Moses / Jesus / Women: Does the New Testament Offer a Feminist Message?

Article excerpt

Reading Jesus as a feminist perpetuates anti-Judaic traditions in Christian theology.

In this paper I seek to delineate the general outlines of the role of women in the scriptural narratives of Moses and Jesus. Moses and Jesus will be treated as the protagonists of stories; and the often disjointed, repetitious, and contradictory narratives in both the Hebrew and Greek Bibles will be treated as diegetic or narrative cycles. The issue is not whether the narrative reflects historical reality, but rather how the narrative constructs in our consciousness as readers what is good and appropriate in men and women. In a number of articles I published in the mid 1980s I argued that the subservience of women to men is a construct. It neither reflects historical reality, nor is it an immutable law of human nature.

The differences between the Moses and Jesus mythogynies -- namely, the stories or myths about women included in each cycle -- are both similar and different. Women appear more frequently in the Jesus cycle, but their function is limited if not marginal to the basic story line. Their appearance and disappearance does not interrupt the story line; they are ciphers more than figures, satellites more than characters.

Most of them are presented with little or no exposition. They usually drop out of the story as soon as their function -- mostly to promote and endorse the heroic status of the male leader -- is complete. They hover over Jesus in the capacity of helpers, humble followers, cured patients, but rarely as authorized messengers, legitimate disciples, proclaimers, reinterpreters, or narrators. Women appear less frequently in the Moses cycle, but their function is crucial. They enable Moses' survival in infancy; Zipporah his wife saves his life during an encounter with Yahweh's angel; and Miriam his sister challenges his leadership. In terms of episodic span both cycles are comparable; few verses are usually assigned to women.

The sagas of Moses and Jesus span several books, in which much detail is offered in the form of speeches, dialogues, vignettes, parables shedding little light on the life story of the male leader. Yet in terms of basic plot lines they share much in common. Both leaders had to prove themselves as authentic spokespersons of a higher truth and as having a special relationship with a divine force. Both leaders suffered setbacks and obstacles, and both, superficially speaking, failed despite their success. Moses was denied entrance to the land of Canaan, and Jesus was executed by the Romans. These leaders' success was posthumous. In addition, both are described as having been born under special circumstances. In both cases another powerful leader is threatened by the birth of the baby leader. In both cases the mother uses ruse and subterfuge to protect the baby, yet her role is somehow circumscribed. As soon as the danger is over, the mother slips out of the story with little or no effect on the development and p rogress of her son.

The positive even revolutionary attitude of Jesus to women has been a constant theme in feminist literature of the past two decades. A closer look at the presentation of women in the Greek Bible reveals that women appear and disappear as abruptly as they do in the Hebrew Bible. There is no sustained treatment of a female heroine that comes close to the stature of Jesus. There is no textual evidence that bears out the idea that the Christian Gospels are liberating texts for women. This is not to countermand the subtlety and sophistication of recent feminist hermeneutics, but the presentation of Jesus as the liberator of women is hermeneutical. The biblical text does not support it. There is neither speech, nor dialogue, nor even a narrative that deals explicitly with the status of women in Jewish or Gentile society. The implicit messages ferreted out by ingenious theologians and historians of the roots of Christianity are in the eyes of the beholders; and as long as the beholders accept their subjective stanc e, there is no attempt here at purposeful misrepresentation. …