To date, the mutual implications of text criticism and gender scholarship have yet to be fully explored. While the gendered nature of Hebrew has led text critics to consider grammatical gender in their scholarship (Ratner 1983), only the most basic questions about the intersection of gender and text criticism have been raised. This entry overviews the current state of this emerging field.

Text Criticism

Textual criticism (or text criticism) is the branch of biblical interpretation that analyzes and explains the precise letters and words that are found in ancient manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible. The most important manuscripts include the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT), the Greek Septuagint (LXX), and the Hebrew Dead Sea Scrolls. The primary focus of study concerns textual variants (differences among those manuscripts). For example, text critics study the common differences in spelling between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the MT, and they explain why certain passages in the LXX do not match one or more of the Hebrew manuscripts. Text critics attempt to reconstruct the historical processes that led to these differences. Common explanations for textual differences include scribal mistakes, purposeful ideological changes, and the coexistence of several parallel textual traditions. One common concern of text criticism is priority: given textual variants in two manuscripts, which came first, and which is dependent on the other?

In addition to explaining textual variants, text critics have also practiced emendation, which involves changing the text so that it makes more sense, even in the absence of evidence such as a textual variant. When a word is difficult to understand because it is unusual or unexpected, a scholar might emend the text by arguing that the existing word is a mistake, and that some other word was intended. But because the “original” or “intended” word is not attested, emendation has a mixed reputation among biblical critics. As discussed below, two intersections between text criticism and gender studies (by which is meant methods of biblical interpretation that are intentionally focused on gender and sexuality, such as feminist, queer, and gender criticism) involve emendation. On the one hand, gender studies offers alternative explanations for some textual difficulties, thereby avoiding emendation. On the other, some critics make use of emendation to suggest textual possibilities that are more appropriate for feminist or queer communities.

Gender and Text Criticism

Grammatical gender has long been a consideration of text criticism, because all Hebrew nouns have a gender and verbs have gendered forms. Engaging text criticism through the theoretical lens of gender studies, however, is still in its infancy. It is rare for a scholar doing text critical work to draw from current theories of gender and sexuality. Similarly, it is relatively uncommon for biblical scholars who focus on gender and sexuality to incorporate text critical insights into their scholarship. There are, however, at least four ways that gender studies has intersected with text criticism.

First, scholars who work in gender studies use the results of text criticism and they use text critical methods to support their arguments. For example, sometimes the MT is ambiguous while a textual variant is more specific. A scholar might cite the variant if it reinforces her interpretation of the MT. In general, such interactions between gender-focused scholarship and text criticism are minimal and marginal, often taking place in footnotes. One example comes from the story of Hagar’s expulsion in Genesis 21. The Hebrew describing what Ishmael was doing with or to Isaac is ambiguous, and some feminist interpreters cite the Greek textual variant in Genesis 21:9 (which specifies that Ishmael was playing “with” Isaac) to help interpret the ambiguity. For example, Amy-Jill Levine (2001) uses the Greek and Latin versions to argue that Ishmael and Isaac were playing intimately (but non-sexually).

Another example is Rachel Brodie’s (2009) use of the text critical issue of kere u’ketiv in Genesis 24:14–57. Kere u’ketiv refers to words in the text which, in the MT, have “corrections” in the margin. Traditionally, when the text is read the marginal correction is substituted for the word as it is written in the body of the text. In Genesis 24 there are five occasions in which Rebekah is referred to in the body as a masculine or non-gendered “youth,” while the marginal correction has the female form, “young lady” (a difference of a single letter). Brodie exploits this difference to offer a variety of queer interpretations of Rebekah, including highlighting the masculine dimensions of her behavior and considering the possibility that “youth” in that context could be imagined as non-gendered, an identity that “has yet to be forced into a rigid binary system.”

Second, gender studies can help solve text critical problems. In this case, the focus is on a word or phrase that is difficult to interpret using conventional methods. Because of this difficulty, text critical methods might suggest a correction to the text, either with the support of textual variants or through emendation. It may be the case, however, that a gender-focused perspective allows the interpreter to make sense of the text as it stands. That is, what appeared to be a textual difficulty is resolved through a reinterpretation made possible by the insights of gender studies. In general, explaining a text is preferable to modifying it, especially without evidence, as with emendation.

Apparent mismatches of grammatical gender are an example of the kind of textual difficulty that might dissolve in the light of feminist or queer theory. For instance, Micah 2:12 includes a first-person feminine form “all of you” where the “you” refers to “Jacob.” Text critics sometimes change the form to match what they expect to be a masculine Jacob. But Erin Runions (2001) preserves the feminine form, arguing that it is one example (among many) of gender-related “shifts and ambiguities” in Micah. Runions argues that text-critical attempts to read the form as masculine “disavow the difference in the text,” a difference which she argues can lead to a “hybrid subjectivity” on the part of the reader. Gil Rosenberg (2015) deploys Runions’ insight to argue that the feminine form in Micah 2:12 is an example of a queer textual moment that is erased through heteronormative text-critical practices. Other passages in which apparent disagreements in grammatical gender have received queer reinterpretations include Ezekiel 23 (MacWilliam 2011), the narrative and poetry about Jael in Judges 4–5 (Guest 2011), and the book of Ruth (Rosenberg 2015).

Third, gender-focused scholars have identified new text-critical issues or possibilities. Attention to gender theory often entails a particular set of questions, assumptions, and an understanding of the world that differs from that of many previous practitioners of text criticism. This means that gender critics are likely to reach different conclusions about what words or phrases are “difficult” than would other scholars. “Difficult” words are made “easy,” as in the case of feminine Jacob. But the reverse is also possible: “easy” words become “difficult.” Words that were assumed to be “correct” or whose meanings were considered “obvious” come under renewed scrutiny. From a text-critical point of view, emending the vocalization is a relatively conservative version of emendation. Gender critics have experimented with such emendations in order to highlight or destabilize the text’s gender dichotomies and dynamics.

For example, Rosenberg (2015) proposes emending vocalizations (vowels) to switch masculine forms to feminine or vice-versa. The consonants in some masculine and feminine forms (such as first person possessives) are identical; they differ only in the vocalization, which was fixed in written form relatively late in the history of transmission of the biblical texts. Rosenberg cites Isaiah 44:2, which includes three suffixes meaning “you,” referring to “Jacob” and “Jeshurun,” which have been vocalized in the MT as masculine. Drawing on other texts that suggest Jacob’s gender is queer (such as Micah 2:12, described above), Rosenberg suggests that the uniform masculinity of the vocalizations hides this queerness. From a queer perspective, he argues, changing one or more of these vocalizations makes better sense.

Authority and Community

While these first three intersections between text criticism and gender studies all involve practical interpretive methods that directly bear on textual meaning, the fourth intersection concerns the theory, justification, and aims of the two approaches. Both text criticism and gender studies are deeply concerned with questions of authority and with communities of interpretation. Because of this, there is potential for gender studies to influence, challenge, or appropriate text criticism’s notions of authority and interpretive communities.

The goal of many text critics is to re-create the text used by one or more ancient communities. To that extent, the ancient community and its (ideal, imagined, reconstructed) text become the text critic’s authority. In contrast, several streams of gender studies view current communities (of women or queers, for example) as authoritative. Thus, one gender-studies approach to text criticism is to replace the authority of ancient communities with that of current communities of women and/or queers.

This shift in perspective changes how the scholar describes and evaluates the history of transmission, in that the gender and sexual politics inherent in ancient communities and their textual institutions come under greater scrutiny. Another result of this approach is that it changes the criteria for what constitutes a “problematic” or “correct” text, and for what makes an emendation “probable.” A text that may be probable for an ancient patriarchal community might be problematic for a contemporary feminist or queer community, or vice-versa. In some cases, a gender critic might decide to prioritize the perspective of the current gender-oriented community over the ancient community (e.g., Shneer 2009). Thus, when a gender critic analyzes a written word or a textual variant, she might be less concerned with the history of transmission than with the possibilities of abundant meanings and future transmission (Rosenberg 2015). Such a rethinking and critique of the aims and goals of text criticism helps to justify some of the methods described in the intersections above.

Future Trajectories

While explicit engagement by gender studies with text criticism is promising and its results so far are provocative, such scholarship is also relatively recent and continues to be rare. Several of the strategies identified in these four intersections have only been employed a handful of times, and when they are employed it is often as a marginal comment, not as the focus of study. Thus, more work can be done to collect and analyze the instances when scholars have already noted intersections between gender and text criticism in the course of studying some other topic. Previous text critical work can be interrogated for patriarchal or heteronormative bias, and both text critics and gender critics can search for additional instances where a gender perspective sheds light on text-critical questions. In addition, there are likely many more insights to be gained by experimenting with feminist or queer emendations.

Finally, gender studies often critiques the ways that academic fields and disciplines participate in and perpetuate patriarchal and heteronormative systems. Text criticism, insofar as it is a foundational part of the network of academic and religious institutions which bestow authority on particular versions and translations of the biblical text, is an appropriate object of such a critique. Because religious practitioners often use the results of text criticism to legitimize the authority of their chosen texts and translations, text criticism’s privileging of ancient communities (and their ideologies) over today’s women and queers is more than an academic concern. The inter-relationships between politics and religion, and between religion and text criticism, mean that text criticism, as it has been practiced, contributes to the patriarchal and heteronormative tendencies within both religion and society more broadly. In this context, there is a need for scholarship that analyzes, critiques, and intervenes in text criticism’s complicity with structures of inequality and oppression.


  • Brodie, Rachel. “When Gender Varies: A Curious Case of Kere and Ketiv: Parashat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1–25:18).” In Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, edited by Gregg Drinkwater, Joshua Lesser, and David Shneer, 34–37. New York: New York University Press, 2009.
  • Guest, Deryn. “From Gender Reversal to Genderfuck: Reading Jael Through a Lesbian Lens.” In Bible Trouble: Queer Reading at the Boundaries of Biblical Scholarship, edited by Teresa J. Hornsby and Ken Stone, 9–34. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011.
  • Levine, Amy-Jill. “Settling at Beer-lahai-roi.” In Daughters of Abraham: Feminist Thought in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, edited by Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and John L. Esposito, 12–34. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001.
  • MacWilliam, Stuart. Queer Theory and the Prophetic Marriage Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible. Sheffield, U.K.: Equinox, 2011.
  • Ratner, Robert. “Gender Problems in Biblical Hebrew.” Ph.D. diss., Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, 1983.
  • Rosenberg, Gil. “New Authorities, New Readings: Queering Hebrew Bible Text Criticism.” Biblical Interpretation 23 (2015): 574–600.
  • Runions, Erin. Changing Subjects: Gender, Nation and Future in Micah. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic, 2001.
  • Shneer, David. “Introduction: Interpreting the Bible through a Bent Lens.” In Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, edited by Gregg Drinkwater, Joshua Lesser, and David Shneer, 1–8. New York: New York University Press, 2009.

Gil Rosenberg