The most well-known female biblical characters feel familiar to us because they’re so embedded within our culture. These women are represented in film, music videos, couture collections and featured in everything from plays to strip clubs. And yet, despite our cultural constructions and received understandings of female biblical characters, the Bible often tells us something very, very different about them.
Eve is no temptress
Following centuries of representations as a maleficent femme fatale, we have come to know her as the temptress who lured Adam and humanity to their downfall and introduced sin to the world. The biblical text, however, is far less concrete about the “Mother of All Living” (Gen. 3:20).
When God creates Eve from Adam’s rib, Eve is a voiceless, choiceless creature, while Adam makes plenty of noise about what he thinks of his new “helper” (Gen. 2:18) and demonstrates his power by naming and claiming her:
This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken. (Gen. 2:23)
In contrast, we’re left in the dark about Eve’s thoughts on her new companion. We don’t know if Adam is more Donald Trump than Ryan Gosling; at this point, the text gives us no clue as to whether she’s happy with her imposed match or not.
Only a couple of verses later, however, and our silent biblical lady is suddenly the star of the show, chatting away with the serpent and eating the forbidden fruit. In a textual about turn, Eve has transformed into a biblical badass, making her own decisions, while her husband becomes the mute companion.
The biblical text is sparse but it’s clear that Eve does not need to tempt her docile mate; she merely “gives some to her husband, who was with her” (Gen. 3:6). While “femvertisers” represent Eve as an example of female sexual empowerment, the biblical narrator attempts to lay the blame for the transgression at her feet. She deserves a retrial.
The much-maligned Magdalene
Like Eve, the New Testament character Mary Magdalene has been the subject of centuries of bad press. Magdalene is often believed to be a prostitute although there’s no suggestion of it in the biblical text. Academics have argued that the early Church developed Mary Magdalene’s repentant prostitute persona as a bid to deny women a proper position in the church hierarchy.
Since then, a number of attempts have been made to “rehabiliate” the character from her reputation as a fallen woman. Melvyn Bragg, for example, has certainly put some time into discovering the “real Magdalene”, presenting a controversial Good Friday documentary in 2013 and a radio programme on BBC Radio 4 earlier this year. But despite the reams of research and hours of media coverage, including the heightened interest in the Gospel of Mary following the success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, our fascination with the “penitent sinner” remains.
The discussion around Mary Magdalene, however, says more about cultural attitudes to female sexuality than anything about the biblical character. The persistent idea that sex workers are “fallen” women who should be rehabilitated or repentant has only relatively recently been challenged and the controversy surrounding Mary Magdalene speaks to centuries of the dominant ideology that shapes values around female sexuality and stigmatises sex workers on a moralistic premise.
Mary, Mary, quite contrary
On the other hand, Mary, Mother of Jesus, is considered by many Christians as the “ideal woman”. As a virgin mother, Mary has the ultimate appeal to female respectability, combining the most culturally valuable female roles. But discussions surrounding the “ideal femininity” of Mary, Mother of Jesus, are inextricably linked with the control of female sexuality evidenced in attitudes to Mary Magdalene. The construction of “female virtue” is a cultural dividing practice to reinforce the social boundaries between respectable and unrespectable groups and classes.
The myth of Salome
We may be familiar with Salome as the daughter of the Herodias who danced for Herod in the New Testament (Mark 6:21-29; Matt. 14:6-11) but the character who requests John the Baptist’s head on behalf of her mother wasn’t named in the Bible.
The dangerous seductress we know derives from a heady mix of the first century historian Josephus, who named her but does not connect her with John the Baptist, and the 19th-century playwright Oscar Wilde, who wrote a scandalous play based on the character that was banned in London in 1892. Salome has now become synonymous with striptease thanks to the “dance of the seven veils”, which has no biblical basis but originated in Wilde’s play.
Cultural representations of Salome tend to be problematic because Salome is frequently exoticised and based around orientalised stereotypes of Middle Eastern femininity that “seem still to suggest not only fecundity but sexual promise (and threat)”.
Eve, Mary Magdalene, Mary (Mother of Jesus), and Salome , then, are far more than biblical characters, they help to reflect and construct ideas and attitudes to and about femininity and female sexuality. In this way, they also tell us an awful lot about ourselves.
Katie Edwards is Director, SIIBS, University of Sheffield.