God's Woman Trouble

Pity poor Mary Magdalene. For nearly two millenniums she was loved and honored by Christians as the archetypal reformed sinner. Then, a half-century ago, Biblical scholars recognized that she was a victim of mistaken identity: the "real" Mary of Magdala was not a prostitute. In truth, she was so faithful a follower of Jesus that she was chosen to be the first of his disciples to behold the risen Christ (Jn 20:11-18). Now, at the hands of some feminist revisionists, Mary is undergoing yet another cultural face-lift.

Relying on Gnostic Gospels rejected by compilers of the New Testament, these revisionists claim that Mary was actually Jesus' intimate female partner. After the Resurrection, she became a leader within the early church and a rival of Saint Peter's. All this, they argue in books such as Jane Schaberg's "The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene," was suppressed by patriarchal authorities who favored a males-only clergy. The implication is that gender warfare lies at the heart of Christianity, and if Mary and her faction had triumphed the history and structure of the church would be radically inclusive.

No one, of course, denies that both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures--like the God who rules the Biblical heavens--exhibit an overarching androcentric outlook. Few women are mentioned by name, fewer yet get their stories told. The promise of feminist Biblical scholarship is that it can alter this imbalance by interpreting the Bible from the perspectives of women's experiences. The danger is that feminist ideology will overreach the text.

One important goal set by feminist scholars such as Prof. Carol Meyers of Duke University is to uncover the roles and status of women in ancient Israel. Already, some have found--surprise!--that then, as now, women exerted considerable, sometimes controlling, power within the household, despite an officially patriarchal culture. Others, however, are in quest of a grander holy grail: proof that sometime before the institution of kingship, there was an ideal era when Israelite men and women lived as public equals. But without a lot more archeological evidence, the real world behind much of the Hebrew Bible will never be recovered. "We just don't have the information about some historical periods," acknowledges Susannah Heschel, associate professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth, "so there is a temptation to resort to fantasy."

That temptation especially bedevils those who employ "historical imagination" to fill the Bible's gaps. For instance, the Book of Exodus calls Moses' sister Miriam a "prophet," leading some feminist scholars to imagine that "the party of Moses"--presumably males--suppressed stories of her prophetic acts so that none survived in the written scrolls. But the desire to plug the holes in the Bible is itself gender inclusive. In the first century B.C., male Jewish writers went farther: they created prophecies for Miriam because, like nature, they abhorred vacuums in their sacred texts. "Misrepresenting what the Bible says has a very distinguished history, going back to the third or fourth century B.C.E.," notes Harvard professor James L. Kugel, an expert in the history of Biblical interpretation. "So perhaps we ought not to get too self-conscious about modern feminist distortions."

Every act of reading, of course, involves interpretation. Your Don Quixote or Molly Bloom is not mine because we bring different expectations and experiences to the text. But the Bible presents a particularly difficult world to enter into because it is internally self-referential: the later books of the Hebrew Bible reinterpret passages from the earlier books, just as the New Testament advances reinterpretations of the Old. It is also, in key passages, self-correcting from a gender perspective. Thus, to approach this world as if it were all a patriarchal conspiracy is to miss those texts that reflect a gynocentric point of view. Among the most important for Christians are those Gospel passages in which women--including Mary Magdalene--discover the empty tomb and deliver this good news to Jesus' fearful male Apostles. Even a male reader like myself can't miss the implication: 12 men formed the inner circle of the Jesus movement and got titles to go with that privileged access, but it was women who were rewarded at the Resurrection because they were more faithful to Jesus. So much for patriarchal titles.

Feminists aren't the first to approach the Bible with a political agenda. But it would be exemplary if women were to be the first to check contemporary ideologies at the Bible's door. The plain truth is that the Bible throughout is partisan--mostly concerning Israel. If women see themselves as the Bible's chosen victims, God's chosen people, ironically, have a better case. "Any husband who treated his wife the way God treated Israel," observes Old Testament scholar John Collins of Yale, "his wife would put him in jail."

The test of Biblical scholarship is not how user-friendly it makes the Scriptures to groups that feel neglected. Rather, it is how well it sheds new light on texts that millions hold to be authoritative. My only regret is that women were not permitted to enrich the interpretation process sooner. This may not be Augusta, but welcome to the club.