“HAVE YOU BEEN born again?” The image of a second birth to illustrate conversion is often used by fundamentalist and conservative evangelical Christians. Yet in my experience such folks also tend to resist thinking of God as other than male. How can they overlook this very maternal activity of God’s Spirit?
Even Nicodemus gets it, at least at the physical level. In John 3, this high-ranking Jewish leader privately approaches Jesus to ask him where his charism comes from. In most familiar translations of the New Testament (such as King James and NIV), Jesus tells Nicodemus that he would understand if he were “born again” (3:3). But the Greek word anōthen is deliberately ambiguous. Jesus’ intended meaning is “born from above” (NRSV). “That which is born of the Spirit is spirit,” says Jesus in verse 6. The Holy One is our birthing mother.
When the literal-minded Nicodemus asks how a person can go back into his mother’s womb and be born again, we cannot be sure (in 3:9-10) whether Jesus gently chides or sarcastically puts him down: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”
Sadly, many “teachers” throughout Christian history have not understood these things. It is now 50 years since Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique opened the floodgates of second-wave feminist cultural analysis, thus preparing the ground for biblical scholars and theologians such as Letty Russell, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, and many more. Some of us began to see that orthodox, “objective” methods of interpretation were instead often subjectively male-oriented. We began to ask, “Where is the feminine in our sacred texts? Were women there?”
I see five ways in which the gospel of John deconstructs, or at least unsettles, the rigid patterns of patriarchy in the family and society in which Jesus lived. The roles Jesus played during his life and ministry were so atypical that they color this entire narrative.
Who wrote this gospel?
First, let’s consider authorship. All of the gospels were anonymous, with names of apostles or companions of apostles added in the second century to affirm their authority. By tradition, John the disciple of Jesus, son of Zebedee, a fisherman from Galilee (21:2; Matthew 4:21) authored this gospel—yet he is never named. The author calls himself the “disciple whom Jesus loved” (13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7, 20). He first appears reclining next to Jesus at the Last Supper, then at the cross and tomb, and finally fishing with other disciples.
But this gospel does name three other persons whom Jesus loves: the siblings Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. When Lazarus falls ill, Martha and Mary send Jesus the message, “The one whom you love is ill” (11:3). But he waits two days, even “though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (11:5). Later (11:35), at the tomb of his dead friend, Jesus weeps, and the bystanders say, “See how he loved him!”
Though we can never know, I propose that this gospel originated with Martha, Mary, and Lazarus within the Jesus-community that grew around their household. They lived in Bethany in Judea, two miles from Jerusalem, the setting for many stories and dialogues included only here. How could the Galilean fisherman John have known them in such detail? Possibly the three “beloved disciples” gathered and recorded these stories—and a final editor added chapter 21 after they were gone.
Irony piled on irony
My second point is not necessarily feminist. The ironic mode in which this author writes has the effect of shaking up conventions, showing things from different angles. The narrative contains both dramatic and verbal irony, providing a garden of delight to those who know how to read it. How could this Word “from the beginning” take on physical flesh and live in human culture? Why is Nicodemus—the teacher in Israel who does not “get it”—paired with an ostracized woman at a Samaritan well, who does? How can Jesus offer his body and blood as food and drink for disciples (6:52-59) when Jews are commanded never to drink blood? In the hilarious account of the man born blind and his Pharisaic interrogators (chapter 9), we are constantly jerked around by the overarching question: Who is blind and who can see?
Why are Jesus’ miracles called “signs”? Can one see the miracle and miss what it signifies? In chapter 11, we struggle with the question: Was it a good thing that Lazarus got sick? No, but maybe, but yes, but no, but ... finally, yes! Then, in a key twist of dramatic irony, the raising of Lazarus results in a plot to kill the one who gave him life. And how can the shameful way Jesus is executed be the way he is glorified (chapter 17)?
In a narrative where down is up, and ordinary things like bread and doors and shepherds and grapevines mean something else, anything can happen. Women might even be main characters!
Jesus as the incarnation of Wisdom
Some of Jesus’ sayings in the synoptic gospels identify him with the figure of Wisdom. But the fourth gospel is both more subtle and more thoroughgoing. The prologue (1:1-18) weaves a tapestry of allusions from canonical and extracanonical Jewish literature—most obviously from Genesis 1, Proverbs 8, and the pseudepigraphical book of 1 Enoch.
“In the beginning, the Word (logos)” (1:1) reminds us that God speaks creation into existence. By naming Jesus as logos, the author projects him back into the spoken “Let there be ... ” as well as using a term familiar in then-contemporary Greek and Jewish philosophy. It is also convenient that ho logos is a masculine noun, which matches Jesus’ earthly identity as male.
However, much of this prologue draws on Jewish wisdom literature, where both the Hebrew and Greek terms for wisdom are feminine: hokmah and sophia. In fact, monotheistic Jews were so enamored by wisdom that they personified it as a woman, providing a rich example in Proverbs 1-9. In the lyrical poem of 8:22-31, Wisdom herself speaks of her creation “at the beginning” of God’s work, and how God made everything else with her and while delighting in her. Read John 1:1 and replace Logos with Sophia!
Beginning at 1:10, where logos/sophia comes into the world and is rejected, the author draws on 1 Enoch, an intertestamental writing not unlike our canonical book of Daniel: “Wisdom could not find a place in which she could dwell ... Then [she] went out to dwell with the children of the people, but she found no dwelling place. [So] Wisdom returned to her place and settled permanently among the angels” (1 Enoch 42:1-2).
At this point, the story diverges, and the author indicates that some people did receive her and became children of God. That’s because this logos/sophia “became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). This statement is crucial. The intangible Logos, this personified Sophia, is now incarnate as a human person of flesh and blood. In this way the fourth gospel sets the stage for a somewhat androgynous Jesus who takes on both feminine and masculine aspects in a very earthy, patriarchal Palestinian culture.
Jesus as idealized wife and mother
In Beyond Patriarchy: The Images of Family in Jesus, Diane Jacobs-Malina uses sociological research on similar rural Greek and Middle Eastern cultures today to characterize the role of a wife and mother in ancient Palestine. Here, public life is dominated by men. The father represents his family in public life; his wife, children, and servants submit to his will in order to ensure his public honor.
But private family life is rarely visible in the literature of the time. It’s easy to miss how the wife/mother dominates this private sphere. It helps to reread the description of the ideal woman in that culture in Proverbs 31:10-31. The more the father is absent from the home for work or public responsibilities, the more his wife represents him by doing his will in the home. Here she has great authority—carrying her husband’s seed, birthing his children and feeding them from her own body, raising the children, ordering the servants, and supporting the family through economic production at home.
Jacobs-Malina proposes that, rather than taking on the role of the oldest son in the family, Jesus adopts the role of wife and mother as she would behave when the father is absent. Even though male terms such as “son” are used in this gospel as a public document, the male Jesus’ feminine role undermines patriarchy. Here are a few examples of Jacobs-Malina’s sociological analysis from the fourth gospel:
- In 5:19-24, Jesus is loyal only to the Father, who has given him complete authority. “The Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing, for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.” Any proper wife in first-century Palestine could have echoed that sentiment about her husband.
- Jesus considers the disciples his children. They are born—anōthen—from above (3:3). He calls them children in 13:33 at the beginning of his last discourse and again in 21:5 in his resurrection appearance by the sea.
- Jesus feeds 5,000 people (6:1-14). As would a pregnant and nursing mother, he then offers his own flesh and blood as food and drink (6:51-58). In 21:9-14, Jesus feeds breakfast to seven disciples/children. Then he tells Peter three times to feed more of his children.
- Jesus identifies with the process of labor and giving birth in 16:20-22.
- It was the wife’s or servant’s job to wash the feet of guests in the home. In 13:1-20, Jesus performs women’s work by washing his disciples’ feet and showing them how to do the same for each other.
These examples show us how the private world of the ancient Palestinian family is now made public in the narrative of this gospel. As Jesus gathers children/disciples around him, he is the mother-in-charge standing in for his unseen Father. We readers from a different time and culture must not let this irony escape us.
Women in the fourth gospel
Finally, with such pervasive feminine themes, it is not hard to see the high status women are accorded in this gospel. Just as Nicodemus is contrasted with the woman at the well, a major theme throughout is who “gets” truth on a deeper level, and who doesn’t. Besides the Samaritan woman who does get it, here are other examples:
- The mom. At the Cana wedding in 2:1-11, Jesus thinks his hour has not yet come, but his authoritative Jewish mother knows that it has. This becomes the first of his signs.
- The sisters: Martha. Chapter 11, on the raising of Lazarus, demonstrates the intimate relationship Jesus has with Lazarus’ sisters. They both feel free to chide him for not having come sooner (verses 21, 32). As often noted, it is Martha, not Peter, who publicly confesses Jesus as Messiah and to whom he announces that he is “the resurrection and the life” (verse 25).
- Mary. In 12:1-8, Martha’s sister, Mary, understands Jesus’ impending suffering so well that she anoints him with pure nard for his coming burial. Opposing her is Judas, the betrayer, who doesn’t get it and only worries about how much the perfume costs.
- The faithful disciple. As a supreme honor, Mary Magdalene becomes the first person to meet and converse with the risen Jesus in 20:11-18.
These are only a few examples of the spiritual depth and pervasive feminism of this narrative. Though set in an ancient patriarchal context, it opens a window into a previously private world where women’s roles and insights receive the attention they deserve. Here, both genders are equally welcome to become children of God—the highest and most honored role in this gospel of the beloved disciples.
Reta Halteman Finger, who taught Bible at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., is the author of Roman House Churches for Today: A Practical Guide for Small Groups.