Jesus and women; or the Bible and Bechdel

Disclaimer

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

One woman’s voice : the Magnificat

Mary our mother and the Mothers of Israel

The women I concentrated on in my last blog  (Judith, Ruth, Esther, Deborah) are recorded with honour in the Old Testament.  They are regarded  as heroines and holy women, the Mothers of Israel; and they are our mothers in faith too.  Parallels between them and the Mother of Jesus are interesting and not hard to find and show.   But we would look in vain for a similarly extensive prayer from her.

someone’s holding up the words,  so she must be joining in the singing
Women’s voices in the New Testament

In the New Testament, it is even harder to find women’s words than in the Old.  Mary is recorded as saying astonishingly little, although she is present during so much of it.  In Luke she speaks four times, once in John, and we have none of her words in Matthew and Mark, though she sends Jesus a message that she’s arrived  (Mark 3, 31).  So the exchange with Elizabeth (in Luke  1, 39ff)  is very precious, even though it repeats whole lines out of previous songs, psalms and prayers.  Elizabeth’s words are incorporated into the Hail Mary,  and the Magnificat is part of Evening Prayer.  It is by far the longest piece of female speech in the New Testament. And it is brief.

Mary’s Magnificat?

It’s a (relatively rare) joy for me to write music for psalms that even mention women, so I particularly appreciate setting women’s words. And yes, I know that these are words fully in the tradition of the Old Testament, put into Mary’s mouth by the evangelist Luke.  Definitely mediated through a male writer, then, and deliberately reusing the language and tropes of earlier speakers, some of them women;  but tradition has always claimed these words as Mary’s own.  If Luke (according to tradition) painted her, they would have had time to talk; who else would remember these words, if she did not?  —    and in the end, they are all that we have. So I am taking them as women’s words.

A woman’s prayer from below

In the whole text, there is only one word indicating the speaker’s gender : ‘He looks on his servant in her nothingness’  or (different translation) ‘he has regarded his lowly handmaiden‘  (and the US version ‘for he has looked upon his lowly servant’ elides even that).  But what is distinctive about this song is that it written from below throughout.  This is a person without any power or rank speaking, and celebrating God because he is wonderful and does marvellous deeds; and is doing them, for her, now.

Living in the moment

The references to God’s actions are all in the present tense, not the future : this lowly person is totally confident that all this is happening right here, right now.  This is an interesting contrast to the appeals for help in the psalms, which are usually looking forward for relief (O Lord, hasten to my help…..O Lord, do not delay… O Lord make haste to help us , Ps 22/23  but passim really).

The text does not move forwards or back; there is no narrative; there is no sense of time other than the present.  Mary describes what is happening  at this moment to her.  There is one gesture towards the future: ‘Henceforth all ages will call me blessed’, but this is an immediate future which starts now, just as the one reference to the past is ‘the mercy promised to our fathers’, a past which is still continuing into now and for ever.

A world turned upside down

Apart from the absoluteness of the present tense, the other striking thing about the words of the Magnificat is their celebration of the reversal of human order.  Mary starts with a statement of fact: ‘My soul glorifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour’ and then starts to celebrate the topsy-turvey.  God looks at his servant (Mary) and he is perfectly aware of her status; but guess what, ‘henceforth all ages will call me blessed’.  This is so extreme that it would be embarrassing or foolish if it were not true.  Then Mary refers again to God, because her future standing is not because of her, but because of him.  God is working wonders for her, he is wonderful, and his kindness is for everyone.

And it isn’t just Mary for whom he is turning the world upside down : ‘He […] scatters the proud-hearted […], casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly’.    Again the claim is stupendous : from their thrones, so not just petty important people, but the mighty of the earth, the sort of person Mary would only ever have seen at a distance, or possibly only heard about.  More reversal :’he fills the starving […] sends the rich away empty’.  Here is the option for the poor with a vengeance.  When you think about Mary’s status compared to ‘the rich’, this almost sounds like a joke (and that’s how Bach sets it in his Magnificat, with the music petering out into the hollow left in the bellies of the rich).

Historical context for Mary’s words…

The last verse of the Magnificat is like a doxology, and in it Mary places herself in the line of salvation history and shows that what is happening to her is the fulfilment of God’s promises from the beginning (our fathers) until the end of time (for ever).  To reduce the Magnificat to a neat three verses of Responsorial Psalm, the proud-hearted and the mighty are left out on Sunday, as are the last two lines, but all the rest is there (I said it was short).

…and parallels before and after

As a literary artefact, it is interesting to compare the Magnificat to Hannah’s song  in 1 Samuel 2.  Mary’s song is not special because it is so original; rather, it is important that it is part of a tradition of obedience to God,  of joyful surrender to his will.  It is special because it is the fulfilment of salvation history, not an isolated event.  The other literary artefact it chimes with is the Beatitudes.  Even the order is the same : Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God […] blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied (Luke 6,20ff).

Setting the words

As well as being all one tense, the Magnificat is all one mood, of exultation.  So I tried to keep the music simple but jubilant.  We need to remember what Mary is like at this point.  She is very young.  She is enthusiastic, exuberant, committed and joyful.  She doesn’t know very much about what’s going on yet, but her faith in God is so complete that she is prepared to leave it all to him.  She knows that her situation is unorthodox, to say the least, but that does not concern her, and, thanks to Joseph, it is not allowed to become an issue.  She will treasure every piece of information as it comes along, but she has not yet met Simeon and heard about the sword that will pierce her.  In a different cultural context, I think we might have had something specifically about the baby, but Elizabeth is the only person who mentions that.  She is (much) older,  and her baby is much bigger and moving about (‘leaping for joy’ Luke 1, 44),  a magical stage of pregnancy which Mary hasn’t reached yet.

a special baby each : compare and contrast

Elizabeth would have let Mary feel the baby leaping for joy in her womb, and suddenly Mary’s own pregnancy would have felt real.  With our first baby, until she started to move,  I felt as though she lived inside the ultrasound box at the hospital; only when I felt her move was I sure that she was really there.

I wanted the Response to feel like a natural spill-over of all the excitement in the verses.  I think it does quite effectively in the (new) CAN version.  The Response is tricky, because it starts with an unstressed syllable, but you don’t want to take the congregation by surprise; so that’s why the OZ and UK versions have a tiny introduction, which is rare for me, but seemed to work here. The US one is straightforward.

Hard to find a picture of Mary singing it
…the best I could find

It’s really difficult to find a good image of Mary and the Magnificat.  If you look at the covers for the different musical recordings of it, they show soulful, ethereal females,  actually a bit wishy-washy and almost without exception with their mouth shut;  even sometimes male figures (Christ or the composer).   What they do not show is a woman speaking, chanting or singing aloud in the fulness of joy.   I think this is a pity, as in the Magnificat we have an unafraid female voice just celebrating God’s greatness.  Sing it with joy and conviction.  This is not a silent blonde, with clasped hands, and eyes raised to heaven.  This is a real woman, who is so happy she can’t not sing.  What a wonderful, heartening role model.

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