On a visit to the University of Gottingen in the early 1990s, an eminent biblical scholar was shown photographs of his predecessors, founders of an important academic movement that had flourished in Germany earlier in the century. The scholars, who were all male, had originally been photographed with their wives, but the women had been cut out of the pictures prior to publication.
This apparently trivial anecdote epitomises the kind of problem faced by female researchers of biblical studies attempting to recover the cut-out images of women strewn across the floor. Among the many obstacles in their path have been the entrenched sexism of university departments, and the casual marginalisation of women in commentaries on the historical records. Now, at last, all this is changing. Over the past twenty-five years there has been a revolution in attitudes to gender issues and the Bible. Much of this is due to the work of female scholars.
Cullen Murphy focuses on women working in North American seminaries and universities. Dashing energetically from campus to campus, or enjoyably exploring the religious sites of the Holy Land, he paints a vivid portrait of pioneering women and their ‘distinctive, even peculiar’ academic milieux. This provides, en route, a useful summary of current research into the roles and authority of women in the Bible and among the societies that produced what must be history’s most influential collection of texts. As he points out, these ‘ancient cultures created many of the mental and social structures that have shaped the world in which we live’, an influence that has derived as much from the ways in which the texts have been translated and read as from the words themselves. In the past, the readers have been male.
Murphy begins his survey with a backward glance at Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an American suffragist and reformer whose career spanned much of the nineteenth century. Stanton’s The Woman’s Bible (1895), a feisty commentary on women’s position in the Bible, has been almost forgotten. This is a pity, since it has bite, perception and common sense. Of the Queen of Sheba’s state visit to Solomon, she notes, ‘This is the first account which we have in the Bible of a prolonged rational conversation with a woman on questions of public policy.’ On Rebecca’s encounter with Isaac at the well, a popular theme for religious painting, she comments, ‘Women as milk-maids and drawers of water, with pails and pitchers on their heads, are always artistic, and far more attractive to men than those with votes in their hands at the polling booths.’ As for the men of Israel, who melt down the women’s jewellery to create the idolatrous golden bull, she waspily compares the incident with the Boston Tea Party in 1773, when ‘the first delicacy the men threw overboard … was the tea, women’s favourite beverage. The tobacco and whiskey, though heavily taxed, they clung to with the tenacity of the devil-fish.’
The Woman’s Bible became an overnight bestseller, but was denounced, along with its principal contributor, from pulpits up and down the United States, and the National American Woman Suffrage Association, co-founded by Stanton a quarter of a century earlier, distanced itself from her work. Stanton and her team of contributors had had no formal training in biblical studies, and the few female scholars qualified to help refused to be involved with her project, worried about risking their professional reputations. Today’s female academics are a hardier crew.
The questions they raise are of enormous importance; the answers are often elusive, and liable to modification as new information emerges. The Bible is indisputably androcentric, and it has, in addition, for many centuries been used by male divines to justify the subordination and control of women. The task now facing feminist theologians is to disentangle the Bible from its misogynous interpretations and to establish what it might offer Christian women today. Phyllis Trible was stimulated to reclaim the Bible by the apparently irresolvable conundrum: ‘I am a feminist, and I love the Bible.’ Careful study of texts traditionally used against women, such as the Genesis account of Adam and Eve, persuaded her that the meaning and function of the Bible is fluid: ‘As Scripture moves through history, it is appropriated for new settings.’ Trible’s readings have allowed her to ‘depatriarchalise’ the Bible as a new spiritual resource for women, even though she is aware of accusations that she too may be reading into the texts what she wants to find there.
Cultural historians have a rather different objective: to discover more about the contexts in which the Bible evolved, and the role of men and women within these environments. In her research into the lives of early Israelite women, Carol Meyers drew on archaeological findings, cultural anthropology and close textual analysis to hypothesise a relatively egalitarian society in which women played an important economic role, being responsible for a range of sophisticated skills: experimenting with plants and seeds, weaving cloth, and processing and preserving food, as well as running complex households. These explorations had practical implications for Meyers and her family. Her on-site commitments meant unremitting toil under a hot sun, often with a baby on her hip, an experience whose physical stress mirrored that of the women whose lives she was excavating. Her teenage daughter had the equally daunting challenge of being lowered into a cistern that had remained unexplored for millennia. She was the only person present at the dig who was slim enough to go through the narrow entrance.
Was Jesus a feminist? Do Gospel accounts of the ‘Virgin’ Mary mask an earlier story about an illegitimate birth? How did Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the Resurrection, develop an alternative, less distinguished reputation as a reformed whore? What light do Gnostic texts throw on the place of women in the early Church? These are just some of the issues that Murphy tackles in this absorbing book. His project is reportage rather than theology, and the analysis is, perhaps necessarily, superficial: again and again I turned a page in the full flood of a compelling argument, only to find that Murphy was ready to move on. The introverted world of North American academia may not be to every taste (although I found it riveting), and his penchant for physical description of the female scholars (‘Kraemer dresses with striking but easy stylishness’, Mieke Bal is ‘elegantly dressed, with close-cropped white hair’, Meyers is ‘lithe and athletic’, and so on) made my PC hackles rise. Murphy’s book, however, will be invaluable to any woman interested in stripping away the prejudice and misogyny in which Christianity has been steeped since its beginnings, and discovering a truer picture of what life was like for women during the first centuries of its foundation.