Although the Bible is largely a product of the male-dominated societies of ancient Israel and the first-century C.E. Roman world, some of its most fascinating, evocative and inspiring characters are women. BAS editors have compiled a special collection of articles from Bible Review on various women in the Bible, from Esther and Judith to Mary Magdalene, who helped shape Biblical history and the message of the scriptures.

Scroll down to read a summary of these articles.


Fertile mother, wilderness demon, sly seductress—the resilient character Lilith has been recast in many roles. Who is Lilith? As Janet Howe Gaines writes in Bible Review, “In most manifestations of her myth, Lilith represents chaos, seduction and ungodliness. Yet, in her every guise, Lilith has cast a spell on humankind.” Follow Lilith’s journey from Babylonian mythology, through the Bible, to medieval lore and modern literature in “Lilith: Seductress, Heroine or Murderer?”

If you think you know who Mary Magdalene was, chances are you’re wrong. She was not the “woman in the city who was a sinner” (Luke 7:37). Nor was she the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 7:53–8:11), nor the Samaritan woman said to have five husbands and to be living with a man not her husband (John 4:8–29). She was actually a leading participant in some of the principal events of Christian faith and possibly a source of apostolic authority for women. In “How Mary Magdalene Became a Whore,” Jane Schaberg redresses a longstanding slander and restores the Magdalene to her rightful place of dignity in Biblical history.

The name Jezebel conjures images of villainy and lewdness. But despite her bad reputation, her marriage to King Ahab was actually a model partnership. It’s not as perverse as it might initially sound, says Mary Joan Winn Leith in “First Lady Jezebel.”

Twice in the Book of Exodus, Moses’ life is spared by the quick thinking of women. And yet, from Moses’ time on, the bravery of these and other women of the Exodus has largely been forgotten. Recovering the implied story behind the Biblical text, Tikva Frymer-Kensky retrieves these heroic women from the shadows in “Forgotten Heroines of the Exodus.”

One of the few differences between the beautiful and brave heroines Judith and Esther is that Judith is openly pious and Esther is not. So why was the Book of Esther included in the Hebrew Bible while Judith was left out? Sidnie White Crawford explores this question in “Esther Not Judith.”

Though their story is confined to portions of a mere seven chapters in Genesis, there are few Biblical characters more vivid than Leah and Rachel. What reader of the Bible can forget the substitution of Leah for Rachel on Jacob’s wedding night? Who is not familiar with the 12 sons borne by these two matriarchs and their concubines—the 12 sons who were to spawn the 12 tribes of Israel? Samuel Dresner examines each woman’s actions—especially their naming of their children—and mines the rich vein of rabbinic commentary and Christian art devoted to these two pivotal figures in “Rachel and Leah.”

A late-second-century apocryphal text tells of a woman who defied society to follow the apostle Paul. In the succeeding centuries, her fame extended from Asia Minor to the eastern borders of the church, to the sands of Egypt and into Europe. As described in “Thecla: The Apostle Who Defied Women’s Destiny” by David R. Cartlidge, Thecla’s story provides valuable insights into the role of women in early Christianity, as well as the challenges a female apostle faced in the Greco-Roman world.


How Mary Magdalene Became a Whore
Bible Review, October 1992 By Jane Schaberg

Mention the name Mary Magdalene and most people will free-associate the word “whore,” albeit the repentant whore whose love for Jesus led him to forgive her. In Jesus Christ—Superstar, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Timothy Rice’s 1970s musical, she is depicted as a prostitute platonically in love with Jesus, not having a sexual affair with […]

Forgotten Heroines of the Exodus
Bible Review, December 1997 By Tikva Frymer-Kensky

The beginning of the Book of Exodus introduces us to a world of men’s affairs. Jacob and his descendants, numbering 70 men and their families, come down to Egypt. The men are named and counted; their wives and daughters remain anonymous. The tale then unfolds: A new king arises who, unaware of Joseph, is […]

Esther Not Judith
Bible Review, February 2002 By Sidnie White Crawford

Brave, wise and stunningly beautiful, Esther and Judith have much in common. Both Jewish heroines live under foreign domination. Both risk their lives to save their people from oppression. One of the few differences between the two women is that Judith is openly pious and Esther is not. Indeed, God is not even mentioned […]

Rachel and Leah
Bible Review, April 1990 By Samuel Dresner

Familial tension in the Bible is typically sibling rivalry, rather than Oedipal conflict. We are hard put to find examples of a struggle between parents and children in Genesis, although the popularity of the Greek myth would lead us to expect to find this as the prototype for all family stress. Instead, Scripture offers […]

Thecla: The Apostle Who Defied Women’s Destiny
Bible Review, December 2004 By David R. Cartlidge

Who was Thecla? Little known today, especially in Protestant churches, Thecla of Iconium enjoyed fame perhaps second only to Mary, mother of Jesus, in the early Christian era. Thecla’s anonymity is all the more remarkable because women were so prominent in the formation of the church. The Gospels mention women who accompanied Jesus and […]

Bible Review, October 2001 By Janet Howe Gaines

For 4,000 years Lilith has wandered the earth, figuring in the mythic imaginations of writers, artists and poets. Her dark origins lie in Babylonian demonology, where amulets and incantations were used to counter the sinister powers of this winged spirit who preyed on pregnant women and infants. Lilith next migrated to the world of […]


First Lady Jezebel
Bible Review, August 2004 By Mary Joan Winn Leith

Marriage and what the Bible has to say about it have been hot topics in the news lately. The Bible is full of marriages, certainly, but one should exercise caution in reading it as a source of guidance for modern partnerships, or as a source of wisdom about relations between spouses in the post-wedding […]