What Jesus Thought of Women

Mr. Miller will soon publish the book Black Gold In Little Egypt: A Century Of Illinois Petroleum, 1889-1989 under auspices of the Illinois Oil & Gas Association.

What a discovery (more like a revelation, as it has turned out) made one day at Wabash Valley College Library, Mt. Carmel, Illinois, some twenty years ago. What leapt out at me, while leafing through a few volumes at random on the shelves there, was the following:"The Plight of the Song of Songs," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 42 (March 1974):82-100. The author of the article was William E. Phipps, Presbyterian minister, and Professor Emeritus at Davis and Elkins College, Elkins, West Virginia, where he served as the chairman of the Department of Religion and Philosophy. And what I read was astonishing.

These are some of his findings: (1) Jesus, as the founder of Christianity, set the standard for the treatment of women (with no exceptions); but, it is a standard of conduct we (as men) have yet to emulate fully even after the passage of some 2,000 years since he lived bodily. Which brings to mind a question--will men, even with his perfect example ever before us, as recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, ever get"it" right?; and (2) theologians and other leaders of both the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches (and almost, if not quite as often, their Christian"flocks") have almost always failed miserably to interpret the Scriptures (Old and New Testament alike) in such a manner(s) as to understand, much less really appreciate, how healthy, fully integrated, was the life of Jesus on sexuality, his wholesome relationship with all women, and his highly probable marriage (not platonic in nature either) to Mary Magdalene.

From the chapter"Jesus the Philogynist" in The Sexuality of Jesus, Phipps makes two observations which cannot be disputed by anyone and which go a long way toward proving the extraordinary (really let's be more precise), unique relationship Jesus had with women. First of all, no major or minor figure among the world's religious leaders (and, as Phipps points out, especially in ancient times) had any really significant number of followers (disciples and/or converts) among women. And, Phipps's second point will probably take the reader unawares, as it did me, that while many men, prominent among them the Jewish authorities, lambasted Jesus, there is not a single instance in the four Gospel accounts of any woman subjecting Jesus to criticism of any kind! Don't take the word of Phipps uncritically on this; if you like, but"do your own research."

Taken together, those two phenomena--numerous women as followers and their unwavering support--are a remarkable testament to Jesus'. The women never wavered, even stood beneath the cross on Calvary, as Jesus suffered and died. After the Resurrection, they were first at the tomb (no man had dared to be the first to attend) on the Sabbath morning of the third day from the Crucifixion, led by Mary Magdalene, whom Mark in 16:9 said that she was the first person to see the Risen Lord.

Now, with the above uppermost in mind, as Phipps himself perceptively remarks, and I am putting, however, in the form of a question--what gender constituted in fact the"weaker sex" (the men or the women)? Surely the answer must be the former!

Turning from this look at the life of Jesus and his women disciples, it is time to focus on Phipps's powerful insights on the Bible and sex. To begin:"It is one of the pranks of history that a poem [Song of Songs] so obviously about hungry passion has caused so much perplexity and has provoked such a plethora of bizarre interpretations." Thus did Phipps introduce a major theme of his, namely the resistance to recognize the Song of Songs for what it is--a love song,"the most sensuous book in Scripture and in all the writings of antiquity."

Why the myopia? Phipps supplies the answer in a devastating critique through an unabashed examination of the sexual phobias of the likes of the"giants" of Christendom, including Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Jerome, Augustine, Bernard of Clairvoix, Martin Luther, and John Wesley. To read from Phipps on the"hidebound," even disturbed minds of those so-called stalwarts of the Christian tradition, is truly enlightening. Origen, due to obsessive fears of his sexual desires, not only foisted on the Song of Songs an allegorical interpretation (with us in variant forms to this day), falsely positing an unbridgeable chasm between earthly and heavenly love but also castrating himself to escape sexual arousal. Origen's attempt then to bifurcate love, as Phipps also makes clear, came not from Jewish attitudes toward sex between men and women (which on the whole were quite wholesome and realistic), but from his unnatural incorporation of Platonic philosophy and other pagan notions into the corpus of Christian theology.

Gregory of Nyssa (a Greek bishop of note) deserves no better in our estimation on sexuality. In fifteen sermons on the Song of Songs, he not only eulogized what I would denominate as Origen's idiocy from the previous century, but also warned that anyone interpreting that erotic poem literally would bring upon him or her damnation.

It is to Jerome, however, that one must trace our fullest liability so far as a healthy relationship between the sexes are involved. He allegorized the Song of Songs to such an extent medieval monks devoted more attention to that poem than any other book of the Bible (amounting to a futile exercise at sexual sublimation) and"saddled" us all at the same time with the utterly nonsensical notion that the Song of Songs had nothing whatever to do with" connubial passion." From Phipps's thorough examination of Augustine's attitudes toward his own body and women too, of course, surely anyone reading this essay can readily understand why Christians and probably many non-adherents as well still have phobias and/or guilt feelings about their sex lives. So disturbed was Augustine by his inability to prevent erections, especially at the sight of an attractive woman (for which reason he normally shunned the company of the opposite sex), he went so far as to assert that the unruly nature of all men's penises dated from the end of Adam's innocence in the Garden of Eden, thereby equating sex even in marriage with sin (making married life inferior as a consequence to a chaste life so far as one's spirituality was. Bernard of Clairvoix, prominent leader of the Catholic Church in the twelfth century, who wrote eighty-six sermons on the Song of Songs, could not get the story right either. Throughout life he tried to sublimate his libidinous urges (once in his youth even plunging himself in an icy pond after"an exchange of admiring glances" with a pretty young woman had resulted in an erection), the sum total of which sexual experiences produced in him a hatred of infidels and what he considered as other malefactors. In fact, so virulent was his hostility to Muslims, Bernard became the chosen one to lead the Second Crusade to the Holy Land (an honor, as he saw it, but neither Phipps nor I so view the matter; he declined due to advanced age). As Phipps went on to state, and with much justification, a"devotion to aggressive war becomes for some persons a substitute for frustrated love." If the reader thinks Phipps, or myself for that matter, are making scapegoats of Roman Catholics, disabuse yourself! Protestants from the Reformation to the present day have also shown themselves to be (for the most part) as obstinate, even"blind" to the truth as Catholics where the Song of Songs is concerned. Taking but two examples in support of that statement, consider what Phipps brings to light regarding Martin Luther and John Wesley.

Luther rivaled, if not surpassed, Roman Catholics, in allegorizing the Song of Songs. He interpreted that story of passionate love in a unique way--seeing the whole as an injunction against peasant uprisings or what he considered as people's"divinely ordained rulers." Wesley, the founder of Methodism in England, went just as far astray, if not further than Luther. Echoing Roman Catholics, Wesley believed that Song of Songs"is to be understood allegorically concerning that spiritual love and marriage which is between Christ and his church." Phipps demonstrates by his grounding in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin that the true reading of the Old and New Testament necessitates the following: (1) the account of Eve's creation from Adam's rib (even if only an allegorical tale) should be viewed, if interpreted properly, as making Eve the equal of Adam in every respect (the very interpretation accepted by Jesus, as Phipps points out); (2) that Jesus might very well have been the human race's first fully integrated male (combining perfectly in himself all so-called masculine and feminine traits of character); (3) from which would necessarily follow, if Jesus were in fact God's only begotten Son, then the creator of the Universe too, also incorporated all female and male attributes in perfect harmony; and (4) lastly (but absolutely indispensable to a right understanding of the Bible, sex, and Jesus, wisdom personified a woman, known as"Hokmah in Hebrew, or Sophia in Greek." To which Phipps, also in his book Genesis and Gender, adds perceptively the thoughts of several New Testament writers, including Paul, who all designated (in Paul's words)"Christ as Thou Sophia, God's Wisdom." Giving Phipps the last word, and to end this treatment of his very worthy ideas, let it be said (from Genesis and Gender):"the Synoptic Gospels state that Jesus viewed John the Baptist and himself as inspired by Sophia [God's Wisdom]."


The sources for this necessarily incomplete (but representative for all that) consideration of Phipps's ideas and/or perceptions include (in addition to"The Plight of the Song of Songs," cited in full above): Was Jesus Married?: The Distortion of Sexuality in the Christian Tradition (New York: Harper & Row, 1970); The Sexuality of Jesus: Theological and Literary Perspectives (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), particularly chapter 3,"Jesus the Philogynist" (pp. 53-76);"The Sensuousness of Agape," Theology Today 29 (January 1973):370-79;"Adam's Rib: Bone of Contention," Theology Today 33 (October 1976):263-73;"Exploration and Responses: The Sex of God," Journal of Ecumenical Studies 16 (Summer 1979):515-17; Influential Theologians on WO/MAN (Washington: University Press of America, 1981), especially chapter 2,"Jerome's Manhandling of Scripture" (pp. 37-60) and" chapter 3,"Sexual Shame in Augustine" (pp.61-80); and Genesis and Gender: Biblical Myths of Sexuality and Their Cultural Impact (New York: Praeger, 1987).

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Paul Jupp - 3/28/2004

Whilst honouring Mr Mallory's right to his opinions, I have to wonder what connection he has with any kind of historical investigation or study. Is he not aware, at the very least, of the works of Professor Geza Vermes of Oxford University?

Or is it simply that he thinks everyone is a "religious loony" who doesn't share his point of view?

keith miller - 11/8/2002

No Comment! from Mr. Miller

nick mallory - 10/10/2002

Any competent historian, reviewing the evidence rather than the indoctrination of his youth, would have to reject any stories about 'jesus' what jesus did or said as extremely dubious, and indeed might well conclude that, the bible being propoganda written by committee a hundred or more years after events which were not recorded in any way, there was no hard evidence the fellow actually existed at all. Let's leave the superstitious codswallop to the religous loonies shall we, let's ask questions, examine evidence, rely on skepticism and rationality, rather than parrot this theological drivel.

keith miller - 6/21/2002

Dear Ms. Caciola, First of all, from your comment heading, you must have a much more limited focus than mine on what history encompasses (and so far as theology is concerned, along with my concluding paragraph for Phipps and his ideas/perceptions are also concerned, my essay deals (first of all) very little with theology and (second), so far as my expressions on existence of God and/or nature of Jesus, neither have been for centuries foreign to historical writing, if not explicit than implicit). Another matter--though I do not presume to even guess at your ideological and/or philosophical "stance," I have noticed for decades now, anyone who cares to (and of that persuasion of course) pontificates on the themes in line with the current orthodoxy among professional historians, to wit what I would denominate as the doctrine of political correctness. Enough said thereon! In conclusion I must wonder at the "drift" of some of your other comments (and at this point would recommend you take Professor Phipps much more to heart, especially on "The Plight of the Song of Songs" article in JAAR, and Influential Theologians on WO/MAN, for surely as a woman yourself, my observations to follow would have to make some sense (your being a Medievalist notwithstanding)--if historians (and Phipps is looking at Bible times and life of Jesus, along with interpretations of both since then--is that not history?) do not address the consequences on both men and women over the millennia of fears and/or guilt feelings about human sexuality, I can assure you of one thing above all else. If the women on this "tortured" planet can not get free, the men never will be either, so far as healthy (wholesome) sex models/ roles are concerned. A case in point--not any further back in time than 1975 the great country/western "star" Loretta Lynn came out with a song titled "The Pill." Males, including a goodly number of disc jockeys, created a furor over Ms. Lynn's commendable effort to legitimate the use of birth control pills. Shades here of Margaret Sanger's arrest (and some jail time) in the early 20th century for advocating birth control in opposition to a New York law on the subject. Now, one of the underlying "causes" for the continuing "malaise of mind" on such matters, primarily by men in the world (especially though in Western Civilization, as focused on here) has been with us from Bible times at least (and I suppose even before that), specifically women were (and sadly still too often are, it would appear) defined as worth more as potential mothers (procreation of the human species) than for anything else--most certainly above their intellectual growth and most certainly NOT for what effective birth control would make possible--the control of their own bodies through the prevention of unwanted pregnancies. Now, Ms. Caciola, let's be fair-minded both to Professor Phipps and myself here--does not what I have presented in the closing section of this comment make clear my themes need historical treatment and thus can not be dismissed as a question(s) of theology? Sincerely, Keith Miller

Nancy Caciola - 6/20/2002

However laudable the sentiments of Phipps and his admirer Miller, the ideas recounted in this article constitute a form of Theology, not History. There are two areas that I find particularly objectionable in this regard. First, as a Medieval Historian, I find it troubling that the author berates Augustine, Origen, Bernard of Clairvaux (please note proper spelling) &c. for not understanding the "true" character of the Song of Songs. It is anachronistic to complain about medieval understandings of the Song, given that these thinkers were working within a rather different textual and interpretive tradition than our own. The Historian approaches things in context. Second, the practice of History demands neutrality on the issue of God's existence. The concluding section of the essay, which suggests the androgyny of Jesus and hence of God the Father, is a confessional statement of faith that has no place in an article appearing on a History forum.
One last thing: the oldest versions of the gospel of Mark (itself the oldest gospel) end at 16:8.

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