Recently, I wrote this piece, in which I discussed my search for a seminary I felt I could trust — one that appreciated diversity, and that would give me, a woman, the same opportunities as a man. I longed for a seminary that would not simply regurgitate the status quo of male dominion / female submission, homosexuality-as-sinful, patriarchy as God’s way sort of message. I question everything, and I wanted a place where I could safely question, could ask really hard questions, could disagree and could find a variety of perspectives from people different than me.
What I may not have told you (honestly — I can’t remember) is that this past January, I actually did start at a school and quickly determined it was not right for me. I still have the text books for that first class I started, however. And since it’s a general commentary, I refer to it often.
I have a new friend who is a brilliant Bible scholar, and we were talking about the anointing of Jesus. She had expressed her disappointment that with each re-telling of this story, it seems as if the woman, who first anoints Jesus’s head, is relegated to grovelling at his feet. I was fascinated by this, as well as disturbed, and wanted to dive in for myself.
There are stories in each Gospel of Jesus being anointed by a woman. Some have the woman anointing his head, some his feet. In some versions, this takes place at the home of Simon the Leper. In Luke, it happens at the home of Simon the Pharisee. Some people think they are all the same story. I think Luke tells a story of a different anointing, for a different purpose, although as we all know, I’m no Bible scholar (yet). This isn’t the point of this blog post, so I won’t go into the reasons I feel this way in depth, but I base my conclusion on the timing of the event, the location, the recorded response of the witnesses, and the identification of the owner of the home.
But like I said, that’s not what I want to talk about here. I want to talk specifically about events recorded in Luke (one of my favorites in the whole Bible) and also about the commentary I read this morning on this story.
A few years ago, I was so moved by this story in Luke’s Gospel that I knew I was going to have to write about it. I did, but not the way I thought. Here’s the deal: I have a beautiful, parallel Bible that has the NIV on one side, and The Message on the other. I noticed a difference in the two translations in how they described the woman who comes to the home of the Pharisee to anoint Jesus: the NIV paints her simply as a sinner, while The Message describes her as a harlot, a word that denotes decidedly sexual sin.
As I wrote about in the piece linked above, a bout of frustration led me to write a letter to Eugene Peterson, the person who translated The Message, to ask why he chose that word when, my handy-dandy concordance confirms, there is no evidence of sexual sin in the original text. Maybe she cheated on her taxes. Maybe she was the town drunk. Why do we assume her sin was sexual? Eugene Peterson wrote back to me and told me I was right — and he was surprised that the mistake got past him. I was humbled and moved by his humility and grace, and still am today.
But this morning, as I poured over the four anointing stories, intrigued by my friend’s account of progressive subjugation of the woman in each retelling, I reached for my text book commentary, the one I would have used in the first seminary I started to attend. The book is New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition, edited by G.J, Wenham, J.A. Motyer, D.A. Carson and R.T. France (seriously — what’s with the initials?).
Here is part of the entry for Luke 7:36-50 (emphasis mine):
Jesus had been invited to the home of a Pharisee, called Simon, probably for a meal after a synagogue service. It was not uncommon for uninvited guests to be found at a banquet, and among them was a woman well known as a prostitute. Since people reclined on coutches instead of sitting on chairs to eat formal meals, she was easily able to reach Jesus. She proceeded to anoint Jesus with perfume, very possibly bought with her immoral earnings, but she could not finish her task for tears….the Pharisee was disturbed by the way in which Jesus accepted this respect given by such an undesirable person in so embarrassing a manner. His feeling that Jesus might be a prophet was being contradicted by Jesus’ being seemingly unaware that the person touching him was a sinner — and therefore ‘unclean’.
I was instantly struck by the fact that somehow, from authoritative voices like Biblical scholarly commentaries, a narrative of women’s sexual sin will be constructed even when there is absolutely no evidence of it.
It’s like the freaking high school gossip center all over again.
In this case, the scholar builds an entire anecdote that includes her ill-begotten wares, making it seem like she’s anointing Jesus with the Biblical version of K-Y.
Palm slap to the forehead. But it gets worse.
The commentary goes on to say:
There is no need to blacken Simon’s character by suggesting that his reply was haughty or indifferent (43). Nor was his treatment of his guest discourteous. He had performed his necessary duties of hospitality, but had not gone out of his way to give Jesus a special welcome. By contrast the sinful woman had lavished her devotion upon Jesus.
We don’t need to blacken Simon’s character, but it’s totally cool to call the woman a whore even if there’s no evidence of it in the text? We can construct an entire narrative around her life as a prostitute, and her expensive oil that could only have been purchased through her elicit activity, but let’s make sure we don’t disparage the man in the room — the one who is totally missing the message of Jesus, who is over there looking down on this woman in his heart, playing at the pretense of hospitality with no real love behind it, withholding the lavishness of his love and worship while this woman lets it all out?
God forbid the man might be held accountable.
Does this sound familiar? If not, let me give you some hints.
His defence was a cruel attempt at character assassination (she had been drinking at a party – shock horror), a desperate grapple against a losing battle. Brock Turner is a convicted sex offender….
Justifying the short sentence, Judge Aaron Persky explained that the positive character reference from Turner’s father (who said his son shouldn’t be punished for “20 minutes of action”) has been a factor, as were his age, criminal history and the role alcohol played.
“A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him,” said Persky. “I think he will not be a danger to others.”
Or this article, with a headline that says it all:
Judge sets aside rape charges for probation so ex-athlete can enjoy ‘a college experience’
Or this, from a female judge, in sentencing a convicted rapist:
“I lack the mitigating circumstances of remorse on your part in this case,” LaBuda told Ryerson. “Despite all that, I find that you have many redeemable qualities that could still permit you to be a functioning member of society in a positive manner if and when you accept responsibility for the crime that you committed: the rape of somebody who trusted you.”
I could go on, but you get the idea. Even here, in a textbook about the Bible written by scholars, we contort ourselves and the text to make women out to be whores when there’s no evidence of it, and caution against being to hard on the guys, lest we disturb their reputations. It’s sickening.
Now before you get your knickers all in a twist, I’m not saying the Pharisee was a rapist. What I am saying, however, is that this type of thinking — the blame-placing and over-sexualization of women and the protection and passing off of men and their bad behavior — is a foundational problem in patriarchy, and something that contributes to the continued subjugation of women, including the perpetuation of rape culture.
This is EXACTLY why I find so much of what’s out there to be untrustworthy.
This is why I’m going to seminary. I want to find out for myself. I want to dig deep into these words and find Jesus.
And I want to stand up for the women of the Bible who have been disparaged for eternity. I am so ready for this.