Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Feminist Christmas story

  • 23 December 2008
Feminist biblical scholars ask two fundamental questions of the [birth narrative] myths. First of all, they ask the literary question of how female characters are portrayed in the stories: where they are present and where absent, whether they are marginalised or diminished by the text, how seriously they are taken as human beings, as disciples, as leaders of early Christian communities.

Secondly, women ask how these biblical myths can be reinterpreted in a woman-friendly (rather than misogynist) way, regardless of how we may define the original author's or community's intentions. This may involve sometimes reading 'against the grain' in order to address directly women's concerns that are ignored or even downplayed by the narrative.

It is worth examining the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke with these questions in mind.

One of the purposes of feminist readings is to draw women from the margins, undoing the 'androcentrism' that subsumes females into the categories of males. Another is to challenge traditional 'malestream' readings that assume female characters conform to feminine stereotype. Both these moves are present in feminist readings of the birth stories ...

Matthew's story is, at first reading, a male-oriented narrative. The long genealogy at the head of Matthew's narrative confronts the female reader with a bewildering but highly focused litany of male sexual activity, fervently — if not feverishly — producing generation after generation of male offspring.

Joseph, rather than Mary, is quickly established as the central figure of Matthew's story, his dreamy yet powerful character modelled on that of his patriarchal namesake in the Book of Genesis.

In many ways, Joseph is an admirable character, his moral uprightness laced with compassion. All through the story of flight and exile, his dreams guide the narrative, and his goodness protects the mother and child. Although not the biological father of the baby, he becomes Jesus' adopted father through his paternal tenderness and care.

The contrast to this admirable portrait is Mary: she is given a passive characterisation almost from the start. Things are done to her, whether in the divine or human spheres. She does not speak; she takes no initiative, make no decisions. Her faith is assumed though never made explicit.

The complementary roles of active, protective father and needy, helpless mother have probably given rise to later traditions of Mary as a young girl and Joseph an old man. Matthew's Mary seems the passive female in need of male guidance and