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The Old Testicle and the New Testicle

Recently I picked up several new books which together raise, wittingly or unwittingly, a major question about the Bible, namely, should we write a new one to replace it? The books in question were The Complete Gospels (edited by Robert J. Miller), The Gospels and the Letters of Paul, An Inclusive Language Edition­ (translated and edited by Burton H. Throckmorton, Jr.), and The Women's Bible Commentary (edited by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe). I should also throw in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which appeared three years ago. 

The NRSV was heralded as a Bible which eliminated the male chauvinist bias of most previous translations. And, as I reported in a previous column, it did just this. But then it went a significant step farther. It also sought to make the translation user-friendly, sacrificing accuracy in a number of places, making the pronouns more inclusive. 

The trouble was, some of the Bible hadn't been addressed to women; other parts apparently were, but linguistic custom hadn't caught up with the fact, so that Paul wrote "brothers" when he almost certainly had in mind (but did not put on paper) "brothers and sisters." The translators added the latter, obscuring an important, albeit subtle point in the text. 

The NRSV decided no longer to be a historical document and opted to be a liturgical prop instead. We don't want to leave anybody out from our language of worship and preaching in church. I share this concern. But don't we want to know whether or not the original writers did? If they didn't, let's not whitewash the fact. Let's not fabricate history the way we wish it had been. 

Public reading, not scholarly study, of the text was the choice made by the revision committee (though this did not stop Oxford University Press from issuing an Annotated Study Edition of the NRSV -- in my mind almost as ridiculous a move as doing an Annotated Study Edition of the Living Bible!). Careful study of the facts of the chauvinistic text might make readers feel bad, but this translation means to make them feel good. As Hegel once reportedly said, "So much worse for the facts!" 

Just recently, ironically, the supposedly non-sexist NRSV has come under fire for not being non-sexist enough! In the section on Acts in The Women's Bible Commentary, Gail R. O'Day complains that while "Acts 21:5 also documents the presence of women as full participants in a Christian community," unfortunately "the NRSV translation masks this fact." The problem is that the Greek text uses the same word for either "wife" or "woman" so one might translate either way. In the disputed verse there is a reference to either "men, wives and children," or "men, women, and children." The NRSV chose the former, implying that there were no women there independently of husbands, a sexist supposition.

That the NRSV was not egalitarian enough for some is also evident from Burton Throckmorton's Inclusive Language version of the Gospels and Paul, which is really the RSV with much more extensive and fundamental demasculinizing. It essentially sews together the readings from the controversial Inclusive Language Lectionary prepared by the National Council of Churches. For example, Jesus refers to God as "my Mother and Father," while Jesus himself is referred to, not as Son, but as Child of God. In Romans, the reader may be surprised to read Paul's updated discussion of the faith of Abraham and Sarah, etc. 

The result strikes me as highly comical, reminiscent in fact of a recent gag of mine called "The Politically Correct Revised Standard Version," which was published in a few magazines around the country. The idea was that the RSV was going to have to be rewritten a good deal more to satisfy every victim group, now that the revision committee had started down the slippery slope of Political Correctness. 

I supplied some examples that I will spare you here. But my point is that my gag was a prophecy: Throckmorton's Inclusive Language RSV is the PCRSV, or at least one big step in that direction. And even it will be seen to be a feeble, halting step in the long run. 

I have heard it justly said that it took feminism to reopen the vexed question of biblical inspiration and inerrancy in the Evangelical theological community. Evangelicals like Paul Jewett, Letha Scanzoni, and Virginia Mollenkott just felt they had to find a way of looking at the Bible that would enable them to listen to what feminists were saying. 

Then it is not surprising to see that in the liberal theological camp the questions posed to the Bible by feminism were correspondingly much more sweeping. Last year when I taught an Adult School course on Women in the Bible, something I am about to do again for the American Baptist denomination in our area, I was interested to see that the most outspoken and radical members of the class were liberal church people from mainstream denominational churches. 

As it became clear just how male-centered both Testaments of the Bible were, one man suggested we should just have done with the whole thing and start over! We need, he was suggesting, a new scripture, one that would admonish us to behave in accord with the best truth we know today, not some creaking hulk of ancient folkways that we always find ourselves explaining away with embarrassed hermeneutical dodges. 

I have since heard other people make essentially the same suggestion, only their idea is not to junk the traditional Bible completely, but rather to reopen the canon and introduce some of the writings once excluded from the Bible, some of which give a more prominent role to women. 

This sounds great to me (in fact, I have a project in mind called The New Age Testament, a new translation with a slightly reshuffled deck), except that such writings as we possess that give pride of place to Mary Magdalene or Salome are either fragmentary or full of confusing Gnostic bombast not likely to edify anyone of either gender. 

Nonetheless, I think we have something of an attempt at such a new Bible in The Complete Gospels. It completely ignores all canonical boundaries and offers the reader new translations of all surviving early documents that might be called "gospels," works featuring Jesus and his teaching, whether in the form of lists of sayings (e.g., the Gospel of Thomas, the Q Source), narratives (the canonical four), or revelations (Apocryphon of James, Gospel of Mary). 

The Complete Gospels is careful to use inclusive language, with the same resulting infelicities. "Son of Man" becomes "Son of Adam," etc. (But one almost loses sight of such peculiarities in light of other, much more bizarre translations in this "Scholars Version," such as "Damn you, Chorazin!" for "Woe unto you, Chorazin!" You're not going to be hearing this one in church, I'll wager.) 

But even with canonical limits sprung, there are slim pickings for women here. If there were earlier, non-sexist texts embodying the "discipleship of equals" discovered between the lines by Christian feminist Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza (In Memory of Her, A Feminist Reconstruction of Christian Origins), such texts did not survive. 

Fiorenza is an interesting voice in all this. She seems to sense the need for replacing the old Bible and writing a new one. In more than one of her writings she has included brief texts written by her students that put one in mind of the old preacher slogan "It ain't in the Bible but it oughta be!" One student wrote an epistle from Priscilla bemoaning Paul's sexism. Another wrote a gospel pericope in which Jesus does not rebuke the hard-working Martha in favor of the passive Mary (as in Luke 10:38-42), but rather heeds Martha's complaint and follows her into the kitchen to help wash the dishes. 

Don't get me wrong: Fiorenza nowhere says these texts are any more than exercises of the imagination to picture what the Bible would have to be like to be non-sexist, not oppressive to women. In other words, it would have to be a different book. 

And here is the real problem with the NRSV and the Inclusive Language edition of the RSV. They are token efforts. They are naive attempts to mollify women, to satisfy them with crumbs -- as if the sexism of the Bible were merely a matter of equal billing for Sarah, or castrating the titles of the unisex Child of God. 

But such measures do not begin to touch the Bible's sexism, which is all-pervasive, "from cover to cover," as the fundamentalist slogan runs. The Old Testament God is not beyond sexuality. Throughout most of Israelite/Judean history God's consort Asherah (borrowed from the indigenous Baal religion) sat on a throne beside him in Solomon's Temple. Various kings ousted her, but their successors would bring her back. She was ensconced there for over half the time the Temple stood. (See Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess.) 

Of course the Bible as we read it was written (as history always is) by the winners, who were not merely monotheists, but also macho-ists! The resulting God-figure was not a God beyond gender, as today's apologists would have it, but rather a male God suppressing any female deity. 

I know there are other issues involved here, metaphysical ones, theological ones, but they do not allow us to ignore the socio-sexist foundation of the whole business. The theology reads as it does now because a patriarchal culture suppressed and oppressed women -- just as in Greece, where the once all-powerful goddesses Hera, Athena, and Pandora were reduced to nagging sitcom house wives once invading patriarchal clans subdued women and their deities. (See Robert Graves, The Greek Myths; Charlene Spretnak, Lost Goddesses of Early Greece.)

Even the resurrection mythology on which the New Testament doctrine of the Risen Savior depends comes originally from a setting in which the goddess (Isis, Ishtar, Cybele, Aphrodite) raises the young god (Osiris, Tammuz, Attis, Adonis) from the dead. But, again, the Christian version suppresses the female role. It perhaps survives only in a note in Acts 17:18, in which Luke dismisses as a mistake the notion that Jesus was once worshipped alongside a goddess, Anastasis, who raised him from the dead. 

Is it any wonder that the Bible is sexist through and through? Feminists like Fiorenza are reduced to picking up scraps, like the miserable Syro-Phoenician woman, beneath the table of the Bible around which male apostles and saviors and patriarchs sit comfortably feasting. 

After demonstrating the sexism of the Mary and Martha passage, which I alluded to above, Fiorenza, with a surprising vestige of pious dogmatism, protests that "we do not accord to such a patriarchal text divine authority and proclaim it as the word of God. Instead we must proclaim it as the word of Luke!" ("A Feminist Critical Interpretation for Liberation: Martha and Mary: Luke 10:38-42" in Religion & Intellectual Life 3 (1986) pp. 32-33.) We must, she implies, look to other, non-sexist, liberating passages if we want the Word of God (p.24). 

She still doesn't get it, any more than the paraphrasers and ameliorators of the NRSV and the PCRSV. The ­whole thing­ is "the word of Luke," so to speak. The very idea of there being some book we can call the Word of God, even in part, is part of the patriarchy that oppresses women and men alike. The Bible as the inspired and authoritative "Word (Greek: Logos) of God" is inherently oppressive. 

It is in fact the prime example of what Derrida calls "phallogocentrism," a combination of the terms "phallocentrism," the power-trip ideology of patriarchal culture, the culture invented and imposed by men, in which power rules, and "logocentrism," the imperious metaphysical claim to have mastered the truth as some shining abstraction or creed or ruling idea that suppresses all competitors as "heresies," "false doctrines," etc. 

The collection of canonical scriptures, which alone may be read as containing the saving truth, and which must be read according to the normative tradition of the church, is all the self-serving invention of a group of -- need I say it? -- old and powerful males, the early Christian bishops in the pocket of the Roman Emperor Constantine. "Caesaropapism" lives on every time a preacher quotes the Bible to settle an issue. It is all a power trip. 

We find the ideal portrait of biblical phallogocentrism in the words of Psalm 2 applied to Christ in the New Testament: "I will give him power over the nations, and he shall rule them with a rod of iron." What is that rod in the history of the Church and of Western culture but the phallus of the logos? In other words, the canonical male Bible as the authoritative Word of God. 

That Bible must go. Not the texts, mind you, but the idea that any and all biblical texts possess unquestionable authority, once we've supposedly recovered the author's intent for the text.  "Authorial" = authoritative; if I claim I know the author's intent, which I can't anyway, short of a seance, I am claiming to have the interpretation of the text that you must silently yield to. It is pulling rank. 

The biblical documents, like all other available documents, offer themselves as potential sources of wisdom for life. As such, they may speak with the earned authority of experience, but it equally takes wisdom for the reader to recognize wisdom when he or she sees it. The Bible (and the Qur'an and the New York Times fashion section) cannot simply tell us what to do. We must repudiate the phallogocentric sceptre of the rolled up-scripture scroll.

If feminists fight chauvinists to gain control over it (as many Politically Correct zealots are doing), they become male, as the insulting passage in the Gospel of Thomas (saying 114) says they must. When translators do plastic surgery on the Bible to make it appear nonsexist, they are being dishonest and, worse, manipulative. They are trying to get the Bible to say authoritatively what they want to install as the new orthodoxy, the new phallogo-center. Men and women alike, we must repent of this sin. 

It is not a new Bible as such that we need, but a new attitude toward the Bible. A new "Word of God" would be like a revolutionary government; soon it would become as odious as the tyrant it replaced. We may read all the texts we want, but none must be accorded a position of unquestionable authority as the Word of the imperial male Yahweh.

Robert M. Price


CopyrightŠ2004 by Robert M Price
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