The oppression of women under biblical morality was mentioned in my previous blog entry “FAQ.” Let us explore that now in more detail. I recently had the opportunity to revisit this unpleasant subject when a friend shared with me a series of jokes about religion entitled, “Absolute Blasphemy,” which came with a warning: “Do not read this if you are offended by religious humor!” The title is accurate and the warning clear – if you were even slightly offended by, for example, Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian,” you definitely would not appreciate these jokes. I loved “The Life of Brian” and with my twisted sense of humor, and acknowledging the element of silliness in religion, I found many of these quite amusing. No, I am not worried that God will be offended. He apparently has a great sense of humor and I am pretty sure He can take a joke.
There was one image, however, which evoked strong feelings of resentment on my part. It was a picture of a woman (Mary) holding her baby and the caption underneath read, “Christianity: A lie about an affair that got way .. out of hand.” It made me angry – but why? Not because of the religious implications; after all, the title of the series was quite honest, and I had been warned ahead of time. The series of humorous pictures was being presented from an atheist point of view, and let’s face it, religions proclaim all kinds of things which from a strictly scientific standpoint are ridiculous; in this particular case, the Virgin Birth. As a Christian I believe in this, along with some aspects of the pagan mythologies. I also happen to believe in fairies and UFOs, having personally seen at least one of the latter, although I don’t believe in the Easter Bunny and I have issues with the historical Santa Claus, for feminist reasons pertaining to the custom of dowry. But, I can certainly understand why an atheist would find the Virgin Birth absurd. Atheists, after all, believe only in science, and science does not permit parthenogenesis.
Well, not in humans, anyway – only in certain species of whiptail lizards and some other reptiles, fish, and some invertebrates such as aphids, nematodes and others which can produce offspring without the assistance of a male – but never humans; not, at least, until recent developments in cloning, which have now made parthenogenesis possible in any species. So from the atheist perspective, Mary could not possibly have conceived Jesus without the help of a man, and since Joseph was not that man, clearly she must have had an affair – which was covered up by an elaborate story about angels and divine intervention which grew into the religious mythology we still celebrate today with the manger scene at Christmas. Personally I find it no great stretch that a God who created the universe, including whiptail lizards, could make an exception for one human female. But again, there is no God in the atheists’ story and the math is probably against such a mutation occurring.
No, I was not angry about the joke itself, but rather, the sociocultural context that made the joke possible in the first place: the notion of woman as whore. Woman’s sexuality is man’s property and he must be ever vigilant to control her. My friend who shared the jokes didn’t understand my feelings about this. He is a modern enlightened man who loves, indeed practically worships women, and hates the way religions have oppressed women. He said the joke did not imply that women are whores, but only that if Mary had a baby by a man other than her husband, then she had violated the marriage contract, and thereafter invented an elaborate lie to cover up the affair – which turned into a religion. Hence the joke.
Ah, yes, but therein lies the context of which I speak: WHY would Mary have to invent such a crazy story?! Why did it even matter who was the father of Jesus?
First of all, Mary and Joseph were not married; they were engaged. Had they been married, there would have been no issue, because in the days before DNA testing, people would have assumed that the baby was Joseph’s unless there was significant evidence to the contrary, e.g. if the baby was the spitting image of another man and/or if there had been witnesses to an affair. But no, Mary was an unmarried female, and so the baby in her arms was the evidence condemning her – to death!
Even if Mary had been raped, as some historians suggest, the burden of proof would have been on her and she might have been killed regardless, just as in some cultures today these “honor killings” continue. Biblical morality actually prescribed that if a girl was raped in the city, she would be put to death because she did not scream loudly enough for someone to hear. If the rapist held a knife to her throat and said, “if you scream I will kill you,” she was supposed to scream anyway because her family’s honor was more important than her life. Now if the attack occurred out in the countryside where nobody could hear her scream, then she was given the benefit of the doubt, and instead of being put to death, the girl would become the rapist's wife after he paid her father the "bride price." We today would consider this a horrible punishment for the victim! But the law was actually intended for the girl’s “benefit,” because now that she was “damaged goods” no other man would marry her, and she would have no other legitimate means of survival, because women were not financially independent and could not live on their own.
A girl was the property of her father until such time as she was married off, around age 12 or 13, usually to a much older man, to whom her body, her labor, and her future offspring belonged. The Bible also allowed a man to sell his daughter into slavery under some circumstances. The agreement was between her father and her fiance or buyer; the girl had no choice in the matter. In biblical morality, there was no such thing as “consenting adults” because women were not free to consent. The idea of marriage as a mutually agreed upon contract between two adults who love each other and promise fidelity is a modern western invention which did not exist in Mary’s world. She could not have violated any such agreement because her consent was not involved. She had essentially the same legal rights as livestock – a broodmare. If Mary in fact had an “affair” – had she fallen in love with a man and wanted to have his baby – the penalty would have been death.
Joseph, however, before or after the wedding, would have been free to have sex with other women, provided that they did not belong to another man. A man could only commit “adultery” by violating another man’s property rights. While a woman had to remain faithful to her husband under penalty of death – because she was his property – a man was under no such obligation to his wife. He could have more than one wife, and/or concubines, or he could have sex with a prostitute or a widow, all without committing “adultery.” If, let’s say, Joseph had been the one who allegedly had an “affair” and in the process, managed to impregnate a prostitute, a concubine, or a widow not in the custody of a brother or brother-in-law, there would have been no scandal and no need for any elaborate stories that might have evolved into a religion.
This archaic system of “morality” is difficult for the modern mind to comprehend, and unfortunately, it persists in some parts of the world today. Little girls are essentially sold into sexual slavery, married off against their will when they are too young even to understand what love is, condemned to a life of servitude and continual childbearing – if a girl is lucky enough to survive her first pregnancy, which many don’t, because they are too young to give birth safely. In some areas the maternal death rate is around 50%. Perhaps they are the “lucky” ones because by an early death they escape further torment in their living hell. In case you might think that I am exaggerating the horrors of such a life, it’s worth pointing out that some women have chosen to avoid the situation by setting themselves on fire. This activity has been quite popular recently in such places as Afghanistan. So the sociocultural context which required Mary’s supposed “elaborate lie” continues to flourish in our world today.
Thank goodness in America and most other western nations, this is not the case. However, I don’t notice our “civilized nations” doing much about it. And when I have criticized these practices, I have often been scolded by people saying, “It’s their culture!” as if that makes it ok. Let me say right up front, knowing full well that I am being politically incorrect: No, it is NOT ok! I don’t care if it is “their culture.” It is not ok for women and little girls to be forced into marriage and childbearing against their will. It is slavery and child abuse. If “their culture” says it is ok then that culture is evil. But, who am I to impose my moral standards on other cultures?! I am, after all, just a woman. And we are by nature corrupt, foul temptresses, lying whores – the source of all evil in the world.