The Word According To Eve

Peter Kurth reviews 'The World According to Eve' by Cullen Murphy

Published August 18, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

While Americans celebrated the 150th anniversary last month of the first women's rights convention at Seneca Falls -- and Ally McBeal appeared on
the cover of Time next to Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem -- one radical feminist from the glorious past appeared to get lost in the shuffle. This was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the founder, with Anthony, of the American Woman Suffrage movement and author of "The Woman's Bible" (1895), a compendium of wit, wisdom and biting commentary on the status of women in Scripture.

"The Bible teaches that woman brought sin and death into the world," Stanton wrote, "that she precipitated the fall of the race, that she was arraigned before the judgment seat of Heaven, tried, condemned and sentenced. Marriage for her was to be a condition of bondage, maternity a period of suffering and anguish ... Here is the Bible position of woman briefly summed up." Stanton's incendiary words -- she once boycotted a suffrage meeting that had scheduled "Guide Us, O Thou Great Jehovah" as its opening hymn, pointing out that Jehovah had "never taken any active part in the suffrage movement" -- led to her eventual fall from grace within the National American Woman Suffrage Association and the elevation of Anthony, her friend and colleague, to the position of first heroine in the drive for women's enfranchisement. Anthony had pleaded with the organization not to forsake Stanton, its chief strategist and thinker, but Jehovah won the day. As Cullen Murphy observes in "The Word According to Eve: Women and the Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own," he frequently does.

"For roughly a century," Murphy writes, "feminist criticism of the Bible, on the one hand, and biblical scholarship by women, on the other, constituted two widely separated worlds, worlds that would not begin to converge until the 1960s." "The World According to Eve" is a fascinating synthesis of these two discrete threads, focusing at once on the reflexive feminist idea that the depiction of women in the Bible is in and of itself damaging to women, and on the vastly expanding work of contemporary feminist scholars, many of whom argue that these depictions have for centuries been mistranslated, misused and misinterpreted to women's disadvantage. Murphy, managing editor and social columnist for the Atlantic Monthly, describes himself openly as "male, Roman Catholic, married, and a parent, unembittered by the sting of personal grievance or the lash of impersonal oppression." He is not a woman, in other words, struggling to reconcile her life with her faith, but a sympathetic observer "impelled by curiosity, not rage." The result is a sharp, smart, eye-opening look, completely free of polemic, at those sections of the Bible dealing with women that scholars invariably describe as "problematic."

"Was Jesus a feminist?" Murphy asks. Did women write parts of the Bible? What was the true role of women among the early Christians and Israelites? How did Mary Magdalene, of whom no evil word is spoken in the New Testament, come down in legend as a reformed whore? Where is biblical archaeology headed now that women have staked their claim to the sites and scrolls? Murphy remains scrupulously impartial in discussing these and other themes, allowing feminist scholars to speak for themselves and concluding on a note of cautious optimism. Pandora has opened the box and no one can shut it again. "The deep involvement of women in the work of organized religion has always sustained it," Murphy writes, "but their involvement now extends to unprecedented levels of institutional authority. The influence of women will only grow, both in conventional channels and unconventional ones." Highly recommended.

By Peter Kurth

Peter Kurth, a regular contributor to Salon Books, is the author of "Isadora: A Sensational Life." He lives in Burlington, Vt.

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