Why We Need More Women in Biblical Studies

Gail Wallace

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Evangelicals need to develop a deeper theology of women; one that accurately reflects the fact that women and men were created in the image of God and given a mutual mandate to nurture and rule, without restrictions based on gender. There are some promising signs that the conservative church is moving in this direction.

SIGNS OF THE TIMES

In addition to anecdotal stories about people and churches leaving complementarian theology behind (Pastor Luke Geraty and Grace Church in Indiana are two examples in recent years), it is encouraging to see more women being appointed to senior leadership in church, college, and seminary settings. The appointments of Carla Sunberg as president of Nazarene Theological Seminary and Deana Porterfield, as president of Roberts Wesleyan College and Northeastern Seminary come to mind. Another sign of positive change is the amount of research and writing produced by women academics. While some of this writing comes out of more liberal camps, there is plenty of scholarship produced by conservative evangelicals.

SHORTCOMINGS OF TRADITIONAL TEACHING

Traditionally, few scholars (male or female) have concerned themselves with how the biblical narrative relates to women, or with the details of the lives of the women whose stories are found in its pages.  As a result, Christian teaching has suffered in these ways:

  • Women are rarely featured as primary subjects in sermons
  • Commentaries and other resources marginalize the importance of women in the biblical story
  • Negative traits are emphasized in teaching about women (Rahab, Mary Magdalene) but minimized in teaching about men (Abraham, David)
  • Women are presented as one-dimensional characters (the virgin Mary, Sarah who laughed at God, Rebecca the deceiver)

In the introduction to his 1998 book The Word According to Eve, Cullen Murphy wrote:

“The Bible is famous for being the world’s most overstudied book- overstudied by male scholars and commentators, that is to say. It has not, however, been overstudied by women. Indeed, until recently, it was studied by female scholars hardly at all, let alone by female scholars who were interested specifically in what the Bible had to say about women. This has changed, to put it mildly, owing in large measure to the influx of women into fields of study from which they once were virtually absent and effectively barred. Today the Bible is being confronted not only by women who are theologians, who bring to the task an overtly religious perspective, but also, and more pertinently from the point of view of this book, by women who are biblical scholars, linguists, historians, archaeologist, and literary critics”.

Scholarship by women and about women continues to flourish in the 21st century. Both male and female scholars are studying the Bible with greater sensitivity to women’s experiences and to God’s intentions for them.

CONTRIBUTIONS OF WOMEN SCHOLARS

Here are four ways women scholars contribute towards a deeper theology of women in our time (and some titles to explore):

1. New insights about the cultural and social contexts of the Bible

Understanding the contexts in which women in the Bible lived out their faith gives us new insight into their actions and behavior. For example, knowing that some ancient marriage contracts stipulated that after a bride had been barren for a specific number of years she would be expected to give her husband her slave as a surrogate, helps us to understand Sarah’s actions in sending Hagar in to Abraham (Frymer-Kensky). And knowing that married women had a surprising amount of authority and autonomy in their own homes in New Testament times gives insight into the role of women in the early church (Osiek & MacDonald).

2. New insights about lesser-known women in the Bible

Until recently, little attention had been given to more obscure or unnamed women like the Widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17), the five daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 27), or the apostle Junia (Romans 16:7). When scripture references to women are brief, new scholarship fills in the contextual gaps so that the value of these stories can be gleaned. New ways of interpreting such stories are emerging.

3. New insights about well-known women in the Bible

All too often, teaching on the more prominent women in the Bible has been one-dimensional. There is a tendency to focus on a weakness (Sarah laughed at God, Rebecca deceived her husband) or a snapshot in time (the Virgin Mary), and ignore the depth and breadth of the stories.  Additionally, misinformation that paints women in the biblical narrative in a negative light is being corrected. Case in point – there is nothing in the text to indicate that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. New scholarship helps us avoid such shallow caricatures.

4. New paradigms for understanding God’s intentions for women

Helen Lee’s “missional mom”. The “blessed alliance” envisioned by Carolyn Custis James. The model of “complementarity without hierarchy” presented by Rebecca Groothius and others. Kate Cooper’s “band of angels” in the early church. These are just a few examples of how women scholars are helping the church re-envision life for women in the New Community.  In addition to helping the church remove obstacles that limit women’s service, these new paradigms offer ways to bridge the growing divide between the Church and the more egalitarian values of Western culture.

A CHALLENGE

These contributions provide balance to interpretations that often leave women of the Bible in the shadows and present a skewed perspective on the value of women in communities of faith.  If you want to develop a more robust theology of women, select one or two titles to read over the next year. While you may not agree with all of an author’s conclusions, I guarantee that your understanding of how God views women will be enriched. And if you like what you read, take it a step further and share what you learn with your pastor and others who teach in your church.

Gail Wallace

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32 Comments

  • Another author for your reading enjoyment: Susanne Scholz of SMU:
    Feminist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Retrospect: Biblical Books (Volume 1). Editor. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013.
    :: Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible (Fortress, 2010).
    :: Introducing the Women’s Hebrew Bible (T&T Clark, 2007).
    :: Biblical Studies Alternatively: An Introductory Reader (ed.; Prentice Hall, 2003).
    :: Rape Plots: A Feminist Cultural Study of Genesis 34 (Lang, 2000/2002).
    :: Zwischenräume: Deutsche feministische Theologinnen im Ausland (co-ed.; LIT, 2000).

    :: God Loves Diversity and Justice: Progressive Scholars Speak about Faith, Politics, and the World. Editor. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013

  • Thanks for your post, Gail. I have also worked to address some of the issues you mention through my teaching but also in a Baker Academic book that came out in 2008. It’s called ‘Liberating Tradition: Women’s Identity and Vocation in Christian Perspective.’

    It discusses women’s stories in the Bible (as real people), body image, egalitarian marriage, women in the history of the church, inclusive language for talking about all people in church, and finally a chapter on feminine imagery in Scripture for God.

    It got great endorsements from Gordon Fee and Catherine Kroeger.

    • Thank you so much for bringing your work to our attention! I had not heard about the book and will definitely add it to our library 🙂

      • SUSANNE SCHOLZ FROM SMU IS A STAR FEMINIST BIBLICAL SCHOLAR. HER BOOKS INCLUDE:

        Feminist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Retrospect: Biblical Books (Volume 1). Editor. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013.
        :: God Loves Diversity and Justice: Progressive Scholars Speak about Faith, Politics, and the World. Editor. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013.
        :: Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible (Fortress, 2010).
        :: Introducing the Women’s Hebrew Bible (T&T Clark, 2007).
        :: Biblical Studies Alternatively: An Introductory Reader (ed.; Prentice Hall, 2003).
        :: Rape Plots: A Feminist Cultural Study of Genesis 34 (Lang, 2000/2002).

        SEE: https://www.smu.edu/Perkins/FacultyAcademics/DirectoryList/Scholz

  • Don’t forget the work of biblical scholar, Linda Belleville:

    Sex, Lies and the Truth: Developing a Christian Ethic in a Post-Christian Society. Wipf and Stock, 2010.

    1 Timothy. Cornerstone Theological Commentary Series. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers. Tyndale, 2009.

    Two Views on Women in Ministry. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, Revised edition, 2005.

    Keeping in Step With the Spirit. Chicago, IL: Covenant Women Ministries, 2001.

    Women Leaders & the Church: 3 Crucial Questions. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2000.

  • Wow, this is a simply phenomenal post. Thanks for taking the time to write this up and share so many awesome reads! Now I have even more on my list. I particularly think you’re spot on in how different perspectives can be shown by women and there are unique contributions from both men and women when it comes to interpretation (and beyond).

    • Thanks so much, JW! When I sat down to write I was amazed at how much is now available, and these are only things published since 2000 🙂

  • Great article… and I agree regarding the finite perspectives given. I have personally preached on the Widow of Zarephath, Zelophehad’s Daughters and the Apostle Junia… among others.

    I can see why so many more men than woman are preached about, because there are so many more men mentioned, than women.. however even among the nameless women like the ‘certain woman’ who killed the Abimelech, and Manoah’s wife there is so much faith and focused energy to preach about.

    Another couple of books that are very powerful are Beyond Sex Roles by Gilbert Bilezekian and Fashioned to Reign by Kris Valloton. In fact, Kris Valloton is an outstanding advocate for women leaders and well worth hearing on the subject.

    • Excellent! We love Reclaiming Eve and appreciated Suzanne writing a guest post for us earlier in the year. I think we need a follow-up post about books that would be great for small group study. There seems to be a need for that, both for women’s and for mixed gender groups.

      • Yes, a post on small group studies will be helpful, both book studies and those with a video component would be helpful.

  • When Women Were Priests- by Karen Torjeson

    • Another classic – only didn’t include it in this post as it was published in 1993, but love Torjesen’s work. Thanks for adding it!

  • I loved “A Woman’s Place” by MacDonald and Osiek.

    Others I’d recommend:

    Men and Women in the Church – Sarah Sumner

    Paul, Women, & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul – Craig S. Keener

    What Paul Really Said About Women – John Temple Bristow

    I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence – Richard Clark Kroeger and Catherine Clark Kroeger

    Paul, Women Teachers, and the Mother Goddess at Ephesus: A Study of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 in Light of The Religious and Cultural Milieu of the The First Century – Sharon Hodgin Gritz

    • I was going to mention the Kroegers’ work on 1 Timothy 2 as well. great book!

      • Thanks, Tim. That is a classic for sure!

    • Thanks for those additions! I was sticking to women authors, but Keener’s book is another favorite, along with Philip Payne’s Man and Woman, One in Christ. I had not heard of Sharon Gritz’ work. Excited to explore that!

  • My title for the 2006 book (Moses’ Wives) was FRAMING ZIPPORAH. It’s about all the women in Gen and Exod, esp. the women who deliver Moses from death many times, especially focusing on the Bible’s determination to include Zipporah’s saving act.
    “Redemptive Feminist Exegesis” traces the early evangelical feminists and how evangelical use or ignore feminist biblical scholars.

    • Karen, I would love for you to write a post about Zipporah for The Junia Project! Let’s talk 🙂

  • I have a few publications along this line:
    Two items can be found at http://www.learningace.com/doc/2906370/…/kwinslow

    2006: “Is there a ‘She’ in Shepherd?” Free Methodist Church of North America (with David Kendall).

    2008: “Ezra 9: Strangers and Foreign Wives.” Illustrated Bible Life

    2006: Early Jewish and Christian Memories of Moses’ Wives: Exogamist Marriage and Ethnic Identity. Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press.

    2014: Redemptive Feminist Exegesis in North American Evangelicalism. In Recent Research in Biblical Studies in Honor of Feminist Biblical Scholars. Edited by Rachel Magdalene, Susanne Scholz, Alan J. Hauser. Sheffield and Phoenix: Sheffield Phoenix Press.

    Phyllis Trible and Susanne Scholz are among women scholars who have studied the Bible for many decades, but other women such as Patricia Gundry did breaking ground work that should be read by those who need to be introduced the issues carefully:
    Gundry, Patricia. Woman, Be Free. Suitcase Books-available at http://www.PatriciaGundry.com
    ____________. Neither Slave nor Free: Helping Women Answer the Call to Church Leadership. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

    One of the best introductory books is by a man: C. S. Cowles of PLNU: Cowles, C. S. A Woman’s Place? Leadership in the Church. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1993.

    • Karen, the first link you shared doesn’t work. Please try again! Thanks for sharing these other resources. For this post I stuck to books authored by women published in the 21st century, so thanks for enriching that with some suggestions of more classic works. I see some future related posts – classic books by women, classic books by men, books that aren’t as academic, etc. So much great work out there!

    • My article “Recovering Redemption for Women: Feminist Exegesis in North American Evangelicalism” is on feminist Hebrew Bible Studies in the context of evangelical Christianity in the USA for volume 2 of a three-volume series on the history and current practice of women’s scholarship on the Hebrew Bible. The three volumes will review the development of feminist biblical scholarship since the early days of feminist hermeneutics.

      Volume 2 presents a wide variety of social locations and contexts in which feminist work has made important contributions. It is the “social location” volume.
      All three volumes will be dedicated to the first mothers of feminist hermeneutics, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Esther Fuchs, Phyllis Trible, Phyllis Bird, Carol Meyers, and others.
      The editors are: Rachel Magdalene and Susanne Scholz, who were invited by Alan J. Hauser, editor of the new Recent Research in Biblical Studies (HB) series of Sheffield Phoenix Press.
      The volumes will present readers with a substantial but easily digestible survey on the historical trends and status of feminist biblical scholarship. Second, they aim to provide a basic understanding of the critical issues and questions raised by feminist biblical scholars working across the spectrum of the Hebrew Bible. Third, they seek to offer a current context for future work in feminist biblical criticism of the Hebrew Bible. Fourth, they intent to demonstrate that feminist readings are not monolithic but consist of a diverse range of feminist approaches, hermeneutics, and methods. Fifth, they seek to analyze the influence that feminist ideological readings have had on the full range of Hebrew Bible methods.

      • Thanks, Karen. It is exciting to realize that this kind of scholarship is continuing to grow!

    • Yes, Suzanne, Daughters of the Church is excellent, and I mentioned it in this previous post as an important work: previous post Here I was trying to keep the focus on more scholarly books published in the 21st century that would be of interest to a wide variety of readers (Missional Mom is probably the exception, but important for moms who are parenting young children). Your book Reclaiming Eve belongs on a list of new books that are more accessible and great for women’s personal development!

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