Slut, Virgin, or Male

There are three important female characters in the gospels and early christian history. And the treatment of each speaks volumes about the systematic disenfranchisement of women in the church. Each has been abused in their own way, to transform them into a controllable stereotype.

Mary Magdelene. A key disciple and apostle. She is described in early christian texts as an apostle to the apostles. A favorite of Jesus, and a key member of his inner circle. Later she is increasingly marginalised and left to be only a footnote among the key disciples of Jesus. Most significantly she is sexually maligned, being associated with the woman caught in adultery, and then being identified as a prostitute. Both of which there is no evidence at all. Mary Magdelene is the epitomy of sexual sin and female danger. We can dismiss her as a slut, and all the implications of her apostleship can be sunk under the prurient fascination with her invented sex-life.

Mary the Mother of Jesus. The changes to Mary start early, as early as the gospels. By a fluke of bad translation in the Septuagint, she has to be portrayed as a virgin. But that isn’t enough. The church has to control her sexuality completely and retroactively. She is made a perpetual virgin, forever untainted by the sin of sexual desire and the stain of sexual encounter. If this were not true, if she were not so pure, why would God have chosen her? Robbed even of the motherhood of Jesus’s siblings, and forced onto a pedestal of sexual abstinence and denial of female sexuality, she is made the ideal for all good Christian women, even the married and mothers.

The Holy Spirit. In the beginning the holy spirit wasn’t intended to be a person, but in the fracas of theology in the early church, the coequal coexistent father and son seemed open to further extension. And in the process the ‘it’ of the Holy Spirit became a person. Some early churches and writings clearly understood the Holy Spirit as female. And grammatically that was true too. So the third member of the trinity, if interpreted as a person, would and should have been female. But a female in the Godhead? That didn’t last long. Not only was the Holy Spirit made a ‘he’, but the grammar was retroactively changed to make it male. If we interpret the female as male, then we can make progress. We can even do it with a nod and a wink and saying “well the male pronoun basically covers both genders” or “the Holy Spirit is neither male nor female, so we may as well call him he”.

These three twisted models of female participation in the Jesus movement, formed through the power of the men who shaped doctrine, have served to control and frame female participation ever since. Maybe some Christians can start again now, and build the church of women that could have been. Or maybe the whole edifice is so shot through that it is irredeemable.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Slut, Virgin, or Male

  1. I read and reviewed a book from Bruce Sanguin a few months ago. He was making a call for the church to get back to the feminine. In a sense, he wants to name the Holy Spirit ‘ Sophia’. He believes Jesus is more truly the son of Sophia rather than the son of the Father.

    (btw, I would like to hope nothing is ‘irredeemable’… including the church!)

  2. Ian

    Fascinating. Can you give the name of that book? I’d be interested to read it. Particularly the Sophia angle. Sophia is used in the Hebrew bible as a personification, but I haven’t come across it identified with the Holy Spirit. Though admittedly my reading on OT theology is very minimal.

  3. book title: Darwin, Divinity and the Dance of the Cosmos.

    [personal plug for my book review: Part 1 and Part 2]

    Now, I should frame this better. The book is about updating Christianity in terms of new information, making it greener, and so forth. The Sophia thing is just one theme in his book.

  4. Ian

    Thanks Andrew. The book does sound rather wishy washy – the bit about gravity and love seemed particularly egregious. I may try to find it cheap somewhere…

  5. ” but I haven’t come across it identified with the Holy Spirit. ”

    whoa, really?! Origen and many of the mystics have made this connection throughout church history. most recently by Matthew Fox in his book “Creation Spirituality.” i grew up in the catholic church with a really cool Vatican II Jesuit dude who made this connection and preached about it quite often. after him, we had a priest who eradicated the feminine and even preached a sermon where divorced women are going to hell. being the son of a divorced woman, i walked out during it with my sister. that was in 6th grade or so.

    it’s hard to find, but it’s there, in between the lines and on the margins of church history, but it’s constant.

  6. Ian

    Excellent 01 – I love finding out that I’ve missed a whole bunch of interesting stuff! I don’t want to ask you to do my legwork for me, but if you can remember any other specific books I can use as a jumping off point, I’d be grateful! I haven’t read “creation spirituality” (though it has come up a couple of times, so I guess I ought to!).

    Excuse to read more, check. Happy Ian, check 😉

  7. hey, consider this an early Christmas present 😉

    from a few of my NT papers which site some books (in no particular order):

    William D. Mounce, The Morphology of Biblical Greek (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), pp. 241-242

    Donald L. Gelpi, The Divine Mother: A Trinitarian Theology of the Holy Spirit (New York:University Press of America, 1984).

    Trigg, Joseph Wilson (1985). Origen: the Bible and philosophy in the third-century church. London: SCM Press. ISBN 0-334-02234-7.

    *Tanner, Katheryn. Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity. Fortress Press; 1st Fortress Press ed edition (June 1, 2001)

    *heard her speak and she is a PHENOMENAL! her books would be right up your alley, extremely scholarly, historical, and uber-researched. i loved this book but couldn’t get half way through her Christ the Key, which further expounds her arguments here.

  8. Ian

    Bootiful!

    And that is about the Holy Spirit being Sophia, right? Not just about Sophia as a personification, or emmanation or Aeon?

  9. Pingback: A Race Against Time Before Christmas | Irreducible Complexity

  10. si. esp. Gelpi’s book. happy reading!

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