Thursday, September 3, 2009

Gender is on my mind

Perhaps it is just coincidence that as I finish off chapter 3 of Sex and the Serpent, I have begun to see the biblioblog world differently. I am becoming more and more aware of how insidious sexism is, how it is institutionalized, how it is around us in ways we don't recognize, how what we do or don't do fosters it without our knowing it. A simple thing like a blog roll and who is on it can make a huge difference. If that blog shows up on 200 other blogs every time the author posts, consider how that multiples her voice. Consider the thousands of readers of our blogs who might look at that blog roll and see her post and think, hey, that looks interesting, think I will go over there and check it out.

I am keenly aware that our time is not a feminist time, but a negative reaction to it, or some would say against it. I have even noticed a turning back for women, as if we are so exhausted with the fight, that we are hunkering down in the trenches and retreating just to try to keep some of the ground that we have gained over the last thirty years. And men continue to dominate the churches, men continue make more money for equal work (in fact we are now losing ground in this stat the last time I looked it up), men continue to dominate the courts and the senates and the congresses, men continue to dominate institutions of higher education, men continue to dominate the corporate world. What is happening in the majority of homes, I can only guess, but I do know this, domestic violence is continues to plague our country and it is statistically the men who are violent to the women and children they live with.

My suspicion is that much of the male domination continues because deep in our communal psyche the bible reigns, where women are dominated by men from chapter 2 of Genesis, and depending on your interpretation of Genesis 1:27, perhaps even from chapter 1 itself. In fact, Paul read Genesis 1:27 in a radically patriarchal way, understanding it to mean that only men are created in the image of God, leaving women to be the "glory of men" (1 Cor 11:7). The male domination we experience today is not just social, something that can be changed through reasonable measures we take in society-building, because the domination is divinely ordained. It is fixed, something that God set it in place and women deserve because they are the temptresses and sinners who wrought (and still wreck) disaster on men and the world. No matter if we agree or disagree with this, it is out there among us, in the communal consciousness. Matilda Gage and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were right. The biggest obstacle to the equality of women in our society is the bible, the Genesis story in particular.

I have been lamenting this for a long time, but now I am becoming angry about it. I have taught on the subject of women and the bible for fifteen years, and yet it is now as I write about the subject that the hundreds of years of suppression, the hundreds of years of divine sanction for male authority and domination, the hundreds of years of women's often willing silence is rolling over me. At times is is hard for me to write because my feelings of pain are so strong.

So today I want to leave you with some words I wrote yesterday for chapter 3 of my book, about the women in Corinth who faced Paul and his patriarchalism, women who read Genesis 1:27 very differently from Paul - to mean that they too were created in God's image and should no longer wear the authority of their husband's on their heads:
"From Paul's argument we can gather that the women in Corinth had removed their veils (at least while worshiping) in order to align their social lives with their spiritual experience. They had mobilized their church by making their spiritual experience a social reality. Since they had been baptized in Christ and received his spirit, they believed that they had been recreated in the androgynous image of God. As such, the strict gender hierarchy of their immediate world had been abolished for them. Freed from these constraints, they tore off their veils, toppling the male hierarchy and dismissing the now-illegitimate authority of their husbands. This is an astonishingly brave action for them to have undertaken, since it would have marked them to other Jews and Romans as licentious women, even adulteresses, a point which Paul takes great strides to press home."


J. K. Gayle said...

Wow. Here's to hoping lots more of us read what's on your mind.

"My suspicion is that much of the male domination continues because deep in our communal psyche the bible reigns, where women are dominated by men from chapter 2 of Genesis, and depending on your interpretation of Genesis 1:27, perhaps even from chapter 1 itself." Yes, the deep, unmarked categories of the male (not FE-male) mind.

Aaron said...

Societies with little or no influence from the Bible are (as far as I know without exception) even more "patriarchal" than ours. Even if there's some random tribe of hunter-gatherers somewhere that is an exception, the overwhelming weight of non-exceptions has to tell.

Geoff Hudson said...

This is how I think 1 Cor.11 was, before the Flavian editors got hold of it. May be things could have been different.

"11.3.Now I want you to realise that the Lord of every man is the Spirit, and the Lord of every woman is the Spirit,
and the Lord is God.

11.4.Every man who prays or prophesies with his Spirit of deceit dishonours his Lord.

11.5. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her Spirit of deceit dishonours her Lord.

11.11.In the Spirit, woman is independent of man , and man is independent of woman.

11.12.All Spirits come from God.

11.14.Does not the Spirit teach you that if a man has an impure spirit, it is condemnation to him,

11.15.but that if a woman has a pure Spirit it is her glory? .

11.16. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice."

This whole passage was originally about prayer. It had nothing to do with long hair or head covering. It has been edited.

Geoff Hudson said...

And about women praying.

PAULYR said...

Don't kid yourself, Prof. DeConick,
male domination of the female among humans is not based on the Bible, nor does it continue to exist in Western societies because of the Bible, though I admit the Bible may foster such an attitude. The Bible reflects, as you know, already existing social realities. If men dominate women in many areas of social life, even today in the 21st century, it's because of the basic difference in strength, physical power, between the sexes.

Scott Bailey said...

Perhaps, a bit of a straw woman with your argument...

Kristen said...

I think the Bible's supposed support for ongoing patriarchy is a result of a combination of faulty translation and historically/culturally near-sighted exegesis. When we look at what the Bible says with a view to the changes it was advocating in the cultures in which the various books were written, we get a very different picture.

The Rev. Mr. David Gillespie said...

Very well reasoned and written and in need of being read by many folks!

Biblioblog Top 50 said...

Excellent. And we agree wholeheartedly. As JK wrote, please keep writing more now that you've got some fire in your belly.

David said...

In your post, you seem to be mistaking the viewpoint of the Bible with the viewpoint of Late Middle Ages Roman Catholicism. Although the view of the latter has become ingrained in the Western mind as one and the same with the Bible, it is not.

Vinny said...

I think that Paul considered women to be second class citizens. Of course, that was progress since they were often considered mere chattel in the Old Testament.

It is a classic case of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle at work. The church was so focused on where Paul was that it never observed the direction in which he was moving.

Kristen said...

Paul lived in a world where women were second class citizens, chattel, you name it. But throughout his letters specific women are mentioned who worked closely with him, whom he referred to as his "co-workers," even one of them as "outstanding among the apostles." He asked the churches to "help these women in whatever they need." He said that in Christ there was "neither. . . male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus."

At the same time, in the spirit of what he called "being all things to all people, that I might by any means save some," his letters contain statements that are intended to help the church work within, not against, the culture in which it found itself (see for instance Titus 2:5, where he makes it clear that the reason for his exhortations to women is "that the word of God [the gospel] may not be hindered."

I firmly believe that it's very important to take off our 21st-century glasses when looking at Paul and his teachings, and look through the eyes of that culture, at that time-- in order to understand how his words were meant, and how they would have been understood, by his original audience. To do otherwise is to see sexism and misogyny where he was practicing and teaching something very different.

David said...

Thank you, Kristen, for correcting Vinny's false assumptions. It should also be added that a common error, and that which much modern feminism is based upon, is that different necessarily implies unequal. St. Paul, and, for that matter, all of the early Church Fathers, make clear that women are equal to men, but that men and women are different. Paul's letters are often quoted out of context both to justify the perverted extreme patriarchal worldview of the West in the Middle Ages and to accuse him of sexism. Both approaches are incorrect and reflect an attempt to cast 21st century mores and concepts on to people of the 1st and 2nd centuries. All of the hubbub in modern Biblical "scholarship" about the story of St. Thecla and about some imaginary station of women in the early Church are all a product of this backwards view of history.

Kristen said...

Agreed, David-- as long as we don't go so far as to say that the Bible prescribes, rather than simply reflecting, certain fixed roles for men and women. The Bible consistently, both in Old and New Testaments, shows women breaking out of traditional roles with the sanction of God (ie., Deborah, Huldah, Junia, Phoebe, Priscilla, and even Ruth). Men are not created to lead women, and women are not created to follow men. When people turn "different but equal" into THAT-- there I draw the line.

David said...


Entirely agreed. One woman who comes to mind in particular in this regard is St. Nina, called, in the Orthodox Church, "Equal to the Apostles," who brought Christianity to the country of Georgia in the early 4th century. Women have always held very important and honored traditions in Christianity; the greatest of the saints, the Theotokos and Virgin Mary, is, of course, a woman. Knowing all of this, I'm sure you can understand why the common assumption that Christianity is equivalent to the uber-patriarchal heresies of the Late Middle Ages makes me feel a little queasy and, even more, a little frustrated.

Pastor Bob said...


I agree about mistranslations. One I learned about in seminary was that the word used in Genesis 3 that is translated "labor" when Adam is condemned to grow food through labor is the same word used about Eve having children. It is often translated "pain" for Eve although it is the word labor.

Curious how culture effects translation, isn't it?

Vinny said...

Kristen and David,

I was trying to give Paul credit for the progress he made. I just wish the church had kept the trend going.

David said...


Understood; I don't see how the Church in any stopped, much less reversed (as some here would have it), the "progress" (I don't much like the word in this context) that St. Paul introduced. I don't see any difference between the place of women in the Church during St. Paul's time and the place of women in the Church today. The office of deaconess was discontinued in most place by about the year 1000, but this was not out of any kind of sexism, but because the office was no longer necessary. Deaconesses were not female equivalents to deacons (the early texts which actually describe the office make this clear); it may not have even been considered an "ordination" in the way we think of that word today. Deaconesses served in a cultural setting in which a male and a female alone would arouse some pretty awful suspicions; for this reason, they stood in on the confessions of female penitents. They also baptized (or assisted in the baptism of) adult females (keep in mind that baptism was generally done in the nude, whether adult or infant). I think the only Church that still retains this office today is the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which makes sense since their cultural mores continue to dictate this. Our cultural mores no longer do, for the most part. To end my long digression, I'll assert again that, outside of the dying away of this particular office, I don't see how the Church has abandoned St. Paul's relatively "progressive" thoughts regarding women.

Kristen said...

Now I agree with Vinny. *grin*
Paul was following the Holy Spirit in letting God move women into ministry as his "co-workers" (the same word he used of Appollos). He who became "all things to all people" -- speaking of Paul's sensitivity to the cultures of the times-- surely never intended the Church to stick to first-century cultural norms, even when those norms hinder, rather than helping, reception of the Gospel. His injunction "let a woman learn" was radical for its time-- that he would then place an injunction in the same sentence, on the same unlearned women teaching, is not surprising. What would be surprising would be if his intention was that a woman was always to be in the role of learner and never to be considered to have learned enough to teach.

Did Paul intend his practical ideas for church function in his day, to become Law? The Old Testament never restricted women teaching-- does the New Testament, in which we "walk in the Spirit and are not under law" add new external laws for us to follow forever?

In that case, why don't we follow his other injunctions in the same passage? Do men always lift their hands when they pray? Do women refrain from wearing gold jewelry or expensive clothing to church? Why is only one part of the passage still for today, while the others no longer apply? Doesn't the fact that women are now just as educated as men, mean anything? I think that for Paul, it certainly would!

Geoff Hudson said...

"1 Cor.11.5.And every woman who prays with her head uncovered dishonours her head - it is just as though her head were shaved.
11.6. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head.
11.7.A man ought not to cover his head since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man.
11.8.For man did not come from woman, but women from man.
11.9.neither was man created for woman, but women for man.
11.10.The woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head."

As well as being wrong, every line demeans women. No passage has done more harm to women than this. This was the editor in his true colours. It is too late in the day to point out that this passage was not a part of the original text. The damage has been done. It was an interpolation. Read it slowly.

The passage was added to an original that was about praying in the Spirit. Since all spirits come from God, both men's and women's, they have equal rights to pray. There is no difference as far as God was concerned between men and women.

Geoff Hudson said...

Similarly, the passage in 1 Cor.11 about the Lord's Supper was also an interpolation built out of not "waiting" (1 Cor.11:21) for the Spirit. It originally had nothing to do with eating and not waiting for anybody else. It was about orderly conduct in prayer.

Geoff Hudson said...

For example, "One remains hungry, another gets drunk" (extant 1 Cor.11.21) was changed from the original "one remains standing, while another gets up". They prayed while standing.

Vinny said...

I don't see any difference between the place of women in the Church during St. Paul's time and the place of women in the Church today.

That’s exactly the problem. Had the progress continued, the status of women would have continued to improve. There would not still be debates over whether women should be allowed to teach in seminaries.

David said...


I didn't realize that there were such ridiculous debates. Understand I'm coming from a very different world (Eastern Orthodox Christianity) than that of Protestants and Roman Catholics.

Vinny said...


Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth fired a female professor a couple years back because it didn't believe women should teach men theology or biblical languages.

Aaron said...

Geoff Hudson;

If you were wrong, how would you find out?

Geoff Hudson said...

If I was right, how would I prove it? You have to become a detective, and weigh the evidence. The New Testament and the writings attributed to Josephus were all edited and expanded by Flavian historians (the winners) post the war. It was really a phoney war as far as Vespasian was concerned. He never went to Gallilee. Nero had fought a short war using Masada as his base, and defeated the priests in the space of about 6 months. Then he went on his holidays to celebrate his victory in Greece. The period of the 'revolt' was really a time of peace for the prophets and their followers.

Vespasian merely waited for the dust to die down after the deaths of Nero, Galba, Otho and Vitellius, and then on gaining power he ordered his son to ransack the sanctuary for its gold and treasure which he used, among other things, to build various structures in Rome. The attack on the sanctury must have been slow and methodical - peeling gold from the sanctuary doors was a slow process, for example. The history was not what it was made out to be. But Josephus was really Nero's historian. The Flavian historians edited his works. The marks of editing are fairly plain to see.

Notes from an Agnostic said...

That the bible contributes to the inequality of the sexes is correct. But what is Christianity without a sacred text? Can it exhist?

What is required is an adequate definition of 'equality of the sexes'. Equality is not identity. Women are not men. Must women be equal to men in all things? This is PC nonsense. Of course systematic discrimination must be erradicated. This on it own will not bring about equality. Equality is a political project. What needs to be articulated is what women want. No definition, no solution.

Getting rid of that archaic religious text is a good start. Follow your liberal instincts - you will get there. You may even save Christianity.