In his new book, The Word According to Eve, Cullen Murphy explores the revolutionary implications of feminism's encounter with religion
"The Bible is famous for being the world's most overstudied book," Cullen Murphy writes in the foreword to The Word According to Eve: Women and the Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own. "Overstudied by male scholars and commentators, that is to say." Dramatic changes are now taking place in biblical studies, however: during the past twenty-five years or so a rapidly growing number of feminist scholars have moved into the field. The Word According to Eve is an introduction to much of what has emerged in this early stage of feminism's encounter with the Bible, including revisionist studies of the roles women played in early Christianity (women were much more active than traditionalists would have us believe), examinations of mistranslations that have ossified and become dogma (the Hebrew source of the word "virgin" in the story of Jesus' birth, for example, may have only meant "young woman"), and much more. In the short term, Murphy notes, the feminist study of the Bible has led to "discomfort and uncertainty, and a cacophony of agendas, and a sometimes acrimonious rethinking of yesterday and today." This debate is often dismissed by commentators as meaningless and purely academic, but Murphy's underlying point in The Word According to Eve is that women's involvement in biblical studies is likely to lead to an unprecedented religious, cultural, and intellectual revitalization. "Perhaps the most important lesson offered by the work of feminist biblical scholars comes in the form of a reminder," Murphy concludes. "In religion, as in other spheres, circumstances have not always been as we see them now. Evolution occurs. Some things, it turns out, are not sacred."
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From the archives:
A lecture given at Saint Ambrose University, in Davenport, Iowa.
Murphy has for well over a decade been covering religious issues for The
Atlantic Monthly, where he is the managing editor, but his interests range
over much wider terrain -- as his collection of essays, Just Curious
(1995), his first book, Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage (1992), and
his regular contributions to The Atlantic make abundantly clear.
There's more: Murphy also writes a monthly column on language, "The Good Word," for the online magazine Slate, and has, since 1979, been writing
the comic strip Prince Valiant (which also happens to be illustrated by
his father, John Murphy). He lives outside of Boston with his wife and three
Murphy spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound's Toby Lester.
A combination of things. Personally, I come from a family that has always taken a broad interest in religion. Also, among my friends and relatives are women for whom some aspects of religion, particularly attitudes toward gender, came to loom as a painful obstacle -- for instance, an obstacle to ordination. As a journalist, I've been interested in the story of what is happening as women seek to acquire greater and greater roles in organized religion, and greater and greater influence in the study of religion -- that story, I am convinced, will come to be regarded as one of the most important of our time, even if it is not recognized as such today. The part that I chose to write about -- scholarship about the Bible by feminists -- is one key element of this larger transformation, and it hadn't been addressed in a journalistic survey for the general reader.
Is it odd that a man should write this book?
The only reason that a book like this could be written by anyone is that during the past two or three decades scores of women have already written hundreds of much more focused studies on women and the Bible. It is on this work that my own book rests. I wondered when I first started out whether, as a man, I would be greeted with suspicion by the feminist scholars I wanted to talk to. I never was. If anything, they may have been intrigued to discover that their work might be as interesting to men as it is to women. And I do think it is -- or ought to be.
One of the main points of your book is that women are staking out turf for themselves in religions that have, at least for the past fifteen hundred years or so, been dominated by men. What sorts of changes might scholarship by women and women's growing official influence in Judaism and Christianity bring about?
The impact will be considerable -- although it will not always come, or even mostly come, in a linear, direct way. In some cases the impact is straightforward: the evidence about the equal role played by women in the ministry of the early Christian church is persuasive, for example, and will ultimately change people's minds with respect to contemporary debates on ordination. The larger impact will be harder to pin down -- almost a matter of psychology, but no less real -- and it will occur as scholarship begins to infuse the broader culture, as some kinds of scholarship does do. And it will begin to occur as more and more women achieve prominence within religion.
Imagine a future in which the story of the Creation is always told in the biblical scholar Phyllis Trible's way -- men and women created in equality. In which the story of Adam and Eve and the Serpent is always told in a pre-Augustinian manner -- as a parable of moral freedom, not as the founding myth of feminine duplicity. In which the figure of God is portrayed just as often using the feminine imagery of Wisdom as it is using the masculine imagery of Father. In which the first passage from Paul that comes to mind is not the passage from Ephesians, about wives submitting to their husbands, but the passage from Galatians, about there being no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female, for all are one.
Well, that world is coming.
What is the Bible's message to women and men about gender?
In her preface to The Woman's Bible Elizabeth Cady Stanton gave a brisk, and damning, answer to this question: "The Bible teaches that woman brought sin and death into the world, that she precipitated the fall of the race, that she was arraigned before the judgment seat of Heaven, tried, condemned and sentenced. Marriage for her was to be a condition of bondage, maternity a period of suffering and anguish, and in silence and subjection, she was to play the role of a dependent on man's bounty for all her material wants." The Bible has obviously been interpreted and used this way, and many people would simply wash their hands of it entirely. One also can't argue with the fact that the Bible depicts societies in which women were subordinate to men. And yet it's also true, as Tikva Frymer-Kensy and others have pointed out, that this same Bible offers a radical new view: unlike other ancient sacred literature, the Bible divides neither divine nature nor human nature along gender lines. It does not give "fertility," say, to women, while giving the elements or the heavens to men. There are no male or female attributes. There is no "battle of the sexes." There is no sacralizing of masculinity or femininity. Women are capable of doing everything men can do.
Some feminists who are reluctant to let go of the Bible, despite what they see as its profound problems for women, bring up a larger issue: What is the Bible about, they ask. Is it about the purity regulations in Leviticus? Is it about the negative stereotypes that have built up around characters like Jezebel and Delilah? Is it about Paul's teaching in Corinthians that women should not speak in church, or his teaching in Ephesians that women should submit to their husbands? Are these things the Bible's point? Or is it, rather, the record of a people arguing with itself, and sometimes contradicting itself, over enduring questions? Is the Bible's point, rather, to tell a story of unfolding liberation?
Who are your favorite women in the Bible?
I would begin at the beginning -- with Eve. Eve is mentioned by name only twice in Genesis (to this day, if you look up "Eve" in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, you will find only the editorial instruction, "See Adam and Eve"), and yet it is Eve's sensibility that most readers are naturally drawn to. Indeed, Adam scarcely has a sensibility at all, whereas Eve is curious and thirsts for knowledge and is prepared to take action.
Miriam is a provocative figure. It is only her fast thinking that saves the life of Moses in the bulrushes, though we don't even learn her name until much later. With her brothers Moses and Aaron she leads the Israelites out of Egypt, and watches from the shore as the waters of the Red Sea close in upon Pharaoh and his army. And then Miriam has a victory song snatched from her lips by the Bible's editors, some scholars say, and given to Moses. After that she is essentially evicted from the Israelite leadership in circumstances of great ignominy, when she asks a question that can almost stand as an epigraph to biblical studies by women: "Does the Lord speak only through Moses?" Nevertheless, despite her experience, the memory of Miriam cannot be suppressed. Her name is the one that gives us "Mary." Popular will is more powerful than the red pencil of the biblical editors.
I have always been drawn to the courage of the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark. She asks Jesus to cast out a demon from her daughter, and Jesus gives her a fairly tart brush-off, implying that because she is a gentile he has more important concerns. She replies, "Sire, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs" -- a retort that, by throwing what seems to be small-mindedness back at Jesus, is in effect a rebuke. Does Jesus feel the sting? He certainly is brought up short, and relents.
And then there is Balaam's ass, in the Book of Numbers, who keeps turning away from a certain path even though the seer Balaam whips the poor beast repeatedly. It turns out that the angel of death had been lying in wait, and that the ass saved Balaam's life. It was Elizabeth Cady Stanton who pointed out that Balaam's ass is a "she."
Who are your least favorite women in the Bible?
I'd prefer to talk about my least favorite stories about women. There certainly is no lack of women who are cruelly mistreated in the Bible -- the unnamed concubine in Judges, who is raped and dismembered. Tamar, the daughter of David, who is raped by Amnon. The daughter of Jephthah -- sacrificed by her father as the price of a military victory, and not even given the dignity of a name. The story of Hagar is among the most haunting in the Bible, to my mind -- she is the slave woman who bears a child by Abraham, because Sarah cannot conceive. But when Sarah at last conceives, Hagar and her son Ishmael are cast out into the desert. Yet she is the first woman in Scripture to whom God speaks directly.
Some of the "mistreated" women in the Bible have been mistreated as much by interpretation as anything else. The case of Delilah is instructive. We have an image of Delilah -- Hedy Lamarr, say, playing opposite Victor Mature -- as an evil temptress, a brazen sexpot, although the Bible is actually quite laconic in its description of her, and in truth it is men who are orchestrating the plot against Samson, not Delilah. In any event Delilah's wiles, such as they are, are in the service of her people -- she is doing nothing that Judith does not also do. And yet Judith -- the one person in the Bible who actually prays to God to help her to commit a sin, in the form of a lie -- is a hero. Delilah is a cardboard symbol of the lethal seductress.
How do women scholars view the Bible differently from men?
The biggest difference is the decision to look at women in the Bible, and to look at the way the Bible treats women, in the first place. Women and issues of gender have not been much on the minds of biblical scholars these past few centuries, to put it mildly. That has now changed, forever. Of course, the Bible is an androcentric collection of writings to begin with -- only about 150 of the 1400 named people in the Hebrew Bible are women. The proportion is a little higher in the New Testament, but still small. And yet this represents a vast amount of terrain that had been only cursorily explored. Who were all these women? And what about all the other women, mentioned but not named? What kinds of societies did they really inhabit? What kind of authority did they really wield?
What do we know today, as a result of feminist biblical scholarship, that we didn't know twenty years ago?
One thing that has been achieved is simply the greater awareness of women's subsidiary status in the Bible -- legally, socially, and numerically. The prominence of some women, such as Miriam and Mary Magdalene, seems to have been downplayed by an editorial hand.
We also have a better sense of how and why certain episodes -- from Adam and Eve, to Samson and Delilah, to the Corinthian women in Paul -- came to be given the anti-female interpretation they were given, and how other interpretations are not only justified but may even have long precedent.
There is a much better understanding of the diversity of religion in ancient Jewish and Christian life -- and of the roles played by women in community leadership, although the memory of those roles has been largely suppressed. There is also a much better picture of how biblical societies actually functioned, and how reality for women might sometimes depart from the picture painted in the Bible -- or is reflected in hints in the Bible that we have failed to pick up on. How did women function economically? In the transmission of culture? Parts of a lost history of women are beginning to be reclaimed.
From the archives:
Scholars are still laboring to produce a contemporary English version of God's Holy Word.
There is a better sense of how inaccuracies in translation have often covered
up feminine language and imagery. Just as important, there is a greater
appreciation of how a female "voice" emerges in certain kinds of poetry and
chants and prophecy. At the same time, egalitarian themes, whether in Genesis
or the Jesus movement, have achieved new emphasis.|
A final achievement is that the issue of women and the Bible is now a permanent part of the larger biblical conversation.
You quote David Tracy, a prominent Catholic theologian, as saying that the result of feminism's encounter with religion will be "the next intellectual revolution." Is this encounter more dramatic than feminism's encounter with any number of other disciplines or cultural attitudes?
It probably will be more dramatic. Most academic disciplines don't come with an element of public "praxis," to use a jargon term. You can be a feminist professor of chemistry or a feminist professor of English or history, but this doesn't necessarily have vast consequences outside one's immediate circle. Religion, in contrast -- especially religion with a strong reformist bent -- demands to be reflected in behavior, and in public avowals. Let's face it: religion can be a powerful force. Harnessing feminism to religion will cut a broader swath in the world than harnessing it to the local university's Department of Semiotics.
Women are currently forbidden to enter the ministry in some eighty Christian denominations, but many of the scholars whose work you discuss in your book seem to be unearthing evidence that women played a crucial role in disseminating and administering early Christianity. Will such discoveries ever lead to, as you put it, "a feminization of the pulpit"?
Inevitably, yes. Indeed, it is already happening, although the numbers are hard to come by -- there are just too many denominations, all with different bookeeping procedures. But there are probably about 50,000 ordained women now serving in Jewish and Christian ministry. Divinity-school student bodies are at least a third female, and some of the most prestigious schools are more than 50 percent female. All the significant pressures are pushing in the same direction: the social and demographic forces, the findings of scholarship. In the Catholic Church the recent harsh pronouncements from the Vatican against the ordination of women are, I think, basically a sign of weakness.
You devote a whole chapter to the question, "Was Jesus a Feminist?" Some of the scholars you profile feel he had feminist principles explicitly in mind; others argue he preached a broad egalitarian message that was implicitly feminist. Many critics, however, feel that Jesus is currently being co-opted by anybody and everybody with a politically correct agenda. What's your take on Jesus' feminism?
From the archives:
A group of scholars looking for the "real" Jesus -- the human figure divested of theological raiment -- believe that they have found him in Q, a primitive text whose very existence, let alone content, remains a matter of speculation. Who is the Jesus they discover? And do their investigations represent a painstaking breakthrough or a case of ingenious folly?
The study of Jesus has been an extraordinarily active enterprise in recent decades. Though rooted in the past, it is among the least antiquarian of historical or theological pursuits.
Although I call one chapter "Was Jesus a Feminist?" the question --
which often comes up -- can't really be answered in the way it is asked. Was
Jesus a feminist in the way that term is now understood? Did he know he was,
and intend to be, a feminist? On the one hand, the answers to those questions
probably have to be No and No. On the other hand, an egalitarian ethic lies at
the heart of his teachings and in some fashion survived into the early church.
This question about Jesus often gives rise to some heat. To play up the egalitarianism of the Jesus movement is sometimes seen as implying a contrast with the norms of first-century Judaism. Or the contrast may not be implied but asserted explicitly. As Judith Plaskow has pointed out, Christian feminism can easily become an unwitting form of anti-Judaism. In any event, as many scholars note, that contrast is at the very least simplistic. First-century Judaism, on which women are focusing more attention, was itself very diverse, and very far-flung, and very hard to generalize about.
The United States, you write, is the most religious nation in the developed world. How then do you explain the fact that the media devote so few reporters and resources to covering the religious beat?
The explanation isn't very complicated. First, most people in journalism don't have active religious backgrounds, and most people in journalism are living in urban areas, where it's easy to miss the way religion is woven into the texture of American life. Second, most news stories require a solid peg or a template of conflict -- why else would the stories be "news"? But the ordinary practice of religion doesn't have a peg or a template of conflict. No one says on CNN: "Our top story tonight -- 80 million Americans attended religious services this weekend." But that's what does happen every weekend.
What are your own religious convictions?
I should say at the outset that although my book is about religion, it is not a "religious" book -- and I tried to write it for an audience that I presumed to be diverse in its attitudes toward religious questions. Certainly the attitude of the scholars themselves is diverse. For some, religion and the Bible are merely compelling objects of study, important because they speak to aspects of social reality and human history. For others, profound questions of personal belief are involved. In any event, the short answer to the question is that I am a Catholic.
If tomorrow you had to deliver a general "State of Christianity" address to the world, what would you say?
Actually, I would duck the invitation altogether -- probably with words like "judge not, and ye shall not be judged."
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Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Murphy photograph © Martin Cornel.