To question the gender of the authors of biblical books seems both fantastic and revisionist given that the available history on the Bible states that only men authored these books. That the Bible centers the experience of men, treats women as second-class humans, and remains irredeemably sexist should be common knowledge for most persons. The fact that a woman, or perhaps more tempting, women, contributed some aspect of the development of the Bible may not reveal marked differences between those portions of the Bible and others developed by men, but while women’s contribution may not radically change the content of the Bible, knowledge of women’s contribution can alter the way that content is read and interpreted. The absence of incontrovertible evidence proving female authorship of specific books of the Bible does not rule out the need for thinking and reflection upon the gender of authors of the Bible.

Examination of the processes of text production reveals that the closed system of a single author creating texts for consumption by an audience oversimplifies scribal functions and excludes critical considerations in thinking about the development of texts. Because the authors of the vast majority of the books of the Bible remain largely unknown, the notion of “author” with respect to the Bible is a highly fraught enterprise. This reality need not suggest an easy process of conjuring up female authors, because the mostly pseudonymous texts of the Bible are unable to hold together the idea of originally composed textual material, let alone the concept of a single author. This means that interrogating the authorship of biblical texts requires investigating various levels of composition and textual activity. And yet the gender concerns are not simply settled by the discovery of biological female author/s. The concerns of gender go beyond biology to the gendered voice/s that appear/s in the Bible.

Literacy among Women.

Since all biblical books that claim an author identify only men as authors, it can be easily assumed that the Bible reflects the general culture where women did no writing. The historical record indicates greater levels of writing competence than the Bible enables readers to believe existed in the ancient world. The Egyptians depict the goddess Seshat as the inventor of writing, portraying her with a stylus in her hand and the title “Mistress of the House of Books.” Seshat stands next to the Egyptian god Thoth as part of the pair that inventories conquered treasure and the details of the pharaoh’s rule. Although a goddess, “Seshat” reads more as a title (Female Scribe) rather than a name indicating that scribes were mostly men. However, while no evidence of female scribes in Egypt exists, women seemed to have varying levels of competence with writing-like tools used in painting or cosmetic applications.

In Sumer, Enheduanna, the daughter of King Sargon of Agade (2334–2290 B.C.E), wrote poems and other texts. A priestess in the Sumerian kingdom, Enheduanna is the first acknowledged female author in literature. Her hymn compositions extol the virtues of her father’s conquests and those of the goddess Inanna. Enheduanna attains writing skills from her place in the temple where scribes were educated to function in the service of the religion and state.

Evidence of female literacy in cultures adjacent to ancient Israel suggests that similar forms of literacy may have occurred in Israel. Queens Jezebel and Esther provide the only indication of women writing in the Old Testament. Both these queens issue official documents in their own hand in performance of their functions in elite society (1 Kgs 21:8; Esth 9:29). Presumably, based upon the evidence from surrounding cultures, a woman could be educated to write and therefore the picture of queens writing documents is plausible. These portrayals, though, offer limited evidence of the ability of women to author texts beyond routine documents, since Esther relies upon scribes to pen the king’s decree (Esth 8:8–9).

The Greco-Roman world reveals more textual activity among women. Female-authored texts dating as early as 600 B.C.E occur in Greece. Both Plato (ca. 428–ca. 348 B.C.E) and Pythagoras (ca. 570–495 B.C.E) admit to having female students. Pythagoras’s daughter Myia and Theano, possibly his wife or daughter, wrote several letters and treatises still in existence. Both girls and boys received some form of formal education in Greco-Roman society. Girls could possibly learn to read and write but were not likely taught the advanced skills of rhetoric and mathematics primarily because they were generally married at the age when these subjects were taught to boys. Although the societal norms make it quite possible for women to author texts in the Greco-Roman world, no evidence of women writing exists in the New Testament and no book can be easily attributed to women. Among early Christian texts, the Apocryphal Acts possibly contains female-authored texts given their provenance among a group that included elite women with the necessary education to write these texts. Stevan Davies posits that the Acts of Paul and Thecla is authored by a woman, reasoning that the violent depictions of actions against Thecla represent a sexually chaste woman’s hyperbolic critique of men and their sexual intentions.

Women’s Books.

Dismissing women’s authorship of biblical books for lack of evidence of female scribes too easily settles the presumption that the authors are men. In many instances, no evidence supports a man as the author except the masculinist notion of writing as an exclusively male domain. The absence of author identity makes consideration of the content of books possible and necessary. That authors of different genders can produce the voice of a gender not their own remains a given reality, but too often the assumption of what may appear to be the women’s voice in biblical texts is assigned to male authorship without sufficient attention to the possibilities of women authors. The following books suggest the potential for women authors.

Song of Solomon.

The Song of Solomon (Heb. Song of Songs) offers the rare opportunity of reading the unmediated words from a female protagonist in the Bible. In fact, 53 percent of the words in the book can be attributed to a single female voice with additional amounts from the chorus of women. The woman’s perspectives, her preoccupations, and her desires frame the book, offering a bias toward the female viewpoint unmatched in any single book of the Bible. Shelomo Dov Goitein, who believes a woman composed the Song, observes the female bias in the preference for the mother’s house over any mention of the father’s house, seven appeals to the Daughters of Zion with only two mentions of the man’s friends, and five other references to daughters or young women. This preponderance of detail from a woman’s perspective marks a decided shift in both the gender balance in biblical texts as well as the gender performances in these texts. The woman in Song takes the initiative in the relationship (Song 3:1), disregards social conventions (Song 8:1–2), speaks with self-assurance (Song 1:5), embraces her sexuality in a healthy manner (Song 8:10), and questions the authority of men (Song 8:8–10). Such a portrayal can either reflect a woman’s standpoint or that of a man comfortable with shifting the prevailing gender assumptions.

Determining the gender of the author of the Song of Solomon based upon the female bias in the book remains an uncertain enterprise. The nature of the book as a collection of love poems may indicate female authorship given the evidence of women composing songs both in ancient Israel and the surrounding cultures. As a collection of love poems, though, the Song exhibits a level of incoherence making it possible to regard only some of the poetry in the book as composed by women rather than the entire collection. Although she regards the book as a unity, J. Cheryl Exum remains unconvinced of the possibility of female composition in the Song. Exum notes that in the exchanges between the woman and the man, the woman quotes the man’s words, but he does not return the favor. Further, she points to the reinscription of patriarchal culture and the control of the woman’s sexuality by men despite the seeming independence of the woman. In the end, the evidence for a woman as author of the Song rests upon the dominant woman’s voice that emerges in the text.

Ruth.

The survival of two widowed women in a time of famine sets the backdrop for the book of Ruth. The book examines women’s relationships with other women as well as with men and offers a view that differs from the rivalry among women common in Genesis. Ruth and Naomi’s relationship questions the presumptions of male culture, particularly regarding childbearing. Fokkelein van Dijk-Hemmes offers that Naomi’s speech to Ruth and Orpah presents childbearing as a path to survival rather than childbearing being in the interests of men (Ruth 1:11–13). Similarly, she sees the women overturning the men’s wish to Boaz (4:11–12) in Naomi’s favor (4:17), placing Naomi in a greater role than the father. The style of the text, its storytelling quality, as well as its ironies, which eventually place the women in the foremost position, all point to women’s culture as its source and to the possibility of a female author.

The Yahwist.

Most scholars accept the composite nature of the Pentateuch and regard the Yahwist (the “J” author posited by the Documentary Hypothesis) as a significant contributor to its development. Debates about the date, texts, and the origins of the Yahwist persist in the scholarship. Harold Bloom unsettles the presumption of the male identity of the Yahwist by suggesting a female rival to the Court Historian who was responsible for the development of 2 Samuel. Locating her as an educated elite member of the post-Solomonic court, Bloom regards her as a theological historian who tells the story of the ancestors with an eye to developments that begin to emerge at the end of Solomon’s reign and continue thereafter. Bloom points to the concern for the fate of women under polygamy, the portrayals of God unencumbered by constraints, and the several ironic turns in the story as evidence of women’s storytelling abilities. He acknowledges the idea of a female Yahwist to be a fiction, but a fiction similar to those of other historical authors held by readers and critics. Nonetheless, one can only imagine who those authors were despite the available historical detail. For Bloom positing a female Yahwist is more than a fanciful gimmick; it is a thoughtful engagement with a body of texts that defies the traditional classifications and presumptions. From this perspective, Bloom draws attention to the marked difference between the writing of the Yahwist and other Pentateuchal sources. Such differences possibly point not only to a different cultural location for the author but also for the presumed gender.

Hebrews.

Among the contenders for the authorship of Hebrews stand Priscilla or Prisca, a close friend of Paul and a member of the community at Rome, who together with her husband, Aquilla, offers leadership in the community (Acts 18). Priscilla’s name appears before her husband in letters from Paul and others (Rom 16:32; 2 Tim 4:19). As a woman of means, she most likely possesses the education necessary to compose the text. In 1900 Adolf Harnack proposes Priscilla as the obvious answer to the puzzle as to why the name of an influential apostolic teacher of high rank and associated with Paul would be withheld from the text. Building on Harnack’s thesis, Ruth Hoppin notes the self-deprecating apology (Heb 13:22) as likely coming from a woman writing instructions to a largely male audience. Hoppin views the character of Hebrews with its concern for the sufferings of Jesus and its emphasis on his humanity, along with the mention of women’s role in the resurrection, and the intrigues relating to Moses and the pharaoh’s daughter, as a woman’s concern. While the evidence for Priscilla’s authorship remains absent, the claim that the masculine form of διηγούμενον (“should I say,” 11:32) eliminates a female author ignores the real possibility of a woman writing pseudonymously as a man. In addition, the strong objections that develop in the early Christian community to women’s leadership in later years open the space for a plausible case that a female author would assume a male identity in order to pen Hebrews.

Women’s Compositions.

The question of the gender of the authors of biblical texts creates the corresponding effect of focusing intently on the final text products and thereby privileging those with the skills of reading and writing as well as access to the forms of production that ensure the development of texts. With regard to the Bible, this form of investigation inevitably will exclusively reveal men. Expanding the question of text authorship to incorporate composition includes other voices and contributions normally overlooked. Biblical texts, for the most part, are composite works made up of material compiled from both oral and written sources. However, these sources and the gender of their composers go unacknowledged as long as the attention remains on the agent responsible for the creation of the final form of texts. Several unacknowledged nonliterary sources that make up written texts belong to women and represent what can be regarded as the women’s voice. Women’s creative literacy initially exists in oral form and appears later in texts through the work of men who control the processes of writing. Such oral activity represents the traditions of women in their culture and in places where women are free to develop their own customs.

The Bible generally locates women’s cultural productions in songs and poems. These literary traditions appear as songs composed and used by women in various life settings on occasions and are associated with women characters in texts. These songs represent spaces where women’s creativity flourish and women contribute to the life of the community. Women sing songs on various occasions such as victories after battle, birth, and death. While no actual fragments of laments exist that could be directly attributed to women, the Bible points to women leading acts of lament (Jer 9:17, 20) even though it appears that men would join in these acts (2 Chr 35:25). In addition, women function as entertainers singing, dancing, and at times playing instruments (Judg 21:21; Isa 23:16). Performing these roles in these social spaces provides women the opportunity to compose songs that make their way into the texts produced by men.

Women’s leadership in victory songs after battles appears commonplace (Judg 5:28). These short pithy songs offer time for celebration of the champion warrior as in the case of David (1 Sam 18:6–7) or the LORD (Exod 15:20–21). Whether spontaneous compositions or not, such victory songs reflect the authentic voice of women even though the final version of the narrative may obscure this. Athalya Brenner notes that the shape of Exodus 15 places Moses as the author of the song at the Sea with Miriam echoing his composition, when the song may more likely be Miriam’s composition. She bases her position on the common use of the verb ’nh (literally “answered” but translated as “sang”) in Exodus 15:21, Judges 5:29, and 1 Samuel 18:7. This verb hints at a more spontaneous response from the women who lead the victory songs rather than a studied composition. However, the more technical verb śyr (“to sing”) introduces Moses’s words in Exodus 15:1. The verb here indicates a subsequent attribution to Moses instead of the more spontaneous response from Miriam. The feminine singular verb form watāśar (“sang”) in Judges 5:1 makes “and Barak” seem as a later inclusion designed so that Deborah shares credit of the song with Barak. This apparent addition presents further evidence of the reduction of women’s creative contributions. Whether an earlier and perhaps shorter version of Deborah’s Song exists remains uncertain. Undoubtedly, the song in its current form reflects the remarkable feats of a woman warrior, Jael, and sings her praises in the forms used for victorious male heroes (Judg 5:24–27). The song’s concerns with the impact of the defeat of Sisera upon his mother, the response of the court ladies, and the mention of women as victims and spoils of war offer a striking gender insight (Judg 5:28–30) that could possibly come from a woman. That Deborah’s Song and the accompanying narrative in chapter 4 place women in superior positions to men reveals a different conception of gender positioning and power than that characterized in most of the Bible.

Birth songs reveal another space of women’s creativity. The risks involved in childbearing coupled with the demands to produce male heirs serve as the occasion for poetic songs of various lengths. From Eve’s outburst on the birth of her son (Gen 4:1) to the series of utterances that frame the names of Rachel and Leah’s sons at their birth (Gen 29:31–30:24), women express victory at times of birth over circumstances that could cause either physical or social death. The women’s words to Naomi on the birth of Oded function like a birth song (Ruth 4:14), since they recognize the moment as a victory for Naomi and Ruth over their dire circumstances. Although not stated as a song but a prayer, the poetic structure of Hannah’s word on the birth of Samuel suggests it as a song of praise (1 Sam 2:1–10). The song moves from concerns that connect with Hannah’s story as a bullied secondary wife unable to bear children (vv. 2–5) to more general and nationalist concerns (vv. 6–10). This movement reflects the cooptation of a birth song composed by a woman into the national religious and political order where men serve. Hannah’s redemption from distress forms the basis for shaping Samuel’s birth as the marker for Israel’s future redemption. The final form of 1 Samuel effects this movement so smoothly that it serves as an example for Luke’s nativity narratives (Luke 2). By expanding an original woman’s composition on the birth of her son, the male-centered text reduces women only to bearers of the national saviors while erasing their other creative contributions.

The Voice of Gender.

The quest for women authors in the Bible may not produce clear evidence of women writing biblical texts but it unsettles the presuppositions about the gender of authors in ways that require consideration of the gendered voice in biblical texts. Yet identifying gendered voices remains a slippery task given the fluidity of gender. While voice can exist independent of gendered bodies, such voice participates in and reflects the gender assumptions of the culture. Insisting on the androcentric nature of the Bible, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza remarks that since women writers participate in patriarchy as much as men they may not produce substantially different texts. Schüssler Fiorenza foregrounds here the masculinist ideology of the Bible and thereby sets up the space for gender critique of those texts. At best, this critique enables discovery of the spaces where the masculinist view yields to another perspective or at least spaces where such views are moderated, as in the case of the gospels of Mark and John that offer different conceptions of discipleship and community from texts like the Pastoral Epistles.

The notion of gendered voice suggests that gender contains essentialist qualities. While essentialism remains a troublesome concept for some, others regard it as a necessary tool to avoid acquiescing to the default male position. What female voice looks like in the Bible is uncertain given the male control of the production of the Bible. Hélène Cixous’s notion of l’ecriture feminine means that women-produced texts do not fit seamlessly into the Bible or simply are not included or else they should be self-evident. Cixous understands such writing by women to be writing with the body (sexts = sex and text) in a way that transcends the phallocentricism of male-produced texts and should be clearly different in their style and language. Cixous’s idea of sexts draws attention to texts that appear to fit easily into the Bible but at the same time occupy that space awkwardly. No pure form of l’ecriture feminine exists in the Bible since texts are at best dual gendered, resulting in the women’s voice, both original women’s composition and otherwise, being transmitted through the male pen. The presence of women’s voices in the Bible emerges most often disembodied from real women. While such voices draw attention to women’s culture, creative traditions, and perspectives, these voices do not always represent authoritative sources of women’s experiences.

The search for the gender of authors in the Bible can easily participate in the binarism of gender and ignores what Judith Butler regards as gender performances. Despite its androcentric nature, aspects of the Bible break out of the singularity of the male perspective to embrace the female viewpoint; at other times these gender categories are so blurred as to be indistinct, as in the case of Deborah’s Song. Anticipating that gender writes its exclusive experiences and worldviews, nothing else reifies gender in ways that result in the easy dismissal of the idea of women writers or conflate representations of women with real women. The fluidity of gender enables authors to transcend their biology and perform gender in ways other than those culturally prescribed. Such fluidity of gender opens the possibility to conceive not only of women writing biblical texts pseudonymously as men but also to conceive of men who (to adapt Cixous here to mean sexuality and text) sext biblical texts in transgressive ways. Such possibilities leave room to interrogate the gender performances of authors of books such as the grisly book of Judges and the pornographic aspects of the books of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea.

[See also EDUCATION, subentries on ANCIENT NEAR EAST, HEBREW BIBLE, and NEW TESTAMENT; GENDER; and MASCULINITY AND FEMININITY, subentry HEBREW BIBLE.]

Bibliography

Bibliography

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  • Brenner, Athalya, ed. Feminist Companion to the Song of Songs. Sheffield, U.K.: JSOT Press, 1993b.
  • Brenner, Athalya, and Fokkelein van Dijk-Hemmes. On Gendering Texts: Female and Male Voices in the Hebrew Bible. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1993.
  • Davies, Stevan. The Revolt of the Widows: The Social World of the Apocryphal Acts. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980.
  • Exum, J. Cheryl. Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)versions of Biblical Narratives. Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity, 1993.
  • Exum, J. Cheryl. Song of Songs: A Commentary. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2005.
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  • Kraemer, Ross. “Women’s Authorship of Jewish and Christian Literature in the Greco-Roman World.” In Women Like This: New Perspectives on Jewish Women in the Greco-Roman World, edited by Amy-Jill Levine, pp. 221–242. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991.
  • Lefkowitz, Mary R. “Did Ancient Women Write Novels?” In Women Like This: New Perspectives on Jewish Women in the Greco-Roman World, edited by Amy-Jill Levine, pp. 199–219. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991.
  • Rosenberg, David, and Harold Bloom. The Book of J. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990.
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Steed Vernyl Davidson