· Vatican City ·

Women, Bible and freedom

Matthijs Musson (1598-1678) Jesus’ visit to Martha and Mary's house (photo © Matthijs Musson)
27 June 2020

In 1898, the Woman’s Bible was published. For the first time a group of theologians commented on the sacred text from a women's point of view, and in doing so they had deviated and deconstructed the reading by the Fathers. The publication caused a scandal, and as a consequence the Bible of woman was boycotted and censored by the Bible Society, and even by Feminist Associations. This response was based on the grounds of it being unacceptable that the educational and religious foundations of the sacred text were being called into question. This was predictable. However, the success of the book, which quickly became a best seller, was surprising and unexpected.

The Bible is weighty. Over the millennia, women’s lives had been conditioned by the verses of the first letter to Timothy. “Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor”. Did the story of the marginalization of half of humanity begin there, from that book and the reading that was made of it? Does the Holy Scriptures really want to relegate women to a condition of slavery, silence, self-sacrifice? Or is this the reading that men have made of it, influenced also by the social and cultural conditions in which it has been read and commented on? Surely the Fathers have in part adapted the texts to the moral codes of the time, reproposing female marginalization and subordination. Thus, part of the liberating power of the text has been lost, some of its meanings misunderstood and sweetened.

Recently, twenty (plus one) Catholic and Protestant theologians repeated the operation conducted in 1898. They have reread the biblical texts and today propose a women’s reading in La Bibbia delle donne [The Women’s Bible] published by Piemme. Theological passion against the patriarchal stereotypes with which it has been read for centuries. Exultation when, contrary to what has been thought, the potential for liberation that is present in the sacred text is discovered. Uncompromising acumen in the face of the most controversial parts. The famous verses of the letter to Timothy read and commented on by Mary of Nazareth.

 Those who read La Bibbia delle donne will find a reversal of the male image of God who is usually depicted as a “loving and sympathetic old man with a beard” and discover instead the Jewish mystical tradition of maternal and female characters. The reader will discover how God’s wisdom –His main attribute- is always feminine and assumes “the features of a sister; a mother; a beloved; a hospitable restorer; a liberator; and, a peacemaker”.

They will certainly find a counter-current and liberating reading of the figures of Martha and Mary, who are no longer divided by their roles and interests, but united in the search for their own path of freedom towards which Jesus encourages them.

They will be enchanted by an analysis of feminine beauty and aesthetic culture in the sacred texts, and will discover revolutionary texts about the body, on motherhood, and regarding sterility. Moreover, many female figures including Martha, Mary, Ruth, Magdalene, Sarah, and Rebecca are included.

The conclusion? The Bible can be a liberating book for women. It must be rediscovered, reread, restudied and our understanding deepened through a female gaze, and informed by their wisdom. This may be difficult, in fact it is a matter of going uphill, of opposing predominant patriarchal resistance, but these twenty one theologians -coordinated by Élisabeth Parmentier, Pierrette Daviau and Lauriane Savoy- have succeeded in giving us a text that is not only erudite, and a pleasure to read, but full of discoveries and surprises.

by Ritanna Armeni