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The Portrayal of Women in the Bible and Biblical Inspiration

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This article is available in Español, Sindhi and Hungarian (Magyarul).

The Positive Portrayal of Women in the Bible

One of the reasons I trust the unique inspiration of the Bible is because of what it says about women, or, more to the point, what it doesn’t say about women. The Bible never says that women as a group are unintelligent, gullible, deceptive, difficult, emotional, sexually wanton, temptresses, evil, or inferior to men. In fact it says a lot of good things about women.

In the Old Testament, many Bible women are described as beautiful, intelligent, courageous, resourceful and enterprising. Bible women functioned as prophets, teachers, advisers, leaders and deliverers.

In the New Testament we read that the Saviour, the Son of God, came into the world through a woman. Amazing! And the first person to see the resurrected Jesus, at the beginning of the New Covenant era, was a woman.

Women are never mentioned in a bad light in the Gospels. Many women were faithful and devoted to Jesus. Many even travelled with him and supported his ministry with their own money. In the Pauline letters several women are mentioned as being Christian ministers and colleagues of the apostle Paul.

Women and Patriarchy

This positive portrayal of women in the Scriptures is remarkable considering the patriarchal setting of the Bible and its androcentric writing. We see in the Bible that women, in general, did not have the same social freedoms as men because of this pervasive patriarchal culture, and there are some horrible stories in the Old Testament that involve the unjust and despicable treatment of certain women. The biblical narratives, however, are not part of teaching or Law, and the injustices and atrocities are not condoned. (I do understand that principles can be drawn from Bible narratives but we must make a distinction between descriptive and prescriptive texts.)

The Negative Portrayal of Women by Non-biblical Authors

In contrast to the Bible’s portrayal of women, as soon as you step outside of the canon of Scripture there are the most terrible generalisations written about women. Some of these terrible things are even taught by Jewish and Christian writers and philosophers.

Ben Sirach, a Jew writing in the second century BC, wrote in his apocryphal work Ecclesiasticus that a good wife is a silent wife and that all women have a disposition of sexual wantonness (Sirach 25:13-25; 26:13-16; 42:9-11, 12-14). “He maintained that women in general constitute a threat to the dignity and well-being of men and that the most dangerous threat comes from a man’s own daughter.” (“Women in Second Temple Judaism” in The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism.)

An unknown Jewish writer, also writing in the second century BC, claims that “Women are evil . . . treacherous . . . lustful . . .” (Testament of Reuben 2:13-16)

The Jewish philosopher Philo, writing in the first century AD, “accepted the Aristotelian judgment that the female is, in and of herself, inferior to the male. He used this to explain the biblical narratives allegorically. The women of the Bible [he thought] represent inferior aspects of a person’s psyche, namely the senses, while the male figures represent the superior mind. The creation of woman, for example, is explained as a corruption of the mind by the senses (Opificio Mundi 59).” (“Women in Second Temple Judaism” in The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism.)

Tertullian, an early Christian theologian writing in the late second to early third centuries AD, called women “the devil’s gateway”. He had the opinion that all women are guilty of the Fall, and that women are especially guilty of Jesus’ death. (On the Apparel of Women, chapter 1.)

Sadly, there are still more examples than these of overt and destructive misogynistic teaching by non-biblical Jewish and Christian writers.

The Inspiration of the Holy Spirit

The biblical writings are androcentric because they were written by men in the patriarchal culture of the Ancient Near East and Greco-Roman world. Patriarchy is not God’s ideal, yet he used people within that culture and setting to tell his story. The Bible, however, was also inspired by the Holy Spirit and so there is none of the harsh and crushing misogynist generalisations that are prevalent in non-biblical (or extra-biblical) writings.

Let me reiterate: The Bible never says that women are unintelligent, gullible, deceptive, difficult, emotional, sexually wanton, temptresses, evil, or inferior to men.

The main message of gender in the Bible is that women and men are equal and compatible, and both have been made in the image of God. Women are in no way inferior, less competent or less valuable than men. This message reveals the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This message of genuine equality and mutuality between men and women is the message that the Church should be sharing and promoting among its people and in the world. This is the message that I am sharing.


I am happy to discuss the few Bible verses that appear misogynistic and unjust in the comments section below. Other places to discuss Bible women are on my Every Old Testament Woman facebook page, or on my newlife.id.au facebook page.

Also, if you have a misogynistic quote from a Jewish or early Christian author please let me know. Here are some from Church Fathers and Christian Theologians.

Post Script 6.5.13: Wendy Alsup has done a good job of looking at the context of a few of the more unpleasant Old Testament passages concerning women here.

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The Portrayal of Women in the Bible and Biblical Inspiration

Posted September 7th, 2012 . Categories/Tags: Equality and Gender Issues, The Holy Spirit, , , , ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

29 comments on “The Portrayal of Women in the Bible and Biblical Inspiration

  1. Don Johnson says:

    I think the narratives (and even some laws) can be used to give insight into certain cultural ASSUMPTIONS by the way things are worded, but I do not see that as God endorsing those ASSUMPTIONS, rather God is working inside the culture (or cultures in the case of the NT books) of the time those words were written moving the people of God step by step to be more in line with the principles of the Kingdom of God.

    The most obvious examples are that all the cultures of the time of the Bible assumed polytheism, slavery, and patriarchy and the Jewish and other Eastern cultures assumed polygamy if the husband could afford it.

  2. Marg says:

    Yes they definitely give some insight into culture.

    God tolerated patriarchy in the past, and he continues to tolerate it, but it is not his ideal.

  3. Bart Ehrman’s books give a pretty good indication of the cultural context and what can be understood from the New Testament writings.

  4. Marg says:

    There are a few good writers on this subject now. I like Lynn Cohick’s book on Women in the World of the Earliest Christians; and I want to get Ken Bailey’s books.

  5. Mim says:

    I always find it interesting that when a woman is portrayed as doing something wrong in the eyes of God, such as Sapphira, it does not say that she did it because she was a woman, or for any gendered reason, but she sinned because she was a sinner, just like any sinful man or woman in any other part of history. She was a sinner and was trying to sidestep God, just like the many other sinners portrayed in the bible. I believe we can all learn the lessons from biblical stories regardless of our gender- David- how to be humble and faithful, Deborah- servant leadership without taking the glory for yourself, Sapphira and Annaias- God sees our sin, and the list goes on. And that is something truly beautiful about the bible!

  6. Marg says:

    I think you’re right. I can’t think of a single example where the Bible links certain types of sins to gender. The fact that the Bible does not purport or support gender stereotypes is truly a beautiful thing. 😀

  7. Marg says:

    I was reading some excerpts from Chrysostom and Clement of Alexandria today and after a while a realized that the authors were clearly writing to men, and not to women, even though the topics were marriage and sex, etc. The writers use the words “us” and “we” in their address to men. When they speak about women, it is “they”.

    It struck me that the Bible authors do not use this “us” and “them” vernacular when writing about men and women.

    I’m thinking that this inclusivity in Bible writing could well be another indication of the unique inspiration of Scripture.

    Also, the New Testament passages about ministry gifts and church leadership are remarkably free from gender distinctions. This gender neutrality is absent in passages on leadership in the Didache and other Early Church literature.

  8. Mandy Oram says:

    Hi Margaret,

    This is a question that may be too obscure but it relates to Gen 19.

    I’m just wondering if you or any if your readers can make sense of why Lot, who offers his two daughters up to a feral crowd, is spared, while his wife is turned to a pillar of salt for looking back upon Sodom. (BTW: I’ve just come back from this area in Jordan and there are a lot a salt pillars along the Dead Sea’s shoreline.

  9. Mandy Oram says:

    I’m happy to be answered at another time if this is too off topic.

  10. Marg says:

    Lot’s offer was despicable and reflected his cultural perspective rather than God’s perspective. In Lot’s culture hospitality was considered an almost sacred duty, whereas women, especially one’s own daughters, were seen as property. I don’t deny that there are some horrible stories about women in the Old Testament.

    The angels, however, saved Lot’s daughters. They saved them from the feral crowd, and they saved them from Sodom’s destruction.

  11. Pedro says:

    You are all kidding right?

    So every time the bible portrays women as object, it’s the culture, but when there is something positive or neutral about women, it is God.

    Yup, sure.

    • Marg says:

      Not sure where you’re getting those ideas from, Pedro. I don’t use the phrase or concept of “women as objects” in this article.

      Let me reiterate yet again: The Bible never says that women are unintelligent, gullible, deceptive, difficult, emotional, sexually wanton, temptresses, evil, or inferior to men.

      We see God’s original intention for men and women most clearly in Genesis 1. Here we read that men and women were equal in function and equal in authority, and that they were commanded to govern the earth and the animals as God’s regents. There is no mention of ruling or abusing other people here. God loves his sons and daughters.

      Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
      27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
      28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Genesis 1:26-28 NRSV

  12. isabella says:

    I think that marg here is very wrong

    • Marg says:

      Hi Isabella.

      Very wrong? How so?

      Do you think the Bible does say that women as a group are unintelligent, gullible, deceptive, difficult, emotional, sexually wanton, temptresses, evil, or inferior to men?

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