How we read Scripture can help or hinder efforts toward gender equality
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.
- 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."
- 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)
- 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.