The Positive Portrayal of Women in the Bible
One of the reasons I trust the unique inspiration of the Bible is because of what it says about women, or, more to the point, what it doesn’t say about women. The Bible never says that women as a group are unintelligent, gullible, deceptive, difficult, emotional, sexually wanton, temptresses, evil, or inferior to men. In fact, it says a lot of good things about women.
In the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, many women are described as beautiful, intelligent, courageous, resourceful and enterprising. And some Bible women functioned as prophets, teachers, advisers, leaders and deliverers.
In the New Testament, we read that the Saviour, the Son of God, came into the world through the body of a woman. Amazing! And the first person to see the resurrected Jesus, at the beginning of the New Covenant era, was a woman, Mary Magdalene.
There is no story in the Gospels of a woman opposing Jesus. Rather, they show that many women were faithful and devoted to Jesus. Many even travelled with him and supported his ministry with their own money. In the Pauline letters, several women are mentioned as being ministers and as colleagues of the apostle Paul.
Women and Patriarchy
This positive portrayal of women in the scriptures is remarkable considering the patriarchal setting of the Bible and its androcentric writing.
Hanna Tervanotko comments on this androcentricity.
It has been recognized for a long time that ancient literature is not value neutral. It reflects the ideas of its own time and its voice belongs to the people of its time. The Hebrew Bible has been described as a “men’s book.” It was written by an “urban elite of male religious specialists.” [Phyllis Bird 1997: 53] Therefore, various texts of the Hebrew Bible reflect these selected men’s interests and manly language. Traditionally this was accepted without much criticism. It was accepted that women were given less importance in religious and historical texts and hence also in the Hebrew Bible.
As well as a predominately male viewpoint in the Bible, we see that women, in general, did not have the same social freedoms as men because of the pervasive patriarchal culture. And there are some horror stories in the Hebrew Bible that involve the unjust and despicable treatment of certain women. The biblical narratives, however, are not part of teaching or Law, and the injustices and atrocities are not condoned.
Truths and principles can be drawn from Bible narratives but we must make a distinction between descriptive and prescriptive texts. However, even the laws in the Hebrew Bible must be read as regulating against the worst excesses of slavery, patriarchy, polygamy, warfare, etc—features of a fallen world—but not as endorsing these practices. Between the Fall and Pentecost, there is little evidence of equality or mutuality between the sexes. Nevertheless, the female sex are never disparaged.
The Negative Portrayal of Women by Non-Biblical Authors
In contrast to the Bible’s portrayal of women, as soon as you step outside of the canon of Protestant Scripture there are terrible generalisations written about women. Some of these terrible things are even taught by Jewish and Christian writers and philosophers.
Ben Sirach, a Jew writing in the second century BC, wrote in his apocryphal work Ecclesiasticus that a good wife is a silent wife and that all women have a disposition of sexual wantonness (Sirach 25:13-25; 26:13-16; 42:9-11, 12-14). “He maintained that women in general constitute a threat to the dignity and well-being of men and that the most dangerous threat comes from a man’s own daughter.” (“Women in Second Temple Judaism” in The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism.)
An unknown Jewish writer, also writing in the second century BC, claims that “Women are evil … treacherous … lustful …” (Testament of Reuben 2:13-16)
The Jewish philosopher Philo, writing in the first century AD, “accepted the Aristotelian judgment that the female is, in and of herself, inferior to the male. He used this to explain the biblical narratives allegorically. The women of the Bible [he thought] represent inferior aspects of a person’s psyche, namely the senses, while the male figures represent the superior mind. The creation of woman, for example, is explained as a corruption of the mind by the senses (Opificio Mundi 59).” (“Women in Second Temple Judaism” in The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism.)
Tertullian, an early Christian theologian writing in the late second to early third centuries AD, called women “the devil’s gateway.” He had the opinion that all women are guilty of the Fall, and that women are especially guilty of Jesus’ death. (On the Apparel of Women, chapter 1)
Sadly, there are still more examples of overt and destructive misogynistic teaching by Jewish and Christian writers in works not considered Holy Writ by Protestants.
The Inspiration of the Holy Spirit
The biblical writings are androcentric because they were written by men in the patriarchal culture of the Ancient Near East and Greco-Roman world. Patriarchy is not God’s ideal, yet he used people within that culture and setting to tell his story. The Bible, however, was also inspired by the Holy Spirit and so there is none of the harsh and crushing misogynist generalisations that are present in extra-biblical or apocryphal writings.
Let me reiterate: The Bible never says that women are unintelligent, gullible, deceptive, difficult, emotional, sexually wanton, temptresses, evil, or inferior to men.
The main message of gender in the Bible, pre-Fall and post-Pentecost, is that women and men are equal and compatible, and both have been made in the image of God. Women are in no way inferior, less competent, or less valuable than men. This message reveals the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This message of genuine equality and mutuality between men and women is the message that the Church should be sharing and promoting among its people and in the world. This is the message that I am sharing.
 Hanna K. Tervanotko, Denying Her Voice: The Figure of Miriam in Ancient Jewish Literature (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2016), 21-22. (Google Books)
 If you have a misogynistic quotation from a Jewish or early Christian author, etc, please let me know. Here are some from early church fathers and reformers.
© Margaret Mowczko 2012
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Postscript: May 6th, 2013
Wendy Alsup has done a good job of looking at the context of a few of the more unpleasant Old Testament passages concerning women here.
“A woman in Bible times …” (79916) by Pearl via Lightstock
4 Obscure OT Verses Sometimes Used to Diminish Women
Periods of Purification after Childbirth: Leviticus 12:1-8
Bible Women with Spiritual Authority
Beauty, Marriage, Motherhood, and Ministry
Partnering Together: Paul’s Female Coworkers
The Twelve Apostles were All Male
The Holy Spirit and Equality in the Book of Acts
Misogynistic Quotations from Church Fathers and Reformers