The Bible and the Bechdel test

Some readers may be familiar with the Bechdel test.  Usually, it is used as a measure of gender bias in works of fiction.  A work passes the test if it has two named women characters, who talk to each other about something other than a man.  While the Bible is not (at least in my eyes) a work of fiction, it does have within it a number of narrative works, and as narratives they are as prone to displaying the biases of their authors as any others.  I thought it would be an interesting exercise, then, to see which of these works pass the Bechdel test.  I’ve put a summary below, along with comment where I thought it was warranted (for the sake of completeness, I’ve included the apocrypha, without meaning to imply anything about their canonical status.  That is a whole other topic!)

First, some disclaimers.  The Bechdel test is not the only or a perfect measure of gender bias.  It can be criticised on a number of grounds.  I don’t mean to suggest, by compiling this summary, that the books of the Bible which pass are thus free of gender bias, or indeed that the books which fail are intolerably biased.  I was simply curious, when I learned of the test, to use it as one measure which might be food for thought.  If anyone were interested in serious considerations of gender bias in the Bible, the necessary reading would be well beyond the humble scope of this blog.

For the purposes of this analysis, I have treated God as without gender; that is, a conversation about God is not about a man, and does not fail; and a conversation with God is not with a woman, and does not pass.

I notice, too, that this post has been linked to from Twitter and there are some comments there asking about which translation of the Bible I work from.  To the best of my knowledge, different translations would not make a difference to this analysis, but for the curious, I generally work from the NRSV (or for the New Testament, from the original Greek.  Sadly, I have not yet mastered Hebrew and need to rely on translations for the Old Testament).

So, without further ado:

Books which pass the Bechdel test:

Ruth
Tobit
Mark
Luke

Books which fail because there is conversation between named female characters, but it is about a man:

Genesis
John

Books which fail because there is conversation, not about a man, between female characters who are not both named:

Exodus
Samuel (taken as one work)
Kings (taken as one work)

Books which fail because named women speak, but only to men:

Numbers
Joshua
Judges
Chronicles (taken as one work)
Esther (including the additions)
Daniel (including the additions)
Judith
Acts

Books which fail because only unnamed women speak, and only to men:

Job
Jeremiah
2 Maccabees
2 Esdras
4 Maccabees
Matthew

Books which fail because no woman speaks:

Leviticus
Deuteronomy*
Ezra
Nehemiah
Isaiah*
Ezekiel
Hosea*
Amos*
Jonah
Haggai
Zechariah*
1 Maccabees
1 Esdras
3 Maccabees
Revelation

*(only a small portion of the book is in narrative form, so it is limited by genre)

Books to which the test does not apply, since they are not in narrative form:

Psalms
Proverbs
Ecclesiastes
Song of Songs
Lamentations
Joel
Obadiah
Micah
Nahum
Habakkuk
Zephaniah
Malachi
Wisdom of Solomon
Ecclesiasticus
Baruch
Letter of Jeremiah
Manasseh
Romans
1 Corinthians
2 Corinthians
Galatians
Ephesians
Philippians
Colossians
1 Thessalonians
2 Thessalonians
1 Timothy
2 Timothy
Titus
Philemon
Hebrews
James
1 Peter
2 Peter
1 John
2 John
3 John
Jude

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5 comments on “The Bible and the Bechdel test

  1. ozfenric says:

    I have posted a link to this on FB.

  2. Wow, I just posted this question on Facebook yesterday – and then someone sent me this link! Would you mind posting the conversations you say pass Bechdel test? I don’t mean the entire passage – just the chapters and verses so that I can look it up (plus the translation your using e.g. NKJV, etc). The reason I asked, is I looked in those books (except Tobit, which I don’t have in my bible) and I couldn’t find a conversation where the women didn’t bring up a man at some point. Perhaps I was being to strict with the rule… or perhaps we are reading different translations. Anyway, I would appreciate your help :)

  3. paidiske says:

    Hi,

    I don’t mind, but I didn’t keep a record of chapter and verse, so I’m going to have to go and read them again. I probably won’t be able to get to that for a day or two (the life of a student at the end of semester, sorry!) So I’m sorry for the delay, but I will get to it!

  4. paidiske says:

    Ok, I have a few minutes, and here’s what I’ve found as I’ve looked at it again (I’m using the NRSV):

    Ruth 1:8-17, 2:2.
    Tobit 7:16
    Mark 16:3
    Luke 1:42 onwards (admittedly, I didn’t treat a conversation that was partly about John the Baptist and Jesus in the womb as being about men; surely foetuses don’t count as men?)

    Hope that helps!

  5. Dinah C. says:

    the only problem here is reading our modern (or postmodern as the case may be) assumptions back into an ancient culture and into ancient texts. Rather they should be measured against the values and expectations and norms of their own time … in which case John gets right up there :) … it was unheard of using women as witnesses !!!!

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