Trying to Prove that the Bible Is
How some feminists perpetuate patriarchy
by Lena Ksarjian
The following article is from Free
Inquiry magazine, Volume 19, Number 1.
In the August 1993 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Cullen
Murphy, managing editor, wrote an article called “Women and the Bible.” The
article is alluded to on the cover of the monthly by the following statement:
“A new generation of scholars is bringing to light the buried history of
Jewish and Christian women in ancient times—including their sometimes
surprising prominence in religious life.” Murphy explores this new generation
of scholars through a series of discussions with female theologians who
contribute to the ongoing projects of feminist scholarship. Two theologians
Murphy cites are Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza of Harvard and Phyllis Trible, a
feminist theologian, from Union Theological Seminary in New York.
To the unsuspecting reader, Murphy’s article looks
promising because it highlights some of the latest currents in biblical feminist
scholarship and appears to be sympathetic with these trends. It focuses on
certain feminist scholars who construct a case for women’s equality based on
biblical texts. Indeed, to the unsuspecting reader, Murphy’s article appears
to show significant strides made by feminist scholars in a field traditionally
guided by patriarchy.
However, I am not an unsuspecting reader. On the contrary,
I am suspicious of feminist or non-feminist scholars who attempt to create, in
the words of one feminist theologian, “a discipleship of equals”1
originating from modern theological arguments that have little to do with the
historical problems present in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. I am
skeptical of those who lift ancient texts from their historical milieus in order
to make arguments that may not be binding in the light of secular-historical
analysis and of those who seek to procure a sense of equality for women from the
Bible that, to quote Murphy, “is an androcentric document in the extreme.”2
A Bible-based feminism actually promotes the patriarchy it
tries to eliminate. When feminist scholars seek to use the Bible as a proof-text
for defining women’s identities, then these scholars are seeking legitimacy
from a patriarchal document written by men, edited by men, and canonized by men
thriving in male-dominated cultures. One of the motivating forces behind this
type of feminist scholarship is our Jewish-Christian culture, which looks to the
Bible as a document to provide answers for complex gender issues.
The Bible is so much a part of our culture that many
scholars, feminist or otherwise, do not realize they are defending it when they
think they are critiquing it. To quote from Alfred North Whitehead: “In each
period [of human history] there is a general form of the forms of thought; and
like the air we breathe, such a form is so translucent, and so pervading, and so
seemingly necessary that only by extreme effort can we become aware of it.”3
To use Whitehead’s insight, feminists who look to the Bible for women’s
equality are pervaded by the general form of the forms of thought known as
Judeo-Christianity; and, like the air they breath, the infiltration of
Judeo-Christian thinking is so translucent, and so pervading, and so seemingly
necessary that only by extreme effort can some feminist scholars become aware of
the ways by which their particular brand of scholarship actually limits female
freedom within American culture.
A Dose of Realism
What then are the alternatives? I suggest a few
possibilities. First, there are women scholars who do recognize the
thoroughgoing patriarchy of biblical texts and investigate these texts on the
basis of the text’s patriarchal terms. For example, Nancy Jay, educated at
Harvard and Brandeis universities, wrote a ground-breaking book entitled
Throughout Your Generations Forever in which she recognizes the patriarchal
nature of biblical texts and, based on this historical understanding,
demonstrates how ancient peoples subordinated women in both patriarchal and
matriarchal cultures through a complicated system of kinship and sacrificial
Jay demonstrates how males in the ancient biblical world
virtually eliminated the female’s power that comes from giving birth by
coopting this power for themselves through complex social rituals that
overshadowed the female’s role as creator/giver of life. By way of kinship and
sacrificial rituals, patriarchies and matriarchies eliminated the primary role
of the female as life-giver and created a system in which the child’s identity
is based not on the one who gives it birth, i.e., the mother, but rather from
whom the child descended.4 For example, in Numbers
1:2ff Yahweh says to Moses: “Make a census of the whole community of Israel by
families in the father’s line recording the name of every male person. . . .
You and Aaron are to make a list of them by their tribal hosts, and to assist
you, you will have one head of family from each tribe.” Next the author
presents a genealogy of sons and fathers, not sons and mothers (Num. 1:6–15).
Placing the child within a genealogical line of male
descent gives primacy to the father in patriarchies or to the uncle in
matriarchies, thereby eliminating a threatening issue for patriarchies: that
children always come through the female and not the male. In attributing the
line of original descent to the father or uncle, the generative power of the
female is displaced and eclipsed by the male.
Furthermore, Jay demonstrates how males appropriate
childbirth by way of complicated systems of sacrifice. Turning the lens toward
ancient Greek, Israelite, and Roman sacrifice, Jay shows how, in unrelated
settings, sacrificial ritual enacts patrilineal descent. Patrilineal kin know
they are kin because they sacrifice together: they become patrilineal kin by so
doing. To so create social and religious paternity is precisely to transcend a
natural relation [i.e., that mothers, not fathers, give birth]. In this way,
sacrifice becomes what Jay calls a “remedy for having been born of woman”
or, in her still more expressive phrase, “birth done better.” Sacrifice
points to distinct “social relations of reproduction.”5
Through a rigorous analysis of these complicated
sacrifice/kinship rules, Jay demonstrates how males eliminated “their
necessary dependence on women’s reproductive powers”6
and created a social system in which the male is recognized as the one from whom
the child ultimately comes.
Thus, Jay does not draw from theology or apologetics to
construct her theory. She works within the secular frameworks of anthropology,
sociology, and history—and she recognizes the Bible as an uncompromising
A second possible alternative to the feminist dilemma is to
get away from using the Bible as a source that somehow must endorse women’s
equality (because it cannot, and it does not), and to look to other evidence
that documents the equality of women within culture. For example, in 1952 Ashley
Montagu, an American anthropologist, published a book called The Natural
Superiority of Women. Since 1952, Montagu’s book has enjoyed four reprintings,
the latest of which was in 1992.
In his book, Montagu provides evidence from biology and
social anthropology not only for women’s equality but also for their
superiority. In the prologue to his book, Montagu states:
In the present book the mythology of female inferiority is
challenged and dismantled on the basis of the scientific facts. My many years of
work and research as a biological and social anthropologist have made it
abundantly clear to me that from an evolutionary standpoint, the female is more
advanced and constitutionally more richly endowed than the male. It seemed to me
important to make that first claim. That is the scientific fact. Women, as
biological organisms, are superior to men. If anyone has any evidence to the
contrary let him or her state it. The scientific attitude of the mind is not one
of either belief or disbelief, but of a desire to discover what is and to state
it, no matter what traditional beliefs may be challenged or outraged in the
My third and final suggestion to those feminists who
promote patriarchy by using one of the foremost texts in Western culture that
creates it is to view the Bible within its historical context without
theologizing away the historical problems. For example, Murphy cites Schüssler
Fiorenza, who argues that:
early Christianity was built around a theology of equality;
that Paul’s famous reiteration in Galatians 3:28 of the ancient baptismal
formula, “There is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and
female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,” represents not a radical and
temporary breakthrough in Paul’s thinking, but an expression of broad and
ordinary Christian belief.8
In Schüssler Fiorenza’s view, Galatians 3:28 is the
“magna carta of Christian Feminism.”9
From the historical point of view, Schüssler Fiorenza’s
interpretation is vulnerable. First of all, there has been some debate about
whether or not Paul actually wrote the letter to the Galatians. Most modern New
Testament scholars do not question Paul’s authorship. However,
The Pauline authorship of [Galatians] was denied by a
number of scholars in the 19th century. . . . In the 20th century the
authenticity and integrity of [Galatians] was denied by L. Gordon Rylands [who,
in 1929, wrote A Critical Analysis of the Four Chief Pauline Epistles]; Frank R.
McGuire, Did Paul Write Galatians? . . . ; John C. O’Neill, The Recovery of
Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, who also has a survey of the history of the
Furthermore, to quote one New Testament scholar:
there is evidence that Galatians 1:1–6:10 was written
by an amanuensis [a copyist] who was usually a professional. But, was this
copyist just a copyist, or did he have an influence on the composition of the
letter itself? We have the choice of attributing Galatians either to Paul, or
the copyist, or to both. Thus, the historical problem of authorship is a
Given the complexities surrounding the authorship of
Galatians 3:28, then Paul cannot be used with complete confidence as a
mouthpiece for women’s equality particularly when the letter that we know he
did write places women beneath men. For example, in 1 Corinthians 11:3 Paul
writes: “But I wish you to understand that, while every man has Christ for his
head, a woman’s head is man, as Christ’s head is God.” 1 Corinthians 14:
34–35 states: “As in all congregations of God’s people, women should keep
their place as the law directs. If there is something they want to know, they
can ask their husbands at home. It is a shocking thing for a woman to talk at
There is some debate over whether or not Paul actually
wrote verses 34–35. Some see them “as assertion[s] into the letter by
someone later than Paul himself, perhaps by someone from the time of the writing
of 1 Timothy.”12 One theory suggests that “Paul
had been informed of feminist pressure (possibly of feminine chatter) which was
contributing seriously to the disorder of the Christian assembly at Corinth, and
took energetic measures to stamp it out.”13 These
verses probably are an interpolation,14 but whether
or not Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 is beside the point. What is
significant is that 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 reflects the secondary status of
women that persisted for centuries throughout ancient Greece and Rome within
traditional urban societies.
The Pastoral Epistles that some attribute to Paul and
others to his disciples, also characterize women’s inferior status. Ephesians
5:22–23 states: “Wives, be subject to your husbands as though to the Lord;
for the man is the head of the woman, just as Christ is the head of the
church.” Colossians 3:18 states: “WIVES, be subject to your husbands; that
is your Christian duty.” 1 Timothy 2:11–15 states:
Their [women’s] role is to learn, listening quietly and
with due submission. I do not permit women to teach or dictate to the men; they
should keep quiet. For Adam was created first, and Eve afterwards; moreover it
was not Adam who was deceived; it was the woman who, yielding to deception, fell
into sin. But salvation for the woman will be in the bearing of children,
provided she continues in faith, love, and holiness, with modesty.
I am unsure how Schüssler Fiorenza’s feminist
interpretation of Galatians 3:28 accounts for these verses within the Pauline
school that demand the subjugation of women.
Furthermore, even if we assume that Paul wrote the Galatian
letter, it is difficult to accept it as a charter document for feminism due to
the second historical problem: that of historical time and placement. “When
Paul addressed his letter to the Galatians, he had in mind the inhabitants of
the central plateau of [Anatolia]. . . . Although none of the events mentioned
in Galatians can be dated accurately . . . the years between 50–55 may be
accepted as a reasonable guess.”15 I wonder how a
text, written some time between 50–55 c.e. to a group of ancient people living
in Anatolia, can serve as the charter document for Christian feminists living in
America, in the closing years of the twentieth century?
As for the meaning of the text, Schüssler Fiorenza says
that Galatians 3:28 is a baptismal formula but her interpretation is
problematic. Baptism is mentioned in Galatians 3:27 where the baptismal formula
is found. However, Schüssler Fiorenza’s Pauline feminist magna carta is
describing the consequences of Christian baptismal initiations—not the formula
for baptism. As one New Testament scholar states, Galatians 3:28 is reflecting
“social changes which [are] classified as part of the process of redemption
and the result of the ecstatic experience which the Galatians as well as other
Christians have had.”16 The crucial question is
what sorts of changes/results does the verse reflect, particularly in reference
to the slogan “there is neither male nor female in Christ.”17
Given the patriarchal nature of Asia Minor in the first
century, it is improbable that Paul is advocating social equality for women. Nor
does he reflect “an expression of broad and ordinary Christian belief” as
Schüssler Fiorenza claims.18 In Paul’s
Greco-Roman world, “The hierarchical pattern of the family, in which the male
was always superior to the female, as surely as parents to children and masters
unto slaves, was deeply structured in law and custom and its erosion constantly
deplored by the rhetorical moralists and the satirists.”19
Hence, the Pauline injunction for “wives to be subject to their husbands”
(Ephesians 5:22) reflects the gender stratification prevalent within ancient
Mediterranean cultures.20 As New Testament
historian Wayne Meeks observes, “Whatever ‘women’s movement’ there may
have been would be suppressed early.”21 Given
these historical realities, Schüssler Fiorenza’s magna carta rests on dubious
historical grounds, and the case for a feminist interpretation of the text is
highly improbable given the social situation.
As I demonstrated earlier, the preponderance of the Pauline
material calls for the subjugation of women. “Nor are there [any] parallels to
this statement [there is no longer male and female] elsewhere in the New
Testament.”22 A more likely interpretation of Galatians 3:28
is that Paul is not advocating female equality but rather the elimination of the
sexual differences between male and female. The erasure of gender difference
would not be an unusual wish for Paul given his enthusiasms for celibacy and his
general condemnation of sexuality. In 1 Corinthians he writes: “I should like
everyone to be as I myself am. . . . To the unmarried and to widows I say this:
it is a good thing if like me they stay as they are: but if they do not have
self-control, they should marry. It is better to be married than burn with
desire” (1 Cor. 7–9). In this instance to be “like” Paul is to remain a
virgin or celibate.
Furthermore in 1 Corinthians Chapter 6 Paul lists the
sexual behaviors that prevent individuals from entering the Kingdom of God:
Make no mistake; no fornicator . . . , no adulterer or
sexual pervert, . . . will possess the kingdom of God. . . . [T]he body is not
for fornication; it is for the Lord—and the Lord for the body. . . . Shall I
then take parts of Christ’s body and make them over to a prostitute? Never!
You surely know that anyone who joins himself to a prostitute becomes
physically one with her, for scripture says, “The Two shall become one
flesh”; but anyone who joins himself to the Lord is one with him
spiritually. Have nothing to do with fornication. Every other sin that one may
commit is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against his own body. [1
Clearly, sexuality is a thorny problem for Paul. He
condones it only within the institution of marriage. To eliminate it completely
would certainly be an attractive solution for him. Thus Galatians 3:28 may be a
call for unbridled celibacy. The other possibility is that Paul is echoing a
gnostic theology that calls for a sort of psycho-sexual spiritual surgery that
spays or neuters the ancient Christian, thereby rendering him/her an asexual or
perhaps an androgynous creature in Christ.
In gnostic theology, “neither male nor female” would
claim the metaphysical removal of the biological sex distinctions as a result of
the salvation in Christ. . . . It is, . . . , important to . . . [consider] that
the abolition of [gender] differences of Gal. 3:28 is tied to the “unity in
Christ.” The question arises, therefore, whether the concept of an androgynous
Christ-figure lies in the background. To be sure, in the New Testament we do not
have explicit references to such a Christology, but in gnostic texts it is well
attested. Such a doctrine was held by several older religious traditions in
Schüssler Fiorenza’s interpretation of Galatians 3:28
does not account for the possible gnostic influences reflected in the verse. Nor
does her position of equality explain why the sentiments expressed in Galatians
3:28 cannot be harmonized with any other verse about women in the New Testament
and the Pauline corpus in particular. From the weight of the evidence, it is
clear that Paul’s real attitude towards women was one that reflected the
general social attitudes of the time regarding the sexes, i.e., that women are
inferior to men.
In light of these complexities I do not see how Schüssler
Fiorenza’s interpretations can withstand historical scrutiny. First, she uses
a text whose authorship is debatable; second, Galatians 3:28 is not a baptismal
formula, but rather a possible result of baptism for a particular Christian
community, living in a particular time; third, the slogan “There is no longer
male nor female” is most likely not a call for gender equality, but rather a
plea to abolish gender altogether; fourth Galatians 3:28 reflects an ancient
culture that could hardly be construed as feminist.
However, even if we allow Schüssler Fiorenza her sanguine
interpretation of Galatians 3:28 how would it account for those of us who are
not “one” in Christ Jesus, who have not been “baptized” in Christ and
who come from disparate religious and cultural backgrounds? The answer is that
her position cannot account for such variations, and, therefore, precludes
individuals outside her circle to achieve such equalities.
Turning to Phyllis Trible, Murphy acknowledges that,
“[Trible] doesn’t forget for a minute that the Bible is a thoroughly
patriarchal text. . . . She believes that the Bible can be ‘reclaimed’ as a
spiritual resource for women. And . . . she said ‘it must be pointed out that
the Bible is sometimes not as patriarchal as translations would make it
seem.’”24 One illustration of Trible’s
reclamation of biblical texts is found in scriptural interpretation otherwise
known as hermeneutics. For example, she indicates that in the Revised Standard
Version of the Bible Deuteronomy 32:18 reads: “You were unmindful of the Rock
that begot you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth.” Trible indicates
that “‘gave you birth’ is from a Hebrew term for ‘writhing in
labor.’” So the translation, if accurate, is tame. But here is how the
Jerusalem Bible translates it: ‘fathered you.’”25
We can infer from Trible’s position that the Jerusalem
Bible’s translation “fathered you” is more patriarchal than the Revised
Standard Version in which God “gives birth,” or “writhes in
labor”—both strong female images. The implication being that the Revised
Standard Version provides a translation that may serve as a positive biblical
metaphor for women. Therefore, women reading the Revised Standard Version can
reclaim the Bible, or at least this passage, as a spiritual resource.
However, is the image of God giving birth or “writhing in
labor” a celebration of womanhood, or is it yet another way males have coopted
the one thing that women can do that men cannot and that is to give birth? I
would argue that the translation the “God who gives birth” or the God who
“writhes in labor” is yet another way a uniquely female capacity is eclipsed
by the male. With the above images of God giving birth, men enjoy the dual
imagery of impregnating and pregnancy, thereby eliminating the need for women
Thus, I cannot agree with Trible that her interpretation of
Deuteronomy 32:18 serves as a way for women to reclaim the Bible spiritually.
Indeed, I read it as a biblical metaphor that demonstrates that women are
dispensable—if male gods can give birth, then what need for females?26
In conclusion, I am sympathetic with the feminist project.
I do not believe that feminist scholars are engaging in some intellectual
sleight of hand or are pulling a nonexistent rabbit out of a nonexistent hat. I
do believe these scholars are well-intended.
However, some of these intentions serve to promote
patriarchy rather than help eliminate it. I suggest that feminists and
non-feminist scholars see the Hebrew Bible and New Testament for what they are:
a compilation of differing texts written and edited by different male redactors
over a period of 1,200 years in patriarchal cultures far away and different from
As for Cullen Murphy’s article, parts of it might seduce
the reader into thinking that biblical texts can be used to promote
feminism—but like some seductions, it could lead the participant into
believing in an illusion that eventually must be revealed, albeit somewhat
1.Cullen Murphy, “Women and the Bible,”
Atlantic Monthly August 1993, p. 45.
2.Ibid., p. 41.
3.Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of
Ideas (New York: Macmillan Co., 1933), p. 14.
4.“It should be recognized that, although
the different kinds of groups glossed as patrilineages are patriarchies,
matrilineages are not matriarchies. Men ordinarily hold the major positions of
authority in matrilineages as well as in patrilineages. It is the descent of
authority, and of property, which differs: in patrilineages it is from father to
son, in matrilineages from uncle to nephew, from mother’s brother to
sister’s son. Both systems are ways of formally connecting men with women as
childbearers, that is, ways of organizing intergenerational continuity between
men and men in the face of the fact that it is women who give birth and with
whom the next generation begins life already in close relation. Both systems are
ways in which men regulate rights over women’s reproductive powers, but in
matrilineal descent systems these rights are divided: the man with rights of
sexual access and the man and group with the rights in the offspring are not the
same” (Nancy Jay, Throughout Your Generations Forever [Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1992], p. 35).
5.Ibid., p. xiii.
6.Ibid., p. 31.
7.Ashley Montagu, The Natural Superiority
of Women, new and rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1992), p. 2.
8.Murphy, p. 45.
10.Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians: A
Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Churches in Galatia Hermenia (Philadelphia:
Fortress Press, 1979), n1 p. 1.
11.Ibid., p. 1.
12.R. Scroggs, “Women In the New
Testament,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible Supplementary
Volume (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976), p. 966.
13.C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the
First Epistle to the Corinthians (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1968), p.
14.Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians,
Hermeneia, ed. George W. MacRae, trans. James W. Leitch (Philadelphia: Fortress
Press, 1975), p. 246.
15.Betz, pp. 1; 9–12.
16.Ibid., p. 190.
17. Ibid., n82 p. 191.
18. Murphy, p. 45.
19.Wayne Meeks, The First Urban
Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 1983), p. 23.
20. Those who might invoke the Amazon
warrior women as possible examples of women wielding superior power over men
should be aware that the nomadic Amazons were neither Greek nor urban and that
their existence attested to by Herodotus ca. 450 b.c.e. may be more legendary
than true. In the February/May 1997 issue of Archaeology Jeanne Davis-Kimball in
her article “Warrior Women of the Eurasian Steppes” (pp. 45, 48) has
“excavated 50 [burial mounds] near the town of Pokrovka, near the Kazakhstan
border. . . . Here [she and her Russian colleagues] found women buried with
bronze daggers and arrowheads. These finds suggest that Greek tales of Amazon
warriors may have had some basis in fact. . . . [However] because the Pokrovka
nomads lived 1,000 miles east of the Don and Volga Sauromatians, and the Amazons
known to the Greeks lived even farther west, they cannot have been the same
people. They may, however, have been one of many similar nomadic tribes who
occupied the Eurasian steppes in the Early Iron Age. If one believes Herodotus,
they may even have been the far-flung contemporaries of the Amazons.”
21.Ibid., p. 25.
22. Betz, p. 195.
23.Ibid., pp. 196–97.
24. Murphy, op. cit. p. 48.
26.Trible’s interpretation reminds me of
a surprisingly striking observation in the film comedy Junior in which Arnold
Schwarzenneger, playing research scientist Alexander Hesse, injects himself with
a fertility drug that causes him to become pregnant. His love interest, Dr.
Dianna Reddin, a research biologist played by Emma Thompson, eventually
discovers that Hesse is pregnant with her child because he inadvertently uses
one of her frozen eggs to induce pregnancy. When Reddin discovers this, she is
infuriated, and in one of the film’s more significant dialogues she says to
Hesse: “This is so male. . . . You think men don’t hold enough cards, you
have to take this [giving birth] from us as well?” (Ivan Reitman, Nothing Is
Inconceivable: Junior, 1994).
Lena Ksarjian is a doctoral candidate at the University of
Chicago in the Committee on the History of Culture and a lector in the
university’s college. She is a member of the Committee
for the Scientific Examination of Religion and has published several
articles on the critical examination of Judeo-Christianity.