Male Shame, and the Projection of Blame onto Women

When Adam ate fruit from the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden, he knowingly disobeyed God’s command (Romans 12:5-14). Prior to this event, Adam knew no shame (Genesis 2:25). After his decision to sin, however, his feelings changed dramatically (Genesis 3:10).

When questioned by God about his actions, Adam’s first words were, “The woman you gave to be with me — she gave me fruit from the tree…” (Genesis 3:12). Why does Adam focus attention on his wife, when he is questioned about his own actions? Is this the first example in biblical history of attempting to defend against shame by projecting blame onto someone else? It may well be.

Even if this inference about Adam’s response to God is not an exact reflection of his motives, theologians throughout church history have projected blame for the fall of humanity onto women more overtly:

Tertullian: You are the devil’s gateway, you are the unsealer of that [forbidden] tree; you are the first deserter of the divine law; you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. (https://equalityinchrist.wordpress.com/2014/05/13/must-women-keep-silent-1-corinthians-14-the-apostle-paul-and-the-traditions-of-men/)

St. Jerome: And that the lot of a woman might not seem a hard one, [because of God] reducing her to the condition of a slave to her husband, the Apostle recalls the ancient law and goes back to the first example: that Adam was first made, then the woman out of his rib; and that the Devil could not seduce Adam, but did seduce Eve; and that after displeasing God she was immediately subjected to the man, and began to turn to her husband; and he points out that she who was once tied with the bonds of marriage and was reduced to the condition of Eve, might blot out the old transgression by the procreation of children: provided, however, that she bring up the children themselves in the faith and love of Christ, and in sanctification and chastity… (http://www.womenpriests.org/traditio/jerome.asp#undone)

According to both of these influential theologians, Adam (the man) was too formidable a target for the devil to tempt. They tell us that Satan had to work through humanity’s “weak link”—woman–to achieve his goal.

According to this incredibly sexist interpretation of the Genesis account, Adam (the man) is portrayed as a victim of female influence. It seems as though the commentators hoped to believe, “There’s no shame in being victimized by irresistible feminine wiles.”[1] Jerome even offers a solution to the alleged problem of a woman’s influence: women must be reduced to the condition of slaves.[2] Specifically, he tells us that female sin will be blotted out when women submit to men in marriage, bear them children (i.e. have sex with them), and raise their offspring “in sanctification and chastity.”

Male shame is transformed into the blame of women, which leads to their subjugation: Historically, this is the foundation for every doctrinal tradition that subjects women to the authority of men in the church or in the home.

Why were some of the early church fathers so inclined to defend against shame by projecting blame onto women? Answering this question requires at least a brief exploration of what theologians like St. Jerome were so deeply ashamed of. Put bluntly, Jerome was ashamed of simply being human. More specifically, he was ashamed of the passionate emotions that are part of human nature. This shame stems from the fact that Jerome was an ascetic. This means that he had embraced a philosophy that said the mind and the spirit are good, whereas the body and the emotions are less good. When he combined this worldview with the Bible, he came to the conclusion that his passionate emotions (especially sexual feelings) needed to be put to death (i.e. mortified). His self had to be annihilated—crucified with Christ. He felt especially successful in his pursuit of this understanding of spirituality, when he was not in the company of a woman he found attractive. If he did notice a woman that he found attractive, and if he did experience the involuntary arousal of sexual feelings, he believed he had already sinned. It seems as though the acknowledgement and healthy regulation of sexual emotions was not a concept he was familiar with. Jerome and other like-minded theologians seem to make no distinction between impulse and action.

At one point in his pursuit of ascetic spirituality, St Jerome spent three years as a desert hermit, hoping to isolate himself from environmental cues that might stimulate “concupiscence” (i.e. sinful desire). The following passage from a book entitled, “After Eve” describes this experience:

Jerome spent about three years in the desert, studying, mortifying the flesh, learning Hebrew to prevent his mind being filled with erotic fantasies. (He tells us that his mind boiled with lust in the desert and he was much troubled with visions of dancing-girls.) To his disappointment he found that the desert-hermits were less saintly than he had expected, and, not by any means for the first time, or indeed the last, he quarrelled with those around him, and gave up desert-life in disgust. (http://www.womenpriests.org/theology/barr.asp)

After this experience, Jerome returned to Rome where at last he found himself reasonably comfortable in the company of women who also embraced an ascetic lifestyle. They too denied their emotions in general (sexuality in particular) and went to great lengths to conceal their femininity, lest they allegedly cause men (like Jerome) to stumble:

Jerome became deeply involved in the religious life of Rome, the Pope took a great interest in his work, he started on a new translation of the Bible ([the Latin] Vulgate) and, very important for our subject, he became very friendly with a group of well-born Roman matrons. These ladies had already become very interested in asceticism, and when Jerome, with his own recent desert experience, arrived and became known to them, they hailed him with joy, and their delight was reciprocated. They met frequently for prayer and Bible study. They exchanged letters constantly on matters of Biblical exegesis and meanings of Hebrew words. This intimacy gave rise to prurient gossip. There were accusations of sexual impropriety, which Jerome hotly denied, and there was indignation that these ladies, with their high social standing, their beautiful villas on the Aventine Hill, were following a regime which involved dressing in rags, never bathing, and indeed carrying mortification of the flesh to such lengths that one young woman died…

…Jerome had a horror of women’s sexuality. How is his attachment to [these women] and their devotion to him reconcilable with his anti-feminist views? I think he succeeded in seeing these women, with their saintliness, their love of Scripture, their ready acceptance of asceticism, as being no longer women, but men. Let me quote a letter he wrote to Lucinius, a wealthy Spanish nobleman who has made a vow with his wife that they will live the rest of their married lives in complete continence [sexual abstinence]: “You have with you one who was once your partner in the flesh, but is now your partner in the spirit, once your wife but now your sister, once a woman but now a man, once an inferior but now an equal.” (http://www.womenpriests.org/theology/barr.asp)

When Jerome experienced passionate emotion, he felt ashamed. He believed that such feelings were an indication that he had failed to successfully “mortify the flesh” through faith in Christ’s crucifixion. To help maintain the illusion that he had succeeded at annihilating his emotional self, he spent time in the company of women who denied their femininity and their sexuality. They dressed in rags and did not bathe. Other ascetic theologians from this era (e.g. St. Augustine) insisted that women be veiled in public to avoid causing men to experience “sinful” desire. ( Edwards, A God I’d Like to Meet, 2014)

In Adam’s case, moral failure evidently led to feelings of guilt and shame. He apparently dealt with these feelings by focusing his attention on Eve’s role in humanity’s fall, rather than his own.

In Jerome’s case, the experience of passionate emotion was wrongly perceived as sin. Evidently he felt guilty and ashamed for simply being human. He also failed to distinguish between feeling and action, temptation and sin. He apparently dealt with his feelings by avoiding women who did not conceal their femininity from him with filth and rags.

In the case of both Adam and Jerome, responsibility for male guilt and shame is projected onto women. Historically, this has led to the subjugation of women, and—ironically–the disempowerment of men. Women have been compelled by the church to hide their femininity, lest they cause men to stumble. This line of thinking suggests that men cannot find a woman attractive, and yet choose not to engage in sexually sinful behavior. Men, it would seem, have no choice but to sin in the presence of female beauty. Some complementarian church leaders have told me this is exactly what they believe. This is why some faith communities insist that women clothe themselves in loose fitting attire from head to toe. This is why some religious traditions insist that a woman cover her hair.  In some faith communities the sight of a woman’s hair is perceived as an irresistible sexual cue.  There is relevance here to the all-too-prevalent practice of blaming female victims for sexual assault.

Is projecting blame onto women for male guilt and shame God’s plan for his church? No, I don’t believe it is. In fact, I strongly believe that the status quo we find in many churches is the opposite of what God would have us do.

In the case of Jerome, rather than spending time only with women who wore rags and refused to bathe, I think he needed to encounter the truth that human emotions are not evil. I believe he needed to recognize that impulse and action are not the same thing; there is an important difference between temptation and sin (Hebrews 4:15). Rather than compelling women to deny their femininity, Jerome needed to be set free from a lie—the human philosophy of asceticism: “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8).

I also believe that God has provided a solution to guilt and shame other than the projection of blame onto others. John’s gospel tells us that Jesus Christ came to take away the sins of the world (John 1:29). To experience forgiveness, however, we must first acknowledge when we have done wrong (1 John 1:18). Then we can turn from sin to God, with faith that Jesus took our sins to the cross and nailed them there (Colossians 2:14). This is how we can experience real forgiveness from God.

Further, Jesus’ coming shows us that shame is essentially a lie. Shame tells us that if we have made mistakes we are worthless failures that cannot be loved. The truth of the matter is that God does not see us this way. God loves us, even though we are not perfect. Jesus died for us on the cross to take our sins away, while we were yet his enemies (Romans 5:10). God sees us as people who are worth saving. He sees that we are worth loving. I recognize that some theologians dispute this, claiming that God can’t help loving us, because he is love and we are all just loathsome worms. This is the very theological tradition, however, that springs from St. Jerome’s blending of the gospel with the human philosophy of asceticism. I do not believe it is an accurate interpretation of God’s love, made known to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

Ascetic philosophy would have us believe that passionate emotion is evil. It would have us make no distinction between impulse and action, temptation and sin. Human defense mechanisms would have men deny responsibility for their own behavior and project blame for any wrong-doing—be it actual or merely perceived—onto women. Continuing in this direction will continue to oppress women and disempower men.

I don’t believe this is God’s redemptive plan for humanity. Rather, I believe God would have us trust in the love that has been revealed to us in Christ, accept ourselves as God’s dearly loved children, and love our neighbour as ourselves by saying “no” to impulses that would lead us to engage in hurtful behaviour. I believe this is the promise and hope of the “gospel” message, and that we can continue to grow in this direction, with the help of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:14-25). Surely this is a better solution to male shame than blaming and subjugating women.

End Notes

[1]In the Middle Ages, this belief had horrific consequences. Men caught in sexual sin would accuse women of irresistibly enticing them, with the aid of the Devil, through witchcraft. Many women were subsequently put to death. Shockingly, women who challenge patriarchal traditions in the church today are still accused of witchcraft, or of having a “Jezebel spirit.”  Have patriarchal church leaders forgotten that similar accusations were made against Jesus (i.e. that he had a demon) when he challenged the religious traditions of his day?

[2]Yet the Bible tells us that in Christ there is neither male nor female, slave nor free (Galatians 3:28).

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10 Myths Used to Keep Women in Subjection, And the Truth to Set Them Free

Myth 1:
Adam named the animals in Eden; this means that he had authority over them. Adam named Eve; this means that he must have had authority over her also.

Truth:
“So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.  Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

“Male and female” both had dominion over the animals. This role was not Adam’s alone. The Bible does not say anywhere that “naming equals authority.” Some theologians have assigned this significance to the act of naming. The Bible itself does not.

Myth 2:
Eve was created to be Adam’s “help-mate.” This means that she was designed to be his assistant, and to follow his lead.

Truth:
The expression “help-mate” does not occur in the Bible. It is a misunderstanding of the old English language used in the King James translation. Eve was a “help” that was “meet” for Adam. The term “meet” was an adjective used to modify the noun “help.” It simply meant that Eve, as Adam’s help, was “suitable” or “comparable” to him. Furthermore, the term “help” as it is used in the Bible is not an indication of subordination. The same term in Hebrew (ezer) is used repeatedly of God.

Myth 3:
God made Adam, the man, before he made Eve. Being made first, chronologically speaking, is a clear indication of authority.

Truth:
The creation order for living things on earth, according to the Genesis account, proceeds as follows: aquatic life, birds, livestock, creatures that move along the ground, wild animals, humanity–male then female (Genesis 1:20-27, NIV). In this order of creation, animal life is made before humanity. If chronology equals rank, human beings should be subject to the animals. If, on the other hand, we assume that humanity should have dominion over the animals because we were created last, and are therefore the pinnacle of God’s creation, the woman would be God’s crowning achievement and should have dominion over all. Assuming that the chronological order of creation equals rank, however, is not an idea that can be found in the Bible. It is merely a human assumption, one the Apostle Paul appears to challenge in his first letter to the Corinthians: “Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord.  For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God” (1 Corinthians 11:11-12, NKJV).  Some commentators suggest that chronology does not mean rank, until we come to men and women.  Once again, this is a human assumption; it is not an idea found in the biblical text itself.

Myth 4:
God gave Adam authority over Eve in the creation story; therefore all men have authority over all women, for all time.

Truth:
The Bible nowhere states that God gave Adam authority over Eve. Human inference has led some to this conclusion (see Myths 1-3), but the idea does not originate in God’s Word. In fact, the first mention of any kind of authority structure between men and women occurs only after humanity has fallen into a sinful state (Genesis 3:16).

Myth 5:
Jesus chose only men to be his disciples. Therefore only men should be leaders and teachers in the church.

Truth:
Jesus chose only Jewish men to be his disciples. Based on the spurious logic of Myth #5, we should only allow Jewish men to be leaders in the church. Yet Paul tells us in his epistle to the Galatians, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28, NKJV).

Furthermore, the Bible includes evidence of women functioning as leaders and teachers in both the Old and New Testaments:

– “Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time” (Judges 4:4, NIV).

– “And I commend you to Phebe our sister — being a ministrant of the assembly that [is] in Cenchrea — that ye may receive her in the Lord, as doth become saints, and may assist her in whatever matter she may have need of you — for she also became a leader of many, and of myself” (Romans 16:1-2, YLT).

– “Greet Andronicus and Junia (female name), my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was” (Romans 16:7, NIV).

– “Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:24-26, NIV).

Myth 6:
God chose Deborah to be a leader in Israel only because there were no suitable men available.

Truth:
As with earlier myths, the notion that God chose Deborah because he could not find a suitable man does not appear anywhere in the biblical text. It is yet another example of human assumption wrongly confused with God’s Word.

Myth 7:
The only reason Priscilla could teach a man the gospel was because she did so under the authority of her husband.

Truth:
This qualification is not found anywhere in the Bible. It has once again been supplied by human inference.

Myth 8:
The Bible says that wives must “be subject” to their husbands. It also says that wives “ought to be” subject to their husbands just as the church is to Christ.

Truth:
These phrases are contained in some English translations of the Bible (e.g. Ephesians 5:22 & 24, NASB). They do not appear in the earliest Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. They have been added—allegedly for clarification–by the translators. These additions actually change the meaning of the text. Since they do not appear in the Bible’s original language, they are not, in fact, the Bible.

Myth 9:
The Bible clearly states, “And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:12, NKJV).

Truth:
As with Myth #8, this is an English translation. The Greek verb translated “to have authority over” is “authentein.” In the language of the Greek Septuagint, a noun form of this word, “authentas,” is used to describe parents who commit acts of ritual violence in the worship of false gods (Wisdom of Solomon 12:3-6). Between the years 60 B.C. and 100 A.D., the word is used repeatedly by historians such as Diodorus Siculus and Flavius Josephus. If their uses of the word are applied to 1 Timothy 2:12, we have the following English translations:

I do not permit a woman to teach or to support violent actions against a man.
I do not permit a woman to teach or to perpetrate sacrilege against a man.
I do not permit a woman to teach or to perpetrate violence against a man.
I do not permit a woman to teach or to commit crimes against a man.[1]

Notable contextual information to help with translation: Paul is concerned about false teachers (1 Timothy 1:3), who give heed to deceiving spirits (1 Timothy 4:1), and forbid marriage and command people to abstain from certain foods (1 Timothy 4:3). Priests of an ascetic cult in the area of Ephesus (where Timothy taught) were false teachers, were not allowed to marry, had to abstain from certain foods, and were subject to ritual castration in the service of their goddess.[2]

Mounting evidence suggests that the traditional translation of authentein (e.g. to have authority) is incorrect. This tradition began with St. Jerome’s translation of the Bible into Latin in the 4th century A.D.. It was Jerome who said, “a wife is classed with the greatest evils.”[3] Jerome also encouraged celibacy and prescribed ritual fasts for his followers, ironically much like the false teachers Paul is evidently warning against.

Myth 10:
We need men to “step up” and fulfill God’s call on their lives as leaders in the church and in their homes.

Truth:
Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ” (Jesus, Matthew 23:10, NASB).

 

End Notes

1 Thesaurus Linguae Graeca database, as cited in Wilshire, L. (2010). Insight into Two Biblical Passages: The Anatomy of a Prohibition, 1 Timothy 2:12, the TLG Computer, and the Christian Church.

2 Edwards, B. (2013). Let My People Go: A Call to End the Oppression of Women in the Church, Revised and Expanded.

3 Against Jovinianus, Book 1, §28, as published by http://www.womenpriests.org

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