Top 10 Books on the Historical Jesus


There is simply no end to the deluge of books written about Jesus. The author of the Gospel of John already opined, at the end of the first century, that the world could not contain them!

This list is one person’s choices. It represents fixed points to which I find myself returning, with profit. I’ve presented the titles not in chronological order,[1] but in a suggested order of approach. One can start anywhere—but whatever you do, steer clear of the conspiracy theorists, the paranoid style of American pop-Jesus-research that goes by the name ‘mythicism’, and operates with the same absurd historiographical sensibilities as holocaust deniers and Templar enthusiasts.

1. Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide  (1998)
In the grand German tradition, this introduction does what it says on the tin: it offers a comprehensive guide to the sources, context, activities and message of Jesus. Those who seek an answer to the question, ‘Why would we seek for a historical Jesus behind the Gospels in the first place, and how might one go about doing that?’ will find a learned induction here.

2. Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (2nd German edition 1913; English, 2001)[2]
This great polymath achieved the seemingly impossible in writing a sprawling history of Jesus research in the 18th and 19th centuries that ended up as one of the most fascinating books on Jesus ever written. Relentlessly pointing to the flaws in the work of his predecessors, Schweitzer presented his own vision of Jesus, relying heavily on Matthew’s Gospel, as a failed apocalyptic prophet who announced the coming of the kingdom of God but died in disappointment at its non-arrival.

3. Martin Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ (1964)
Writing in the 1890s, Kähler rejected the very possibility of doing historical Jesus work since the Gospels are entirely invested in presenting Jesus from the standpoint of Christian faith. Kähler’s project found important twentieth century heirs in scholars like Rudolf Bultmann and Luke Timothy Johnson

4. E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism(1985) and The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993)
These two books – the former more scholarly, the latter less so – offer a vision of Jesus firmly grounded in the Judaism of his day. Sanders proposes that Jesus be seen as a proponent of ‘Jewish restoration eschatology’, and sees Jesus as attempting to achieve a restoration of Israel’s theological-political fortunes.

5. John Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (1991)
This ambitious undertaking—five volumes and counting—is the most rigorous application of a criteria-based approach to authenticating the words and actions of Jesus in the gospels. He applies his criteria for historical verification—multiple attestation, embarrassment, discontinuity, coherence, and rejection & execution—with vast erudition and subtlety. Even those who disagree with Meier’s conclusions benefit from his learning and his engaging style.

6. Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne, eds., Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (2012)
The search for authenticity and the role that authenticating criteria have played in historical Jesus research, come under critical consideration here. Particularly focused by the turn to memory in recent historiography, these scholars pose acute questions about the nature of human subjectivity as it bears on the task of historical reconstruction.

7.Dale Allison, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (2010)
Together with his brief volume of lectures The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, this book offers the mature synthesis of one of the leading scholars of the historical Jesus. Allison proposes a move toward considering ‘recurrence’ in the tradition as a sort of macro-criterion to help us grapple with the impact of Jesus in the memories of his earliest followers.

8. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony(2nd ed., 2017)
Bauckham re-investigates the role of named bearers (e.g., Matthew, John) of the memories of Jesus in the early church. He finds more reliability in some early patristic testimony than has often been allowed, and rejects a long tradition of viewing the gospels as the end-product of a long process of anonymous shaping of the tradition.

9. Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth (2007-2012)
Not a conventional work of historical Jesus scholarship (some of my colleagues will roll their eyes in seeing this here), these three volumes offer a remarkable attempt to make a serious use of the results of historical scholarship for the church. On the historical front the results are mixed; yet, one should recognize that these books would have been an unthinkable a century ago.

10. Shawn Kelley, Racializing Jesus: Race, Ideology and the Formation of Modern Biblical Scholarship(2002); Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany(2010); Halvor Moxnes, Jesus and the Rise of Nationalism: A New Quest for the Nineteenth-Century Historical Jesus (2012)
Finally, this trio of works, each in its own way, considers how the study of the life of Jesus has served ideological programs. Together, they offer a salutary caution about the motivations for and uses of historical reconstruction.

Dave Lincicum is Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Paul and the Early Jewish Encounter with Deuteronomy (Mohr Siebeck 2010; repr. Baker Academic, 2013). His research focuses on the reception of Scripture in early Christianity, the strange and unfriendly text known as the Epistle of Barnabas, and the history of biblical interpretation. 

Image: Christ Pantocrator in the apsis of the cathedral of Cefalù, c. 1130. Photograph by Andreas Wahra [via WikiCommons].

[1] Or in the order of the standard division of ‘quests’ for the historical Jesus, which I view as a flawed, German-centered historiographical periodisation

[2] Be sure to read the 2001 translation published by Fortress/SCM Press, which translates the second substantially expanded edition.

Our “Best Books” feature asks a historian to recommend the most important books to read in order to get started in their subject area. All of these blogs will appear here, as they’re posted.

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Top 10 Books on the History of Medieval Europe


Medieval European history is a vast and ever-growing field, so coming up with a top ten book-list is no small task. To make the job manageable, what follows is a “top ten” of quite a particular kind of book.

To start off with, I’m not including textbooks or popular syntheses. There are of course shelf-loads of these, and many are absolutely brilliant (and have been very influential); but listing them would be an entirely different exercise. So these books are all research monographs, which make original arguments based on the author’s own engagement with the sources.

But they’re not typical academic monographs: they’re books I think A level students (and others) might enjoy as well as profit from, and that don’t require lots of background knowledge. I’m also only including books available in English, which again rules out a great many works.

Finally, this is a very personal list: they’re books that for different reasons, and at different times, have been important for how I think about medieval European history. Every medieval historian would certainly come up with a different set, but these are books that have changed my mind. Perhaps they might change yours…

1. Janet Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: the world system, AD 1250-1350 (1991)
The book traces trade networks promoted by the Mongol empire stretching across Eurasia and which flourished up until the Black Death struck. It may not be the easiest read on this list – but this remarkably bold book was years ahead of its time in showing how global connections mattered, centuries before industrialisation.

2. Robert Bartlett, The Hanged Man. A story of miracle, memory and colonialism in the Middle Ages (2004)
A brilliant piece of detective work, based on accounts of the hanging of a Welsh man named William de Cragh around 1307. This fabulous and evocative piece of microhistory brings out the interconnections between politics, society and religion in medieval society, and does so in stylish prose.

3. Heinrich Fichtenau, Living in the Tenth Century. Mentalities and Social Orders (1991)
This is actually a translation of a book originally written in the Austrian author’s German in 1984. The translation lightened the apparatus, but preserved the freshness of the approach. The book is organised thematically, drawing on contemporary classifications and ways of thinking in medieval Europe’s perhaps most neglected century. It’s guaranteed to make you think differently not just about the tenth century, but about the Middle Ages in general.

4. John Hatcher, The Black Death: an intimate History (2008)
When the eminent economic and social historian John Hatcher retired, he set about writing a book about the Black Death that he’d long wanted to – one where he drew on imagination to fill out his own peerless knowledge of the documentary record for the impact of the Black Death on medieval England. It’s a superb book which combines empirical mastery of the sources with admirable historical sensitivity to fill out what it might have been like to live in a Suffolk village at a momentous, and terrifying, time.

5. Rodney Hilton, Bond Men Made Free. Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381 (1977)
A classic and still unsurpassed study of the famous Peasants Revolt, inspired by the 1960s protests that affected many UK universities, including Hilton’s Birmingham. It’s no wonder that it was re-issued as recently as 2003. There have been plenty of studies on the topic since, but this general overview still definitely repays reading.

6. Maureen Miller, Clothing The Clergy. Virtue and power in Medieval Europe, 800-1200 (2014)
In a beautifully produced, richly illustrated and superbly original piece of scholarship, Miller draws on an unusual kind of evidence – the changing clothing of priests and clerics – to illuminate (and to analyse) enormous shifts in Western European culture, from the soberly dressed origins of Christianity through to the jewel-laden papal monarchy. It’s a medieval history book that I found hard to put down.

7. R.I. Moore, War on Heresy. Faith and Power in Medieval Europe  (2012)
With this book, Moore wanted to write something that might appear in airport bookshops, driving out the Dan Brown-esque nonsense that’s usually to be found there. It’s a book about the way in which a campaign to root out a perceived social problem ironically ended up generating it (a process whose modern parallels Moore does not shy away from). A future classic.

8. Eileen Power, Medieval People (1924)
A book published over 90 years ago in a list made in 2017? But Power’s Medieval People, giving potted biographies of six ordinary(ish) medieval individuals, is still fresh; and it’s no coincidence that it’s been translated into French just in the last few years. I recently set my students one of its chapters (on a Frankish peasant named Bodo), and in an end of year survey, they described it as one of the most memorable things they’d read at university. Find out for yourself (it’s so old, it’s out of copyright!).

9. Jean-Claude Schmitt, Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and Dead in Medieval Society (1999)
Modern society is, generally speaking, uncomfortable with death. But in this wonderful book, originally published in French in 1994, Schmitt shows how people in medieval society thought about matters differently – and how ghosts were essentially a problem of people who refused to be forgotten. A modern must-read of cultural history.

10. Christopher Tyerman, How to Plan A Crusade. Reason and Religious War in the High Middle Ages (2015)
It’s tempting to see the Middle Ages as irrational – and there’s a long tradition of doing exactly that. But in this book, Tyerman shows how reason could often be harnessed towards ends that seem to us deeply unreasonable, in this case holy war. Behind all the ideology was, in fact, a great deal of very practical organisation: and tracking this down shows a very different side to the period.

Charles West lectures in early medieval history at the Department of History at Sheffield. You can follow him Twitter @Pseudo_Isidore.

Image: Medieval text written by Alexander Nequam, 1157-1217, abbot of Cirencester, given to Jesus College [via Flickr]

Our “Best Books” feature asks a historian to recommend the most important books to read in order to get started in their subject area. We think these occasional posts will be of interest to a wide variety of readers, but perhaps especially useful to school teachers and A-level students who are looking for the logical place to start with a new topic. All of these blogs will appear here, as they’re posted.

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Queering Christ’s Wounds and Gender Fluidity in Medieval Manuscripts

side wound

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the (partial) decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, it is an appropriate moment to reflect on parts of queer history that have otherwise been erased or censored. One manner of approaching queer history is to examine the icons of the past through a queer lens. My particular interest is in how Christ’s gender was depicted in late medieval art. I focus on manuscript illuminations in prayer books where Christ’s wound appears to resemble the vulva/labia.

Interpreting these images using queer theory may encourage a more gender-fluid viewing of Christ, who has historically been understood to be hyper-masculine in artistic representation.

Many representations of Christ’s side wound can be found in art, mystical writing and literature in this period, but it is not apparent how a medieval audience would have understood these representations. If medieval viewers had a fluid and complex understanding of gender 1, then it is possible they might have interpreted creative representations of Christ’s body as something that challenges the dominant masculine ideal.

In commonly used medieval prayer-books called Books of Hours there are images of Christ’s wound that float, disembodied, like giant vulvas in the centre of the page. The wound appears vertically in a mandorla shape, undoubtedly signifying as a large vaginal symbol that takes up most of the page. Sometimes these images appear close to, or next to, the prayer for Matins that begins, ‘Domine, labia mea aperies’ (Lord, open my lips).

side wound 2

Wound images would often appear with an encircling inscription stating that this was the ‘true measure’ of Christ’s wound, and that certain indulgences could be granted if it was touched, kissed or prayed to in the instructed way. Images of Christ’s side wound could be rolled up and tied to the body to prevent illness or sudden death. This has led scholars to believe that the veneration of wound images indicated a desire for the granting of indulgences or the promise of preventing pain.

Scholars such as Martha Easton have previously researched the possibility that there was an erotic significance to images of Christ’s wounds in late-medieval culture, acknowledging that the wound often resembles a vulva in these various depictions. There were not only linguistic associations in Latin between the ‘vulnus’ and the ‘vulva’, but symbolic antecedents in visual culture that the medieval viewer could draw upon to read the wound as a vulva.

These disembodied wound images were at times explicitly connected with the vagina. Not only did they resemble the vulva visually: they were used to prevent pains associated with the vagina. Birthing girdles often carried depictions of the side wound and were pressed against women in labour to help with the pain of childbirth. The images could also be pressed against women to help with period pain.

Other kinds of medieval objects indicate that the vulva was often depicted in public. Comparable images from around the 12th century can be seen in sheela-na-gig sculptures. These are figurative carvings of naked women displaying their vulva that are seen on the externals of churches and castles around Great Britain and Ireland.

Vulvae can also be seen on pilgrim badges, which have been found across the Netherlands and the rest of Europe. The production of pilgrim badges flourished in the 14th and 15th centuries, and they form the largest corpus of medieval art objects to survive today. A small amount feature disembodied penises and vulvae going on pilgrimages or playing games. Like the Sheela-na-gig sculptures, scholars have often been baffled by their possible usage and meaning.


Scholars have argued that these images were nothing but a bawdy joke, or a warning not to engage in acts of sexual deviancy. However, explanations such as this display a modern bias and disgust at the open depiction of a woman’s genitals. What if, instead, these representations show that medieval viewers had a comfortable relationship with the body and wished to depict it across a wide spectrum of mediums?

Comparing these images to the shape of Christ’s isolated side wound in Books of Hours, it is arguable that these images destabilise Christ’s gender by drawing the focus on Christ’s body to a prominent bleeding vulva.

There are a variety of medieval accounts of people becoming aroused by images of Christ. Thinking about prayer books in particular, there is evidence that some of these vagina-like images were rubbed or kissed. Some scholars have argued that this kissing and rubbing of a vagina-like wound would have been erotic.

Medieval manuscripts were made of vellum (parchment made of calf skin), and so touching this image painted on skin might have been a very intimate act. 2 As those rubbing or touching these vulva-like images in manuscripts would have been people of all genders, there is a certain queer history to be uncovered in this erotic and sensual encounter with the skin.

Perhaps medieval image-makers and viewers were aware that Christ’s body, as an embodiment of the divine made into flesh, was supposed to represent people of all genders. If so, then the inclusion of vulva-like images embedded in Christ’s body becomes an innovative way of embracing gender-fluidity, where people would be rubbing, kissing and touching a wound/vulva hybrid image in both veneration and possible arousal.

Sophie Sexon is an AHRC funded PhD candidate in her second year at the University of Glasgow.  This year she has presented papers on the queering of Christ’s wound at the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Michigan and the International Medieval Congress in Leeds.  She will be contributing a paper on this subject to a forthcoming volume entitled Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography in 2018. You find Sophie on Twitter @ladymede.

This piece belongs to a series of History Matters blogs by LGBTIQ+ scholars, and about the queer past. As Britain marks the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in July 1967, History Matters is proud to highlight the rich spectrum of work on LGBTIQ+ history in the academy and beyond. All of the blogs will appear here, as they are posted.

Image: Christ’s Side Wound, Psalter of Bonne de Luxembourg, circa 1349 [via WikiCommons]

Image: “The Measure of the Side Wound and the Body of Christ, an Indulgence,” hand-colored woodcut, circa 1484 – 1492 [via WikiCommons]

Image: Kilpeck Sheela Na Gig sculpture [via WikiCommons]


  1. Thomas Laqueur argued in his 1990 volume Making Sex: Body and the Gender from the Greeks to Freud that our two-sex binary model only came into practice from the 18th century onwards. Before this a ‘one-sex model’ prevailed in which the woman was considered an incomplete or malformed man. For more on this theory in application to medieval mystical writing, see Elizabeth Robertson, “Medieval Medical Views of Women and Female Spirituality in the Ancrene Wisse and Julian of Norwich’s Showings,” in Feminist Approaches to the Body in Medieval Literature, eds. Linda Lomperis and Sarah Stanbury (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993). There is also a belief that intersex individuals were recognised in the medieval period and could choose their gender so long as this did not result in sexual deviancy.
  2. Nancy Thebaut argues that this practice allowed the viewer to get closer to the body of Christ, noting that there were widespread analogies comparing Christ’s body to the vellum that made the manuscript.
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‘Where my ancestors lieth’: Community, Rebellion and Roots in a Yorkshire Church


During my research into some of the oldest churches in Yorkshire, I came across a small inscription in the church tower of Aston-cum-Aughton. It begs the reader: ‘do not forget the year of our Lord 1536.’ This is the year that Katherine of Aragon died; Anne Boleyn met her dramatic end; and Henry VIII took a third wife in his quest for a son. But, for the people of this small Yorkshire parish, it would have been remembered most for what would become known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, ‘the most serious of all Tudor rebellions’. 1

The Pilgrimage of Grace, an insurrection that would include 30,000 men throughout Yorkshire and further north, was famously named, and given its purpose, by the charismatic lawyer Robert Aske, whose immediate family was the very same who built this church, whose heraldry accompanies the inscription, and whose family had held links with this small religious community for generations. 2

The Pilgrimage followed a quickly stamped-out but influential Lincolnshire uprising in October 1536, and has divided historians, with possible causes including the first wave of the dissolution of the monasteries; the influence of Thomas Cromwell at Court; increased religious taxes; and poor harvests. 3

It ended, perhaps unsurprisingly, with a failure to resolve any of these grievances, and with bloody suppression – all of the leaders were hanged within months. It was unlikely, then, that any of the Aske family, or the people of Aughton, would forget the events of 1536.

So the inscription in this small Yorkshire church is intriguing – it reminds us, in the twenty-first century, of how the Askes wanted, like their ancestors, to be remembered within the spiritual community, how they wished to demonstrate their piety and their commitment to their parish church, and how their involvement with the Pilgrimage of Grace became fundamental to their family identity.

During my research, undertaken for a History and Archaeology module in partnership with the Church of England here at the University of Sheffield, it became clear the effort and expense that many medieval Yorkshire residents went to in order to be remembered in and by their parish church, physically instilling self-memorialisation. 4

Sixteenth-century wills by the Aske family reveal a conscious preoccupation with being actively remembered through their parish church. John Aske, in November 1543, left the substantial sum of £20 to the church wardens, in order for them to ‘finish the steple [steeple] of the churche of Aughton’. Katherine Hastings, the sister of Robert Aske, in 1506 stressed that she should be buried at Aughton, even though her husband is buried at Norton Priory and her daughter at another Yorkshire church, demonstrating a commitment to her spiritual heritage, rather than her newly formed nuclear family. 5

A late fifteenth-century will by Sir John Aske even more literally asserted the family’s connection to the parish of Aston-cum-Aughton.  Changing the name of Aston to Askton, he deliberately amalgamated and connected his family heritage to that very central local place. Even half a century later, in 1542, the will of a later Robert Aske requested that ‘my bodie to be buried in the quere [choir] of Aughton where my ancestors lieth’, reflecting the same fundamental need to be remembered despite the dramas and upheavals of sixteenth-century Yorkshire.

For the Askes, especially after their involvement in a huge religious and political scandal, these links to the past were all the more vital, revealing a medieval preoccupation with local religious identity as well as national politics. This ability to physically preserve, connect, and solidify one’s spiritual and family heritage was vital for any medieval or early modern family and can be seen across fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Britain.

On Yorkshire Day, then, we can remember this prominent Yorkshire family not only for their famous involvement with ‘the most serious of all Tudor rebellions’, but also as an example of how medieval and early modern people curated and demonstrated their own memories of their heritage and piety through their parish church. By exploring our local churches and their sensational stories and sources, we can build a more vivid picture of the heritage that permanently, physically surrounds us.

Dr Elizabeth Goodwin is a historian of medieval and early modern women religious. She is currently working on emotions, family and the Reformation in the writing of Caritas Pirckheimer, a sixteenth-century German nun. You can find her on Twitter @ElizMGoodwin.

Image: Fred Kirk Shaw, The Pilgrimage of Grace (1913) [via Wikicommons]


  1. Claire Cross, ‘Participants in the Pilgrimage of Grace’, Oxford DNB
  2. As Aske wrote in the Pilgrim’s Oath, issued after the rebels entered York: ‘Ye shall not enter into this our Pilgrimage of Grace for the commonwealth, but only for the love that ye do bear unto Almighty God his faith, and to Holy Church militant and the maintenance thereof; to the preservation of the King’s person and his issue, to the purifying of the nobility, and to expulse all villein blood and evil councillors against the commonwealth.’
  3. Though the Pilgrimage of Grace is a term used often to refer to all the northern uprisings, including the initial Lincolnshire one, the term technically only refers to the mass protest taken on in Yorkshire under the lead of Robert Aske. See Hoyle, The Pilgrimage of Grace and the Politics of the 1530s (Oxford, 2001) for a full and fascinating explanation.
  4. Research kindly funded by Arts Enterprise Small Grants, The University of Sheffield, for the development of a joint MA module between History and Archaeology, to be led by Dr Eliza Hartrich, Dr Charles West and Dr Hugh Willmott.
  5. Another of 1529 requested, after his burial in Aughton, that ‘stones be laide of [my] brother, and another of my father and mother, and on after of my sister Hastinges’, to solidify their remembered place within the centre of their religious community.
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How the Bible shapes contemporary attitudes to rape and sexual assault

Content warning: this post discusses rape and sexual violence.

A retiring judge recently faced accusations of victim blaming when she used her final courtroom case as a plea to women to “protect themselves” from rapists by staying sober. Judge Lindsey Kushner restated these views in a television interview on Good Morning Britain, asking, “why shouldn’t you say – be aware ladies?”

Kushner’s comments were met with a mixed response. Some praised her for using her final speech before stepping down from the bench as a gesture of concern and warning to women who, she believes, make themselves more vulnerable to rape after consuming alcohol. Others, including representatives from Rape Crisis and some feminist activists, see these comments as acutely dangerous – comments that encourage and affirm attitudes of victim-blaming which, in turn, perpetuate the stereotypes that underpin rape culture. Unfortunately, Kushner is far from the only judge in a sexual assault case to comment on the “irresponsible” or “provocative” behaviour of women and girls.

As a deeply influential cultural document, the Bible has a lot to say when it comes to attitudes around sex, shame and gender identity. Rape is endemic in the Bible (both literally and metaphorically) and, more often than not, functions as a conduit for male competition and a tool to uphold patriarchy.

For example, David’s rape of Bathsheba is echoed in his son Amnon’s rape of half-sister Tamar, and his son Absalom’s rape of David’s ten concubines. And in Judges 21, the Benjaminites are “saved from extinction” through the mass rape of women from Jabesh-gilead and Shiloh.

A common thread in the biblical text is that women are responsible for maintaining their sexual “purity”. This is not in the interests of their own well-being, but to ensure that as male property, women remain “undamaged”. This seems to be a no-win situation. The consequence for Dinah, who transgresses social boundaries by going “out to meet the women of the land”, is rape. Women who do fulfil feminine ideals, such as Bathsheba, who is described as “very beautiful”, tend to attract negative, often violent, male sexual attention. In other words, one way or another, women are constantly implicitly blamed, both in the Bible and in contemporary culture, for their rape.

A case in point is another “very beautiful” biblical woman, Susanna. Susanna is the subject of an attempted rape by two elders, who spy on her while she’s bathing before conspiring to coerce her into sex:

“Look the garden doors are shut, and no one can see us. We are burning with desire for you; so give your consent, and lie with us. If you refuse, we will testify against you that a young man was with you, and this was why you sent your maids away.”

In the biblical text, Susanna’s beauty is to blame for attracting the attentions of the elders. In a plotline that’s echoed in today’s court rooms, Susanna’s testimony isn’t believed and her sexual conduct is brought into question. It takes a man, Daniel, to advocate for her and to rescue her from execution after she refuses the elders’ offer.

In his successful defence of her and condemnation of the elders, Daniel says: “Beauty has beguiled you and lust has perverted your heart.” Here, as so often in contemporary society, rape and sexual assault are linked to the attractiveness of women rather than a violent crime of power and control. Even in art, Susanna is implicitly blamed for being targeted. As the critic John Berger has observed, Susanna, like Bathsheba, is often depicted looking at herself in a mirror while she’s bathing:

“The mirror was often used as a symbol of the vanity of woman. The moralising, however, was mostly hypocritical. You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.”

Kushner’s words continue this not-so-grand tradition of victim blaming. Kushner suggests that women who do not exhibit “disinhibited behaviour” by abstaining from alcohol are better able to fight off men with “evil intentions”. What is key here is that moderating women’s behaviour does not do anything to address the issue of rape or dismantle rape culture. It just shifts the collective social responsibility to prevent rape and sexual assault to that of individual women.

Women who do not agree to self-police are blamed for others’ actions. What Kushner is giving isn’t “just advice” or “common sense”; it reduces rape to a choice: choose for someone else to be targeted for attack rather than yourself. Rather than continuing to judge women for their behaviour, perhaps it’s time we started to judge a society that blames women for rape.

Katie Edwards is Director of the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS) and Senior Lecturer in the School of English at the University of Sheffield. Her research focuses on the function, impact and influence of the Bible in contemporary culture. You can find Katie on Twitter @KatieBEdwards.

Emma Nagouse is an incoming PhD student in SIIBS researching rape culture in the Bible and contemporary society, with a specific focus on the construction of intersectional gender identities. This research is part of the SIIBS research theme The Shiloh Project. You can find Emma on Twitter @ejnagouse

Read more blogs about religion and rape culture here.

Header Image: David seducing Bathsheba, Anonymous [via Wikicommons].

Image: Susanna and the Elders, Tintoretto [via Wikicommons].

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Sex, Rape and Social History – The Case of the Bible

Content warning: this post discusses rape and sexual violence.

One does not have to look far to find indications of the normalization of sexual violence (a phenomenon known as rape culture) in news articles, pop culture or, indeed, the Bible.

Recent press coverage of Adam Johnson, the ‘Rape Clause’, and responses to rape storylines in Broadchurch and Emmerdale are but a handful of instances demonstrating the complex attitudes bound up in public understandings of rape. Can the Bible – given its considerable influence on Western culture – contribute to the discussion? And if so, how? The new Shiloh Project, which I co-direct with Katie Edwards and Caroline Blyth, seeks to answer that very question.

The Bible is of limited value for reconstructing specific events of the past. For the social historian, however, the Bible holds more promise. When it comes to social values, attitudes and laws concerning sex, the Bible has undeniably had tremendous influence.

For example, one biblical commentator claims that the biblical incest laws ‘have had greater effect on Western law than any comparable body of biblical laws’. 1 The kinship and marriage laws (known as consanguinity and affinity laws), which were used in Christian Europe over centuries, were directly derived from biblical incest laws. 2 They were also used rather fluidly. In the twelfth century, Eleanor of Aquitaine’s marriage to Louis VII of France was annulled (following the birth of two daughters and no sons) on the grounds of a blood relationship in the fourth degree. Next, however, Eleanor married Henry (who would become Henry II of England): her cousin in the third degree!

The rape laws and narratives of the Bible also hold out promise for explorations of attitudes to rape throughout history. Male-male rape is threatened twice (Genesis 19 and Judges 19) and in both cases the rapists are invited to violate women instead – with the implication that rape of a woman is less abhorrent and less ‘wrong’ than the rape of a man.

In Judges 19, one of the most horrendous narratives of the entire Bible, a nameless woman, the wife of a Levite, is cast out to a group of thugs and gang-raped all night. Her body is dismembered and its parts sent to the tribes of Israel. This leads to a war, which leads to the exclusion of a tribe, which leads to more rape: because seizing a group of women for wives is deemed preferable to the extinction of a tribe.

The Bible is not for the squeamish. There are many more examples of biblical rape texts. King David ‘takes’ Bathsheba, the woman he sees bathing – and (in spite of the romanticised retellings in film versions) the likeliest scenario is that she was not asked for her consent and raped. 3 King David’s son Amnon rapes Tamar, who is his half-sister. Jacob’s daughter Dinah (whose tale is another often portrayed in pop culture as one of romance) is raped by a local prince.

Often the rape of women in the Bible is depicted in cavalier ways. Abraham offers his wife Sarah to the king of Egypt and to Abimelech of Gerar . Sarah hands Hagar to Abraham as a surrogate child-bearer and Jacob’s wives Leah and Rachel do the same with their maidservants, Bilhah and Zilpah. No words identify such actions as trafficking or rape.

The Biblical legal texts prescribe that if an engaged woman is raped in an urban area, she and the rapist shall both be killed – because she should have screamed for help and (tellingly) because the rights of another man (i.e. the man to whom she was engaged) have been violated.

If the rape occurred in the countryside, however, only the man is executed – because the woman may have screamed and not been heard. By implication raped women are ‘damaged goods’ and potentially co-responsible for their violation. A phenomenon known as ‘victim-blaming’ is something we regularly see played out in contemporary media accounts of rape.

In cases where a raped woman was not engaged, a fine must be paid to her father and the rapist must marry the raped woman, with no possibility of divorce. It is clear that notions of female autonomy and consent are barely present in the Bible and that rape is often a matter of male ownership and competition. This is something we have recently seen in news coverage regarding Article 308 in Jordan which would have allowed rapists to avoid jail by marrying their victims.

Religions play a significant part in both confronting and perpetuating the myths and misperceptions that lie at the heart of rape cultures. As such, it is essential that we begin to consider how religion can both participate in and contest rape culture discourses and practices.

The Shiloh Project, a joint initiative between the universities of Sheffield, Leeds and Auckland, is a new research centre which seeks to explore rape in the Bible and also its reception, resonance and afterlives in contemporary settings. The Shiloh Project is named after the women of Shiloh who are seized for rape marriage as a ‘solution’ to prevent the extermination of the tribe of Benjamin. This is a particularly poignant story in the light of the abduction of the girls of Chibok by Boko Haram. Please do join us at the launch of The Shiloh Project on May 8th where we will discuss this research and the transformative potential of its outcomes.

Johanna Stiebert is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of Leeds. Her main research interests in the Hebrew Bible focus on self-conscious emotion terminology, ideological-critical readings of prophetic literature, African-centred interpretation, sexuality, and family dynamics. Johanna is co-director of The Shiloh Project and a member of SIIBS. Her latest book is First-Degree Incest and the Hebrew Bible: Sex in the Family (Bloomsbury T&T Clark: London, 2016).

Header image: The Levite of Ephraim and His Dead Wife. Jean-Jacques Henner circa 1898 [via Wikicommons].


  1. Calum M. Carmichael, Law, Legend and Incest in the Bible: Leviticus 18–20 (Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press, 1997), p.1.
  2. For a full treatment of incest in the Bible, see Johanna Stiebert, First-Degree Incest and the Hebrew Bible: Sex in the Family, Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 596 (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2016).
  3. Biblical scholar David J. A. Clines puts it well when he states, ‘the sex is essentially an expression of royal power, and it is much more like rape than love’ (in his Interested Parties: The Ideology of Writers and Readers of the Hebrew Bible, JSOTSup 205; Gender, Culture, Theory 1 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), p.226.
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