4Thought: “Jesus was a feminist”

// 10 September 2010

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Last night’s 4Thought featured Church of England priest Miranda Threllfall-Jones discussing gender, feminism and the Church. Unfortunately the video cannot be embedded, but you can watch it here. Transcript:

“It does make me angry that there are still people trying to make the Church somewhere that’s not friendly to women. I’m Miranda Threllfall-Holmes, I’m a Church of England priest, I work as a university chaplain at Durham and I have three small children. When we talk about the traditions of the Church of England, we need to be very clear what traditions we’re talking about. Obviously over the last few hundred years, women have been excluded from the leadership of the Church; but that wasn’t the case in the first couple of centuries of the Church. In the early Church it was a very radical organisation, and women had roles as all sorts of things, and we know that they were priests and bishops in the early Church.

In the Gospels, it’s very clear that Jesus radically broke with tradition and treated women in a very radically equal way. When Jesus was in the home of a couple of sisters called Mary and Martha, Martha was making the tea, and Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to him talk and discussing theology with him, as were some of the men. Jesus said that Mary was doing the right thing, that it was important for her to be there talking with him.

I think Jesus was a feminist, because I think what being a feminist means is thinking that men and women are equal and should be treated as individuals, and not expected to conform to predetermined gender roles. That’s how Jesus treated people; he treated people as equals and individuals.”

Photo by doug88888, shared under a Creative Commons License.

Comments From You

Amy Clare // Posted 10 September 2010 at 10:22 am

I just have one question:

What’s the *evidence* that Jesus both existed, and was a feminist?

(And no, a centuries-old book doesn’t count as evidence. It’s hearsay.)

And one point:

Even if Jesus the man could be proved unequivocally to have existed and been a feminist, this does not mean that he was/is ‘divine’, the son of god, that he rose from the dead, that he still exists in some form, etc… or that there is a god in the first place, that Christianity is true, and so forth. You may well ask ‘Was Romeo a feminist?’ or ‘Was Renton from Trainspotting a feminist?’ or ‘Are the fairies sitting at the bottom of my garden feminists?’ It’s an entirely redundant question when you consider that there is no evidence to prove that any of the claims about this Jesus character are true and *actually happened*.

Repeat: there is *no evidence*. Sorry if that’s inconvenient.

Zelda // Posted 10 September 2010 at 11:00 am

Still, it’s all fairytales… no substance, only speculation. It’s dangerous to look to an ancient book for moral direction, whoever is doing the looking – and we don’t need the ‘Gospels’ to tell us that men and women are equals!! So let’s abandon that path!

Religion (esp organised religion) has done much more harm than good, especially for women. Why is she still in the C o E? Why hasn’t she walked out in a rage… I’m sure there are some more progressive feminist sects where she’d be more at home.

Pat // Posted 10 September 2010 at 1:44 pm

How many of Jesus’ disciples were women? How much of the Bible (for example, the gospels) is thought to have been written by women? How many female bishops, archbishops and popes are there/have there been, in any branch of Xtianity?

I guess that by picking and choosing whichever passages confirm one’s pre-existing views, it’s possible to show that Jesus might have been whatever you want him to have been. He must be the most versatile fictional character!

Gloria // Posted 10 September 2010 at 1:52 pm

Amy, I don’t agree that there isn’t sufficient ‘proof’ Jesus existed and also even if he didn’t, I’m not sure I agree with the premise of your argument.

The existence of a man called Jesus/Issa, from Nazareth, who claimed to be a prophet, is corroborated by several texts apart from the Bible, not least the Qu’ran. I’m not a theological historian, neither am I a follower of an Abrahamic faith, but I’m not sure it’s a true – or useful – argument.

It’s genuinely quite interesting to debate the ethics of imagine characters with whom we are familiar, whether they existed or not. And I’d argue that as Jesus is a more pervasive and widely discussed cultural figure, his attitude towards gender – and perhaps more importantly, the attitude towards gender and power of the cult he fostered, is interesting and useful, because it enables us to trace trends of thought which permeate many of our lives today. I agree that ‘Was Jesus a feminist?’ is pretty reductive, but there are interesting questions lurking behind that, and I’m not sure ‘Was Jesus?’ is one of them!

Troon // Posted 10 September 2010 at 2:28 pm

I don’t believe for one moment that Jesus was God, was a feminist before they existed, or remains a valid moral teacher. But early sources (both form within and outwith the Jesus movement) show that there was such a movement, that there was some consistency in tales and beliefs about his life despite a lack of central authority, and that they spread geographically and chronologically in ways consistent with what we know of the Mediterranean. Neither can it really be denied that that movement was more inclusive of women than its contemporary religious organisations. A vast fund of early stories exist which were for early followers just as valid as what become the canonical gospels. In them we have examples of early faith communities who believed Jesus was a woman in male drag, could turn into a woman at will, and was a man who could feed from his breasts. And the stories of his preaching and involvement with underprivileged groups-women and poorer men-do mark even the sanitised patriarchal gospels out against contemporary religious texts. It betrays everything about how we might try to recover the lives and feelings of women who lived before us if we deny that the author’s points have evidential foundation simply because we don’t like its uses.

The author doesn’t suggest that ‘Jesus being a feminist’ should be the reason for being a feminist, or discuss his divinity. Isn’t she just presenting a reading of the gospels which makes her believe that Christianity is not intrinsically anti-feminist? There’s lots I’d like to ask: is this ‘inclusivity’ not so much inclusivity as an idea of ‘punishment’ by being humbled which accepts classist and sexist assumptions; how does the writer reconcile her reconstruction of a ‘Jesus’ from a selective reading of a limited source base (the canon) which ignores other aspects of that source base? Isn’t this just a personal statement of how her morality and faith can be made to coincide rather than an argument to others? Why should I, who do not care about what the creed is or what Jesus said, care about her individual Christianity when it seems relatively powerless? But please let’s not wrap this up in denying the existence and radicalism of the women who formed such important parts in the early Jesus movement, just because they’re dead.

Rose // Posted 10 September 2010 at 2:29 pm

Okay, so no political commentator at the time seems to have mentioned him, neither did any historians, (as opposed to cult members), in the first while after his death.

Kinda strange if he was supposed to be such a big up start.

But I really don’t think thats the point of the post. A huge organisation that draw their authority from their past are betraying that past.

Modern christian practice is to an (massive) extent unchristian.

Once you take the teachings, such as human equality, out of the picture….. the religion seems to fall to capitalism and heirachy. Surely those were supposed to be the two great evils of the new testament?

I’m no christian, but I can respect that some people, that actually got around to reading the book, want to be a part of that way of life, even if they do have to share a name with some nasty little creatures.

marie // Posted 10 September 2010 at 2:29 pm

I am so fed up of people, mostly atheist thinking that it is their right to make horrible comments about Christianity. I am actually surprised these comments ended up on this site. calling the bible a book of fairytales does not show respect to the many Christian feminists (myself included). If the same comments were made about the Koran I doubt they would be included. i have just turned 18 and i have never in my whole life took the piss out of any kind of religion because it is so disrespectful. I get very angry about this because for the last 4 yrs I have suffered severe depression, I honestly do not think i would be here if it was not for my religion. if you think there is no God and it is just a bunch of fairy tales then fine keep it to yourself. i do not think religious people have to explain themselves to non believers. it is almost like Christianity is there to be mocked by anyone.

Amy Clare, Zelda, I would like to know if you have actually given religion a chance instead of dismissing it as just non sense. If you have studied religion, read the bible, went to church then sorry about this long rant.

cim // Posted 10 September 2010 at 2:46 pm

Amy Clare: “It’s an entirely redundant question”

I don’t think it is. Billions worldwide believe that Jesus existed and did some or all of the things attributed to him, and therefore try to live as they believe that Jesus would have wished them to (with, of course, massively diverse results)

What moral guidance can be inferred from what is written about Jesus is very important because whether or not he existed people will take a lead from that.

I also think it’s interesting to read a record of someone 2000 years ago (written down around 1900 years ago) taking a (for the time) very radical approach to equality and being held up by the writer as highly virtuous for doing so (whether the record is of actual events or a fictionalisation doesn’t matter here, either, for what it says about the members of society doing the writing)

Alicia // Posted 10 September 2010 at 2:46 pm

The religion-hating is telling here!

First and foremost, saying that a holy book is simply a book of fairy tales and mocking a spiritual source from which many women gather strength is downright hateful. So what if there is “no evidence” to say that Jesus was a feminist. The word “feminist” was not even created during his time. But shouldn’t women be allowed to understand something as feminist because it is aligned with how we understand feminism today? I’m not talking about an anything-goes feminism or a Sarah Palin-style feminism, because denying the right to reproductive choice is *not* feminist. If something is believed to be feminist because it fits the exacting standards of feminism (question: whose feminism?) today, then more power to the believer.

I think we need to separate patriarchal institutionalised religion from personal spiritual experience for just one moment. There are women who find religion *and* feminism inspiring, and many religious women out there are battling the patriarchal interpretations of their faith to make it more women-friendly. Religion is not static, it is organic and responds to the times. Yes, there are people who want to keep it orthodox, unchanged, and medieval, but there are people out there who believe that faith is an impetus for change and social justice.

Elmo // Posted 10 September 2010 at 3:32 pm

Amy Clare, maybe if Renton from Trainspotting had his picture hanging in millions of homes, or if there was a Rentonday celebrating his birth every year, we might well ask if was a feminist.

Regardless of whether jesus exsisted (which is not the issue here), he has a massive impact on millions of people, and maybe if they were to learn he respected women (which he obviously did, real or not) it might shape their beliefs for the better.

We look at ourselves as enlightened and sensible, but we are lucky, we (or at least I) havnt been brought up in a culture where religon is so vitally important to our lives that our every opinion is shaped by it-but some people have.

The truth is that just telling people jesus doesnt exsist isnt likely to change their minds or opinions, and maybe it will benifit them to hear that he believed in equality. We can go on about how they are “wrong” until the cows come home, but will it help?

I used to believe very much in god and jesus, and I tell you, there was nothing better for my faith than being “lectured” by an atheist, whose sole purpose seemed to be having a go at me. It didnt help, it just p*ssed me off. Especially when i was vulnerable, I clung to faith more than ever.

Obviously it would be better, as Zelda says, not to have to look to scant evidence from a book thousands of years old, but perhaps progression away from that starts with suggesting Jesus himself was progressive.

Im an agnostic btw, no religous adgenda here

Rose // Posted 10 September 2010 at 3:38 pm

@ Amy Clare

“You may well ask ‘Was Romeo a feminist?’ or ‘Was Renton from Trainspotting a feminist?’ or ‘Are the fairies sitting at the bottom of my garden feminists?’ It’s an entirely redundant question when you consider that there is no evidence to prove that any of the claims about this Jesus character are true and *actually happened*. ”

actually, feminist literary criticism would beg to differ as regards feminist Romeo being redundant. whether you believe in Christ as saviour or not (and as far as I understand it, the purely historical Jesus is well accepted to have existed) the fact that the words of Jesus have such a profound cultural impact makes it actually a very important question. You seem to be confusing the mere factor of its historical veracity with its cultural impact – one is to do with faith, the other is pretty evident in there being a church on every corner and millions of believers. if its that significant a cultural force, of course feminism should deal with it and analyse it.

@ Zelda

money has been the cause of some pretty bad stuff in this world, should we abolish it? how about sex? religion is as neutral as money or sex or anything else. people do terrible things in the name of it, but also profoundly wonderful things in the name of it. I guess what we can conclude here is people are sometimes good and sometimes not. Therefore I don’t see why we should tear down and deride or oppress the faith of people who use religion to do good. that seems to go against everything that my (agnostic) conscience stands for.

Sheila // Posted 10 September 2010 at 3:45 pm

Assuming you put the faith question to one side (which I do because I’m an atheist), there is pretty strong proof that a man called Jesus existed and that he was something of a leader and philosopher. Assuming that the bible records his words (big assumption but there again Socrates wrote nothing but we all accept Socrates was a philosopher), then I agree that he said some things that are helpful in the time context for treating women with more equality than they had had. Many of the misogynist things relating to the Christian religion don’t come out of Jesus’s direct teachings but out of that ridiculous Roman Paul. The problem with saying Jesus was a feminist is that Jesus and the bible and religion all get mixed up together and the Christian Church is far from feminist and also that it begins to relate to faith and thus poplarises people rather than encouraging people to look at what he may have said.

angercanbepower // Posted 10 September 2010 at 4:09 pm

@Zelda

We don’t need the ‘Gospels’ to tell us that men and women are equals!

I’m about as anti-religion as they come, but actually I think you don’t give it enough credit here. A strong argument for equality between sexes is dualism – the idea that the mind and the body are distinct, and therefore a clear physical difference between sexes does not necessarily entail a moral difference. This stems from a variety of places, but certainly has roots in the Judeo-Christian idea of body and soul.

Mary Wollstonecraft used this a lot in her Vindication, essentially deriding the idea that there could be “sex in souls” and therefore there was no justification for the social and educational advantages that were conferred to men over women. (See here for example.)

Gareth Hughes // Posted 10 September 2010 at 4:10 pm

Well, yes, there is evidence that Jesus existed. No mainstream historian would say otherwise. He is mentioned in non-Christian contemporary sources (Josephus’ Antiquities 20.9.1; Suetonius’ Life of Claudius 25.4; Tacitus’ Annals 15.44.2-8), and there are hundreds of early Christian texts. That is more evidence than most contemporary historical figures. So, there’s the *evidence*. It might seem cool to bash Christianity, but research is always better than slogans.

I’m a feminist and an Church of England priest too. Threllfall-Jones was sharing her experience as a woman and a feminist of how religion, albeit so often negative, can be a positive and affirming part of her life. People may not want to hear that, but that’s one feminist giving voice to the experience of many women. If there is pressure on feminists to be atheists, which there is, feminism is lessened by it deafness to the voices of many women, just as it has been deafened to the voices of women of colour.

So, Jesus the feminist. I don’t know. I’d like to think so. There are certainly a number of texts of him being affirming and respectful of women in a way that was radical for his time and place.

Paul, an early church leader, often thought of as misogynist, made a remarkable comment that could be considered the hallmark of Christian feminism: “There is neither … male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”.

Ruth // Posted 10 September 2010 at 6:57 pm

Amy: actually a “centuries old book” IS historical evidence. For the past, especially the further back you go, written evidence is pretty much what we have. All the evidence for the existence and sayings of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Alexander, Pompey, and…well, all of them, is in writing – whether literature or inscriptions.

As an historian by training, I find it two parts risible and eight parts offensive that you dismiss (“sorry if it’s inconvenient”) written records (and records are a lot more than official documents). Yes, one weighs the evidence, looks at alternative interpretations, supplements where possible from other sources. In historical terms, written evidence ALWAYS has an agenda. The Gallic Wars is propaganda (in the strictest sense, not necessarily the modern one). So are manorial account books. So is Domesday.

But they are still evidence. Simply to dismiss a record so cavalierly undermines whatever point you wanted to make to a fatal extent.

Jessica // Posted 10 September 2010 at 8:46 pm

I saw this on Channel 4 and I thought it was brilliant. Religious texts don’t have to be literally true to be meaningful. In fact, I think that religious texts are not true and that that doesn’t matter, that actually they are much more useful to life than most other things. Hearsay is important because it shapes our lives.

Actually, I’m a phenomenologist and an existentialist, and I agree with Wittgenstein that language shapes reality. If we all agree on what “fairies at the bottom of the garden” means then of course we can ask whether they are feminist. And the story of Jesus indicates that he was feminist. Whether he existed or not doesn’t matter — the fact that many people follow him does.

Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that reality is based in what is the case, rather than what people perceive it to be. I thought we escaped the ontological nightmare of logical positivism in the 1920s.

Tasha // Posted 10 September 2010 at 9:00 pm

As a college student I am always trying to see things in a different perspective and this really caught my attention. ‘God is a feminist’, that really got me to thinking about the bible and of all the stories of Jesus healing women, or helping women by healing their loved ones. Is God a feminist who knows, there doesn’t always have to be proof to believe in something.

Gareth // Posted 10 September 2010 at 10:06 pm

Good post Laura.

To the first two comments: it doesn’t matter if you think Jesus existed/was the son of God/etc. The point is that billions of people do, so it’s good to see progressive Christians speaking up.

Religion isn’t going to disappear any time soon, even if you want it to. It will, however, continue to evolve and develop along with the rest of society. We should support progressive voices both inside and outside religion, as the battles need to be won in both of these spheres.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 11 September 2010 at 1:06 am

Just as a general point- there is as much evidence that Jesus exists as any other historical person for whom evidence only survives in textual form. In that sense, all historical characters are fiction.

bernie // Posted 11 September 2010 at 2:42 am

Yes, Jesus did say that it was right for her to talk with him and would not take it away from her. This is a case of setting priorities not gendreism. Jesus also said that the husband is the head of the family as he is head of the church. If you are going to quote scripture try to make sure you understand first. SOOOO many unbelievers like to use a piece of scripture for their anti Christian views

amy clare, the gospels of mathew, mark, luke and john are not hearsay, the are actual eye witness accounts.At no time when they were written, were they disputed by people who had lived in that time and historians of the time backs up the gospels. Check out a guy called josephus.

darkmorgaine // Posted 11 September 2010 at 4:35 am

@ Zelda: “Why is she still in the C o E? Why hasn’t she walked out in a rage… I’m sure there are some more progressive feminist sects where she’d be more at home.”

If all progressive-minded people left the older churches like the C o E, those who are left in the sect wouldn’t have anyone to challenge them and nothing would change. It’s a fool’s dream to hope that the restrictive religions of the world will die out. Change has to come from within, and I think we should applaud those who are working for change. Because of Miranda Threllfall-Jones and others like her, young people raised in the C o E can see people whose values more closely match their own, and maybe challenge their parents or other people who hold anti-progressive views because they’ve seen others do it.

@ Amy Clare: Even if there is no *evidence* that Jesus the man was real/is divine/that there is a divine entity, many people live their lives by his precepts and by those mentioned in the gospels. It’s important to show them that their interpretation of the intent of the gospels (on issues like ordination and by extension other rights granted to women) is erroneous. You have to talk to people in words they can understand, at a starting point to which they can relate.

Rumbold // Posted 11 September 2010 at 10:25 am

Well, there’s no evidence that Jesus was the son of God, but non-Christian Roman sources show that a figure known as Jesus existed, that he was based in what is now Israel and got in trouble with the Jewish authorities (and therefore caught the attention of some Romans).

Hannah // Posted 11 September 2010 at 10:32 am

Thanks for this Laura! I’m writing something about women and the church at the moment so it’s giving me food for thought, plus have been dealing with someone who thinks that feminism is ‘un-Biblical’ and very much against it from a Christian point of view. Obviously I don’t agree!

Laura // Posted 11 September 2010 at 12:04 pm

Thank you for all the thoughtful comments, everyone! I’m sorry I wasn’t able to publish them until now.

Paula // Posted 11 September 2010 at 12:20 pm

@Bernie I hate to be a pedant but I think that its important to clarify that *Paul* said that the husband is head of the wife as the wife is head of the church. I’m pretty sure its in Ephesians.

Also worth noting that not all the gospels are eyewitness accounts, Luke was converted by Paul and never met Jesus, but created his account through gathering all other people’s stories. I’m sure that its a very sweeping statement to say that no one disagreed with the accounts when they were written as I doubt that that has happened in any time, ever. Especially in an era of fairly vast illiteracy. That doesn’t, of course, dispute the validity of the texts as others have pointed out.

Amy Clare // Posted 11 September 2010 at 12:54 pm

Many of comments here really make me despair.

Firstly, eyewitness accounts *are* hearsay! By reading the gospels, you are getting information about Jesus *second hand* from people who you have never met and don’t know whether you can trust. There is *no way* you can know whether they really saw what they say they saw, even if several people claim to have seen the same thing. And when it comes to things like the so-called ‘miracles’, it’s a fair bet they just made stuff up.

Here’s a bit of further reading on the subject of Jesus’s existence:

http://www.nobeliefs.com/exist.htm

However, like I said in my first comment, *even if there was* unequivocal proof that Jesus the man existed and was a feminist, this does not mean that he was ‘divine’ or the son of god. And the only reason why people are wasting time debating whether Jesus was a feminist is precisely because of these ridiculous supernatural claims attached to him.

Frankly, *so what* if lots of people believe Jesus was divine, etc? Everyone on Earth could believe it, it wouldn’t make it true. Same as I could believe that I have fairies living at the bottom of my garden and have debates about whether they were feminists, but it wouldn’t make them exist. Not if I believed in them, not if a million people believe in them. So my debates about whether they were feminists would be meaningless.

To say that the amount of people believing in Jesus is the relevant factor here is intellectually bankrupt. To say such a thing means that truth doesn’t matter.

And if you are going to actually argue that truth doesn’t matter (as a couple of commenters have) then please have a think about the implications of this stance for your everyday life. Do you really not care whether people you meet tell you the truth about things? Seriously? If you *do* care about truth from the standpoint of your everyday life, but don’t care about it when it comes to religious texts, why the distinction?

And please – don’t equate the Bible to philosophical writings of Plato, etc. Plato never claimed to be the son of god, for a start.

What annoys me perhaps the most about debates like these, about religious matters, is that whenever an atheist turns up and points out the evidence (or lack of), immediately we get accused of ‘hating’. It’s a spiteful tactic which essentially equates to shooting the messenger. The evidence is what it is, I can’t change it and nor can anyone else. Perhaps this is what is so offensive to people.

Quite a few things are alienating me from feminism lately, but this is perhaps the biggest issue for me and it could be that this post has pushed me over the edge. I’ll always believe in gender equality and call myself a feminist but I just don’t want to be part of a movement where truth and evidence don’t matter.

Joy // Posted 11 September 2010 at 1:20 pm

I agree with so many of these comments.

Isn’t the point in feminism that people have equal rights to form their own personal beliefs and follow their own ideas and morals, unless they’re actually harming others. If that’s Christianity then we should celebrate that choice. By telling someone that they “shouldn’t” believe this or that you’re sinking to the very level that you condemn; where cultures or peoples forced ideas and religions and behaviour upon others, which is one of the terrible results of many religions. I think that only serves to illustrate the fact that it’s people themselves who take it upon themselves, out of their passion for their own thoughts, to try to enforce ideas upon others and its not always the religion or movement itself. People are probably half blind to their own behaviour, and may even be disgusted by it if they stopped to consider themselves.

Many religions have far to go with many issues but dialog and openness is needed and not vitriol.

sianushka // Posted 11 September 2010 at 1:28 pm

i’m as atheist as they come but i really disagree with the dismissive tone towards this post shown by some.

whether you follow the christian faith or not, a lot of people do, and sadly a lot of people use religion to justify and continue the degradation of women. therefore, when we hear religious women stand up and say ‘no! this is not what jesus taught, he was a believer in equality’ then that is important. I’m sure as an atheist i can’t persuade a christian to join me in my beliefs. but if we can share a message that hostorically, christianity was about equality and respecting women and men, not about women being submissive and lower than men, that should be a good thing.

you might not agree with this woman’s belief in christianity. but just the other week a lively debate occurred on this blog where the poster argued that feminist conferences often exclude muslim women. now commenters are excluding the views of a christian woman.

i for one am pleased that a christian woman has gone on television and publicly stated how her feminism and her christianity are aligned because she believes jesus taught equality. i may not follow her beliefs or have faith myself, but that doesn’t mean i disrespect her’s.

Amy Clare // Posted 11 September 2010 at 1:35 pm

P.S. When I said eyewitness accounts *are* hearsay, before anyone corrects me, I meant the so-called ‘eyewitness accounts’ of the Bible ought to be treated as hearsay in this case. Because no-one here (or who is alive today let’s face it) has ever met these apparent eyewitnesses and nor can anything they claim be verified, including the claim that they were an eyewitness.

It’d never stand up in court.

Pat // Posted 11 September 2010 at 1:46 pm

I don’t see what’s “hateful” in pointing out the historicity of Jesus and the Bible.

No part of the Bible, including the gospels (according to current scholarship) were written by first-hand observers, and there exist (inevitably, you might say) numerous inconsistencies in the accounts.

What’s more, all Roman records of Jesus life that are most commonly given as evidence of his existence (Josephus, Pliny, Tacitus and Suetonius) weren’t alive when Jesus is purported to have been. It might be said that Judea was a backwater, and that the Romans weren’t particularly interested in one cult or another, but on the other hand the Romans weren’t known for poor record-keeping.

At best, you might say the Jesus cult failed to keep proper written records. The cult’s a bit bigger these days and although it doesn’t have the same literacy problem any more, the provenance of its founding documents hasn’t improved.

Of course, the Bible is an interesting historical artefact, but there’s no reason to think this Jesus fella (if he existed) was anything other than a charismatic Jewish preacher.

In the end, I suppose it doesn’t really matter whether he existed or not. What’s interesting is whether he said anything useful.

Here are a few verses that ain’t very feminist:

Luke 2:23 – As it is written in the law of the Lord, every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord.

1 Corinthians 11:3 – But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.

1 Corinthians 11:7 – For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.

1 Corinthians 11:8 – For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man.

1 Corinthians 11:9 – Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.

1 Corinthians 14:34 – Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law.

1 Corinthians 14:35 – And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.

The list goes on. Yes yes, I know, Paul was a misogynist, cultural relativism, blah blah blah. Insufficient records were kept of Jesus’ life to be able to say what his opinion of women was.

Elmo // Posted 11 September 2010 at 1:55 pm

Amy Clare, the point of the post was whether jesus was a feminist, not whether he exsisted!

Laura // Posted 11 September 2010 at 2:14 pm

Hi Amy Clare,

The way I see it is that feminism is about freeing all women from oppression. That includes women who may hold beliefs that you or others view as utterly false. As long as these beliefs do not impinge upon the freedom of others – and I don’t believe that a basic belief in god/s or the existence of Jesus does, although other beliefs linked with religion may well do – then ultimately it doesn’t matter to feminism that they hold them.

I view women within religious communities working to bring about gender equality in those communities as a positive thing; the factual accuracy of the beliefs held by these women – with the above proviso – is irrelevant.

It was in this spirit that I posted Miranda’s video, not because I personally view Jesus as a feminist. (I know little about Christianity and therefore have no view on this, although I agree with Rose below that feminist analysis of [what could be] non-factual entities is valid and useful.) We are constantly working on improving our coverage of different issues and inclusion of different women and different feminisms on TFW blog, and I felt the above post would contribute towards that aim.

Pat // Posted 11 September 2010 at 2:28 pm

@Jessica: “Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that reality is based in what is the case, rather than what people perceive it to be.”

Either Jesus existed or he didn’t. Either what is written in the Bible can be considered as compatible with current feminist thought or it can’t.

@sianushka: “i may not follow her beliefs or have faith myself, but that doesn’t mean i disrespect her’s.”

This idea has always struck me as odd. You think someone’s beliefs are factually incorrect, yet you “respect” them? What does that mean? Surely you mean that you respect their right to hold those beliefs? So do I.

Catherine Redfern // Posted 11 September 2010 at 2:29 pm

I just wanted to totally support everything sianushka has said above.

We can’t get into a situation where any feminist who has religious/spiritual beliefs is constantly challenged to prove her religion is true every time she writes/reports on/ wants to publicise feminist activism in religious/spiritual groups.

Religious/spiritual feminists are doing a lot of work in their communities to push a feminist way of thinking. I for one want them to be able to share what’s going on, not feel that they’ll just have to get embroiled in endless debates about the fundamental basis of their belief if they post here.

The only possible outcome would be that religious feminists would be forced to separate off so they don’t have to continually be defending themselves to others. Is that what we want?

The F Word has always had (or tried to have) a broad interpretation of feminism and that includes religious/spiritual feminists as well as agnostic/atheist feminists. There is plenty of opportunity elsewhere to debate and argue the existence of God/Jesus etc. for the rest of eternity if you want to. I’m just don’t think that this is the right time and place for it.

Amy Clare // Posted 11 September 2010 at 2:59 pm

I’m just going to say one last thing and then I’m going to leave this debate.

I just wanted to make one point to you Laura, where you say that belief in Jesus or Christianity does not impinge on the freedom of others. I completely disagree. Every time a Christian parent tells their child that Christianity is true or sends them to a Christian school, they are impinging upon that child’s freedom to make up their own mind about what they believe. That’s one example. Another is the many misogynist laws that are influenced by Christian tradition.

Another is that every time we pretend that unproven, unevidenced beliefs are fine and dandy *just because people believe them*, we strike a blow against reason and we leave the door wide open for people to believe whatever they like (and act on those beliefs), including any number of untrue and damaging things about women.

That’s me done, anyway. Like I said, I don’t want to be part of a movement where truth and evidence don’t matter, or where sticking up for truth and evidence gets you slated and criticised. I’ve had enough.

Laura // Posted 11 September 2010 at 3:17 pm

@ Catherine:

Thanks for that comment, I completely agree, and will moderate accordingly in future.

(We’ll be discussing the issues raised in comments here as a collective.)

@Amy Clare:

I didn’t refer to belief in “Christianity” but to belief in god/s or Jesus – this is different from holding beliefs that are the basis of misogynist laws or forcing your beliefs on a child.

Truth and evidence do matter; but feminism is ultimately about women – and some women may believe things that you or others do not view as true, or for which there is no conclusive evidence. The most important issue for me is that these women – all women – are able to live free of discrimination and oppression. I don’t care if they believe the sun is actually a giant fire monster intent on devouring us all, as long as they are free.

Amy Clare // Posted 11 September 2010 at 4:09 pm

Sorry to be back yet again, but I can’t let your last comment go unchallenged, Laura, because of what you’re implying about my views. Who is contesting the idea that women should be free of oppression? Who is saying people shouldn’t be allowed to believe what they like? All I’m saying is ‘look at the evidence’, and let the evidence inform how we react to and debate these issues. At least let the evidence be considered relevant to the debate!

Seems strange to me that so many commenters are worried about religious women being alienated from feminism, when atheist women *are* being alienated (including me). Atheist women who do care passionately about women’s freedom from oppression but who also care about evidence, and are sick of being on the receiving end of attacks and misrepresentation because of this.

Elmo // Posted 11 September 2010 at 4:52 pm

Laura and Catherine-exactly!

Laura // Posted 11 September 2010 at 6:12 pm

Amy Clare – The issue raised in this post was gender stereotyping in the Church of English; NOT the truth about whether Jesus actually existed. By bringing this up in the first comment, the opportunity for Christian feminists to potentially discuss this issue has been closed down. Atheists are more than welcome to contribute blog posts and features to TFW that analyse and critique religion as it relates to women’s rights, but we would also like to have some space where religious women can discuss feminism as it relates to their religion, without constantly having to justify their beliefs.

I don’t think and did not mean to imply that you don’t think women should be free from oppression, I was merely trying to explain why I think we need to make room for religious/spiritual beliefs within feminism, no matter whether you or I or anyone else views them as being sufficiently rooted in evidence.

I will not be publishing any further comments on this thread, unless they relate to the post itself i.e. the issue of gender stereotyping in the Church and whether Jesus can be viewed as a feminist within the teachings of Christianity.

The collective will be amending our charter and/or comments policy in the near future to take the issues raised in this thread (and previously) into account.

Rachel // Posted 11 September 2010 at 6:41 pm

I wrote this post http://achristianfeministjourney.blogspot.com/2008/08/do-we-call-jesus-feminist.html a while ago, but I think I still believe it. Although a lot of the views I have which are feminist stem from my belief in God as a liberator, I still think its a bit dangerous to put our labels onto something we view as divine. My concern is that this is the same angle that the American religious right is coming from, taking a political movement and applying God to it. I’m still not entirly sure what I think though, and I’m really interested to hear what other people think.

Sara // Posted 11 September 2010 at 6:47 pm

I’m surprised nobody has mentioned the gospel of mary magdalene.

Gayle // Posted 11 September 2010 at 8:06 pm

First let me say that I do not belong to any religion (I was brought up in one but left after being unable to accept life as a second-class citizen due to being born a girl) but many people do and I respect their faith even if I don’t share it myself.

My personal opinion is that Jesus did exist but that his teachings and his origin have been modified and used to give credence to beliefs he would not have countenanced, such as the marginalisation of women. The Christian Bible has been compiled over many years, with some books being based on earlier texts now lost, and in this process original teachings have been ‘reinterpreted’ in view of liturgical thinking at the time. For example, the 6th century identification of Mary Magdalene as a repentant prostitute was an image that prevailed in the Roman Catholic church for centuries before being finally dismissed in the 1960s as not being supported by Bible texts.

One or two comments have been made about Paul. Paul was a Roman citizen and there is little wonder that certain elements of misogynistic thinking prevalent in Roman society crept into his version of Christianity. Cultural views of women had to have had an effect on the direction those who oversaw the development of Christianity took, surely.

So was Jesus a feminist? In the Gospels, when the male apostles such as Peter complained about Mary Magdalene, Jesus reproved them. He was described as going out of his way to talk to those marginalised by society including ‘fallen’ women. I don’t think Jesus was a feminist but I think his original teachings were about equal access to God and that’s exactly why they were considered so dangerous.

Deepak Shetty // Posted 12 September 2010 at 8:42 am

In Jesus’s time women were treated poorly is it not? Surely a divine being would have made some unambiguous statement about male-female equality instead of a dodgy females should listen to him as should males?

Why don’t we see a clear Men and Women are equal statement if Jesus was indeed a feminist?

Troon // Posted 12 September 2010 at 12:42 pm

@Deepak Shetty

‘Jesus’ (or the whole Bible as now constituted) left so few categorical statements about anything, that I’ve always found it very hard to argue from absence about what ‘Jesus’ wnated (except, possuibly, that it wasn’t strict rules or clarity)

In the context of this thread and my own past, though, I am bothered by the necessity to ignore rather than just reinterpret scripture as it stands in order to make some of the claims. On an issue such as homosexuality I think it possible to argue from scripture itself that homophobia is a misreading. But for women’s roles I would have to ignore large parts of what is said, and can’t think attribution to Paul acceptable reasons for doing so (because so much of the eschatological message of Christ is also attributable to Paul). Ultimately one of the reasons I could never find faith was that belief for me had to mean accounting for all scripture, not just using it as a salad bar of spirituality and morality.

The other issue that bothers is whether what the ‘Jesus’ of the gospels does by being inclusive is actually a sign of equality. There’s a Mitchell and Webb sketch in which Thomas points out that the Good Samaritan is essentially a racist story because the point is you expect the Samaritan to be bad. There’s something about the Mary/Martha story which is patronising, and throughout the inclusivity of ‘Jesus’ often essentially confirms rather than challenges expectations that men are the norm -pointing out that so great is his redemptive power that everyone, EVEN women, can hear , understand and be saved, not necessarily that all his hearers are equal. That was a radical message for its time, and clearly attracted many women to the early movement, but it’s difficult to feel it so categorically feminist now.

Goddess of Blah // Posted 12 September 2010 at 5:15 pm

good on him if he were

Kathy // Posted 13 September 2010 at 3:34 am

Interesting comments and article, but what struck me most was the bible story the priest uses to illustrate her point of Jesus’s feminism.

Martha opens up her home to Jesus and his friends, and while she rushes round getting things ready (I imagine food, beds, making fires, fetching water, cleaning etc), her sister Mary sits at Jesus’s feet to hear his wisdom. The fact that Jesus encourages such behaviour from a woman is extraordinary. I suppose this is the feminism bit. But when Martha (no doubt confused and exasperated by Mary’s action, and I imagine disgruntled at having to do the work alone), complains to Jesus, he tells (rebukes? soothes?) her that she shouldn’t worry and that Mary is doing the right thing.

Now, that’s all very well but I’ve always felt annoyed on Martha’s behalf, because she probably could have used some help and when all’s said and done she had to prepare the food, tidy up and then do the dishes….

I reckon the feminist response would have been for Jesus and his gang to have offered to help with the grim, thankless work whilst letting Martha (and Mary!) have a bit of a sit down! They could carry on with the chat while they worked, multitasking and gaining an insight into the lives of their mothers, sisters and girlfriends.

As Marilyn French wrote in The Women’s Room, someone always has to do the dammned dishes…

Deepak Shetty // Posted 13 September 2010 at 5:52 am

@Troon

“‘Jesus’ (or the whole Bible as now constituted) left so few categorical statements about anything,”

I agree.

But a staunch feminist / anti slavery guy would have left behind categorical statements from which you should be able to infer that he was no feminist – The evidence would be different if he were.

I do agree with the gist of your comment though.

Sheila // Posted 13 September 2010 at 2:24 pm

@Kathy

Totally agree with you. I’ve always found the Martha and Mary story a bit problematic. Is Jesus saying that what he has to say should be listened to by men and some women, but not those with work to do? It’s demeaning to the work Martha is doing that Jesus thinks listening to him is more important. Feminism isn’t about no one doing the dishes, it’s about us all doing the dishes.

Tei Tetua // Posted 14 September 2010 at 2:39 pm

Yes, I’d take this Jesus-as-feminist stuff more seriously if he’d said “One of you guys go and take over making the tea, so Martha can join the conversation. And I’ll have mine with two lumps, please.”

Tei Tetua // Posted 14 September 2010 at 7:57 pm

Another thought–what about the story of the “Woman taken in adultery”? A mob was about to stone a woman claimed to have committed adultery (what happened to the man involved, we ask) and Jesus quietly said “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”. Imagine the crowd slinking away, afraid to look anyone in the eye! That’s a wonderful rejection of slut-shaming, in the most extreme way, and a much better feminist demonstration.

Deepak Shetty // Posted 15 September 2010 at 8:18 pm

@Tei Tetua

The adultery parable deals with the fairness and judging aspect.

Feminists would also argue that adultery should be either spouse cheating, not just married women (as was the case in those times). Youll note that Jesus didnt say anything to the man (who isnt even part of the story)

And lets not go into that this story was probably not even there originally in the gospel.

Paula // Posted 16 September 2010 at 7:12 pm

@Deepak

What makes you say that that story would not have originally been in the gospels? Just curious.

Deepak Shetty // Posted 21 September 2010 at 10:06 pm

@Paula

At the risk of being censored.

Cant remember where I read it originally – Wikipedia has this note

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_and_the_woman_taken_in_adultery#cite_note-Oxford-3

“Although in line with many stories in the Gospels and probably primitive (Didascalia Apostolorum refers to it, possibly Papias also), most scholars[2][3] agree that it was “certainly not part of the original text of St John’s Gospel”

Jo // Posted 28 September 2010 at 8:34 am

I see I’m late to the discussion, but I’d like to add a couple of points worth thinking about:

1) The early Christians alarmed the Roman authorities a lot because it was clear that the early Church expected the overthrow of contemporary social structures (including the family – I’m not really sure why so many people think Christianity is so nuclear-family-friendly as it seems anything but to me) and was massively popular amongst the two most oppressed groups of its time: slaves and women. “He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” The previous verses (from Luke 1) are spoken by Mary the mother of Jesus and are taken by Christians as an articulation of what the kingdom of God is like (i.e. a place where the oppressed are first), and have been an inspiration for many Christian Socialists.

2) Accounts of early Christian women (particularly martyrs) often mention their virginity or refusal to marry, which in the later church has typically been interpreted in terms of concern for sexual purity. Personally I think it’s fruitful to think about this as being evidence of early Christianity’s radicalism with respect to the behaviour expected of women: refusing to marry at that time would have been a rejection of contemporary social roles and male dominance (and still is in many places).

3) We know that many of Jesus’ followers were women, and that women probably funded and supported much of his ministry. While no women were chosen as apostles, Mary Magdalene (who was not a prostitute …) and a group of women were the first witnesses to the resurrection – she is often known as the Apostle to the Apostles. While this isn’t an argument that Jesus was feminist per se, it shows that women were at the heart of Jesus’ life and ministry. And it’s clear from the epistles that women were leaders in the early church and were ordained. This was also radical when you consider that women were excluded from public worship in Judaism and Roman cults.

This isn’t to say that the church hasn’t at times made life worse for women. But I really do think that if you look at Jesus’ ministry and the history of the early church they come out as being compatible with feminism: indeed as a Christian I wouldn’t be able to make much sense of Christianity intellectually if I didn’t believe that it is inherently feminist.

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