As early as 1837, the American abolitionist lecturer Sarah Grimke suggested that biblical interpretation was deliberately biased against women in order to keep them in subjection. She urged women to become trained as scholars and to investigate the sacred text for themselves. By the end of the nineteenth century, a few women had indeed become trained as biblical scholars, but they were not generally using their expertise for the purpose of challenging scriptural arguments for traditional views of women. The foremost nineteenth‐century example of such a challenge, The Woman's Bible (1895–1898), was largely the work of nonspecialists, twenty woman suffragists under the leadership of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Already in this work and in the responses to it, hints of the shape of the twentieth‐century discussion can be seen. Some contributors emphasized the heroic character of little‐known women in the Bible. Others concentrated on historical development and change as a rationale for rejecting direct application of biblical cultural norms to their own setting. Some women biblical scholars declined to become involved in an unpopular project, while some feminists urged that the whole project was unnecessary because the Bible itself was an irrelevant relic of the past.

For about seventy years after publication of The Woman's Bible the question of feminist biblical interpretation received little attention. Renewed interest in women's rights in the 1960s led to renewed attention to the influence of the Bible on the status and role of women in Jewish and Christian traditions. Feminists quickly recognized the need to reassess not only the Bible but also the centuries of biblical interpretation undertaken mostly by male scholars. Published literature on the topic increased exponentially, and by the 1980s the annual output of books and articles was twentyfold the total publication list of the first half of the century.

Areas of Inquiry.

Recent feminist study has contributed to biblical scholarship in at least five major areas.

1. It has emphasized more systematic historical inquiry into the status and role of women in biblical cultures (e.g., Bernadette Brooten, Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue; Phyllis Bird, The Place of Women in the Israelite Cultus, in Ancient Israelite Religion: Essays in Honor of Frank Moore Cross, edited by P. D. Miller et al.). Such investigations attempt to take into account not only the paucity of biblical materials pertinent to the inquiry but also the androcentrism (whether unconscious or deliberate) of the biblical writers. They recognize that the Bible gives only occasional and indirect evidence about the everyday life of the common people, and especially about the life of women. The inquiries make use of extrabiblical writings, while recognizing that the same limitations apply to many of these texts as well. Archaeology and sociological studies of preindustrial societies provide additional evidence and controls for such investigations (see Social Sciences and the Bible). The variety of linguistic and other specializations required for this effort demands teamwork among scholars and the gradual building of a body of data over a period of many years.

2. A more complete and balanced picture of the actual content of the Bible has been encouraged by highlighting texts pertaining to women that were not well known even among people familiar with the Bible. Among the many examples are the inheritance and marriage of the daughters of Zelophehad (Num. 27; 36), the rape of the Levite's concubine (Judg. 19), and the frequent inclusion of women in Luke's gospel.

3. Alternative interpretations of familiar biblical texts have been introduced to show that the texts themselves do not necessarily present a negative view of women, but that biases against women have been attributed to these texts by a long succession of androcentric interpreters. Prominent examples of such studies are those arguing that male and female are created equally in the image of God and that Adam is equally responsible with his wife Eve for their disobedience in the garden (Gen. 1–3; e.g., Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality), and those arguing that Paul's insistence on women's silence in church refers to a specific local problem and would not have been generalized, even by Paul, to all women in all churches (1 Cor. 14.34; e.g., Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her).

4. A more complete and balanced picture of the God portrayed in the Bible has been encouraged by emphasizing texts in which the deity is compared to a woman (e.g., a midwife [Ps. 22.9], or a woman crying out during childbirth [Isa. 42.14], or one who sweeps her home to search for a lost coin [Luke 15.3–10]). Such texts, supplemented by texts using the imagery of inanimate objects for the deity (e.g., God as rock or shield), are used to undergird and reinforce the classic teaching that God is not biologically male, but is indeed beyond male and female. The small number of texts comparing God to a woman, together with the fact that these are generally comparisons (not direct appellations), results in disagreement about the significance of these resources, particularly whether they provide a warrant for referring to the biblical deity as “mother” in contemporary theology and prayer. (See Metaphors.)

5. Fresh translations of all or parts of the Bible seek to reduce the amount of gender‐exclusive language in the text. Some of these versions have made such changes only where scholars considered them warranted by the original Hebrew and Greek texts (e.g., the New Revised Standard Version), while others have eliminated many more masculine references in the text (e.g., The Inclusive Language Lectionary). Debate about the relative merits of the two approaches focuses on the question of how an ancient text can and should be heard in a contemporary setting: should its androcentric character be left plainly visible so that it remains true to its own time and culture, or should the androcentrism be softened so that the presumed universal message can be heard more clearly?

Options in Feminist Hermeneutics.

As in the time of Stanton and The Women's Bible, some feminists still conclude that the Bible's androcentrism is so deep‐seated that the book can no longer be regarded as authoritative for their lives. These persons tend generally to break away openly from their tradition and to give attention to the Bible only as a document having a negative influence on western culture.

Many feminists, however, do continue to regard the Bible as authoritative and remain active in church or synagogue. The goal of these feminists is to describe how this biblical authority persists despite the unacceptable patriarchal context and androcentric bias they recognize in scripture. While there are many differences in detail and nuance among the approaches to the problem, these approaches may be broadly categorized into three types.

1. Close study of texts pertaining to women, with emphasis on showing that these texts do not support the patriarchal structures and assumptions of contemporary society. This approach incorporates both the highlighting of texts previously ignored and the reinterpretation of texts traditionally used to support patriarchal structures in society. The difficulties encountered in the approach are twofold. First, there is no unanimity among scholars as to the correct interpretation of many of the debated texts. Even the criteria by which correctness might be ascertained cannot be agreed upon, since some scholars would admit various interpretations that are plausible as literary readings of a text, while others would insist that the interpretation be evaluated in terms of the probable intent of the original author addressing the ancient cultural context. Second, there are some texts that present a patriarchal view of women for which no positive reinterpretation seems possible. Thus, the question of criteria for choosing some texts as more important than others inevitably arises. Although the problem of selectivity is as old as theology based on the Bible, the difficulty of establishing criteria or the desire to avoid such selection leads some feminists to frustration with this approach.

2. Appeal to the Bible generally (not specifically to texts about women) for a critique of patriarchy. This approach is often closely associated with the concerns of liberation theology in its search to show that the Bible challenges any viewpoint or action that demeans, limits, or controls others because of their race, class, or—in this case—gender. The prophets' criticism of economic exploitation, for example, or Jesus' criticism of ethnic narrowness, is extended by analogy to authorize criticism of the oppression of women (e.g., Rosemary Ruether, Sexism and God‐Talk). While this approach has many adherents, others criticize what they regard as a lack of clear criteria for such extension by analogy.

3. Study of texts about women with special attention to the ways in which their patriarchal setting or androcentric worldview continues to be reflected in contemporary culture (e.g., Trible, Texts of Terror). In this approach, the texts function rather like a mirror, enabling modern readers to see their own situations more accurately by focusing on similarities between attitudes toward and treatment of women in biblical times and in the twentieth century. Of course, it is precisely such similarity that leads some feminists to reject the Bible as oppressive and useless as a basis for advocating change. But for those who do not reject the Bible, the mirror is expected to lead to a value judgment, the recognition that such patriarchy is wrong. The basis for this value judgment generally lies in the resources of either the first or the second approaches above.

Feminists who continue to work with the Bible as more than a historical document generally agree that the theological problem of authority is central to their hermeneutic task (Letty Russell, ed., Feminist Interpretation of the Bible). The chief poles around which the debate is structured remain those familiar to Christian theology generally: scripture versus tradition, “canon within the canon,” and letter versus spirit. A review of the areas of inquiry and hermeneutic options outlined above provides illustration of each of these themes. The scripture‐versus‐tradition debate, for example, takes shape in the consideration of whose interpretations of the Adam and Eve story should hold sway, whether recent feminist ones or those familiar from the New Testament and church fathers. “Canon within the canon” identifies the dilemma of those who recognize discordant perspectives on women present in scripture. The debate over Bible translation is part of the larger issue of text versus spirit. Many more illustrations could be cited. They highlight the reality that the questions posed by feminism are not peripheral, but rather are central to the understanding of the Bible by communities of faith in every generation.

See also Women


Katharine Doob Sakenfeld