Vol 39 No 1
God does care!
JOB AND THE TSUNAMI
INNOCENT SUFFERING AND THE CHRISTIAN GOD: SOME PHILOSOPHICAL REFLECTIONS
SIXTY YEARS AFTER AUSCHWITZ: WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY?
Idris Edward Cassidy
CATHOLIC DEVOTION AND THE UNITY OF CHRISTIANS
THE UKRAINIAN GREEK-CATHOLIC CHURCH IN AUSTRALIA AND THE FILIOQUE: A RETURN
TO EASTERN CHRISTIAN TRADITION
IN FEAR AND GREAT JOY: FORTY YEARS OF FEMINIST BIBLICAL SCHOLARSHIP
NEW RELIGIOUS BOOKS BY AUSTRALASIAN AUTHORS
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 Marks 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 womens 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 Stantons
publication of The Womans Bible. As one of the foremothers of contemporary
feminist critical biblical scholarship, she raised questions about the
bibles 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
Elisabeth Gössmann lays out a history of womens 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
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
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 1970s 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 Fiorenzas 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 Tribles 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 womens status or stories.
One of the Associations 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 Lawsons
own testimony places her as a member from 1977.
As the stone was rolled away on womens 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
Tribles 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 1980s, 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
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 1980s 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 1980s, 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 womens 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 OSullivan,
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 90s 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
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 Beirnes 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 approach27 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 Marks 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 womens
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
This is a challenge which has not been taken up yet in this region. There
is not yet a collection of Australian aboriginal womens readings
of the Bible nor of Maori or Pacific women although some of the collections
of Pacific womens 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 womens 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
While feminist biblical scholars during the past decade and a half have
been from broader contexts so too have the subjects which have engaged
womens 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 Fiorenzas initial
study of Jesus from a feminist perspective, I had begun exploratory work
on a feminist reading of Jesus in Matthews gospel indicating the
close links between local and global feminist biblical interpretation.
While Schüssler Fiorenzas 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 Lees
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 womens 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 Yees 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 Yees 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 Lukes 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
giventhe body and Earthin 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
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 Fiorenzas 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 womens
studies in theology, a term unheard of within the field of study
internationallysuch 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 womens 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 Lukes gospel through Catholic Theological College, Melbourne,
and Elizabeth Dowlings 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 Beirnes 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. Womens fear of exclusion from theology
evoked by perspectives like Schnakenburgs 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 Commissions critique of feminist exegesis,
as they call it, and the following statement interacts tensively with
Dowlings 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 dont
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 Womans 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 Womans 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, Miriams Child, Sophias 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),
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 Womens Religion
in the Graeco-Roman World (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988) are representative
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 Siseras 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 Pauls 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
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:
31 Musa W Dube, Other Ways of Reading: African Women and the Bible (Atlanta:
Society of Biblcal Literature, 2001).
32 See Anne Pattel-Grays 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
34 Schüssler Fiorenza, Jesus: Miriams 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 Forums 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,
41 See Feminist Interpretation: The Bible in Womens 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, Womens 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 Womens 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):
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 Elveys thesis, The Fertility of God: A Study of
the Characterisations of Pseudo-PhilosHannah and Lukes 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 womens 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.