Modern feminist and gender-critical biblical interpretation is intricately bound up with various approaches to biblical interpretation falling under an umbrella called “historical criticism.” Often considered the “traditional” paradigm over against which the “innovation” of feminist and/or gender-critical studies of biblical literature are positioned, a more nuanced view reveals an interdependence of “tradition” and “innovation,” or at least adaptations of tradition toward innovative ends. One might say that historical criticism, as a paradigm for conducting biblical scholarship, along with approaches associated with linguistic and cultural turns, critical theory, and liberationist movements, has provided an important means by which various forms of feminist and gender-critical biblical interpretation have proliferated and flourished. Thus, understanding the contours and legacies of historical-critical approaches to biblical literature enhances an understanding of the contemporary methodological landscape of the field.

Historical Criticism: Origins, Meanings, and Legacies.

Historical criticism is, in essence, the basic method used by most contemporary scholars of the ancient world. In its broadest connotation, it designates studying historical texts, traditions, and/or communities within their particular historical milieu, examining either or both synchronic and diachronic contexts for understanding historical phenomena historically. In some sense, the phrase “historical criticism” in the field of biblical and cognate studies would seem somewhat redundant to historians in other disciplines, since most historically inclined scholarly fields deploy the basics of historical criticism as the single methodology, even as individual historians might have particular accents and predilections regarding their topics and sources. To make sense of the term “historical criticism” as a paradigm in biblical and cognate studies, one must understand something of the unique and peculiar history of the discipline itself—especially the relationship between the burgeoning field of historical studies in the study of ancient Hebrew and Christian traditions and the religious authority of ecclesial institutions, which were invested in negotiating the types of approaches used and conclusions reached in relation to scripturally authoritative texts.

The Bible, as a sacred text in the West, obviously has long held a special position in terms of social, cultural, and political configurations. Religious authority in the West, while itself having varied fortunes in different regions and time periods, nevertheless has maintained a particularly potent influence over the broader matrices of existence—particularly in terms of power relationships. One cannot discount the reality that people’s deep, confessional religious sensibilities are linked to particular understandings of the Bible as a sacred text, as “scripture”—nor is it profitable to take a cynical position regarding such matters. Thus, unlike other ancient texts that do not enjoy the same scriptural status, historical understandings of the Bible—its texts, contexts, and afterlives—have posed, and continue to present, an enduring set of problems for interpreters.

Regardless of the particular and prevalent personal and/or political motivations of religious authorities, already before the Enlightenment and the development of modern “scientific” ways of knowing, there were various proponents of critical engagement of the Bible. During the Protestant Reformation, for example, Martin Luther (1483–1546) and John Calvin (1509–1564) made critical observations regarding some minor points of historical details that seemed to be exaggerated in biblical texts. The case of Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) and his famous “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina” on biblical interpretation (1615)—and his subsequent heresy trial and famous conflict with Cardinal Bellarmine—also signals that critical engagement of biblical texts is not simply the result of nineteenth-century German scholarly innovation. The Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) was (in)famous for questioning the unity and cohesion of the Pentateuch, one of the hallmarks of later historical-critical approaches that would also contribute to conflict between Christian scholars of the Bible and ecclesial authorities. Richard Simon (1638–1712), a French contemporary of Spinoza and a Catholic priest, is often considered the “father” of source criticism of the Pentateuch. These developments happened before Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803) and others, some fifty years later, developed the philological method that was to become key to modern historical study of the Bible. Further, these critics had precedent in fourteenth-century scholars—and, to be sure, one cannot discount the major contributions made in the twelfth century by Rabbi Abraham Ben Meir Ibn Ezra (1089–ca. 1164), who already had noted that Moses could not have written most of the material in the Pentateuch.

Already in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries early biblical critics came into conflict with church hierarchies. Spinoza’s contemporary Simon first thought his source-critical perspective on the Pentateuch would be met with acceptance by the Catholic church hierarchy, but while it did receive some initial support it was eventually denounced. Herein, then, lies the specific dilemma posed by historical-critical approaches to the Bible. It is within this matrix that one must understand how it is that biblical scholars, even now, refer to “historical criticism” as a distinct form of historical study. It is precisely because historical criticism became a method that was deployed over against religiously authoritative readings of biblical texts that it makes sense to refer to it as a distinctive category in biblical and cognate studies.

Although there is not one single, linear trajectory by which historical criticism developed, the German tradition of critical biblical scholarship expended significant energy rethinking the biblical theological paradigms that tightly wed the religious nature of the text to church authority. With respect to the historical study of Jesus, for instance, Martin Kähler (1835–1912) argued for a distinction between a “Jesus of history” and the “historic, biblical Christ” (1896). German theologians and scholars in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries attempted to negotiate relationships between the constrictions of the church and the freedom of the historical-critical interpreter.

On the American scene, perhaps no proponent of historical criticism was as famous—or as controversial—as Charles Augustus Briggs (1841–1913), a Presbyterian minister and professor of Semitic and Cognate Languages at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Like many of his contemporaries, Briggs had studied in Germany and brought aspects of the historical-critical spirit back to the United States, even if in reconfigured form. In his inaugural address, “The Authority of Holy Scripture” (1881), Briggs sought to create a sharp distinction between the freedom of biblical critics and the power of the church to determine practice and meaning in interpretation. Among other suggestions, his address admonished readers not to act as “infants” regardingbiblical texts, allowing ministers, teachers, and other authorities to serve as “parents.” Briggs’s unapologetic stance toward critical historical study of biblical literature—that it represented a means for Bible-reading people to “grow up” and think independently—resulted in a heresy trial in the Presbyterian church, whereby he was stripped of ministerial status. The principles for which he stood his ground, however, were to become standard scholarly historical practice and led, in many ways, to delineations of “historical criticism” as a separate form of biblical investigation that stood over against ecclesial hierarchical interpretation. Many scholars joined the company of Briggs in being charged with heresy or otherwise having their employment threatened because of their allegiance with historical-critical approaches to biblical literature, marking historical criticism as not simply an innocent exercise but as a dangerous intellectual practice that could threaten one’s professional livelihood.

Historical criticism today is indebted to the complex legacy briefly outlined above. In the twentieth century, once historical study became acceptable in its own right, both inside and outside church communities, the method as such expanded into a broadly conceived array of scholarly strategies comparable to critical historical study in other disciplines. Because of the long-standing scriptural and religious status of biblical texts, scholars deploy historical criticism on both sides of the so-called divide between academy and church: some critique religious authority and claim to be more radical in their research, and others utilize the same methods either in service to the church or in ways that do not undermine religious sentiments of believers. It is perhaps one of the ironies of the development of historical criticism that it has come to mean something quite general with respect to its application. For that reason, the unique designation “historical criticism” or “historical-critical approaches” makes the most sense when viewed in relationship to its interactions and antagonisms with ecclesial hierarchies. In contemporary usage, “historical criticism” tends to signify historical study as opposed to other kinds of study, such as theological or reader-response criticisms.

At the same time, and importantly for understanding the relationship of feminist and gender-critical involvements and entanglements with historical-critical approaches to biblical literature, “historical criticism” has also come to stand for a particular historicist approach to biblical texts that focuses on positivistic investigations and objectivist, nonbiased conclusions, both of which are assumed to be apolitical in nature (Collins, 2005; Schüssler Fiorenza, 1999). Thus, biblical critics who are inclined toward ideological-critical approaches often distinguish their work from “historical criticism,” which they cast as a conservative, antiquarian orientation to historical study that does not appreciate the role of modern contexts or interpreters in the determination of meaning. Even in classical, nonbiblical forms of historical scholarship, New Historicism and the Linguistic Turn had raised these same issues for the study of history. Among its critics in biblical and cognate studies, then, “historical criticism” has become a cipher for controlling, determined, authoritative readings of the biblical text that parallels, somewhat ironically, the earlier authoritative position of ecclesial structures that historical criticism challenged. Now it is not necessarily religious authority but the authority of historical critics that is considered oppressive of individual and minority voices that themselves seek to counteract long-standing religious oppression.

Historical Criticism in Gendered Perspective.

Historical critics of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have been critiqued for their singular focus on male figures and major institutional structures rather than on marginalized peoples and perspectives. However, in contextualizing historical criticism it is important to identify the foundations underlying the assumptions of those earlier biblical critics. Clearly most of the earliest historical critics were (white) males, but other factors also shaped their thinking about the ancient world and the questions that drove their investigative enterprise. In what follows, we highlight a few of the trajectories that help better contextualize historical criticism. In addition to the interaction with ecclesial authorities there are numerous other points of connection to broader trends in historical study—which itself is intricately connected to a variety of developments in nineteenth-century society (Penner, 2008).

Philology—the study of language—is perhaps one of the quintessential points from which to trace a historical-critical lineage during this early era. By the time of the Renaissance and Reformation period, humanists had begun to engage the fundamental function of language in terms of translation and meaning. By the time of Herder, however, we witness a broad investment in the philological enterprise. Herder’s emphasis on the connection between the “essence” of a particular people or “folk” and their language—that the “soul” and “blood” of a people, from their intellectual and cultural ideas to their religious and social experiences, was embodied in their language—was formative for scholars studying the ancient world. It was assumed, for example, that those who were Hebrew speaking had a different conception of the world than those who were Greek speaking. Whatever one thinks about earlier philological theory, it is apparent that it profoundly influenced the shaping of historical criticism in biblical and cognate studies. The study of language lies at the center of much of the conversation that would follow, and formative developments in studying ancient social, political, and religious life began with philological investigation. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT; 1933–1979) is probably the most important example of the interconnection between philology and “folkish” sociocultural issues; while a later work, the majority of the views in this German intellectual project have their root in earlier historical-critical investigations. One cannot thus fully appreciate earlier incarnations of historical criticism without an understanding of the systemic and dramatic impact of philology on the discipline.

Such associations of language with sociocultural and religious assumptions and values were thoroughly manifested in the history-of-religions (Religionsgeschichtliche Schule) approach to biblical literature. Whether exploring Hebrew Bible or early Christian backgrounds, in this approach the scholar presupposed the presence of genealogical relationships between the “proximate other” cultures of antiquity and biblical traditions. One notable trajectory of scholarship focused on tracing the filiations between biblical literature and “pagan” traditions, seeking to locate from whence and how biblical concepts and ideas arose. Given that historical criticism was committed to studying biblical traditions in context, its practitioners sought contextual backgrounds and literary parallels; the biblical materials were assumed not to have been created ex nihilo. How might ancient Mediterranean mythology have influenced the Genesis narrative? How might Persian religion have contributed to the rise of Jewish apocalyptic? What role did Greek and Roman mystery cults play in the development of early Christian rituals? Were Paul’s views on Jewish law informed by Hellenistic Jews like Philo? Ultimately, scholars believed that most biblical concepts, while unique to the biblical tradition in some respect, were influenced by contemporaneous cultures. This particular investigative commitment was paramount for the early period of historical criticism.

Alongside philology and comparison, perhaps thelarger framework that guided interpretation was the focus on institutions. This particular aspect of intellectual history cannot be overemphasized, as it is the hallmark of the cultural matrix in which modern historical criticism was forged. The rise of the independent nation-state in European countries; the increasing focus on citizenship identity and rights; the emergence of secular institutions of law, education, and government; the development of the university as a site of national interest and support; and the proliferation of colonial endeavors are just a few of the elements that shaped interpretive interest in institutions. The Prussian empire is the example par excellence of this type of environment. Hegel’s (1770–1831) philosophy of history accented the growing presence of the “spirit” in history as manifested in the development of institutional structures. Leopold Von Ranke (1795–1886), often considered one of the “founding fathers” of modern historical study, focused almost solely on institutional history. It should not be assumed that these scholars were ignorant of alternative or people’s histories. However, in the environment in which European social, cultural, and intellectual traditions held prominence in value over colonized peoples, it fell to anthropologists and museums to collect data on those peoples not considered part of European institutional history. Ultimately, historians needed a structure that was readily definable and stable over lengthy periods of time to assess more fully the development and betterment of human culture.

It is easy to judge early historical critics as androcentric and oblivious to marginalized peoples in history. However, the phenomena must be understood within the larger paradigm of their scholarship. Modern historians take for granted the myriad of studies that inform our work and provide opportunities to do microhistory, but such was not available to scholars 200 years ago. Moreover, the emphasis on the male “great figures” of history, including those in the biblical traditions, may have been influenced by historical criticism’s institutional focus: one could argue that the focus on institutions brought male subjects into view rather than male subjects being the major concern in the first place. Only once a language and perspective was developed to talk about noninstitutional history could scholars talk about those who were disconnected from and oppressed by institutional structures. From the standpoint of institutional history, the issue of “marginalization” could not enter the conversation.

To be sure, significant critiques can be made of early historical-critical biblical scholarship, some of which have implications for gender studies. Obviously, the “problem” of Judaism and Jews in Europe, especially following widespread Jewish emancipation throughout the nineteenth century, informed historical-critical approaches to both Hebrew and early Christian texts and traditions. Moreover, the continued and at times hostile interactions between Catholic and Protestant traditions are evident particularly in Protestant interpretations of both Judaism (sometimes used as a signifier for Catholicism) and later institutionalized forms of early Christian social and religious structures.

More to the point, however, these engagements can be viewed through a gendered lens, wherein certain traditions were effeminized in relationship to idealized forms of biblical texts and traditions. Prophetic materials, for example, were valorized over priestly traditions. The apostle Paul was viewed more highly than Peter, who was associated with the origins of Catholicism. Early Hellenistic Judaism was often utilized as a buffer zone for early Christian materials, becoming a conduit through which the “pagan” material was transmitted to early Christianity but itself immune to “impurity.” When considering earlier incarnations of biblical studies through a gender-critical lens, then, one might take numerous directions in analyzing the ideological frameworks of early historical critics. Such interventions, however, would be significantly different from the type we find in later feminist and gender-critical biblical scholarship.

Gendered Intersections with Historical-Critical Approaches.

Several key components of historical-critical approaches have proven fruitful to feminist and gender-critical investigation of biblical texts and traditions. These include the stance that all texts are human productions, located in time and space, and are therefore reflections of the concerns and cultures of those times and places; the understanding that the communities and cultures in which biblical texts were originally produced, assembled, read, and interpreted are necessarily different than our own; and the hope that historical criticism helps modern readers not only to understand the ancient contexts better but also to recognize the hermeneutical distance between “us” in the present and “them” in the past. Similarly, proponents of historical-critical approaches have emphasized that texts can mean differently across time and cultures rather than having a singular, static, and fixed meaning for all times, places, and peoples.

Importantly for studies that foreground concerns about gender and status, historical-critical approaches have tended to maintain that the freedom to ask critical questions of biblical texts—without automatic adherence or capitulation to predetermined, dogmatically and ecclesiasticallycircumscribed answers—is central to biblical scholarship. One of the complex legacies of historicalcriticism is its insistence that historical study, coupled with power analysis, allows interpreters to challenge and move beyond conveniently reified claims to authority based on “what the Bible says”on any number of theological, political, and/or social issues. Such assumptions and methodological commitments have proven useful to feminist and gender-critical biblical scholars, who have sought to (re-read) biblical literature from the perspective of women and to take gender seriously as a category of analysis.

Different moments in feminist and gender-critical biblical interpretation have exhibited alignment with different aspects of historical-critical approaches. Four major methodological issues can be noted. First, although historical-critical approaches mightappear to be predominantly concerned with the distant past, it is also the case that all biblical interpretation takes place in the present, which decisively shapes interpretive methods, questions, and practices. Thus, feminist and gender-critical biblical scholarship may have historical interests, but it is ultimately conducted in response to present-day concerns—specifically, but not limited to, the oppression of women and other historically underrepresented peoples. Second, gender-sensitive interpreters maintain that it is safe to assume that biblical texts, as human artifacts, are also products of elite, literate cultures—which, for better or for worse, are most likely male-centered, or androcentric, in nature. Such an assumption renders those texts—and, indeed, most texts and contexts, across time and cultures—androcentric in nature, which in turn affects how biblical texts have been deployed and interpreted. Third, the genre and provenance of sources consulted will greatly affect the questions posed of those materials. Using court and other state documents, philosophical treatises, and similar sources as parallels for biblical texts in historical reconstructive efforts and exegesis will yield different results than than using material culture, hymns to goddesses, and other sources more reflective of non-elites. And fourth, feminist and gender-critical interpreters have stressed that an interpreter’s social identity—not only gender but also sexual orientation, race, class, age, and so on—makes as much of a difference in conducting readings of biblical texts as do contexts and histories of interpretation. Therefore, in the eyes of feminist and gender-critical interpreters of the Bible, there can be no “innocent” or “objective” historical investigation. One contribution of feminist and other cultural-studies approaches to historical criticism is the revelation that writing history is a means of writing ourselves, even when it might appear (or an author might insist) otherwise (Tolbert, 2013).

Feminist and Gender-Critical Appropriations of Historical-Critical Approaches.

Encounters between feminist and gender-critical scholars and historical-critical approaches have not taken place in a vacuum but in concert with broader epistemological trends concerning gender, sex, and sexuality in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, along with social movements at large. Within biblical scholarship, of special interest is the appropriation of historical-critical approaches toward feminist and gender-critical ends, as well as the amplification of aspects of historical-critical methodologies through their incorporation into broaderanalysis that attends to the dynamics of power, status, and ideology.

For those sensitive to women’s and gender concerns in readings of biblical literature, the appropriation of historical-critical approaches has been of key importance. Historical-critical methods have been used to refute biblical justifications for women’s subservience and oppression in the present. For example, in the struggles for abolition and women’s rights during feminism’s “first wave” in the late nineteenth-century United States, historical criticism was employed in the service of women. For example, Briggs’s daughter, Emilie Grace, was the first woman to graduate from Union Theological Seminary (1897), was herself trained in biblical studies, and wrote a historical-critical dissertation on the role of the deaconess in biblical and early Christian literature. Perhaps most notably, the composition of The Woman’s Bible (1895–1898) by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and 26 other women had as its explicit goal the refutation of ecclesiastical authorities that maintained that women ought to be subject to men, including those who had just published the Revised Version of the Bible (1881–1894). By providing a different version of the scriptures that took seriously the concerns of women, coupled with a critical historical understanding of the ancient texts, Stanton and her committee sought to prove that women’s oppression was not “in,” or demanded by, the scriptures per se—but was to be more properly located in the reading of scriptures by humans who were invested in the continued domination of women, even as women desired otherwise for themselves. Thus, The Woman’s Bible was to provide a radical and liberating perspective for the women of Stanton’s time, using then-contemporary developments in historical understandings of biblical literature to do so.

The Woman’s Bible was controversial upon its publication, endured challenges from the mainstream religious establishment as well as from feminist colleagues, and was certainly not the only attempt to apply feminist consciousness to the “new” historical criticism of the Bible (Calvert-Koyzis and Weir, 2010). However, its legacy for feminist and gender-critical appropriations of historical-critical approaches to biblical interpretation endures. Subsequent uses, particularly since the 1970s, have aimed to provide alternatives to dominant, patriarchal, and androcentric readings and deployments of biblical literature. As far as published scholarship is concerned, seminal contributions have taken the form of anthologies (e.g., Collins, 1985; Russell, 1985), commentaries (e.g., Newsom and Ringe, 1992; Schüssler Fiorenza, 1993 [which was dedicated to the 100-year anniversary of The Woman’s Bible]; Schottroff and Wacker, 1998), compendia series of essays on canonical biblical books and extra-canonical literature (e.g., Brenner, 1993–2002; Levine et al., 2003–2009), studies that emphasize feminist and gender criticism in historical reconstruction efforts and biblical theology (e.g., Schüssler Fiorenza, 1983), and historical and contextual literary readings of “troubling” biblical texts (e.g., Trible, 1984).

For the most part, much feminist and gender-critical biblical scholarship has made broad and conscious use of historical-critical approaches. Such scholars explain that their goal is to counter the pervasive idea that biblical literature offers nothing “positive” for women, as well as to recover an ancient past that is usable and defensible by women and other dominated peoples. In turn, these studies are often conducted in concert with movements for women’s inclusion in religious hierarchies, leadership roles, and communities at large. Although scholarly analyses may vary, the overarching theme and contribution of this work is to depatriarchalize biblical narratives, biblical scholarship, the study of religion, and perhaps even the world as a whole (Trible, 1973). The “revolutionary” potential of feminist and gender-critical biblical scholarship, in its myriad forms, lies in an insistence that “the personal may be political, the marginal can and at times should be centered, that the objective is a fallacy and the subjective may be an asset rather than a hindrance, that new topics can be brought into the discussion…” (Brenner, 2013). Hence, despite their androcentric and patriarchal origins, historical-critical approaches have proven to be an ally in feminist and gender-critical biblical scholarship, both in nurturing and expanding the presence of female (and nondominant male) scholars in the guild as well as “changing the subject” of biblical interpretation through attending to the areas of investigation and inquiry raised by such interpreters.

In recent years, “changing the subject” in biblical scholarship has perhaps allowed historically informed feminist and gender-critical analysis to realize its greatest potential. Using the same methods espoused in what is considered “traditional” biblical studies, feminist scholars have asked different questions about gender, status, and identity in biblical texts and ancient contexts. Reading primary materials alongside sources usually marginalized in historical reconstructive work, such interpreters have been able to use ancient evidence to write women and other non-elites back into ancient religious and biblical history. Following similar developments in classics and women’s social history, exemplary studies such as Brooten 1982, Schüssler Fiorenza 1983, Kraemer 1988, Meyers 1988, and Schottroff 1995 have made the case that women were far from absent in the ancient contexts associated with social and religious activity. Such scholarship also has reiterated the prevalence of feminine qualities and personifications in conceptions of the divine. Documenting women’s presence, and even leadership, in ancient religions has made it nearly impossible for contemporary scholars to conceive of an ancient biblical world without women (and other non-elites), or to imagine that such perspectives are not worth engaging in considerations of biblical texts, contexts, and histories of interpretation.

Feminist and gender-critical engagements with historical-critical approaches, along with reader-response criticism and methodological contributions associated with the Linguistic Turn, have in addition underscored the key role of the identity of the interpreter in the interpretation of texts. While historical criticism has often been described as concerned solely with the ancient past, feminist and gender-critical engagements (along with related approaches associated with racial-ethnic minority scholarship, postcolonial and disability studies, and queer theory) have suggested that who readers are in the present will drive the character of their interest in the past. Every encounter with biblical literature is ultimately reflective of the time and place in which it is conducted; such encounters say more about the interpreter(s) than the texts being interpreted. In this way, a key tenet of historical-critical approaches—that meaning changes over time and according to whom is doing the meaning-making—is not challenged but both affirmed and amplified through feminist and gender-critical explorations and contributions (Vander Stichele and Penner, 2005).


Historical-critical approaches have engendered a complex, at times controversial, and by no means univocal legacy in biblical scholarship. While historical criticism has come to be linked to that which is “traditional” and “patriarchal” in biblical studies, it also has been quite useful to those who seek different ways of engaging biblical texts as far as gender, sex, and sexuality are concerned. Feminist and gender-critical scholarship that makes use of historical-critical approaches has brought attention to gender as a means of organizing human hierarchies and institutions, across time and cultures. It has also provided occasion to revisit the question of how, and why, the Bible has been used in trenchant justifications of women’s inferiority and/or subservience, asking where alternative, “positive” readings of ancient biblical texts can be located, and what difference the findings can make in the present. Further, historically inclined feminist and gender-critical scholarship has underscored the need for sustained attention to power relationships, both in the biblical texts themselves and also in their deployments (Schüssler Fiorenza, 2009). Finally, scholarly engagements afforded by the intersection of historical-critical approaches and gender issues have reiterated the need to ask basic questions about the task, process, and outcomes of writing history—who participates, on what terms, and to what ends.




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Davina C. Lopez and Todd Penner