Bread is full of goodness because a woman put it there

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

What is the significance of the woman in the leaven parable (see earlier post)? Many theologists ask if she is incidental or essential? Most of them see her role as being incidental as traditionally, men’s work was sowing and harvesting, whereas making bread was mainly seen as a woman’s work. However if she was incidental why mention her at all? Jesus could have merely said the leaven was placed in the meal without saying who put it there.

The Bible often uses the figure of a woman to represent kingdoms or cities:

The two women represent to covenants. The one whose children are born in slavery is Hagar, and she represents the covenant made at Mount Sinai. Hagar, who stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia, is the figure of the present city of Jerusalem, in slavery with all its people. But the heavenly Jerusalem is free, and she is our mother.
[Gal. 4.26]

In this way, women in the Bible can represent authority and management, especially in the role of hospitality. The Church is often spoken of as a mother and Catholics often refers to Mother Church. When  women are spoken of in a matriarchal role they are granted great responsibility. For instance, the Virgin Mary was entrusted with giving birth to the messiah. Therefore, the woman may have been trusted to place the leaven in the meal as she was perceived as being caring and conscientiousness. If the leaven represents Christianity, it appears that she has been entrusted with it.

Madonna with the Yarnwinder. Da Vinci, c1510

In practice though women were not often given roles of responsibility. There were no women among the twelve disciples or among the seventy that were commissioned and sent forth:

Take the teachings that you heard me proclaim in the presence of many witnesses, and entrust them with reliable people, who will be able to teach others.
[2 Tim.  2.2]

Perhaps because the commissioning was partly undertaken by Paul the Apostle who did not consider women to be trusted with teaching or matters arising in the church:

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
[1Cor. 14.34-35]

So privately women seemed to be held in high regard but publicly they were forced to be silent and not given the same privileges as men. Therefore, if making the bread is considered a domestic and caring role, then the woman could be trusted to place good leaven in the meal.

Women in the Bible are often denoted as being the source of corruption. For instance, Eve was persuaded by the serpent into eating fruit from the tree of knowledge. As a consequence of this the Lord punishes  Adam for listening to her but he also punishes Eve with the pain of childbirth and subordination to men.

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, 1500’s

The action of the women in the parable may be symbolic. She hid the leaven in the meal. If the leaven in this parable is associated with something good she would not need to hide it. This could suggest that if the woman was conveying positive doctrines she would boldly speak out. Jesus himself spoke openly unto the world, and his followers perhaps were expected to do the same. He said to them, “Go throughout the whole world and preach the gospel to all mankind.” It is therefore supposed that secret hiding and the spreading of false doctrine are in some way linked. In contrast to the positive message this parable first appears to be conveying some theologians believe that the woman represents a false messenger, her objective is to introduce a corrupting element into the meal. On the other hand, Jesus was condemned for his teachings therefore perhaps he is suggesting that his followers spread his message in a concealed way so they do not endure a similar persecution.  As previously mentioned, woman were discouraged  from speaking in the church or in teaching  men, so perhaps Jesus is suggesting that women should ignore these restrictions and take a more prominent role in spreading the word of the gospels.

…are women under represented in the history of yeast research because they don’t drink enough beer?

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

Now, in the 21st cent, there are about 30 yeast factories in the European Union consuming about a million tons of cane molasses per annum. European yeast production alone generates an annual turnover of 800 million Euros. Until the turn of the 19th century yeast was supplied in a liquid form very similar to that found at the bottom of beer barrels. Perhaps, in a similar way to  how bread was made in early Egyptian civilisation from fermenting beer. Pliny the Elder noted in the first century BC that Gallic and Iberian bread was particularly light because it had been made with froth from the top of beer.

There are now several forms of yeast, compressed, crumbled and active/instant dried and genetically modified. The task of baking and brewing in earlier civilisations would have been difficult without the knowledge of sterilisation and pasteurisation. In ancient times, leaven or sourdough would have been left to rise in considerably unsterile conditions in a warm temperature. This environment would have been optimal not only for yeast but for all kinds of microbial growth including those that were pathogenic to humans. It is not surprising that leaven was associated with impurity and corruption. Excessive contamination would have certainly contributed to disease.

The desired characteristics of the yeast strain used in brewing and baking are different although they use the same species Saccharomyces cervisiae, which is also known as bakers or brewers yeast. Brewing yeast needs to have an agreeable flavour and an ability to flocculate so that the wort can settle quickly to achieve clear beer. In order to achieve these characteristics yeast are selected through generations, so that a specific yeast strain produces a desired flavour. In Darwinian terms this would be known  as directional selection.  So the variety of yeast varies with a particular industrial use. For instance, pizza dough is made with reduced power dry active yeast. Its slow fermentation allows the pizza to be shaped with reduced shrinkage after baking. Most commonly yeast for the baking industry is supplied as a compressed block because this form has a longer shelf life. Just 2.5 grams of this yeast in 100g of flour divides until it reaches a population size of 25 billion yeast cells.

Package of compressed yeast. Image by Hellahulla.

There is no question that yeast has transformed the structure of modern culture. In the food industry it provides baked goods, yeast extracts and alcoholic beverages. In scientific research it is a major model organism used mainly in molecular biology to discover information about the mechanisms of cellular processes. In fact, early in the 20th century, RNA was called yeast nucleic acid because it was first discovered in yeast.

Disappointingly, no women have been attributed to any of the early scientific discoveries associated with yeast. OK, they were less likely to encounter  Leeuwenhoek’s animalcule-containing sperm or beer during their daily routines but the reasons seem more likely to be associated with the status of women within religion.  As a consequence, they are largely excluded from early investigations were scientific endeavour was mainly to reveal the complexity of God’s creation. These investigations seem to be exclusively undertaken by men. Within the Bible it is clear that women were preferred to have a more subordinate role as revealed in a letter from Paul the Apostle to Timothy [Tim (1) 2, 11-15]:

Women should learn in silence and all humility. I do not allow them to teach or have authority over men; they must keep quiet. For Adam was created first, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived; it was the women who was deceived and broke God’s law.

In subsequent chapters, I will be addressing the portrayal of women in the progress of religion and science.