I had been invited to be part of the first Christian mission week to have taken place at the University of Vienna since 1989. A group of Christian students with a passion to help introduce their generation to Jesus had organised everything. Austria is a pretty challenging context for Christian outreach. Very small percentages of the population have a personal connection with the Church, especially among the young people. For the opening night I was asked to address the question ‘Is the Bible Sexist?’
I thought it was an odd way to kick off a week of events, but the students assured me that many of their friends had written off the Christian faith on the basis that it is bad news for women. I went along with it, wondering if anyone would come. It was thrilling to see great numbers turn out for the evening. The conversations following the event were fascinating, but it was particularly striking to me that both Christians and sceptics were surprised to hear a case being made for the Bible as a text that is strongly supportive of the contribution, dignity, capacity, vocation and calling of women.
In the run-up to Christmas it struck me afresh just how important women are in the biblical narrative. If we take Eve, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Esther, the Proverbs 31 woman of noble character and other Old Testament heroes in our stride, in the New Testament things step up further for women.
It has long been emphasised by Christian apologists that the resurrection of Jesus is first and foremost witnessed by a group ofwomen. Someone in the ancient world trying to publicise a hoax would never countenance making the main protagonists of their story female ? and so the fact that women were the first witnesses of the resurrection is good evidence that it actually happened. But this is not just true of Jesus’ empty tomb. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion tell us that while the male disciples deserted Jesus, a group of women stood at the foot of the cross. Apart from John, the witnesses of the crucifixion were women ? they heard and preserved the seven ‘words’ from the cross that Jesus spoke, they took note of the thief on the cross, the mocking passers by, the centurion who came to faith, and such details as the separation of blood and water in Jesus’ spear wound. A huge amount of extraordinarily important data about Jesus and the way he was to redeem the world rests on the testimony of women. The cross and the resurrection are accessible to us because of them.
The facts about the annunciation of Christ’s conception and his virgin birth also rest on the testimony of a woman ? his mother. It is because of Mary’s words that we know about the angel Gabriel’s visitation, the miraculous conception of Jesus. God entrusts the greatest miracle the world has ever seen ? the incarnation of his son ? to the testimony of a woman.
We know about these majestic Christian truths because of the words of women. How extraordinary that we as a Christian community have allowed the Bible to be perceived as sexist or misogynistic.
This is not just an Austrian misconception. When my husband, covering the school run, described where I was and what I was doing in Vienna, all my school-gate friends immediately picked up on this same idea. I gave other talks that week which he also mentioned to them, but these friends here in Britain wanted the potted version of how we answer ‘Is the Bible sexist?’. This isthe question that intrigued them. Perhaps those students in Vienna were on to something after all.