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:


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


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

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

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

Chronicles (taken as one work)
Esther (including the additions)
Daniel (including the additions)

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

2 Maccabees
2 Esdras
4 Maccabees

Books which fail because no woman speaks:

1 Maccabees
1 Esdras
3 Maccabees

*(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:

Song of Songs
Wisdom of Solomon
Letter of Jeremiah
1 Corinthians
2 Corinthians
1 Thessalonians
2 Thessalonians
1 Timothy
2 Timothy
1 Peter
2 Peter
1 John
2 John
3 John

17 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:


    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!

    • Tim Guy says:

      You think two women asking themselves who would roll away the stone of the mans tomb somehow don’t count as men talk?

      • paidiske says:

        No, I don’t, in the sense that it’s two women discussing a problem. “Who will roll away the stone?” is, in effect, saying, “But how will we do what we’ve come here to do?” It’s not saying, “Let’s go back and get Peter and the others to lend us their muscles.”

        To draw an analogy, if I’m cooking and find I have run out of an ingredient, and ask my daughter “Now, who’s going to run down to the shops?” that’s not a conversation about a man, even if in the end it’s my husband who runs that errand!

      • lissapelzer says:

        I agree there – they’re discussing a man’s tomb – that’s the subject of the conversation, also grammatically. Still – this is an awesome list. I’m really impressed at the author taking the time to put it together.

  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 !!!!

  6. Eric says:

    “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?)”

    Yet they aren’t talking about unborn foetuses, but the individual one of those foetuses will become and what he will accomplish (1:43, 46-56). In other words, they are talking about men, yes?

    • paidiske says:

      Eric, I think it’s something that is ambiguous. To my mind, the point of the Bechdel test is to measure the degree to which women are merely the pretty scenery against which the real (male) characters interact. I felt that two women talking about their (as yet unborn) children – even though they would grow up to be men – didn’t fit into that category. (It helps that that wasn’t the sum total of Mary and Elizabeth’s conversation, too).

      • Tim Guy says:

        I don’t agree with you at all. They are talking about men who will be born as part of a story about men. They are fodder for the man story. plain as day.

  7. Tim Guy says:

    neither Mark nor Luke pass the Bechdel test. Where in either of these books are their two named women talking to each other about something other than a man. I want chapter and verse.

  8. Amy says:

    Thanks for this post. I’ll throw my support behind Luke 2 passing the test, since as I prepare to preach on Mary and Elizabeth this week it was their story which made me google “Bible Bechdel test” to see to which other stories the test applies. I am sad the list is so short. But I’m grateful to be in the beautiful work of sharing women’s stories from the Bible and that I’m in the work with others!

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