The Bible and the Bechdel Test

This was the topic of a marital conversation yesterday: which books of the Bible would pass the famous Bechdel test? The test itself originates from a conversation between two characters in Alison Bechdel's famous comic Dykes to Watch Out For, about films:

Over the years it has acquired a minor additional tweak: a book or film etc passes the test if:

  1. There are at least two named women characters
  2. who have a conversation
  3. about something other than a man.

Obviously the Bible was not made for the Bechdel test, or vice versa. But it is an interesting exercise to apply the one to the other, and see what comes up. Pro-Bible commentators claim that there are four books of the Bible that actually pass it; in my view only one of these is sound. That one is:

  1. The Book of Ruth

    In case you don't know it, the Book of Ruth is a short Old Testament book which starts with a woman called Naomi, who is an immigrant in Moab and whose two sons both die leaving young widows, Orpah and Ruth. Naomi decides to go back to her original home, Bethlehem. Orpah decides not to come with her, but Ruth is a different matter.

    1:15 So she said, "See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law."
    1:16 But Ruth said, "Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
    1:17 Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!"
    1:18 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
    1:19 So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, "Is this Naomi?"
    1:20 She said to them, "Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.
    1:21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?"
    1:22 So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.

    Men are barely even mentioned here; it's a conversation about where you want to live your life after Plan A didn't work out. A clear Bechdel pass.

    The dynamic between Naomi and her two daughters-in-law has captured the attention of a number of artists. Here’s William Blake’s take.

However, there are another three cases where it is argued (in my view wrongly) that the Bechdel test is passed. They are:

  1. The Book of Tobit

    There is a debate about whether the Book of Tobit belongs in the Bible at all – as a school-going Catholic, it was in my version, but the Protestant kids didn't have it in theirs. There are two segments of Tobit that are invoked as potential Bechdel passes. The first is in Chapter 3:

    3:7 On the same day, at Ecbatana in Media, it also happened that Sarah, the daughter of Raguel, was reproached by one of her father’s maids.
    3:8 For she had been married to seven husbands, and the wicked demon Asmodeus had killed each of them before they had been with her as is customary for wives. So the maid said to her, “You are the one who kills your husbands! See, you have already been married to seven husbands and have not borne the name of a single one of them.
    3:9 Why do you beat us? Because your husbands are dead? Go with them! May we never see a son or daughter of yours!”

    I'm afraid this seems to me to fail all three legs of the Bechdel test. First off, the maid (in some translations, plural maids) is not named (granted, that's a later wrinkle to the original form of the test, but I think an important one); second, we don't get Sarah's response, so it's a rant not a conversation (the next section contain's Sarah's solitary reflections); and third, it's about her dead husbands who were all, er, men.

    The second bit of Tobit which some claim clears the Bechdel test is later in Chapter 7, when Sarah marries Tobit's son Tobias, her parents certain that he is doomed like the previous seven unlucky chaps:

    7:15 Raguel called his wife Edna and said to her, “Sister, get the other room ready, and take her there.”
    7:16 So she went and made the bed in the room as he had told her, and brought Sarah there. She wept for her daughter. Then, wiping away the tears, she said to her, “Take courage, my daughter; the Lord of heaven grant you joy in place of your sorrow. Take courage, my daughter.” Then she went out.

    This would actually pass if we got Sarah's response, which would probably make it a conversation about marriage. But we don't even hear if she replies.

    Rembrandt was a huge fan of the Book of Tobit, but sadly did not pick either of these scenes to illustrate. However, here is his take on Sarah anticipating her new husband Tobias.

  2. The Gospel of Mark

    Here the potentially Bechdel-passing section is from immediately after the Crucifixion, in the very last chapter of the Gospel, Chapter 16:

    16:1 When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.
    16:2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.
    16:3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

    Now, I will grant that the three women in the conversation are named. On the other hand, (once again) it's not a conversation, it's a single line; there is no dialogue here. And while apologists may argue that the conversation is about a stone, it's not; it's about the person who will move the stone.

    τίς ἀποκυλίσει ἡμῖν τὸν λίθον ἐκ τῆς θύρας τοῦ μνημείου;

    (In New Testament Greek, the semi-colon is a question mark.) It's implied pretty clearly that the person who might move the stone will be a man, by the word ἡμῖν, "for us" – because they are women who (in the view of the Gospel writer) couldn't do it for themselves. So I don't think Mark passes either. (True, the spirit of the Bechdel test is to eliminate conversations where women are presenting themselves only as romantic partners for men. But I think there's something important here also about gender roles.)

    There are many paintings of the women at the tomb, but few explicitly show the scene from the Gospel of Mark, with the three identified as two Marys and Salome. One of the rare exceptions is this by twentieth-century Danish artist Kamma Svensson.

  3. The Gospel of Luke

    Here the potentially Bechdel-passing section is in the very first chapter:

    1:39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country,
    1:40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
    1:41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit
    1:42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
    1:43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?
    1:44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.
    1:45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

    1:46 And Mary said,

    “My soul magnifies the Lord,
    1:47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
    1:48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
           Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
    1:49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
           and holy is his name.
    1:50 His mercy is for those who fear him
           from generation to generation.
    1:51 He has shown strength with his arm;
           he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
    1:52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
           and lifted up the lowly;
    1:53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
           and sent the rich away empty.
    1:54 He has helped his servant Israel,
           in remembrance of his mercy,
    1:55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
           to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

    1:56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

    I admit that this is the judgement I am most uncertain about. Mary and Elizabeth are both named women characters. There is a definite conversational exchange (even if Mary's response is effectively to break into song, I would accept that for a Hollywood musical, so I think I have to accept it here). The conversation is about pregnancy, which generally regarded as a women's issue. However, I cannot get away from the fact that both unborn children – Jesus Christ and John the Baptist – are men.

    The Visitation (which as a child I learned as one of the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary) has been a pretty popular topic for artists over the centuries. I’ve chosen a patriotic Belgian nod to Rogier van der Weyden, because he just shows the two women talking – a lot of the others are very crowded.

Reasonable people can disagree about all of this. The Bechdel test is not itself gospel, it's just a useful indicator of the extent to which a writer is treating women as people rather than romantic adjuncts to the men in the story. Large chunks of the Bible are not narrative in form and the Bechdel test cannot be reasonably applied. If the Book of Ruth passes, the Bible as a whole passes.

And yet, even on the optimistic viewpoint that all four of the above passages do pass the Bechdel test, that still leaves vast chunks of the Bible where women's voices are simply not heard. (See a book-by-book analysis here.)

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