This article will feature in Issue 38: Language and Culture
The Bible, the true representation of God’s word and will, a book with unparalleled influence on world history that shows no sign of abating, has proved to be one of the largest sources of ethnic, racial, and gendered conflict. Ever since Eve deceived in the Garden of Eden, the Bible has been the chief literary vehicle in the constant oppression of women. The Bible has shaped literature, history, entertainment, and culture more than any book ever written, and it will be shown that through various interpretations and contexts it has been used to oppress women and support patriarchal regimes. These interpretations include the feminist rejection, the Gnostic scripture, the context of time and space, and the normalisation of the male experience.
But first, in case you missed the last two millennia of women’s status as described by the Bible as a second-rate citizen, here’s a brief catch up. The Bible treats women badly: “Wives obey your husbands,” “Let women learn silence in full submission,” and be “Second in nature, first in sin.” A woman’s role is one of subordination, who appears in the Bible out of necessity to the scripture; as a man’s wife, or property, or the bearer of a son. It’s clear from the get-go that Adam was created first and was deceived while Eve fell into sin.
The Bible has inspired some of the greatest moments of humanity but equally has fuelled some of the worst excesses of human savagery, self-interest, and narrow-mindedness, providing ideological material for societies to enslave and abject fellow humans to poverty. The Bible provides religious and moral norms preventing women from playing a full and equal role. Furthermore, religion and the associated scripture can be manipulated to subjugate women. It justifies violations against women and has ever since Eve. Obviously, this is totally unacceptable and frankly not accepted in modern Western societies. Therefore, why is this holy text still one of the most popular and most sold books in the world? The answer is in its interpretation.
If you were to ask your great-grandparents their views on immigration, gender norms, racism etc., you would find a stark change from the liberal viewpoints associated with modern Western society. Why should a book written over two centuries ago be any less shocking? The key is in interpreting the Bible in the context of author instead of the lens of the interpreter. The Bible’s readers understand the text differently due to their own particular circumstances, i.e. gender, location, and race. The birth of Christianity featured vastly different cultures across much of the globe (compared to now) and the Bible was shaped in these contexts. Whoever wrote the scriptures had to reflect societal dynamics and values of the time resulting in the context of who, when, and where being imperative.
Context matters and times change. The Bible is not necessarily an instruction manual on oppression but rather evidence of previous societies. Certain cultures have embraced egalitarianism, and some interpret the Bible in the most abhorrent way possible. Therefore, 21st century readers (generally) interpret the treatment and oppression of women with much disdain. This is in contrast to those of the middle ages, who did not necessarily use the Bible as a tool for control. The Bible mirrored a society that, like your great-grandparents, have aged terribly.
The plain meaning of scripture is very androcentric and oppressive of women. Feminists found evidence that women served and participated in all levels of communal life and attempted to reject it as authoritative. They chose to interpret the Bible knowing the scripture was produced in a patriarchal culture and shaped by the narrator’s perspective. This supports the argument that it is the interpretation that determines what message is taken and used from the Bible. This feminine resistance is one attempt to reclaim the meaning behind God’s message.
The Bible oppresses women through the male experience being the only experience. For centuries the only experiences that have been used to interpret the Bible have been those of men. Because only a man’s experiences are heard, they become the norm, resulting in the elimination of women from biblical studies. The Christian God was a male God who sent a male son, leaving little room for women. This normalised the male experience and shaped the interpretation for millennia, weaving the fabric of the Bible with patriarchy in mind.
Lastly, the Gnostic scriptures present Eve in a different light than that of the Bible. Discovered in the Nag Hammadi Library in 1945, these ancient books depict Eve as superior to Adam, who taught him “the word of knowledge of the internal God.” Eve’s superiority is nowhere more evident than in her role as Adam’s awakener. These Gnostic texts made a valiant attempt to remove the shadow of the Judeo-Christian oppressive version of the creation myth. This Gnostic interpretation fuels the argument that the Bible was simply reflecting patriarchy rather than seeking to oppress. Gnostic texts provide evidence of an interpretation which was lost to time, along with any hope of emancipation, until the 20th century.
For millennia, women have suffered as second-rate citizens. The Bible has been one factor in this and used as an excuse (or as evidence) as to why certain actions are allowed, or to why certain sectors of society can be treated in a certain way. The Bible can be interpreted in several ways that can both oppress and emancipate women. Women have sadly been at the Bible’s mercy for too long in an attempt to sustain an agenda of days past. This scripture, of primarily male experiences, should be read with a grain of salt and more time should be devoted to alternative texts and interpretations.
By Sam Pilling