Reading with fresh eyes: #heforshe, NT scholarship and sexism


December 11, 2014 by Harnessing Chaos

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.

Mark 7:14-23
(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.


12 thoughts on “Reading with fresh eyes: #heforshe, NT scholarship and sexism

  1. Jim says:

    Reblogged this on Zwinglius Redivivus and commented:
    An extremely important post. Take note.


  2. Great post, Michelle. I admit I’d never thought of reading Mark 7 in that way, but your arguments make good sense (is there a fuller version of this in the book edited by Joan Taylor?). And you are certainly right – there is much, much more to say on this whole matter . . . Helen Bond


  3. Peter Head says:

    Thanks for this. It is an interesting example of the potential impact of sexist blindspots.


  4. Chris Keith says:

    Thanks for this, Michelle!


  5. Appreciated this post, Michelle. Thank you.


  6. Agreed that 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’, is the central logion, but is this passage really as perplexing as you suggest?

    Jesus’ statement in v. 15 is the climax of his response to a question regarding the eating habits of his disciples (7:1-5). In Jesus’ response he highlights the hypocrisy of the Pharisees by contrasting their attention to practices (and excessive legalism) with a lack of righteousness of the heart. This focus on food going into a person and bad attitudes coming out of a person is made explicit in vv. 19-22 (esp. ‘thus he declared all foods clean’ and the examples of ‘evil intentions’ which come from the heart).

    In the context of a discourse framed around the discussion of eating practices and heart righteousness, it seems unlikely to me that v. 15 would be about the female body. Furthermore, it’s not clear what the rhetorical purpose would be of Jesus offering an aside to reiterate the impact of the purity laws for females, in the context of this passage.

    No doubt sexism needs to be challenged, however, I’m not sure that the dominant interpretation of Mark 7:14-23 is an example of a sexist reading.


    • Michelle Fletcher says:

      Thanks so much for the response, Graham.

      In my article I do actually extend the reading across this whole section in order to show that I’m not just taking on v.15, but rather starting in the place that scholarship has started: what could v.15 refer to. I discuss vv.19-23 and the idea of where something comes out from. This should answer some of your questions. (The references to the article are above in the post and the comments).

      But I’ll respond briefly here too. First and foremost: I am not saying the dominant reading you mention is itself sexist. Rather, what I am saying is that the readings which have led to this now dominant interpretation have excluded women, and revealed that when a person is envisaged, a male person has been seen, which is a slightly different point.
      The history of interpretation on this piece is far more complex than either my post or your comment. Indeed, the answer from scholarship to your question “is it really that perplexing” is an overwhelming “yes.”

      The major studies are Roger Booth’s and Thomas Kazen’s, both of whom set out to examine how this passage might not be about food in order to move away from the idea of abrogating food laws. Booth’s study comes out of a time when finding the exact words of Jesus was the focus of readings, and for him v.15 appears to be the most “original” part of the entire passage. Therefore, he is happy to isolate this from the surrounding text and analyse what it could mean in the broadest sense, assuming that the compilers of the gospels may well have misplaced it in a wider narrative framework. He believes it is misplaced due to the mention of excrement, which was not a particular focus of purity issues in 2nd Temple Judaism. Also, the famous “Markan aside” you mention in v.19 is generally seen as a late addition to the whole debate, and so not relied on for giving an accurate picture of the original context of the logion. In light of this Booth tries to go through every possible instance of what could go into a person and what comes out of a person, including semen emissions from a man. He even mentions Niddah as a possible impurity coming out. However, he can find no instance where something coming into a person is more defiling than something coming out, somehow missing the above reading.

      Kazen too carries out one of the most comprehensive 2nd Temple purification studies we have today, not focusing on food alone but all manner of impurities which can be considered to “come out of a person”. (It is a brilliant book). Yet in all the detail and studies of possibilities when he turns to Mark 7, he too does not see the above. There are many other examinations which also throw the net much wider (these are also mentioned in my article) and these all again miss the option presented above.

      So I’m not saying that the dominant reading of Mark 7 as it stands today is a “sexist reading.” Rather, I am saying that scholarship which has focused on Mark 7 in order to produce this reading which now may seem so logical in fact a) dealing with many more complexities than appear on the surface and b) not examining all the possibilities, despite claiming to do so. Your inherited reading and understanding of this passage comes from scholarship which is rooted in the above.

      Also, just to challenge you a little on the idea that the female couldn’t possibly be on the agenda, if we “big picture” out a little more, then we see Mark’s Gospel being very female focused in this section. Mark 5: 25-34 is about a woman suffering who is a Zabbah. Next a dead girl is healed. Herodias and her daughter plot to kill JTB, and directly after the above section it is the Syrophoenician woman and her daughter who are in focus. This isn’t a world where women and their purity are not in the surrounding text. It’s just that we don’t have scholarship yet which reads this passage in light of the surrounding female texts. Perhaps if we did then the whole narrative focus would shift. What is more, in first section of Mark 7, the concept of purity of food surrounding contamination through unwashed hands was of particular importance in relation to women and their state of purity, because they prepared and served much of it. Women’s purity issues would most certainly be included in debates on food and unwashed hands and should not be ignored. (Kazen and James Crossley are particularly good on this).

      Sometimes it is easy to look and see what now appears most obvious and assume that this doesn’t show issues. I hope that I have shown in this response that scratching below the surface of our inherited scholarship can help us see some of the parts which have been ignored in the groundbreaking studies which dominant readings have stemmed from. If we trust dominant readings, we need to know why they came about. And part of the reasons today’s dominant readings came about is because women were not included as a person.

      Thanks again for the comment and for taking time to read the post. It’s great that it is getting people thinking and providing opportunities to discuss the passage’s scholarly inheritance more.

      All the very best,



      • Hi Michelle, thanks so much for your gracious and generous response to my brief comments.

        I see the point that if there are studies which explore alternatives to food/attitudes coming into/out of a person, and these studies are blind to the female body, then it looks like a good example of sexism in NT scholarship.

        Having said that, I still remain to be convinced that Jesus’ words in v.15 refer to anything other than food and heart righteousness – at least in the Markan discourse as we now have it. I evidently need to go and read your article!

        Thanks again,


  7. Sarah C says:

    Thanks for having the courage to put this up, Michelle.


  8. […] Dr. Chris Keith (St. Mary’s University) from The Jesus Blog comments on “#HeForShe, Sexism, and New Testament Scholarship.” A second post was added by Dr. Helen K. Bond (The University of Edinburgh), reflecting on her experiences with “Sexism and New Testament Scholarship.” In a guest post on Dr. James Crossley’s (University of Sheffield) blog Harnessing Chaos, Michelle Fletcher (PhD candidate for King’s College) added her voice into the ongoing discussion about New Testament scholarship and Gender in the post, “Reading with Fresh Eyes: #HeForShe, New Testament Scholarship, and Sexism.” […]


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