The National Catholic Review
Nov 16 2015 - 4:43pm | Barbara E. Reid
Using Scripture to further gender equality
Copyright: Dream Perfection

As we mark the 50th anniversary of "Dei Verbum," the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, promulgated by Pope Paul VI on Nov. 18, 1965, we note that one effect has been increased study of and prayer with the Scriptures by all the faithful, not only scholars and professional ministers. Women’s Bible study groups have sprung up in many parishes and dioceses and the number of women biblical scholars who hold doctorates in Sacred Scripture has risen markedly in the past five decades. At the same time there has been a dramatic rise in feminist consciousness in the world and church, as women and men have begun to work toward rectifying the inequities toward women that are built into systems globally. The way in which we read the Scriptures serves either as a help or a hindrance in efforts toward gender equality in the church and world.

One example of the difference it makes in how one reads the Bible is the story of a woman who had become part of a grassroots bible study group in her village in rural Chiapas, in southern México. All her life she and her female companions had been socialized to bear every kind of suffering, including domestic abuse, as their way of carrying the cross with Jesus. As they began to learn to read the Bible con ojos, mente y corazón de mujer (“with the eyes, mind, and heart of a woman”), new ways of understanding and acting began to open up. One day, when she returned home from a meeting of her Bible study group, she found her husband drunk and enraged that she had not been there to serve him his coffee just when he wanted. He beat her severely, as he had many times in the past. The next morning, when her friends saw her cuts and bruises, they decided that the Gospel impelled them to act. Putting their own selves at risk, they agreed to lay down their lives for their friend (Jn 15:13). Some thirty of them came to the house and surrounded the husband, threatening him that if he ever harmed his wife again, he would be the one with the battered face and bruised body. The husband was shocked into getting the help he needed to stop drinking and abusing his wife. The women’s new ways of reading the Scriptures had a transformative effect on the women and men throughout this village.

Interpreting the Word

Women interpreting the Scriptures through the lens of their experience and insight is nothing new. Throughout the ages, women have retold the biblical stories, teaching them to their children and others, all the while interpreting them afresh for their time and circumstances. Written accounts of women’s interpretations of the Bible exist from at least the second century AD. One example is Helie, a consecrated virgin who lived in the second century. She was brought before a judge for refusing to marry. When he quoted to her Paul’s admonition, “It is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (1 Cor 7:9), she questioned the notion that the text has only one meaning and responded, “but not for everyone, that is, not for holy virgins.” Similarly, a Jewish woman by the name of Beruriah, who also lived in the second century, is said to have had “profound knowledge of biblical exegesis and outstanding intelligence.” Once when her husband Rabbi Meir prayed for the destruction of a sinner, she countered that Psalm 104:35 advocated praying for the destruction of sin, not the sinner.

It is not until medieval times that the first written commentaries on Scripture from a critical feminist point of view emerged with the works of women mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) and Julian of Norwich (1342–ca. 1416). Since then, there has been a steady stream of works by women whose reflections on the Scriptures question prevailing interpretations by male clerics and scholars. It is only in recent decades, however, that women have had greater access to formal theological education and have taken their place in the professional world of biblical scholars. For centuries, the works of female interpreters of the Bible have been largely unknown, both to other women and to their brothers in the synagogue, church and academy. Now women can build on the work of their foremothers and create networks with one another across the globe in ways not previously possible.   

In approaching the Scriptures from a feminist perspective, the starting point is always women’s experience, paying attention not only to gender discrimination, but also to inequities based on race, culture, class, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. Another important aspect is to recognize that one’s social location impacts the interpretive lenses one brings to the text. A well-to-do, well-educated white man in North America will approach a text very differently from a woman who is poor and illiterate in rural Mexico.

In addition, feminist biblical scholars are aware that the books of the Bible have been written, for the most part, by men, for men, about men, and to serve men’s purposes. Accordingly, it is imperative to attend to the questions: who wrote the text, for whom, in what circumstances and with what purpose. Another step is to evaluate what the text does to those who accept it: does it reinforce domination and oppression? Or does it liberate for flourishing of life? This question must be asked again and again in each new context.

In addition to doing such critical evaluation, it is also necessary to engage all the powers of creative imagination to move from dreaming of a world in which there is equality and dignity for women to making it a reality. Not only is it necessary to envision a new future, but also to retrieve the past. This entails both recovering the forgotten and overlooked history of women’s missionary discipleship and exposing the brutality of violence against women in “texts of terror” with the insistence, “Never again!” Finally, feminist biblical interpretation does not remain an intellectual exercise, but leads one to take action for transformative change by changing relationship patterns on the personal level, and working to dismantle structures of domination.

Hearing the Word

The Bible itself gives us many examples of women who do what the opening line of "Dei Verbum" urges: “Hearing the Word of God with reverence, and proclaiming it with faith.” In the Old Testament, women such as Miriam (Ex 15:20-21), Judith (Jdt 16:1-17), Deborah (Judges 5), and Hannah (1 Sam 2:1-10), hear God’s word and utter prophetic proclamations extolling God’s saving deeds. In the New Testament, women who hear the word and proclaim it include Jesus’ mother (Lk 1:46-55), Elizabeth (Lk 1:25, 39-45, 57-66), Anna (Lk 2:36-38), the woman evangelist of Samaria (Jn 4:4-42), Mary Magdalene and the other Galilean women (Mt 28:1-10; Lk 24:1-12; Jn 20:1-2, 11-18), to name only a few.

The witness of the Galilean women at the conclusion of Luke’s Gospel gives strong encouragement to women interpreters and proclaimers of the word, especially in challenging circumstances. Luke is the only evangelist who introduces Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and the other Galilean women before the crucifixion. He says that these women were with Jesus and the twelve as they were going through cities and villages, proclaiming the good news, and the women “provided for them out of their resources.” While the verb diakonein (“provided for”) is used to connote various kinds of ministry (e.g., Lk 22:27 Jesus’ own mission of serving; Acts 1:25 apostolic ministry; Acts 6:2 ministry of the table; Acts 6:4 ministry of the word), Luke specifies that the women’s ministry is financial (the word hyparchontōn, “resources,” means monetary resources). The Galilean women reappear at the crucifixion scene and burial, where Luke notes twice (Lk 23:49, 55-56) that they had been following Jesus from Galilee. They are the first to discover the tomb empty (Lk 24:1-12), where the two divine messengers instruct them, “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again. Then they remembered his words” (Lk 24:6-8). The women followers become the crucial link in the narrative, as Luke implies that they were present among the disciples who heard Jesus’ predictions of his passion at 9:18-22 and 17:22-37, which they now remember.

To remember means far more than simple recall; it also requires action. For example, when God tells Moses to have the Israelites make fringes on the corner of their garments, it is so they will “remember all the commandments of the LORD and do them” (Nm 15:39). The Galilean women therefore hasten to act on the word they have heard and remembered and they tell everything to the rest of Jesus’ followers. The imperfect tense of the verb elegon, “told,” (Lk 24:10) indicates that this was not a one-time message, but they repeatedly proclaimed the word. The women’s announcement, however, was dismissed as lēros, “an idle tale” (NRSV), “nonsense” (NAB). Yet the reliability of the women’s witness is affirmed in the next scene, where Cleopas and his companion repeat the women’s message and assert that it has been verified (Lk 24:22-24).

Although the first and last chapters of the Gospel of Luke provide strong affirmation of women’s gifts for faithfully interpreting and proclaiming the word, this is not Luke’s last word on the subject. In the Acts of the Apostles, male disciples, primarily Peter and Paul, take over the role of testifying to Jesus’ resurrection, and women fall silent. Throughout the New Testament, there are mixed messages about women’s roles in ministry. Approaching the Scriptures from feminist perspectives stimulates valuable questions and points to issues that demand rethinking. While the past fifty years of women studying, interpreting and proclaiming the word have led us to remember and reclaim the rightful place of faithful women disciples in ministries of the word, there is much more to do in the next 50 years to bring about the full acceptance of the gifts women bring for the wellbeing of the church and the world.

Barbara E. Reid, O.P., is a professor of New Testament Studies and the vice president and academic dean of the Catholic Theological Union at Chicago. She is a past President of the Catholic Biblical Association of America. 

Comments

alan macdonald | 1/31/2016 - 4:09pm

The widow has, long ago, moved on.

Quinn Kristof | 1/20/2016 - 5:36pm

In addition, feminist biblical scholars are aware that the books of the Bible have been written, for the most part, by men, for men, about men, and to serve men’s purposes.

Respectfully, I wonder whether they are aware that Holy Scripture was given to us by God, for the most part, by the Holy Spirit, for the salvation of all people, about God and His plan for us, and to serve us all by bringing us closer to Jesus.

Bruce Snowden | 1/18/2016 - 1:43pm

I think this is worth passing on, so I venture. At a recent family gathering I saw a “woman” in the person of a four year old girl effectively preach the Word, reminding all of Pope Francis’ “respect and reverence all creation” Gospel-themed, “Laudato Si” Encyclical. “Chubs” the family cat caught her attention as it slumbered. Her grandfather called trying to get the child’s attention, but the Four year old responded, “Shhh! Chubs is sleeping!” Then she lovingly covered her feline friend with a shawl. A simple story with a profound meaning – respect creation in all its functions! Treat creation as lovingly as did Jesus, who equating himself to the female form said he gathers chicks (us) all creation, protectively under his wings like a mother hen.

Another little girl-child at Mass yesterday, at another “family gathering” of the faithful, for isn’t that was Mass is, “preached the Word” this way. As those throughout the Church embraced and in some way acknowledged fellowship, the child with doll in hand did the same offering the hand of her doll in friendship to her family. I thought of the Word, "A little child shall lead" and “Unless you become as a little child, you shall not enter the Kingdom!” Yes, women can effectively proclaim the Word!

Bruce Snowden | 12/27/2015 - 7:34pm

This post is not going to show anything near the scholastic profundity exhibited by other postings on this site, dealing with women proclaiming the Word. Rather my post will try to show that, women by God’s fashioning have the right biologically as prime nurturers of the Word, prepared to do so from the womb. And I’ll do it differently, “outside the box” for sure, hopefully with some degree of cogency,

Succinctly I see my premise rooted in St. Augustine’s, “Mary gave milk to our Bread.” In other words the person Jesus called “Woman” at the wedding feast at Cana, nurtured the Word, breast feeding, giving it sustenance and strength, something all women can do in the heart. Dare I say that men too, to a degree share by Grace that gift, that potential? Call it "gender equality?"

Listen! It can still be heard – the gurgling of Baby God on Christmas morning ravenously nursing as newborn infants do, as parents know, craving the warmth and sweet caress of the maternal breasts! Incidentally while Christmas night was certainly a “holy night” it was probably anything but a “silent night.” With the Holy Infant squirming and yelping as infants do, not just for a nursing, but also saying in upset infant-talk, “Somebody change me, I’m wet!” No, it was not silent in that Animal Shelter!

Yes, the woman Mary, made prototypical of the Church by the Incarnation, not only conceived, (as in “thinking about it”)when she asked the Angel, “How?” but also in birth, making possible proclamation of the Word. So intrinsic to It and its continuation is she, that without her, there would be no Word, only silence. God chose to speak through gestational design, through fetal Jesus. What do I mean by that?

Let me ask a question, the answer to which I probably once knew but had forgotten, refreshed by internet assistance. “Why do men have breasts?” Because at the fetal stage before the biological choice is made, the girl/boy to be , is sexually neutral preparing for any outcome. Jesus through natural potential could have been a girl. In this biological reality I see another understanding of St. Paul’s teaching, which may drive scripture scholars crazy, “In Christ there is neither male or female.” His Word penetrates even the hidden recesses of the womb bringing Good News to humanity everywhere at every stage of human life. I see the Body of Christ the Church, whom we are ever fetal, ever developing, until He comes again. I see woman fully marked from the womb as nurturer of the Word, giving sustenance and strength to the Word. And thanks to woman men also residually marked, including Jesus, by Divine Plan made fit to proclaim the Word through evangelical feeding with the breast milk of salvation enriched in Faith, Hope and Love. St. Bernard of Clairveaux might say, "Sweeter than honey on the comb."

All of this wrapped in the Mystery that is Christ! Too much to grapple with? For sure woman has the right to proclaim the Word spiritually if not biologically, in virtue of Baptism. How can this be denied when Mary in four words proclaimed the Word in toto, saying, “Do whatever He says!”

Carlos Orozco | 12/12/2015 - 11:47am

Quack science, ideologically-driven terminology such as "gender" immediately has a dis-interesting effect on me. I have come to expect nothing nearing the depths of a "Grand Inquisitor" spiritual discussion when "gender" is mixed with Scripture.

William Rydberg | 11/30/2015 - 12:36pm

One wonders why the Deuterocanonical books have not been more explored by Women’s Studies for there is so much there that can shed light on the subject. One would include nuanced study of the Protoevangelium of James (I am thinking of the Catholic Feasts of St Ann & Joachim as well as Presentation of Mary) would bear fruit for women’s studies in my opinion.

However, the books and the full Protoevangelium were effectively set aside by German Liberal Protestant Scholars (Harnack, through Bultmann..etc..) and also seemingly by their inheritors within the Catholic Church (I am thinking R. Brown, A. Loisy, and others..). Which is a crying shame for all the good information that could be mined through systematic study by Women’s Scholarship. After all, the amount of times in the Early Fathers where explicit and implicit references to Deuterocanonical books and even Protoevangelium of James is significant.

It’s taken for granted in many quarters of Scripture Studies Academia that the Protestant O.T. Collection (Masoretic) is what matters most in spite of the fact that for the most part, the evidence points to usage of the Septuagint when it comes to quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures..

Let’s not for a minute minimize the power of Protestant Scripture Scholarship on Catholic scholarly minds. Take for example, the Protoevangelium of James. The influence for about a century and a half of liberal protestant scholarship had been so powerful that even in the then seemingly, most powerful days of the Catholic Church in Quebec, the Roman Catholic Church in my home Province of Quebec. Quebec Bishops seemed to quietly drop celebrations for St Anne and St Joachim (St Anne being the historic Patron Saint of Quebec) for co-Patron St John the Baptist. The rationale being, that St Anne and Joachim were not explicitly in the 4 gospels. Which in my opinion is quite rich, since it totally ignores the value of Tradition and the abundance of other sources. But that is their power on the Church.

Even Scripture scholar Raymond E. Brown, in a Paulist Press book called 101 Questions and Answers on the Bible wherein he said that there was practically no value for giving us historical information about Jesus or about Christianity before the deaths of Peter and Paul in the 60’s. (context here is the Protoevangelium).

The elephant in the room, in my opinion, is that in essence these works are Catholic to the “bone”, and there could be danger to one’s academic potential should they focus on sole Catholic sources. For in my opinion, the one thing that up and coming scholars want to avoid is being seen as being ghettoized by a “traditionalist” understanding of their choice of study.

But, it would be worth it in my opinion to focus on these Sapiential Books, as well as the Protoevangelium of James, after all one needs to start somewhere..

Finally, in my opinion, I am encouraged by indications in recent years that scripture scholarship is moving towards the english language, away from the practice of the past century and a half wherein the best books on the subject were only available in the German language, largely thanks to the early policies of the German Nationalist Von Bismarck who’s intention in my opinion, was to marginalize Catholic Scriptural Scholarship in favour of Liberal Protestant (mostly Lutheran) through policies of funding and the manner that credentials were accorded that echo through to this day… Hopefully, that’s all water under the bridge and we go on from here positively! After all, we are talking about half of the human race...

Mary Marsella | 11/30/2015 - 1:24am

Thank you, Barbara. Know how beloved you are to the many whom you've taught. We continue to interpret according to the Truth that God has put into our hearts and our minds and which resonates with the words of Scripture.

alan macdonald | 11/27/2015 - 3:56pm

Mr Moynihan, it is not my intent to "shut us up", rather to point out orthodoxy is not in your favour and some other line of service to the Church and humanity may be more fruitful.

Bill Moynihan | 12/13/2015 - 10:18am

Yet the widow will keep bothering you...

alan macdonald | 11/26/2015 - 5:10pm

Professor Reid, please allow me to refresh your memory on what the last thre popes said about female ordination:
Pope John Paul II "No"
Pope Benedict XVI "No"
Pope Francis "No".

Joseph Morris | 4/15/2016 - 10:57am

Sr. Reid said nothing about the ordination of women in this article.

Bill Moynihan | 11/27/2015 - 1:10am

Mr. McDonald, please allow me refresh your memory on the parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8). You won't shut us up.

Nathaniel Campbell | 11/17/2015 - 1:40pm

While it is true that St. Hildegard of Bingen sometimes interpreted Scripture from a uniquely feminine perspective (I've appended several notable examples to the end of this comment), it's important not to overstate that perspective and thus constrain ourselves from seeing the full breadth of her vision. The fundamental experiences that shaped her approach to scripture were those of the monastic life lived under the Rule of St. Benedict, with the decades of nearly continual, scripturally-based prayer of the daily office and the lectio divina building for her an intricate network of scriptural images on which to build her understanding of the Work of God.

The Visionary Doctor's primary mode of seeing humanity isn't merely through womanhood (mulier or femina), but in the wholly representative human person (homo). Her most extensive biblical exegesis comes in her final and most sophisticated work, the Liber Divinorum Operum ("Book of Divine Works"), which focuses on the human person as the microcosm of all of God's creation. The human person is the Work of God, called into being by the resounding Word and perfected by that Word's eternally predestined Incarnation. It is in that universal human-divine context--rather than one more narrowly confined by a "feminist" perspective--that St. Hildegard tackles with her characteristic verve and radiant images the most challenging of scriptural passages for the longest sustained commentaries of her ouevre: the prologue to John's Gospel (in Book of Divine Works I.4.105), and its corresponding In principio, the first creation account of Genesis 1-2:3 (in Book of Divine Works II.1.17-49).
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Here are the notable examples I referred to above, in which St. Hildegard's feminine perspective comes to the fore:

  1. Scivias I.2.12, where she rebalances the relationship between man and woman from 1 Corinthians 11:11-12: "Woman was created for the sake of man, and man for the sake of woman. As she is from the man, the man is also from her, lest they dissent from each other in the unity of making their children; for they should work as one in one work, as the air and the wind intermingle in their labor."
  2. In one of the lengthy autobiographical passages collected into her saintly Vita, Hildegard uses the language of Moses leading the Exodus to describe her own role in leading the women in her community out of the male monastery of the Disibodenberg in which they had been subordinate and into their own, independent foundation at the Rupertsberg (Life of St. Hildegard II.5)
  3. The exegesis of the apocalyptic Woman Clothed with the Sun in Book of Divine Works II.1.16, in which the woman becomes the feminine across salvation history, reflected in what Hildegard saw as the three great mothers--Eve, Mary, and the Church; the translation is my own, from the forthcoming edition from the Catholic University of America Press, in their "Fathers of the Church, Medieval Continuation" series (the first time the complete work has been published in English):

    “And after the dragon saw that he was cast down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had borne the male child. And to the woman were given the two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly from the face of the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time.” (Rev 12:13-4) This should be considered thus: When the ancient dragon saw that, because he had been cast down into the netherworld, he had lost the place where he had wanted to set up his throne, he sharpened his rage against woman, because he knew that in childbearing, she would be the root of the whole human race. Considering her with the deepest hatred, he said to himself that he would never stop pursuing her until he could drown her as in the sea, because he had deceived her first. But though she was anguished as in childbirth, at last she grasped the mightiest help of solace and, propped up by divine protection, opposed the devil in every way. For to her were given two bulwarks of blessedness—heavenly desire and the salvation of souls—that with these she might strive in the secrets of her heart. There she received the nourishments of salvation, in the time before the flood, and the times after the flood, and the half a time that was under the circumcision, before my Son’s Incarnation, and lasted until the full time of the Gospel, in which arose the whole fullness of the true and just order against the ancient serpent. For before the flood, after the flood, and under the circumcision, there were those worshipers of God who secured the redemption of their souls through the outpoured blood of my Son. But when the time of the red-gleaming dawn—of full justice—came through my Son, the ancient serpent was greatly terrified and astounded, because he had been wholly deceived by a woman—the Virgin.

    Wherefore in his fury he burned against her, as it is written in my will: “And the serpent cast out of his mouth water like a river after the woman, to cause her to be swept away by the river; and the earth came to the woman’s help.” (Rev 12:15-6) This should be considered thus: In pursuit of the righteousness of the woman who had borne the man, the ancient persecutor cast out of his foulest voraciousness disbelief and unfaithfulness into the peoples of the Jews and pagans, intending to wear the woman down with so many persecutions that she either submitted to him or was wholly drowned, like a ship floundered in a shipwreck—her name entirely wiped away from the earth, like something wiped away from the earth that has been cast into the bottom of a river. But with the help of the earth, the woman was rescued, because my Son took up the garment of his humanity from her and then bore within his body many reproaches and sufferings, to the confusion of that serpent.

Luis Gutierrez | 11/17/2015 - 11:53am

In his Theology of the Body, John Paul II points out that the imbalance of male domination/female submission that emerged after original sin (Genesis 3:16) is not part of natural law and is a deformation of the spousal meaning of the body (cf. TOB 31). But as long as the Church hierarchy remains exclusively male, it is hard to imagine how the imbalance can be corrected, and the natural balance of man and woman restored, at least to some extent, in both church and society. Fifty years? At the pace we are going, we may not have women deacons before 2100, women priests before 2500, women bishops before 2900, and the first Mome Frances before 3000. Hang in there! :-)

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