This was originally published at www.eurekastreet.com.au, and is reproduced with permission. Dorothy A. Lee is is Woods Distinguished Lecturer and teaches in New Testament at Trinity College Theological School, Melbourne, Australia. This article is an excerpt from her essay ‘Versions of the birth’, also published in Eureka Street, December 1998.
Feminist biblical scholars ask two fundamental questions of the [birth narrative] myths. First of all, they ask the literary question of how female characters are portrayed in the stories: where they are present and where absent, whether they are marginalised or diminished by the text, how seriously they are taken as human beings, as disciples, as leaders of early Christian communities.
Secondly, women ask how these biblical myths can be reinterpreted in a woman-friendly (rather than misogynist) way, regardless of how we may define the original author’s or community’s intentions. This may involve sometimes reading ‘against the grain’ in order to address directly women’s concerns that are ignored or even downplayed by the narrative.
It is worth examining the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke with these questions in mind.
One of the purposes of feminist readings is to draw women from the margins, undoing the ‘androcentrism’ that subsumes females into the categories of males. Another is to challenge traditional ‘malestream’ readings that assume female characters conform to feminine stereotype. Both these moves are present in feminist readings of the birth stories …
Matthew’s story is, at first reading, a male-oriented narrative. The long genealogy at the head of Matthew’s narrative confronts the female reader with a bewildering but highly focused litany of male sexual activity, fervently — if not feverishly — producing generation after generation of male offspring.
Joseph, rather than Mary, is quickly established as the central figure of Matthew’s story, his dreamy yet powerful character modelled on that of his patriarchal namesake in the Book of Genesis.
In many ways, Joseph is an admirable character, his moral uprightness laced with compassion. All through the story of flight and exile, his dreams guide the narrative, and his goodness protects the mother and child. Although not the biological father of the baby, he becomes Jesus’ adopted father through his paternal tenderness and care.
The contrast to this admirable portrait is Mary: she is given a passive characterisation almost from the start. Things are done to her, whether in the divine or human spheres. She does not speak; she takes no initiative, make no decisions. Her faith is assumed though never made explicit.
The complementary roles of active, protective father and needy, helpless mother have probably given rise to later traditions of Mary as a young girl and Joseph an old man. Matthew’s Mary seems the passive female in need of male guidance and strength, while Joseph strides forth as the guardian of dependent womanhood.
And yet, from a feminist perspective, that is not all there is to be said about Matthew’s account. The genealogy which sets the birth narrative in its mythic frame is unquestionably a patrilineal catalogue, tracing descent only through the father. Yet intriguingly, it contains reference to four women from the Hebrew scriptures who make an unexpected maternal appearance in male paternal terrain.
First there is Tamar, the wronged widow of Genesis, who attempted to redress her wrongs by seducing her father-in-law, and was vindicated for her courage and daring.
Next is Rahab the Canaanite prostitute who courageously helped the Hebrew spies to enter the Promised Land.
Then Ruth the stranger and alien whose faith is commended in the book that bears her name, who supported her shattered mother-in-law with her friendship and hard work, and became the great-grandmother of King David.
Finally there is Bathsheba, the abused wife of Uriah who later married David, her abuser, and whose son Solomon came to the throne after his father, thanks (at least in part) to her astute political connivance.
These four women, female ancestors of the Messiah, prepare the reader for the role of Mary and for the altogether unexpected way in which the genealogy concludes. In the end, God bypasses the patrilineage and Jesus is born from the mother, without male assistance of any kind.
This is unusual, particularly by the lights of ancient understandings of biology: the father provided the seed, the mother was merely its incubator. Yet, for Matthew (and also, in this respect, for Luke), a woman is the sole guarantor of Jesus’ humanity.
It is not dependent on male seed or male begetting or male initiative. Mary becomes the mother of the Messiah through divine intervention, while remaining a virgin, and thus joins the panoply of unusual and spirited Jewish women through whom God chose to work, sometimes in spite of the males in their lives.
When we turn to Luke and his characterisation of Mary, it seems at first that we are on stronger ground. Mary is unquestionably the hero of Luke’s tale, closely followed by Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist and Mary’s kinswoman. Both are the vessels of miraculous pregnancies and both are women of outstanding faith and insight.
Mary’s positive response to the angel’s terrifying message is a dynamic statement of faith. She is the first person in this gospel to hear the word of God and respond to it in relation to Jesus: the first to come to Christian faith.
Elizabeth, in contrast to her husband Zechariah, also shows remarkable faith. Under divine influence, she recognises Mary’s identity as ‘the Mother of my Lord’ and celebrates, with Mary, the coming of God to redeem Israel.
Under the influence of the ubiquitous Spirit, Mary utters one of the major canticles of Luke’s birth story, the Magnificat. On closer inspection, this is not a spontaneous outburst on Mary’s part which can be understood in historical terms. It is close to the Song of Hannah in the Hebrew Scriptures (1 Samuel), another powerful yet vulnerable mother who showed great faith and received the gift of divine speech.
Using Old Testament language and imagery, Mary’s Song outlines Luke’s understanding of the gospel and the corning of Christ as a radical shift: one which exalts the poor and overthrows the rich and powerful. The shape of this divine gospel, according to Luke, is proclaimed from the beginning by a woman who represents faithful Israel’s response to God’s advent in Jesus.
Yet this is not the last word on Luke’s gospel. Despite so powerful a beginning, women in Luke’s later story seem to recede further and further. Subsequent female characters, unlike Mary and Elizabeth, are silent and quiescent, without the dynamic power of speech.
By the time we reach the Book of Acts (Luke’s second volume), women have been almost entirely written out of Luke’s vision of church history. Despite the evidence from Paul’s letters that the early church included women as apostles, missionaries, teachers and preachers, Luke presents a church run almost exclusively by men.
The promise of Mary of Nazareth is not, it would seem, fulfilled. What begins as a positive presentation of women fails to carry its message through. In the end, it would seem, Luke himself loses courage and sells out on women’s leadership and gifts for ministry.