A MALE BIAS IN THE NEW TESTAMENT?

By Stephen B. Machnik

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The Montréal Review, April 2024

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Scenes from the Life of Mary Magdalene: Noli me tangere (1320s) by Giotto

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The reliability of the transmitted text of the Bible, both the Old and New testaments has been authenticated more than any other historical document. The New Testament has more than 5,000 copies,1 portions of, or complete texts of the Gospels and the Epistles. The Old Testament had a very reliable system of transmission, such that there were very few word changes between the newly discovered Dead Sea Scrolls found in 1946, and the oldest Masoretic texts. An example is the Isaiah Scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Compared to the earliest Masoretic text, the Leningrad Codex, which was transcribed in 1008 AD,2 there were minimal word differences. That is a time interval of approximately 1200 years between 1008 AD and the 3rd century BC, the publication date of the Scrolls. For a hand copied document to maintain internal integrity for over a millennium, shows incredible attention to accuracy and reliability.

So, compared to any other historical document3 the recorded account and transmission of the New Testament as well as the Old Testament text is many times more reliable. The question here is whether there was male editorial bias. 

I believe that a faithful reading of the Bible can inspire and lead us to a closer understanding of the Creator. If we listen with a sincere heart all that we need is available to us through God’s word. “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword.” (Heb 4:12a) We also know that there are many other things that Jesus did and said that are not recorded. (John 21:25)

However, and more recently, other texts have been found that lend a more nuanced interpretation to Christ’s words. An unfortunate dilemma is the paucity of texts which when compared to the abundance of NT canonical texts, forces us to rely on unique examples. However, I suggest that a heartfelt reading of any text can allow us to perceive the legitimate intent of the author however subjective the interpretation. The most significant emphasis or lack of, is the role of women in the New Testament which appears to have been edited out by the largely male evangelical initiative which occupied the early centuries. This is a concern because for millennia the female voice has been obscured. Today, in the 21st century there is still widespread female subjugation both in secular and religious institutions.

Recent examples of non-canonical texts are The Unknown Life of Jesus Christby Nicolas Notovitch, or La Vie inconnue de Jésus-Christ, published in Paris, by Paul Ollendorff, 1894. Notovich was a Russian, Crimean, Jewish explorer and journalist who visited the Himalayas in 1887. He reported on the existence of writings which claimed that Jesus had visited the monasteries of Tibet during his unknown years. There may also be texts by Mary Magdalene written while she lived in la Grotte de la Sainte Baume, France. She was buried in the nearby town of Saint-Maximin. There are possibly little-known writings available which may require some research, such as in the Vatican Library. Mary Magdalene was probably very well educated.4 She appears to be the author of the Gospel According to Mary and has a significant voice in other Gnostic texts. In the Pistis Sophia she is the principal questioner of Jesus.

The Papyrus Berolinensis8502 is a Coptic manuscript from the 5th century AD which includes The Gospel According to Mary, very likely Mary Magdalene. Again, there are no other copies that we know of that provide us with a comparable witness. However, the interaction described between Mary, Andrew, Peter, and Levi (a.k.a. Matthew)5 testifies to the dynamic between the men and women in Christ’s assembly. The conversation provides us with some insight into the culture of the Apostles at that time. In answer to Peter’s request for a deeper understanding of a personal exchange between Jesus and Mary, Mary relates to the apostles a profound insight into the relation between soul, spirit, mind, and body. In fact, in encouraging the apostles Mary says, “He has made us into men,” …6 suggesting that the promulgation of the Gospel has made both men and women more assertive. Peter and Andrew are not happy with Mary’s understanding of Jesus’ words even though they had previously asked her for an account into something that was communicated privately. This is the conversation:

When Mary had said this, she fell silent, since it was to this point that the Savior had spoken with her. 

But Andrew answered and said to the brethren, say what you wish to say about what she has said. I at least do not believe that the Savior said this. For certainly these teachings are strange ideas.

Peter answered and spoke concerning these same things. He questioned them about the Savior: Did He really speak privately with a woman and not openly to us? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did He prefer her to us? Then Mary wept and said to Peter, My brother Peter, what do you think? Do you think that I have thought this up myself in my heart, or that I am lying about the Savior?

Levi answered and said to Peter, Peter you have always been hot tempered. Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why He loved her more than us. Rather let us be ashamed and put on the perfect Man, and separate as He commanded us and preach the gospel, not laying down any other rule or other law beyond what the Savior said.

And when they heard this they began to go forth to proclaim and to preach.7

The exchange between Mary, Peter, Andrew, and Levi provides a much more intimate account into the relations between them. We appreciate them as human beings. It is a conversation that helps us understand the interplay between the characters and sensitizes us to the dynamics they experienced. Some would read a sexual relationship into it, however Jesus asked us to love everyone, including our enemies, it doesn’t mean we should read more into it.  

In the Unknown Life there are several deviations from the New Testament text, among them the decision by Pilate to pursue the prosecution of Christ, and the reluctance of the Jewish judges to be involved. This perspective on the trial of Jesus would probably have avoided much of the anti-Semitic policies since that time. The most important insight from The Unknown Life is the emphasis on the role of women which contrasts with Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 14:34–35. Paul says, “Women should remain silent in the churches, they are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission.” This is a difficult statement, and it is hard to understand whether it is a cultural reflection of the time or a priestly admonition.

Jesus (in contrast to Paul’s statement) did not minimize the role of women. Compared to any other biblical figure he is by far the most interactive and engaging. He included women in his discipleship and possibly apostleship, (Mary Magdelene). He defends the woman condemned to be stoned by a very singularly minded group of men. “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” (John 8:10–11) In the account of the woman at the well (John 4:7–26), Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman would have been considered culturally inappropriate at the time. Jesus encounters many women. The widow of Nain (Luke 7:12–13), the bleeding woman (Matt. 9:22; Mark 5:34; Luke 8:48), a woman in the crowd (Luke 11:27–28), a bent over woman on whom he lays his hands (Luke 13:12). He publicly honours the poor widow who contributes the two mites. (Mark 12:42, Luke 21:2). When Mary offered the sacrifice of spikenard, he defended her against the objections of ‘some’ (Mark), or Judas (John). (Mark 14:3; John 12:3). Women were the first to report on the resurrection. Donald G. Bloesch infers that “Jesus called the Jewish women ‘daughters of Abraham’ (Luke 13:16), thereby according them a spiritual status equal to that of men.”8 9 Jesus affirmed women as persons having the fullest right to identity, freedom, and responsibility.10 11 Ben Witherington III writes, “Jesus broke with both biblical and rabbinic traditions that restricted women's roles in religious practices, and that He rejected attempts to devalue the worth of a woman, or her word of witness.”12 Jesus’ position towards women is at odds with many contemporary religious positions of today. While he hung dying on the cross, he was concerned for the care of his mother. (John 19:26–27) He said to John “behold your mother.” “From that time the disciple took her to his own home.” This is an incredibly thoughtful response by someone who is in extreme agony.

In Notovich’s The Unknown Life, a witness from presumably a short time after the resurrection of Christ relates the following. In this account Jesus is being challenged by spies who were sent by Pilate to question his loyalty to Rome. This also reinforces the notion that, compared to the Jewish priests, Pilate was actively engaged in removing any threat to power:13

At this point, an aged woman, who had approached the group that she might better hear Issa14 (Jesus), was pushed aside by one of the men in disguise who placed himself before her. Issa then said: “It is not meet (i.e., right) that a son should push aside his mother to occupy the first place which should be hers. Whosoever respecteth not his mother, the most sacred being next to God, is unworthy the name of son.”

 “Listen, therefore, to what I am about to say: “Respect woman, for she is the mother of the universe and all the truth of divine creation dwells within her.” “She is the basis of all that is good and beautiful, as she is also the germ of life and death. On her depends the entire existence of man, for she is his moral and natural support in all his works.”

“She gives you birth amid sufferings; by the sweat of her brow she watches over your growth, and until her death you cause her the most intense anguish. Bless her and adore her, for she is your only friend and support upon earth,” “Respect her, protect her; in doing this, you will win her love and her heart, and you will be pleasing to God; for this shall many of your sins be remitted.” “Therefore, love your wives and respect them, for to-morrow they shall be mothers, and later grandmothers of a whole nation.” “Be submissive toward your wife; her love ennobles man, softens his hardened heart, tames the beast and makes of it a lamb.”

“The wife and the mother, inestimable treasures bestowed on you by God; they are the most beautiful ornaments of the universe, and from them shall be born all that shall inhabit the world. Just as the God of armies separated day from night and the land from the waters, so woman possesses the divine talent of separating good intentions from evil thoughts in men.”

Therefore, I say to you: “After God, your best thoughts should belong to women and to wives; woman being to you the divine temple wherein you shall most easily obtain perfect happiness.” “Draw your moral strength from this temple; there you will forget your sorrows and failures, you will recover the wasted forces necessary to help your neighbor.” “Do not expose her to humiliation; you would thereby humiliate yourself and lose the sentiment of love, without which nothing exists here below.” “Protect your wife, that she may protect you and all your family; all that you shall do for your mother, your wife, for a widow, or another woman in distress, you shall have done for God.”

In the Tibetan archival account Jesus not only affirms women, he also criticizes the religious hierarchical system. So, it is not just a purely Eastern take on a Western philosophy, it appears to be a legitimate record of a close witness to Christ. It is an extraordinarily deep appreciation of the role of women.

The text provides a much more valuable and appreciative account of Jesus’ view. A very legalistic interpretation might suggest that there are discrepancies compared to the canonical text. However, a sincere reading can sensitize our hearts and help us appreciate a very endearing description of women. The text points out the significant difference of the treatment of women as recorded by the canonical NT text and quite possibly what was said by Jesus. So, was there a bias by the first apostles in the early witness? Were the testimonies of Mary Magdalene excluded from the earliest texts?

The suppression of women has existed for millennia. There were protests and publications during the French Revolution beginning in 1789, however the Seneca Falls Convention in New York state was apparently the first women's rights convention. It was held in 1848. John Stuart Mill published his The Subjection of Women in 1869 arguing for the equality of the sexes. The first suffragette parades were held in Britain in 1907, and in 1908 up to 500,000 attended. In 1913 a civil rights march on Washington included five thousand participants. By the end of the protest at least 100 people were injured.15 According to Gloria Steinem, gender equality movements were practiced within the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) nations long before America was colonized.16 There have been significant changes in our cultures, hard fought by women at a high cost.  It is true that women are still being disrespected, under recognized as skilled leaders, insulted, and abused in workplaces, homes, and churches. We could conclude that many church bodies are influenced by these early texts as they continue to be sidelined in church leadership and some denominations are entirely male dominated. Let us get back to Gods original intent - The garden.

Rather than moving forward with a better appreciation of the female, the English Standard Version, the ESV17 appears to be moving backwards. Samuel L. Perry’s, The Bible as a Product of Cultural Power,18 describes instances where the role of women has been downgraded. In an important passage regarding the fate of all women the RSV (Revised Standard Version) reads, “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you”. (Genesis 3:16b) The ESV (Crossway, 2016) reads, “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” A confrontational revision putting the male and female completely at odds with each other.

My wife worked in conjugal violence for several years19 and at times worked with women who were part of a church community. When she and the woman suffering the abuse turned to the pastor for support for what the woman was experiencing, she was usually advised to stay in the marriage. Submission was expected even if there was ongoing violence.

In the Catholic tradition the Virgin Mary is highly venerated. She is very rightly held in an honourable position to which women may sometimes be compared.20 However, there are very few female role models other than Martha and Mary and heroines of the Old Testament. There is very little conversational interaction between Jesus and women. The male apostles come across as normal humans with all their character flaws. However, in the statement allegedly by Jesus in Notovich’s account women are given their rightful place. The focus on the woman, the honour he shows her, restores the value that is inherent to the nature of womanhood and not some idealized quality to which she may sometimes be held to.

The vision of the two witnesses in Revelation 11 is a very enigmatic picture. It is comparable to the vision of Zachariah 4. The witnesses could be two individuals. Or, to speculate further, were these witnesses a representation of the Old and New Testaments. Or are they representative of the people of the Jews and the Christians? However, another possibility presents itself. Are the witnesses a vision of the male and female. Will the original family of creation (as ourselves) return in complete harmony? To quote Genesis 2: 24-25, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.” In the very next verse, in Genesis 3:1 the serpent steps in. It is ultimately up to us, as men and women to reconcile the original differences in Creation and to take ownership of our true nature. To quote Joni Mitchell. “We are stardust / We are golden / And we got to get ourselves / Back to the garden / We are star dust / Billion year old carbon / We are golden / Caught in the devil's bargain / And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.”21

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Stephen B. Machnik has a master’s degree in theology from Concordia University in Montreal and is the author of The Tree of Life (2021) and The Scarlet Thread in the Cloth of Time (2024). He is a research advisor for the Thomas More Research Centre and has worked with Bnai Brith Montreal to develop Christian-Jewish seminars. He worked as foster home manager for Miriam Home and Services from 2006–2021. He occasionally works part-time as research assistant at Concordia University’s department of theology. The text was also reviewed by Dr. Christine Jamieson, the author of Christian Ethics and the Crisis of Gender Violence CWI 2013. Stephen’s wife, Wendy Mellor Machnik, helped with input and editing of the text. Wendy works at Tracom, a crisis centre in Montreal, as a crisis intervention worker from 2003 to the present (2024). Prior to Tracom she worked at the Friendly Home a shelter for women suffering marital abuse in the early 90s. She is also a dancer and danced with Canada’s Les Feux Follets in the 60s.

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1 There are handwritten copies of the NT existing long before the age of printing, which in terms of quantity, exceed any other historical record. The date of some of the documents corresponds almost contemporaneously to the actual events if we are basing an argument on historical authenticity. Many of the texts, the Received Texts, are in general agreement amongst themselves.

2 Leningrad Codex B19A 1008 AD is published as the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, 1997.

3 I.E., compared to the writings of Plato from 400 BC, the earliest copy of Plato is from 900 AD. The time from author to publication 1200 years, and there are seven copies. Another example are the writings of Caesar 44 BC. The earliest copy is from 900 AD. A total of 1000 years. Number of copies, 10.

4 In The Chosen One, Angel Studios, Mary is said to have learned to read from her father. :)

5 See Mark 2:14

7 Gospel According to Mary, Papyrus Berolinensis, last section.

8 Donald G. Bloesch, Is the Bible Sexist? Beyond Feminism and Patriarchalism. Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1982. 5

10 John Paul II. The Dignity and Genius of Women. Love & Responsibility Foundation, Cold Spring, NY October 2003.

12 Witherington, Ben III. Women in the Ministry of Jesus, p. 28

13 Notovich, The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, identified as verses 8-21. Indo-American Book Company, 5705 South Boulevard, Chicago, ILL. Fourth Edition, Ch. XII, pp. 136-138, 1916.

14 Issa is also the Moslem name for Jesus.

15 See here accessed October 15, 2023

16 Wagner, Sally Roesch; Steinem, Gloria (2019). The Women's Suffrage Movement (1st ed.). New York, New York: Penguin Books. pp. 1, 45–49, 75, 82, 356–7. ISBN 978-0-525-50441-2

17 The Revised Standard Version, the RSV 1952, and the ESV (Crossway, 2016)

18 Perry, Samuel L. The Bible as a Product of Cultural Power: The Case of Gender Ideology in the English Standard Version. Sociology of Religion: A Quarterly Review 2020, 81:1 68–92

19 The Friendly Home. Adventures with God and Little People. Roulson, Olive. (Montreal, 1988). This account was published while the Home was a shelter for unwed mothers. In the 1990s it became a shelter for women enduring conjugal violence.

20 On a separate and very oblique historical note, it is said that: “When England returns to Walsingham, Our Lady will return to England. https://walsinghamcommunity.org/

21 Mitchell, Joni. Woodstock. Ladies of the Canyon.

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