The challenges of writing about womanist biblical criticism are as varied as scholars who claim this moniker. Even though this approach took root in the biblical academy nearly three decades ago, it continues to emerge. At this writing, there is no womanist reader or collection of womanist biblical criticism. There have been several offerings to describe womanist readings/interpretations and how they function in biblical criticism discourse, however, and by looking over those offerings one may get a clear sense of the expansiveness and multiplicity of methods, strategies, and resources used. A quick overview will display, however, a consistency in the diversity: womanists begin at the nexus of texts and real human bodies, especially poor black women and girls.

Early on, womanist biblical scholars were deeply concerned about building a heuristic model and taxonomy for their work. The work of Renita Weems, the first African American woman to receive a degree in Hebrew Bible in the United States, was included in the edited volume Black Theology in 1993. Having understood that womanist thought had changed black theology, the editors Gayraud S. Wilmore and James H. Cone included Weems’s article along with one by New Testament scholar Clarice J. Martin, along with a full section on womanist theology, which included nine essays. Weems reflected on the womanist biblical enterprise, especially working through the confluence and conflicts of interpretation among feminists and black (male) liberationists. She did not lay out a roadmap for the process, but she clarified what is at stake for womanist criticism, particularly the role of power.

Martin’s essay in the volume (1990; reprinted in Wilmore and Cone, 1993) was in fact a “quest.” She hunted for a model to employ the categories of “race,” “gender,” and “class” beyond mere reporting to a consideration of realities not easily separated as a way of approaching texts. Both Weems and Martin disabused themselves of a mythic objectivity and claimed subjectivity as subjects and as a stance.

Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar Wil Gafney conjoined the feminist-womanist project in her 2006 essay. Self-identifying as “hybrid,” Gafney consciously uses both terms, and yet her essay spends a great deal of time describing and making room for a womanist biblical criticism. The same year, Old Testament scholar Nyasha Junior’s work was included in an edited volume (2006). My own work as a biblical scholar has sought to build a womanist biblical criticism as a gateway to interpretation for the practical field of preaching, as best evidenced in my chapter on preaching (Bridgeman, 2013). Also published in 2013 were two entries by New Testament scholar Mitzi Smith.

Origins/Beginnings.

Womanist biblical criticism emerged in the context of a burgeoning womanist discourse located initially in literary circles. Alice Walker first used the term “womanist” in a short story, “Coming Apart,” in 1979, in which she described the black wife’s character as a womanist, or, as she noted “a feminist, only more common.” At the beginning of her 1983 volume of essays, she elaborated on her now iconic definition. For Walker, the word “womanist” deepened the work of feminism, taking into account not only sexism but also racism. Though today many womanists separate womanism from feminism, Walker originally linked the two.

An outgrowth of womanist religious discourse begun by ethicists and theologians, womanist work began as a protest to the realities that North American feminism did not attend to issues of race and class and that North American liberation theologies (especially done by black men) did not attend to gender. In this “in-between” space, womanist thought arose and found its voice.

Like all ideological strategies, womanist criticism admits that it is an “interested” enterprise. Womanists reject notions of unbiased objectivity; they are consciously biased but, as I have noted elsewhere, not bigoted. “This bias is the preferential reading through a stated, uncovered, made-known lens, i.e., the life of poor black women, especially, but really the particularities of black lives in general” (Bridgeman, 2013).

Womanist criticism began, also, with a concern for the black church rather than the academy. For this reason, its critics have often deemed it “not rigorous.” However, womanist biblical scholars—and ethicists and theologians attending to biblical work—have sought to make the work they do simple and free of academic jargon in order to be in full conversation with the church. Because many of the first womanists were Christians—most of whom were also ordained clergy—womanist biblical scholars have sought to bring the art of critical questioning to pulpits and bible studies in local churches. This enterprise makes it very different from the work of the guild. Womanist interpreters, more often than some of their white/feminist counterparts, are trying to remain in pulpits or women’s conference circles in—at this point—predominantly conservative churches, especially if they do not feel their contributions are valued in the biblical guild. Womanist work seeks the survival and flourishing for black women, with the notion that if black women thrive, a culture will be created in which all persons may thrive.

A History of Womanist Biblical Criticism.

Two biblical scholars often mentioned as progenitors of the womanist biblical criticism/interpretation field are Weems and Martin. Weems’s 1989 Princeton dissertation became her 1995 book, which examines the marriage metaphor in the Hebrew Prophets. Her 1988 trade book was written with African American women in mind, “out of disgust,” tired of seeing the reality of women of color cited as a postscript. While the book interprets biblical texts, it was not written for the academy but with religious churchgoing black women in mind. She reissued the book as a self-published volume in 2005, with some edits and additional chapters and a title no longer including the word “womanist.” In her work, Weems explains that womanist biblical scholarship often seems homiletical and folksy because its practitioners often write with “the whole folk” in mind, i.e., the unschooled or unlearned religious reader. In order not to cave in to temerity in the church and to withstand micro-aggressions in the biblical guild, she claims that womanists must develop an audacious sensibility.

In her 2007 volume, Rev. Dr. Elaine Flake interpreted biblical texts for preaching from a womanist perspective. A friend and colleague of Weems in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Flake used what she calls a “hermeneutic of healing,” calling readers to dismantle anti-female attitudes “even those perpetuated in scripture.” Flake writes that the preacher-exegete must affirm the positive role of women; show sensitivity, especially toward maligned biblical women; preach against the evils of racial and gender discrimination; acknowledge African ancestry in the text and in the preaching moment; and present Jesus as an advocate for women.

Biblical scholar Koala Jones-Warsaw provided one of the first womanist biblical readings, an interpretation of Judges 19–21, presented at the Society of Biblical Literature in 1992 and published a year later (1993). She took exception to Phyllis Trible’s (1984) reading offered on behalf of the woman alone and sought instead to read for the whole folk. Jones-Warsaw called critics to “walk around in the text,” standing in the place of all the characters, taking into account not only gender but also ethnicity, class, and race. Her work did not delve deeply enough into the text and was unnecessarily dismissive of Trible’s reading, but, alongside Weems, she hinted at a trail for other womanist biblical critics to follow.

Weems’s role within Old Testament womanist scholarship is paralleled by Martin’s in the New Testament. The first self-identified womanist biblical scholar in the United States, Martin’s expertise and field of research includes language, hermeneutics, history of exegesis, womanist thought, and African American religion. She reads the New Testament believing that translation and interpretation history opens a way to redeem the Bible as scripture while resisting texts considered oppressive. Martin delves into the thorniness of translation in a quest for liberative interpretations.

Michael Joseph Brown’s analyses of some womanist biblical scholarship (2004, pp. 89–119) pay particular attention to Weems, Martin, Cheryl Kirk-Duggan, and Wilma Bailey. Brown notes that Weems and Kirk-Duggan, both working with mostly Old Testament texts, are willing to argue that biblical texts are complicated and complicit in African American (women’s) oppression. Old Testament scholar Bailey’s work is examined because she is African American rather than explicitly womanist, but her work follows womanist trends by focusing on Hagar (1994), a biblical character frequently addressed in womanist writings. Primarily an ethicist trained also in biblical texts, Kirk-Duggan is concerned with violence in biblical texts, but as a womanist she also brings womanist critical attention to texts that are fruitfully engaged via race, gender, and class. Trained as a classical singer, Kirk-Duggan also interprets texts using black musicology.

Brown rightly notes that the interpretative work of all these scholars serves to advocate. Appropriating and resisting texts in varying degrees, they each pull on extrabiblical and modern and postmodern cultural knowledge passed on through and by African American women as sources: autobiographies, songs, sermons all aid in the interpretive womanist work.

The Conflict/Differences with Feminism.

In the introduction to her collected volume (2006), Layli Phillips distinguishes womanism from black feminism and (nonblack) feminism. She calls womanists and black feminists “sisters,” able to support one another but not identical. She describes womanism as committed to holistic liberation and given to the use of intersectionality for thriving. She also notes that though Walker was the first to use the term “womanist” in print, she was heir to the work of “birthmothers” to the movement, Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi and Clenora Hudson-Weems. While the collection of essays crosses several disciplines and fields of study as well as racial/ethnic backgrounds and includes a brief section of womanist theology, no biblical critics/scholars are included. Nyasha Junior’s observation (2006) that few womanist biblical readings appear in feminist readers assumes that womanist biblical work is a subset of feminism; Phillips ably demonstrates that it is not, even if it began in that vein. Womanist work is cousin to feminist work, but not especially beholden to it.

In the 1980s and 1990s, womanist scholars (followed by women from other cultures—mujeristas, Asian, postcolonial, etc.) challenged then-majority feminists for their expressly North American, middle-class, “white woman” analyses that could not appreciate their own privilege. Budding womanist scholars often felt marginalized in feminist circles and ostracized in black (male) liberationist circles.

In the mid-1990s and beyond, feminists took seriously womanists’ critiques and incorporated them into their work (especially class and race). Womanist scholars saw these efforts as white feminists co-opting their critical and epistemological work. Womanists claimed co-optation was at the center of what some white feminists had always done, maintain power over other women critics by muting their voices, subsuming their work under the term “feminist,” policing publishing doors, and telling other women’s stories, if they were told at all. In the economy of ideas, womanists insist that our critical work is important to the multiplicity of tactical strategies against oppression, often quoting Audre Lorde that “the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house.” While most womanist critics bring the history of scholarship to a text, they also insist that already accepted critical analyses are not needed to legitimate womanist criticism.

Accusations of “essentialism” have stalked womanist work in other disciplines and may be one of the reasons womanist scholarship has been less prolific in biblical studies. Steeped in modernist historical-critical training and methodology, womanist biblical scholars have been reticent to break past those boundaries and often rely on historical-critical methodologies, as evidenced, for example, in Martin’s work. And yet, all criticism has at its core assumptions, presumptions, and communities that oversee the interpreter. Resisting the (particularly white) accusation that they are not being “scholarly,” womanist biblical critics include conversational partners and co-interpreters in their work (especially other liberationists/ideological critics) before finally turning to dominating/traditional scholarship. The womanist interpreter, however, undertakes her own work before consulting others in order to resist colonizing thought and the suppression of one’s own hermeneutics of challenge and suspicion. A womanist biblical scholar does not need (white) feminists, (male) liberation theologians, or any other critics to legitimate her or his work. Just as feminism was allowed to stand on its own as a field of criticism, womanism deserves the same respect.

Various Womanist Strategies.

Most womanist interpretive strategies are undergirded by Walker’s definition: a womanist is an African American woman or a woman of color who subscribes to a code that is committed to asking hard, even unanswerable questions. A womanist cares about injustices and pain in the world. Committed to woman-culture only as the first task, the womanist is “committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female” (Walker, 1983). This commitment is manifested in her love of the earthy, aesthetic, and unexplainable: as reflected in a love of art and movement, the earth and cosmos, food and community, revolutionary struggle, and loving “the folk,” and especially herself. Self-love—as precursor to communal love—fuels womanist work.

Womanists look to a proverbial and particularly African way of being, i.e., observation (“go watch the ant”) and hospitality (“come to the feast”). These ways do not differ per se from other liberationist/ideological forms of criticism, but they are particular. Herein is womanist criticism’s strength and weakness: not all critics have come from the social location of the subject whose questions are presumed central, i.e., poor black women.

Yvonne Chireau in her 2003 monograph notes that womanist interpretation puts black women’s lives “at the center of inquiry” as a first pillar of its criticism. Moving (black) women from margin/edge to center de-centers power brokers and forces us to look at who is at stake in the text. Sometimes this “center” is embodied in the critic herself, but self-reflection is never sufficient. Cultural criticism and a broad interdisciplinary reading strategy help critics bring poor, black women to the text. A significant task of African American biblical interpretation and womanist criticisms in particular is to see the black body/culture as locus of knowledge and interpretation.

New Testament womanist scholar Mitzi Smith demonstrates such a centering as she reads the lives of two nineteenth-century black women preachers in her 2011 article. She describes how black women preachers use Pauline texts to build a powerful political discourse for freedom, activism, and advocacy. In addition, Smith depends on a personal criticism, i.e., “personal testimony,” as a black woman who works as a womanist biblical scholar. In her 2013 essay on the feeding miracle in the Gospel of Matthew, she recounts her family’s begging for bread and its impact on reading the very texts she now interprets. Smith understands “scraps” and “crumbs” as means to survival because she saw her mother dignify the gifts that came to help her feed her children.

Womanist biblical critics look for the underside of questions within the biblical text and its contemporary and intertextual conversation partners, with an a priori assumption that biblical inquiry wields its best fruits when critics look for the vantage point of the marginalized, the oppressed, the silenced, or the voiceless in current society and in ancient texts. The womanist critic names herself an expert of the questions that plague her. If the text cannot answer a particular question—either because of its genre or its apparent “intentions”—her question does not become invalid.

One goal of the womanist critic is to expose power and identify whether power is used for dominating or liberating purposes by narrators, texts, and readers. To shed light on how power functions in texts and their interpretations, the critic asks such questions as: Who is in danger because of who wields power? What happens when/if power is left unchecked? What would freedom look like in the text? What would wholeness for the whole community be? What is the cost of “orthodox” readings, and is there liberating room for heterodoxy? and Where and how is a deity present in the text for the oppressed (or oppressor)? This unmasking/exposing of people, texts, scholarship, and reading strategies is directed at the ancient texts/worlds as well as contemporaneous ones.

Womanists employ some of the same tools that feminists and other liberationists/ideological critics do, including critical gender studies, Marxist/class analyses, postcolonial criticism, literary and rhetorical criticisms, and critical race theory. Literary and cultural criticisms (especially infused with critical race theory) are perhaps the most persistent strategies to which womanists turn in their “by any means necessary” approach to wresting first understandings then meanings from texts. But womanists also take seriously alternative interpretations that reveal the silencing of the margins. Thus, though womanists wield historical-critical tools, they are not at all beholden to them.

Womanist biblical criticism is grounded epistemologically in (black) women’s ways of knowing. We supplement our inquiries with experience and intuition. As Christian womanist ethicist Emilie Townes writes, “What arrogance we commit when we allow the inadequacies of our training to determine what we can come to know and how. When any of us who do intellectual work are candid, we know that there are wide gaps and large chasms in the methodologies we have been trained to use in our disciplines” (2006, pp. 244–245).

Gafney, mentioned above, addresses the issue of biblical translation as a way to be what she calls a “fem/womanist hermeneut.” In her foundational essay posted online in the Society for Biblical Literature Forum (2006), Gafney lays out several principles for translation, all intended to undermine and disrupt normative translation processes and to unmask the ways in which translation may obscure meanings and interpretations. She calls critics to:

  • 1. “Take the bible seriously in all its plurality,” which requires a respect for the looser canons of the biblical texts, not merely the accepted canon of a particular communion.
  • 2. Translate for hearers. If the text is alliterative, then the translation ought also be alliterative.
  • 3. Use comparative philology and semantic range to determine meaning.
  • 4. Track what Gafney calls “God-girl talk”—instances in the text where second person feminine form endings are used to describe deity or people—and to make these endings plain in translation.
  • 5. Recover and reclaim the Afro-Asian continental context of the scriptures.
  • 6. “Recover women obscured by masculine grammar.” She presumes, for example, that all plural forms of the word “prophet” include women and men unless “there is specific language limiting the group.”
  • 7. End the privilege of German scholarship and translation, “abandoning Germanic norms in translation means abandoning the anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism inherited by the Western biblical critical enterprise.”

As noted above, New Testament scholar Martin also concerns herself with translation issues. In her first three publications (1989, 1990, 1991), she demonstrates how a womanist interpretation, reflecting the quarto-centric interests of gender, race, class and language issues, allows for a reading freeing for all people, and especially for black women.

For New Testament womanist critics, Jesus becomes a lens into the texts. Jesus becomes a “sister” to womanist interpreters, living in the interstices of society among women, befriending them, holding theological conversations with them, touching and healing them. He suffers because he confronts evil and powers that be. This stance is clear in Raquel St. Clair’s work (2007, 2008). Resisting the notion that black peoples (women in particular) should suffer as a part of their Christian identity, St. Clair argues that suffering is not a necessary part of discipleship but rather the consequence Jesus suffered because of evil. Pursuing a “hermeneutic of wholeness,” St. Clair calls biblical interpretation to go beyond recovery to a rethinking of categories such as “servant” and “suffering.”

Like most womanist biblical scholars, St. Clair is indebted to the work of theologians and ethicists such as Jacqueline Grant, Katie G. Cannon, Delores Williams, Emilie Townes, Toinette Eugene, JoAnne Marie Terrell, Shawn Copeland, and Kelly Brown Douglas. Grant’s 1989 work was one of the first monographs to delineate how Jesus functions in many black religious environs; as an African Methodist Episcopal minister, she challenged the sexist and androcentric claims of black church leaders and laity. Similarly, Douglas challenged a Christianity that did not take seriously the lives and exigencies of real black people, asserting that Christ symbolically is a black woman and thus is partner in the struggle to survive and flourish (1989). Douglas also challenged the church’s notions of sex and sexuality in her 1999 volume, her enduring contribution to womanist readings of biblical texts about sex and sexuality.

Roman Catholic womanist pastoral theologian Toinette Eugene also ties her work to interpreting texts. Her 1987 essay claims that womanist biblical work is not limited to those trained in Bible. As stressed throughout this entry, womanists are deeply concerned that their work speak to black churchgoers—for whom the biblical has primacy—a reality that leads womanist scholars of every discipline to address directly biblical texts.

No longer content only to reclaim an African past from the text and lift up the marginalized in the text, modern womanist work considers how texts make plain and obscure meanings, the intersectionality of oppressions, and how claims are made on communities in the texts and beyond. They seek to address a community beyond the scholarly ones. Because readings “count” as people resonate with them, an interpreter must be persuasive in her reading of texts, making her case to a community of readers so that her interpretation takes its place among “possible meanings.”

My Work.

Caught between a hard-core historical critical training and an entrenched fascination with reader response and ideological criticisms, especially womanist thought beyond the academy, my own work has been varied. Were I to rewrite my 2002 dissertation (one of the first dissertations to use the term “womanist” in its title), I would take more care with power analyses, the role of class in the book, and in ecological theology. I would take more care to provide taxonomy and a closer reading of the text itself. Such observations, of course, come after years of attending academic conferences in which womanist theologians and ethicists have built taxonomies and heuristic paradigms by which to do their work.

As an ordained minister, translating the critical work of the academy into pulpits I regularly fill—first as a pastor for more than twenty-five years and later as a visiting scholar-preacher—I believe my work to be at the core a womanist enterprise, an attempt to discover some liberative word between texts and peoples, a “loving the whole folk” and saving all who will be saved. As such, I am centering black women’s concerns even if I never explicitly say or write this phrase.

There is no reason, in my mind, to privilege the academy’s definition of biblical scholar, especially since womanist scholars and scholarship deliberately seeks to be “in the pews.” Womanist scholars remember that the church has prepared us for this work and we owe it to that audience to be faithful readers, critics, and interpreters, even when it chaffs the church. The guild, in this way, is secondary.

The Future of Womanist Biblical Scholarship.

As more women claim the moniker “womanists,” the fields of meaning will clarify and broaden at the same time. Several African American women have now written dissertations that claim the term “womanist,” but to date there is only one monograph (St. Claire, 2008) that explicitly uses the term (self-described womanist Cheryl Anderson’s 2009 monograph uses the term “inclusive interpretation”). The pressures of new interpretative resources, such as postcolonial, queer theory, and (dis)ability studies, are forcing womanist scholars to revisit the intersectionality of their work.

Womanist biblical critics are still in the stage of knowledge production. In this stage, womanists are called to several tasks:

  • 1. They must mine the mother lode of Africana histories, cultures, stories, and artifacts, in the Americas as well as in the African diaspora throughout the world. These histories are critical to forming questions for interrogating biblical texts since several scholars have convincingly demonstrated that African and Asian worldviews are deeply embedded in biblical texts, especially the Hebrew Bible. Womanist critics must undo the way that dominating scholarship has obscured black presence and black worldview while critiquing the oppressive and liberative impulses in the biblical text itself. In the near future, womanist biblical scholars must publish more and in concentrated ways, first as monographs but also in the communal commitments womanist work expects—in collected and edited volumes.
  • 2. Their work must continue to balance a rigorous scholarship that can be translated beyond the academy. Womanist biblical critics must make plain the work its field of study already has uncovered.
  • 3. Womanist biblical exegetes must continue the linguistic and translation work reflected in Martin’s and Gafney’s work. Marginal readings must be given serious weight in order for readers to see beyond the dominating impulses of a text.
  • 4. Womanist biblical critics must continue to employ suspicion and resistance as a method to question motives and motivations within texts, histories of interpretations, and interpreters, including the ones embedded within the text. They must always seek the dignity of the most marginalized and question any “givens” within texts and interpretations that continue to imbue the powerful with more power.
  • 5. Womanist critics must ask alongside and on behalf of persons on the margins. When reading with outsiders, womanist scholars must also interrogate their own points of privilege, considering what people outside of “legitimate” constructs must do to survive and seek to uncover survivalist strategies within texts and communities.
  • 6. Since agency is at the root of radical subjectivity, womanist biblical scholars also must look for agency and willfulness (womanish ways) in the text: where it is, who takes it for themselves and from others, and who has freedom—the ability to choose and act for one’s own in freedom and dignity.

If done with care and rigor, the womanist critic will come away from the texts with new insight and fuse the world of the text with the world of the reader. Womanist critics maintain that they do their work for “the whole folk,” and therefore reading the ancient texts embraced by present people requires an imaginative interpretation that benefits whole communities, not just poor black women.

This work must be done with an audacious humility, a bold provisionality. We see from our vantage point alone, but we sit in a circle of learners, questions, and critics; we offer interpretations in order to illumine the multivalent possibilities in every biblical text. This acknowledgment that no reading represents every story or all knowledge is essential so that womanist biblical critics may resist essentializing and universalizing their readings.

In the end, womanist biblical critics are charged with making their interpretative voices clear and prophetic in the cacophony of rivers of voices. We are called to explore our understanding of the Divine as we seek to comprehend the texts. We also are called to hold accountable our religious institutions until we all experience health, wholeness, and liberation. I argue for a hermeneutic of struggle in which we wrestle with the deity and the texts, reading against the texts and against traditions (2006). By making the margins visible, we make the center whole.

[See also HISTORICAL-CRITICAL APPROACHES; INTERSECTIONAL STUDIES; MUJERISTA CRITICISM; and RACE, CLASS, AND ETHNICITY, subentry HEBREW BIBLE.]

Bibliography

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  • Weems, Renita J. Just a Sister Away: A Womanist Vision of Women’s Relationships in the Bible. San Diego, Calif.: LuraMedia, 1988.
  • Weems, Renita J. “Reading Her Way through the Struggle: African American Women and the Bible.” In Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, edited by Cain Hope Felder, pp. 57–77. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991.
  • Weems, Renita J. “Womanist Reflections on Biblical Hermeneutics.” In Black Theology: A Documentary History, Vol. 2: 1980–1992, edited by James H. Cone and Gayraud S. Wilmore, pp. 216–224. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1993.
  • Weems, Renita J. Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995.
  • Weems, Renita J. Just a Sister Away: Understanding the Timeless Connection between Women of Today and Women of the Bible. West Bloomfield, Mich.: Walk Worthy, 2005.

Valerie Bridgeman