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Must “the wife of the Lamb” be a Ewe?

June 25, 2014

N. T. Wright has suggested that Heaven marries Earth, that Adam marries Eve, that Christ marries the Church, that this is always and only Nature’s design: the male husband marries the female wife. And so he looks to the prophecies in the NT book of Revelation.

But in Revelation 19:7 and in Revelation 21:9, must “the wife of the Lamb” be a City? Or the Church? Or a Ewe?

If the sex must be different, then must the species also be different?

Below are a few quotations of Sr. Carolyn Osiek, writing to discuss the problems with the male-female marriage metaphor in the NT –


There are other biblical metaphors that have never attained the status or power that this one carries. It conveys the power it does, not only because it taps into the primal human energy of sexuality, but also because it serves certain interests that are closely related to the confusing ambiguity we experience between the desire for connection and the desire to control.
–Carolyn Osiek
It does no good to affirm the full dignity and equality of women with men if our language, our imagery, and our metaphors continue to perpetuate inequality.
–Carolyn Osiek

[N]early all the Hellenistic discussions of household management, beginning with Aristotle, address only one person, the male authority figure (paterfamilias) who must relate differently but always in a superior manner to wife, children, and slaves….  Since Aristotle, the basic types of … analogies have been simile and metaphor….  Metaphor is a more implicit comparison made by direct statement that one thing is another. As Aristotle puts it, when A is to B as C is to D, it is a metaphor to say A is C, or vice versa (POETICS 21.11-12).
–Carolyn Osiek

The spousal metaphor has been a primary one throughout the development of ecclesiology. I need not and cannot document this development. Like any metaphor, it is sometimes carried too far…. One theologian argues on the basis of a social meaning of the Hebrew word basar (flesh, body) that the reference is not only to one’s personal body, but also ancestors, descendants, and particularly, one’s spouse. Thus the husband is considered to have two bodies, his own and that of his wife. Likewise, the wife has two heads, her own and that of her husband. This is supposed to reveal the distinction and the union of Christ and his church….  Since Mary is portrayed as mother of Jesus in the Second Testament and in subsequent theology and devotion, she is also portrayed as mother of the church, or perhaps more accurately, she should have been seen as its mother-in-law. But Mary has also been frequently seen as symbol or representative, a sort of first citizen, of the church. This blurs the distinctions. Thus there has been considerable symbolic slippage between her role as mother and her representation of the church in a spousal relationship to Christ.
–Carolyn Osiek

As you read this little blog post, would you do something?  Would you be brave enough to notice your reading strategies and slippages?  One of my mentors has thought about hers.  And so I’d like us let her help us again with ours.  I’m just interested in how our affirmations, on the one hand, may not always keep up with “our language, our imagery, and our metaphors.”   Just a couple of more items to go.  This is profound stuff, the relationships between what we think, what we say, and what we do.  If you’re a man, a Christian man, a Bible-reading Christian man, then you’ll probably have to think harder than everybody else.  We’re reading now (as with the four epigraphs above) from “The Bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:22-33): a problematic wedding,” in Biblical Theology Bulletin 32.1 (Spring 2002), researched and written by Dr. Osiek.  What do you think?:
Male interests predominate in our reading strategies. The implied reader is usually male or represents male interests. This is clear in the case of the history of interpretation of our text from Ephesians. I do not know of any instances in which male readers have deduced from it that as members of the church, which is submissive to Christ, her bridegroom, they should be submissive to their marriage partners. Nor do men generally, on the basis of this metaphor, image themselves as feminine in relation to God, which is the logical conclusion of the marital metaphor. Some older spirituality in English spoke of the soul as “she,” more under the influence of feminine words for soul in Latin and French than anything else, but also perhaps influenced by the marriage metaphor. Likewise, Caroline Bynum calls our attention in her essays on Jesus as Mother to the influence of the submission theme in medieval monasticism: becoming symbolically female meant both the humbling of the self and the assumption of a compassionate attitude toward others (Bynum: 110-69). Here the stereotype of the stern father and the compassionate mother strikes again, to the detriment of fatherhood as well as motherhood, and the stereotype of the dominant male taking on female characteristics by becoming humble belittles the dignity of women. 

Both men and women do, however, make the connection that the ecclesial marriage metaphor means that women as members of the church should be submissive, however troublesome that realization may be, and whether they accept or reject it. Men certainly do identify not with the church in this metaphor, as members of it, but with Christ, because such identifications suit male interests. Herein lies the great danger posed by this ecclesiological metaphor: it encourages men to identify with Christ, women with the church. As everyone knows who teaches or ministers, for most people the line between Christ and God is very thin. As long as the marriage metaphor is in play, gender symbolism is fixed. Men will, even unconsciously, identify with Christ and women with the church, and feminine imagery for God or Christ then has no place. Then God is the ultimate male.

The above is a reposting from And for full disclosure, Dr. Osiek is one of my own teachers, and she advised me through my dissertation project.

UPDATE: If the link to the article above ( ) does not work, then please feel free to request a reprint of it or to subscribe to the journal or to find the essay in your university or local library. There are some important arguments made, such as this –

I would argue that casting the church as feminine, and above all as bride of Christ, far from enhancing the dignity of women, has in fact done harm to perception of the capacity of women to image the divine, and thus of women’s fundamental human and Christian dignity.

and this –

The “head” analogy for a leader of an army, a city, or some other social grouping was already established and quite common [by the time Paul wrote what he wrote]. What is less obvious in the sources is how “head” came to mean authority of one person over one other person as it does here [in male-female marriage, in Paul’s writing], and how “body” could support the meaning of a subordinate yet free individual person. (Slaves were sometimes depersonalized by being referred to legally in Greek as somata, bodies, but a reference to a specific individual slave by this term is unlikely.) These are precisely the points of greatest tension in the simile of this passage. The dissonance of the headship of one person over another occurs previously in 1 Corinthians 11:3, where Christ is the head (kephale) of man, man of woman, and God of Christ. But it was not a well-established metaphor in its day. How is Christ head of the man in 1 Corinthians 11:3, and of the church here? Not as military or political leader, but in a new way here, as savior ([Ephesians] 5:23). Bracket for a moment the accumulation of theological, eschatological, and individualist meaning attributed to the title “savior.” In the first century a savior was one who healed of disease and restored to community; one who protected the weak from the oppression of the strong; a military hero and ruler who was responsible to keep his people from harm. In this last sense a savior could also be head, and in a collective sense, head of the social body. But for an individual man to be head of an individual woman is a very new application of the metaphor of headship.

The comparison of wife to body is more shocking. There is nothing immediately obvious even about the similarity of wife to church, except that wives make up some of the members of the church. But so do husbands. Only by extrapolating from biological to ecclesiological functions can we begin to see some figurative similarities: wives become mothers who produce children, etc., and the
church can be figuratively personified with a somewhat similar role. But there are other more subconscious similarities that produce this metaphor: the ideal shy, pure, therefore inexperienced, virgin bride who submits her body to the waiting bridegroom and is reserved for his pleasure alone, for him to initiate her into the joy of sex in whatever way he would like. I do not mean to titillate, but I think all of these undertones are there, especially in the highly unusual suggestion that the bridegroom is the agent of the bride’s prenuptial bath and purity inspection. The
metaphor comes close to asserting that female biology is destiny. However, it is typical of the kind of projections of the feminine that are based solely on women’s sexual status in the male world: virgin, mother, or whore.

We have seen that the background metaphor to the simile of wife:husband::church:Christ is that of head as leader. The foreground metaphor is the application of the sacred marriage. It is quite an irony that the historical Jesus, of whose celibacy so much has been made in Christian history, has been transformed into the glorified Christ who is bridegroom ready for the bridal chamber, preparing to be a faithful and self sacrificing husband! Yet that seems not to have stopped the continuing power of the metaphor. “It’s only symbolic,” we say. Yet there are other elements of the metaphor that are taken with complete seriousness, like the need to conform gender symbolism in eucharistic presidency to reflect the sacred marriage of Christ and the church.


17 Comments leave one →
  1. June 25, 2014 3:36 pm

    I really like Osiek’s analysis. One detail though –

    “The “head” analogy for a leader of an army, a city, or some other social grouping was already established and quite common [by the time Paul wrote what he wrote]. ”

    This isn’t accurate. Kephale was not used to refer to a leader in Greek except in one unusual context. Jephthah. All other leaders were called leaders using the usual Greek words for leader – not kephale. How could she say “quite common.”

  2. June 25, 2014 4:18 pm

    What an important quibble! Let me ask Prof. Osiek what she means by that.

    Could she be referring the head analogy for a leader (i.e., of an army, a city, or some other group) in the Roman empire in general? Of course, in the Latin corpus there already was “caput” for “ductu auspicioque” or “head” on a body for “leadership” of group. The Roman citizen, Paul, may not have been a reader of Latin and may not have had access to the texts; and yet there is the culture where the “head analogy” in the imperial language is encoded.

    [I’m the one who puts Paul here – writing in Greek – to try to clarify some of the inferences in the context of her article.]

    In Cicero, for example, there’s a joke he tells in De Oratore that puns on the “head”:

    Ex ambiguo dicta vel argutissima putantur, sed non semper in ioco, saepe etiam in gravitate versantur. Africano illi superiori coronam sibi in convivio ad caput accommodanti, cum ea saepius rumperetur, P. Licinius Varus “noli mirari,” inquit “si non convenit, caput enim magnum est”: et laudabile et honestum; at ex eodem genere est “Calvo satis est, quod dicit parum.” Ne multa: nullum genus est ioci, quo non ex eodem severa et gravia sumantur.

    And English translator E. W. Sutton gives the footnote to explain the two meanings, one the head of a body politic.

    And in Cicero’s work For Flaccus, he writes of the head of the Greeks, Heraclides of Temnos, as if this one is a leader:

    caput est omnium Graecorum concitandorum, qui cum accusatoribus sedet, Heraclides ille Temnites, homo ineptus et loquax, sed, ut sibi videtur, ita doctus ut etiam magistrum illorum se esse dicat. at, qui ita sit ambitiosus ut omnis vos nosque cotidie persalutet, Temni usque ad illam aetatem in senatum venire non potuit et, qui se artem dicendi traditurum etiam ceteris profiteatur, ipse omnibus turpissimis iudiciis victus est.

    And much later than Cicero, perhaps overlapping with the time of Jesus and Paul maybe was the Roman historian Livy (Titus Livius), who writes in The History of Rome:

    At Veii there was a steady accession of strength as well as courage. [4] Not only were the Romans who had been dispersed by the defeat and the capture of the City gathering there, but volunteers from Latium also flocked to the place that they might be in for a share of the booty. The time now seemed ripe for the recovery of their native City out of the hands of the enemy. But though the body [corpori] was strong it lacked a head [caput]. [5] The very place reminded men of Camillus, the majority of the soldiers had fought successfully under his auspices and leadership [ductu auspicioque], and Caedicius declared that he would give neither gods nor men any pretext for terminating his command; [6] he would rather himself, remembering his subordinate rank, ask for a commander-in-chief.

  3. June 25, 2014 6:37 pm

    Yes, of corse, rosh and caput are leaders. Le chef is the leader, la tete is not, haupt is a leader and kopf is not.

    In the LXX in Job 1:7, kephale is use in its technical sense, as a raiding party. Except for Jephthah, all other leaders are called archwn, or hegemon or some such Greek title. In the NT. the head of a household was called a despotes, not a kephale. That turns up post Paul.

  4. June 25, 2014 6:39 pm

    I think everything else Osiek says is incredibly useful and explains a lot to me, but she doesn’t need to concede kephale.

  5. June 25, 2014 7:05 pm

    Agreed on all points! There’s no need to concede kephale to some metaphor in Paul’s time meaning leader of an army or anything like that.

    And the very important thing Osiek does stress is this:

    But it was not a well-established metaphor in its day…. But for an individual man to be head of an individual woman is a very new application of the metaphor of headship.


    Thus the husband is considered to have two bodies, his own and that of his wife. Likewise, the wife has two heads, her own and that of her husband.

    That was a peculiarity, an oddity, something strange to say in the day.

    It’s sort of like saying,

    You will Marry the virgin-like unblemished Baby-Sheep, (which is a little Ram, of course, because his maleness matters in a real Big way) your absolute polar opposite (sexually), and therefore your perfect complement, since that is what Marriage is (not what it is not).

    There’s something odd, monstrous, and unnatural in such Nature.

  6. June 25, 2014 8:10 pm

    Identifying as a nursing father, I ask, Is ‘male and female’ more than we imagine? When I first re-d this post this morning, I began a response like this:

    This says to me that identifying as male or female in the bridal aspect of the church is dangerous.

    If I as dominant male identify as female, then I am recognizing a difference that I should not be recognizing so I am lost. If I identify as male with the Anointed, then I am perpetuating an unequal relationship – as in Psalm 45 – worship him, he is your Lord.

    OTOH – if I identify with the bride then I am in the position of having been desired greatly by the groom (Ps 45:11 again) and the result is good. And if I identify with the one who so desires us (James 4:5 – and how would you translate that: ἢ δοκεῖτε ὅτι κενῶς ἡ γραφὴ λέγει Πρὸς φθόνον ἐπιποθεῖ τὸ πνεῦμα ὃ κατῴκησεν ἐν ἡμῖν) then I am putting myself out of place for it is not ‘in the Anointed’ or ‘in the Spirit’ that I exercise such inordinate desire.

    So I want to respect both the male and the female in me (in anyone). How can I then reduce these categories to a matter of physical form? Unless of course I just want to make additional copies of the human genome. Today we need a male and a female to do such procreation. (That may not always be the case.)

    I would add that I do not want to reduce this mysterious relationship to a theory. That would be as bad as singing the Song in a tavern.

  7. June 25, 2014 8:11 pm

    PS – love the images – sheep without a shepherd!

  8. June 25, 2014 9:45 pm

    Just thought I’d point to something I’ve written before on the Bride of Christ imagery. Taking a feminist look at the metaphor and centering the agency and perspective of the bride makes quite a difference.

  9. June 26, 2014 3:16 am

    The male imagery also comes from the sowing metaphor. The seed is the word, the word is sown in us, and Christ is formed in us (Galatians 4:19). Thus we are bearing this ‘conception’ as a woman bears a child. But perhaps this should be seen corporately as the church is formed into the ‘perfect man’ (Ephesians 4:13) – ‘man’ here is presumably ‘human’. It has been a long time since I have proof-texted in the NT 🙂

  10. June 26, 2014 7:01 am

    Bob, Thanks for your various musings around the metaphors. The ancient Greeks believed the female had seed albeit, according to patriarchal and sexist scientists, it was nothing like the male seed. Nancy Tuana does a fine job of summarizing the views as does Sister Prudence Allen..

    Victoria, Thanks for your article, which concludes “In a feminist reading, the Bride of Christ is seen as an ardent woman who loves, desires, and reaches for her Spouse.” How would a feminist reading so described compare with N. T. Wright’s perspective? And how different is what Carolyn Osiek rather insists?

  11. June 26, 2014 8:26 am


    The perfect man is the aner teleios, the complete or mature adult. Aner means man, the male, or adult, or citizen, the responsible adult. It came to mean exclusively male, but always a Christian women was to be andreia also. The woman must become a perfect male in virtue because in Greek universal human virtues belonged to the male.

  12. June 27, 2014 12:45 am

    Male interests predominate in our reading strategies. The implied reader is usually male …

    This line of Dr. Osiek’s sums up what I noticed about the traditional reading of the Bride of Christ metaphor. In the traditional reading, we “see” the Bride from the perspective of the groom, or from the perspective of some mythical neutral observer: and so she looks passive, shy, desirable, what-have-you. She is the object of the groom’s desire.

    Whereas, if in our reading strategy, we inhabit the Bride — which surely should be the perspective from which we Christians ought to read this metaphor! — then we naturally center her agency. She becomes the subject instead of the object, and the imagery turns 180 degrees around as our perspective shifts.

  13. krwordgazer permalink
    June 27, 2014 1:01 am

    Good point, Victoria!


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