London Times reports that the Bible is not anti-female: is this news?
Published: 24 February 2009 (GMT+10)
The London Times reports1 that a recent study by The Bible Society concludes, contrary to half a century of feminist ravings about patriarchy and misogyny in Scripture, that the Bible is not misogynist. The Times seems to cite The Bible Style Guide as its source, a free booklet created for journalists in the UK. The main part of the booklet consists of short articles on subjects from ‘Abraham’ to ‘Zionism’ for journalists who may not have had much exposure to the Bible. Other sections of the booklet explain the different varieties of Christianity; their respective canons, takes on inspiration, etc. Most of these topics are covered in a very short space; the ‘sexism’ article which is the Times’ main source takes less than half a page; considering that books and whole encyclopedias have been written on the topic of women in the Bible; to cover it in half a page seems ‘ambitious’, to say the least.2
While it may come as a relief to evangelicals to have this viewpoint spread to mainstream journalists, it should not come as a surprise that the Bible is not anti-female. In fact, the Bible is overwhelmingly pro-female, with the result that Judaism and Christianity have been two of the most female-friendly religions in the world. Indeed, this is so much the case that only someone blinded by bias could fail to see it. But well before modern feminists railed against the Bible, the famous anti-slavery activist Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896), author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), wrote in another book, Woman in Sacred History (1873):
The object of the following pages will be to show, in a series of biographical sketches, a history of WOMANHOOD UNDER DIVINE CULTURE, tending toward the development of that high ideal of woman which we find in modern Christian countries.
Women in the Old Testament
In Genesis 1:26–27, God the Father declares the creation of man in His image, both male and female. This is significant, because it gives women the same inherent dignity and worth as men because both are equally created in the image of God. In Genesis 2, we find an expanded version of the creation of mankind. Up until this point, God has declared everything ‘very good’. But He says that it is not good for the man to be alone, and so He creates Eve from Adam’s rib. Upon seeing the woman for the first time, Adam joyfully exclaims that she is ‘flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone’ once again having the connotation of inherent equality with man.
Though non-canonical Jewish literature tends to blame the Fall on Eve, it is interesting that the Bible never does; uniformly, it is Adam who is seen to be responsible in both Testaments for the Fall. God pronounced the death sentence on Adam, not Eve (Genesis 3:17-19), and it is Adam’s transgression, not Eve’s, that Jesus’ obedience contrasted (Rom. 5:12-21, 1 Cor. 15:21-22).3
There is ample biblical evidence that women were not seen as spiritually inferior to men; if they were, one would expect for them to be excluded from the religious process, or to be seen as ‘second-class’, but this is not the case. Rebekah goes to inquire of the Lord about Jacob and Esau in her womb (Genesis 25:22–23); this shows that women could approach God without a male interceding. The part of the Mosaic law regulating the Nazirite vow, representing the highest level of sanctification a non-Levite Jew could take on, specifically allowed either a man or a woman to participate, and had the exact same requirements for both (Numbers 6:1–21). Women also had important spiritual roles; Miriam is called a prophetess, and her song of praise is one of the earliest songs recorded in the Bible (Exodus 15:1–21). Deborah is a married female judge, and there is no indication that she was respected any less than her male counterparts; indeed, Barak refuses to go out to battle unless she comes with him (Judges 4).
The Mosaic Law was a giant step forward for civilization in many respects, not least in the equal treatment of men and women under its code. Both the man and the woman were to be executed for adultery (Leviticus 20:10), as opposed to other law systems where only the woman would be punished. There were even cases where it was beneficial to be a woman: a woman could be excused from a rash vow if her father (if she was unmarried) or husband (if she was married) refused to allow her to carry it out; there was no similar way out for a man who made a rash vow (Numbers 30). The purity laws are often cited as the most unfair to women, but in fact, research suggests that they were neutral or even positive for women (see box below for explanation). Generally, when such laws are interpreted as being anti-female, it is the result of the interpreter not taking into account the vast differences in perceptions between the ancient and modern worlds.
Many women in the Old Testament are praised for their actions. The Hebrew midwives who spared the Hebrew male children were blessed by God with their own families (Exodus 1:15–21). Rahab is portrayed positively for hiding the Hebrew spies (Numbers 6, Hebrews 11:31, James 2:25), and ultimately became absorbed into the Jewish people and was an ancestor of Jesus (Matthew 1:5). Ruth is a model of loyalty and faithfulness who became the great-grandmother of King David (Ruth 4:17), and thus another ancestor of Jesus (Matthew 1:5). Esther’s obedience to her cousin Mordecai led to the deliverance of the Diaspora Jews in Persia. Wisdom is personified as a woman in Proverbs, and it would be hard to find more glowing praise of a woman in ancient literature than Proverbs 31.
In no way are women stereotyped negatively in the Old Testament, as is often claimed. Some women are portrayed as evil, such as Jezebel and Delilah, but these are exceptions, rather than the rule. And really, if the Bible portrayed women as unerringly good, feminists would probably complain about the unrealistic portrayal!
In short, Judaism was not hostile to women, and did not see them as inherently inferior to men. Interestingly, women made up a majority of the Gentile converts to Judaism, for the simple reason that it was much easier for a woman to convert (men had to be circumcised).
Women in the New Testament
Judaism is perhaps surpassed only by Christianity in its positive view of women. Mary is portrayed as a model of faith who is willing to believe God and is a willing servant, even though she could be divorced, publicly humiliated, and even stoned for becoming pregnant before marriage (Matthew 1; Luke 1). Her faith is positively compared with Zachariah’s disbelief concerning Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist.
Women also played an important role in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus was probably financed by wealthy women such as Mary Magdalene—the Bible in fact refers to ‘many women’ being among His followers and caring for His needs (Matthew 27:55), though only men were chosen to be apostles. It is noteworthy that women were the first witnesses of the Resurrection, and more so that the Gospels retain this historical fact, because by the time of Jesus the Jewish culture had so strayed from a Scriptural mindset that women were generally considered to be less reliable witnesses than men. It seems to have even verged on the point where their testimony was not considered to be valid in a court of law.
Some acknowledge that Jesus was very sympathetic to females, but charge the early Church with relegating women to second-class status within its ranks. However, Scripture makes clear that women played an important part in the early Church; they were allowed to pray and prophesy, for example. Paul seems to exclude them from holding positions of authority; however, both conservative and liberal theologians have debated what exactly Paul means by this; at issue are Greek words which are not well-attested, so the exact definition is debated.4 We do know that married women were ministry partners with their husbands, from the example of Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18), and many scholars think that Phoebe was probably the letter-carrier for Romans (Romans 16:1).
The absurdity of the view that the Church is misogynist is revealed when one considers that from very early in its history, women made up a majority of those in the Church. Today, women out-number men in nearly every American congregation, both in attendance and in volunteering for various roles such as teaching Sunday School, indeed, in every level of the church except the pastorate and leadership roles, women tend to outnumber men. Specifically, only 35% of American men say they attend church weekly, while women make up more than 60% of the typical congregation in a morning service. This is a strange misogyny which draws women in greater numbers than men, and where there are insightful books written like Why Men Hate Going to Church!5
The great apologist G.K. Chesterton even noted the hypocrisy of such attacks on the church:
It looked not so much as if Christianity was bad enough to include any vices, but rather as if any stick was good enough to beat Christianity with. What again could this astonishing thing be like which people were so anxious to contradict, that in doing so they did not mind contradicting themselves? I saw the same thing on every side. I can give no further space to this discussion of it in detail; but lest any one supposes that I have unfairly selected three accidental cases I will run briefly through a few others. Thus, certain sceptics wrote that the great crime of Christianity had been its attack on the family; it had dragged women to the loneliness and contemplation of the cloister, away from their homes and their children. But, then, other sceptics (slightly more advanced) said that the great crime of Christianity was forcing the family and marriage upon us; that it doomed women to the drudgery of their homes and children, and forbade them loneliness and contemplation. The charge was actually reversed. Or, again, certain phrases in the Epistles or the marriage service, were said by the anti-Christians to show contempt for woman’s intellect. But I found that the anti-Christians themselves had a contempt for woman’s intellect; for it was their great sneer at the Church on the Continent that “only women” went to it.6
Do separate roles for women and men inherently devalue women?
Despite all these clear facts against the view that the Bible is misogynist, some argue that the Bible devalues women because women are not allowed to do everything that men are allowed to do. But one could argue that this does not stem from a lower view of women, and indeed, that by embracing a view that affirms the goodness of the inherent differences between the sexes, the biblical worldview is more pro-woman, whereas the feminist view actually devalues women by devaluing or ignoring innate differences between women and men. In fact, Chesterton called feminism the surrender of women to men.7
Christians have always affirmed that it is possible for individuals to have different roles while remaining fundamentally equal. Even Christ, God the Son, submitted to the Father (Luke 22:42); and no orthodox Christian would claim that Jesus was less God than the Father because of it (Phil. 2:6, John 10:30). Indeed, Christ submitted to His mother and foster father (Luke 2:51), although He was infinitely superior. In the same way, the command for wives to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22 ff.) does not dehumanize women, especially as the husbands are then commanded to love their wives as sacrificially as Christ loved the Church.
In previous articles (see below), it has already been shown that Darwinists have used evolution to teach female inferiority. However, the biblical view of women affirms that women are created in God’s image, and that they have a special place in God’s plan which, far from degrading women, affirms their equal spiritual status with men.
Scholars have classified two types of purity laws in the Mosaic Law: those regulating ritual impurity and those regulating moral impurity.8,9 While moral impurity is the result of sin and requires a sin offering to remove, ritual impurity is seen as not sinful and generally unavoidable. A person who is ritually unclean is disqualified from touching sacred objects, and is ‘contagious’; the person can pass their uncleanness to food, objects, or other people.
Women could expect to spend a significant amount of their lives in a ‘ritually unclean’ state because of menstrual cycles and childbirth, both of which rendered a woman ritually unclean for a certain amount of time. However, the only activities women were specifically prohibited from when they were unclean were sexual intercourse and participation in religious festivals except the Passover (which could be celebrated by the ceremonially unclean (Numbers 9:10–13)).
It is important to note that most women’s ritual uncleanness would be cleansed with the passage of time and simply taking a bath after her period of uncleanness was over. The only time that a sacrifice was required to take away a woman’s ritual uncleanness was when she had a child, and for poor people, that sacrifice could be as small as two doves. Some scholars assert that they made relatively little difference to a woman; there is no evidence that women were quarantined when they were unclean, and there is no prohibition on husbands having physical contact with their wives when they are unclean (as opposed to the prohibition on sexual intercourse).
Some assert that these purity laws were positive for women. They argue that a woman who was ritually unclean could not cook or clean because the things she touched became unclean so it amounted to a vacation for the woman.10
However, no matter how one views the purity laws, it is clear that:
- Women were probably not shunned when they became ritually unclean, and if they were, it is not because of any biblical requirement to do so.
- Ritual uncleanness was considered to be normal and not sinful, even unavoidable for most people.
- It is doubtful how much ritual uncleanness would affect the day-to-day life of the average Jew.
- Bess Twiston Davies, Is the Bible Sexist? New research claims Bible’s negative stance on women is a myth, London Times Online, 6 October 2008. Return to text.
- The pdf available here, but brevity is not the worst problem that this booklet has; it also tends to be theologically liberal, among other things, downplaying the biblical teaching on homosexuality, and is hopeless on creation. This article, however, is only concerned with the ‘Sexism’ article. Return to text.
- Cosner, Lita, Romans 5:12–21: Paul’s view of a literal Adam, JoC 22(2):105–107, 2008. Return to text.
- CMI takes no official stance on the role of women in the Church, the debate being outside CMI’s mandate. As for the term “poorly attested”, if a word occurs thousands of times, it is well attested; if it occurs only once or twice, it is not. In 1 Timothy 2:12, the word meaning “to exercise authority” is authenteo. This is a hapax legomenon: it only occurs here in the NT (it occurs 82 times in extant non-biblical literature). The normal word for authority is exousiazo. Arguments that run “Why did [insert author here] say this word instead of this word?” are often unhelpful because words have overlapping semantic ranges, especially in Koine where a lot of distinctions were being blurred together. For instance, everyone has heard a pastor in a sermon somewhere make a distinction between eros, philos, and agape, claiming that agape is a special kind of love, but that’s simply not warranted (see Exegetical Fallacies by one of my professors, Dr Don Carson); if someone wants to make a distinction between the words, it has to be based on something in the context outside the words themselves.
Paul knew exactly what he was saying. His original readership knew exactly what he was saying. The reason we have debates over what it means and it seems ambiguous to us (though it wasn’t to either Paul or his original audience or the culture he was in) is that a certain Greek word only occurs a few times in extant Greek literature (“extant Greek literature” includes everything from Classical to the end of the Koine period, including but not limited to the Bible.)
The difference between this and the interpretation of Genesis is that both the grammatical forms and the vocabulary are used often in the Old Testament, meaning that we can know with almost full confidence what was meant solely from the grammar alone. This is confirmed when other places when those passages are interpreted in a certain way. If we had, say, Peter commenting on Paul’s comments on whether women could hold positions of authority, that would clarify it in the same way as Jesus or the other NT writers talking about creation clarifies beyond a doubt what Genesis says about creation. The difference is that Genesis is completely clear based on the grammar alone, while Paul uses a tricky word or two which doesn’t occur often, so it needs clarification from the perspective of English speakers 2000 years later. Return to text.
- Murrow, David, Why Men Hate Going to Church, Thomas Nelson, 2004. Return to text.
- Chesterton, Orthodoxy, ch. 6, ‘The Paradoxes of Christianity‘, 1908. Return to text.
- Chesterton, G.K. ‘The modern surrender of women’ in What’s Wrong with the World. Return to text.
- Klawans, J. Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism, 2000. pp. 23–26. Return to text.
- It is important to note that Jews at the time did not categorize their laws in this way; however, this classification can be useful for understanding the distinctions between the different sorts of impurity involved in the Mosaic Law. See also Holding, James Patrick, About the biblical concept of Clean , Tekton Apologetics Ministries. Return to text.
- For instance, see Glenn Miller’s ‘Women in the Heart of God‘, Christian Thinktank. Return to text.