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Theological scholarship typically defines a canon as “the corpus of scriptural writings that is considered authoritative and standard for defining and determining ‘orthodox’ religious beliefs and practices” (Sanders, 1992). In such a definition the only canon in sight is that of the Bible. As distinct from this, scholars in humanist and social sciences often use the term canon in a wider sense and may, for instance, refer to the Western canon, the philosophical canon, canons of sociology or of cultural heritage, ethnic canons, and so on (e.g., Goody, 1998; Guillory, 1993; Hallberg, 1984). This broader concept resonates with a line of comparative religious scholarship studying scripture across religious traditions (e.g., Henderson, 1991; Levering, 1989; Smith, 1993). Gender studies have been sensitive to canons and canonicity in this wider sense (Reed, 2006). Still, much scholarship on gender and the Bible seems to have remained influenced by the narrower definition and is thereby still affected by the power discourse that surrounds the biblical canon (and other strong, authoritative canons).

We would use a wider concept of canon: “A canon denotes an identifiable collection (of texts, authors, rules, dogma, artifacts, action, etc.), which is recognized by an identifiable community as superb, authoritative, classical, etc.” (cf. Stordalen, 2012, pp. 20–27). The salient points in this definition are the canonical corpus, a canonical group, and the authority ascribed to the canon. A textual canon may have different characteristics—closed or open, textually fixed or not—but to qualify as a canon it should be recognizable as a collection to its users. The authority ascribed to the canon may be of different quality and intensity. Following this definition, canonization names the process in which the canonical body attains its authority, and canonicity denotes the status and authority ascribed to the canon. A key point in our apprehension of canonicity was formulated by Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1993, p. 18). Canonicity is not a function of particular characteristics of the canonical collection, such as its quality, high age, closure, ability to produce commentaries, and so forth. Rather, canonicity is a product of human activity: scripture is something that the canonical community does.

We propose that a study of practices attached to biblical canons through this generative lens may prove to be important for a broad spectrum of humanist and social science scholarship, especially when studied in relation to gender, since both categories are so deeply anchored in social practices. Biblical canons are more formalized and more explicitly documented than many other canons, which may render them convenient spaces for in-depth case studies in a humanist attempt to understand typical ecologies of canons.

Feminists and the Canon.

Feminists have had an uneasy relationship with established canons of the past—not only the biblical canon but also the canons of philosophy, literature, music, and film, as well as other religious canons. The canon may in itself be seen as the root of the problem of continuing patriarchy: canons tend to symbolize current social structures, and so canonized writings often endorse and reinforce the subordination or at least secondary status of women and the primacy of men. Canons represent and promote institutional power. To dismantle such power and overturn patriarchy, feminists have often found it necessary to de-canonize or remove the canon. Most canons have canonized texts (and commentaries) written by men and reflecting male perspectives and experiences. In so doing they render women’s talent, creativity, achievements, perspectives, and experiences invisible. This has been another reason why female emancipation often has seen canons as problematic.

The problem with such an understanding of canon, which is heavily colored by the case of the biblical canon, is that it tends to (implicitly) perpetuate an attitude toward the canon as something rather fixed and eternal. The risks with such an assumption are many. First, it is a misconception that the Bible is fixed. Jewish, Catholic, Christian Orthodox, and Protestant Bibles include different books (see below). The wide variety of manuscripts available means that publishers of the Bible have to make harsh choices with regard to which textual variants to follow. More importantly, the presumed canonicity of the original is transferred to the translations, so that ancient, medieval, and early modern ways of translating gendered/sexual terminology easily become bestowed with a certain authority that current philology would deem unwarranted.

A second risk of such an implicit assumption that canon is by nature patriarchal and fixed is that one’s own views of which texts are must-reads within an academic discipline or other cultural areas evade critical scrutiny and remain unrecognized. Even in the most canon-critical gender studies departments, to pass exams, every student has to read and know books on reading lists prepared by the faculty in the various subject areas. To create a reading list is an act of canonization (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 32). Since canonization is about deciding which texts or social expressions are the most important, or most representative, we simply cannot avoid creating canons. A world without distinctions is a chaotic world. Perhaps textual canons have become more important than ever, as tools of navigation in today’s global world culture where other distinctions (gender, national, cultural, etc.) are increasingly dismantled. We need representative symbols as never before.

Since canonization is a cultural process that takes place whether we like it or not, it is important to analyze and discuss such processes and the effects they have in terms of gender. As noted by feminist historians, such processes historically have marginalized women’s expressions. When a text or corpus of texts has achieved canonical status, it begins to function in a way that is regulative, normative, and authoritative for further textual production (Lyons, 2002). This process naturalizes the exclusion of those expressions that were not included in the canon in the first place and makes such processes of exclusion seem reasonable and permanent. To analyze canon and canonization in a gender-critical perspective implies the analysis of all these levels: the processes of canonization and also the canonicity; how the end-product, the canon, functions as a norm; interventions, subversions, and critiques of existing canons; and canon supplements, additions, and suggested “improvements” (e.g., by including women).

Third, even within a canonized list, works included and excluded will vary. In the biblical canon, some books are more popular in some periods and almost forgotten in others (see below). There emerges what we would call canonical reading practices, which are no less influential for the actual use of the canon than the canonical writings themselves.

Fourth, what the canon actually says is constantly renegotiated, sometimes by way of confirming or revising canonical commentary to the scriptures. Feminist exegesis of the Bible is a good case in point. After the transformation of the content of the Bible carried out by feminist interpreters, it is no longer clear that there were only male leaders and apostles in early Christianity (Brooten, 1977), that God is described exclusively in male terms (Løland, 2008), or that the Exodus and Revelation narratives of liberation are liberating for all believers (Brenner, 1994; Pippin, 1992).

Hence, the assumption that canonicity always implies something fixed and patriarchal that is irreconcilable with feminism cannot be upheld. We return to some of these points later.

A Canonical Approach to Gender Is Transhistorical.

Gender studies at large have often had a contemporary focus. How to understand and describe the world here and now has been more important than dealing with a past that has often been seen as oppressive. The past is seen more as a chapter that should be closed. Needless to say, this has not been the perspective of historical feminist/queer studies, but they do not constitute the main bulk of gender studies, and their results are often not incorporated into the wider field of gender studies—to its disadvantage: the ability to cope with time, future, and change is lost in gender studies if we relinquish the past altogether. To study processes of canonization, then, is a way of learning how to persist through cultural change.

Biblical gender studies at large have not operated with canonicity as analytical category, and “canon” has for the most part been taken at face value as referring to the existing biblical canon. In this overview, we demonstrate this tendency in the work of several scholars and offer alternative modes of interpretation.

Feminist exegetes have investigated the history of the early Christian movement (Schüssler Fiorenza, 1983) and identified important female leaders. We note, however, that early Christian female leaders may not have written very much, or their texts—and definitely the texts attributed to them—never made it into the biblical canon (although they may have been part of social canons in their groups at the time); hence such research may profit from broader interdisciplinary comparison.

Comparison between the early Christian period and, for example, the Enlightenment illumines the issues faced by gender-critical studies of the biblical canon. For the Enlightenment period, we can compare texts authored by women that did not make it into the various canons with texts that were canonized and trace the influence of the former on the latter—and often vice versa. We can trace how quotes or ideas from the letters of various noblewomen who corresponded with notable male philosophers can be found in the publications of the latter—usually without reference. One case in point is Descartes (Owesen, 2010), but there are many others. In contrast, for the early Christian period, “historical reconstruction” consists in extrapolating historical women from the existing biblical text, which in most likelihood is written by men and with the assistance of some slightly later sources that attest to some impact and memory of these women—all to be read in light of indirect literary evidence and archaeological material attesting to everyday life in the period. In this period, for example, we have the text of John Chrysostom but not the responses of Olympias, who sponsored his work (Clark, 1999, pp. 37–38).

Such transhistorical comparison demonstrates the canon’s fluid boundaries with regard to gender agency. They suggest that women’s thoughts were most likely included in canonical texts without being explicitly recognized as such. They also suggest that the biblical canons had a wider social context in which canonical boundaries, impulses, and influences would have been very different from those reflected in the biblical corpus and ancient ecclesiastical interpretation of it (Horsfield, 2013).

Gender and genre.

The concept of canon was much discussed in American literary criticism in the 1990s. A key concern was the value of a multicultural society and how it was (not) reflected in the “Introduction to the Western Canon” courses at liberal arts colleges. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (Bloom, 1987) itself canonized in the reading lists of such courses, sparked a debate on what place the Western canon could still occupy in the curricula of multicultural, multigendered societies and universities. The debates reached a stalemate around the turn of the millennium, when American culture shifted toward a more conservative stance. Critical discussions of canon and canonicity, both literary and religious, were paradoxically seen as undermining Western values.

Because access to text production has always been class contingent, women’s main means of expression have often been letters, pamphlets, painting, and poems—media less often preserved than the erudite philosophical treatises written by elite males. The analysis of gender in canon formations, therefore, must include considerations of media, class, and genre, as well as investigation of the processes of canonization and the gendered effects of canons. Although some of this work has been undertaken, there are still countless historical women whose interactions, interventions, and subversions of cultural canons remain to be analyzed and brought to attention. Such work could help feminism understand itself better as a historical phenomenon in need of facing its own canons and its own historically contingent and vulnerable position.

Alternative strategies.

Instead of simply avoiding or denying canons and canonicity, feminist and gender-critical scholars have developed several strategies turning the construction, deconstruction, or criticism of the canon into a key academic endeavor.

One strategy has been to recuperate forgotten women writers and artists; to incorporate women into the various canons; or to create new, altogether female-friendly canons (Wollstonecraft, 1789). This has been a popular approach in the case of Hebrew Bible characters such as Sarah, Rebecca, Esther, Ruth, Deborah, Huldah, and Miriam.

Another strategy is to take a material approach, analyzing how access to literacy, writing, reading materials (a more limited good in Antiquity and the Middle Ages than today), and distribution channels largely determined whose ideas were preserved for posterity. A material approach also questions how the notion of the fixity of the biblical canon, as a specific number of books included within one book cover, can be deconstructed or dismantled. What is considered “biblical canon” in Judaism and in Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christianity is actually from a material point of view three different collections. As mentioned previously, they differ in the texts they exclude as well as the ones they include: Mishnah and Talmud function as canon in Judaism, akin to the role of the liturgy in Eastern Orthodoxy and tradition in Roman Catholicism. Most significantly, the order and structure of the canon vary, with great consequences for the understanding of biblical gender in the history of interpretation (Fischer et al., 2011, p. 20). The way a particular canon is structured shapes how the women who are presented within the canon are framed. Are they given a prominent position, for example, at the beginning and end, or are they more hidden in the middle? For example, the Roman Catholic Bible (Jerusalem Bible) includes not only the book of Judith, which is attributed to a woman, but also the Book of Sirach, a book of “wisdom” with myriad misogynist statements. Unique to Christian Bibles are not only normative statements that silence women’s speaking in assemblies (1 Tim) but also descriptions of women as public speakers, as leaders, patrons, and apostles (Acts, Pauline letters). The Introduction to the encyclopedia The Bible and Women (Fischer et al., 2011, pp. 15–20), itself a project in de- and re-canonization, highlights that Christianity labels “Historical books” those writings that the Hebrew canon deems “Prophets.” By separating the Former and Latter Prophets, the Christian canon makes the texts describing female prophets less prominent than does the Jewish canon. This point is argued on the basis of Klara Butting’s work, which demonstrates how the prophetic figures Deborah (Judg 4–5) and Huldah (2 Kgs 22) frame the “Former Prophets.” Butting argues that this inclusio influences the understanding of prophecy as a gendered phenomenon, suggesting that all references to “prophets” between these two bookends must be understood as referring to “men and women prophets” (Fischer et al., 2011, pp. 19–20).

Even within a single version of the Bible, questions of content arise. Is the version to be read as a material book or as it was actually received via oral tradition, reading conventions, canonical commentary, and general use? For example, although the Vulgate (a key Latin Roman Catholic Bible) may have been “canon” in the medieval period, the public only knew a narrow range of “highlights” that were cited repeatedly in sermons and liturgies. The learned biblical audience of the monasteries, on the contrary, often read biblical literature as part of the pagina sacra, which included also the Glossa Ordinaria, a huge compendium of philological and philosophical commentary gleaned from patristic writings especially from Late Antiquity. Gender critical studies might fruitfully study the distribution of male and female literary characters in the selected highlights and the Glossa Ordinaria as compared with the Bible as a whole. To our knowledge such study has not been done; we suspect that stories of Mary the Mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and some other female characters were so popular with medieval, chiefly illiterate audiences that they may have perceived the Bible as more female-friendly than do modern readers of the written text. We also suspect that the Glossa is dominated by philosophical dogmatics in which biblical female characters find comparatively less resonance.

A third strategy employed by feminist and gender-critical scholars is the transformation of the canon’s content. The use of feminist exegesis for such an explicit program of canonical transformation can be traced back to the 1970s; antecedents can be traced to earlier feminist biblical scholarship and even earlier gender-critical interpretations of the Bible carried out by nonscholars (e.g., Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Fell, and others). This critical engagement with canonical content and its various possibilities of meaning and signification is important and is ongoing. Denise Buell states: “All feminist biblical interpreters call for some kinds of transformations, within Judaism or Christianity, within academic practices, or in the ways that biblical interpretation relates to wider moral, social, or ethical norms in contemporary situations” (Buell, forthcoming). Her essay goes on to explore in more detail the ways feminist biblical interpreters have approached the meaning and significance of canons.

Another alternative strategy for dealing with the patriarchal canon is to deconstruct the perception that it is closed, treating the notion of a closed canon more as a symptom or result of the sociocultural process of canonization than as a fixed reality. Such an approach necessarily addresses the social forces that enforce a closed canon. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (1994, p. 8) has urgently called for the opening of the canon: “Feminist biblical scholarship cannot remain within the limits drawn by the established canon. Rather it must transgress them for the sake of a different theological self-understanding and historical imagination.” She argues that the emergence of a canon is always embedded in structures of power. Earliest Christianity saw a high involvement of women and religious writings written by or attributed to women, but the gendered struggles between different strands of Christianity over leadership and power in the fourth century led to the closure of the Christian canon. Feminist research over the past forty years has well documented that canonization went hand in hand with the imperialization of the church in the fourth century, a process that also led to a reduction of female participation in the leadership of early Christian communities (Horsfield, 2013; Schüssler Fiorenza, 1994). The closing of the Christian (New Testament) canon excluded women’s traditions and female-authored or -attributed books (Schüssler Fiorenza, 2011, p. 27). Transgressing canonical boundaries in search of gender in earliest Christianity requires, on the one hand, treating texts that express a more balanced gender ideology as sacred scriptures and, on the other hand, halting the continued reception of misogynous texts. Following her lead, many of Schüssler Fiorenza’s colleagues and students have investigated early Christian writings without privileging canonical writings over noncanonical ones. They simply assume, as Buell points out, that “the Bible as a literary canon was the result of a process of centuries of use, interpretation, negotiation, and debate” (Buell [forthcoming]).

Impact, content, and material form.

Despite the importance of this historical scholarship, we would stress that it is the finished text as received in the canonical reading (and not the more or less hidden history behind it) that continues to exercise cultural influence today. Yet, the canon continues to evolve even after the fixation of its material content. The Bible as material object continues to be read, cited, printed, and now also digitalized, and the consequences of its ongoing transformation have not yet been sufficiently considered by gender-critical biblical scholarship.

A material approach raises questions about the reception of feminist exegesis (or lack thereof) within broader biblical scholarship and popular culture. The possible ongoing marginalization of insights from gender-critical exegesis may reflect the material streams and practices of scholarship. Women in Western culture were not full legal subjects until the twentieth century. Few were remembered in the official historiographies or as interpreters of the Bible. Nevertheless, some women did read and interpret the Bible and became focal points for traditions, since they defied the “canonical right” of men, who as the guardians of orthodoxy selected some traditions that today are seen as the tradition. (Fischer et al., 2011, p. 22).

In a parallel genealogical move one could trace how canonical texts were engaged and drawn upon in the development of feminism as a current of thought. Thus feminism is not totally alien to the canon but has developed out of it—albeit perhaps as an unrecognized child.

An Agenda for Future Research.

We propose an agenda for future research on canon and canonicity that incorporates five dimensions.

Canonical discourse.

All influential canons seem to have displayed qualities considered by many to be superb, and some canons have succeeded in maintaining their supreme state over considerable time. There is, therefore, no doubt that human lives around the globe are deeply influenced by successful cultural, social, political, religious, technological, and other canons. When seen from the inside of canonical discourse, the authority of a given canon is explained as a function of superb characteristics of the canonical body: authorship, formal features, capacity for continued creative reception, and so on. These and other qualities legitimize the position of the canonical body and warrant its continued use and influence. Conversely, attempts at challenging a given canon often aim to demonstrate that the canonical collection is not so outstanding after all, that its singularity is an arbitrary historical construction, and so on. Along this axis there have been heated discussions of biblical versus extra-biblical literature, of the Western literary canon versus feminist and other literature, of European (male) philosophy versus (colloquial) feminist thinkers, and so forth (cf. earlier).

This kind of discourse is in danger of confirming the assumption that the power and legitimacy of a canon is a function of qualities inherent within the canonical collection. It draws attention away from those cultural spaces where the power of the canon is manufactured and from the groups dominating those spaces. In particular, it conceals the agency of the canonical community and of the institutions and individuals in charge of curating the canon. A truly critical analysis of any canon would, therefore, start by investigating conditions for producing canonicity: the specific mechanisms by which a canonical group ensures that its canonical body continuously retains a privileged status. To achieve such an analysis, it would be necessary to develop a deeper understanding of typical elements of canonical ecology, i.e., the interplay and interdependence of various agents, cultural products, and conditions that cooperate in producing and reproducing a given canon and its social and political discourse.

Canon as cultural capital.

Like Guillory (1993) we see the dynamics of canonization through the analytical lens of Pierre Bourdieu. In this perspective, the morals, aesthetics, and other codes symbolized in the canon are those enshrined in the habitus of the canonical group (cf. Bourdieu, 1977, pp. 22–30, 72–87, 159–197). Individuals in this social formation understand themselves as “doing the canon” (cf. Cantwell Smith) because it is an objectification of the cognitive and motivating structures that dominate their habitus. This is one reason why the canonical body is likely to remain an instrument of power regardless of attacks on its professed qualities.

With Bourdieu (1986), we might see the canonical body as a case of objectified cultural capital, capable of being translated into social and monetary capital. The canonical body itself may fulfill roles in social discourse, and one could map those roles by charting what Bruno Latour (2005, pp. 44ff.) might call the agency of that canonical collection. On a more general level, a canon often becomes an icon for the values and motivations that are taken for granted in a given society, its doxa (Bourdieu, 1977, pp. 164–171). For this reason a canon may serve as a sort of wildcard (not semantic) argument supporting values that are taken for granted by the one playing the wildcard.

Like more traditional interpreters, feminists also have appropriated this cultural capital for their purposes. Canons have not been only obstacles to gender equality or to women as cultural agents in their own right; feminism as a current of thought emerged out of existing canons of philosophy and religion and developed in critical conversation with them. For this reason, rather than simply criticizing canons for their androcentric bias and generating alternative, gender-inclusive canons, feminist scholars should study the “mechanics of canonization” and its effect on feminist interpretations (which have their own “mechanics of canonization”).

Biblical canonical ecologies.

While the formally canonized biblical collection can change only within very tight constraints, the lives that people live and the habitus they continuously renegotiate may change dramatically. So the meaning of the canonical collection needs to be able to change without the collection being altered. In biblical canons the “canonical mechanics” to achieve this is the production of authoritative commentary (cf. Smith, 1978, pp. 26ff.). The practice of commentary seems to have followed biblical canons from their very beginning (like entries now available as redactional and other glosses in the biblical text); through the Middle Ages (for instance in the form of glossa ordinaria, which was regularly seen as part of pagina sacra and printed on the same page as the biblical text); into the Reformation era (for instance as an extensive system of introductions and other directions printed in early Lutheran Bibles). Such practice of commentary is still going on, encompassing a much wider array of commentary products than those mentioned here. Canon and commentary have a symbiotic life: while the canon provides authority and dignity to the commentary, the commentary lends relevance and applicability back to the formal canon. In a study of a given canonical ecology these expectations would be verified and qualified with precise data. Still, it seems clear that when looking for conditions for the production of canonicity, the commentary practice of a given tradition should be one major area of research. Obviously, this applies to earlier as well as current phases in the history of a given canon. Indeed, a focus on canonical commentary practices would potentially help bridge historical and contemporary studies—for the benefit of both.

A focus on the commentary directs us even further to the institutions, groups, and individuals with the means, the know-how, and the position to produce such commentary. It also raises the issue of the media in which the canon and the commentary exist, be it oral tradition; ancient book scrolls; public reading; mass produced printed editions; performative genres such as ritual, music, or dancing; artwork in various media; digital text; and so forth. These dimensions and their myriad of variations contribute greatly to defining conditions for producing canonicity. For instance, when a biblical text migrates from the printed book and the liturgy to the theatre, its canonical ecology undergoes significant modifications. New institutions and actors are responsible for giving authoritative commentary. New constituencies take part in the canonical community and most likely they do so in different ways. Also, it seems likely that their sense of uniqueness in the canonical body as well as the quality of authority that they ascribe to the canon undergo change.


Finally, we address the point where most discussion of the biblical canons normally begins: the issue of canonization. Traditionally, study of the history of the formation of the canons of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament/Christian Bibles has been conducted without adequate sensitivity toward the issues of canonical ecology outlined earlier. Many historians of the canonization of the Bible disregard the variance between biblical canons, and canonization is still discussed as a function of certain qualities of the collection, usually its closure and textual stability. Hence, the history of the formation of the various Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Syriac, Latin, and other collections of biblical literature that were canonical at one time needs to be rewritten. Much new scholarship is needed.

Critical assessment of canons.

Gender-critical as well as traditional exegetical studies run the risk of remaining under the spell of the canon—even when professing to dismantle it (as noted previously). There is a need, analytically as well as politically, to develop a truly etic (outside) view of the canonical discourse in question. Since categories of gender, as well as of religion, are socially conditioned, a thorough social theory should be among the basic tools that students of canon, canonization, and canonicity carry in their analytical repertoire. Critical inquiry into specific conditions for manufacturing canonicity in a given discourse has the promise of combining historical and contemporary studies and producing genuinely important insights.




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