Path 2 – Women in Biblical and Christian Narratives

The second path presents women from the Bible and their historical reception in their respective historical contexts.

The Christian Bible is a book produced by a patriarchal culture whose content was written (and later analysed and interpreted) predominantly by men from their predominantly androcentric perspective, in which man – in opposition to woman – is viewed as the norm. These male modes of seeing continue to inflect our image of the women who are written about in the Bible. But are these images accurate?

Mary, a Woman with Unknown Talents

In Christian art, no other woman has been depicted as often as Mary. As the mother of Jesus (who according to theological doctrine represents the human incarnation of God himself), she was ascribed a particularly venerable position. As a woman and mother chosen by God himself, many believers revered and prayed to Mary, in the hope of receiving her intercession and support. According to the Bible, Mary conceived her son as a virgin. As such, she embodies two mutually contradictory ideals propagated by the church: virginity and motherhood.

The majority of artistic representations depict the mother of God as a young, beautiful woman, together with her child, as in the masterful marble relief by Donatello (ca. 1386–1466) on display in the Bode-Museum. Over the centuries, this composition became a set convention, although some scriptures, particularly the Apocrypha (which were not included in the corpus of the New Testament), paint a multifaceted picture of Mary. A Mary who taught, argued, healed, preached, and led the Apostles in prayer. In the centuries that followed, theses perspectives of Mary were largely obscured, strategically reducing her role to her virginity and motherhood. This was not without consequences for Christian women, for whom Mary is supposed to serve as a role model; meaning that diverging from these ideals causes women to be publicly perceived as departing from the example provided by this holy figure.

“Pure” and “Impure” Women

As if to provide a contrast to the particularly “pure” Virgin Mary, an anonymous woman can be made out on the lower edge of a sarcophagus fragment from the early 4th century from the collection of the Museum für Byzantinische Kunst. According to the story in the New Testament, until she was miraculously healed by Jesus, this woman suffered from for 12 years. The general consensus is that this bleeding refers to vaginal or uterine bleeding. Bodily discharges were viewed as “impure” according to the Jewish Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, which were adopted by Christians in the Old Testament), with menstruation taking on a particularly central role. In addition to menstruating women, all people and objects with whom a menstruating woman came into contact during her period were considered impure. The construction of a taboo around genital bleeding and the exclusion of people during menstruation from daily life is something that still exists today, though it varies widely between cultures. That women, as with the bleeding woman from the Bible story, have turned to the realm of faith for assistance with health issues is a reflection of the fact that medicine, which has always dominated by men, did not adequately understand the mechanisms of the female body. And gender-specific medicine continues to be a marginal phenomenon, with fatal consequences for women.