One of the strategies that has emerged from Alabama Republican senatorial hopeful Roy Moore’s supporters has been to denounce his accusers as liars. These are “mere allegations” and the women are not to be trusted.
This is not an especially novel tactic. The same arguments have been employed by others accused of sexual assault, but there’s something particular about the use of this argument in the context of Christianity.
The problem isn’t just that the women of the Bible are largely presented as temptresses, whores, and chattel; it is that they are also depicted as liars. The biblical seductress Delilah embodies this understanding of women when she leads astray and emasculates the heroic Samson. Delilah is both a whore, as she is paid by the Philistines to discover the secret of Samson’s power, and a liar, as she pretends to care for Samson in order to extract his secret and render him impotent. The upshot of the story, which is entrenched in ancient near eastern mythology in general, in that beautiful women cannot be believed, especially when it comes to the bedroom.
In another, often overlooked passage from the Bible, the daughters of Lot seduce their own father. After surviving the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and realizing that they now have no possibility of marriage and offspring, Lot’s unnamed virgin daughters get their father drunk and become pregnant by him. In the modern world this is rape, in the biblical one it is coded as seduction. If the women are evaluated negatively here it is not for sexual assault it is for deceit and seduction: they misled him. (Side bar: it seems only fair to note that several chapters before this Lot was eager to turn his daughters over to an angry mob to be gang raped to protect the angels he was keeping in his house).
In the biblical chronology this idea goes all the way back to the first humans: in the Garden of Eden, after being expressly told not to eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Eve is persuaded by the serpent to take the fruit and offer it to Adam. She does and the rest, as they say, is primordial history. Eve does not actually lie to Adam just as the serpent is not actually the Devil in the story. But the idea of women as a deceptive and dangerous somehow sticks. Connecting the nature of women to the Garden of Eden and Satan, the thirteenth century theologian and saint Albertus Magnus argues, “What she cannot get, she seeks to obtain through lying and diabolical deceptions. One must be on one’s guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil.”
Speaking more broadly, a whole host of early church authors line up to denounce the unnatural, deceptive, and wholly dangerous nature of women. The Virgin Mary is, of course, exempted from this condemnation and, by extension, other Christian mothers are more sympathetically viewed, but this characterization contributes to the notion that women in general, and unmarried childless women in particular, should not be believed.
Part of the problem is that the texts that make up the Bible do not treat women as autonomous human beings. Several years ago world-renowned paleographer Christopher Rollston wrote an article about the marginalization of women in the Bible for the HuffPost. In his article Rollston pointed to numerous instances in which women are treated as, at best, second class citizens; for example, the daughters of prominent biblical heroes (Noah, Lot, etc) often go unnamed. In the Ten Commandments he notes that “The wife is classified as her husband’s property, and she’s listed with the slaves and work animals.” While there are stories in which the rape of a woman leads her relatives to avenge her through war, the legal texts insist that the consequences of rape are marrying one’s victim and paying a fine to her father.
In the New Testament, Rollston noted the disjuncture between the instruction in 1 Timothy 2 that “men should pray” and the instruction to women that they “should dress themselves modestly and decently… [and] learn in silence and full submission.” The explanation of the author here wasn’t just that “Adam was formed first… but that the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” The only hope for women was that they would one day become mothers and be “saved” by childbearing. It is only women who can be held to account for their appearance and sexuality.
Rollston is not the only scholar to note this trend. There is a host of important and influential scholars that has criticized the representation of women in the Bible including Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, April DeConick, Kyung Sook Lee, J., Cheryl Exum, Athalya Brenner, and many others. What was interesting about Rollston’s case was that following the publication of his piece he was forced out of Emmanuel Christian Seminary, where he formerly had tenure. In certain Christian communities merely criticizing the Bible’s subjugation of women can lead to one’s exclusion from that world. Rollston landed on his feet as a faculty member at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., but one cannot help but wonder what happens to those evangelical women who try to speak out about this in their communities.
This unhappy blend of marginalization, demonization, and denigration contributes to the impression, prevalent in certain (but by no means all) evangelical churches that women are to be disbelieved. That, biblically speaking, they are in need of protection and heavy-handed spiritual guidance contributes to the notion that they should marry young before they can, like Eve, be corrupted and led astray.
Modern religious communities that cherry pick scriptures that support existing systems of power bring the dark chauvinism of the ancient world into the present. In a world in which the party injured by rape is the father of the girl involved, can the voice of the victim ever truly be heard and believed?