Every story has a certain group of characters.
In the horror movie we have the jock, the slut, the nerd and the good girl. Even before the film begins we already know who is going to live, and who has to die.
Every fairy tale has a step-mother who refuses to attend parenting classes, a weak-willed father who should really stand up to his new wife, and the poor suffering daughter who is always beautiful, always vanquishes evil, and always gets Prince Charming.
In every narrative concerning witches, all that is good and holy must fight against the Maid, the Mother and the Crone. For further details please read Terry Pratchett's Wyrd Sisters. Or just watch Hocus Pocus.
And what about the Bible, that tells perhaps the most famous story of all? Whether you are religious or not, Christian or Jedi, it is an undeniable fact that Christian scripture recounts a story. The debate lies in whether it is based on historical truth, or is the construction of individuals, schools or communities that wanted to make theological sense of everything that had happened or was happening to them. Stretching over a time span of several thousand years, and containing a minimum of 66 books, there are a lot of characters that need dealing with.
As a Divinity undergraduate in her final year, and in particular as a student of a course that studies the female characters within the New Testament, it has become rather apparent that females are hardly protagonists as one combs through the pages of The Book; and when they dare to speak, or take the initiative, they are presented as villains. In the Old Testament, female characters come in three categories: the virgin, the mother and the whore. These boundaries cannot be blurred, and to transgress them is to take on a new identity. In the New Testament the stories of the female characters are generally unknown to us: we are lucky if we learn of their names, and we hardly ever hear their voices.
Normally they appear as anonymous figures within a crowd, come to hear Jesus speak and to follow him. Again, they can either be a virgin, a mother or a whore - except, of course, in the case of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. And fortunately for us, the prostitutes are saved by Jesus driving the demons (lustful feelings) out of them, because women clearly become prostitutes out of sexual frustration.
This is not a criticism of Jesus, who helped the poor and the sick and even went as far as engaging in table fellowship with the kind of people that everyone despises. But whoever wrote the stories concerning his ministry - traditionally attributed to 'the Evangelists', but perhaps the collaboration of members of post-Easter communities - certainly coated the narratives with an androcentric sheen. It is the men who take centre stage, while women are reaffirmed in their servile roles. And when they're not cooking or cleaning then they are daring to touch Jesus' cloak whilst haemorrhaging, squabbling with their sisters, being prostitutes (even when reformed), and living in Samaria of all places...
They are certainly blessed if they have names. Pity Jesus' mother, who is exactly that - Jesus' mother - in the Gospel of John. And to add further insult, Jesus calls her "woman". Never mind calling the female who bore God incarnated in her womb for nine months "mommy dearest". We get the names of some of the women who gathered at the foot of the cross upon which Jesus was crucified, but these names are apparently so irrelevant that the four Evangelists did not think it important to present the same list in each of their gospels. The same goes for the women present at the empty tomb, which is a fairly significant scene.
The Gospel of John is unique because of the more positive roles that it gives women, which has led some scholars to believe - although yet to be confirmed - that this particular book should be renamed 'The Gospel of Johanna'. It is an interesting theory, and one that is certainly not unfounded. Watch this space. But it remains that the Bible is a male-construction, and has been subjected to male-interpretation, a consequence of which is that women are reduced to their sexual activity - either they aren't having it, only have it in order to produce offspring, or are having it too much.
Which is why Colm Toibin's The Testament of Mary is so refreshing, a fictional narrative written by a man that provides a heartfelt account of the experiences of the Mother of God - direct from her perspective. Potentially offensive, and the product of an imagination that was forced to fill in the gaps, it is nonetheless honest. It presents Mary as an individual in her own right: she becomes more than simply "Jesus' mother" and "woman". She has a name and a voice - more importantly, she has a story.
Very excitingly, a fragment of ancient papyrus had recently been discovered that suggests that Jesus and Mary Magdalene - the ultimate prostitute - were in fact bound together in holy matrimony. Speaking to his disciples, Jesus refers to "my wife", whom "I dwell with", and will at some point be "my disciple". Although this can hardly be treated as solid proof that Jesus was a married man, it is of particular interest to note that there existed a view of the infamous Magdalena that contrasted so dramatically with the presentation of her in the gospels. Moreover, we can now begin to see why some pieces of literature made it into the Christian canon, and why others were rejected.
The voices of men dominate Scripture; but if we listen closely enough, perhaps we can hear the sound of female whispers.