The Word is Vulnerable

(This is #7 in a series)

One of the things I have always wanted to ask a biblical literalist is this: How did you decide which translation of the Bible is the right one? 

Even the King James has five versions, spanning 160 years.  If you drop into Biblegateway.com to grab a verse or two, the menu has over 200 translations in many, many languages.

On one hand, all these versions which are mostly alike are proof of the power of the Holy Spirit at work. A few more books on the Catholic side (73), a few less for the Protestants (66), but overall, the—if I may—plot points are the same.

On hand two is this inescapable fact: the work was done by fallible humans. And as Barr says: “Translations matter”. If we think the bibles we have are a “plain reading of Scripture”(130) then we just aren’t paying attention.

To this point: Barr speaks mostly of gender inclusive language within the Bible, citing the 1997 Zondervan New International Version of the Protestant Bible, which caused scandal in evangelical circles: “Zondervan authors were supposed to avoid using masculine pronouns (mankind, man) as ‘generic placemarkers’ and instead use gender-inclusive terms like humanity and people” (130).  

I will shout down the PC cops on this one, especially since many of them are men who have never EVER had to tuck themselves under the umbrella of “womankind”.

The gender inclusive battle is as old as the Reformation, which brought new versions of the Bible, and a dodgy Protestant narrative about medieval Catholics to justify it: the medieval (Catholic) church was a “sit n’ git” proposition in which laypeople understood or had access to very little of Scripture or salvation. Barr points out the Reformation could not have happened if the layperson did not have enough access to their faith and Scripture to demand change . But since the crux of the Reformation was “new and proper understanding” of an existing text, the narrative was necessary:

To this day I grit my teeth over the church history series used by Capitol Hill Baptist Church. It paints a grim picture of a sordid, corrupt medieval church in which few people, except for a remnant of “scattered monks and nuns” found salvation. (I) will point out only this sentence from the online curriculum: medieval Christianity “reminds us what happens when people are illiterate of our Bibles—we drift from knowing what constitutes acceptance with God”. Medieval people did not know their Bible, this Protestant church history curriculum states, and consequently most of them were eternally damned” (138).

Barr lays out the proof that this was simply untrue, from famous medieval preachers who commanded great crowds, to the addition of gender-inclusive language to the Scripture as early as the Middle Ages. Barr writes “These changes were made in late medieval manuscripts for accuracy. The inclusion of “woman” and “every man and woman” had nothing to do with political correctness or a feminist agenda. Preachers were concerned that Scripture readings be taken to heart by all church members”(142). I laughed when I read this, as my cynicism got the best of me. I can just see a fussy monk somewhere in France translating “adam” as “human” (the correct translation) instead of “man” (140) to make sure women knew these rules applied to them as well.

Not so the Reformation Bibles. Barr writes “the early modern English Bible (post-Reformation) was translated in a context that politically, legally, economically and socially obscured women behind the identities of their husbands and fathers. The world of early modern England treated women as dependents on men and this cultural attitude was translated into the English Bible”(144).  

Whew. There it is again.

Barr is not the only scholar doing this kind of close reading of original biblical text, language and translation. I recently attended a virtual seminar as part of the “Women Erased” series through Future Church. It was led by Elizabeth Schrader from Duke University, and focused on very technical study of the earliest surviving transcripts of John’s Gospel and how they have been edited, especially Papyrus 66 (dating back to 200 AD).

In summary: Luke 10:38 is where we meet Martha and Mary of Bethany, in the famous scene where Jesus visits their home. Also, where there is no mention of any brother named Lazarus, in this Gospel.

But in John 11, we meet Lazarus, who is the one who Jesus loved (11:3). He is identified as the brother of Mary of Bethany, and  Martha her sister. As I wrote last week, Martha’s role in this story is one of unquestioning faith; but she also delivers one of the two confessionals in the Gospels—in verse 27 she proclaims Jesus is the Messiah.

You know who delivered the other one? Peter. And in Matthew 16:13-20, Peter’s confession prompts Jesus to name him as the rock upon which he will build his church, which is where the Catholic church finds the authority of the Pope. It’s kind of a big deal that we find this confession in the mouth of a woman. Also–Schrader discovered that Papyrus 66 has been edited. Originally, John 11 only referred to a “Maria” (Mary), sister of Lazarus and the one who perfumed Jesus’ feet; but then, on the original manuscript, it was changed to “Maria and Martha”.

Why is this significant? For one, it confuses the text. Lazarus who Jesus loved comes out of nowhere, especially in light of Luke 10. Also, it’s weird that Mary of Bethany would perfume Jesus’ feet and not the wealthy Mary Magdalene, who traveled with Jesus and would have had a better understanding of what was coming.

Let’s go back to the beginning of Barr’s book, and her idea that Mary Magdalene IS Mary of Bethany. If this is true, a Martha-less John 11 makes sense.  We would expect Jesus to be intimately acquainted with Mary Magdalene’s brother Lazarus and we would expect Mary Magdalene to feel comfortable enough to approach Jesus to anoint him.

Perhaps the Martha and Mary of Luke’s gospel were other women altogether, which would explain the absence of Lazarus. But it doesn’t explain why “Martha” is edited into John.

Schrader hypothesizes that it was because if Mary Magdalene, who was first to receive the Good News of Jesus’ Resurrection, is also Mary of Bethany, who perfumed Jesus and confessed him as the Messiah, this would make her a powerful, significant figure. Further—if she is Mary of Bethany, then the name Magdalene doesn’t refer to her home, but her importance—Magdala means “tower”. If Peter became the first leader of the whole church for his confession of Jesus, a strong argument could be made for the authority of Mary Magdalene, requiring a closer look at her work while Jesus lived and after his Resurrection.

Instead—perhaps in a nod to the cultural norms of the time–she is watered down to three women, and the confessional is placed into the mouth of Martha, a minor figure.

We may never know why the text was edited, but the implications are foundational to the role of women in the Christian faith. If Schrader’s theory is correct, then Mary Magdalene was stolen from Christian women.

Schrader calls this an “illness of the text” and connects it to a line from John 11: This sickness will not end in death No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it (4). She says:

This illness is not unto death. Jesus knows…if the text has been changed—of course Jesus knows…Maybe Mary Magdalene was too strong a female figure for her time; and the text knows, and Jesus knows, what has happened, and it’s temporary. The illness is not unto death but is to show the glory of God. My hope is that if this is correct, I think it would in the long run show…that the text is vulnerable. Just as Jesus’ body is vulnerable, the WORD is vulnerable. You can try to erase, you can try to delete, you can try to get rid of the woman. But God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

I feel like Schrader and Barr are saying the quiet part out loud, and I can’t help wonder why we don’t say it more often: it is impossible that the biblical texts have not been changed by human hands with human motivations. The truth will out, always but it starts with everyone admitting one thing:

The Word is vulnerable.

Knowledge IS Power

(#6 in a series)

An intrinsic element of a hierarchical society is knowledge—who knows it, and who controls access to it.  

Throughout the medieval period, the Catholic church controlled much of the academia of the Western World. Institutionally, she did not handle this charge well, as evidenced by her poor reaction to the Age of Reason. The Inquisition could be framed as a last ditch effort to keep access to knowledge in the hands of the Vatican.

Catholics will admit that Martin Luther and his 95 Theses were not without merit. I personally believe—and this is greatly simplified—that the mysticism of the medieval period no longer served the evolving world; but instead of seeing this as an opportunity for new evangelism, the church clung to the past in a way that left a gaping void between the altar and the pews.

And into the void stepped the Protestants.

What they offered was revolutionary—an acceptance of science; personal access to God, in words and language that every person could understand; simple, beautiful prayer and worship; no intercessors, nothing to stand between us and our Savior.

This new independence of faith dovetailed with the end of the feudal system and the growth of cities. Leaders in these cities sought to impose law and order, for which the Protestant embrace of science and philosophy was a natural fit—unfortunately for women. Barr refers to The Holy Household: Women and Morals in Reformation Augsburg written by Lyndal Roper:

According to Roper the male political and economic leaders of Augsburg found Reformation theology supportive as they worked to strengthen control over the city and make it more financially stable. These economic and religious changes hardened an “theology of gender” for women  that, far from  improving their lives, placed women more securely under the household authority of their husbands. Marriage guaranteed women stability and significance, but their increasingly subordinate role confined them to low-status domestic work, increased their dependence on their husbands for economic survival and curtailed their economic and social opportunities outside the household (104-105).

Remember my mention last week of the midwife, healer, weaver, grower, alewife, abbess? These occupations began to disappear in cities where men formed guilds that required training or education and squashed the smaller competition, mainly women. A woman need only be trained as a wife under the authority of her husband. Barr makes an interesting observation: “Before the Reformation, women could gain spiritual authority by rejecting their sexuality. Virginity empowered them. Women became nuns and took religious vows, and some…found their voices rang with the authority of men”(103).  But after the Reformation, “(i)n an eerie echo of Roman paterfamilias, the orderly household once again became the barometer for both the church and state, and the waning power of the Catholic priest was replaced by the waxing power of the Protestant husband” (117).

At the same time, the Household codes were transformed. Barr notes that these verses were rarely mentioned in medieval sermons and when they were, it was as example for all Christians. She references 1 Timothy 2:15 (“Yet she will be saved by childbearing”): “the sermon casts the woman as an example for all Christians, who must go through the pain (like childbirth) of cleansing themselves of sin before experiencing the joy of salvation (the child itself)”(119). This is a very different read than the evangelical interpretation that only through child-bearing—and the assumed role of wife and mother—can a woman be saved.

Barr’s assessment: the Reformation placed women on an impossibly narrow pedestal and “as the role of wife expanded, the opportunities for women outside of marriage shrank”(127).

This made me think of the movie Dangerous Beauty, the historical story of a young girl named Veronica Franco who lived in Venice in the 16th century. While her friends marry in “triumph” to rich old men, Veronica’s mother trains her to be a courtesan. The contrast is stark: a gilded cage of marriage and motherhood against the educated, cultured, and financial freedom of the courtesans. The wives believe themselves superior in vocation, but in one wrenching scene, are forced to call on Veronica for news of their husbands at war. Not only does she receive regular letters from their husbands, but she arrives dressed in opulent, colorful splendor, as her position affords her—while they are dressed in stark black and perched on chairs like crows.

I remember wondering “Who would EVER want to be a wife?”

The Lost Women of the Middle Ages

(#5 in a series)

*In this chapter, Barr asserts that Mary Magdalen is the same as Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus. The medieval church believed this as well, thanks to a sermon by Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century. Since then, Catholic biblical scholars have found more evidence to support that they were not the same woman and in the Catholic church, we tend to draw a line between the Marys (Mama Mary, Mary Mag, Mary of Bethany) as a way of making the point that Jesus purposefully included women in his ministry*

Mary Mag was a prominent figure in all four Gospels. She does not fear the Romans. She is present at the foot of the Cross. She is the first to see the risen Lord. She is the first one to whom he speaks. Barr calls her “the apostle of the apostles”(82) since it was she who carried the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to them.

There is precedent in the Old Testament for the role she plays in the life of Christ: loyal like Ruth, strong like Esther, patient like Hannah. These are the women God consistently puts in front of us in the Bible. They are Proverbs 31 women—grounded, faithful, taking care of business, helping others.

The Medieval church revered these biblical matriarchs. Barr writes the church “was simply too close in time to forget the significant roles women played in establishing the Christian faith throughout the remnants of the Roman Empire” (88). While patriarchal and classist, the medieval world was still an “all hands on deck” existence and the role of women was clear: CEO of the castle, with the keys to fit every lock hanging down her skirt; midwife; healer; weaver; grower; alewife, abbess. We think of sending widows or spinsters to the “nunnery” as a medieval banishment, but convents were safe havens for widows, the abused and young girls who would otherwise be used as pawns in war and politics. Women in convents learned to read and write, and from this tradition we have four of the Doctors of the Catholic Church, among whom we count St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas: St Hildegard de Bingen (b. 1098), St Catherine of Siena (b. 1347), St Teresa of Avila (b. 1515) and later, St Therese of Lisieux (b. 1873). Their works were and are widely read and taught within the Catholic Church.

And then there’s the Golden Legend, a 13th century book about saints by Jacobus De Voraigne.

If you’re familiar with the lives of Catholic saints, then you know they can be a bit…fantastical.  Especially the early church through the medieval period. Take for instance the story about St Martha—in the medieval version, she accompanied her sister Mary Mag/Mary of Bethany to France where, as Mary was preaching to the people, Martha encountered a dragon eating a man on the beach. She “sprinkled  holy water on the beast, confronted the demoniac creature with the cross and calmly tied it up”(83). Then she took it into town where the folks stabbed it to death and declared her their heroine.

This sounds like the Martha of the Bible—practical, capable, focused. Martha was a Proverbs 31 woman who handled her business. Look closely at the words she speaks to Jesus when he arrives too late to save her brother in John: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. A statement of fact. Then she says [But] even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you (21-22). Martha is not suggesting. She is telling. She doesn’t think Jesus can raise her brother. She expects he will.

This is not the Martha that evangelical women know today. Barr references Sara Mae’s 2016 book Having a Martha Home the Mary Way: 31 Days to a Clean Home and a Satisfied Soul: “Mae includes ‘Mary challenges’ to encourage the spiritual development of women and ‘Martha Challenges’ to inspire women to clean different parts of their home” (81-82).

Martha and Mary Magdalen are not the only women honored in the medieval church who have been de-emphasized in the evangelical church today.

St Paula (b.347), who left her children to answer God’s calling and helped translate the Vulgate.

St Lucy (b.283) who dedicated her virginity to God and stood firm, refusing to marry; as punishment, her eyes were removed, and she is often pictured carrying them on a plate.

St Margaret of Antioch (d.304) who dedicated herself to God, and was imprisoned for refusing to marry a Roman governor. She was attacked by a dragon in her cell, who ate her. Margaret stayed calm in the mouth of the dragon, prayed for God to save her, and the dragon exploded, setting her free (79-80).

St Genevieve of Paris (b.422), who through a “prayer marathon” is credited with saving Paris from the Huns and converting the city to Christianity.

St Brigid of Kildare (b. 451) famous for the miracle of the never-ending butter and her great spreading cloak, and a foundress of multiple abbeys in Ireland.

All of these women—and this is just a small sampling of the lives of women saints—stood in defiance of the rule of men for the love of God and triumphed. Every single one. They walked in the world as role models of faith and light, and they often laid down their lives in exchange. These are the women who gave life to Hildegard, Catherine, Theresa and more.

In the Catholic church, we know them still. We honor them as men and women of tremendous faith on feast days and invoke them as intercessors in our prayers. Not in the same way we did in the medieval period, but they are there just the same.

This is not the case with Protestants. The Saints were an explicit target of the Reformation, rejected as idolatry (this is a corruption of the doctrine of Sainthood in the Catholic Church; we do not worship them. We recognize them as paragons of faith and obedience to God, and as such ask them to intercede on our behalf). They disappeared from Protestantism, and with them, a history that included women as heroes of the Christian faith.

A final point: It is worth noting that during the medieval period, the Catholic church evolved the idea of priesthood to include celibacy, and then used this to effectively exclude women from ordination, thanks to St Augustine who equated sex and child-bearing with Original Sin. The four women recognized as doctors of the church were nuns. My church was not a paragon of equality by any stretch of the imagination, just as guilty as Protestants of pushing women from leadership.

Uniquely Biblical

(This is number 3 in a series)

CHAPTER 1: THE BEGINNING OF PATRIARCHY

In chapter 1, Barr tells a story that blew my mind.

First, some background:  complementarianism is a theological view from the Abrahamic religions that places men and women in different but complementary roles in marriage, family and religious life.  Specifically, in the evangelical and fundamentalist Christian faiths: Men lead; women follow. These roles are boundaried by the belief that Adam was created first and therefore possessed the New Testament headship to which Paul refers in 1 Corinthians 11: 3; in the “Wives be subordinate to your husbands” admonition from Ephesians 5; and also by the curse that God places upon Eve in Genesis 3:16.

Historians call this patriarchy, a system of social control that evolved in part from our hunter/gatherer roots. Historically, women were/are viewed as inferior beings in terms of intellect and strength; good for birthing babies and keeping hearth and home, but not much else. The social challenge to this construct is feminism, or the belief that men and women should be treated and valued equally.

I am greatly simplifying this part for the sake of space, but first wave feminism is dated to the 19th century, and closely linked to other social justice movements of the time (abolition, temperance, child labor). It’s been less than 200 years since the “ground-breaking” idea that no human should be the property of another—and the century long push towards welcoming oppressed minorities, women among them, into the educational and work worlds, and legislating agency over their own bodies, money and children.

Back to the story: In 2006 and 2007, Russel Moore (who was at one time the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention), encouraged evangelicals to take back the word patriarchy, explaining that the term “complementarianism” had basically been a nod to political correctness. Patriarchy, said Moore, is a Biblical word.

This confused me. Patriarchy is in the Bible, but it’s not biblical. It’s historical. The Adam and Eve story doesn’t set social precedent; it explains reality for a primitive society. How else does early man process that women bleed, and have pain in childbirth? I used to tell my students “Wouldn’t you think she had made your God mad?” More critically: Eve is not the only female chaos agent enshrined in mythology. The ways of women were a mystery in the ancient world. 

Granted, my perspective is Catholic and we now recognize the first 16 chapters of Genesis as origin myth for the Hebrew people, a stance beautifully explained in our Catechism, 279-289. Barr had a more difficult mountain to climb as a literalist. Her faith requires her to accept Genesis as historical fact.  This created a dissonance between what she knew as a doctor of history, and what her church was asking her to believe: patriarchy is uniquely Biblical.

Uniquely biblical—and therefore ordained by God. This is the part that blew my mind. The Catholic church is no paragon of equality, and certainly complicit in tolerating and even extending oppressive patriarchy, but there has always been logic and sense in our theology. Women are welcome in ministry, if not on the altar. Women are doctors of the church. There is no pressure from the pulpit for women to be submissive, to stay home, to remain uneducated. I had no idea this was the doctrine in evangelical churches.

It’s an incorrect doctrine, of course. But is it wrong, or a lie? The first speaks to misinterpretation; the second to purposeful manipulation.

Barr spends the rest of the chapter explaining her path to understanding: from the Epic of Gilgamesh; to the male grad student who refused to acknowledge her authority over him in a classroom in an extension of his “headship”;  to Russel Moore’s laughable distinction between “pagan” and “Christian” patriarchy: “(W)omen should not submit to men in general (pagan patriarchy), but wives should submit to their husbands (Christian patriarchy)”; to wondering if–since patriarchy is clearly not biblically ordained but existed everywhere—patriarchal structures are actually a manifestation of human sin.

Oddly, Barr turns to the letters of St Paul for the answers.

Biblical Womanhood: A Book Study

I want to tell you about this book:

There are a lot of reasons I’m reading it, firstly because my dad sent it to me marked “for discussion when we see you next”.

Also, because I am a feminist Catholic—in that exact order. I internalized my feminism before I internalized my Catholic faith, so I tend to view faith through a feminist lens. This is very different from viewing feminism through a Catholic lens, or through an evangelical one, as Barr does.

For what it’s worth, I think it’s easier to be me than her—I showed up cynical and fought the catechism every step of the way. I never expected my Christian faith to be a beautiful, life-giving shelter and was gratefully surprised to find that it is. Barr had to “wake up” to the patriarchy inherent in her evangelical Christian upbringing through her historical studies, and the resulting disillusionment shook her out of her church.

To clarify—her church is the Southern Baptists; she calls them “evangelicals” but that term feels wider and deeper than the ways she uses it to refer to a very conservative set of patriarchal, sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-God beliefs. I know evangelicals who do not ascribe to these beliefs on any level, but her labels are reflective of her experience.

I strongly feel though that all women of the Christian faith have things to learn from this book and the ways in which womanhood is reflected in the Bible. Most of us know what we’ve told, sitting in the pews, or in Sunday School classes, and we accepted it. How many of us have taken a deeper dive into the history and context of the Bible, or the 2000 years of clarification and scholarship that exists to help us know and understand the word of God? How many of us really process that every Bible we hold in our hands has been translated, or questioned who does the translating? Clicked the “About” tab on websites for seminaries where our priests and pastors are educated? Or asked ourselves “Who is telling this story, and what do they have to gain from telling it this way?”

I’m not an expert but I can teach anything. And I’d like to walk this you. Eight Chapters. One a week. I hope you’ll join me.