John Dyer on How the Bible Passes the Bechdel Test and Goes Beyond It

John Dyer (PhD, Durham University) is a dean and professor at Dallas Theological Seminary who teaches and writes on theology, technology, and sociology. You can follow him on twitter @johndyer and find him on his blog.


Recently, a friend asked on Twitter if the Bible passes the Bechdel-Wallace test. Although this question has been asked on the internet before, my friend’s tweet made me wonder if I could use my Bible programming skills to do a deeper data-drive analysis than what I found online. (One of the best iterations comes from a blogger priest named Paidiske.)

If you’re not familiar with it, the Bechdel test “is a measure of the representation of women” in movies and books. It’s based on a comic by Alison Bechdel that suggests a work must contain a scene that meets three specific criteria: (1) at least two named women who (2) talk to each other (3) about something other than a man.

The films in the Star Wars franchise can serve as an example of the test’s usefulness. The first Star Wars movie was praised for presenting a strong female character in Princess Leia. However, the only other named female character in the movie is Aunt Beru, but she and Leia never meet or talk, so the film fails the Bechdel test. By contrast, The Force Awakens (episode VII) includes a scene in which Rey and Maz Kanata discuss Rey’s destiny, which passes all three elements of the Bechdel test.

The Bible certainly doesn’t need to pass the Bechdel test in order to be God’s Word. That would probably be a bad example of presentism. But the test can still be a useful way of reexamining the biblical stories and seeing God’s care for all image bearers.

Part of my interest in this question comes from the fact that I like playing with Bible data. But the deeper reason is that I am married to an incredible woman whose depths I have only just begun to see over the last 15 years, and I am father to an indescribably interesting young woman who wants to know: What is the place and value of women in the world? And what does the Bible have to say about that question?

The Bible as Data

To explore the Bechdel test question, I used an incredible open source dataset created by Robert Rouse of viz.bible that includes people, places, and events in the Bible. I used his data to find all the passages where women are mentioned together (Bechdel test number 1) and all the passages where women speak (Bechdel test number 2). Then I examined the overlaps to find which ones fully passed the test (including Bechdel test number 3) and which ones partially passed for various reasons. (My full data report is available on my blog.)

Here’s a summary of what I found. Rouse’s database has 3,070 characters, and 202 of those are women. (For comparison’s sake, the Quran has one named woman, Mary, and other religious texts like the Bhagavad Gita have none.) Of the 66 books in the Protestant canon, 34 are narrative or mostly narrative books, and 41 have female characters.

Narrowing to the pericope level, there are 147 scenes with two or more women (Bechdel test 1), 261 scenes where women speak (Bechdel test 2), and 14 where women are speaking to each other (Bechdel test 3).

Bechdel and Beyond

So does the Bible pass the Bechdel test?

This short answer is yes; there are multiple scenes where two named women have a conversation not about a man.

The longer answer is more complex but also richer, I think.

Although there are fewer female characters in the Bible than male characters and very few scenes that unambiguously pass the Bechdel test, when we read female-centric passages carefully, we find that the Bechdel test alone doesn’t tell the full story.

Whereas men are gallivanting all over the pages of Scripture, faithful women are always present and prominent during the key movements of the biblical story when God is making major moves toward saving humanity. It’s almost as if, in a world of patriarchy and misogyny, the presence of women functions as a marker that says, “Pay attention; this is important!” for each major movement of the biblical story.

The Beginning

Genesis begins by reminding readers that both “male and female” are created in God’s image (1:27). Then in Genesis 3, Eve speaks to the serpent (v. 2) and to God (v. 13) on equal footing with Adam. Although these scenes don’t pass the Bechdel test, my friend and colleague Sandra Glahn suggests that a new test is needed where “a named woman having a conversation with a being that outranks a man about something other than a man gets extra points in the representation scale.”

As we read on, we find that the rest of Genesis can be a brutal place, especially for women, who are often exploited, sexualized, and mistreated by men or one another. Genesis also contains the launch of God’s plan to redeem humanity through a single human family, and in that story comes a powerful scene that derives some of its significance precisely because it doesn’t meet the Bechdel test.

In Genesis 12, God promises that he will make the descendants of Abram and his wife, Sarai (both named in Genesis 11:29), into a great nation, through whom he will bless all people groups. Sadly, Abram and Sarai fail to trust that God can give them a child, and in the process, they abuse Sarai’s servant Hagar. Sarai and Hagar’s dialogue is not recorded, but we can fairly well infer that the conversation was quite nasty.

However, the words of Hagar that are recorded make her the first character in Scripture to give God a name. “She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me’” (Gen. 16:13).

This is one of the first instances where not passing the Bechdel test is precisely what gives the scene its power. In the midst of a woman’s suffering, God sees her pain and is working to redeem it.

As we continue through the early biblical story, we encounter passages that fail the Bechdel test because they pass only the third criterion, where named women speak about something other than men, but they speak to men or crowds rather than to other women. For example, in the story of Moses’ birth, Pharaoh’s daughter is unnamed, so her conversation with Miriam doesn’t fully pass the Bechdel test (Ex. 2:1–10). Other key instances come with the female negotiators in Numbers 27 (see also Joshua 17) and in Deborah’s song in Judges 5.

Judges 4 and 5 contain the stories of Jael and Deborah, and although the two characters never meet or speak, they represent women as whole persons, capable of being wives and mothers but also leaders, negotiators, prophets, and stone-cold assassins.

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Source: Christianity Today