December 11, 2014 by James Crossley
The following is a guest post by Michelle Fletcher (King’s College London)
It has been a real experience, as a woman in Biblical Studies, to read the recent posts by Chris Keith and Helen Bond about #heforshe, NT Studies, and Sexism. (Read here and here). This is a discussion which is long overdue and our thanks should go to Helen and Chris for raising these issues which many of us face, but often do not feel we can speak up about. The posts are already creating lively comment sections, and hopefully will generate many suggestions as to how our still male dominated guild can embrace #heforshe.
One response in particular stood out for me: ‘These would be examples of sexism among NT scholars, wouldn’t they? Rather than sexism expressed in/as NT scholarship.’ This is a good point, but if this somewhat unconscious belittling/exclusion of women still exists amongst some NT scholars, surely it might also be present in some NT scholarship?
What follows is a quick hint of just how embedded within our scholarship this ignoring of the female really is. Through a simple example of how we approach language and interpret passages, we can see how much women are still marginalised in readings (those carried out by both men and women), and how this negatively impacts our scholarly endeavours.
(The following presents a summary of the JSFR article which can be found here.)
Mark 7:14-23, Jesus’s teaching on defilement of the person, is a perplexing passage. Whilst the text has been traditionally translated as ‘man’ and ‘he,’ it is praised by some feminist scholars as one which is inclusive due to its focus on organs. Unfortunately, this seeming inclusive nature is a merely a veneer covering some of the most non-inclusive scholarship NT Studies can produce.
The central logion is believed to be v.15: ‘There is nothing outside of a person that goes into them that has the power to defile as much as the things which come out.’ Here Jesus discusses the person (ὁ ἄνθρωπος), which includes male and female. However, prior to my work on this passage, not one scholar had read it with a female body in mind. The generic body (aka male body) had been the point of focus for all scholarly discussions. Much has been done to undo readings which argued it abrogated Levitical laws, and attention has turned to other forms of bodily impurity in light of second temple Judaism. These examinations found no possible cases where something entering into a body could cause less contamination than what leaves it, and so conclusions centre on unwashed hands and contaminated food, for as Sanders says ‘Nothing else goes in and comes out.’
Well, that’s not quite true, is it.
Other things enter into a woman’s body and come out, and if a woman is made the focus of the passage, as a person, then a perfectly logical purity solution is offered. Semen entering into a woman would cause her one day impurity and she would not be a parent of impurity. Menstruation (niddah), unnatural discharges (zabah) and parturition (yoledet) leaving her body would cause at least 7 days of impurity, and would make her a parent of impurity. [Niddah: 7 days (Lev 15); Zabah: until discharge stops +7 days; Yoledet: Boy 7+33, Girl 14+66 (Lev 12:1-5)].
So, a logical explanation is presented where something enters into a person which makes them less impure than what leaves a person. So far, so female.
However, examinations of this passage focus on the mention stomach (κοιλία) in v.19 and so this female reading would not hold. Unfortunately, all this does is demonstrate how much the female ‘person’ has been overlooked: κοιλία does not only refer to the stomach. Rather, it refers to ‘in its broadest sense the “cavity of the body” . . . that stores such organs as the stomach, intestines and womb.’ (BDAG) In fact, in LXX and NT it most frequently refers to womb: e.g. Num 5: 21-22, 27; Isa 44:2, 24; 46:3; 49:1, 5; Luke 1:15, 41, 42, 44; 2:21; 11:27.
Therefore, we find a plausible solution to this seemingly impossible logion. Nothing enters into a woman which makes her as unclean as what leaves her, for semen makes her unclean for a day when entering her womb, but the things which leave her womb: menstruation, unnatural discharge and childbirth, make her more unclean.
And what is more, with this reading other puzzling terms in the passage can be reevaluated. For example, the strange ἀϕεδρῶνα of v. 19 is most frequently translated at ‘latrine’. Roots may be from from ἀπό ἕδρα conveying the notion of sitting apart, and there are rabbinic sources indicating the exclusion of menstruants in Palestine. In the LXX the similar term ἄϕεδρος is used twice in Lev 12:2, 5 comparing afterbirth to niddah. So we find ourselves firmly in the realm of female people.
A simple solution to a complex passage? Yet this reading has remained hidden behind a veneer of ‘man’ and ‘he’ readings throughout NT Studies. No one, male or female, has visualised the person as a woman. The focus has been on ‘inclusive’ (aka male) body parts: the mouth, anus, and stomach, and this has ignored the female: the vagina and womb. In doing so a logical and historically appropriate reading has been overlooked.
No more using #heforshe
So, does sexism in the NT guild impact NT scholarship? I would say, based on the above, that excluding the female is so much more inherent in NT Studies than we have begun to suspect, manifesting even in our textual interpretations. This means that we are only beginning to see the tip of the iceberg as to what insights and readings of the texts we have not noticed due to the male focus of NT Studies.
This is why #heforshe raises even more issues than those already discussed by Chris and Helen. It challenges the core of our scholarship, asking us to reassess NT Studies, right down to its interpretations and use of language.
So I would like to finish by suggesting one clear way NT scholarship can embrace #heforshe: stop using the generic he. Make sure that it is no longer used to stand for he and she in publications, presentations, or reprints of books. Get rid of Mankind and Man. Arguments may have famously, or even infamously, been made that NT scholars using the generic he really did consider both men and women. But, as we have seen above, this is simply not the case. Women have not been included when scholarship has viewed ‘the person’ in passages like Mark 7. And frankly, this needs to change. Period.