Women in the Image of God?

Source: Judith Romney Wegner, Chattel or Person? The Status of Women in the Mishnah (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) 179, 197.

“The ambivalence toward women, perceived as somewhat like men yet somehow different, is by no means unique to the Mishnah. The same conflict–between, on the one hand, the Hellenistic perception of female inferiority and, on the other, Scripture’s assertion that man and woman alike reflect God’s image (Gen. 1:27)–troubled the patristic writers no less than the Mishnah’s framers. Augustine in particular found himself unable to reconcile Gen. 1:27 with 1 Cor. 11:7, in which Paul (adopting the Aristotelian view of soul and intellect as masculine attributes) asserts that only man and not woman is created in God’s image. Augustine believed that insofar as woman is homo, she must reflect the image of God in her rational soul. But insofar as she is femina, she does not reflect this image.”

“Scripture’s statement that God created man and woman alike in his image: ‘And God created man in his image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them’ (Gen. 1:27). Although one modern scholar, Phyllis Bird, has argued convincingly that this reading of Scripture almost certainly depends on a fortuitous mispunctuation of the masoretic text, the adopted reading was certainly taken very seriously. The problem of women’s equality was considered not only by Jewish sages, but also by early patristic writers, who likewise experienced difficulty in coming to terms with a notion so alien to the dominant culture of the day and so much at odds with their own patriarchal stance.”

Wegner’s thesis is that the rabbis’ had a hard time with ambiguity, since they liked to place things in neat categories. But women posed a problem for them. On one hand, the rabbis could acknowledge that women were like men in certain areas, so many of their rules treat them as responsible, intelligent human beings. On the other hand, they believed that women were inferior, so they also had rules that viewed them as chattel. Apparently, Augustine had the same sort of issue, for he used mental gymnastics in his attempt to harmonize Paul with Genesis.

I’m intrigued by how Scripture could challenge a dominant cultural mindset such as patriarchy. People act like hermeneutics is totally subjective, as if interpreters can mold the text any way they wish. Not necessarily, for they couldn’t read egalitarianism out of Genesis 1:26.

At the same time, I have problems with the “Bible was way ahead of its time” approach, which you see in Jewish and Christian apologetics. You can find patriarchy and egalitarianism probably in every culture. The ancient Near East regarded men as superior, yet it was liberal in allowing women to inherit property–more so than the biblical religion. Greco-Roman culture viewed women as inferiors, but it had mythology with strong women and goddesses. Were interpreters of the Bible challenged only by Genesis 1, or also by real life, in which women demonstrated their power, resourcefulness, and intelligence?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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