites had a surprisingly modern view of women. Many people who want to characterize Christianity as anti-feminist merely need to open the Bible to the Book of Genesis and review the creation of Eve. According the Genesis, Eve was created from the rib of Adam. When Adam awakened to see Eve standing before him, he called her “woman.” This moment has often been characterized as Adam naming Eve in the same way that he named the animals. This, however, does not fit with what happens later in the story of the first humans. It was not until after the two eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and humanity experienced its first sin that Adam gave Eve her name. Man is not above woman until after sin has entered them. This naming also comes directly after God had listed out the punishments Adam and the yet-unnamed-Eve would suffer. One of these punishments was putting Eve subordinate to Adam. This, however, was a punishment not part of God’s original plan. It was also an effect of the original sin which was counteracted by Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The original sin itself is often laid at Eve’s feet, but once again, this argument does not hold up against a closer examination of the text. The popular story goes that Satan in the form of a serpent tricked Eve into eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eve then tricked Adam into eating the fruit, and the story usually claims this was done to force him to join her in sin. “Misery loves company.” The actual Scripture, however, says something very different. Genesis 3:6 states that “when the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” Adam was standing right there listening to the serpent as well. It was simply by chance that Eve was closer to the tree and so the one who picked up the fruit. For those who argue that Eve still sinned first, there is an underlying and often forgotten assumption to the claim that Eve seduced Adam into sin: if Eve seduced Adam, then it was a mere mortal who tricked the first man, but it took Satan to trick the woman.
The story of Adam and Eve is not the only Old Testament story to have a surprisingly feminist bent to it, especially when taken in light of when it was written. Admittedly, by modern standards the young woman Tamar in Genesis 38 got a very raw deal. She was married to two cruel men and then to her father in law. When the text is reexamined through an ancient Israelite lens instead of a 21st century one, the story of Tamar looks very different. In this tale, Tamar is both more clever and more righteous than Judah, the family patriarch. Tamar tricks Judah into impregnating her without letting him know it was her. When Judah confronts Tamar about her pregnancy, Tamar reveals that he is the father of her child. While this is enough to turn stomachs today, in ancient times it was the duty of a father in law to wed a dead son’s wife if the son had no brothers. By essentially manipulating Judah into following the law, Tamar ensured both her and her family’s safety and honor. She also saved Judah from an unpleasant death since God struck down two of Judah’s sons for refusing to do right by Tamar. When all this is revealed, Judah praises Tamar saying, “She is righteous, not I.” Although the story is hardly inspiring to modern readers, Tamar would likely have been something like an ancient Israelite Wonder Woman for successfully escaping two evil husbands, pulling one over on the patriarch, bearing twin sons and preserving both her and her family’s honor.
While Tamar manages to get the better of Judah, a darker but more famous tale has a feminist twist buried within it. The story of Bathsheba and David has been read alternately as a story of a female temptress and as that of a lustful king. Depending on the interpretation, Bathsheba is a seductress or a rape victim. Unfortunately for David’s reputation and the actual Bathsheba, the addition of historical context points toward the latter story. In the Bible, David is said to see Bathsheba bathing. In ancient Hebrew, however, “bathing” could mean anything from a person washing their hands to stripping naked. Given that Bathsheba was a married woman from a highly placed family, the odds are that she was not actually wandering around outside naked. David, however, wants to see more. He sends multiple messengers to retrieve Bathsheba, the daughter of one of David’s “mighty men” and the wife of one of his loyal and accomplished soldiers. With this as her background, Bathsheba does not seem to have anything to fear. Even if she did, David was her king.
Rape in ancient Israel had a narrow definition that focused on violence and physical force. Coercion and power dynamics had not yet entered the definition of rape in the ancient world and would not for some time. All over the ancient world, kings had a right to do as they wished with their subjects, masters could do whatever they wanted to their servants and husbands had control of their wives. In this cultural context, David’s rape of Bathsheba would not normally have even been recognized as such, though a similar event in modern times would have people gathering torches and pitchforks. According to the laws laid out in Deuteronomy 22, Bathsheba would normally be recognized as being equally guilty as David because she was “in a town and did not scream for help.” The prophet Nathan, however, appears to recognize that Bathsheba had no control over what happened. When Nathan rebukes David, he uses second person masculine pronouns in the original Hebrew. The man who channels God’s voice lays the guilt solely on the king. Bathsheba is held blameless. While this is a pathetically low bar for feminism by modern standards, recognizing the power disparity between Bathsheba and David as a form of rape was enormous in the ancient world.
For a book that is so often dismissed as “anti-woman,” the Bible has a number of clever and powerful women contained within its ancient stories. In the Book of Judges, Deborah was both a prophet and a cunning warrior. When Sisera attacked the Israelites, Deborah told Barak when to attack which led to the defeat of Sisera’s army. When Sisera “got down from his chariot and fled on foot,” he was found not by an Israelite man but by another clever woman, Jael. Jael convinced Sisera to rest in her tent, and once he was asleep, she “drove [a tent] peg through his temple and into the ground” thus defeating the commander of the Canaanite King Jabin’s army.
The apocryphal story of Judith is another tale of a strong, intelligent woman. When Judea was under attack, Judith came up with a plan to save her home. She was known for her “wisdom” and “understanding” among her people and, with the Israelite rulers’ blessings, set out to save her people alone. Judith put on her finest clothes and went to see Holofernes, the commander of the invading Assyrian army. Judith claimed that the Israelites were doomed and that she was fleeing to Holofernes for safety. Judith, however, tricks Holofernes into drinking himself into a stupor and kills him in his sleep. Without their commanding officer, the Assyrians are routed by the Jews.
Prophets are arguably the most important people in the Bible, and there a number in the Old Testament. In addition to Deborah, 2 Kings describes Huldah, another female prophet, who warns King Josiah of the disasters that will befall Jerusalem. In addition, Miriam, the sister of Moses from the Book of Exodus, is said to be a prophet.
Female prophets are not confined to the Old Testament either. Luke 2:36 mentions Anna of the tribe of Asher who “never left the Temple but worshiped night and day” and who predicted the coming of Christ. 1 Corinthians also simply accepts and assumes the existence of female prophets as Paul states that “any woman…who prophesizes” should have her head covered.
Paul has both a number of other times where he appears to simply assume that women would have a strong role in the formation of the Christian faith and the administration of the churches he started. In Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, a woman named Persis is described as working “hard in the Lord.” She is also the only person in the list of people Paul names who is given such glowing praise. In the same letter, a woman named Phoebe is described as diakonos or a “deacon.” This unisex title shows that she was highly placed in the church and meant to assist the elders. In 1 Corinthians, a woman named Chloe has been keeping Paul informed of the events in the Corinthian congregation. She is part of the faction that stayed true to her Christian beliefs even in the middle of the strife that rocked the congregation and so concerned Paul in his letters.
Women played a strong role in the young Christian church even before Jesus’ death. No man was involved in the creation of Christ. There was only Mary and God.
The importance of women did not stop with Christ’s birth. A closer look at the ancient Greek versions of the Gospels shows that Christ and the Apostles were supported financially by the women who followed Jesus, such as Mary Magdalene.
The fact that Jesus had women following him was in and of itself extraordinary for the time. Ancient Israelite custom said that men and women were to be taught separately. Jesus, however, preached to both simultaneously. This mix of men and women would have been all but unheard of 2,000 years ago and carries the implication that Jesus felt both genders had the same right to His knowledge.
While some like to claim the story of Christ is misogynistic, it is to Mary Magdalene, a woman, that the greatest miracle in the entire Scriptures is first revealed: Christ’s resurrection. All four Gospels state that the first witnesses of the Resurrection were women. The Gospel of John states that Mary Magdalene was alone when she saw that the tomb was empty, but Matthew, Mark and Luke all state that she was with other women. Regardless of the number of people present, all the Gospels agree that there were no men there. The first people to see and believe that Christ rose from the dead were women. They, then, were the first Christians.
The importance of women is evident in the Apocrypha as well. These lost stories and books were never added to the canonical Bible, but many of them are as old, if not older, than the books that form the current Biblical canon. Both the Gospel of Mary and the Acts of Paul and Thecla have women at the center of the book. The Gospel of Mary details Christ teaching Mary things that were “hidden from [the male Apostles].” Peter asked Mary to “teach [them] the things which [she] kn[e]w that [they] d[i]dn’t because [they hadn’t] heard them.”
In the Acts of Paul and Thecla, Thecla was a wealthy woman who gave up her life of comfort to follow Christ with Paul. During their travels, the authorities tried repeatedly to rape or kill Thecla, but each time she was saved by some miracle of the Lord. The pyre on which she was to be burned was put out by a sudden rainstorm, the lion that was supposed to eat Thecla defended her from other beasts and a lightning strike killed the sharks that were supposed to devour Thecla.
The sheer number of powerful and clever women in the Bible makes it clear that women were always meant to be an integral part of the Church. The Scriptures may not seem as friendly to women as modern readers might wish, but consider this: the Bible was written more than 2,000 years ago. Given the context in which it was written down, there is surprisingly little that most modern readers find problematic and even that can often be explained with just a touch of historical context.