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Vol 39 No 1

God does care!

Charles Hill

Richard Colledge

Joseph Grayland

Cardinal Idris Edward Cassidy

Paul Babie

Elaine Wainwright RSM


Kevin Mark


In fear and great joy:
Forty Years of Feminist Biblical Scholarship


THE FIRST ECHO that will be heard as this study unfolds is the biblical text of Mark’s resurrection account: in fear and great joy (Mark 16:8). The second will be the forty years of the Australian Catholic Biblical Association celebrated in 2004, but that heard in a female key. And the third is women’s scholarship, women scholars who are feminist scholars, feminist critics whose voices have been heard only in the latter part of those forty years and who have participated and continue to participate in a developing tradition of scholarship called feminist biblical scholarship. I also wish to indicate at the outset that this is the type of survey which is not able to allow all the voices to be heard simply because of the limitations of space and the fact that papers take on a life of their own in the composition. There are, therefore, voices I would have liked to have included, voices that if time and space were not limited could have been heard. What I present is, therefore, not the whole story but it is a story, a listening to some voices of the women of the Australian Catholic Biblical Association who have shaped at least some of its history over the past forty years in the context of a broader movement of feminist biblical scholarship. In these voices, we will hear echoes of others still waiting to be heard fully in the public arena of publication.

Questioning Forty Years
Forty years of feminist biblical scholarship [1964-2004] appeared initially to be a strange time frame when I was invited to address this topic at the annual meeting of the Australian Catholic Biblical Association in July, 2004 for the celebration of its anniversary. It did not seem to be a periodisation determined by feminist scholars.1 Indeed, it seemed to cut across some of the markers of feminist biblical scholarship, taking its cue from the lifespan of the Australian Catholic Biblical Association which began as an association without women members.

2005, for instance, would be a more appropriate marker for feminist biblical scholars, it being the 110th anniversary of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s publication of The Woman’s Bible. As one of the foremothers of contemporary feminist critical biblical scholarship, she raised questions about the bible’s depiction of women, distinguishing between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ texts and speculating as to how the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of women in the biblical text could be considered inspired and revelatory.2
Elisabeth Gössmann lays out a history of women’s critical biblical interpretation stretching back even beyond Cady Stanton but she notes that despite this long history,

[t]hose male writers who adopted the feminist interpretation of the Bible did not quote the women writers from whom they had learned, but only from their male forerunners, since women were not acknowledged as authorities. Nor did women belong to the powerful teachers of the churches. Hence, in every generation women were forced to begin the hermeneutical task anew.3

Her analysis, ‘in every generation women were forced to begin the hermeneutical task anew’, resonates with words that I have heard often on the lips of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. They also raise further questions in relation to the strangeness of the forty years’ timeframe: does it coincide with the current generation of women who had to begin anew their hermeneutical task?

Turning to this recent history, there is little disagreement about those texts which have marked the beginning of the current wave of feminist biblical interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and Second Testament respectively. In 1978, Phyllis Trible published God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality in which she claims:

I have sought a theological vision for new occasions but I do not propose to offer a comprehensive program for doing biblical theology4…Using feminist hermeneutics, I have tried to recover old treasures and discover new ones in the household of faith.5

She goes on to explain her approach further:

By feminist I do not mean a narrow focus upon women, but rather a critique of culture in light of misogyny.6

In terms of our opening questions about framework, Trible traces the roots of her project to 1963 which she describes as a ‘convergence of crises’ which ‘muted the proclamation of the mighty acts of God in history.’7 We do not know what these crises were but by the early 1970’s evidence of the germination of her new perspective emerges in articles addressing her developing hermeneutic.8

1964 was the year subsequent to that which Trible marks as a turning point toward her foundational and inaugural work within the second generation of feminist biblical interpretation following Cady Stanton. This same year marked, as noted above, the inaugural meeting of the Australian Catholic Biblical Association in which the forty years of feminist biblical scholarship has been situated. It coincided with the closing years of Vatican II which, in its turn, opened up the Catholic church to a new future. One feature of that future was that women, especially in Europe and the United States initially, could now undertake biblical and theological study within those institutions which had traditionally been the reserve of men and more narrowly those men choosing celibate ordination within the Catholic Church. At this time, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza was undertaking studies at Würzburg where she completed her licentiate in 1963, her thesis being published in 1964 as Der Vergessene Partner.9 The great joy experienced by many women at the possibilities of theological study emerging for them is perhaps captured in Schüssler Fiorenza’s own words, words which celebrate this achievement without being unrealistic or idealistic but words in which one hears the fear not far below the surface:

Without the council…I would not have become a theologian. We followed the sessions closely…The council not only allowed for intellectual freedom in theology, since no one was censured any more, but also opened windows and doors in terms of the general climate of research. Our professors would tell us how their teachers had been silenced. We understood what was happening as making possible a new sort of theology.10

Earlier in the interview from which these words are taken, Schüssler Fiorenza tells of her application to Rudolf Schnackenburg for a scholarship for her doctoral studies because he had three scholarships to allocate. His rely to her was: ‘Look, I only have three scholarships, and I need to give them to those who have a future in theology, and as a wo/man you have no future in theology’.11 The fear engendered by such discrimination only spurred her on as it did many other women to extraordinary scholarship despite the structures and the bias. Her forty years in feminist biblical scholarship has born fruit for many women as her work has opened up extraordinary avenues or, using her imagery, open roads going away from empty tombs.12

As a result of this and subsequent study and teaching, in 1983, she published In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins, which, with Trible’s God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality inaugurated the hermeneutical task of the second generation of feminist biblical scholars. In the introduction to the second edition of In Memory of Her, published in 1995, Schüssler Fiorenza herself says of the first edition and rightly so: ‘[i]t has pioneered feminist studies as a field of inquiry within biblical studies.’13 Forty years may, indeed be a frame which might function profitably for feminist scrutiny when we take into account the germinating years of these inaugural texts.

Forty Years: The Australian Scene
Turning now to the Australian scene, I will read it through the lens of the forty-year frame but with that now nuanced by a claiming of that time within the periodisation of feminist biblical scholarship. The inaugural meeting of the Australian Catholic Biblical Association took place on 11-12 August, 1964. The list of those present includes only ordained clergy representative of the teaching of scripture at that time and also its students one might suppose.

But women were not absent for long. At the 1965 meeting of the association there are 5 women listed as present: Sr M Audrey, RSM, Sr M Callistus (NDde Sion), Sr M Germaine (NddS), Sr. Pauline Therese (NddSion), and Mother Aquinas (IBVM) who attended part only. They are not, however, included among the list of active members. The next year, 1966, there is a different group of five women present at the meeting but still no record of their being members. Their presence raises questions that we cannot now answer: why did they attend the meetings? Were their hearts touched by the possibilities of biblical scholarship after Vatican II being available to the entire church and did they experience the great joy that this offered? Did they long to study the scriptures? Were such studies open to them in any way in the late sixties? And why were these women present and not active members? Were they the foresisters in the Australian or Australasian/Oceanic context of the many women who today are active members of the Association?

Answers to these questions are rendered more aloof when it is noted that women are absent from the records from 1966 until 1972 when Sr Valerie (PBVM) is listed as present at the meeting and Sr Moriarty sends an apology. Were these women active members? We do not know since it is only in 1978 that the minutes begin to record new members and our records, therefore, do not allow us to know these women’s status or stories.

One of the Association’s current active members enters the frame at this point. In 1973-75, Veronica Lawson undertook postgraduate studies in scripture in the United States and Jerusalem because they were not available to her in Australia. On her return, she attended the 1977 meeting of the Australian Catholic Biblical Association, becoming an active member of the association but there is no record of this membership. She is simply listed as present as were the earlier women who were clearly not active members as indicated by the official list at the time. The records of the association, therefore, obscure the status of women in relation to the association in its initial years and it is not until 1981, almost 20 years after its inception, that two women are listed as being elected members: Moira Sullivan and Elaine Wainwright but Veronica Lawson’s own testimony places her as a member from 1977.

As the stone was rolled away on women’s theological potentialities that had been entombed by ecclesial restrictions, and as the effects of this resurrection experience took hold, women knew the great joy of biblical and other theological study which they could now undertake. Initially, within the Catholic tradition, it was women religious whose study was supported by their religious congregations, who were able to take advantage of the new opportunities at the very time when feminist biblical scholarship was emerging in the public arena.

My own first year of study for an MTheol at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago was in 1983 when In Memory of Her was published and Phyllis Trible’s God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality was a focus text in my BAHons thesis in 1981. Three years study leave from 1983-1986 gave me the opportunity not only to immerse myself in feminist biblical scholarship but also to engage with other women working toward the transformation of social and ecclesial structures, an integral part of their feminist life-stance. I became at this time a feminist biblical scholar although the seeds of this becoming were planted earlier, much earlier, when the literature of second wave feminist studies began to emerge.

During the 1980’s, ten women joined the Australian Catholic Biblical Association and two, Veronica Lawson first in 1988-89 and Elaine Wainwright in 1989-90, held the office of president of the association. Is this an indication of the advancement of feminist biblical scholarship in the region?

With great joy and anticipation, women members of the association and other women in both Catholic and Protestant theological colleges and in universities were undertaking biblical scholarship in Australia and as they entered the field, many became members of the Australian Catholic Biblical Association and other professional associations whose history is outside this paper. Many women also took up teaching positions during this decade. Women in biblical scholarship is not, however, synonymous with feminist biblical scholarship nor is the presence of women in the Australian Catholic Biblical Association. I will turn, therefore, to explore briefly what distinguishes feminist biblical scholarship

Feminist biblical scholarship is characterized by the approach or approaches of interpreters characterized as feminist. During the unfolding of what I have been naming second-generation feminism, scholars identified not just one but many feminisms, perspectives grounded in a recognition of pervasive social, cultural, ecclesial and human inequalities based on gender. Feminist biblical scholarship, as it has emerged over two or more decades, has been informed by the multiple perspectives or world views of those engaged in the enterprise.14 One of the features common to the variety of feminist approaches, however, is its critical aspect or its prophetic critique using language or paradigms from within biblical studies. A second goal which characterizes many feminist approaches is that of transformation which includes not only transformative re-readings of the text but these effecting new possibilities toward social, cultural and ecclesial transformations. For myself, feminism is not just an approach to be used in biblical studies but it is a way of being in the world characterized by the critique/reclamation dynamic of the biblical prophetic tradition whose goal is the transformative vision of divine wisdom.

It is not within the confines of this study to undertake a bibliographical survey of these decades of feminist biblical scholarship nor to critically evaluate in detail the strengths and weaknesses of the extraordinary diversities around which the work could be catalogued. Numerous scholars have already undertaken such a project over the last decade or more.15 I will, however, lay out the broad brush strokes of a map in order to further explore how women in the Antipodes have entered the field and how this has impacted on forty years of Australian Catholic biblical scholarship and how this scholarship and its broader location in the Catholic Church have created not only the great joy but also the fear evoked in my title.

During the 1980’s feminist biblical scholarship was characterized by its heteroglossia.16 Feminist scholars explored and developed hermeneutical frames of analysis in dialogue with feminist critical theory.17 At the same time their study of the representation of women in biblical texts and the roles and experiences of women in the worlds producing those texts raised cutting edge questions not only about an understanding of the biblical text but also of the interpretive process. With great joy and enthusiasm and also refined expertise, women situated their foremothers in the history of Israel and Judaism, the Graeco-Roman world and emerging Christianity.18 They read biblical texts with a developing gender critical lens using a range of biblical methodologies. As was characteristic of biblical studies generally during the 1980’s, feminist biblical scholars moved from historical critical studies to more and more refined literary approaches in dialogue with feminist literary critics;19 and they participated in the development of rhetorical studies.20 They contributed also to the refining of both archaeological and anthropological categories of analysis.21 The focus of much of this work of the eighties was female characterization or representation in the biblical text and women’s experience in biblical contexts as it could be derived from historical, archaeological and anthropological studies.

Although, as I indicated earlier by way of my own experience as example, Australian women were engaged with the scholars and the works cited above in a variety of ways during the eighties, it was not until the nineties that feminist biblical scholars began to become visible and active in the Australian context. The Australian Catholic Biblical Association had ten women members as we entered the nineties (Mary Reaburn, Moira O’Sullivan, Sue Boorer, Majella Franzmann, Elaine Wainwright, Sheila Bryne, Barbara Stead, Veronica Lawson, Pamela Foulkes and Bernadette Kiley). Many of these were now in teaching positions and some would have been introducing students to the wealth of feminist biblical literature emerging from predominantly North America and Europe. In Brisbane I had, for instance, set up a postgraduate feminist colloquium to provide support for postgraduate students undertaking research in feminist theology, having earlier introduced Feminist Theology and Women in Judaism and Early Christianity as subjects within the BTheol degree in the Brisbane College of Theology.

In 1991, the first major publication in feminist biblical studies in the region appeared. It was my own doctoral thesis published by de Gruyter under the title Toward a Feminist Critical Reading of the Gospel according to Matthew.22 It was one among a number of studies appearing in the late eighties and early nineties which used a feminist lens to study the women characters in a particular biblical book,23 and it stood at the beginning of a trend which would develop during the 90’s of feminist biblical scholarship expanding beyond the European/North American nexus.

This study explored the methodological intersection of narrative and historical critical study and it enabled both the stories of women and the memories or traces that these stories hold to be foregrounded. The work closes with these words:

The women, the memories of whom are retained within the text of the Matthean gospel, and those who participated at the heart of the Matthean church have left us a legacy. Their stories and their lives point to the tension and the ambiguity which arise when a vision of an inclusive, liberated and liberating community as promulgated by Jesus seeks concrete expression in a society which is patriarchal and oppressive, especially of women and children They remind us that tension and ambiguity must be embraced if we are to move our contemporary churches and society beyond patriarchy, but they also provide us with stories of solidarity, courage, initiative and deep faith for the journey. The women of the Matthean community and the stories of women in the life of Jesus which they have preserved for us are truly our heritage as women, as biblical scholars and as biblical Christians.24

As the nineties unfolded into the new millennium, feminist biblical studies faced a number of advances and challenges. Australian feminist biblical scholars moved away from the empty tomb with messages to proclaim and stories to tell. Women continued to gain qualifications, to take up teaching positions, to supervise and mentor postgraduate students and to publish. They also increased their numbers within the Australian Catholic Biblical Association with female membership [three of whom are from New Zealand indicative of the developing regional interaction in scholarship] now at thirty of a total of seventy-three (41%). Feminist biblical scholarship, however, cannot be measured easily nor is its strength synonymous with women in the association as already noted.25

The advances of feminist biblical scholarship in the region are evident in the recent publication of Margaret M Beirne’s doctoral dissertation titled Women and Men in the Fourth Gospel: A Genuine Discipleship of Equals.26 Beirne situates her work in a particular space within the equality/difference debate without engagement with that discussion and as a move beyond the focus on women characters only. She chooses to focus on male and female discipleship in the gospel of John. Her study is predominantly literary and her scholarly engagement is with biblical scholars generally but not with other disciplines. She takes a position similar to what Dorothy Lee calls a ‘broadened feminist exegetical approach’27 which plays down the hermeneutics of suspicion. Beirne also notes that she expands her exegetical lens to include men.28 Three theses are currently being undertaken which read women and the female: in Mark’s Gospel, Bernadette Kiley and Michelle Connolly; and in the Gospel of Luke, Elizabeth Dowling. Each of these takes a more critical perspective than Beirne demonstrating that the heteroglossia that Castelli noted in feminist biblical scholarship generally is also visible regionally. A feminist critical approach similarly characterized the doctoral thesis of Veronica Lawson on the women in Acts completed with Trinity College, Dublin, in 1997, some of which will appear in forthcoming articles.29

There have been and are, however, significant challenges to feminist biblical scholarship during the nineties and into the first half of the first decade of the new millennium which have had an impact on the Australian scene. The first of these came from women of colour challenging white women’s domination of the area of study and seeking to broaden the hermeneutic to bring their perspectives, their experiences to the centre of the interpretive process. With great joy these women began to find their voice. Kwok Pui Lan wrote Discovering the Bible in a Non-Biblical World30 in 1995 and in 2001, Musa Dube edited a collection called Other Ways of Reading: African Women and the Bible with articles by ten African women.31 Postcolonial and local ethnically based hermeneutics are also informing these emerging feminist readings.

This is a challenge which has not been taken up yet in this region. There is not yet a collection of Australian aboriginal women’s readings of the Bible nor of Maori or Pacific women although some of the collections of Pacific women’s theology include biblical studies32. The women of Oceania are beginning to develop their particular hermeneutic as are the women of Asia, Africa and Latin America.33 One of my fears is whether we have the courage to take the steps necessary to not only make a space for indigenous women’s voices in feminist biblical studies but also that we challenge our institutions to support their study or whatever is necessary for them to find their voices, to bring their stories into dialogue with the interpretation of the biblical text, to develop the critical tools necessary for their new readings, their other ways of reading. The regional association, Women Scholars of Religion and Theology, is one support structure for this and SeaChanges, its ejournal, provides a forum for publication but the Australian Catholic Biblical Association and regional teaching and ecclesial institutions as well as publishing avenues need to be challenged also in this regard. I should add, however, that feminist biblical scholarship and feminist theology generally has engaged this critique more explicitly than have their broader disciplinary groups.

While feminist biblical scholars during the past decade and a half have been from broader contexts so too have the subjects which have engaged women’s critical study broadened. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza was once again a leader in this field when she turned her feminist critical interpretive lens to Jesus. As the subtitle of her book Critical Issues in Feminist Christology indicates, she raised significant methodological issues: the Jewishness of Jesus including Christian anti-Judaism, and problematic theologies of the death of Jesus being two major ones.34 She also developed the biblical perspective of Jesus as Prophet of Sophia.35

Just prior to the appearance of Schüssler Fiorenza’s initial study of Jesus from a feminist perspective, I had begun exploratory work on a feminist reading of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel indicating the close links between local and global feminist biblical interpretation. While Schüssler Fiorenza’s work had opened up some avenues for this challenging reading task, I used the feminist critical category of ‘difference’ to explore the variety of ways in which different households within the Matthean community could have read the Jesus character of the Matthean gospel with different emphases. This opened the way for different readings of Jesus among contemporary communities of faith reading the gospel story.36 Contemporary literary critical theory provided a significant dialogue partner in this task. This points toward another characteristic of feminist biblical scholarship during the nineties into the new millennium, namely its engagement with cultural and critical theory, but this will be further developed below.

Further demonstration of Australian feminist biblical scholars’ participation in the broadening of the subjects of feminist scholarship is Dorothy Lee’s gender reading of the fourth gospel.37 In her well crafted text, Lee situates her work amid the broadening horizons of feminist scholarship, acknowledging that ‘[m]ore is at stake than the presentation of female characters.’38 Her gender reading enables her to move beyond this focus to ‘the theological framework of the text.’39 As the study unfolds, she enters into dialogue with feminist scholars, developing her own critical appraisal of their critical perspective. She questions the location of the critical moment within feminist biblical scholarship and this is an area of ongoing contestation in feminist biblical scholarship.

A third challenge is the internal critique which has characterised feminist biblical scholarship generally but more particularly during the last decade or more, namely Jewish women’s critique of the anti-Judaism in Christian feminist biblical scholarship. Australian women have not been immune from such a critique. Amy Jill Levine challenges my reading of the woman with the haemorrhage because of its perceived anti-Judaism40 and dialogue with her over a number of years now has developed my sensitivity. The problem remains, however, a challenging one not just for feminist biblical studies but for all biblical studies. It should be noted here how courageously the German feminist biblical scholars have engaged with the anti-Jewish critique.41 This internal critique may be being addressed more explicity among feminists than other biblical scholars [although it is not absent there either] but our addressing it is not without its tensions. Jewish women are seen by some feminist scholars as belonging to the elite band of North American scholars and a critique of newly emerging indigenous readings from Asia, Africa and Latin America by them can bring its own fear that the new shoot might be destroyed. This is evident in the most recent roundtable discussion in The Journal of Feminist Studies of Religion in response to an article by Levine.42

One of the exciting areas opening up within feminist biblical studies and hinted at earlier as a fourth challenge is the dialogue with feminist, gender, and other critical theorists and a broadening of the feminist hermeneutic to include ecological and postcolonial perspectives to name just the two most recently emerging areas of intersection. Cheryl Exum is one scholar whose work has been significantly enriched by such dialogue.43 Also Gale Yee’s recently published Poor Banished Children of Eve is hailed for the richness of its interdisciplinary dialogue and also for the advancement of feminist critical biblical readings. Within the cover of Yee’s book, Carol A. Newsom claims: ‘In this provocative and methodologically sophisticated work Gale Yee takes feminist scholarship on the Hebrew Bible to new levels. Combining traditional feminist critique with analyses of ethnicity, class and colonial status, Yee discloses the complex forces that invisibly shape the symbolic representation of women.’44

Locally, the work of Anne Elvey is situated on this cutting edge of feminist biblical scholarship. She undertook her doctoral studies at Monash University where she was able to develop her work in dialogue with ecocritics, literary critics and philosophers or critical theorists. This dialogue has significantly enriched her reading of Luke’s gospel from an ecofeminist perspective. She has developed a unique paradigm for this reading in her doctoral thesis using the pregnant body as ‘a focus for remembering the material given—the body and Earth—in the Lucan text.’45 She has also published a number of articles during the last two years, one of the most recent suggesting that the ‘Earth can be understood as an intertext’ in reading from an ecological perspective.’46

Elaine Wainwright also proposes a multidimensional hermeneutic combining feminist, ecological and postcolonial perspectives to inform her current reading of healing and gender in the Graeco-Roman world and early Christianity. She uses the frames of medical anthropology and feminist medical anthropology to augment a socio-rhetorical reading of material and literary texts in context. Both Elvey and I are members of the Bible and Critical Theory group and have published in the Earth Bible project co-ordinated by Norman Habel pointing further to the multi-dimensional nature of contemporary feminist biblical scholarship and its dialogue partners.

Feminist biblical scholars are being challenged to broaden their horizons not only in their writing but also in their participation in scholarly discourse. The challenge has come internationally as well as locally to develop stronger dialogue with feminist and gender critics in order that feminist studies in religion and theology become part of that discourse toward a two-fold effect: the insertion of religion and theology more profoundly into the broader area of study and the enrichment of feminist biblical scholarship by the paradigms and theory being developed in related disciplines.47

The final challenge I wish to highlight is that which evokes more fear than great joy. Since the focus of this paper has been feminist biblical scholarship within the forty years history of the Australian Catholic Biblical Association, the context of the association is the Catholic Church and the ethos and practice of that church. Australian feminist biblical scholars, members of the Australian Catholic Biblical Association, were and are working generally in ecclesial and ecumenical contexts. Inspired by the creative hermeneutic of Schüssler Fiorenza’s four-fold approach and also by feminist pedagogical principles, feminist biblical scholars and their sisters in theology have taught in new ways, introduced new subjects into the curriculum and invited institutions to expand their horizons. This has given rise to fear in some of those institutions and their members and that has reverberated onto the women themselves. The term ‘feminist’ seems to be at the heart of this fear. One example of this occurred in the establishing of a program focus in feminist theology including biblical studies in the Brisbane College of Theology. The Program Focus had to be approved by the heads of churches of the constituent colleges [an all male group of leaders] resulting in the universal terminology ‘feminist theology’ being rejected and the name changed to ‘women’s studies in theology’, a term unheard of within the field of study internationally—such was the manifestation of the fear. And there was and is the concomitant fear known by women that with the flick of a pen, all feminist study could be stopped in ecclesial academic institutions. This is what is tending to happen to women’s studies, feminist studies and gender studies globally as economic constraints bite. These are among the first areas to go as they are considered peripheral to the more mainstream disciplines. Theology and biblical studies is no exception I fear and the dismantling of the feminist courses and program focus in the Brisbane College of Theology once the initial co-ordinator resigned demonstrates the lack of institutional commitment.

Despite this threat, Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne institutes in which feminist scholars are working have been among the places which have encouraged doctoral studies from a feminist perspective. Kathleen Rushton, a New Zealand scholar and member of the Australian Catholic Biblical Association, completed her doctoral studies through Griffith University in Brisbane undertaking a reading of the Johannine passion through the lens of the woman in labour in John 16:21.48 Glenda Bourke undertook a reading of women in Luke’s gospel through Catholic Theological College, Melbourne, and Elizabeth Dowling’s masters’ thesis John 21 and the Absence of Women was undertaken through the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne, with Dorothy Lee as supervisor.49 Dowling raises a challenging question which can be posed to Margaret Beirne’s gender partnership reading of John: why have the women disappeared from the final chapter?50 Dowling draws a significant conclusion:

…the marginalization of women in John 21 may well be a deliberate act by the author and not simply an unintended outcome from the raising of the status of Peter. The narrative in John 21 is concerned with authority and power. It is political. Its aim is to place the power and authority with Peter and those churches who venerate Peter. At the same time it diminishes the power and authority of women as disciples and leaders within the Church. The fate of Montanism indicates that suspicion and suppression of women as leaders was an ongoing reality in the early church.51

And it seems little has changed. Women’s fear of exclusion from theology evoked by perspectives like Schnakenburg’s in the mid-sixties reverberates in many different guises down to the present. Indeed, one wonders whether the challenging and, one could suggest, prophetic nature of much feminist biblical criticism engenders fear in those who want to hold to a univocal perspective on truth without contest. Such a position emerges in the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s critique of ‘feminist exegesis’, as they call it, and the following statement interacts tensively with Dowling’s concluding interpretive statement above pointing up ironically the fear of loss of power and control:

Feminist exegesis often raises questions of power within the church, questions which, as is obvious, are matters of discussion and even of confrontation. In this area, feminist exegesis can be useful to the church only to the degree that it does not fall into the traps it denounces and that it does not lose sight of the evangelical teaching concerning power as service, a teaching addressed by Jesus to all disciples, men and women.52

It should be noted that all the members of the Commission are ordained clergy and even though four members voted against the paragraph [one of whom was a member of the Australian Catholic Biblical Association] and four abstained, the majority of the commission feared that feminist biblical scholarship could easily fall into the trap of misuse of power (there was not the same fear expressed about any other method of exegesis or hermeneutic!). This is highly ironic from a group of men who have demonstrated no public appraisal of their own power, its use or abuse, while feminist biblical scholarship has been characterized by an ongoing internal critique of privilege and power as indicated above especially as this has come from women of colour and women in other contexts of extraordinary oppression.

The Australian Catholic Biblical Association does not seem to participate in such an ethos and practice with women constituting 40% of membership and a number of women having exercised leadership within the association: Sue Boorer, Pamela Foulkes, Dorothy Lee, Bernadette Kiley and Marie Turner as well as those already mentioned. This gives rise to significant optimism. Many of these women, however, will remember the question being raised about the ‘appropriateness’ of certain members for election to leadership at a time when a woman held the presidency of the association. In a church which symbolically and actually marginalizes and excludes women, such questions can be evoked from the ecclesial psyche very readily and create hurt and threat. They lead then to situations like that encountered at a more recent joint meeting of the Australian Catholic Theological Association and Australian Catholic Biblical Association where it was announced that the initial committee selected by the Australian Bishops to oversee the theological work of the Commission for Australian Catholic Women consisted of three members of the joint associations (except they were all theologians), each of whom was male. Such a decision dismisses and renders invisible the emerging expertise of both feminist biblical scholars and theologians on the Australian scene who have devoted their academic work in recent decades to the study of women in the biblical and theological tradition and in the church and ways of reading our texts and traditions through feminist lenses, the very area of focus of the commission. Similarly, the attitude which Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza experienced forty years ago from Schnackenburg, that women don’t have a future in theology, is borne out when women are the first to lose their positions when the Church experiences financial constraints.

The ethos and practice of the Catholic church will determine, I believe, the ongoing membership of women, especially feminist biblical scholars within the Australian Catholic Biblical Association. There is a suspicion in official church circles, especially among its male leadership, of feminist studies [often I suspect without any real knowledge of those studies], seeing them as threat rather than as promise for a gospel transformation within the church.

I do not wish, however, to finish on a negative note as the great joy, the enthusiastic engagement in the task of interpreting and studying the biblical story in a way which is transformative of the religious imaginations of many has characterized and continues to characterise the work and the life of Australian feminist biblical scholars. They undertake their challenging work on behalf of the earth, of women, all women, especially the most marginalized and indeed of the entire earth community in order that the divine transformative dream for humanity and the earth might be realized. Their work is multiple like the emerging new hermeneutic and there is much that I have not been able to cover in this paper.53 I close, however, with an image locating the expanding and multidimensional body of feminist biblical scholars. They occupy a space on the open road to Galilee, going away from the empty tomb, proclaiming a message of resurrection which, hopefully, will shape a new future for the human and earth community as did the proclamation of their evangelical foresisters when proclaimed on behalf of life rather than death and of joy rather than fear.

Sr Elaine Wainwright is Inaugural Professor and Head of the School of Theology at the University of Auckland. She taught for twenty years in the Brisbane College of Theology and Griffith University School of Theology.

1 See Joan Kelly-Gadol, ‘The Social Relations of the Sexes: Methdological Implications of Woman’s History,’ Signs 1.4 (1976): 810-812, for a discussion of the division of history into periods and who and what determines that periodisation.
2 For a more extensive analysis, see Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, ‘Transforming the Legacy of The Woman’s Bible,’ in Searching the Scriptures: A Feminist Introduction, edited by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (New York: SCM, 1993), 1-26.
3 Elisabeth Gössmann, ‘History of Biblical Interpretation by European Women,’ in Searching the Scriptures: A Feminist Introduction, edited by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (New York: SCM, 1993), 37.
4 Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, Overtures to Biblical Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), xvi.
5 Trible, God and the Rhetoric, xvi.
6 Trible, God and the Rhetoric, 7.
7 Trible, God and the Rhetoric, xvi.
8 See Phyllis Trible, ‘Eve and Adam: Genesis 2-3 Reread,’ Andover Newton Quarterly 13 (1973): 251-258 and ‘Departriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation,’ JAAR 12 (1973): 39-42.
9 Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Der Vergessene Partner: Grundlagen,Tatsachen und Möglichkeiten der beruflichen Mitarbeit der Frau in der Heilssorge der Kirche (Düsselldorf: Patmos Verlag, 1964).
10 Fernando F Segovia, ‘Looking Back, Looking Around, Looking Ahead: An Interview with Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza,’ in Toward a New Heaven and a New Earth: Essays in Honor of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, edited by Fernando F Segovia (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2003), 9.
11 Segovia, ‘Looking Back,’ 7.
12 This imagery is used in Jesus, Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet: Critical Issues in Feminist Christology (New York: Continuum, 1994), 123-128.
13 Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins, 2nd edition (London: SCM, 1995), xv.
14 As early as 1985, Carolyn Osiek, ‘The Feminist and the Bible,’ in Feminist Perspectives on Biblical Scholarship, edited by A Yarboro Collins (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1985), 93-106, categorised a variety of feminist approaches within biblical scholarship. A decade and a half later the variety would be even more marked.
15 J Cheryl Exum, ‘Developing Strategies of Feminist Criticism/Developing Strategies for Commentating the Song of Songs,’ in Auguries: The Jubilee Volume of the Sheffield Department of Biblical Studies, JSOTSS 269, edited by David J A Clines and Stephen D Moore (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 206-249. In this article, Exum promised a subsequent article ‘Feminist Study of the Old Testament’ which does not seem to have yet appeared. See also Adele Reinhartz, ‘Feminist Criticism and Biblical Studies on the Verge of the Twenty-First Century,’ in Reading the Bible: Approaches, Methods and Strategies, A Feminist Companion to Reading the Bible, edited by Athalya Brenner and Carole Fontaine (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 30-38; Pamela J. Milne, ‘Toward Feminist Companionship: The Future of Feminist Biblical Studies and Feminism,’ in Reading the Bible: Approaches, Methods and Strategies, A Feminist Companion to Reading the Bible, edited by Athalya Brenner and Carole Fontaine (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 39-60; Heather A. McKay, ‘On the Future of Feminist Biblical Criticism,’ in Reading the Bible: Approaches, Methods and Strategies, A Feminist Companion to Reading the Bible, edited by Athalya Brenner and Carole Fontaine (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 61-83; Elizabeth A Castelli, ‘Heteroglossia, Hermeneutics, and History: A Review Essay of Recent Feminist Studies of Early Christianity,’ JFSR 10.2 (1994), 73-98; Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation (Boston: Beacon, 1992): 20-50, to mention just some of the overviews or survey articles.
16This term is explored by Castelli, ‘Heteroglossia, Hermeneutics and History,’ 74-76.
17 It is here that the work of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has been most influential. Her 1983 inaugural text, In Memory of Her, was followed in 1984 by Bread not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation (Boston: Beacon, 1984).
18 Bernadette Brooten, Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue: Inscriptional Evidence and background Issues (Chico: Scholars, 1982) and Ross Kraemer, Maenads, Martyrs, Matrons, Monastics: A Sourcebook on Women’s Religion in the Graeco-Roman World (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988) are representative of these.
19 Mieke Bal is perhaps the most significant contributor in this respect. See her trilogy: Lethal Love: Feminist Literary Readings of Biblical Love Stories (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), Murder and Difference; Gender, Genre and Scholarship on Sisera’s Death (Blomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), and Death and Dissymmetry: The Politics of Coherence in the Book of Judges (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).
20 See Antoinette ClarkWire, The Corinthian Women Prophets: A Reconstruction through Paul’s Rhetoric (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), on the cusp of the decade.
21 Carol Meyers, Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).
22 Elaine Mary Wainwright, Towards a Feminist Critical Reading of the Gospel according to Matthew. BZNW 60 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1991).
23 Others include Wire, Corinthian Women Prophets in 1990 and Hisako Kinakawa, Women and Jesus in Mark: A Japanese Feminist Perspective (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1994). The number of such work increased significantly as the nineties unfolded.
24 Wainwright, Towards a Feminist Critical Reading, 357. In re-reading this text as we approach the middle of the first decade of the new millennium, I am aware of how much more nuanced now is the feminist analysis of both inclusion and oppression, recognizing that both are impacted by race, class, ethnicity, social, economic, cultural and religious factors.
25 Note the publications of doctoral dissertations of Dorothy A Lee, The Symbolic Narratives of the Fourth Gospel: The Interplay of Form and Meaning. JSNTSS 95 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1984) and Mary L. Coloe God Dwells with Us: Temple Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2001), both members of the association.
26 Margaret M. Beirne, Women and Men in the Fourth Gospel: A Genuine Discipleship of Equals. JSNTSS 242 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2003).
27 Dorothy A Lee, ‘Reclaiming the Sacred Text: Christian Feminism and Spirituality,’ in Claiming our Rites: Studies in Religion by Australian Women Scholars, edited by M Joy and P Magee (Adelaide: Australian Association for the Study of Religions, 1993), 79-97. See also her ‘Touching the Sacred Text: The Bible as Icon in Feminist Reading.’ Pacifica 11 (1998): 249-264.
28 Beirne, Women and Men, 16.
29 See also ‘Scraps of Sustenance for the Journey out of Patriarchy: Acts 1:1-14 in Feminist Perspective,’ in Freedom and Entrapment: Women Thinking Theology, edited by Maryanne Confoy, Dorothy A Lee and Joan Nowotny (North Blackburn: Dove, 1995), 149-164.
30 Kwok Pui Lan, Discovering the Bible in a Non-Biblical World (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1995).
31 Musa W Dube, Other Ways of Reading: African Women and the Bible (Atlanta: Society of Biblcal Literature, 2001).
32 See Anne Pattel-Gray’s critique of feminist theology in Australia generally ‘Not yet Tiddas: An Aboriginal womanist critique of Australian Church feminism,’ in Freedom and Entrapment: Women Thinking Theology, edited by Maryanne Confoy, Dorothy A Lee and Joan Nowotny North Blackburn: Dove, 1995), 165-192 and Joan Alleluia Filemoni-Tofaeono, ‘Marthya: Her Meneutic of His Story: A Reflection on Luke 10:38-42.’ Pacific Journal of Theology 28 (2002): 73-88.
33 See Phyllis A Bird. Ed. Reading the Bible as Women: Perspectives from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, Semeia 78 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1997).
34 Schüssler Fiorenza, Jesus: Miriam’s Child.
35 More recently Schüssler Fiorenza has brought her feminist critical lens to bear on historical Jesus studies in Jesus and the Politics of Interpretation (New York: Continuum, 2000). See also Kathleen E Corley, Women and the Historical Jesus: Feminist Myths of Christian Origins (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2002) who challenges some of the earlier constructions of women in early Christianity.
36 Elaine M Wainwright, Shall We Look for Another: A Feminist Re-reading of the Matthean Jesus (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1998).
37 Dorothy A Lee, Flesh and Glory: Symbol, Gender and Theology in the Gospel of John (New York: Crossroad, 2002). I would like to note here that Lee was awarded the Australian Theological Forum’s Book of the Year Award for this work.
38 Lee, Flesh and Glory, 4.
39 Lee, Flesh and Glory, 4.
40 Amy-Jill Levine, ‘Discharging Responsibility: Matthean Jesus, Biblical Law, and Hemorrhaging Woman,’ in Treasures New and Old: Recent Contributions to Matthean Studies (Atlanta: Scholars, 1996), 381-382, 385.
41 See Feminist Interpretation: The Bible in Women’s Perspective, edited by Luise Schottroff, Silvia Schroer and Marie-Therese Wacker, translated by Martin and Barbara Rumscheidt (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998).
42 See Amy-Jill Levine, ‘Lilies of the Field and Wandering Jews: Biblical Scholarship, Women’s Roles and Social Location,’ in Transformative Encounters: Jesus and Women Re-viewed, edited by Ingrid Rosa Kitzberger (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 329-352, and revised in ‘Roundtable Discussion: Anti-Judaism and Postcolonial Biblical Interpretation,’ JFSR 20.1 (2004): 91-132.
43 See the articles by Exum and others in Biblical Studies Cultural Studies: The Third Sheffield Colloquium, edited by J Cheryl Exum and Stephen D Moore, JSOTSS 266, Gender Culture, Theory 7 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998) and more particularly Plotted, Shot, and Painted: Cultural Representations of Biblical Women, JSOTSS 215, Gender, Culture Theory 3 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996).
44 Carol A Newsom in Gale A Yee, Poor Banished Children of Eve: Women as Evil in the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003).
45 Anne Elvey, Gestations of the Sacred: Ecological Feminist Readings from the Gospel of Luke (Ph.D. diss., Centre for Women’s Studies and Gender Research, Monash University, 1999). This work is being published by Edwin Mellen, 2005, with the title, Towards an Ecological Feminist Reading of the Gospel of Luke.
46 Anne Elvey, ‘Earthing the Text? On the Status of the Biblical Text in Ecological Perspective,’ Australian Biblical Review 52 (2004): 64-79.
47 See Milne, ‘Toward Feminist Companionship,’ 57-60.
48 Kathleen Patricia Rushton, The Parable of John 16:21: A Feminist Socio-Rhetorical Reading of a (Pro)creative Metaphor for the Death-Glory of Jesus (Ph.D. diss., Griffith University, 2000).
49 See also Anne Elvey’s thesis, The Fertility of God: A Study of the Characterisations of Pseudo-Philo’sHannah and Luke’s Mary (M.Theol. diss., Melbourne College of Divinity, 1994).
50 Elizabeth Victorina Dowling, John 21 and the Absence of Women (M. Theol. diss., Melbourne College of Divinity, 2000).
51 Dowling, John 21, 149.
52 Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, edited by J L Houlden (London: SCM, 1995), 43.
53 The engagement with praxis, with women’s spirituality and publications which engage women in the church as well as in the academy are but some of many areas which could have been further explored.

Feminist exegesis has brought many benefits. Women have played a more active part in exegetical research. They have succeeded, often better than men, in detecting the presence, the significance and the role of women in the Bible, in Christian origins and in the Church. The worldview of today, because of its greater attention to the dignity of women and to their role in society and in the Church, ensures that new questions are put to the biblical text, which in turn occasions new discoveries. Feminine sensitivity helps to unmask and correct certain commonly accepted interpretations which were tendentious and sought to justify the male domination of women.
—Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, 1993.