In my final year of college, as my master’s program and wedding approached, The New Yorker magazine came to me. It included a Bob Mankoff cartoon in which an affable lady editor sat at her desk across from a scruffy dude wearing a toga suggestive of Mesopotamia. A manuscript lay between them, and the caption read, “We feel that your female characters are somewhat underdeveloped.”
The wedding took better than the graduate program. Years later, I have seven children but no illustrious career. However, I do have a side hustle: armed with my common sense and ability to meet a deadline, I became a contract indexer for a scholarly Bible commentary series. An indexer reads a long manuscript, finds the important words, and assembles them into an uncomplicated-looking list for the back of the book. Indexing is not lively. Writer Thomas E. Woods says of his experience indexing his own books, “It is an unspeakable task.” It could be spun as intellectual intrigue, but the truth is that picking out and cross-referencing ideas from other people’s books isn’t something anyone dreams of doing when she grows up.
Moreover, while my personal life outs me as being pretty traditional, Mr. Mankoff’s cartoon still comes to mind when I am indexing. My feelings are not hurt by the fact that more men than women are named in the Bible. But as an indexer, my brain is hurt by people without names. Indexes are built upon efficiency and clarity. Four Marys in one Gospel really messes with this. “The other Mary”? I guess that’s Mary, Other.
And all those Marys have names, which is more than can be said for so many other Bible women. For example, here is an excerpt of the “W” section from my draft index for the Concordia Commentary on Mark 1–8:26:
Woman who anointed Jesus 43, 52, 67 Woman with issue of blood 43, 46, 50 . . . Woman with jar of flour 299 Woman, Syro-Phoenician 43, 50, 240 . . .
Here’s how that stretch of Ws looked in the commentary on John 1–6:
Woman 163, 180, 475 Woman as address 299, 315–16 Woman, adulterous 374 Woman, barren 398 Woman, Samaritan 7, 173, 195 . . .
It’s not just a New Testament problem. Here’s the 2 Samuel index:
Woman 18, 20, 109 Woman, Samaritan 462 Woman of Tekoa 269–73 Woman, wise (of Abel-beth-maacah) 390–91
Pretty un-woke there. To be fair, the following happened in Galatians:
James, half-brother of Christ 14, 38, 41 . . . James, son of Alphaeus 140 James, son of Judas 229 James, son of Zebedee 140, 159, 230
If everybody is James, then nobody is. Nevertheless, in Scripture “name-poverty” is much more common with women than men. Couldn’t distinct names have been provided to each biblical character simply as a matter of courtesy or good order?
Whereas God is good and orderly, if Scripture withholds a whole bunch of women’s names, it matters. Scripture was not written with an eye toward indexing. It was written with the will for all men to be saved and come unto the knowledge of the truth, including women. If we also concede that all Scripture has a teaching, reproving, corrective function for instruction in righteousness, then we’re allowed to ask: What is instructive about not including women’s names?
In old-timey times, I won’t claim to know. Understanding how people of another time thought requires more than imagination. But if the contemporary mind notices this omission, it cannot be because a good God laid a rock of offense between himself and his redeemed. On the contrary, a fame-crazed people are uniquely situated to receive comfort in the blessings attached to quiet humility. Furthermore, while Scripture has fewer women than men as characters, a book whose protagonist is the Bridegroom would never have become history’s best-seller without a commensurately compelling Bride. The cumulative effect of Genesis 2 and 3, Psalm 45, Song of Songs, Ezekiel 16, Luke 1, Ephesians 5, and Revelation (to list the greatest hits) suggests that biblical femininity is packed by weight, not by volume. “Men are men,” wrote G. K. Chesterton in The Napoleon of Notting Hill, “but Man is a woman.” Scripture bears this out in giving us a great number of men, but a great “amount” of woman.
This is a hard teaching if there is no justice outside of radical parity, no joy outside of joy’s billable hours, and no satisfaction without a number of heroines and names exactly equal to the men. But why has anyone come to want those names so much? Is it so we can have another mascot, another Deborah™ or Miriam®? Hannah’s useful; she works for Infertility© and Quiverfull©. Lydia, hero of the working woman! Mrs. Proverbs 31, hero of the home-business mom! Boudica, Angela Merkel, Wonder Woman—aren’t they basically in the Bible? We could always check the index.
To be fair, I run into many men in Scripture who don’t have names. There’s Centurion; Man born blind; Man, Crippled; Man, Possessed; Man, Young; Man, Old; Messenger, Amalekite, and so on. There’s the whole book on the history of the kings: one damned king after another. If someone gets his name in the Bible, there’s a good chance it’s because he screwed up royally, spiritually, eternally.
However, there is more to the name question than quibbling over tallies. Indexing demonstrates that in Scripture more of the characters are men, but when we cherchons la femme, our attention is called to aspect rather than number. Certainly, behind David are at least eight wives, ten concubines, and a particular nuisance of a sister (via, ahem, her sons) directly influencing his piety, politics, and popularity. But the index shows an imbalance of entries whose personal significance is unequal between the sexes: Barrenness; Childbirth; Concubine; Harem; Menstruation; Nursing; Pregnancy; Prostitution; Rape. Even the things with an equal absolute occurrence between individual men and women do not make an equal impact upon the men and women involved. Leaving out everything with a direct opposite sex counterpart (like Man/Woman, Father/Mother) and the theologically daedal matter of circumcision, the closest masculine analogues my indexes have are . . . Eunuch.
The eunuch matters. He epitomizes a number of masculine crosses: the child born deformed, the adolescent whose development progresses wrongly, the unwillingly unmarried man, the homosexual man, the husband in an infertile marriage. The world can now correct the eunuch’s situation, either surgically or socially, to the extent that most contemporary readers will fail to see his ongoing relevance. But those whom the world fails in this regard would be well directed to Isaiah 56.
How much more, then, does Scripture acknowledge the female biological and social experience? The Bible is on the ground floor of arguments as to whether breastfeeding rooms at the state fair protect or ghettoize mothers, or if women should get time off work every twenty-eight days. Feminine themes are pushed particularly hard in the prophetic books, although many are naturally opaque or even off-putting to men. Scripture is also relentless in casting believers as the Bride of Christ. That men find a place for themselves in this mystery has some mystery of its own (and maybe a lesson for exacting talliers as well). Scripture takes intellectual risks for both sexes.
The difference between men and women is not simply one of immediate function but timeless purpose. No watchdog of scriptural sexism has missed what Jesus said about the woman who anointed his feet: “‘Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, [there] shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her’” (Matt. 26:13 KJV).
It’s a pretty lousy memorial with no name on it, unless there is only one name that really matters: Christian. Every nameless woman (and man) in Scripture demonstrates that when Christ becomes greater, those who belong to him become less. Jesus didn’t want that woman to become famous. He wanted that confession of faith to become famous. If we are dissatisfied by this message, we might be showing how much we need it.
Grasping for influence and recognition runs absolutely counter to humility, the defining mark of the Christian life. The Lord could have given a simpler order to our indexes and more name options for our baby girls. He could have told us the name of the Samaritan woman, the hemorrhaging woman, the woman of Tekoa, and Manoah’s wife. But would we have treated them better than we’ve treated other famous Bible women? Priscilla, Lydia, Phoebe and others who receive as little as one line of Scripture have been “extreme-makeovered” into sedes doctrinae for pet causes of overwhelming interest to female “influencers” within the church. We like women of the Bible because of what we imagine them to show about women, instead of what they show about the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake. Meanwhile, “the wise woman of Abel-beth-maacah” fails on aesthetics as a token for “you-go girl-ism.” Whereas if those who could afford to get graduate degrees in theology are a minute subset of this Old World’s women, is that so bad?
If Scripture’s female characters seem underdeveloped, readers have a few options. They can reject the authority of Scripture on the basis of content. They can say that Scripture’s style stinks and hold their noses all the way to heaven. Or they can hold neither the style nor the content of Scripture to be historical accidents. Scripture’s direct speaking to the female side of the human experience is there just as deliberately as many women’s names aren’t. That absent names get contemporary attention has the beneficial effect of reorienting our thinking away from pride of place and Girl Power.
The household gods of radical individualism are public accomplishment, representation, and attention. Should Christian women discomfit men by way of girl-privilege so we can keep hiding these idols in our saddles? This is where indexing gets meta. Indexers’ names do not normally appear with their work, but every index is smudged with its maker’s personal vocabulary and conceptual cow paths. It’s a handy metaphor for that thing we all know: We matter most to the little people, places, and things nearest to us. Female characters are comparatively underdeveloped in Scripture. They served the Lord better by being good neighbors than by getting a bunch of entries in some commentary index. That’s a lesson we children of our time need more than another strong female cast.
Rebekah Curtis received her master’s in exegetical theology from Concordia Seminary. She is a professional indexer for Concordia Publishing’s scholarly Concordia Commentaries. She has written for Modern Reformation, Chronicles, Touchstone, Salvo, and Lutheran Forum, and for websites including First Things, Front Porch Republic, The Behemoth, Babble, and The Imaginative Conservative. An article she wrote for The Cresset received an Award of Excellence from the American Church Press in April 2018.