Gender in the Bible

Ronald L. Ecker

Ancient Israel, like other nations of the ancient Near East, was a patriarchal society, meaning that it was centered around the fathers of families. Descent and inheritance were patrilineal or through the male line. Women in this society had subordinate status, and their principal role was that of childbearing. A daughter was to stay a virgin until married off (she could be stoned to death if she didn't), earning her father a mohar or bride price from the bridegroom's family. Once married, she was considered for all practical purposes to be the property of her husband (Hebrew baal, "lord" or "master"), who was free to have more than one wife--monogamy was the ideal, but there was no set limit--all the more to obey the divine commandment to "Be fruitful, and multiply" (Gen. 1:22,28; 9:1).

Leah and Rachel
Herbert K. Bourne

By New Testament times, a Jewish man was usually the lord or master of only one wife at a time. But the image of woman suffered from the stress that postexilic priests placed on ritual purity, which, to quote Leonie J. Archer, made women, due to the blood of menstruation and childbirth, "unclean for a large part of their lives." Hellenistic Jewish writers began expressing the same contempt for women that made the views of the Greeks on gender, in Giulia Sissa's words, "distinctly unpalatable." Thus the Jewish philosopher Philo (first century B.C.E.) identifies man with mind and reason, and woman with irrationality and the senses. "A silent wife," says the apocryphal Sirach (second century B.C.E.), "is a gift from the Lord" (26:14). The Jewish historian Josephus, a contemporary of Philo, puts it succinctly: "Women are inferior to men in every way" (Against Apion II:201).

The behavior of Jesus Christ toward women--he included them among his disciples (Matt. 27:55-56; Mark 15:40-41; Luke 8:2-3), spoke indiscriminately to women in public (John 4:5-27), and in general treated females as if they were equal to males--was scandalously unconventional. In the Apostle Paul's day women were among leaders of the early Christian community, but leadership roles for women in the church died soon after Paul did.

Gustave Doré

The Apostle, though saying there is "neither male nor female," for all are "one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28), ironically set a standard for the misogyny that would become institutionalized in the church after him, and that would return all women to subordinate status, with his statement (not actually his--Paul is reading the Corinthians' words back to them), "It is good for a man not to touch a woman" (1 Cor. 7:1). Convinced that the world was soon coming to an end, Paul preferred that men and women forget about marriage and its hassles, and thus sexually abstain. (Procreation, in the world's last days, was naturally no longer a concern.) The Apostle nonetheless felt that those who could not contain their desire should marry (1 Cor. 7:9), and that husbands and wives, for fidelity's sake, should have sex on a regular basis (1 Cor. 7:2-5).

What Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza calls the post-Pauline "patriarchalization" of the church is reflected in the subordination of women that is required in the First Letter to Timothy (purportedly written by Paul but, most scholars agree, based on content and style, composed after Paul's death): "Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence" (2:11-12). (Also suspected by scholars to be a later non-Pauline insertion in the First Letter to the Corinthians is the command, "Let your women keep silence in the churches" [1 Cor. 14:34].)

But such subjection, it appears, was not something originally meant to exist between the sexes. As Phyllis Trible and others have pointed out, the Hebrew word ezer applied to the first woman Eve is mistranslated "helper," as the word rather connotes "companion," an equal partner to Adam. Such equality is more explicit in the first Genesis creation account (1:26-27), in which man and woman are created simultaneously ("male and female created he them"). Indeed the Bible makes it clear that the subordination of women is the result of the first couple's disobedience (the eating of forbidden fruit): Yahweh tells Eve that, as part of her share of divine punishment, "thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee" (3:16). Thus the Bible's patriarchal social system, far from being presented as an ideal, is seen as the result of a fall from grace.

Adam and Eve

Gustave Doré

The Christian church, influenced by the same Hellenistic misogyny that helped inspire Josephus, Philo, and such pseudepigraphical works as the Testament of Reuben--"For women are evil, my children" (5:1)--would blame the Fall on Eve: "Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression" (1 Tim. 2:14). ("She gave me of the tree," Adam whines to God, "and I did eat" [Gen. 3:13].) Yet woman can still be saved, the First Letter to Timothy allows, by having man's babies: "she shall be saved in childbearing," as long as she also has "faith and charity" and stays sober (2:15).

Can egalitarian grace be restored? Not in this world, if we are to judge by the pronouncements of Paul, whether Paul actually pronounced them or not. According to Christ, such a blissful time ultimately will come: in the hereafter ("the resurrection"), says Jesus in Luke 20:34-36, there will be no marriages, for men and women alike will be "equal unto the angels."

Gustave Doré


Archer, Leonie J. Her Price Is Beyond Rubies: The Jewish Woman in Graeco-Roman Palestine. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990.

Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schussler. In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. New York: Crossroad, 1983.

Metzger, Bruce M., and Murphy, Roland E., ed. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Sissa, Giulia. "The Sexual Philosophies of Plato and Aristotle" in Pantel, Pauline Schmitt, ed., A History of Women in the West: From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994, pp. 46-81.

Trible, Phyllis. God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978.

And Adam Knew Eve

Copyright 1995, 2001 by Ronald L. Ecker

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