Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Women: Just 1% of the Bible

1000-Bible-WomenThe new book Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter does something fresh: it identifies every female who has a speaking part in the Good Book, and puts her words in context.

Episcopal priest Lindsay Hardin Freeman wants us to know which woman speaks the most (Judith, from the Apocrypha); which has a profile so low as to be “crawling on the floor” (Micah’s mother, from the Book of Judges); and which are relatively well-known but chronically misunderstood (Mary Magdalene).

The book is chock-full of interesting information — and it’s even fun to read. I talked with Rev. Freeman about her research and why she wanted to uncover these women’s stories.

RNS: So, all the women who speak in the Bible? Wow. How many women are there with speaking parts, and how did you recover them?

Lindsay Hardin Freeman: There are 93 women in the Bible who speak (alone or in the company of other women), and I know because our research team here in Minnesota spent the last three years highlighting, counting and documenting all their words. We took the NRSV, studied it cover to cover, pulled out all the women who spoke (other than those in large groups who couldn’t be counted), and dove into each woman’s narrative—exploring her story, her context, her likely characteristics, and what we her words might mean for us today.

RNS: I was really depressed when I read your stats about how few of the words in the Bible are actually spoken by women. What are the numbers for women’s words, in comparison to the whole?

LHF: There are about 1.1 million words in the Bible, and women’s words add up to a little over 14,000, or about 1.2 percent of the total. And yes, that is depressing at first. But women in the Bible are like pearls, and you don’t find pearls just lying out in the fields, waiting to jump into someone’s pocket. You have to search for them, and we did, often into the early morning hours.

While 93 is a relatively small number, it’s hard to think of any other historical document that quotes almost 100 women from throughout the ages. There are healers, warriors, business leaders, diplomats, musicians and prophets, mothers, grandmothers, prostitutes and murderers among the ranks of women in the Bible. They come very close to holding all the stations of power that men do in the Bible, just in fewer numbers.

RNS: What woman’s story surprised you the most?

LJH for publicationLHF: There are some brutal stories in the Bible about women, ones that difficult to assimilate. I am haunted by the story of the concubine in Judges 19, who was given over to a group of violent men by her master one evening, supposedly to satisfy the demands of desert hospitality. She is gang-raped and dies, and then he divides her body and sends a piece to each of the twelve tribes of Israel to complain about the damage done to his “property.”

I could not read her story without getting sick to my stomach. My book ends with her and how I hope she has finally found peace and healing.

RNS: You note that “the ten women who talk most in the Bible . . .are primarily in the Old Testament.” So why do we have this idea that the New Testament is so much more progressive toward women?

LHF: Because Jesus treats women as equals. His longest recorded conversation with anyone was with a woman (the woman at the well, who had five husbands and was living with a sixth man). He encouraged women to speak out: the first woman who is quoted in the New Testament had been bleeding for twelve years and was considered a nobody, an untouchable nobody. Yet she is healed and then he asks her to tell her story. His first encounter after the resurrection was with a woman, Mary Magdalene. His first word after the resurrection was “woman,” as in “Woman, why are you weeping?” (John 20).

Think of how many women had suffered until that point in biblical history, who were moved around like pawns on a patriarchal chess board. But Jesus saw women, heard them, embraced them, included them in his work, needed their care and depended on them to accompany him—and they did. Revolutionary.

RNS: What do you most hope that readers will take away from this book?

LHF: That these woman are real, dynamic, challenging, and fallible—and that God’s love for them, and us, is as strong as the world’s foundations.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • How did you deal with texts where the original author isn’t clear? If the authorship is unclear, then how did you determine whether it was a man or a woman speaking? Consider the psalms. Many of the authors are unknown.

  • I gave a talk in my Mormon ward last Mother’s Day and I did a little text analysis to quantify how often scriptures tell women’s stories relative to men’s stories. I had too little time and couldn’t discuss it during my talk, but I found it really interesting and, because it ties in nicely with the title of this post, I thought I’d share it here. In several books, I counted the number of times the words “he” and “his” are used and divided this number by the number of times the words “she” and “her” are used. The resulting number tells you something about how many times the book discusses the stories of men versus women (note that my measure doesn’t say anything about whether the story is positive or negative, just whether it is about men or women). Here are my results (higher numbers mean relatively less discussion of women):

    Bible: 9.31 (this means “he” and “his” were used 9.31 times as often as “she” and “her”)

    New Testament: 12.27 (consistent with the interview, the New Testament is less focused on women than the Old Testament)

    Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price: 27.36 (more than twice as high as the New Testament!)

    These numbers are pretty extreme, and they really brought home to me how little the scriptures tell women’s stories. To put the numbers for scriptures in context, I calculated similar numbers for other books, both ancient and modern. My goal here was to get an idea of whether the scriptures are distinctively male-centric or whether they simply reflect the male-centrism of their times. Here are some comparison books:

    The Iliad (760-710 BC): 5.48 (crazy low for such an old book!)

    Beowulf (975-1025 AD): 9.25 (almost identical to the Bible)

    Tale of Two Cities (1859): 2.95

    Finally, Google has a tool that allows anyone to count the occurrences of words and phrases in its collection of millions of digitized books over centuries (this tool is called the ngram viewer). The link to this chart is below. It shows that extreme male-centrism has been the norm in American English books for centuries, but that women’s stories have been better and better represented over time. However, and this is the most depressing thing I found during this process, even in 2010, the ratio was almost 2 uses of “he” and “his” for every one use of “she” or “her”.

  • I noticed the same thing as a little girl reading through the Scholastic books our school used each year. The Scholastic books were filled with short stories geared to children and it seemed that at least 80% of them (if not more) featured boys.