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An Interview with Jorunn Økland

Theologian and gender studies expert Jorunn Økland is the President of the European Association of Biblical Studies and a professor of the University of Oslo. Along with numerous articles, Økland is the author of Women in Their Place: Paul and the Corinthian Discourse of Gender and Sanctuary Space (Continuum, 2004). From 2010 to 2013, Økland was the Director of the Centre for Gender Research at Oslo, which conducted a groundbreaking study on women's interpretations and appropriations of canonical texts. Here, she discusses the findings of that study, and its implications for the future of biblical studies, with OBSO editor Daniel Schowalter.

Daniel Schowalter: You have written on the role(s) of feminist interpretation of the Bible in the secular, post-Christian setting of Scandinavia and other Western countries. Since you have begun your work, how would you say that this role has evolved? And, perhaps just as important, how have people's attitudes toward feminist critiques changed over the years?

Jorunn Økland: Since I wrote the series of articles you are referring to, Scandinavia has experienced a huge backlash against feminist critique and feminism in general. The gender research center I chaired at the time was ridiculed on a weekly basis on prime time TV in 2010 (I even had my own cartoon!), as our gender progressive agenda was allegedly outdated compared with the latest developments in cognitive psychology. After having defended gender research for the whole country in such a situation, I could never have written those articles. It was a violent epistemic climate change. So I am glad I wrote them when it was still possible to explore the extent to which the political context influences what one accepts as plausible interpretations.

After that we had the Utøya incident, in which a terrorist killed 69 youths at a camp in 2011. The "mother" of Norwegian state feminism was his main target: Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former, long-serving prime minister whose "women's cabinet" was the world's first (it was not all-female, but included just below 50 % women). Brundtland was the mother of many reforms that made Norway a more gender-equal country and a more attractive country to move to. Although he was unique and a loner, the terrorist's stated war against Norwegian feminism is symptomatic of a broader feeling that feminism has become too powerful. But in spite of signs of backlash, there is far more to be happy about if we focus more narrowly on the role of the Bible in lived religion: Questions of heteronormativity and a wider range of intimacies are now much higher on the agenda, in the main churches but also in gender critical scholarship on religion. Many interpretations of biblical passages that were first presented by feminist exegetes and developed within a feminist framework, have become mainstream in the main church. So there is certainly no stagnation in gender critical studies of the Bible and their dissemination!

DS: The Centre for Gender Research recently completed a five-year project titled Gender, Canonicity, and Critique, which highlighted women's interpretations and appropriations of canonical texts. Interestingly, the project attempted to answer the question: "How and why does gender-critical research contribute to the continued marginalization of women writers of the past, and thus to the further reinforcement of a patriarchal canon?" What were the findings and major discussions surrounding this issue?

: This was of course not the only question we asked, not even the main one. Our main objective was to demonstrate the historicity of Western feminist thought: how it goes much farther back than is commonly thought and how it has developed through critical discourses and processes surrounding key cultural canons including religious ones. This was not just a historical and theoretical endeavor. More historical awareness could also help various shades of gender critical thought out of the trap of the eternal present or some level of evolutionary optimism that we felt dominated the field at the time.

The question you quoted was a vital question to ask in such a context, since for example gender-critical biblical exegetes devote their lives to studying the world's most canonized anthology ever, probably written exclusively by males and certainly reflecting patriarchal social structures and reinforcing patriarchal gender models. The exegetes may do so in an attempt to "cleanse" or de-authorize or just to critique the implicit gender ideologies of the text. Many gender-critical exegetes supplement this critical endeavor with an alternative historical imagination of gender relations in the ancient world based on material culture, post-canonical writings with a more balanced presentation of gender relations, so-called pagan literature, etc., in order to de-center the Biblical gender models. Still, by studying the Bible, we perpetuate its influence; hence we constantly need to reflect on how we contribute to the marginalization that we are addressing. The project participants working in history of philosophy, medicine and opera found themselves in a similar situation to the biblical scholars.

In literature it was different. There have been women authors throughout history who have been popular and important in their own time. Then the question is more about why they were so quickly forgotten. However, since they left traces in writing, they are there in the archive for us to recover. Modern women's literary history has recovered many of them, especially in the 1980s, but the recovery work—recovery also of women philosophers, artists and religious thinkers—has continued at a steady pace since. An interesting selection of forgotten women writers are now published, e.g. in the series "The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe."

At an earlier stage in the recovery and canon critical approach of women's studies, scholars could ask: why was this man's poor writing canonized when this woman's brilliant book was not? Our canonicity project did not ask this, as we felt it was futile. We took a more Foucauldian approach: [the man's writing] is there because of power, presence and availability, including material access to writing equipment. It has very little to do with quality per se, as any biblical scholar should know. NT scholars in particular are frequently reminded by their colleagues in Classics that they study texts that are neither clearly thought out nor clearly expressed. And we answer back that regardless of literary quality "our" objects of study have been far more historically influential and far more frequently copied. Unfortunately, the latter is not the case with women's writings.

A major finding was the extent to which canons have been transformed through re-interpretation, perhaps especially with regard to gender (although that cannot be concluded with certainty since it is gender in particular that we have studied so we do not have the full basis for comparison). The extent of this was larger than we thought in advance. With regard to the Bible, it was also interesting to learn that biblical passages that have been absolutely crucial in the gender debates of the last 60 years have not necessarily been equally important in earlier periods. We also found that the re-interpretation erasing or highlighting women or gender issues in or out of the canon has gone both ways: There is a scarlet thread between the events whereby Junia becomes male after Origen and whereby she becomes female again in the 20th century, for example.

In sum, "Feminist transformation of…" has been a slogan in much feminist hermeneutics engaging with various canons. But through studying historical documents over several hundred years, we have had a chance to see how this has actually happened historically, long before the expression "feminist transformation of…" was even invented.

The project discussions mainly ended with a recognition that gender-critical researchers should continue to engage with these core canons, even though we might run the risk of reinforcing or perpetuating them. It does not help if those who are trained to critique and to look for other features in the canon opt out. It would only mean that whatever is presented as the canon's inherent gender ideology will have to be accepted without critique.

DS: I wonder if you could talk a little about how you have engaged with other scholars who have interpreted the text as essentially endorsing gender equality and even the gay rights movement. Your approach seems to suggest that while the Bible remains important, it has not been central to the task of promoting gender equality. What kind of responses to this have you received from scholars who align with you politically, yet interpret the Bible as integral to the feminist movement?

: The questions concerning gender equality and gay rights are very different, although they are blended in the present under the heading of "gender", so that usually "gender equality" means women/men, sexual and "sexual orientation" equality. In my opinion the blending blurs the analysis and the politics at stake. Although the content has changed, as I have pointed out in my research, there was a concept of "woman" already in the Torah, and there has been such a category throughout our history. There was no concept of "homosexuality" until much later; the historians only argue how much later (cf. David Halperin's title One Hundred Years of Homosexuality). In the Roman world, sex between men was normal in many ways, and men who engaged in it were not placed in a different and separate category from other men: they retained their rights and duties, generally. Not so with women. Although class and ethnicity could potentially strongly intersect with gender, the male/female distinction was highly productive legally, socially, politically, religiously—in women's disfavor.

If we move up to more recent times, the picture changes. It has never been illegal to be a woman, but it has been illegal to be gay. Lesbians are often a hybrid category in this history. They are sometimes grouped with gay men and sometimes with other women. To be lesbian was never forbidden in Norway. Most importantly, the concept of gender equality only emerges in the 19th century. It is a modern concept that changes the playing field. Thus I find it as complicated to project back to biblical times as the concept of homosexuality.

The Canonicity project has included historical analysis of the concept of gender equality, tracing where and when notions of equality have emerged, and how it can be analytically helpful to distinguish between gender equality as a concept, as a value and as lived reality.

I do still understand the Bible as integral to the feminist movement—in an early phase, and I have often written about it, most recently in an article in the Journal of the Bible and its Reception. However, in Europe the church and the feminist movement parted ways during the first half of the 20th century. Since then, the argument for gender equality has been based on universal human rights. The Bible was too volatile a partner for the feminists since more often it was used to deny women full human rights, especially bodily autonomy. And still today, whenever I have been asked to advise in labor union cases or on government green papers, it has been in order to present alternatives to patriarchal and heteronormative understandings of the Bible that have been used to legitimize gender discrimination. I realize the situation may be very different in the United States, though. Further, as the society has grown more multi-religious, it has become increasingly difficult to anchor common political projects in the sacred scriptures of some.

In this light, I think that some of my gender-aware and more Bible-optimistic colleagues see me as slightly categorical when it comes to the understanding of what exactly gender equality is. In a southern European country I was once labeled "estremista communista," and in the eyes of some I clearly fulfill the expectation towards a sample of the notorious Scandinavian feminists who ruin the structure of society. My answer back is: yes, and we have built up something much better. Those who find gender equality in the Bible lack a clear vision of what gender equality might be, as well as a historicized understanding of it. Measured against a modern society in which gender equality is among the highest values, Paul simply does not make the bar. When I read the Bible I don't see anything I can recognize as a gender-equal situation, and a few cases where Jesus is presented as treating women nicely does not alter that. Being slightly less androcentric, patriarchal, etc., is not the same as practicing gender equality. Most importantly though, I find it meaningless even to introduce this modern bar to authors who wrote in a period when gender equality was yet unthought. There are other ways of appreciating them.

I still find it fully possible and important to work for equality in religious communities today and to draw on the Bible constructively in the process. Paradoxically, I would say that even if the Bible does not in itself promote gender equality, it may still have produced gender equality as one of its historical effects! Thus we are back to the ongoing "feminist transformation" again.

DS: Who are your heroes in Biblical Studies—people who have been, or still are, particularly important in shaping your understandings, and/or the entire discipline? As you look into your crystal ball, where do you see the future of Biblical Studies in general and New Testament Studies in particular? Do you sense that the future might lie in different directions depending on whether we are talking about work in Europe, the US, or elsewhere in the world?

: First, the crystal ball: I am pessimistic on behalf of Europe. State universities are withdrawing posts in biblical studies, so the discipline is definitely shrinking. I think there will be different directions in different places, we will be more and more contextualized, which also may mean that we become more isolated from each other. Ironically I think this may be the effect of our own excellent, self-aware hermeneutical work: As we become more and more accountable to our own respective contexts, we also have less and less to say to scholars elsewhere. I hope this will not be the case, though. A dual focus is perhaps necessary: to engage in the local, but also nourish a "universalizing discourse" where scholars actually try and strive to speak a common language, knowing that this is not the language and the cultural form, but just a dress we put on in order to be recognizable to each other. Personally I think the future of biblical studies will be in Asia.

When it comes to heroes in biblical studies, the first one I want to mention is Rudolf Bultmann. I am always shocked at how well he could put things, the surprising new readings he could come up with, and how much he still guides the development of the field. His project was to create a Christianity for the modern age. The issue was never resolved and it is coming back to haunt us now. My heroes are generally those whose texts have this freshness, in addition to openness. As you may have gathered by now, I read a lot of interpretations of the Bible from earlier periods, and perhaps the freshest and most open of them all is Erasmus if we are talking about men, and Elisabeth Cady Stanton if we are talking about women. Stanton is often criticized today for outdated views on race, evolution, and liberalism. But Stanton should not be judged by the standards of today. Her strong conviction, drive, bravery, and outspokenness are virtues I am still trying to emulate.

For my thesis work, Antoinette Wire was absolutely crucial, as probably anyone can tell. But I am perhaps more than anything fascinated with the way she has crossed over to new territories and not just remained in those territories she already masters. I am thinking in particular of her work in and on China, and all it has engendered in terms of intercultural sensitivity. She has taught me a lot about intellectual courage.

I have also been heavily influenced by Troels Engberg Pedersen in my approach to Paul, my interests in material and philosophical approaches have matched well with his interest in Stoicism. We even first met at a philosophy conference way back when we were both working in that field! Dale Martin introduced me to Foucault. With the canonicity project I was trying to move on from Foucault and study gender and power from a different angle. It was impossible.

DS: Some of your work has considered evidence from material culture and archaeological findings as critical to understanding the world in which the New Testament developed. For a discipline that is so strongly tied to a textual tradition, what does examination of the material culture of the ancient world have to offer in terms of learning about Roman and early Christian society, and what are its limitations?

: As mentioned above, material culture and archeological remains may help us develop an alternative historical imagination of gender relations in the ancient world. This in turn may help us to understand Biblical gender models in a wider perspective: what were the alternatives to the models of gender presented in the biblical writings? Would they have made sense at all to someone outside the community? At this stage we return to canonization again: For long periods through history, access to literacy and writing materials have been the privilege of some men. Material culture is different: we all leave traces although there is a difference between Herodes Atticus and an old, poor woman living in a little wooden shed that collapses shortly after her death. But her votive gifts (personal dedications e.g. jewelry, clothes, and tools) may already have been excavated and put on display in an archaeological museum. These votive gifts may have been dedicated as part of religious rituals that we learn more about. The point is: Material remains give us access to other people than those who left traces in writing, especially women. Votive gifts are chosen in a dynamic process between the means, motivations and intentions of the dedicators and the overarching structures of the religion/ritual (argued most recently my newly finished doctoral student Lene Johannessen). It does to some extent reflect back on the dedicator.

The limitation for the NT discipline, is that the material record for Christianity narrowly speaking, is extremely meager in the first centuries, so in the end the material record may not shed any light on the texts at all (if that is what one was after). One cannot draw one particular item out of a pit and expect it to illuminate one particular biblical verse, out of context.

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