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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

Conversation: Speaking with the Biblical Texts

No feminist is prepared bleakly to catalogue women's oppression: all critics want to combat that oppression with strong, confident, women-affirming voices. For some critics, such as Mary Daly, or Daphne Hampson, these voices emphatically cannot be found in the text and the tradition, and the only strong female voice is the voice of the critic, breaking free and defining herself against an irredeemable legacy. Other feminist critics tease out positive voices from the text/tradition that they can relate to and magnify (although they would disagree as to the extent to which those voices were intended by the authors). For some this is a political and religious act, a way of staking a place in the Bible and tradition. For others it is a reflection of a different kind of belief—a belief that even a system like patriarchy has gaps and holes in it, and that traces of women's voices, and women's power, will inevitably leak through, even in the most androcentric of texts.

One of the most obvious ways of finding footholds in the biblical tradition is by identifying women-friendly role models and women-friendly texts. As a feminist critique has developed naming texts of terror, so an informal, positive canon-within-the-canon has also separated out. Many critics talk self-consciously of doing something magpie-like, of gathering up the most sparkling, attractive texts, like lost coins (Loades), or finding texts that are more ‘bread’ than ‘stone’-like (Schüssler Fiorenza). The Song of Songs is for many a ‘non-sexist’ text, even an ‘antidote to patriarchy’: Trible sees it as a kind of feminist paradise to compensate for an Eden that has gone sour for womankind. The book of Ruth can offer a similarly idyllic space: reversing the usual pattern, the husbands and fathers sink into the sub-plot (they die in the first few verses) and Boaz sits in the wings as Ruth, Naomi, and a female chorus take centre stage. The book of Luke is a book which foregrounds women; it praises them and offers a kind of equality of symbolism whereby for every male parable and male example there is an equal and opposite parable centred on a female character.

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In addition to these book-length islands in a biblical sea of androcentricism feminist analysis has also pointed to a whole group of exemplary, even powerful, female characters (Esther, Ruth, Abigail, the ‘woman of worth’ in Proverbs 31 , the faithful women in the gospel parables, Lydia, Prisca, Phoebe) and has teased out other promising textual strands. Galatians 3: 28 offers ‘the clearest statement of women's equality to be found in the Christian scriptures’ (Briggs), while Hosea 4: 14 can be read as a timely antidote to Hosea 1–3 , and the unequal metaphor whereby sin is female harlotry, but righteousness and constancy is male (Marie-Theres Wacker). Male leaders, in moments of compassion, mourning, or care are described in maternal terms: Jesus is like a mother-hen (Matthew 23: 37–9; Luke 13: 34 ), Paul, in Galatians 4: 19 , describes himself as a woman labouring for his children, and in 1 Thessalonians 2: 7 and 1 Corinthians 3: 12 casts himself as nurturing mother/wet nurse of the church. Promisingly for feminist theology, there even seem to be moments where female metaphors meet the image of God: the God of Hosea 11 is a maternal figure, teaching Ephraim to walk (Schüngel-Straumann), and Deutero- and Trito-Isaiah not only restore Jerusalem as radiant bride and suckling mother, but offer the radical images of God as midwife and woman giving birth (Isaiah 42: 14; 66.9 ). However, by far the most promising figure for feminist theology is Woman Wisdom, Hebrew Hokhmah, Greek Sophia, who appears in the book of Proverbs and ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus) as the female love-object of the male seeker after wisdom and as one who sits beside the divine throne, as co-creator and beloved of God. These images of Wisdom, influenced by ancient oriental and Egyptian goddess cults, have become increasingly important in feminist scholarship, theology and liturgy (to appreciate the extent of the impact of Sophia, see the collection of essays in the section ‘Revelatory Discourses: Manifestations of Sophia’ in Searching the Scriptures, ii).

As this positive counter-canon has multiplied so have the voices of caution. Positive images of women do not always represent women's interests, warns Esther Fuchs, since female characters in male-authored texts ‘reveal more about the wishful thinking, fears, aspirations, and prejudices of their male creators than about women's authentic lives’. Women in Luke may be numerous and exemplary, observes Jane Schaberg, but they are exemplary for their aptitude for ‘following’ and ‘subordinate service’ (roles which hardly challenge the roles of women under patriarchy); moreover, since women are often socialized to be unassertive and socially deferential, might it not be dangerous for them to read a gospel extolling humility, and directed at a male will-to-power? Pure proto-feminist Utopias such as the Song of Songs may be dangerously overromanticized: at the end of Ruth our heroine disappears, once she has given birth to Obed father of Jesse father of David. With the possible exception of Wisdom, female metaphors for God, Jesus, and the apostles tend to reinscribe those traditionally ‘feminine’ attributes of compassion, kindness, caring, and motherliness, and so by celebrating them we may be unwittingly deifying woman's role as nurturer and carer.

In other disciplines in the humanities, such as English literature, feminist analysis has moved from critiquing representations of women in male-authored texts (Images of Women criticism) to a new emphasis on women's writing. The idea of canon has been challenged, and rediscovered authors, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Radclyffe Hall, have been put on the curriculum. In biblical studies and theology the decentring of the canon and an interest in writing by women has been expressed in different, less straightforward ways. The canon of study has been expanded (Searching the Scriptures is interested in potentially radical theological ideas in extra-canonical texts, as well as the New Testament canon, though obviously not on the assumption that these texts were written by women) and figures such as Hildegard of Bingen and the fabulously named Gertrud the Great have become rehabilitated in the history of interpretation. Within the canon, however, rediscovering women's voices is a far more tenuous business, since it is difficult to ascertain where (or even if) women's texts and traditions survive. Mary-Ann Tolbert tentatively makes the point that, given the spread of female literacy, ‘it is not impossible that the author of Mark was female’, while Athlaya Brenner and Fokkelein van Dijk-Hemmes propose that books like the Song of Songs show the influence of F (or female) sources.

Brenner and van Dijk-Hemmes's suggestion that there are some F sources behind a dominant M (male) tradition is reminiscent of conventional ‘source’ studies—of Pentateuchal criticism's J, E, D, and P, or gospel-study's Q. They seem to be echoing source criticism, even as they do something radically new (they never argue that women wrote these texts down, only that these texts seem to be strongly influenced by a woman's perspective). This kind of echoing and ingenuous reuse or redirection of mainstream critical methods is characteristic of much feminist biblical scholarship. Phyllis Trible reflects the etymological reman-œuvres that you find in many commentaries when, in a famous reading of Genesis 2–3 (in God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality) she stresses the link between ha-adam (usually translated ‘the man’) and ha-adamah (‘the earth’) and suggests that the ‘man’ is actually an androgynous ‘earth creature’, who splits to become male and female. Trible reads Genesis 2–3 as a mirror of the more egalitarian creation account of Genesis 1: 28 , where male and female are created simultaneously and equally. And as Trible mirrors the linguistic ingenuity of male commentators, and squeezes an egalitarian reading out of the word adamah, so critics like Carol Meyers, Phyllis Bird, and Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza draw on historical-contextual approaches to uncover a less one-sided view of history. In Discovering Eve, Carol Meyers uses anthropological models to look at the influence of factors such as high female mortality rate, disease, economic and household structure on the lives of real-life ‘Eves’; Phyllis Bird examines institutions of cultic prostitution and the religious activity of women; and Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, in In Memory of Her, attempts to reconstruct the obscured role of women in the early church. These critics, and many others, attempt to create a space for women in history, a historical room of their own (which is often lacking in the text).

For many feminist critics it is important to argue using objective, mainstream methodologies, or versions of them, lest feminist critics be simply dismissed to a zone of ‘creativity’ and ‘subjectivity’. Other critics, such as Alice Bach, are influenced by post-structuralist critiques of objectivity, and are involved in self-consciously re-imagining the texts from a woman's perspective (on the grounds that all scholarship, ultimately, is subjective). This kind of criticism can be rebellious and enthralling: what would Vashti's story sound like, or Gomer's or Potiphar's wife's? The stories may be playful, but the issues raised are serious: for example Balz-Cochois's Gomer ‘talks’ powerfully of her alienation from a male-oriented cult.

Though feminist conversations with the Bible have been productive in many ways, perhaps the most powerful theme to emerge is the idea that the Bible begins its own critique. Rosemary Radford Ruether, who describes her approach as a feminist theology of liberation, understands the prophetic tradition as a ‘golden thread’ running through scripture, and pulls at this thread to unravel the onesidedness of biblical tradition. For many critics, the Magnificat and its Old Testament/Hebrew Bible prototype the Song of Hannah offer an important model for inversion and subversion, for lifting up the low and excluded, and questioning the authority of the mighty. Other critics fasten on to moments where women within the Bible arguably speak out against their own marginalization: moments such as the daughters of Zelophehad's interrogation of the inheritance law (Numbers 27: 1–11 ), or the questions of the Syro-Phoenician woman who argues her right for inclusion and, uniquely, bests Jesus in an argument (Mark 7: 24–30 ). As Mary Ann Tolbert points out, Jesus has already taught others that religious customs should not stand in the way of doing good for those in need (Mark 2: 23–8; 3: 1–6 ); now the Gentile-woman-outsider pushes the principle and argues that social conventions should not do so either. Following her cue feminist critics outside the text also push biblical principles, by relentlessly pursing the logic of the texts until they expose their own blind spots. For example, scrupulously following the logic of Luke, Jane Schaberg reasons that if the ‘greatest’ are those who serve, and if the models of service throughout the book are female, then surely women should be promoted to leadership. This process of following the logic of the text, and its liberating implications, beyond the text's own limits is increasingly becoming known as ‘feminist deconstruction’.

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