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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Methods of Feminist Biblical Interpretation

The concerns of feminist exegesis are met with the help of all the scholarly methods currently practised in biblical scholarship; but because feminist theology and biblical exegesis try to come close to human experiences, the boundaries between the methods that have been traditionally practised in biblical criticism and those employed in the fields of the practical use of the Bible, are fluid. The following sketch concentrates mostly upon scholarly exegetical methods in the narrower sense: namely, historical criticism and new impulses from literary criticism, and, given this limitation, can only offer some typical examples of the use of feminist methods and criticism (cf. also Wacker in Schottroff et al. 1998).

A. Historical-Critical Methods

The historical-critical methods are concerned above all with the production processes of biblical texts and the world ‘behind’ the texts. These approaches are also relevant to feminist exegesis, in that they promise information about the historical changes in the literary depiction of female characters and in the concrete life of women, as well as insight into different sex/gender constructions in biblical literature and into the actual forms of community life of the sexes in biblical times.

1. Textual Criticism

In the area of New Testament textual criticism, the ‘rehabilitation’ of Junia as a female apostle (Rom. 16: 7) is the most prominent example of a feminist critical undertaking (Brooten 1977). Previously, a gender-biased scholarship driven by dogmatic prejudices could only recognize Junia as a man.

Old Testament textual criticism in the last two decades has been less concerned with rediscovering the ‘original texts’ and more concerned with comparing the ancient versions and their interpretation in particular historical contexts. From a feminist perspective, such comparison of versions is particularly fruitful where very different textual traditions exist. Thus, in her text-critical study of the book of Esther, Kristin de Troyer has undertaken a detailed comparison of the closing chapters of the three versions (de Troyer 2000). Her text-critical thesis, that the second Greek version of Esther (the A text) is a free reworking of the Septuagint version, implies the assumption that the figure of Esther is pushed into the background to the benefit of the figure of Mordechai. Thus the A text, which, according to de Troyer, dates from the first Christian century, is one among other early Jewish witnesses (also including some books of the New Testament) with the tendency to downgrade women. The two important, continuing translation projects of the Septuagint in Germany and France raise hopes that our knowledge not only of the translation techniques of the Greek editors but also the horizon of their world will be deepened, especially in regard to their views of the world of women and, where possible, this world itself.

2. Source Criticism/Literary or Redaction Criticism/Composition Criticism

In Old Testament scholarship classical source criticism has currently been replaced by a number of competing models for the origins of the Pentateuch. A burning feminist theme which enables feminists to take part in this discussion, and which in its results distances it from the classical view, is the literary role of Miriam in the Pentateuch, and consequently the historical meaning of this symbolic figure for prophecy in general, and for women as prophetesses in particular. Ursula Rapp (2002) shows in her monograph on Miriam that the Miriam traditions in the Pentateuch as well as in Mic. 6: 3–4 belong to the Persian era and can be read as evidence of a dispute about the authority of Moses or the Torah. In the area of the New Testament, Helgar Melzer-Keller (1997) argues, on the basis of the two-source theory, that Jesus' contact with women was less ‘friendly’ than was supposed at the beginning of the feminist Christian discovery of Jesus. In regard to recent trends in the investigation of the historical Jesus, Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza (2004) warns against new hermeneutical restrictions.

3. Form Criticism

Fokkelien van Dijk-Hemmes and Athalya Brenner, building on the classical methods of form criticism and taking this further in the direction of new literary criticism, have developed the concept of ‘gendering texts’, which asks about female voices in biblical texts and holds that it is possible to draw conclusions about the historical spaces of women (Brenner and van Dijk-Hemmes 1993). A ‘classical’ example is the Song of Songs. The greater the concentration on the text as text, the more do such correlations of text and context become methodologically questionable; it becomes important to look for extra-biblical evidence for spaces of men and women in societies such as those in Ancient Israel. Here, valuable insights can be gained by the findings of gender-sensitive research in social anthropology.

4. History/Social History/History of Religion

The reconstruction of a history of women in the biblical period is bound up with many great difficulties in the pre-Hellenistic periods, because the dating of biblical texts as well as the assessment of their value as sources is at present very controversial, and extra-textual material is restricted. Phyllis Bird (1997) has contributed methodological clarity by outlining the likely places of women in the society of Ancient Israel. Silvia Schroer has attempted a first longitudinal sketch of a history of women in Israel (Schroer in Schottroff et al. 1998) and has also contributed to the religious history of Israel from the point of view of the iconography of the ancient world (cf. Schroer 1989 and 2000). For the period of the Second Temple, a notable contribution has been made by Tal Ilan with her trilogy on traces of women in the Hellenistic and, above all, the Roman period (Ilan 1995, 1997, 1999). The investigation of Ross Sh. Kraemer spans several religions by investigating female cults in Graeco-Roman times (Kraemer 1992; Kraemer and D'Angelo 1999). In the field of New Testament scholarship, Luise Schottroff and her students have been working on a feminist social history of Early Christianity. New Testament texts are read against the background of the deep political-economic antagonisms in the Roman Empire, and interest is focused upon everyday life and the resistance particularly of marginalized women such as Lydia, the despised seller of purple (Schottroff 1995), and the two elderly women Elizabeth and Hannah (Janssen 1998), or also upon themes such as birth and marriage, with their institutional as well as biographical individual aspects and their ambivalent meanings for women (Sutter Rehmann 1995, 2002). New Testament, rabbinical, and pagan texts can illuminate each other mutually in such an opening-up of women's history. This approach is not closed up in academic concerns, but rather, a feminist reformulation of liberation theology: with its focus on women who have suffered injustice, it draws attention to present-day injustice. Important also for this approach is the confrontation with anti-Jewish tendencies in Christian exegesis. Luise Schottroff deals with them by assuming that the movement which related to the risen Christ should be understood in the context of the pluriformity of Judaism before 135 CE, and that anti-Jewish polemic in the New Testament is a ‘quarrel among brothers and sisters’ which only later became a conflict between religions (Schottroff in Schottroff and Wacker 1996).

5. An Exegesis of Gender Justice

In dispute with classical historical-critical literature but reaching far beyond, Irmtraud Fischer has developed an approach of ‘gender justice’ in exegesis. She demonstrates, on the one hand, where unexamined and preconceived norms were decisive in previous scholarly discussion of the analysis of texts about women or, to put it another way, where research was conducted on an unenlightened ‘gender-biased’ basis. On the other side, she makes clear which viewpoints are possible for approaching biblical texts when one is freed from one's own prejudices in the perception of gender relationships in the ancient world. The matriarchs of Israel can be released from their ‘only wife and mother’ roles and become fellow builders of Israel. The book of Ruth no longer needs to be reduced to being merely an idyll, but can be seen as a document in post-exilic Israel that is concerned with a just interpretation of the law in connection with foreigners. The prophetesses of Israel can be seen as preachers of God's will, who, like their male colleagues, are involved in the disputes about prophecy in the exilic and post-exilic periods (Fischer 2000/2005, 2001, 2002).

B. Literary Methods

The exegetical reception and adaptation of literary methods has become enormously differentiated in the last two decades. As the smallest common denominator, an interest in the ‘functioning’ of the biblical text in its extant form may be noted, an interest that concerns itself with the internal structure of the text as well as the communicative act between the text and those who receive it (some approaches include the question of the production of the text). In feminist biblical scholarship a broad spectrum of literary-critical methods can be found, with differing main points in the way in which the text is perceived. What is ‘feminist’ is articulated, on the one hand, almost entirely as a gender-sensitive ideological critical approach to biblical texts, while, on the other hand, it takes differing forms of affirmative rereadings.

Currently, the terms and indeed the exact definitions of the newer exegetical methods are not unified (cf. Wacker 1998 and the observations in this Handbook). In particular, the term ‘new literary criticism’ used as an umbrella term covers a whole spectrum of differing methods which are also combined (Exum and Clines 1993; Struthers-Malbon and McKnight 1994). The following attempt to distinguish these approaches examines, first, varying schools, second, lines of development, and lastly, recognizable material preferences.

1. Structuralist Interpretation/Narratology and Beyond

In critical allegiance to the tradition of French structuralism (esp. G. Genette) the literary and cultural critic Mieke Bal has developed a narratological methodology which has been tested on a series of biblical texts and has concentrated on feminist critical issues, in that it connects every aspect of analysis with the question of the gender-specific division of power in a text. In addition to her work on the book of Judges (Bal 1988a, b), a concern with ‘femmes imaginaires’ of the Hebrew Bible has stood at the centre of her interest (Bal 1986/7; cf. also her contributions to various volumes of the Feminist Companion (Brenner I and II)). In the context of a wide-ranging engagement with the work of Rembrandt in which her methods of textual reading have been developed further according to the standards of cultural criticism (Bal 1991), she has newly interpreted a number of his representations of biblical women in dialogue with the biblical text.

2. Rhetorical Criticism

The term ‘rhetorical criticism’ describes, on the one hand, an approach to biblical interpretation which uses a kind of close reading to detect compositional structures of a text decisive for its meaning. This line is followed by Phyllis Trible with her two well-known monographs on various concepts of female sexuality in the Hebrew Bible (Trible 1978) and on ‘texts of terror’, i.e. texts about violence against women which initiate not only sadness at such misused power but resistance against it (Trible 1984). This perspective has been taken up by Angela Bauer in her monograph on the book of Jeremiah (1998).

At the same time Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza has described her approach since the beginning of the 1990s as a rhetorical model of feminist critical analysis. This definition starts from an understanding of biblical texts as rhetorical constructs emerging from and responding to political-ethical conflicts in a very precise way. Thus, methods of textual analysis and methods focusing upon the analysis of the historical context must be carried out together; but, more basically, feminist rhetorical biblical criticism must be understood as a practical political science. Given the present situation of the irreducible multivocality of women themselves, its concern cannot be to discover the one meaning of the text, the less so since, from the textual theoretical point of view, doubt may be cast on whether there is such a thing. Feminist rhetorical criticism is much more concerned with discussing the multiplicity of interpretations in the democratic ‘ecclesia of women’ and enabling it to enter into the general political-ethical debate (Schüssler-Fiorenza 1992, 2001). The monograph on Miriam by Ursula Rapp (2002) works with Schüssler-Fiorenza's approach to rhetorical criticism in order both to trace the rhetorical shaping of the figure of Miriam in the biblical texts and to show how an alternative feminist critical rhetoric can enable the Miriam fragments to be read.

3. Inter-textual Analysis

By inter-textuality is meant the interrelatedness of texts, whereby the choice of texts taken into consideration can be narrow or much wider. From a feminist perspective the interconnectedness of texts marked by gender is particularly productive. For the inner-biblical textual area Klara Butting (1999) has shown that the figure of Esther is presented as a female Joseph, and that it is therefore a retelling of the biblical story of Joseph with its main theme of the Jewish man at the court of a foreign ruler, in a manner sensitive to gender issues and in reflection on ancient enmity to Jews. Similarly, Claudia Rakel (2003) somehow sees the figure of Judith as the textual incarnation of an original interpretation of the Torah. This type of approach can focus on the historical chronology of the texts to point out how, in the Hellenistic period, female figures were included in a positive manner to depict the struggle for Jewish identity at that time. This approach can also be used to listen to the polyphony of the canon, which possesses sufficient critical potential for a feminist reception, or as a reference to hitherto undiscovered relationships between biblical texts, which can lead to the conclusion that ‘these letters will be amazed’ (Butting 1994). In a wider sense the concept of inter-textuality broadens the view to the whole area of the reception history of the Bible, or better, its critical interruptions through creative new alliances with texts or text- analogous structures. In this sense the post-colonial joining of biblical texts or traditions with African folk stories or with texts of the Asiatic high religions can be embedded in the methodological concept of inter-textuality.

4. New Literary Criticism

If the ‘new’ of ‘new literary criticism’ consists in widening the narrow view of pure text-immanent structures as carriers of meaning to external circumstances that constitute the meaning of a text (cf. Exum and Clines 1993: 17), then all approaches of feminist literary-critical biblical interpretation belong to it by definition in so far as they reflect the feminist interest as something which is determinative for interpretation. Several authors only are mentioned here who, along with specific feminist perspectives, consider significant for their exegesis other external factors which determine the meaning of texts.

Cheryl Exum's (1992) monograph on the dimension of tragedy in the books of Samuel still stays rather close to the structures immanent in the text. In her more recent interpretation of the book of Judges (Exum 1997) she employs psychoanalytical categories in order to show the basic lines of thought responsible for the devaluation of the female figures in this biblical book, and in a further monograph she draws on representations from the history of art and films about the Bible to open up and deconstruct biblical texts and their images of women (Exum 1996).

Athalya Brenner asks about female voices or employs the perspective of intertextuality (Brenner and van Dijk-Hemmes 1993), reflects on the basis of reader-response criticism upon her presuppositions and expectations as a reader, and further corrects or indeed deconstructs her own references (cf. her various interpretations of the Song of Songs: Brenner in Schottroff and Wacker 1998; Brenner in Companion to the Song of Songs, II). A particular methodological line found in her work is that of ‘gendering texts’: that is, the gender-specific unlocking of biblical texts in regard to particular themes (cf. the study of a gender-specific analysis of sexuality and desire in the Hebrew Bible: Brenner 1997 and her collected volume on biblical humour, Brenner 2003).

The New Testament scholar Tina Pippin has engaged in various publications with the world of metaphors of the Apocalypse of John (cf. Pippin 1992 and in Schüssler-Fiorenza 1993/4). The gender rhetoric of this last book of the Christian Bible is for her irredeemably misogynist, and her reaction as a female reader to its pictures of war and power is one of abhorrence and defence. She is ready, though, to question her own way of reading through the perspective of non-Western women who stress the motives of hope and the establishment of justice, and thus hold to a colonial-critical characterization of the Apocalypse in so far as this is employed against the great power of Rome in the name of a persecuted minority. Besides this, the Apocalypse of John is for Tina Pippin an occasion for seeing the Bible as fantasy literature, or, for the perception of what is fantastic in the Bible (Pippin and Aichele 1998).

It is to be hoped that the many impulses of Bible reading from the perspective of feminists will bear their fruits in all those communities of believers which relate to the Bible!

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