The Gods of Men: The Real Teaching of Jesus on Women
At a public lecture many years ago a speaker surprised me by saying the some of the most sexist organizations on this planet have been the world's great religions. Indeed many of them, he went on to say, claim to base such prejudiced attitudes on the inspired written word of God. It occurred to me then that the matter bore investigation.
Knowing how far apart the belief and practice of any organization can sometimes drift I wondered if this prejudice was a matter of fundamental doctrine for the great religions, or was it just how things happened to develop in practice for any number of the many reasons imaginable. So I began to look afresh at the principal writings that the great religions hold sacred, to see how they estimated women, such as the Old and New Testaments, the Talmud, the Koran, and the sacred scriptures of the Buddhists and Hindus. It was a discouraging investigation.
If we start with the most ancient the Hindu laws of Manu state: "In childhood a female remains subject to her father. In youth a female is subject to her husband. When her lord is dead she shall be subject to her sons." 'A woman must never be independent.' Indeed the sacred texts of the Hindus state that it is the highest duty of a wife to burn herself after her husband has died. Some central streams of Buddhism believe that to be born a woman is due to bad karma. A woman ought to pray to be re-born as a man in a future existence. The Koran regards a woman as 'half a man.' Forgetfulness overcomes a woman. They are 'inherently weaker in rational judgment.' Even the great western thinker Plato quotes Socrates approvingly: "Do you know anything at all practiced by mankind in which the male is not far better than the female." It's hardly surprising that Plato's pupil Aristotle, the tutor of Alexander the Great, didn't even accept that women were legitimate human beings: they were "failed men" due to some mishap in the womb during the conception process.
There is no doubt that the influence of the Church has profoundly shaped our culture in the West, and that has brought many good things for which we should be profoundly grateful. But it does not take much research into either the sacred texts of the great religions or the history of their practice down the centuries to see that they have played a central role in fostering the disenfranchisement of women. That did not stay within the Church's sphere, for its religious influence has come to be expressed in most bodies of fundamental secular legislation and practice around the world, not just in the West.
But I came to see eventually that the facts of the matter were much more complicated even than this. This was not an influence that found an unwelcome reception in those over whom it was exercised. It seemed to me unmistakable that a pro-male and anti-female bias was buried deep within the human male psyche, independent of and long prior to anything we would today regard as a religious influence. If this is the case then it should come as less of a surprise to find so much overt sexism in fundamental religious texts, given the traditions out of which those religions have themselves grown. A language's slang vocabulary can reveal a great deal of what prejudices lie deep at the heart of any culture, and Bishop Shelby Spong was one of the first to point out how so many popular words for sexual intercourse display enormous male hostility and contempt for the female.
One of the greatest libraries that ever existed was established at Nineveh, beside Mosul in modern Iraq, by the last of the Assyrian kings, Assurbanipal (died about 627 BC). He was known as Asenappar in the Hebrew Bible and as Sardanapalus to the Romans. He was one of the few kings in antiquity who could read and write, and was the only literate monarch in fifteen centuries of Assyrian Kings. History regards him as forming the first deliberately collected library. Its significance for us here is that we can assume all ancient written works and records in cuneiform literature that existed in Mesopotamia, that most ancient cradle of civilization, were collected at Nineveh using all the resources of the mighty Assyrian Empire to do so. It is an incomparable record of the earliest recorded stages of human history and our best source to discover where the anti-female bias in our history truly began. The remains of this library were unearthed in the latter part of the 19th century and comprised more than one thousand documents now in the care of the Iraqi Department of Antiquities and the British Museum.
Most reputable scholars today will admit that several of those documents are the precursors of seminal documents that later went to form the foundations of the Judeo-Christian tradition, in particular the Book of Genesis which is central to understanding the estimate of the female in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Genesis is an immensely profound work despite having been turned on its head all too often by well meaning preachers. These worthy gentlemen have apparently convinced themselves that it is no more difficult to read and understand a three thousand year old text from a culture as remote from ours as is possible to imagine, than it is to read the morning newspaper.
Genesis wrestles with an age-old issue that must at some stage come to perplex every living person. If we persist in thinking of God and God's relation to the world, in the homely ways to which we have so long grown accustomed, then we are left with an insoluble problem, which is what the opening chapters of Genesis wrestles with.
The world as we know it is replete with more than its fair share of suffering, disease, old age, infirmity, natural disasters, frailty, disappointment, betrayal and ultimately death. That kind of world cannot have come from the hand of a good God, so either God did not create the world or something went wrong. Those indeed are the only two options we have in the mindset I have labeled "the Hamburger Universe."
That God did a good job originally but something went wrong was the explanation the authors of Genesis went for, but what is really notable is that the blame for what went wrong was laid fairly and squarely at the feet of Eve, the mother of the human race. So now from some of the earliest sources in the human record we have the female blamed for everything that's wrong with the world, (even though it should be noted that in the Nineveh documents a minor god is blamed as well). I had often noted in my biblical studies years ago that whenever something went really wrong some woman was usually blamed.
This prejudice against women as the cause of all our woes has descended as an integral part of most of our cultures and history, and its hardly surprising that eventually the distrust and avoidance of women became a central religious duty and indeed the very badge of holiness in the West.
But we have to ask if those ancient texts are the root of the anti-female bias in the male psyche, or did those texts themselves grow out of an already existing bias? If it's the former then a major element in rectifying the situation would be to ask the religions to clean up their act as far as the female is concerned. If it's the latter then we have a far deeper problem that originates way beyond the realms of rational thought and discourse, rooted in the shady realms of the unconscious, the subliminal and taboo. It probably also is connected to those aspects of the female that are related to the mysterious, their closeness to the facts of birth and the renewal of life, the unavoidable attraction they hold for men which undermines males perceived power, and those aspects of the female that provoked cries of ritual uncleanness in every culture of which we have knowledge. Once we understand all of that we will have gained a major insight into the operation of religion and its rationale for the subjugation of women over the past four thousand years. Indeed some of the worst atrocities for which religions were responsible have come when the seal of divine approval is used to justify our wars, fears, hatreds and phobias and the oppression of the female must surely rank as one of the most outstanding examples of this.
So even if the religions have historically been some of the most sexist organizations on earth it seems they were more the agencies who exacerbated what was already there than that they were the origins of it. In turn that would mean that addressing the anti-female bias would have to be the first priority for any body of teaching that purported to be in the vanguard of spiritual evolution. It would also have to be the touchstone of its validity.
This raises some serious issues. Less than two decades after the Passion of Jesus, and some two decades before the appearance of the first Gospel of the New Testament, St. Paul started to put pen to paper. Over the next fifteen years more than half of the New Testament as we know it came from his hand, and those writings preceded all the Gospels.
Paul never mentions the quintessential Christian female, Mary the Mother of Jesus, in his extensive writings. He states women will be saved only through motherhood (1 Tim. 2: 15); and that they ought to be subject to men. There is little doubt among scholars of the New Testament that Paul saw in the growing emancipation of women in the Roman world, a major strand in the breakdown of orderly society, and he believed that Christians should adhere to the traditional strict lines of family life. Peter says that women should be cherished because they are weaker, and the context implies he is not just thinking of physical weakness (1 Peter). Things hardly improved when St. Jerome came on the scene and justified marriage only because it could produce more virgins. The highest praise Augustine could manage for women was to regard them as a "malum necessarium," 'a necessary evil.'
If we look back twenty or thirty years earlier than St. Paul's writings we can see the cultural and religious background from which Jesus emerged. He had, of course, made enormous waves among the religious traditions of his day. It was time when at every religious service the men prayed; "Blessed are you O Lord who has not made me a woman," or worse, "Blessed be God who has not created me a heathen, a slave or a woman." It was a time when the women had to sit in separate sections, and when they were not counted in the votes. It was unusual for them to be taught the Torah. Indeed the writers of the Talmud added that it would be better to burn the words of Torah than entrust them to a woman. This very unpromising context is the background from which Jesus emerged, and seems to be the general background which Paul and Peter wished to perpetuate.
If, as noted earlier, the emancipation of women has to be the touchstone for the validity of any leading edge spiritual movement for human liberation, then this raises disturbing questions because of these elements in the witness of Paul and Peter. But before we ask those questions, we have to inquire if this version of things was in fact true to what Jesus taught and did, or not, or whether the structure erected on the foundation he had established had drifted from his message?
But looking back over those previous 20 or 30 years we see a very different attitude in the teaching and practice of Jesus. The New Testament clearly acknowledges that women were among his earliest followers. Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna accompanied Jesus during his ministry and supported him financially. According to one account an unnamed Gentile women stated to Jesus that the Ministry of God is not confined to particular groups or persons, but belongs to all who have faith. (Mk.7: 24-30; Mt. 15: 21-28)
Jesus ate with women as well as men, which would not have been customary, and spoke to them both in public and private. In the very early years of the church this trend continued and some of the earliest gathering places were in the houses of such women. Churches often grew up on those sites later, and have preserved their names in those locations even into our own times. Whatever may be said of the teaching of Jesus about women in the New Testament his conduct and practice would certainly have been branded as revolutionary.
However, the most poignant of all the teachings of Jesus on the dignity and nobility of women came to light just over one hundred years ago, and from another non-canonical source, the famous scrolls discovered by Nicholas Notovitch at the monastery of Hemis, near the city of Leh in Nepal. It was said that similar scrolls were to be found in many other monasteries scattered throughout India and Tibet, not just at Hemis. The scrolls shed light on what Jesus was doing in those eighteen years of his life that are missing from the New Testament directly after his appearance in the Temple at the age of 12, presumably for his Bar-Mitzvah. Are we told nothing of those missing years by the New Testament because nothing of any account was happening, or was something so significant happening that all mention of it had to be omitted since it did not accord with the politically correct version of him which it had now been decided to preach?
The Notovitch scrolls fill in what was happening in those missing years. According to the Scrolls Jesus arrived in India at age 14 and studied in the sacred cities for six years, after which he went into the high places and studied there for another six years. He returned home to Israel about the age of thirty having survived several attempts on his life because of what he taught.
Because of the tumult which his teachings provoked in Israel he was constantly under scrutiny by the religious and secular authorities, and the spies of Pontius Pilate were constantly monitoring him. One day an old woman who was listening to his teaching was roughly pushed aside by one of those spies. He was rebuked by Jesus, and what followed must be one of the most inspirational pronouncements on the dignity and nobility of woman that has ever been produced. It merits quotation in full.
"It is not good for a son to push away his mother, that he may occupy the place which belongs to her. Whoever does not respect his mother, the most sacred being after his God - is unworthy of the name of son."
Listen to what I say to you. Respect woman, for in her we see the mother of the universe, and all the truth of divine creation is to come through her.
She is the fount of everything good and beautiful, as she is also the germ of life and death. Upon her man depends in all his existence, for she is his moral and natural support in his labors.
In pain and suffering she brings you forth, in the sweat of her brow she watches over your growth, and until her death you cause her the greatest anxieties. Bless her and adore her, for she is your only friend and support on earth.
Respect her, defend her. In doing so you will gain for yourself her love, you will find favor before God and for her sake many sins will be remitted to you.
Love your wives and respect them for they will be mothers tomorrow, and later the grandmothers of a whole nation.
Be submissive to the wife; her love enobles man, softens his hardened heart, tames the wild beast in him and changes it to a lamb.
Wives and mothers are the priceless treasures which God has given to you. They are the most beautiful ornaments of the universe, and from them will be born all who will inhabit the earth.
Even as the Lord of Hosts separated the light from the darkness and the dry land from the waters, so does woman possess the divine gift of calling forth out of man's evil nature, all the good that is in him.
Therefore I say unto you, after God, to woman must belong your best thoughts, for she is the divine temple where you will most easily obtain perfect happiness.
Draw from this temple your moral force. There you will forget your sorrows and your failures, and recover the love necessary to aid your fellow men.
Suffer her not to be humiliated, for by humiliating her you humiliate yourselves and lose the sentiment of love, without which nothing can exist here on earth.
Protect your wife, that she may protect you - you and your household. All that you do for your mothers, your wives, for a widow or for any woman in distress, you will do for your God.
But we do not have to go as far as ancient Nepal to gain a different view. A treasure trove of early Christian documents discovered in Egypt in the 19th. and 20th. centuries give us some amazingly fresh insights into Jesus's relation to women during his ministry. Several of these documents such as the Pistis Sophia, the Sophia of Jesus Christ, the Dialogue of the Savior, the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Mary, focus on one woman in particular whom we already knew from the New Testament as a prominent prophetic leader and visionary in at least one section of the early Christian movement, Mary Magdalene. In the "Sophia of Jesus Christ" five women and twelve men are gathered to hear the Savior. Mary is entrusted with the most elevated teachings of Jesus and has a prominent role in handing on his message. In the "Pistis Sophia" she is also prominent among the disciples and asks more questions than all of the rest put together. Her high spiritual status is affirmed and she intercedes with the Savior as some of the disciples are despairing. In the "Gospel of Mary" the Magdalene is portrayed without doubt as a woman leader among the disciples. She alone of all the disciples is not frightened and afraid. She is pre-eminently the one whom Jesus most esteems. "The Gospel of Philip" focuses on the special relationship between Jesus and her. In the "Dialogue of the Savior" Mary is named along with Jude Thomas and Matthew as partaking in a prolonged dialogue with Jesus, and she questions Jesus on several matters as the representative of the group. All of this evidence should settle the debate we often hear about whether she was an apostle or not. The real question now is not whether she was one of the Apostles of Jesus but whether she was in fact, in the title often ascribed to her of late, the "Apostle of the Apostles."
Some churches still prohibit women from the ministry and the reason adduced normally is that the pattern of an all-male priesthood laid down by Jesus is not something that the Churches are at liberty to alter. Even when some churches admit female ministers, to then admit them as bishops is seen as a further major barrier. But what if the pattern of the priesthood established by Jesus was entirely different, and not just that but that the chief among the first such group was female? Certainly if the primary duty of any true religion has to be to set about rectifying the inbuilt anti-female bias in the male psyche, no other initiative could ever hope to be as appropriate and successful as that.
And what of the personal side of things? A succession of works such as "Holy Blood, Holy Grail," 'Bloodline of the Holy Grail,' "Rex Deus" and "The Da Vinci Code," have raised afresh the question of what kind of personal relationship there was between Magdelene and Jesus. That inevitably leads to the further question of whether there exists any such thing as a Messianic Bloodline, and if there is, what does it entail? Is it simply a matter of historical physical descent from this preeminent pair, or would such descendents carry something in their physical or mental make up that sets them apart? The appearance of the movie "Bloodline" later this month will revive those issues once again, and to them we will turn in the next issue.
More than 150 years ago Ludwig Feuerbach remarked that rather than God having created us in his own image, it is we who have created God in our image. So in all the religions what we are dealing with in the first place is human-style images of the creator rather than with the real thing. As far as repression of the female goes those images have to be recognized in the truest sense as nothing more than the Gods of Men.
Copyright, Míceál Ledwith, 2008.
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Copyright © 2007 Míceál F. Ledwith All rights reserved