Contemporary Culture

‘Temptress’ Eve, ‘prostitute’ Mary Magdalene – and the awkward truth about The Bible’s women

The most well-known female biblical characters feel familiar to us because they’re so embedded within our culture. These women are represented in film, music videos, couture collections and featured in everything from plays to strip clubs. And yet, despite our cultural constructions and received understandings of female biblical characters, the Bible often tells us something very, very different about them.

Eve is no temptress

The Bible’s first woman is popular culture’s most enduring muse. Whether she’s flogging fruit juice, perfume or going vegetarian for Peta, the character of Eve is a regular in advertising.

Juicy Eve.

Following centuries of representations as a maleficent femme fatale, we have come to know her as the temptress who lured Adam and humanity to their downfall and introduced sin to the world. The biblical text, however, is far less concrete about the “Mother of All Living” (Gen. 3:20).

In the Bible, Eve undergoes a character transformation from her introduction in Genesis 2 to the transgression episode when she eats the forbidden fruit in Genesis 3.

When God creates Eve from Adam’s rib, Eve is a voiceless, choiceless creature, while Adam makes plenty of noise about what he thinks of his new “helper” (Gen. 2:18) and demonstrates his power by naming and claiming her:

This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
for out of Man this one was taken. (Gen. 2:23)

In contrast, we’re left in the dark about Eve’s thoughts on her new companion. We don’t know if Adam is more Donald Trump than Ryan Gosling; at this point, the text gives us no clue as to whether she’s happy with her imposed match or not.

Only a couple of verses later, however, and our silent biblical lady is suddenly the star of the show, chatting away with the serpent and eating the forbidden fruit. In a textual about turn, Eve has transformed into a biblical badass, making her own decisions, while her husband becomes the mute companion.

The biblical text is sparse but it’s clear that Eve does not need to tempt her docile mate; she merely “gives some to her husband, who was with her” (Gen. 3:6). While “femvertisers” represent Eve as an example of female sexual empowerment, the biblical narrator attempts to lay the blame for the transgression at her feet. She deserves a retrial.

The much-maligned Magdalene

Like Eve, the New Testament character Mary Magdalene has been the subject of centuries of bad press. Magdalene is often believed to be a prostitute although there’s no suggestion of it in the biblical text. Academics have argued that the early Church developed Mary Magdalene’s repentant prostitute persona as a bid to deny women a proper position in the church hierarchy.

Since then, a number of attempts have been made to “rehabiliate” the character from her reputation as a fallen woman. Melvyn Bragg, for example, has certainly put some time into discovering the “real Magdalene”, presenting a controversial Good Friday documentary in 2013 and a radio programme on BBC Radio 4 earlier this year. But despite the reams of research and hours of media coverage, including the heightened interest in the Gospel of Mary following the success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, our fascination with the “penitent sinner” remains.

Fallen woman? Mary Magdalene, Vienna.
Renata Sedmakova/Shutterstock

The discussion around Mary Magdalene, however, says more about cultural attitudes to female sexuality than anything about the biblical character. The persistent idea that sex workers are “fallen” women who should be rehabilitated or repentant has only relatively recently been challenged and the controversy surrounding Mary Magdalene speaks to centuries of the dominant ideology that shapes values around female sexuality and stigmatises sex workers on a moralistic premise.

Mary, Mary, quite contrary

On the other hand, Mary, Mother of Jesus, is considered by many Christians as the “ideal woman”. As a virgin mother, Mary has the ultimate appeal to female respectability, combining the most culturally valuable female roles. But discussions surrounding the “ideal femininity” of Mary, Mother of Jesus, are inextricably linked with the control of female sexuality evidenced in attitudes to Mary Magdalene. The construction of “female virtue” is a cultural dividing practice to reinforce the social boundaries between respectable and unrespectable groups and classes.

The myth of Salome

We may be familiar with Salome as the daughter of the Herodias who danced for Herod in the New Testament (Mark 6:21-29; Matt. 14:6-11) but the character who requests John the Baptist’s head on behalf of her mother wasn’t named in the Bible.

Wilde woman: Salome with the head of John the Baptist.
Eugene Ivanov/Shutterstock

The dangerous seductress we know derives from a heady mix of the first century historian Josephus, who named her but does not connect her with John the Baptist, and the 19th-century playwright Oscar Wilde, who wrote a scandalous play based on the character that was banned in London in 1892. Salome has now become synonymous with striptease thanks to the “dance of the seven veils”, which has no biblical basis but originated in Wilde’s play.

Cultural representations of Salome tend to be problematic because Salome is frequently exoticised and based around orientalised stereotypes of Middle Eastern femininity that “seem still to suggest not only fecundity but sexual promise (and threat)”.

The ConversationEve, Mary Magalene, Mary (Mother of Jesus), and Salome , then, are far more than biblical characters, they help to reflect and construct ideas and attitudes to and about femininity and female sexuality. In this way, they also tell us an awful lot about ourselves.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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How the Bible shapes contemporary attitudes to rape and sexual assault

A retiring judge recently faced accusations of victim blaming when she used her final courtroom case as a plea to women to “protect themselves” from rapists by staying sober. Judge Lindsey Kushner restated these views in a television interview on Good Morning Britain, asking, “why shouldn’t you say – be aware ladies?”

Kushner’s comments were met with a mixed response. Some praised her for using her final speech before stepping down from the bench as a gesture of concern and warning to women who, she believes, make themselves more vulnerable to rape after consuming alcohol. Others, including representatives from Rape Crisis and some feminist activists, see these comments as acutely dangerous – comments that encourage and affirm attitudes of victim-blaming which, in turn, perpetuate the stereotypes that underpin rape culture.

Unfortunately, Kushner is far from the only judge in a sexual assault case to comment on the “irresponsible” or “provocative” behaviour of women and girls.

Biblical attitudes to rape

As a deeply influential cultural document, the Bible has a lot to say when it comes to attitudes around sex, shame and gender identity. Rape is endemic in the Bible (both literally and metaphorically) and, more often than not, functions as a conduit for male competition and a tool to uphold patriarchy.

Bathsheba at her Bath, Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari (1680).

For example, David’s rape of Bathsheba is echoed in his son Amnon’s rape of half-sister Tamar, and his son Absalom’s rape of David’s ten concubines. And in Judges 21, the Benjaminites are “saved from extinction” through the mass rape of women from Jabesh-gilead and Shiloh.

A common thread in the biblical text is that women are responsible for maintaining their sexual “purity”. This is not in the interests of their own well-being, but to ensure that as male property, women remain “undamaged”. This seems to be a no-win situation. The consequence for Dinah, who transgresses social boundaries by going “out to meet the women of the land”, is rape. Women who do fulfil feminine ideals, such as Bathsheba, who is described as “very beautiful”, tend to attract negative, often violent, male sexual attention.

In other words, one way or another, women are constantly implicitly blamed, both in the Bible and in contemporary culture, for their rape.

To blame for one’s beauty

A case in point is another “very beautiful” biblical woman, Susanna. Susanna is the subject of an attempted rape by two elders, who spy on her while she’s bathing before conspiring to coerce her into sex:

Look the garden doors are shut, and no one can see us. We are burning with desire for you; so give your consent, and lie with us. If you refuse, we will testify against you that a young man was with you, and this was why you sent your maids away.

In the biblical text, Susanna’s beauty is to blame for attracting the attentions of the elders. In a plotline that’s echoed in today’s court rooms, Susanna’s testimony isn’t believed and her sexual conduct is brought into question. It takes a man, Daniel, to advocate for her and to rescue her from execution after she refuses the elders’ offer.

In his successful defence of her and condemnation of the elders, Daniel says: “Beauty has beguiled you and lust has perverted your heart.” Here, as so often in contemporary society, rape and sexual assault are linked to the attractiveness of women rather than a violent crime of power and control. Even in art, Susanna is implicitly blamed for being targeted. As the critic John Berger has observed, Susanna, like Bathsheba, is often depicted looking at herself in a mirror while she’s bathing:

The mirror was often used as a symbol of the vanity of woman. The moralising, however, was mostly hypocritical. You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.

Susanna and the Elders, Tintoretto (1555).

Kushner’s words continue this not-so-grand tradition of victim blaming. Kushner suggests that women who do not exhibit “disinhibited behaviour” by abstaining from alcohol are better able to fight off men with “evil intentions”. What is key here is that moderating women’s behaviour does not do anything to address the issue of rape or dismantle rape culture. It just shifts the collective social responsibility to prevent rape and sexual assault to that of individual women.

Women who do not agree to self-police are blamed for others’ actions. What Kushner is giving isn’t “just advice” or “common sense”; it reduces rape to a choice: choose for someone else to be targeted for attack rather than yourself.

The ConversationRather than continuing to judge women for their behaviour, perhaps it’s time we started to judge a society that blames women for rape.

Katie Edwards, Director SIIBS, University of Sheffield and Emma Nagouse, PhD Candidate in Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies, University of Sheffield

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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