Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Bible, Jesus and Women

Was Christianity, as presented in the New Testament, an attempt by men to gain control over women? No.

The irony of this question is that one of the most radical things about Jesus was how seriously he took women, and this is evident from the writings contained in the New Testament. Just for some background information, rabbis in Jesus' day generally held women to be extremely inferior to men. One ancient rabbinic saying was that it was better for the Torah to be burned than for it to be taught to a woman.

A rabbinic prayer commonly prayed in Jesus' day started with these words: "Blessed are Thou, oh God, who did not make me a Gentile, a donkey or a woman."

Thee was a group of rabbis who were so devout that not only would they not talk to a woman or teach a woman (because they thought a woman could defile them), they wouldn't even look at a woman. They made a vow that they would go through the rest of their lives without letting their eyes look at a woman. If, out of the corner of their eyes, they saw a woman coming into their line of sight, they would close their eyes until they were sure she was gone. They were always running into trees and buildings, and (I'm not making this up) they were called the "bruised and bleeding" Pharisees.

In light of all this, here is what we read in the Gospel of Luke:

Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve wre with him and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod's household, Susanna; and many others (Luke 8:1-3a).

We tend to read those words and skim over them, completely missing the shock value they would have held for the initial readers. Jesus forms a band of followers, but it's made up of women and men who travel together and study and learn and do ministry together. Do you have any idea how counter-cultural that was in the first century.

Here's how the paragraph ends: These women were helping to support them out of their own means (v. 3b).

Who's paying the bills for this travelling troupe? The women. Even in our enlightened era, you know how sensitive it is when a wife earns more than a husband. Jesus didn't consider this demeaning or threatening; he welcomed it. He was constantly surprising his disciples by the way he would speak with, teach, listen to and be approachable for women. This led to the formation of a community where, as the apostle Paul described: There is now neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

Such a community had never existed before! The Da Vinci Code says that pagan religions (such as those in Rome) gave greater honor to women than Christianity did because they had goddesses as well as gods -- the "sacred feminine."

The reality is that in its early centuries, women flocked to the church. In Rome, when a woman became a widow, if she didn't remarry within two years, she would be viewed as a financial strain and could be penalized for that. In the church, however, being a widow was honored, and the care of widows was a high priority. Historian Robin Fox writes, "It is highly likely that women were a clear majority in the early church."

One early Christian community in Cirta was recently discovered by archaeologists. They found 16 male tunics -- in other words, there were at least 16 men who were part of that early church. But they found 38 veils -- which would have been worn by women obviously. They found 82 women's tunics, 47 pairs of female slippers and six copies of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

I made one of those up, but the rest are all true.

Women found the church to be a place where they could be accepted. And that was rather unique in that time and place.

Part of the irony and hype about whether or not Mary Magdalene was "Mrs. Jesus," is that what gets missed is her extraordinary role in the New Testament. At the foot of the cross, when Jesus is being crucified, according to the Gospels (which were written by men) -- when all the men had run away because they were afraid of what might happen to them if they followed Jesus too closely -- there was a group of women who watched Jesus die. When the apostle John was the only man with enough courage to stay, he stayed with a group of women. Peter wasn't there, but Mary Magdalene was.

Paul writes: If Christ be not raised from the dead, our hope is in vain (1 Corinthians 15:14). In other words, if there is no resurrection, the whole thing is a sham. The resurrection is the hinge point of Christianity, and the first person who sees Jesus is Mary Magdalene. She is the first evangelist -- the apostle to the apostles.

All of this is in the Bible, and yet we're told that the Bible was put together by people who were hostile towards women. A Roman historian named Celsus -- a member of a pagan society that supposedly honored women more because they had both gods and goddesses in their religion -- wrote, "The resurrection rests on tales of hysterical females."

This society that was supposedly so affirming to women (Roman) wouldn't allow them to testify in court. This society that was supposedly hostile towards women (Christianity) had its most essential doctrine rest on the testimony of women.

Contrary to The Da Vinci Code, when the Bible speaks of God as Father, it doesn't mean that God is more like men than he is like women. Does God have a male body? No. Does God like men better than he likes women? No. Does God like action movies better than chick flicks? Yes, of course he does, but that's just good taste! There's no theological significance to that.

The Bible writers are careful to say that God is spirit -- he doesn't have a body that defines gender like we do. The Bible also affirms that women as well as men are equally co-bearers of God's image. Has the church always lined up to this reality? No, many times it has not. But one of the most important things we need to remember is that what we have been told is in the Bible and what is actually in the Bible are often two very different things. Unlike Dan Brown, I am especially interested in what is actually in the Bible.

I am in complete sympathy with those who asssert the church has too often promoted the masculine to the exclusion of the feminine. Many women have been abused; men has misused their authority and put their own agendas first. Women have historically been unfairly discriminated against in churches and in the workplace. Often, the Bible has been twisted and distorted in an attempt to justify such behavior. But this is an important distinction: One has to twist the Scriptures to arrive at such conclusions. The Bible itself does not lead to these ideas.