Jesus and women; or the Bible and Bechdel


I should perhaps start by admitting that this blog is not about the psalms.  It grew out of something that occurred to me while I was away from my day job and away from my various psalm books.  I did have a New Testament though, and I wanted to work out an idea that it is Jesus who gives women a voice, because only when they are talking to him do their words get written down.  It’s not even strictly Bechdel, because I want to talk about Jesus’ conversations with women, but it is all about the representation of women and Bechdel was the quickest way to indicate the area of discussion.

The Bible and Bechdel

Ruth is famously the only book of the Bible that comfortably passes the Bechdel test. Others have tried to find instances of two women talking, but not about a man, in other books of the Bible, but it’s often a considerable strain and leads to arguments about different interpretations of the test. We can all agree however that there are very few instances of women talking at all in the Bible, let alone named women, and this is, of course, because of the culture and time in which the Bible came to take shape.

woman with finger over mouth
The preferred stance of women in the Bible

There are a few conversations involving women that do not include Jesus, but they don’t pass the Bechdel test either : Peter and the maidservant, Herodias and her daughter, Mary and the angel at the Annunciation, another Mary and the angel(s) at the tomb.  Mary and Elizabeth just squeezes in as a Bechdel because the babies aren’t born yet.

Jesus’ interaction with women

Sadly, the New Testament isn’t much better than the Old.  Most women aren’t named, and they rarely speak, let alone to another woman and about something other than a man.  The portrayal and evaluation of women are of their time and consequently shockingly limited.  However, one area where there is considerable and significant difference is when you look at the narratives of Jesus’ direct relations with women, and also when you analyse his own speech.  I think this is particularly significant because the Gospel writers would have been very careful about the words reported as coming from Jesus.  There were usually several witnesses; Jesus’ own words were seen as important.

When you look at the proportion of narrative to direct speech in the Gospels, Jesus’ words seem even more precious.  He didn’t leave letters like St Paul, whose own voice, even in translation,  is so recognisable and familiar; he didn’t write any of the accounts of his life;  all we have are some stories, some teaching, and snatches of conversation with the people he met, remembered and set down much later by other people.  When you look at the variation between these words in the Gospels, frankly I think it’s surprising that they are so consistent.  They are all we have.

Women talking to Jesus

When you consider the people Jesus talks to, remembering the culture of his day, it’s striking how many of them are women, and it’s very striking how often their words also are reported.  Women’s words are rarely preserved (I’ve written about this before), but when they are talking with the Lord,  the halo around his words sheds light also on theirs, and they are noted and remembered.  It is indubitably true that there are far more male encounters with Jesus described in the Gospels, but when a women actually reaches Jesus and talks to him, he always deals with her as though her gender is not a big issue.

The woman with a haemorrhage

The classic example of this is the woman with a haemorrhage, the first woman to speak at all in Matthew’s Gospel (even if it’s to herself, Mtt 9).  Her illness makes her ritually toxic, and her life has been miserable for twelve years, avoiding others and being shunned by them.  We should have had her story at the beginning of July (13th Sunday B), but it’s an optional part of the Gospel and often left out in the reading (possibly still makes people a bit uncomfortable?  It was years before I realised what it actually meant, I thought it was an unhealed wound), so I shall briefly recap.  She has been bleeding for twelve years, has spent all her money on doctors and has only got worse.  She has heard about Jesus, and manages to get near enough in the crowd to touch his cloak.  That is all she wants, ‘for she said to herself, ‘If I only touch his garment, I shall be made well’ ‘ (Mtt 9 21).

There are more details in Mark.  The woman instantly knows that she is better as soon as she has touched Jesus’ robe.  Jesus knows something has happened, turns around in the crowd and asks,’Who has touched my clothes?’  The disciples make fun of him: ‘You see how the crowd is pressing upon you, and yet you ask?’  So Jesus looks around to see who did it.  The poor woman, with great courage, comes towards Jesus ‘in fear and trembling’ and falls at his feet and tells him ‘the whole truth’ (but Mark is, as always, in a hurry, so he doesn’t repeat what we know already).  Jesus says to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well.  Go in peace and be cured of your affliction’ (Mark 5, cf also Luke 8).  No criticism, no revulsion, no complaints, just a simple statement and a loving envoi.  Apart from the word ‘daughter’, Jesus could have been talking to anybody.

Jesus standing, woman touching robe
a very early illustration of the story
Talking to women (shock horror)

This seems to be deliberate.  Jesus doesn’t make a big deal of talking to women, even though it makes some of the apostles uncomfortable (‘Send her away, for she is crying after us’ Matthew 15 23,  ‘They marvelled that he was talking with a woman’ John 4 27). He talks to anyone in front of him, male or female, child or adult, important or not, and he does it in the same way, which is also striking. He is simple and direct.  He speaks with authority (notice how many people address him with an honorific (‘Lord’, ‘Teacher’, ‘Sir’) once the conversation is under way, but he is never patronising or dismissive to an individual, except once to Peter (‘Get behind me, Satan’ Mtt 16 23).

The woman taken in adultery
sculpture of woman surrounded by stone-throwing hands
Just before Jesus steps in

The woman taken in adultery  (John 8) is talked about by all the other people present, but only Jesus speaks to her, once he is alone with her.  And he does not say much, but it’s almost as though he is inviting her to common ground with him: ‘Woman, where are they?’ (How would she know, or even care?  Is this even said with a smile?) ‘Has no one condemned you?’ And she answers, ‘No one, Lord,’ with a surprising amount of poise and dignity for someone who has just been within inches of a nasty and painful death.  Jesus gives her back her dignity by simply talking to her as a human being and asking a question she can answer.  Then he saves her, by forgiving her and setting her free :’Neither do I condemn you; go and do not sin again’.

The way Jesus talks

The simplicity of Jesus’ tone is characteristic, and probably one of the things that made the apostles uncomfortable.  He talks to women as though they were just other people (still not as common as it should be).  When he mentions families or groups, he uses inclusive language,’mothers’ as well as ‘fathers’, ‘daughters’ as well as ‘sons’ (Mtt 10 35ff), and he often gives two or more parables at once, with one drawing on women’s experience (the yeast, the salt, lighting a lamp, hunting for a dropped coin etc).  He’s not talking just to the men in his audience.  ‘Two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left’ (Mtt 24 40).  Most unusually for his day, Jesus is naturally inclusive, in language and behaviour.  Repeatedly he says ‘fathers and mothers’, ‘brothers and sisters’.  Most attractively, he does not see this as a remarkable concession.

Mary and Martha, but two separate events

He is happy to engage even with a woman heckler (Luke 11 27); when others around him treat women dismissively, Jesus stands up for them.  In Bethany he tells Martha that Mary is allowed to sit and listen to his teaching ( just as the disciples are), and I can’t help thinking that this was aimed at the disciples at least as much as at Martha.  When the women who pour oil on his head (or his feet) are condemned by the people sitting with Jesus, he tells them to leave the anointer alone (Mk 14 6 (head), Mtt 26 10 (head)).  In Luke’s account (Lk 7 (feet)), Jesus is the only person to speak to the woman herself, though there are many others there; and he does it twice, very deliberately.

scene where woman anoints Jesus' feet
the woman anointing Jesus’ feet with (unusually) another woman at the table
Women are people too

He is aware of the realities of women’s lives (grinding grain, setting lamps, looking after children) and appreciates their vulnerability (‘Alas for those who are with child and for those who give suck in those days!’ Lk 21 23), grieving even for those women who grieve for him on his way to be crucified (Lk 23 28).   He uses a woman in labour as an image to describe how the apostles will move from sorrow to joy (Jn 16 21), an interesting choice of metaphor for an all-male group.  He defends widows and women unwillingly divorced;  we can even see him as a #MeToo pioneer: ‘every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Mtt 5 28).

Longer conversations
Jesus talking with woman at the well
Note how the woman at the well is standing and talking, not crouching as so often

We have two or three precious slightly longer conversations with Jesus: the woman at the well (Jn 4), the Canaanite woman (Mtt 15), two separate conversations with Martha and Mary after Lazarus’ death (Jn 11).  In every case, Jesus takes his interlocutor seriously and they have a real discussion (even though the Canaanite woman has to work for it). The woman at the well is a fascinating example, as she starts almost hostile but ends up as the evangeliser of the whole village, with Jesus’ full support.

Woman addressing Jesus
Conversation in progress
Women in bulk

It is often difficult to be sure of the identity of the various women in the Gospel narrative. Several of them share names, and they are clearly seen by the various evangelists mostly in the lump, as it were.   The Alleluia verse for St Mary MacKillop (last week) summed this up beautifully: ‘Many women were there by the cross, watching from a distance, the same women who had followed Jesus and looked after him’. A variant of that verse is in every Gospel, and conveys more information than the writers meant, I suspect.  These women emerge from the mass when they speak to Jesus, but flow back into it when out of his presence.  He gives them a voice that can be heard and that gets written into the narrative.

Women as witnesses to the Gospel

The angels at the tomb talk to the women in the simple direct way that Jesus does.  They have information to pass on, and they do so.  A whole group of women goes back and faithfully passes on the message of the Resurrection to ‘the eleven and to all the rest’.  But here we hit a snag : ‘But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense’ (Lk 24 11).  Jesus has to appear to the apostles themselves later,  ‘and he upbraided them for their hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen’ (Mk 16 14).  The women do not speak nonsense.  They are faithful messengers.  Jesus is happy to give them the message to pass on.  The problem lies in the ears of those who do not want to listen, like the unjust judge in the parable in Luke 18.  Jesus encourages us not to lose heart.  Who is the person who has to keep on asking and not give up?  It’s a widow, the archetype in the Bible for female powerlessness; but Jesus defends and encourages her persistence.  And she wins her case.

woman petitioner with judge
The Lord’s advice : just keep on asking
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The verse words : Gospel Acclamations Part 2

The Alleluia comes first, but the words are the message

Everyone refers to the Gospel Acclamation as ‘the Alleluia’, because that is the bit that doesn’t change, that repeats every week (except during Lent).  It is the frame to a verse from the Gospels (usually), and this verse changes (almost) every week, to highlight something about the coming Gospel. The words of the Gospel verse are very important.  They are the filling in the Alleluia sandwich.  You can make sandwiches out of several different sorts of bread, but most people are most interested in what is between the slices.

Ornate wooden seesaw
Alleluias at both ends, but the fulcrum is the verse, a container for the meaning
Lots of different Alleluia verses

Those various parenthetical hedges leave quite a lot of leeway for alteration, but one of the startling things about the Alleluia verse for me is how much variation there is between the different national Lectionaries.  Some differences are predictable : some Lectionaries are more concerned to be inclusive than others. Some prefer to keep the words as they appear in the text, whereas others are relaxed about paraphrasing them.  Sometimes a bit of context or narrative framing is added (‘says the Lord’, for example).  Sometimes you feel that the person drafting the Gospel verse has remembered that it is supposed to be sung,  but sometimes definitely not.  Sometimes a natural rhythm emerges if I read the words over; sometimes I find it difficult to create any rhythm at all, when it is obvious that if they had just left out a word, or used one with two syllables instead of four or one, it would have worked better.

Balancing the words and the Alleluia
Verse words need to balance
A sense of balance is essential in any culture at any time

Over time I have discovered that the number of bars is very important, even if I don’t know enough about music theory or maths to understand precisely why.  It (nearly always; there are exceptions to everything!) has to be an even number, and usually a multiple of four (though sometimes six is OK).  The Alleluia is usually four bars, so I think this is why, but there seems to be a deeply rooted sense of balance at work here.  If I go back and find a verse that doesn’t follow this rule, it’s usually because I’ve made a mistake, and I can hear where I ought to have held a note on for longer, for example.  The problem arises where the words are not conducive to a sense of balance!

Children playing on parallel bars
a well-developed sense of balance
One set of Alleluia words

Here are the words for a recent Sunday (10 OTB) as an example.

US :  Now the ruler of this world will be driven out, says the Lord;                 and when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.

UK :   Now the prince of this world is to be overthrown,                                             says the Lord.                                                                                                                         And when I am lifted up from the earth,                                                                            I shall draw all men to myself.

OZ  :  The prince of this world will now be cast out,                                               and when I am lifted up from the earth,                                                                           I will draw all to myself, says the Lord.

CAN :  Now the ruler of this world will be driven out,                                             and when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.

This is how they are set out, and the line division and the punctuation is supposed to be reflected in the musical setting.  Admittedly, this is one of the Lord’s more gnomic utterances, so it’s important not to rush it, because it is already slightly difficult to grasp on first hearing (and you always have to think about the people who don’t have the written text in front of them, probably the majority now and certainly so in the past).

choir with one large score
Not everyone can see the words
Factors that matter when setting words

Three of these start with a stressed syllable (‘now’), one with an unstressed one.  That’s very important, as it is the interface between the congregation singing and the cantor (or choir) picking up.  You don’t want the congregation to feel that they have done something wrong, because that destroys their confidence and then they won’t come in next time, so you have to be careful not to clip the Alleluia or leap in too fast; but an unstressed syllable cannot start a bar.

The OZ version here immediately suggests a 3/4 rhythm, but it gets weaker as it progresses.  The others don’t have much rhythm at all; and three of the versions have an interrupting ‘says the Lord’, which you have to decide what to do with.  The words offer a couple of pointers to what the tune might do (‘overthrown’, ‘lifted’, ‘draw’), but there’s not much in the way or suggestion.

I could give lots more examples, but every set of words has its points and difficulties.  St Paul is nearly always tricky, but so is St James. Old Testament (especially the Psalms, of course) and the words of Jesus himself tend to be more straightforward, but then you have to decide what to do with the says-the-Lords (nearly a bar on its own).   OZ often leaves that out, as CAN has done in the above example, which makes for a better flow, but can be slightly uncomfortable to sing in the first person!

Christ in glory ceiling mosaic
‘I’ am the light of the world?
The rhythm comes first

I tend to look for the rhythm first, then the tune, and then work out what Alleluia setting seems the  best fit.  When the words are as varied as this example, there tends to be variety in the Alleluias too.  I just checked back, and indeed, they are all different (Michael US, Step UK, Turner OZ and Clock CAN).  In addition, the UK Missal tends to offer an alternative set of words for the Alleluia every week, and  my US and CAN missals have a helpful page of possible alternative Alleluias (it’s quite hard to find, as it’s not listed anywhere in the Missal contents, so you just come across it by chance, and that is why I haven’t done a systematic set yet).

Getting the words across

The rhythm is crucial, because it helps to make sense of the words.  This is why I don’t find chant settings of the Alleluia verse helpful, because in my experience, if you have a text that is difficult, the cantor rests on the chant line rather than using it to bring out the sense; he or she just runs the line straight without using chant’s ability to frame the sinuous curves which support the meaning.  This is like when you listen to announcements on planes or at airports for example (or at the station in M Hulot’s Holiday),  when someone is reading out a translation without actually understanding it, sometimes without any intonation at all,  and it’s astonishingly hard to grasp what they are saying.  If you hear the Gospel being ceremonially intoned (sung mostly on one note), you will often hear the same effect.  The less important words, or even the whole inside of a sentence, is just sung in a sequence of equal quavers, and it is difficult to follow.  It’s certainly reverent; it can be beautiful; but it doen’t necessarily aid comprehension.

Making the tune relevant

Admittedly, there are still difficulties when you set the Gospel words as a tune.  Diction is crucial.  This is why my settings don’t often go very high or very low, because that makes enunciating the words (or spitting them out, as we singers say) more difficult, but at least the rhythm and the rests should help to make the sense clearer, and musically you can linger on words like forever or everlasting, to mirror the sense………and all this within four bars or so.   I enjoy trying different things here.  I put hammer blows in the music under ‘I will build my church’ and the different melody lines fall into step one after the other when the Lord talks about following, but most Alleluia verses tend to be abstract, and there’s very little space.

child being carried in a princess chair
Probably a Christmas Alleluia, as the two halves supporting the verse don’t exactly match

Back to the tiny piece of ivory then;  but if the Alleluia and the verse support each other and create a harmonious unit, then we are greeting the Gospel with ceremony and awareness.  We have stood up, we have taken some deep breaths, we are acting collectively.  We are ready for the Lord to speak to us.  To coin a phrase, from his mouth to our ear.

Jesus appearing to Job
Speak, Lord, your servant is listening

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