Gender in the Bible
Here I outline three ways in which gender figures into our understanding of the Bible, pertaining to: 1. language about God; 2. social roles; 3. authority structures.
Language about God
Theologians, philosophers, mystics, and ordinary believers alike agree that God (the divine) is beyond words and form. Our language about God is metaphorical and symbolic.
Because God is beyond words and form, theophanies – or appearances of God – in the Bible often take place indirectly. Moses glimpses God indirectly, for example, through a burning bush.
The Gospel of John amplifies the oblique character of divine self-disclosure, asserting that nobody has ever seen God directly. John proclaims that with Jesus Christ, the incarnation of God, God has made God-self known directly, and for the first time, in human form. (John 1:18)
Although God is beyond form, the Bible speaks about God (the divine) as if God were human, relying upon anthropomorphic metaphors in order to convey God’s nature and deeds. By depicting God as “Father,” the Lord’s Prayer, for instance, communicates God’s paternal qualities, as one who protects and cares for us.
But, because God is beyond form and image, such metaphors are not to be taken literally. The divine is not “locked” into the metaphor or form of “father.”
God is elsewhere described in the Bible in feminine terms (Matt 23:37 –God as a mother hen) and by other kinds of metaphors, such as a still small voice (1 Kgs 19:12) or a dove (Mark 1:10//Luke 3:22//John 1:32 – the holy spirit).
For other female metaphors for God (follow the link): female metaphors for God
Masculine Bias in God-Talk
Despite variegated biblical metaphors for God, readers of the Bible throughout history have often given privilege to male metaphors for God. Where the Bible portrays God as a mighty king or judge or warrior, we have pictured God likewise, even locking God into such patriarchal roles. We have confined our notions of the divine accordingly, imagining God by exclusively male images.
If God is routinely and consistently imagined as being male, then we may easily develop the habit of sacralizing the male, since our manner of thinking and imagining shapes our reality. As the feminist theologian Mary Daly put it, provocatively, in a pithy slogan: if God is Male, then Male is God. (See Mary Daly’s classic work here: Beyond God the Father).
How then shall we appreciate our metaphors for God without getting trapped by these metaphors? How shall we make use of “forms” and images of God while remembering that such forms are merely metaphors for a God who is above and beyond all forms and images?
Gender enters into our interpretation of the Bible not only in virtue of our theological language but also because of social history.
The patriarchal tradition of biblical interpretation has underscored the importance of male leaders, in the Bible, and male saints and holy people.
The Bible reflects the ancient cultures where it had its birth, cultures that were patriarchal to a greater or lesser extent. Some of the biblical authors had patriarchal biases. Yet, despite these biases, it is equally obvious that women play significant roles in the Bible and in sacred history.
The evangelist Luke, for instance, certainly reflects a patriarchal ideology inasmuch as Luke, unlike the other evangelists, specifies being male as a criterion for apostleship. The apostles shall have been eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus and they shall be male (Acts 1:27).
Nevertheless, even by Luke’s account, we can tell that women held leading roles in the early Christian mission, for instance as financial patrons and as leaders of house churches.
The canon of the Bible refers to those texts that have been officially approved by orthodox leaders, of the synagogue or Church, as texts that shall belong to sacred scripture.
Were women authors of the Bible? Take a look at the Book of J, where Harold Bloom speculates about female authorship. Here is a link, too, to an off-site article about female scribes: Ancient Female Scribes (and note that in antiquity, scribes were more like scholars than passive secretaries).
In early Christian literature, the Martrydom of Perpetua and Felicitas is thought to be based on the original prison diaries of Perpetua herself; thus, this work may be the first in early Christianity to be authored by a female. (See: Martrydom of Perpetua and Felicitas)
Other religious texts, of equal antiquity, have been left out of the canon of sacred scriptures, even though these texts may have been viewed as authoritative by certain other (non-orthodox) religious communities in history.
Mary Magdalene plays a key role in all the canonical gospels as the first person to witness the risen Christ (Mark 16:9 and par). A gospel outside of the canon, the Gospel of Mary, elaborates on her apostolic and prophetic-visionary function.
The English version can be found here: Early Christian Writings website
Gender norms, and biases, may have influenced the selection of texts deemed authoritative, i.e. those that were viewed as worthy to belong to the sacred canon of scriptures. In the non-canonical Acts of Paul and Thecla – an early Christian text – Thecla baptizes, performs efficacious prayer for the dead, and preaches – functions that were, elsewhere, denied to women in Christian history. Here is a link to the Acts of Paul and Thecla: Thecla
Here we find evidence of women’s important religious leadership roles in Christian history, whether included inside of sacred canonical scriptures (as in the case of Mary Magdalene) or outside (as in the case of Thecla).
Where does this brief discussion of gender and the Bible leave us?
Given that all language about God is metaphorical and symbolic, we are free to discover unusual metaphors and to invent new symbols for communicating about God.We may acknowledge precedents, in scripture and history, for innovative social roles for both women and men in religious communities. We may recognize the inspired leadership of those who act both inside and outside of the established order and both within and beyond the status-quo.
In this category you will find more articles relating to gender and Christianity.