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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Feminist Hermeneutics

1. Biblical Criticism by Christian Women before the Beginning of the Feminist Movement of the Twentieth Century

For women who understand themselves as believing Christians and wish to relate themselves to Christian tradition, the Bible presents a particular challenge. On the one hand it is regarded as Holy Scripture, which remains normative for the teaching and practice of the churches. On the other hand, in the history of Christianity women have always suffered from particular gender-specific limitations, indeed discriminations, which have been based upon this Holy Scripture. These have been found particularly in the area of marriage, which stood under patriarchal law (cf. Genesis 2–3 and Ephesians 5) and in the area of public speech (cf. 1 Cor. 14: 33b–5; 1 Tim. 2: 8 ff.). With Hildegard of Bingen in Germany (twelfth century) and Christine de Pizan in France (fifteenth century), two learned Christian women can be named by way of example, who already in the High Middle Ages and in the early modern period had, in their different ways, raised objections to such an androcentric claim of the Bible and who developed counter-readings in the interest of a much greater area of action for women or against a much more positive view of women (for the period 1500 and 1920 cf. Selvidge 1996). At the end of the nineteenth century in the USA, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an abolitionist and fighter for women's rights took, with her ‘Woman's Bible’, the step of accepting the Bible as a sacred text only to the extent that it agreed with a critical reason which recognized woman as made in the image of God the creator in the same way as man. However, it was only in the 1970s that the biblical criticism of Christian women which aimed to break these texts as instruments of patriarchy and to use them in a new way as sacred texts also for women, began to find broad acceptance, first in America and then in Western Europe.

2. Feminist Beginnings: From Women of the Bible to Criticism of ‘Systemic Androcentrism’

Initially it was, on the one hand, the women characters in the Bible and, on the other, the female presentations of God in the Bible which stood at the centre of Christian feminist interest.

The well-known women characters—above all, the matriarchs in the Old Testament and the women who accompanied Jesus—were reassessed in a woman-centred way. With amazement and also indignation at the fact that that they featured so little in traditional Christian teaching, attention was then also paid to the many lesser-known female figures in the Bible. The expectation was aroused that their way of faith could be made fruitful for women today, through identification with these ‘distant sisters’. Attention was drawn to the biblical presentation of God as mother and the Holy Spirit as feminine (Schüngel-Straumann 1992) and these insights were developed into impulses for new language for prayer and theology. The hope of feminist theologians directed itself to the possibility of constructing from the many traces of women in the biblical texts a sufficient counterweight to make possible the option of women standing on their own in God's presence.

However, it became increasingly clear that it was not simply the Christian interpretation of the Bible that had turned the sacred text into an instrument for discrimination against women, but that the Bible itself had to be seen as a document of patriarchy. The text has been transmitted, redacted, and composed by learned men, and also the world of biblical women is one dominated by men and centred on men. Women in their limited social world, and the female metaphors used in language about God, stand in the context of a ‘systemic androcentrism’; that is, they mirror only the places and values that were allowed for women in a world dominated by androcentric values. Thus, early on, feminist engagement with the Bible had to tackle the critical question of finding a hermeneutic which would be in a position to break up this systemic frame if the holy scriptures were to fulfil the task for Christians of being God's liberating word for all human beings.

3. First Hermeneutical Approaches

At the beginning of the 1980s, the Catholic New Testament scholar Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza set out a basic feminist hermeneutic for the New Testament (Schüssler-Fiorenza 1983, 1984). Biblical interpretation in the interests of women becoming subjects before God is to be undertaken in the four steps of a hermeneutics of suspicion, which uncovers the ‘systemic androcentrism’ of Scripture, a hermeneutics of remembrance which pushes back to the women at the beginnings of the Jesus movement; a hermeneutics of proclamation, which interprets the Bible consciously as a document of liberation for women and which silences those texts which oppose this; and a hermeneutic of creative actualization, which provides space for an individual and methodologically freer approach to the Bible. This concept is based essentially upon the impression that in the origins of the Jesus movement—the interaction of men and women with each other, their hopes and their images of God with their astonishingly strong accent on wisdom as feminine—are characterized by an egalitarian impetus, and that the Jesus movement can therefore be described as a ‘discipleship of equals’. By joining this historic ‘primal rock’ with the modern and contemporary desire of women for all-embracing justice, including political justice, a hermeneutical criterion is obtained with the help of which the history of primitive Christianity (beginning with Paul!) and continuing through the remainder of Christian history can be traced in a feminist critical way. In a similar way, but less emphatically grounding her criteria in contemporary feminist challenges and claims, Rosemary Radford Ruether provided a critical approach in the field of Christian interpretation of the Old Testament. For her, an orientation critical of power as found above all in the writings of the prophets (and then also in the Jesus movement) is decisive, and elevates into a criterion for a feminist rereading of the Bible as well as into new notions of God which deliberately embrace the bi-gendered term ‘god/dess’ (Radford Ruether 1983).

Over against this ‘egalitarian feminist’ paradigm in feminist theology and biblical criticism, which centred on the equality of men and women and adopted basic methods and perspectives of liberation theology, there stood in the 1980s a ‘gynocentric paradigm’. It assumed for human history in general, but also for that of Early Israel, a primal religion of the great goddess, which expressed itself in women-centred social forms, and which was destroyed by patriarchal forces (so-called matriarchal feminism or goddess feminism). The Hebrew Bible was read as a document of the oppression of this religion, and at the same time as a source for its reconstruction (in Germany cf. Weiler 1984/9; in the USA, Teubal 1984).

4. Christian anti-Judaism—Jewish Feminism

It was above all about this type of feminist biblical criticism that a debate arose in West Germany from the middle of the 1980s in respect of anti-Judaism in Christian feminist theology, a debate which had already begun in the USA at the end of the 1970s. Jewish feminists maintained that where the charge of ‘murdering the goddess’ was brought against patriarchal Israel, this was nothing other than a repeat of the Christian anti-Jewish cliché of the ‘murder of God’. They also made it quite clear that Christian feminist reconstruction of the woman-friendly Jesus movement ran the danger of presenting the Judaism of that time in a negative way, thus giving new impulses to anti-Jewish prejudices (particularly Plaskow 1978, 1990). The debate about a sometimes not even conscious feminist anti-Judaism on the part of women writers who had imbibed Christian attitudes particularly coloured these years, and contributed to the attempt to become more sensitive to, and aware of, the various mechanisms of attributing guilt, in the light of the history of traditional Christian anti-Judaism (Schottroff and Wacker 1996). Feminist Christian theologians are much more resolved as a result to examine self-critically what they say in relation to Judaism, and to take account of the various formulations of Jewish feminism within the Jewish denominations. In so far as the criticism of the Bible is concerned, it becomes clear that Jewish feminist criticism has a different set of priorities for a feminist critical revision of Jewish identity compared with that of Christian women, particularly Protestants with their Bible-centred tradition. However, a crucial area shared by Jewish and Christian women alike is that of the use of the Bible in worship and the connected question of the gender-sensitive language of liturgy, particularly in connection with names for God and the address of the congregation to God. In universities, both Jewish and Christian feminists work on texts and themes of the Hebrew Bible. In North America there are also Jewish feminists who are experts in the study of New Testament texts (Reinhartz 1991, 2001; Kraemer 1992; Kraemer and D'Angelo 1999; Levine and Bickenstaff 2001 ff.).

5. Womanist Interpretation of the Bible

Womanist theology and biblical interpretation have assumed clear contours since the 1980s. The term ‘womanist’ was coined by the black American author Alice Walker, and was introduced into feminist theological discourse by Katie Cannon in 1985. Black American women criticized the feminist movement as racist, since it absolutized the perspective of white, Western-formed middle-class women. A pertinent case was feminist historiography, which mentioned the nineteenth-century Elizabeth Cady Stanton with her ‘Woman's Bible’ but which forgot the name of Sojourner Truth, who stands for all black women fighting in the nineteenth century for the abolition of slavery and for the rights of women, with particular reference to the Bible. Womanist theology and biblical interpretation is particularly concerned to analyse, as entangled together, a threefold discrimination on the grounds of (black) colour of skin, economic hierarchy (slavery), and (female) gender. In this the Bible is seen much more as a source of critical strength against oppression than as a document of the oppressors. A notable example is the womanist engagement with the biblical character of Hagar. Because, as an Egyptian and as a slave, ethnically and economically, she did not belong to the powerful, she is particularly suited to be an identification figure, who receives sympathy from narratives in the Bible which also do not leave relations of power uncriticized. The best-known womanist biblical scholar to date, Renita Weems, works in her particular way to articulate biblical visions for her community; but neither does she ignore themes which require a critical engagement with biblical texts (Weems 1988, 1995; cf. 2003).

6. The Dynamics of Sex/Gender Distinction

At the beginning of the feminist movement, a general ‘we-consciousness’ of women and an ‘essence of the feminine’ were assumed mostly without question. The debates about racism and anti-Judaism led decisively to the recognition of the many and deep differences among women, and made possible a breakthrough in biblical interpretation which distinguished between (biological) sex and (cultural) gender, with the help of which it became possible to analyse both biological similarities and cultural differences. Beginning with its ‘discovery’ in social anthropology (Rosaldo and Lamphere 1974), the distinction between sex and gender made another critical point, whose wide-ranging implications seemed to become clear only in the 1990s. The distinction made it possible to expose the supposedly unalterable ‘natural’ features which were actually the product of historical growth or were cultural givens in the context of a dominant sex/gender system. Instead of focusing on the supposedly always similar experience of being a woman, for example in the realm of motherhood, attention could be drawn to the historically very different bodily experiences of women, or valuations of women as mothers. Most recently, lesbian and gay biblical hermeneutics have followed this line, which has both analysed critically the appropriation of the Bible for discrimination against same-sex sexuality and has also developed its own constructive forms of reading biblical texts (Brooten 1996; Nissinen 1998; Stone 2001).

7. Thematic Variety

In the 1990s the thematic spectrum of feminist biblical scholarship became increasingly specialized and diversified. The exegesis of texts concerned with female biblical characters as well as the biblical books about women remained, as before, an important field. However, more clearly than previously, a distinction was made between the textual construction of these figures (the literary level), the reality of women in the biblical period (the historical level), and connections with the present experience of exegetes (the theological and political level). The feminist-theological options which were connected with this new profile of biblical female characters affected internal debates such as those concerning the question of women in ecclesiastical offices, but also current feminist political discussions including those about health and sickness, disability and ‘normality’ (Fontaine 1996), motherhood, the participation and speaking of women in public affairs, and especially the theme of sexual violence against women and girls (Müllner 1997). All these have become themes which bind women together globally in suffering and hope. At present, exchange women around the globe is possible, especially with the founding of the European Society of Women in Theological Research (ESWTR) in 1986, which during the 1990s had a strong influx of women theologians from many of the lands of Eastern Europe, as well as the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT) in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, which has formed new associations of feminist theologians.

In the universities the question of the worship of goddesses in Ancient Israel has been tackled by feminist exegetes, advancing in their own ways the current debates in Old Testament scholarship on biblical monotheism and the history of religions (Wacker 2004). The figure of divine wisdom, as developed in the wisdom writings of Early Judaism and which can be seen in the wisdom Christology of the New Testament, has awakened particular interest among feminist exegetes (Camp 1985; Schroer 2000). Complementary to it was work on female metaphors in biblical writings, particularly the metaphor of the true or unfaithful wife for the people of Israel (Vieira Sampaio 1999) and the metaphor of sexual power especially in the prophetic accounts of the relationship between God and his people (Baumann 2000). If, at the beginning of feminist criticism, it was the figure of Jesus which stood at the centre of concern, now it was much more the figure of Paul, or, better, he was decentred in favour of his time and of his communities (Janssen 2001). The concern of feminist exegesis was broadened to the early Jewish and Christian writings which lay outside the canon (cf. the corresponding contributions e.g. on the Acts of Thecla or the Book of Joseph and Aseneth in Schüssler-Fiorenza 1993/4 and Schottroff and Wacker 1999/2006) and to the historical neighbouring areas of biblical scholarship such as Ancient Near Eastern studies, the Christian orient, classical archaeology, and comparative religion, but also decisively to modern literary and cultural criticism, particularly art and film (cf. Exum 1996). Bound up with this has been the question of the authority of the Bible, or a feminist theological concept of ‘Women's Sacred Scriptures’ (Kwok and Schüssler-Fiorenza 1998). In many biblical commentaries the attempt has been made meanwhile not only to remain with individual figures or themes specific to women, but to undertake feminist rereadings of all biblical texts and to broaden the definition of what is ‘relevant’ to feminism (Newson and Ringe 1992; Schüssler-Fiorenza 1993/4; Schottroff and Wacker 1999/2006). Along the same lines have been attempts to consider afresh from feminist points of view the ‘classical’ themes of biblical theology such as creation (Keel and Schroer 2002), the image of God (Frettlöh 2002), the cross (Janssen 2000), and the resurrection (Sutter Rehmann et al. 2002). The Feminist Companion to the Hebrew Bible edited by Athalya Brenner brings together in two ten-volume series the feminist discussions of central biblical themes and figures of the 1990s (Brenner I, 1993–6; Brenner II, 1998 ff.). In the meantime a companion project for the New Testament has been completed (Levine and Bickenstaff 2001 ff.).

8. Hermeneutical Specifications

From the hermeneutical point of view, the debates about the variety of the contexts of the life of women and their many forms of oppression, but also possibilities of action, have been translated into a new, clarified concept of ‘patriarchy’, which seeks to analyse the historical and situated structures of power, as well as economic, educational, colour-specific, and age-determined factors, as well as those belonging to sexual orientation, and last but not least also specific religious circumstances. Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza has suggested the term ‘Kyriarchate’ as a description of this system of multiple interdependencies (Schüssler-Fiorenza 1992) and has broadened her hermeneutic to a seven-step ‘hermeneutical dance’ (Schüssler-Fiorenza 2001). A separate hermeneutical step is now devoted to an analysis of the (dominant) context of the exegete as well as to the designation of her experiences, in order to do justice to the variety of life contexts. The ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ is directed particularly to the rhetorical constructions of the Bible itself, which, in a ‘hermeneutics of critical evaluation’, are counter-read in respect to their cultural and specific theological implications. Particular stress is thus laid on a critical constructive altercation with the power of the text. ‘Creative imagination’ is reserved not only for actualization, but becomes also part of the process of ‘remembering and reconstruction’, and does so not only because it cannot be excluded from the hermeneutical circle, but also because it is a necessary authority against the rhetorical power of the texts. All these stand in the service of a ‘hermeneutics of transformative action for change’. The motif of ‘dance’ signals the openness of the hermeneutical movement and the interdependence of the steps, whose sequence is not strictly determined, but which can be followed in all directions, as well as the aesthetic components of such scholarly work.

9. Challenges for the Third Millennium

I see the situation of feminist exegesis at the beginning of the third millennium as characterized by a number of challenges, which can be summed up under the (interconnected) keywords ‘post-colonial’, ‘post-femininist’, and ‘post-Christian’.

A post-colonial interpretation of the Bible is demanded by theologians and exegetes from the Southern Hemisphere, whose countries of origin largely became acquainted with Christianity through missions sent from Europe only, a type of Christianity often associated with exploitation and the alienation of the indigenous culture. Consequently, post-colonial rereadings of the Bible have taken two main directions. On the one hand, biblical texts and themes are often linked in such readings with the traditions of the indigenous culture, whether they be myths of oppressed folk cultures or the sacred scriptures of the culture's high religions. On the other hand, there is, in these readings, a critical concern with colonial structures in the Bible itself, including the colour symbolism, which devalues what is dark (and thus also dark skin) as well as the polarization between opponents, particularly on the ethnic and political levels. The demonstration of such colonial or colonializing tendencies in the Bible, however, can be placed by, and joined to, critical voices within the Bible itself. Structurally similar to classical feminist hermeneutics, a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ against the Bible can be opposed to a ‘hermeneutics of trust’ in that ‘de-colonializing’ readings are supported by the Bible itself (cf. in general Sugirtharajah 2001, 2002; for the African context Dube 2000, 2001, 2003; for East Asia Kwok 1995: for the quite different Korean context cf. Lee 2003; You-Martin 2004).

The term post-feminist is sometimes understood as pointing to the deconstructive turn in feminism. In a narrower sense, deconstruction aims at the dominant sex/gender system with its binary assignations of gender roles, in order to ‘trouble’ or ‘queer’ gender identity. As over against a reading of the Bible as a historical document from the perspective of a world which presupposes and affirms the two sexes, the deconstructive approach entails an exciting search for traces of figures or metaphors which shatter the gender indications or which overcome them. This can begin with the nouns of Hebrew which grammatically have two genders, such as ‘ruach’/spirit or ‘shemesh’/sun. This approach, however, has implications reaching much further. Under the sign of deconstruction—that is, without any assumption of stable notions of essence, subject, or identity—the characterization of what can be termed ‘feminist’, especially in its global perspective, becomes more difficult. For feminist exegesis this means recognition of a variety of possibilities of interpretations and options, without an a priori common denominator of what is ‘feminist’. However, in connection with the approach of a post-colonial exegesis, the necessity becomes clear that sight must not be lost of the concrete material structures of global injustice.

The climate, at any rate in German-speaking contexts, is post-Christian in so far as familiarity with the traditions and daily practice of Christianity, and above all knowledge and life with the Bible, are rapidly disappearing. In this situation feminist exegesis can no longer rely, as it did twenty-five years ago, on general and similar experiences of suffering of Christian women about and with the Bible. Correspondingly there is no longer simply ‘the’ liberating exegesis, but new ways of creative reading must be developed—a task which has also arisen through the deconstructive turn. In this connection troubling inequalities, particularly at the global level, must be noticed. Alongside an increasing ‘secularization’ there is, in the Northern Hemisphere, perhaps indeed world-wide, an increasing fundamentalism also within Christianity. On the other hand, as previously, Christianity with its traditions has an important significance as a liberating (and thus often persecuted) religion, which in many parts of the world seeks to question the structures of political and economic injustice. Another aspect of the ‘post-Christian’ situation is the growing awareness that the great religions of the world can overcome the global tasks of our present world (including the respect of the human rights of women as taught and lived out) by working not against, but with each other. As a result, they need to work out a strategy not of separation from each other but of paying attention to what they have in common. Feminist engagements with the Bible must find a way between awareness of their own particularity and the search for common perspectives.

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