Before you can study feminist theology you need to begin at the beginning and look at what the Bible says about women. You need to be familiar with specific biblical teachings relating to women and you must be able to outline the stories of key female characters in the Bible.
Women tend to appear in 'bit part' roles in the Bible. They usually emerge as wives or mothers in stories which focus more on the men. Of course, this itself tells us something about the role of women in the Biblical world!
It is important to remember that the Bible is not one book but many different books composed at different times. It was put together by many different authors and editors who themselves drew on a variety of literary strands and traditions. Consequently, it is not surprising that there is not one clear 'biblical view of women' but a hotchpotch of teachings, many of which are ambiguous.
Furthermore, someone like Paul did not set out with the intention of explaining 'his views about women'. He wrote letters to specific communities dealing with the problems that they faced. He was providing pastoral advice, not writing systematic theology. If we are to deduce his attitude towards women then we have to do a certain amount of reading between the lines. There are relatively few occasions when he says anything specifically about women so we cannot ever be really certain what he did think.
With these provisos in place, it is possible to make some generalisations about the teachings about biblical teachings about women. For example, as a generalisation it is fair to say that women in the Old Testament are often meek and virtuous or strong and dangerous sexual temptresses. However, there are women who do not fit these stereotypes (Deborah for example). Again, as a generalisation we can probably say that the Old Testament reflected patriarchal attitudes, Jesus' teaching (as portrayed in the gospels) was more inclusive and the early Church (reflected in the letters of the New Testament) got less egalitarian over time. However, not every text fits into this pattern.
What is perhaps more certain is that some of the Biblical texts have been used and interpreted to justify attitudes towards women which feminists would object to. The following opinions have all be justified on the basis of biblical teachings.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (a liberal feminist) said that as long as the Bible still had influence over people's minds it would remain important for feminists to engage with its message.
Ultimately, you need to look at the teachings yourself and decide whether you think the Bible is patriarchal and repressive or egalitarian and liberating. This page deals with some of the most important biblical teachings, but it does not cover all the women mentioned in the Bible. To investigate further you could go to the excellent womeninthebible.net and click on the women to read their stories.
Men could marry more than one wife (but only if they can treat them all equally).
'If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing, and marital rights. If he does not provide her with these things,she is to go free, without any payment of money.' (Exodus 21:10-11)
The man could divorce his wife by writing her a certificate of divorce.
'Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man's wife.' (Deuteronomy 24:1-2) The woman could not divorce her husband.
If anyone commits adultery, both the man and woman shall be put to death.
'If a man is found sleeping with another man's wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel.' (Deuteronomy 22:22)
If a woman is found to have not been a virgin when she married then she can be put to death.
'If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the girl's virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father's house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done a disgraceful thing in her father's house. You must purge the evil from among you' (Deuteronomy 22:20-21) (If a man falsely accuses his wife of not having been a virgin then he shall be fined).
If an unmarried virgin woman is raped then her attacker must marry her (as she is no longer a virgin and will be unmarriagable to anyone else).
'If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay the girl's father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the girl, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.' (Deuteronomy 22:23-29)
Widows are to be married to their husband's brother. '
If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, the widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband's brother shall take her and marry her and fulfil the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.' (Deuteronomy 25:5)
Menstruating women were viewed as unclean and must avoid physical contact.
'When a woman has a discharge, and the discharge in her body is blood, she shall be in her menstrual impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening. And everything on which she lies during her menstrual impurity shall be unclean. Everything also on which she sits shall be unclean. And whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. And whoever touches anything on which she sits shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. Whether it is the bed or anything on which she sits, when he touches it he shall be unclean until the evening. And if any man lies with her and her menstrual impurity comes upon him, he shall be unclean seven days, and every bed on which he lies shall be unclean.' (Leviticus 15:19-24)
The Bible specifies that God cares for the vulnerable.
'Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me' (Exodus 22:22)
However, the Bible also permitted the buying of slaves. Male slaves go free after six years, female slaves do not.
'If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything.' (Exodus 21:1) but 'If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as menservants do.' (Exodus 21:7)
There are many examples of women in the Old Testament who are victims of violence and who are not in control of their own fate.
However, such a process of 'reading between the lines' is problematic as it is very easy to read too much into the text. Christians today may be tempted to see their own values reflected in Jesus' action. One of the things you need to do when you study feminist hermeneutics is to consider to what extent you think that the different interpretations of the text are justified.
The gospels describe Jesus' life and ministry. However, they were actually written later than some of the other material in the New Testament (i.e. the earliest of Paul's letters). This means that although they reflect Jesus' own teaching they may also have been shaped by the later Christian views. Some feminists (like Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Elaine Pagels) believe that women like Mary Magdalene may have been marginalised by the authors and may actually have played a more significant role in Jesus' ministry. These theologians argue that the gospels - as they stand - hint at Jesus' egalitarian of women, but they do not fully reflect the more radical elements of it.
Healing of the crippled woman Luke 13:10-17 here.
Jesus healed women as well as men so at the very least, we can say that he did show compassion to them. He healed a woman who had been unable to stand up straight for eighteen years (and in doing so prompted a discussion about whether or not he should heal people on the Sabbath). He also healed the haemorrhaging woman who had been bleeding for twelve years. This is perhaps a bit more significant because according to Jewish law (Leviticus 15) she would have been ritually unclean and she would have been barred from touching another people or even going out in society. By touching him she would have made him ritually unclean. Consequently, healing her involved more of a challenge to the social laws affecting woman than other forms of healing might. Luke recounts that she came forward 'she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him'. Jesus responded with compassion and said 'daughter your faith has made you well, go in peace.' However, it is important to note that she took the initiative by touching him and she was the one to break the purity laws.
Woman caught in adultery John 8:2-11 here.
Another example of Jesus treating women in a positive way was his forgiveness of the adulterous woman who - according to Jewish law - should have been stoned for adultery (as should the man she committed adultery with, but apparently only the woman was brought before Jesus). He forgave her and showed compassion. Again, this could be compared to the compassion he showed for men for their sins (such as his forgiveness of Zacchaeus the tax collector).
'When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house'
According to Deuteronomy, a man could divorce his wife if he 'if he found some indecency in her'. The only time a man could not divorce his wife was if he had raped her and been forced to marry her (as 'soiled goods' she would have had no value for anyone else) or if he had wrongly accused her of not being a virgin when they married. Women, could not divorce their husbands.
In Matthew's gospel Jesus said that a man could only divorce his wife if she were guilty of sexual immorality. This could be said to offer a degree of protection for women. They could only be divorced if they were at fault, not at the whim of the man. However, Jesus did not go as far as permitting a woman to divorce her husband.
Samaritan woman John 4:1-43 here.
Another story which implies that perhaps Jesus did have a more radical attitude towards women is found in the story of his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. There are several interesting elements to the story:
Mary and Martha Luke 10:38-42
38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house.
39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching.
40 But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me."
41 But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things;
42 one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her."
More interesting, and probably more significant, is Jesus' friendship with Mary and Martha (sisters of Lazarus who Jesus' raised from the dead). The story in which Jesus said that Mary has 'chosen the better part' for sitting at his feet and listening to his teaching rather than helping her sister with the domestic tasks has been taken as evidence for his support of women who rebel against the conventional expectations about women's roles. It has even been suggested that 'to sit at the feet of...' is a way of saying 'is a disciple of...'
Jesus visited Mary and Martha more than once and taught in their house. They felt able to summon him when their brother Lazarus was dangerously ill and reproached Jesus for being too slow when he arrived after Lazarus had died. In John's gospel Jesus again dined with Mary and Martha. Mary anointed Jesus with an expensive ointment. The gospels present Mary and Martha as consistent followers of Jesus which shows that although he did not have female disciples he did have close female friends.
Mary and Martha are not the only women who followed Jesus. Luke tells us the names of some of the women who followed Jesus.
'Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.'
At Jesus' crucifixion his female followers were also present.
'There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome,who, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered to him; and also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem. '
The fact that women followed him suggests that they found his message appealing (which might indirectly support the idea that there was something egalitarian in it). It is possible to suggest that Jesus could not have have chosen to have female disciples because in a patriarchal society doing so would undermine his mission. Thus one could argue that Jesus had to moderate his own egalitarian views to the expectations of his day. However, we must be careful not to impose our own values onto Jesus.
These female followers of Jesus are mentioned again after Jesus' death when they went to the tomb to anoint his body. Arriving at the tomb they found it empty and an angel appeared telling them to go and tell the disciples that Jesus had risen. Consequently, the women are the first witnesses to the resurrection. In John's gospel the first person to actually see the risen Jesus was Mary Magdalene who was outside the tomb crying. She did not recognise him at first until he called her by name and she responds with the term 'rabouni' meaning 'teacher'.
'The early church' refers to Christianity in the few hundred after Jesus up until Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. In those first few centuries Christianity was made up of lots of different individual church groups and the position of women may have been different from one community to the next.
There is certainly evidence that women were very involved in the early Church. Paul mentioned several by name in his letter to the Romans. His letter to the Corinthian church instructed women in how they should pray and prophesy. However, it is very difficult to be certain exactly what these actions involved. There are also very traditional passages in the New Testament that remind women to obey their husbands and an infamous passage in 1 Timothy tells women that they should learn in silence and in full submission. Both those against and those in favour of female ordination can quote from the New Testament to support their case.
A central text to consider in Galatians 3:28.
'There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.'
To many Christians, this statement is a clear reflection of the idea of equality. Divisions such as race, religion, social class and gender are unimportant in the new world order brought by Christ. They would argue that it reflects the egalitarian ideals of the early Christian community (even if these ideals were not necessarily always reflected in practice). Those who interpret this statement as an egalitarian claim might use it to support female ordination and to reject the traditional notion that God created man and women each with a distinctly different purpose.
However, historical interpretations of the passage generally read it as a statement about salvation and unity rather than social order. They would say that the point of the passage is that salvation is open to everyone. It is not an invitation to overthrow the social order.
Another much debated text is Romans 16.
'I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant (diakonos) of the church which is at Cenchrea; that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a helper of many, and of myself as well.'
Paul described Phoebe using the greek work 'diakonos' which means 'servant'. This is the route of the word 'deacon' which became an official role within the Early Church by the time the letter 1 Timothy was written. The issue is that we don't know whether or not Paul was using it in this sense to mean that Phoebe had a specific designated role or whether he just means that she was helping in a more informal way. Even if she did have a specially designated role we don't know what it would have meant to be a deacon at this stage. Did it include teaching/preaching or (as is probably more likely) would it involve organising material things (e.g. hospitality).
Some of the other names listed in Romans 16 may also be women. 'Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.'
However, whether or not Phoebe had a specifically ordained role it is evident that Paul valued her contribution, just as he valued the other women who he mentioned specifically by name in Romans 16 such as 'Mary, who has worked hard for you' and Prisca (or Priscilla) one half of a Christians couple Paul described as his 'co-workers'.
'Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. Greet also the church in their house.'
'Co-workers' could be very significant. Paul was an apostle and church founder, so were Prisca and Aquila doing the same thing? The fact that they 'risked their necks' might imply that they shared this dangerous task. However, Acts 18 they are described as 'tent makers' which was also Paul's trade. As usual there are different possible interpretations and annoyingly unanswerable questions. We can say with reasonable certainty that
'He (Apollos) began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.'
Some scholars have made much of the fact that in the majority of occasions when Prisca and Aquilla are mentioned Prisca is named first. Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, wrote a book called Good News for Women: A Biblical Picture of Gender Equality (1997) in which she argued that
Whilst many people would challenge these claims (on the grounds that there is not really enough evidence!) it does seem that Prisca played an active role in the early Church.
Other passages in Paul's letters indicate that women could pray and prophesy in the Early Church.
'every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head'
1 Corinthians 11:5
This is supported by the writer of Acts who refers to the evangelist Philip who 'had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied' (Acts 21:9). Female prophets were known in the Old Testament and in the Gospels. Luke recounted that when Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple they met 'a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.'(Luke 2:36-38). Prophets were believed to act as the mouthpiece of God. Whatever they said was spoken on God's authority not on their own and thus it might perhaps have made sense for women to be allowed to prophesy and yet not be priests, teachers or in any way 'have authority' over a man.
We can perhaps be reasonably sure that women were allowed to prophesy, but we can be equally certain that this was not the same as being a priest. Nor was it something new and egalitarian within the early Christian Church as it was already part of the established Jewish tradition that preceded it.
In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul told women to cover their heads when worshipping God as an example of their subordinate status. To fail to do so was - he said - disgraceful, (so disgraceful that she might as well have shaved her head - the punishment for prostitution).
'Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head - it is the same as having her head shaved.'
'Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?'
1 Corinthians 11:5&13
However, it is interesting that Paul felt the need to remind women how to dress. One could hypothesise that some women might have been challenged the social conventions about how women ought to dress precisely because they felt liberated by the Christian message. There would have been no need to tell them to cover up if they were already doing it! Perhaps he was concerned that such behaviour might give Christianity a bad name and make it harder to win new converts.
In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul says that women should remain silent in Church.
'Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.'
1 Corinthians 14:34
This seems to be at odds with the idea of women praying and prophesying and consequently some New Testament scholars have suggested that this passage was added later by a more conservative writer (if you read the whole passage here you can see why you might think it had been added as verse 36 seems to follow on logically from verse 33). Others have suggested that Paul was addressing a different situation, i.e. women who talked and asked questions during the service as opposed to praying and prophesying at the right specific time. Theologians who regard Paul as being basically egalitarian sometimes suggest that women were newly involved in religion, allowed to sit with the men and were taking advantage of this new found freedom.
1 Timothy is one of what is termed 'pastoral epistles', letters written in the second century by someone other than Paul. The writer of Timothy reiterated the message about acceptable dress and behaviour for women.
'I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.'
1 Timothy 2:9-13
This passage has been central in arguments against women priests. If women are not to teach or have authority over a man then she cannot be a priest. The writer uses the Genesis story to make the point that women led man to sin so women are not suitable leaders. Finally, the writer says that women will be saved through childbearing - i.e. by fulfilling the traditional and God-given role. Feminists tend to HATE this text.
Finally, we come to the 'household codes'. These are sets of instructions for how the household should be run. Versions of the household code are found in Ephesians and Colossians.
'Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.'
The text in Ephesians elaborates further and explains why a wife should submit to her husband.
'Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing[b] her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.'
Titus contains similar advice, but distinguishes between old and young women.
'Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.'
1 Peter also contains advice for wives and for husbands.
'Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.
Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.'
1 Peter 3:1-6
The running theme in these passages is that wives should obey ('submit' to) their husbands whilst husbands are instructed to love their wives. This is the root of the traditional Christian wedding vows in which the wife promised to 'love honour and obey' whilst the husband promised to 'love honour and cherish'. None of the above four passages is now generally considered to be written by Paul (although Colossians and Ephesians were traditionally attributed to him).
On the one hand, traditionalists would argue that there is a lot in the Bible which is positive about women. Many traditionalists believe that God created men and women equal but different. Consequently it is right and appropriate that men and women fulfil different tasks. According to this view men and women are complimentary; they have different skills which compliment each other and they are intended to go together. Traditionalists would say that the specifically female role of motherhood should be celebrated as something distinctively female and that male authority in marriage should be accepted because ruling is more appropriate for men.
However, liberal Christians would reject the complimentary view in favour of the egalitarian model. They would present Jesus' message as an egalitarian ethic that was perhaps watered down by the Early Church (perhaps because they felt it would harm their ability to evangelise properly). Liberals would say that many of the Biblical teachings relating to women reflect the misogynistic views of a patriarchal age and should be rejected today.
Feminists have mixed views about the Bible. Some, like Radford Reuther, Trible and Schussler Fiorenza take a basically liberal view and try to reclaim the egalitarian message whilst reinterpreting/rejecting patriarchal views. Some, like Pagels believe that women have been written out of the canonical texts and turn to other non-canonical material to try to rediscover what they consider to be a more authentic form of Jesus' message. Other. like Daly and Hampson believe that this task is impossible and reject Christianity as inherently patriarchal and oppressive.