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Historical Notes: Was the first human being really a male?

A FEW weeks ago, newspapers throughout Europe and North America carried a story about the unveiling, in New York, of the first page of "the only handwritten and illuminated bible to be commissioned since the advent of the printing press 500 years ago". The new manuscript bible, whose calligraphy is to be done by the scribe to Queen Elizabeth's Crown Office at the House of Lords, will incorporate imagery "reflecting a multicultural world."

It will be interesting to see how much of that imagery, if any, draws on the insights of three decades of writing and research by feminist scholars on biblical matters. The Bible is famous for being the world's most overstudied book, but it has not been overstudied by women. Until recently, it was studied by female scholars hardly at all, let alone by female scholars who were interested specifically in what the Bible had to say about women - and who were interested in challenging or reinterpreting much of what they found the Bible to be saying.

That has changed. Today, the Bible is being confronted not only by women who are theologians, and who have overtly religious motivations, but also by women who are biblical scholars, linguists, historians, archaeologists, and literary critics. The influx of women into these fields has brought a new vitality to meetings of biblical societies.

The women taking on the Bible have much to confront. As a prescriptive text, the Bible has been interpreted down the ages as explaining the creation of woman as an afterthought; as defining the purpose of woman to be the servant of man; and as laying the blame on a woman, Eve, for humanity's expulsion from Eden.

Prescriptions aside, the implicit sexual outlook of the Bible's content is frequently disturbing. Yes, the Bible offers portraits of heroic and exemplary women. More often, it depicts women as schemers and tricksters, as threats to virtue and purity. Alternatively, it depicts women as pawns or victims, as disposable objects of divine or masculine will. And there is no getting around the basic androcentricity of the Bible.

In the Hebrew Bible, only about 115 of the 1,400 people who are given names are women; the proportion of women in the New Testament is only a little better. Five books of the Bible make no reference to women at all. And what about all those "begats", in which procreation is depicted as an accomplishment for which men deserve all the credit?

And yet, for women, the biblical situation is perhaps not quite as bleak as it is sometimes made out to be. Many aspects of the Bible will always be profoundly distressing - and no amount of scholarship can argue around them. But the Bible sometimes offers more of a resource for feminists - be they interested in historical or religious issues - than might at first appear.

For example, does the theology of the Creation stories actually point to the equality of woman and man - centuries of interpretation to the contrary? Might it even be incorrect to think of the first human being, Adam, as a male? Is it incorrect, further, to interpret the Adam and Eve story as a parable of sexuality and gender roles, rather than as a parable of moral freedom and personal responsibility?

That new manuscript bible is scheduled to be finished in the year 2004. It will be a work of art. The translation being used, its creators emphasise, is that of the New Revised Standard Version - a translation that takes exquisite pains to use gender-inclusive language. Well, fine. But inclusive language is merely a sideshow. The important feminist activity in biblical scholarship is taking place in a bigger arena. And the show is in for a very long run.

Cullen Murphy is the author of `The Word According to Eve: women and the Bible in ancient times and our own' (Allen Lane, pounds 20)