The Levite’s Concubine & the Heart of War

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In my estimation, the most shocking story in the Hebrew Bible is Judges 19. A Levite priest, in an act of protest, cut up his concubine and sent the pieces to the 12 tribes of Israel. Incensed, the tribe goes on a killing and raping rampage. Most feminist scholars conclude that biblical ideology inherent in Judges 19-21 condones violence against women in the service of higher (male) agendas. Traditional commentators generally see the story as propaganda for the establishment of the monarchy or a critique of Saul’s kingship.

I, on the other hand, tend to see abusive stories about women as critiques of culture and theology. After years of research, I’ve concluded that most of the biblical narratives blossom with irony, parody and satire all in the service of showing the emperor has no clothes, that the powers that be have lost their moral compass. Read as a protest against abuse, even the most grisly of tales demonstrate that the mistreatment of women in ancient Israel was as unacceptable as it is now. The basic lawlessness of the land was established early in the story. The phrases, “in those days there was not king in Israel” and “every man did what was right in his own eyes,” tell us as readers that the narrator has passed judgment on the story and found the deeds described despicable. This is not a story meant to condone violence but to protest it.

Anonymity

One striking feature of the Judges 19-21 narrative is that virtually everyone is nameless. In contemporary terms, this would be like reading a novel where none of the characters are named. It would grab the reader and listeners’ attention. Hudson goes so far as to say that “without a name the person immediately enters the realm of objectification and inauthentic living” (p.56). This is why we place so much emphasis on remembering people’s names. By naming another we express intimacy and a connectedness.

“Not knowing the name and not being known by name dramatically influences behavior and relations. The assumption is that an individual with a name that is known would never do the same actions that an anonymous person would commit, or a person would relate differently to an individual who is named as opposed to an anonymous victim. For example, we should all be too familiar with the Nazis’ gruesome practice of replacing the names of victims with numbers in the concentration camps—number are more easily disposed of than the named…Once again, the rape and disinheriting of the one concubine leads to the rape and disinheriting of the women and children of Benjamin (20.37-48) and the ‘women of Shiloh’ (21.19-24). By allowing the characters to remain anonymous, it is as if the narrator implicates not just one Levite, one city or one host, but the entire structure of that godless society” (Hudson, p. 61).

By leaving the characters of the story nameless, the narrator symbolizes the increasing dehumanization that culminates in radical anarchy.

Some feminist critiques have named her in an attempt to stress her independent personhood. “The result would be the same as naming the ‘unknown solder’. As soon as he is named he loses his symbolization of all the nameless men and women whose sacrifice will never be known by name” (Hudson, p.63). Naming reverses the subversiveness of the message.

Social Status of the Levite and his Concubine

There is debate in the scholarly community regarding the exact legal status of a concubine so I will use the term “secondary wife” interchangeable with “concubine.” We do know that a concubine had a lower status than a primary wife. “When the Levite takes a wife-pilegesh, a second-class wife, the power dissymmetry between husband and wife is even more pronounced than in the average patriarchal household, and the relationship of husband to wife is placed in high relief” (Frymer-Kensky, p.119). Trible even describes a concubine as being “virtually a slave” (p.66). Clearly, the Levite’s concubine is relatively powerless compared to her husband.

The Levite is at once of a high social rank and a low one. As a priest he was considered a holy man. On the other hand, at the time of the judges in Israelite history, the Levites were landless, itinerant religious experts (Frymer-Kensky, p.119). They relied on donations from the community they resided in. The Levite lived in a tent (Judges 19:9) in the remote hills of Efraim compared to the house in the city of Bethlehem from which his concubine came from. Despite her lowly status as a concubine, she must have been disappointed in the plunge in her social status by marrying the Levite. “The father’s attitude, coupled with the Levite’s unwillingness to take her as a full-fledged wife, must have been a blow to the girl’s self-esteem…She is treated like chattel, which is reflected grammatically as well: she is the object and the Levite the subject: he ‘takes’ her” (Aschkenasy, p.66). From the beginning, our expectations for this marriage are not high.

She Runs Away – What does “to play the harlot mean?”

Once his concubine deserted [vatizneh] him, leaving him for her father’s house in Bethlehem in Judah; and she stayed there a full four months. And her husband rose and went after her, to speak to her heart, to bring her back…And she brought him into the house of her father” (Judges 19:2-3).

A woman acting on her own to leave her husband’s home was extremely rare in the Ancient Near East. According to most traditional commentators the concubine brought her eventual death upon herself by leaving the safety of her husband’s tent. The woman is critiqued because, like “Dinah, her initial action, leaving the patriarchal home, started the trouble. Just as Dinah was considered loose because she ‘went out,’ so the concubine is considered a ‘harlot’ because she left her husband” (Aschkenasy, p.76). Some biblical versions translate vatizneh as “she played the whore” to emphasize the point. Whether or not the concubine participated in adulterous activity, the “Levite’s wife’s behavior falls into the category of ‘sexual misconduct’ (i.e. socially inappropriate) because she has left him” (Mullner, p.138). Culturally, a woman who leaves her husband is by definition a harlot.

However, the narrative does not support the translation “she played the whore.” First, “the father never scolds his daughter for making such a daring, unusual move, never urges her to return to her lawful master” (Aschkenasy, p.67). If she indeed was a harlot, her father would not have opened her doors to her because of the shame her presence would bring to the family. Secondly, why would the husband expend the time and energy to speak to her heart in an effort to bring her back if the concubine had broken her marriage vows?

“The Levite’s action four months later, his decision to ‘speak to her heart’ implies a sense of guilt. He understands that he must appease her, to ask forgiveness, while she is the wronged party that has to be dealt with kindly and tenderly and be gently persuaded to return…Surely had he felt that he was the wronged party, that he had a serious complaint against his concubine, the Levite would have talked to the father harshly” (Aschkenasy, p.67).

Third, under the Levitical and Deuteronomical laws she would have to be put to death (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22). All in all, the characters do not treat her as if she had been unfaithful to her husband.

Many commentators prefer the Greek translation of vatizneh to the Hebrew version since the verb can sometimes be translated as “quarreled” or “was angry.” If we use a Hebrew idiom we would say, “her heart was vexed.” The way that the Levite treated his concubine later in the story leads me to think that she was an abused wife, not an adulterous woman. “His subsequent behavior makes clear that he was less than sensitive to her needs” (Bledstein, p.51). Given all of these points, I agree with those who suggest that the primary meaning of the verb is “to leave” or to “turn away” (Aschkenasy, p.165, n.28).

If she was a battered wife, then it must have been a traumatic event to see her tormentor approaching her father’s home. Since her father joyfully welcomed the Levite, the daughter could do nothing to prevent his entrance. The Levite “is capable of emotional abuse toward his concubine, maintaining long, menacing silences, and treating her like a non-person. He is not averse to physical roughness and cruelty; soon he will forcefully throw her outdoors into danger, and later he will coldly and methodically dismember her body” (Aschkenasy, p.70).

Making Glad the Heart

And it came to pass, on the fourth day [of feasting], that they rose early in the morning, and he rose up to depart, and the father said to his son-in-law, ‘Strengthen your heart with a morsel of bread, and afterward you shall go your way. And they sat and ate both of them together, and drank, and the father of the young woman said to the man, ‘Be will, I pray thee, and lodge all night, and let they heart be glad.’” (Judges 19:5).

After three days and nights of feasting by themselves, the concubine’s father implored his son-in-law to stay longer, using the phrase “strengthen your heart.” The purpose of the Levite’s visit in the first place was to speak to his concubine’s heart. There has been no mention that he has spoken tender words or reconciled with her. Perhaps the father meant to subtly remind his son-in-law of his original intentions by mentioning the heart several times. Even the next day, the father tried once more to jog the Levite’s memory, to make peace with his daughter before he left. “And he rose to go early on the fifth morning, and the father of the young woman said, ‘Please strengthen your heart.’ And they tarried until afternoon” (Judges 19:8). If only the Levite had listened to the father’s entreaty and spoken kindly to his concubine, the tragedy that follows might have been averted. Perhaps he would have stayed an extra day and left the father’s home earlier in the day so that he could have made it safely home in one day.

Instead, the Levite left the safety of his father-in-law’s home late in the day. It was an irrational decision to take to the road close to sundown. “One must conclude that the Levite’s motivation has a streak of sadism in it. Scaring his concubine, as well as making light of her father’s foreboding, must give him pleasure” (Aschkenasy, p.71). The itinerant priest took his concubine without reconciling with her despite her father’s impotent attempts to bring the two together peacefully. Caught between her husband and her father, the woman had no more cards to play. According to the law, she had to leave with her husband because she did not have the right to divorce (Frymer-Kensky, p.120). The “Levite now knows that she is completely at his mercy. The young woman must feel dispirited, beaten, hopeless. She has lost her struggle for a measure of decent treatment in her master’s house. She knows that the only option once open to her, fleeing to her father’s house, is no longer possible” (Aschkenasy, p.71).

Finally the Levite finds an old man willing to host them in Gibeah in the Benjaminite territory. Once again the men settle in to “make glad their hearts.” Clearly the Levite has no intention of reconciling with his wife but only in bonding with his male hosts. He is only interested in his own well-being, not the heart of his concubine.

A Folly in Israel

As they were making their hearts merry, behold, the men of the city, worthless fellows, surrounded the house, beating on the door. And they said to the old man, the master of the house, ‘Bring out the man who came into your house, that we may know him.’ The owner of the house went outside and said to them, ‘No my friends, don’t be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don’t do this outrageous thing [nebalah] ” (Judges 19:22).

Just when the Levite was settling into another night of revelry, he’s suddenly in harm’s way as the crowd outside demands to abuse his body. Stone argues that there is no ambiguity in the men of Gibeah’s intentions. The worthless fellows want the Levite so that they may “know” him. Then we quickly learn that the men “knew” the concubine, clearly a reference to rape. “If the eventual treatment of the woman is taken into account, then it appears that the men of Gibeah demand sexual access to the Levite, just as the men of Sodom demanded sexual access to Lot’s visitors in Genesis 19” (Stone, Sex, Honor and Power, p.75). Culturally, being penetrated by another man was the most emasculating act possible. It is a “folly,” a nebalah, the worst offense possible. The same phrase is used when Shechem slept with Dinah without her father’s approval. As her brother Amnon was about to rape her, Tamar pleaded for him not to attack her. “No, my brother, do not rape me, for such is not done in Israel, do not do this nebalah”. Roth suggests that nebalah is a sacrilege and a “breach of a sacred covenant relationship” (Roth, p.406). Nebalah appears to be closely related to rape and the outrage against it indicates that Israel thought of itself as a nation that did not perform this crime.

However, the old man’s speech does not satisfy the mob. In the crowd’s eyes, the old man disgraced the people of Gibeah by providing hospitality when they didn’t. “This act of implicit criticism of local customs demands revenge, in the form of dragging the guest from out [of] the protection of his host, and ‘roughing him up,’ thus proving both his and his host’s masculine incompetence” (Aschkenasy, p.72). Since homosexual rape was a more serious offense than heterosexual rape, the old man had to do anything to maintain his commitment to hospitality and thereby save face. So he sweetens the deal: “Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. Let me bring them out to you. Ravish them, and do to them what is good in your eyes” (Judges 19:24). This of course recalls the story of the wicked men of Sodom demanding that Lot give them his two guests. Lot offers his two daughters instead. The language used in each episode is almost identical to make sure that we don’t miss the point that both stories are connected. “These two stories show that rules of hospitality in Israel protect only males.” (Trible, p.75) Considering how Lot’s wives eventually faired with their father, neither either tale has a happy ending. Both end in the destruction of cities and the great loss of life.

By connecting both stories the narrator intended to convey that the threat and abuse of innocent and helpless women only leads to national disaster. “The culture may well prefer to sacrifice women instead of men in extreme situations of this kind, but that does not mean that the narrator allows this perspective to pass uncriticized” (Lapsley, p.46).

Thrusting the Concubine out the Door

But the men would not listen to him, so the man seized his concubine and pushed her out to them. They raped her and abused her all night long until morning: and they let her go when dawn broke” (Judges 19:25).

The mob rejected the old man’s offer to ravish the two women. However, suddenly the concubine was thrown out the door. In the Hebrew the implication is that she strongly resisted. Also, it is unclear whether the old man or the Levite actually pushed the concubine out the door. Legally, the old man did not have the right to thrust the Levite’s concubine out the door. As host he was required to protect the Levite as well as his property which included the concubine. However, the Levite himself had the right to give his concubine away, whether directly or by giving her to old man to do what was right in his eyes.

The crowd of men had no difficulty taking advantage of the single woman. Why did the men of Gibeah reject the first offer of both the host’s virgin daughter and the concubine? Then without explanation they accepted the gift of one of the women, the concubine? Because the men were interested in punishing the Levite alone, not the old man as well. “A sexual misconduct committed against a woman is, therefore, an attack upon the man under whose authority she falls…For this reason the offer of the daughter and the concubine is rebuffed, while the offer of the concubine alone is successful. The men of Gibeah are not interested in attacking the host; rather, they want his guest” (Stone, Sex, Honor and Power, p.81). By saving his male guest from rape, the old man has saved face and in his mind won the bargain.

Then we learn that the Levite rose up the next morning, therefore we know he went to bed while his concubine was being viciously raped somewhere in Gibeah. “That the husband might have slept through the attack astonishes us and adds to the horror. Perhaps he was suffering from a hangover after the 5 days of carousing” (E.T.A. Davidson, p. 51). By this little detail we are meant to be appalled by the man’s selfishness and ruthlessness.

Back at the Threshold

When her husband rose in the morning, he opened the doors of the house and sent out to continue his journey; and there was the woman, his concubine, lying at the entrance of the house, with her hands on the threshold. ‘Get up,’ he said to her, ‘let us go.’ But there was no reply” (Judges 19:27-8).

The Levite showed no curiosity about her fate. Before the Levite even saw her, he was determined to go without caring what happened to her. He acted like the whole event didn’t affect him at all. He practically stepped over her body on the way out the door. He addressed her like a dog sleeping at the door—“get up and let’s go.” The Levite’s “speech sounds more heartless and cutting in Hebrew because of its brevity, only two words. The man does not stop to look at her injuries, to see whether she needs help, indeed to verify whether she is alive or dead” (Aschkenasy, p.74). These are also the first words the Levite said to his concubine in the story, a far cry from his original intent to speak to his wife’s heart. He doesn’t expect an answer from her because she has not been given a voice throughout the whole episode. He’s used to her not having a voice.

The text states that the Levite “seized” the woman from the threshold, the same word used to describe what he or the old man did when one of them threw her out the door to the mob. The narrator invites us to compare the two events. This same technique is used to connect the “to send out” to describe the actions of the mob and the Levite as he distributes the severed pieces of her body. The “narrative subtly identifies the Levite with the violent mob, implying that their actions belong in the same category” (Lapsley, p.49). We are to contemplate the depravity of the Levite’s action.

In the Hebrew text it is not clear whether the concubine is dead or not as she lies at the threshold. Uncomfortable with this unknown, the Greek text tells us that she is already dead. The Hebrew leaves open the possibility that the Levite murdered her later when he cut her up into 12 pieces. This seems all the more likely given that the Levite talks to her, clearly expecting her to be alive. Yet even if he thought she was alive, he treated her like an object, throwing her over his donkey like rug.

Dismemberment

When he came home, he picked up the knife, and took hold of his concubine and divided her according to her bones into twelve parts. He sent them throughout the territory of Israel” (Judges 19:29).

In 1 Samuel 11:7 Saul cut up a yoke ox and sent it throughout Israel with the threat that he would do the same to the cattle of those who did not join him in battle. In the story of the Levite’s concubine it is a human being who is cut up like an ox. In fact the language is the very technical terminology of butchery. The Levite took the knife he used for ritual purposes to cut up her body. “The man raises a slaughtering knife, the ma’akelet, the same type of knife that Abraham raised over Isaac’s head” (Frymer-Kensky, p.127). As a priest, he would have been quite competent in severing meat from bone for ritual sacrifices. The dismemberment of the concubine is a parody of sacred ritual practice. “Is she alive? Then he slaughters her, but not for Yahweh. Is she dead? Then he, a Levite, should not touch her. Not only does the Levite, a priest, handle the defiling body; but also instead of offering the pieces to Yahweh, he sends them to his brothers” (Bal, Death & Dissymmetry, pp. 98-99). She becomes a meat offering to the tribes, an anti-sacrifice.

The dismemberment erased all evidence of her humanity, deprived her even of the dignity of burial. “It is as if the man is trying, in overdoing the violence already done to her, retrospectively to affirm his mastery, as against the mastery of the rapists, over her. Even at this poignant moment, moment of [her] dismemberment, the men compete” (Bal, Death & Dissymmetry, p. 126). The Levite also comes across as publicy-hungry. By sending out her parts throughout the land, he wants to get the most out of the wrong he perceives has been done to him.

The concubine’s severed body then becomes the excuse for a civil war between the twelve tribes of Israel. Ironically the tribe of Benjamin is almost cut off from existence. Instead of the redressing of crimes, it is followed up by more crime including the rape of many more women. The dismemberment symbolizes the disintegration of society; violence against woman is the catalyst for this disintegration.

Conclusion

“And everyone who saw it cried out, ‘Never has such a thing happened or been seen from the day the Israelites came out of the land of Egypt to this day! Set your heart upon it, take counsel, and speak’” (Judges 19:30).

One last time the narrator draws our attention to the heart. We are enjoined to not be heartless like the Levite and the mob. Almost every detail of the narrative is constructed to make us care about the woman and to find the Levite utterly contemptible. Human nature hasn’t changed dramatically over time. We are as capable of the same mistakes now as then. Judges 19 shows us that we are meant to be kind to each other, that even the act of speaking to each other’s hearts can prevent social chaos. Peace in society can begin with the tender words between a husband and a wife. It’s the littlest details of our behavior that matter. Now set your heart upon it, take counsel and decide to practice kindness in all things.

 

For Further Reading

Ackerman, Susan – Warrior, Dancer, Seductress, Queen: Women in Judges and Biblical Israel (New York: Doubleday, 1998)

Amit, Yairah – “The Concubine in the Gibeah Episode as Hidden Polemic against Saul’s Kingdom and its Supporters (Judges 19-21)” Beit Mikra 37 (1991-92)

Amit, Yairah – “Literature in the Service of Politics: Studies in Judges 19-21,” in Politics and Theopolitics in the Bible and Postbiblical Literature, Henning Graf Reventlow, Yair Hoffman, and Benjamin Uffenheimer, eds. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 171. (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994) pp. 28-40.

Aschkenasy, Nehama – Women at the Window: Biblical Tales of Oppression and Escape (Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1998)

Bach, Alice – “Rereading the Body Politic: Women and Violence in Judges 21,” in A. Brenner, ed. A Feminist Companion to Judges, 2nd Series (Feminist Companion to the Hebrew Bible; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999b), 143-59.

Bal, Mieke – “A Body of Writing: Judges 19,” in A Feminist Companion to Judges (First Series), Athalya Brenner, ed. Feminist Companion to the Bible 4. (Sheffield, Eng.: JSOT Press, 1993) 208 – 230.

Bal, Mieke – “Dealing/With/Women: Daughters in the Book of Judges” in Women in the Hebrew Bible: A Reader, Alice Bach, ed. (New York: Routledge, 1999).

Bal, Mieke – Death and Dissymmetry: The Politics of Coherence in the Book of Judges (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988)

Bal, Mieke – “The Rape of Narrative and the Narrative of Rape: Speech Acts and Body Language in Judges” in Literature and the Body: Essays on Populations and Persons, E. Scarry, ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988).

Beal, Timothy K. and David M. Gunn, eds. – Reading Bibles, Writing Bodies: Identity and the Book (London: Routledge, 1997)

Bellis, Alice Ogden – Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes: Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible (Westminster: John Knox Press, 1994)

Bird, Phyllis A. – “‘To Play the Harlot': An Inquiry into an Old Testament Metaphor'” in Gender and Difference, Peggy L. Day, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989) 75-94.

Bledstein, Adrien Janis – “Is Judges a Woman’s Satire of Men Who Play God?” Judges, A Feminist Companion to the Bible, A. Brenner, ed. (First Series) 4:34-54.

Block, Daniel I. – “Echo Narrative Technique in Hebrew Literature: A Study in Judges 19,” Westminster Theological Journal 52 (1990) 325-41.

Bohmbach, K.G. – “Conventions/Contraventions: The Meaning of Public and Private for the Judges 19 Concubine,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 83 (1999), 83-98.

Brenner, Athalya – “Ideological Criticism: Judges 17-21 and the Dismembered Body” in Judges and Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies, Gale Yee, ed. (Fortress Press, 1995)

Coetzee, J.H. – “The ‘Outcry’ of the Dissected Woman in Judges 19-21: Embodiment of a Society,” Old Testament Essays 15, no.1 (2002): 52-63.

Currie, S.D. – “Biblical Studies for a Seminar on Sexuality and the Human Community, I: Judges 19-21,” Austin Seminary Bulletin 87 (1971), 13-20

Davidson, E.T.A. – Intricacy, Design, and Cunning in the Book of Judges (Xlibris, 2008)

Davidson, Richard M. – Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2007)

Exum, J. Cheryl – “The Centre Cannot Hold: Thematic and Texual Instabilities in Judges” Catholic Bible Quarterly 52 (1990) 410-431.

Exum, J. Cheryl – “Feminist Criticism: Whose Interests are Being Served?” in Judges and Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies. Gale A. Yee, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995) 65-90.

Exum, J. Cheryl – Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)versions of Biblical Narratives. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series 163 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993).

Fewell, Danna Nolan and David M. Gunn – Gender, Power, and Promise: The Subject of the Bible’s First Story (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993)

Frymer-Kensky, Tikva S. – Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of their Stories (New York: Schoken Books, 2002)

Fuchs, Esther – Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)versions of Biblical Narratives. JSOT Supplement 163 (Continuum, 1993)

Gravette, Sandra L. – “Reading ‘Rape’ in the Hebrew Bible: A Consideration of Language.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 28 (2004): 279-99.

Houten, Christina van – “The Rape of the Concubine,” Perspectives 12, no. 8 (October 1997) 12-14.

Hudson, D.M. – “Living in a Land of Epithets: Anonymity in Judges 19-21,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 62 (1994), 49-66.

Jones-Warsaw, K. – “Toward a Womanist Hermeneutic: A Reading of Judges 19-21,” in A Feminist Companion to Judges (First Series), Athalya Brenner, ed. Feminist Companion to the Bible 4. (Sheffield, Eng.: JSOT Press, 1993)

Keefe, Alice A. – “Rapes of Women/Wars of Men” Semeia 61 (1993) 79-97.

Lapsley, Jacqueline E. – Whispering the Word: Hearing Women’s Stories in the Old Testament (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005)

Liverani, Mario – “Messages, Women, and Hospitality: Inter-tribal Communication in Judges 19-21″ in Myth and Politics in Ancient Near Eastern Historiography, Zainab Bahrani and Marc Van de Mieroop, eds. (Cornell University Press, 2007)

Matthews, Victor H. – “Hospitality and Hostility in Genesis 19 and Judges 19″ Biblical Theology Bulletin 22 (1992) 3-12.

Mullner, Ilse – “Lethal Differences: Sexual Violence as Violence Against Others in Judges 19,” in A Feminist Companion to Judges (Second Series), Athalya Brenner, ed. Feminist Companion to the Bible 4. (Sheffield, Eng.: JSOT Press, 1999), 126-42.

Niditch, Susan – “The ‘Sodomite’ Theme in Judges 19 – 20: Family, Community, and Social Disintegration,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 44 (1982): 365-78.

Patton, Corrine L. – “From Heroic Individual to Nameless Victim: Women in the Social World of the Judges” in Biblical and Humane. A Festschrift for John F. Priest. Linda Bennett Elder, ed., Scholars Press Homage Series. (Scholars Press, 1996)

Penchansky, D. – “Staying the Night: Intertextuality in Genesis and Judges,” in D.N. Fewell (ed.), Reading between Texts: Intertextuality and the Hebrew Bible. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1992) 77-88.

Percy, W. – “Naming and Being,” The Personalist 41 (1960) 148-58.

Rashkow, Ilona N. – Taboo or Not Taboo: Sexuality & Family in the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000).

Reinhartz, Adele – “Why Ask My Name?” Anonymity & Identity in Biblical Narrative (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998)

Reis, Pamela Tamarkin – “The Levite’s Concubine: New Light on a Dark Story,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 20 (2006), 125-46.

Roth, W.M.W. – “NBL [nabalah],” Vetus Testamentum 10 (1960) 394-409.

Satterthwaite, Philip – “‘No King in Israel': Narrative Criticism and Judges 17-21″ Tyndale Bulletin 44 (1993) 75-88; www.tyndalehouse.com/tynbul/library/TynBull_1993_44_1_04_Satterthwaite_NoKing_Judg17f.pdf

Sawyer, Deborah F. – God, Gender and the Bible. Biblical Limits (London: Routledge, 2002)

Schneid-Ofseyer, Miriam – “The Concubine of Gibeah, Judges 19-21,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 18 (1989) 111-13.

Scholz, Susanne – Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible (London/New York: T&T International, 2007)

Stone, Ken – “Gender and Homosexuality in Judges 19: Subject-Honor, Object-Shame?” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 67 (1995) 87-107.

Stone, Ken – Sex, Honor and Power in the Deuteronomistic History: A Narratological and Anthropological Analysis. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series 234. Sheffield, Eng.: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Press, 1996.

Stone, Ken – “Concubine (Secondary Wife) of a Levite,” Meyers, Carol, Toni Craven , and Ross S. Kraemer, eds., Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryhal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) pp. 248-250.

Szpek, Heidi M. – Re-Imagining Eve and Adam and Other Brief Essays (iUniverse, 2002)

Tapp, Anne Michele – “An Ideology of Expendability: Virgin Daughter Sacrifice in Genesis 19:1-11, Judges 11:30-39 and 19:22-26″ in Mieke Bal, ed., Anti-Covenant: Counter-Reading Women’s Lives in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield, Eng.: Almond, 1989) 157-74.

Trible, Phyllis – Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Overtures to Biblical Theology. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984)

van Wolde, Ellen – “Does ‘inna Denote Rape? A Semantic Analysis of a Controversial Word,” Vetus Testamentum 52 (2002) 528-44.

Yamada, Frank M. – Configurations of Rape in the Hebrew Bible: A Literary Analysis of Three Rape Narratives (New York: Peter Lang, 2008)

Yee, Gale – “Ideological Criticism: Judges 17-21 and the Dismembered Body” in Judges and Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies. Gale A. Yee, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995) 146-70.

Yee, Gale – “Judges 17-21 and the Dismemberemd Body” in Judges and Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies. Gale A. Yee, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995)

 

 

 

Women and the Ancient Synagogue of Philippi

“On the Sabbath day we [Paul and his associates] went outside the gate [of Philippi] by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer [προσευχὴν; transliteration: proseuch] and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered [συνελθούσαις, synelthousais] there” Acts 16:13.

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Me standing next to an icon of Lydia on the banks of the “River” Gangites, Philippi, Greece.

This is the place where tradition holds that Lydia assembled with other women (Acts 16:13). Archaeologically there is some controversy whether this is the exact spot but I’ll leave that discussion for another article. What I’m interested in discussing today is whether the site the New Testament describes as a place of prayer [proseuche] was a synagogue and what that meant if only women gathered there.

After reviewing all the uses of gathered, (συνελθούσαις transliteration: synelthousais) throughout the New Testament, the scholar Ivoni Richter Reimer concludes that when a gathering is described as a synelthousais “there is always the idea of a deliberate, purposeful gathering that also implies community” (Reimer, p. 74). From an analysis of Paul’s modus operands of missionary activity throughout his career, he tended to seek out places of Jewish worship upon arriving at a new location and there proclaimed Jesus as the long-awaited Jewish Messiah.

So this place that Paul met women at the banks of a river, was it his usual haunt, the local synagogue, or just a place where the Jewish community prayed? Traditionally scholars have insisted that it couldn’t have been a synagogue service at the banks of the river because ten Jewish men (a minyan) had to be present for an official Jewish assembly. The concept that ten men must be present to legitimate a synagogue service is a later rabbinic ruling that post-dates the story of Lydia. Furthermore, in referring to rabbinic sources “we should be aware that they do not present a unified picture” (Reimer, p.91). According to Megilla 23a, minors and women may be counted among those who can read the Torah aloud in worship, in other words, be considered part of the minimum required to authenticate a synagogue service. Then directly after this ruling comes Megilla 24a which contradicts the first statement because it states that women should not read the Torah in public. In other words, there was a wealth of debate in the Jewish community over whether and how women should be participants in Jewish synagogue services. Therefore, we have no evidence that there was universal agreement that ten participants in synagogue services was required in the mid-first century C.E. regardless of gender. So a gathering of Philippi women praying to a Jewish God could have been a synagogue assembly.

It has been argued for centuries by the dominant exegeses that Philippi had no Jewish community and that’s why there wasn’t an actual synagogue and therefore, women weren’t involved in any “significant” or “official” assembly. Therefore, the women were just silently praying on the banks of the river, nothing more. This is pure supposition. If there wasn’t a Jewish presence in Philippi, then why did Paul go out looking for one, thinking he would find one by the river? The scholar Bernadette Brooten has studied a large variety of ancient sources and has determined that predating the requirement of ten men to form a minyan, ancient tradition allowed women to read the Torah in public and were counted as members of the quorum (Brooten, 94). We simply can’t jump to the conclusion that the women gathered at the bank of the river had nothing to do with a synagogue service.

Unfortunately, there aren’t any other instances of the term “place of prayer” [proseuch] in the New Testament to understand this term better. Taking an interdisciplinary approach, Reimer studied extra-biblical uses of this word. She found that both the early Jewish historian Josephus and his contemporary, the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, used the term to describe synagogues (Josephus, Via 277 and Philo Legatio ad Gajum, 155-58). In addition, numerous inscriptions and documents testify that the term proseuch referred to synagogues (Reimer, p. 87, 89, 90).

Therefore, we need to keep in mind the possibility that there exited in Philippi, if not elsewhere, a synagogue mostly composed of women and was considered a legitimate institution by Paul as well as other Jews.

And don’t worry. I’ll write more about Lydia and all the remarkable things we can learn from her.

 

For Further Reading

Ascough, Richard S. – Lydia: Paul’s Cosmopolitan Hostess. Paul’s Social Network: Brothers and Sisters in Faith. (Collegeville, Minnesota: Order of Saint Benedict, 2009)

Brooten, Bernadette J. – Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue: Inscriptional Evidence and Background. Brown Judaic Studies, 36. (Atlanta and Chico, Calif.: Scholars, 1982).

Dewey, Joanna – “From Storytelling to Written Text: The Loss of Early Christian Women’s Voices,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 26 (1996), 71-78.

Gillman, Florence Morgan – “Early Christian Women at Philippi.” Journal of Gender in World Religions [Montreal] 1 (1, 1990): 59-79.

Luter, A. Boyd – “Partnership in the Gospel: The Role of Women in the church at Philippi.” Journal of Evangelical Theological Society 39 (1996) 411-20.

Malherbe, Abraham J. – Social Aspects of Early Christianity. 2nd enlarged ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983).

Reimer, Ivoni Richter – Women in the Acts of the Apostles: A Feminist Liberation Perspective, Linda M. Maloney, trans. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995).

Schottroff, Luise“Lydia: A New Quality of Power,” in Let the Oppressed Go Free: Feminist Perspectives on the New Testament. Gender and the Biblical Tradition. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1991).

Thomas, W. Derek – “The Place of Women in the Church at Philippi.” Expository Times 83 (1971-72): 117-20.

 

A poem about Lot’s Wife

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Idit* Means Witness

I: Saturation

The dehydration starts slowly,

a little sip of the sea every day:

when she doesn’t smile for the warmth of her bed,

for the appleness of a child’s cheek.

The rocks piled high on her chest

feel better than caresses

because she can make the tightness last forever

and mean everything.

 

She’s too angry to stumble in the dark,

sulfur clouds of Sodom burning.

She shouts, arm raised, fist tight,

punching the ashy air.

Not lost because she isn’t looking

for a way out, just crystal clarity.

She cries glassy tears,

hot on her cheek, burning into prisms.

 

For a brief moment it rains in the desert.

Large drops plop in the dirt.

Not enough water to break the surface

tension. The sun and wind dance

the rain before it soaks in.

Before she thinks, she looks back

to see God looking the other way.

 

II: Alchemy

In the heat she sweats the salt out,

cramping, vomiting, confused,

straining her heart,

reduced by her concentration.

 

She soaks up a bit of moisture

from the dews and downpours.

The water slowly leaches out the salt

and suffuses her with stone.

Osmosis quietly exchanges sand for brine.

She is surrounded by other

natural deposits,

salt licks,

stumbling blocks:

women who have narrowed

themselves down to the elements,

the deliberate essentials.

 

They stand silent, tight and full,

longing and unmovable

in their constipation.

 

Time stands still, it’s surface

smoothed out.  Nothing to hurry to.

Inside, the minerals feel

the same: resignation and peace surrendering

to each other.

The sun makes her a sundial

telling time, telling her story.

She says, “I am not going to melt

away to nothing.  I have two girls who think

the world has ended.

I will stand here until they remember

I have not left them, I did not give up.”

 

III: Epiphany

The stone looks back to see

its shadow.  It is a wondrous moment

of conversion.  She looks back at the whole

of her life, all of it.

She looks back at God, all of God.

 

She wants the deadly embrace

with God’s darkness.

And the darkness touches back,

and holds her, raises her high

above her blood.  Pressures

from the core of the earth

lift her upward from her bed of salt

until she can hold herself

firmly in place, standing her ground.

From the lowest place on earth,

a desolate place where it is impossible to sink,

nothing stands between her and God.

They seep into each other.

 

Rolling her name around on our tongue

we make life savory,

cure a little,

preserve what we thought

was forgotten.  If we love her

it will be with a sprinkling of salt

on the challah, with tears, dark earth

and a dusty taste in our mouths.

 

–Robin Cohn

 

* Traditional name of Lot’s wife (Safer ha Yashar, 65)

Image source

 

Priscilla, Author of Hebrews? Pt. 2

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Image source

In my last post, I explored the reasons why Hebrews in the New Testament might have been written by a woman, as outlined by Ruth Hoppin, in her book Priscilla’s Letter: Finding the Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Setting aside for a moment the feminine characteristics of the epistle, let’s explore the variety of possible authors that have been proposed over the centuries. Initially Paul was fingered, however studies have shown that the writing style of Hebrews differs dramatically from the literary mannerisms of the apostle’s authentic letters.

Here are the other contenders that have been considered:

  • Clement of Rome, a bishop in Rome in the late first century– his writing style diverges considerably from the style and opinions of Hebrews, thereby making it very unlikely he wrote the canonized book.
  • In the second century, Tertullian thought that Barnabas, a disciple in the early Jerusalem church, was the author. Since he was a priest connected with the temple, one would expect a variety of accurate references to the temple rite in his writings.

However, “the author [of Hebrews] is not familiar with ceremonial procedures… Erroneously, the golden censer is said to stand in the holy of Holies (Heb. 9:4). In fact, the censer stood on the altar in front of the ark (Exodus 40:5)…Nor does the High Priest offer daily sacrifices as in Hebrews 7:27…Then too Barnabas tended to observe Jewish food taboos (Galatians 2:13), while the author of Hebrews doubted their efficacy (Heb. 13:9)” (Hoppin, p.63).

Therefore, we can eliminate Barnabas from the lineup.

  • In the third century, Clement of Rome was identified as the author by Hippolytus. However, comparing Hebrews to Clement’s extant letter to Corinthians, the style and viewpoint vary considerably.

“The two letters diverge in level of artistry and degree of religious exaltation, testifying to different authorship. Consider matters of style. When faced with two words of like meaning, the frugal author of Hebrews was likely to use one and save the other. With monotonous predictability, Clement used both” (Hoppin, p.58).

  • Martin Luther put forward Apollos, mentioned in Acts 18:24-28, as another candidate for author of Hebrews. Again, he is disqualified because he became a Christian as a result of Priscilla and Aquila’s instruction. We have no evidence that the missionary couple ever observed Jesus, as required by the conversion story of Heb. 2:3. By the way, if Apollos was “mighty in the scriptures” and a cultured Greek (Acts 18:24) then we would expect Priscilla and Aquila to be even more learned and well versed in Greek than he.
  • John Calvin couldn’t decide between Clement of Rome and Luke. See above for the dismissal of Clement. Hoppin does not provide an argument against Luke, however clearly the writing style of the Gospel attributed to him and his follow-up work, Acts, diverges considerably in style from the writing characteristics of Hebrews.

Hoppin argues that due to Hebrews’ familiarity with the apostle Paul’s theology, the writer had to be a member of the apostle’s inner circle of companions. In addition, internal textual evidence leads Hoppin to surmise that the following characteristics must also apply to the author of Hebrews:

  • According to the story in Hebrews 2:3, the author was converted to Christianity by someone who saw and heard Jesus and therefore the author did not directly witness the events noted in the Gospels.
  • The author had connections in Rome evidenced by the postscript, “They of Italy salute you” (Heb. 13:24); note that it is significant that Priscilla and Aquila hosted a house-church in Rome (Rom. 16:5).
  • The author had a ministry to Jewish Christians to the city to which the letter was sent. Hoppin argues that the destination of the letter was Ephesus, a city Priscilla and Aquila resided in.
  • The author had to be fluent in Greek and trained in rhetorical skills based on the artistry of Hebrews.

Of all of Paul’s fellow workers given the above perameters, Priscilla and/or her husband, Aquila, fit the bill as the most likely author(s) of Hebrews. If we add in the evidence for a female writer, then we are left with Priscilla as the sole author. The New Testament certainly portrayed her as a close acquaintance and housemate of Paul. She even moved with him from Corinth to Ephesus and then later sailed with him to Syria (Acts 18:18). Priscilla also traveled with Paul’s companion, Timothy (Heb. 13:23).

Archaeological evidence bears some weight in identifying Priscilla with a prominent family of Rome. As a member of a prestigious family, she would have had the education and resources to write a lofty literary manuscript such as Hebrews.

According to Christian tradition, the Church of St. Prisca on Aventine hill was built over the house of Priscilla and Aquila. In the eighteenth century archaeologists discovered an ancient Roman home near the basilica along with a bronze plaque dated 224 C.E. commemorating an honor given to a senator, Caius Marius Pudens Cornelianus. Some scholars take this to mean that the Pudens family owned the property, and probably had for centuries. Therefore, it is likely that if and when Priscilla and Aquila had lived there, it would have been one of the Pudens’ family properties.

 “Understandably, such inscriptions were placed where the man lived who was being honored… Since [Priscilla and Aquila] lived on the estate of Pudens’ family, they were either servants or members of the family. If they were servants, why was the bronze tablet placed in their home? … Apparently, Priscilla and Aquila were members of the family” (Hoppin, p.93).

If this line of reasoning is correct, then Priscilla would have been a high ranking Roman woman.

Archaeological excavations have confirmed that a first century Christian underground cemetery, the Catacombs of Priscilla, also belonged to the Pudens’ estate. The name “Priscilla” does not refer to the New Testament character, but to one of the many women with the same name within the Pudens’ family. Regardless, a long-standing tradition holds that the biblical Priscilla and Aquila were buried in this catacomb.

In addition, the name “Peter” appears in both Greek and Latin on many of the earliest tomb inscriptions within the catacomb. Peter was an unusual name in Rome, therefore, the inscriptions probably refer to the apostle who was actively baptizing in this period of time. The apostle Peter converted a Roman senator named Quintus Cornelius Pudens and his wife Priscilla (remember this was a popular name in the Pudens family). Traditionally, the senator invited both Peter and Paul to live in his home in the imperial city. The Church of St. Pudentia is said to have been built over the site of his home. An excavation under the Church in 1870 confirmed it was the house of Pudens.

Just a lot of coincidences? Or a pattern showing that the Priscilla of the New Testament was closely aligned with a highly influential Roman family?

I believe the strongest argument against Hoppin’s line of argument relies on Heb. 11:32. The issue is not apparent in the English translation but in the Greek, the “I” is masculine. Hoppin counters that the participle is neuter. But not everyone agrees. Not knowing Greek, I do not have the qualifications to referee the comments exchanged back and forth between Hoppin and her reviewers. If you want to explore this topic further, I suggest following Hoppin’s line of thought online.

I have to say that Priscilla’s Letter is a lively read and quite thought provoking. I highly recommend Hoppin’s book as a starting point in the exploration of the topic of the female authorship of Hebrews.

In my final analysis, the well-written book does not definitively answer the question, “Who wrote Hebrews?” But that didn’t stop me from speculating on Priscilla’s background in my historical novel, Junia. Who knows, perhaps Junia was the author of Hebrews!

 

For Further Reading

Hoppin, Ruth – Priscilla’s Letter: Finding the Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Fort Bragg, CA.: Lost Coast Press, 2009)

Hoppin, Ruth – “Priscilla and Plausibility: Responding to Questions about Priscilla as Author of Hebrews,” Priscilla Papers, vol. 25, no. 2, Spring 2011.

 

Priscilla, Author of Hebrews?

 

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For a number of years I’ve been aware of the hypothesis that a woman wrote one of the books in the New Testament, namely The Epistle to the Hebrews. Being all about women of the Bible, I’d love to discover that a woman wrote at least one of the books in the collection. But I’m also pretty demanding in what constitutes a convincing argument. I’ve examined a number of promising theories about women’s power and influence throughout the centuries, but many promising theories end up being disappointing studies. Wearing my skeptical hat while I conducted my research about women in the Christian Bible, I was surprised to find Ruth Hoppin’s analysis of the authorship of Hebrews cited over and over again by some of the most well respected scholars in the field. I finally succumbed and purchased her book, Priscilla’s Letter: Finding the Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews.

The Priscilla of Hoppin’s title is mentioned six times in the New Testament. She’s an intriguing figure since her name often appears first when she is mentioned along with her husband, Aquila. Most scholars agree that the unusual ordering of the couple’s names indicates that she was more prominent than her husband. In addition, she is described as teaching Apollos, a prominent preacher in Corinth. She also worked alongside Aquila in their tent-making business and became a traveling companion of Paul. Hoppin, as well as others, also believes that Priscilla was the author of Hebrews.

To follow are her most salient arguments in favor of Priscilla’s authorship.

Hebrews is unique among 14,000 extant letters of the time period: there is no introduction or greeting which mentions the author’s name. Furthermore, there is no evidence that this part of the manuscript was lost. All known copies of Hebrews have the same beginning (Hoppin, pp.3-4). If the author’s name was lost, it happened shortly after it was written since Clement of Rome quoted extensively from Hebrews in his letter to the Corinthians in 95 – 96 C.E. Clement did not specify whom he was citing, an unusual practice for the early church writer. In contrast, he mentioned Paul by name when using the apostle’s words. Since Hebrews was written sometime between 65 – 85 C.E., it was highly likely that Clement would have known the author either directly or by word of mouth. The incipient church wasn’t that big and correspondence circulated freely around the Mediterranean.  Hoppin speculates that female authorship would have been an embarrassment to the Church Fathers who wanted to remove leadership positions from women as the Jesus movement matured. Therefore, it appears that the author’s name was deliberately kept a secret.

In an analysis of the word and phrase usage in Hebrews, Hoppin finds an apologetic feminine voice. For instance the work begins: “I appeal to you, brethren, bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly.” However, Hebrews is one of the longest letters in the New Testament. Could the author have been trying to say that, “I am not worthy, with the words I have, of doing justice to this important subject”? Apparently the Greek text can also be translated as “only to a slight extent have I given you orders,” a submissive comment, if a woman had been addressing men. Further investigation comparing the language used by women and men in the first century, particularly when writing on theological themes, would help clarify the argument that the author of Hebrews wrote from a feminine point of view.

Hebrews uses the language of parenthood, an allusion one would expect from a female author. The writer understood that Pharaoh’s daughter thought of Moses as her own son, described the hiding of Moses in a tender way (“because they saw he was a beautiful child”), and describeed God leading the people of Israel out of Egypt like a father holding his small son’s hand (Heb. 8:9). Hebrews refers to childhood, education and parental discipline throughout the exposition. Furthermore, the letter does not use any language showing women to be the inferior of men.

A variety of women are mentioned or alluded to, including Sarah, Rahab, the widow of Zarephath, the Shunammite woman, Judith in the Apocrypha and Esther. The Gospel of Luke also mentions a great number of women, but we can’t conclude therefore that its author was female. Hoppin notes that all the women mentioned in Hebrews are envisioned as exemplars of faith with more emphasis than the Hebrew Bible pictured these heroines in the initial rendition of their stories. For example, Heb. 11:11 – “By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.”

“Perhaps this is what we should add to the author’s psychological profile: generosity in evaluating the spiritual role of Sarah in her nation’s history—seeing her intrinsic faithfulness instead of her momentary confusion and disbelief” (Hoppin, pp.42-43).

From late antiquity to the Renaissance, most commentators assumed that Paul was the letter’s author because of the similarity between the concepts explored by the author of Hebrews and the apostle’s writing. Contemporary scholarship has shown that there is a considerable difference in style and vocabulary than that used in Paul’s authenticated letters. Hoppin suggests that the author of Hebrews intimately understood Paul’s theology and “was closely associated with Paul, engaging in many hours of conversation with him” (Hoppin, p.57). Therefore Hoppin suggests that the author of Hebrews can be found among Paul’s closest companions.

Priscilla moved with Paul from Corinth to Ephesus and then later sailed with him to Syria (Acts 18:18). Priscilla also traveled with Paul’s companion, Timothy (Heb. 13:23). The New Testament certainly portrayed Priscilla as a close acquaintance and housemate of Paul. She had many opportunities to become familiar with the apostle’s theological ideas and therefore, could have conveyed these concepts in her own words, in a style all her own.

In part two of this post, I will explore the other possible candidates for the author of Hebrews.

Hoppin, Ruth – Priscilla’s Letter: Finding the Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Fort Bragg, CA.: Lost Coast Press, 2009)

Was Jesus a Feminist Revolutionary?

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As a Jewish woman reading Christian exegesis about the New Testament, I’m often struck by the anti-Semitism of the writing, even from the most scholarly and well-educated. I’m sure it’s all unconscious, but never-the-less, it’s pervasive. In my reading of Christian hermeneutics, I’m told that Jesus always treats women better than those Jews did. Paul gives women leadership roles for those poor women who’d been shut out of the Jewish religious system. Etc. This topic has been discussed a great deal over the years, and undoubtedly I’ll come back to it myself. Many of my Christian sisters have not come to an understanding of what their insistance that Jesus was a feminist really means to Jewish readers.

There are lots of ways of viewing Jesus, but “feminist” isn’t an appropriate label for him. He adhered to the general images of women and social practices of his day.

Kathleen Corley exposes “the myth that the behavior and teachings of Jesus established an unprecedented and revolutionary model for the full acceptance of the personhood of women, reversing earlier and stricter Jewish codes which defined women as mere chattel” (Corley, p.52)

Judaism was not monolithic. First century Israel hosted a wide spectrum of Jewish practices and beliefs. Many Jews saw women as powerful, integral members of the economic and social system. Archaeology tends to back this up, based on the high praise given to women inscribed on stones amidst the ruins of ancient Israel.

Many Christians believe that women had no voice in the Jewish religion, no standing in the synagogue, no leadership in the Jewish community. They vigorously argue that Jesus liberated women from the oppressive law-based religion of the Hebrews. On close examination, we learn that Jewish women in the first century of the common era, as well as prior centuries, were afforded a great deal of authority, honor and rights.

Inscriptional, archaeological, and historical commentaries leave no doubt that women actively participated in religious life, in addition to other public expressions of their autonomy. For example, later rabbinic sources (Megilla 23a and 24a) state that minors and women can be counted among those who can read the Torah (Hebrew Bible, aka, Old Testament) aloud in worship. [There are contradictions in the Talmuld about this and if you want to go there, my wrestling mat is ready]. After reviewing the whole array of physical and literary evidence on the subject, the biblical scholar Bernadette Brooten states that “the rabbinic inclusion of women in the quorum…attest to a more ancient tradition, later suppressed, according to which women were allowed to read from the Torah in public” (Brooten, p.94).

That’s just one example of how Jewish women participated in the religious life in the first century. I could go on about their patronage of religious movements, their participation as benefactors and funders of public building, their role as leaders of synagogues, etc. I highly recommend Bernadette Brooten’s book, Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue for very thoughtful analysis of the evidence.

And it wasn’t just the Jewish women who held significant influence in society, but also their Roman counterparts. This is described well by Bruce Winter in Roman Wives, Roman Widows. I’m not saying Jesus was a bad guy because he wasn’t a feminist rights activist. In my rendition of Jesus in my novel Junia, he’s a really great guy. However, he didn’t start a revolution as a radical feminist because he included women in his ministry. Lots of movements included women, for example, the Jewish Therapeutae, the Pharisees, the Cynics, the Pythagoreans, the Stoics and the Epicureans. All I’m saying is that women of the first century had a lot more freedom and clout than we’ve been led to believe, whether they were Roman, Jewish or Christian.

 

For Further Reading

Brooten, Bernadette J. – Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue: Inscriptional Evidence and Background Issues. Brown Judaic Studies, 36. (Atlanta and Chico, Calif.: Scholars, 1982).

Corley, Kathleen E. – “Feminist Myths of Christian Origins” in Reimagining Christian Origins: A Colloquium Honoring Burton L. Mack, Elizabeth A. Catelli and Hal Taussig, eds. (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996) 51-67.

Eisen, Ute – Women Officeholders in Early Christianity: Epigraphical and Literary Studies (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2000)

Fiorenza, E. Shussler – in Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York: Crossroad, 1994)

Fiorenza, E. Shussler – “Word, Spirit, and Power: Women in Early Christian Communities,” in Women of Spirit: Female Leadership in the Jewish and Christian Traditions, edited by Rosemary Reuther and E. McLaughlin. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979) 29-70.

Heschel, Susannah – “Anti-Judaism in Christian Feminist Theory,” Tikkun 5, no. 3 (1990)

Jackson, Glenna – “Jesus as First-Century Feminist: Christian Anti-Judaism?” Feminist Theology 19 (1998) 85-98.

Kearsley, R. A. – “Women in Public Life in the Roman East: Iunia Theodora, Claudia Metrodora and Phoebe, Benefactress of Paul,” Tyndale Bulletin 50, 2 (1999): 189-211.

Murphy, Cullen – The Word According to Eve: Women and the Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998)

Nakhai, Beth Alpert – The World of Women in the Ancient and Classical Near East (Cambridge Scholars, 2008)

Nathanson, Barbara H. Geller – “Reflections on the Silent Woman of Ancient Judaism and Her Pagan Roman Counterpart” in The Listening Heart: Essays in Wisdom and the Psalms in Honor of Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm, Kenneth Hoglund et al., ed. JSOT Suppl. 58 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1987) 259-79.

Plaskow, Judith – “Anti-Judaism in Feminist Christian Interpretation,” in Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, ed. Searching the Scriptures (The Crossroad Publishing Co., 1997) vol. 1 pp. 117-29.

Safrai, Shumel – “The Place Of Women In First-Century Synagogues: They Were Much More Active In Religious Life Than They Are Today,” Priscilla Papers 16:1 (Winter 2002)

Torjesen, Karen Jo – When Women Were Priests: Women’s Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993)

Winter, Bruce W. – Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003)

 

 

 

 

 

A Bit of Jewish History in Corinth, Greece

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Ancient Corinth, Greece

On my trip exploring biblical sites rimming the Mediterranean, it would have been remiss of me to skip Corinth, the city of prophesizing women and the house church of Priscilla and Aquila. Of course, most commentators focus on Paul’s sojourn in the city, but I am more interested in the Jewish history of the place and the biblical women who lived there.

Corinth’s importance in the ancient world had everything to do with its location near a land bridge on the Peloponnesian peninsula. Only 6 km separated the Aegean Sea on the east and the Adriatic Sea on the west. Sailors wishing to travel to Athens just on the other side of the peninsula, had to traverse the very dangerous voyage around the peninsula, well known for its intense storms and sharp rocks. Around 600 B.C.E. Periander built a roadway over which boats could be dragged across the isthmus. This roadway was known as the diolkos. A small portion has been uncovered on the Adriatic side. A moveable wooden platform ran along the roadway in grooves. Smaller vessels could be loaded directly onto the platform, but heavily laden commercial ships had to be unloaded first and their cargo transported across the isthmus.

Screen Shot 2014-06-14 at 12.21.30 PMIt’s not too hard finding the diolkos but I was still proud when I managed to drive up to it without making any wrong turns, with no road signs and with no map. While cars waited in line for a ship to pass by, my sister Shawna and I ran back and forth across the modern road, following the different sections of the diolkos. (I tend to get a little excited when I visit an ancient site I’ve read about.)

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Ever since the 6th century B.C.E. rulers dreamed of cutting a canal through the land bridge to allow ships to bypass the dangerous sea route around the peninsula and many attempts were made. The most notable attempt was by the emperor Nero during the Roman period. I recently learned that he used thousands of Jewish slaves captured during the Jewish Revolt (mid 60’s through 73 C.E.). Many of these slaves died in the next three years of hard labor until the work was abandoned when Nero committed suicide. I might not have pranced around gleefully if I’d known this fact at the time I visited the diolkos last fall. I can imagine the sorrow with which the Jewish and Christian population of Corinth would have looked down from the city in the hills above the expanding canal. The canal was finally completed in 1893 (with paid labor).

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However, my excitement has not diminished for the Jewish symbols I saw in ancient Corinth. In the courtyard of the museum inside the archaeological park there is a stone which reads “Synagogue of the Hebrews.”

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This inscription in crude lettering on a lintel stone was found near the entrance to the forum on the Lechaion road. Since stones were often scattered from their original location, it is by no means certain that the original synagogue was in this area. However, the size of the stone suggests that it may not have been moved far from its original location. The lintel stone dates from three or more centuries after the time the first followers of Jesus lived in Corinth. Since new synagogues were frequently erected on the site of previous ones, the location at the entrance to the forum might have been where Priscilla and Aquila taught and the women prophesized. (At this point in time, many of the early Christians still considered themselves Jewish and participated in synagogue functions.)

I’ll write more about the biblical women of Corinth at another time and give you a nice, juicy bibliography. In the meantime, enjoy the pictures.

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