Has the “biblical” deck been stacked against women?

Conspiracy theories are heavy on intrigue and light on facts. I love intrigue and speculation. My husband has been my counterbalance, because he hates both. He is Mr. Rational to my Mrs. Conjecture. So, I’ve been ambivalent about posting this question, because it smacks of conspiracy. And Mr. Rational has trained me to suspect those.

So, lets look at the facts. Then, I’ll speculate on the intrigue.

Is our understanding of Scripture on gender skewed because historically, interpretation and commentary has  been written by men?

Again, my disclaimer: Neither gender is superior to the other; God judges character – heart motivation evidenced (to us) by persistent behavior.

By questioning the history of traditional Bible interpretations favoring men does not mean women would have done a better job than men. But, women would have brought different arguments to the gender discourse because they would also have been vested in the outcome. Instead, the men had no checks and balance by a female “opponent” when it came to questionable translation or interpretation. The school of Biblical study through the years (until the last century) has been dominated by men. Naturally, a one-sided bias would emerge.

Historically, why haven’t women contributed to Bible interpretation?

  • Education.  Throughout history, men have been educated in greater numbers than the women. This led to more men having the ability to read and comment on Scripture.
  • Priority. Throughout history, women have cared for the home and family; not necessarily because of sexism, but to survive. A woman simply had no time to spend in prolonged study, even if she had an education to wield. Women had to care for the children, a 24 -7 job that had no time off. Without a woman, a house would have no regular meals, no water, no basic necessities of life. The Mosaic law did not require women to fulfill a set of worship laws due to these reasons. She was needed more at home , since home and family(without all the modern conveniences) would die without her.
  • Might makes right. Men are physically stronger than women. They can physically do battle to achieve their desire, and squelch those who thwart them. Women war with words and subtlety, a weak substitute in the previous cultures of violence. It is common knowledge that the majority of societies valued women as inferior to men. Threats of harm kept women in their proper place.
  • Prejudice. Throughout history, men have not allowed women to expound on Scripture to men. So, even if a woman overcame the odds to become a scholar, no man would listen.  Even today, women who propose various translations or interpretations  are accused by some as either usurping her place, a rebel; or sadly deceived into disregarding the “clear” word of God. So they are censored by being villainized or marginalized.
  • The winner writes history.  If you’ve taken an advanced history class, this is one principle you have heard. The winner of a war writes the history books; which means the loser’s story is lost. We can only study the view of the winner. The view of the loser is silenced. We have little historical documentation from a woman’s point of view.
  • Elusive Objectivity. Another related principle is that there is no such thing as objectivity. A history student learns to take the author into account as she studies the historical record.  Because, it is the natural course of humans to imprint their viewpoint on everything.  If you are the one with the power, or the one who survives, or the one with the ability to record information, you will transcribe according to your self-interest. True objectivity is rare and hard to achieve. A man would have to first realize his tendency toward bias, then secondly want to overcome it. Historically, because of the rampant belief that women were inferior, this would be an absurdity.

Historically, has there been a tendency for male scholars to adjust Bible teaching to favor men?

Here is where I must enter the realm of speculation.  An in-depth look at this subject would make for marathon-like study. Alas, I have just decided to run. So, indulge me as I tickle your brains with two examples that lead me to suspect an affirmative answer to my question. These examples are from God’s Word to Women, by Katharine Bushnell.

Luther once said: “No gown worse becomes a woman than to be wise.” Luther only held the prevailing views of his day as regards women. Such men could not easily perceive when Scripture expressed a different thought on the subject. Proverbs 14:1 says, in Hebrew, “The wisdom of woman buildeth her house,” but not being able to appreciate the advantages of female education, men rendered it: “Every wise woman buildeth her house,” that is, the woman who devotes herself to housewifely duties is pronounced “wise.” But this is not the thought; rather, wisdom itself, in woman, will build her own (not her husband’s) house- elevate her to a place of honor. Every time there has been an opportunity for the use of option in translation, use has been made of that option, by this or that man of learning, to build up one sex and to depreciate the other, and so the result, through the ages, has been cumulative, and that without actual intention. (Katharine Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, para 619.)

More hints of gender bias can be found in a favored reference to women: “A virtuous woman, who can find? Her worth is more than rubies.” The Hebrew word that has been translated virtuous is chayil. It doesn’t mean pure or chaste, which is what you’d think by reading the English translation. It means strength, might, efficiency, wealth and army.  It’s sense is a display of valor, especially in warlike situations. It is a manly word. Elsewhere it is translated with variations of army, man of valor, riches, and power.  But in the three instances in Proverbs where it is used to describe a woman, most English translations deny the true meaning and alter its strength. Why? Try replacing virtuous with any of the true meanings. The implications might be hard for some men to swallow. A strong, efficient and warlike- a- man- of- valor- woman is worth more than rubies?

The Times, they are a changing.

Today, great lengths are being taken to re-evaluate our English translations with regard to gender bias. I applaud this work. I doubt the 2011 NIV will get it all right, but it does offer a course correction to the  prejudices against women of past cultures.

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10 thoughts on “Has the “biblical” deck been stacked against women?

  1. Ha, growing up I was always taught “virtuous” in that passage mean “pure” or “chaste.” (Which, I guess, is what it does mean.) Really sad to be taught that being a woman is about what you don’t do.

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    1. I guess one that comes to mind immediately is in 1 Cor 11:10. The word exousia is translated power, authority, right, or liberty, except in this verse where it refers to the woman’s head. Traditionally, the commentators and translators, not being able to fathom Paul would be telling a woman to choose herself about a headcovering, create a bit of double speak by wording it as a “sign of authority”. Which of course reverses what the Greek actually says.

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  2. This is an excellent response to those who would insist that changing the traditional interpretations in any way is just a “capitulation to modern culture.” It’s actually listening to other voices that have historically been silenced. Some of these issues were actually raised by a contemporary of Martin Luther’s; I think her name was Katherine of something-or-other (sorry; I’ll have to look that up). But other than in a history book specifically dedicated to women in the church (Daughters of the Church by Tucker & Liefield), voices like hers were never unearthed or listened to until recently.

    Of course, the same argument used to be used against those who wanted to stop slavery; that they were simply capitulating to modern culture. Human prejudices and biases are a fact; thus, I don’t see this is as a mere speculation or “conspiracy theory.”

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  3. “Is our understanding of Scripture on gender skewed because historically, interpretation and commentary has been written by men?” -KB

    Totally!

    Here is a link to a man who takes the skew so far as to teach that “Women are not part of the church” based, in part, on his assumption that when an English translation says brothers/brethren it is addressing men exclusively. http://www.bethelministries.com/proof6.htm

    And young ladies visiting church for the first time are turned off by the skew, which is quite obvious, even to a 10 year old child:

    QUOTE Craig Blomberg we had an evangelistic service at our church that included a performance by our children’s choir. At that time my older daughter was ten years old and sang in the choir. She invited an unsaved girlfriend of hers to come, and the girl seemed to enjoy the concert and follow our (now retired) Children’s Ministry Director as she concluded the service with a very tasteful appeal to trust Christ. In so doing, however, she quoted 2 Cor. 5:17 out of the KJV (the translation she had used almost all her life): “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creation; old things are passed away; behold all things are become new.” At that point, my daughter’s friend, who was sitting between my wife and me, leaned over to my wife and asked with disgust, “Does your church always use language like that?” Of course, we could have explained that the term was generic, that even in the NIV which we normally used, “man” and “he” were not present, but the moment of spiritual openness was gone. She knew, from public school upbringing and from common parlance, that such language was neither common nor necessary, and therefore smacked of chauvinism. (source)

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  4. “Historically, has there been a tendency for male scholars to adjust Bible teaching to favor men?
    Here is where I must enter the realm of speculation.” That’s not really speculation. More like a plain fact.

    1. All writers bring in their cultural biases, even anthropologists trained in cross cultural studies.
    2. The church fathers, historians, and theologians lived in male dominated cultures.
    3. Therefore, Christian theology and history has gender biases.

    It’s just a matter of being aware of those biases and correcting them.

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  5. Excellent question and the answer is yes. Thanks for mentioning Bushnell. I highly recommend her studies.

    To give one example why was teshuqa in Gen 3 changed from “turning” to “desire” in the 1300’s by a monk named Pagnini? Until then, it was understood as Eve turning to Adam (insted of to God). Why was that interpretation picked up on from then on?

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  6. Another area is that the same word in the NT letters when used of a man is translated “minister” while of a woman it’s usually something more like “helper.”

    Phoebe is described in Romans 16 as a “diakonos” (deacon) who is a “leader.” But these words are traditionally translated “servant” and “helper.”

    This article explains more:

    http://www.pbpayne.com/?p=501

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