Skip to: Site Menu | Main content

Making Biblical Women Visible

Professor shares insights and discusses challenges associated with identification of women of the Bible

By Carol L. Meyers,
Professor of Religion (Hebrew Bible, archaeology),
Duke University

    Several days ago, one of my daughters—a recent college graduate—phoned me to report that she had finally begun to read Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament, a copy of which she had received months earlier, and that she was amazed to be finding it both comprehensible and fascinating. Of course, I was pleased that my daughter had begun to read her mother’s book. More important, I was delighted that though she had no specialized tools for reading a work of biblical scholarship, she found it engaging.

    If she is at all like the general reader, this book may indeed have accomplished its goal: presenting the new scholarship in the academy, on all biblical females—the unnamed as well as those with names—in a form that would be accessible, understandable, and meaningful for a wide audience, both in the academy and beyond.

    The idea for Women in Scripture grew out of a conversation I had more than seven years ago with a man who works in my building. He knew I taught Bible and wanted to know something about Miriam for a session of his Sunday school class that he was to lead. When I pointed out some interesting features of the Miriam story, such as the likelihood that she, and not Moses, is the author of the famous Song of the Sea in Exodus 15 and that she may well be the first biblical “theologian,” his response was one that I often hear from undergraduate students when they are first exposed to academic biblical study: “Why have I never heard about all this?” And then he asked where he could read about Miriam.

    Those questions provided the spark that ignited a long and exhilarating process of planning, writing, and editing a unique resource for the study of the Bible by those interested in the role of women in the Bible and the biblical world. For one thing, although it is technically a reference book, it is, as one reviewer proclaimed, “eminently browsable.” But more significant, it is comprehensive in a way no other book dealing with roughly half the population of the biblical world—women—had ever attempted or achieved.

    Women in Scripture is comprehensive in several ways, one of which is the result of a decision I made at the outset: that it would include materials from the full Jewish and Christian canon. It would deal not only with the female figures of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and of the New Testament, but also with those of the Apocryphal/Deuteronomical Books, which are considered canonical by the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches. Having made that decision, I called upon two prominent scholars—Toni Craven, professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University, and Ross Kraemer, professor of Christian origins at Brown University—for help. I would take on the responsibility for materials in my field, Hebrew Bible; and I asked Toni to deal with female figures in the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books and Ross to deal with those in the New Testament.

    Our first task, once we had established that the books would have a dictionary format, was to create a list of entries. We began with the easy part, women with names, from Abigail to Zosara. This would form Part I of our book. Straightforward as it may seem to list biblical women alphabetically, this task was complicated in a number of ways.

    For one thing, some names are used for more than one woman. Think of the number of Marys—six or seven—in the New Testament or the seven different Maacahs in the Hebrew Bible. Another problem is that some names assumed to be those of men sometimes can also denote women. Whenever we came across such examples, we tried to give women the benefit of the doubt—as when “Nahash” refers to an Ammonite king in 1 Samuel 10-12 and to the mother of Abigail in 2 Samuel 17:25.

    However, another difficulty arose from the fact that the names of some women are known from extra-biblical sources but are not specified in the Bible. For example, the “Wife of the Queen of the South” of Daniel 11:17 is undoubtedly Cleopatra, and the dancer who brought about the death of John the Baptist is not named but is probably Salome. Should these figures be considered “named women”? One other issue is the appearance of the same named woman in more than one part of the canon, as is the case for eleven figures. Eve appears in all three sections, for example; and the other ten appear in two parts of the canon.

    As we began to solve some of the problems of identifying named women, and not simply women’s names, we turned our attention to the unnamed women of scripture. There the notion of comprehensiveness took on new dimensions when we decided to include all mentions of females, not simply characters in narratives. Even the casual reader of the Bible will realize that many important figures, men as well as women, are not mentioned by name. Think of the young woman in Judges 11, whose father’s desperate vow on the eve of battle led to her early death; she is referred to only as “Jephthah’s daughter.” Similarly, the woman who anoints Jesus in all four gospels, surely a significant New Testament figure, remains anonymous. Also unnamed is the famous martyr-Mother, who witnesses the persecution of her seven sons in 2 Maccabees 7 and 4 Maccabees 8.

    The omission of women’s names may result from biblical androcentrism, literary strategy, concern with male lineage, or other factors. Whatever the reason, we decided not to let the biblical lack of names preclude the presence of these women in our dictionary. But how would we list them? Clearly entries for them could not mesh with the alphabetical ordering of entries discussing named women. Our solution was to create an entirely separate section of the book. Entries for the plethora of unnamed women would appear in the order in which each woman first appears, book by book and chapter by chapter, following the sequence of biblical books in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). This section—Part II—begins with the first created female in Genesis 1:26-28 and ends with the “elect sister” of 2 John 1:13. Although this ordering seems to privilege Christian readers, in that the NRSV preserves an order of biblical books that differs from the sequence of the Hebrew Bible in its original languages and in Jewish translation, we chose to follow it simply because it would be familiar to the widest possible group and not because we feel that the Christian canon is the only authoritative arrangement.

    Creating a listing for all the unnamed females was itself a challenge and produced another kind of comprehensiveness. Because we could find no way to search for all those figures electronically, we looked for them by painstakingly scrutinizing each biblical book, chapter by chapter, verse by verse. We expected, of course, to find numerous historic and literary figures, but we were surprised at the numerous general and generic references to women. Such mentions abound in legal passages, in allusions to the general populace in biblical prophecy, in various groupings of women in the New Testament epistles and so on. Because it is not always possible to distinguish between specific female characters and generic female figures or collective female groupings, we decided to include them all.

    We did, however, make one concession that would eliminate unnecessary repetition. In some instances, we have combined the discussions of certain types, such as “widow,” in one entry rather than have a separate entry for each time such a person is mentioned. Thus, a major entry on widows would be found at their first mention, and subsequent occurrences would be marked by a reference back to that entry.

    Part II grew to be the major section of the book, with entries for women of every imaginable description, engaged in a myriad of activities and relationships. There the reader can learn about the women at the cross, queens, Hebrew female babies in Egypt, wise women, serving girls, women as musicians, virgins, sorcerers, a woman who mutilates a man’s genitals, brides, supplicants, wise women, and prophets—to name just a few of the more than 600 entries of this section.

    There is more. Our search for unnamed women produced yet another “category” of female figures, namely, those that are not human beings. Although less numerous than all the named and unnamed women, these 49 figures are no less significant. They are the female deities, the abstract qualities personified as females, and the symbolic representation of political entities (cities and countries) as women. Some of these non-human females have names, such as the goddesses Asherah and Nanea and the demon Lilith. Others are abstractions. Wickedness and wisdom, for example, are each portrayed as a woman. And cities or other territories are given various female designations such as princess (Princess Jerusalem of Lamentations), woman (Woman Nineveh in Nahum), mother (Church as Mother in 2 Esdras), sister (Sister Sodom in Ezekiel and Sister Church in 1 Peter), and daughter (Daughter Zion and other such terms, found dozens of times in the Hebrew Bible).

    Collecting these images meant the creation of Part III of Women in Scripture. Not only does it contain articles on the various female deities and personifications, but it also contains entries that examine the very possibility of female images for God. Metaphors for God using male imagery—God as warrior, king, and father—are plentiful. But little noticed female imagery is brought to light so that the nurturing female aspect of divine nature becomes visible.

    The list of entries in these three parts became enormous—well beyond the capability of just the three of us to write all of them. We thus enlisted the help of more than 70 talented scholars, men as well as women, from America, Europe, and Israel. Drawing upon the most current biblical scholarship, they have described and analyzed the female figures of the Bible, from the most famous to the most obscure, with great clarity and insight. Their expertise involves various methodologies, including literary approaches and social science perspectives. In addition, they provide bibliographies for all but the shortest entries, suggesting resources that would be helpful to any reader, and also give cross-references to related entries.

    There is still more. To make the book truly useful for non-specialists, we decided to include, at the beginning of the book, several essays that introduce the general reader to the Bible—by providing basic information about the nature and contents of each part of the canon—as well as to the methods of biblical scholarship. Particularly fascinating are two additional essays we solicited. One, by Howard University professor Alice Ogden Bellis, describes the emergence and development of “Feminist Biblical Scholarship” in its many manifestations from nineteenth century suffragist commentaries to the contemporary flowering of feminist strategies of reading and interpreting scripture. The other, by Karla Bohmbach of Susquehanna University, enlightens us on “Names and Naming” by exploring how names were chosen and given in the biblical world and by examining their range of meanings.

    In addition to the new information contained in many of the entries and essays, the materials in Women in Scripture in the aggregate produced some surprises, especially in respect to the distribution of named and unnamed women in the various books and sections of the Bible. For example, the two greatest concentrations of female figures in the Hebrew Bible occur in Genesis (31 named and 41 unnamed women) and 1 Chronicles (46 named and 15 unnamed women). The concentration in Genesis is no doubt a function of the fact that Genesis is replete with family stories, which include both women and men; and Genesis also has several genealogies, some of which include females in their lineages. The concentration in 1 Chronicles is likewise linked to the sporadic appearance of women in the genealogies that dominate its first nine chapters.

    Women, both named and unnamed, are also prominent in the Book of Judges, where they often play public roles. But thereafter, in the narratives about the monarchies, they make mostly cameo appearances, usually as relatives of biblical kings. Prophetic books have relatively few female figures, with or without names. Indeed, five prophets (Obadiah, Jonah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, and Haggai) contain no females at all.

    Of the eighteen Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, three likewise have no mention of women; but three (Judith, Esther, and Susanna) bear women’s names (though only two of the thirty-nine books of the Hebrew Bible—Ruth and Esther—do so). The sixteen named women in this section of the canon are concentrated in only nine books, whereas unnamed figures appear throughout the fifteen books containing females.

    The profile for women in the New Testament reveals that ten of the twenty-seven books (including all four gospels) mention both named and unnamed women. Four books (2 Thessalonians, 1 and 3 John, and Jude) are devoid of references to particular women, named or unnamed. Nine—all of them epistles—contain no named women. Another six mention only women from the Hebrew Bible but no women from the authors’ own milieu.

    Taken all together, the essays and entries represent the best and most user-friendly scholarship about all female figures in the Bible, many of whom have been misunderstood by 2,000 years of biblical interpretation done largely by men. All too often, contemporary perceptions about biblical women are based on post-biblical traditions—art, music, films, literature, and theology—that obscure or distort the information in the biblical text itself. For example, from antiquity to the present, Eve has been called a temptress or a sinner, yet those terms are nowhere to be found in the Eden narrative. Furthermore, Mary Magdalene has been viewed as a reformed prostitute, although such information about this prominent disciple and spokeswoman does not appear in the gospels.

    Now the reader has access to scholarship that reclaims the scriptural images for these and other women. It does so by including a feminist perspective, an approach that seeks to understand a text specifically for the way it functions as a representation of women’s lives and experiences and also to evaluate whether sexism is encoded in the text. The result, we hope, makes Women in Scripture an indispensable companion for anyone studying the Bible.