As an academic discipline, feminist biblical interpretation was inspired and nurtured by the politics of the second feminist movement in the early 1970s. It was then that feminist exegetes began exploring the reconstruction of biblical history centered on women and gender, the recovery of feminist meanings in biblical texts, and the deconstruction and resistance to androcentric biblical historiographies, literary meanings, and cultural appropriations. Since the emergence of the field, feminist exegetes have used various methods to interpret biblical literatures. They have taken seriously the notion of interlocking patterns of domination and studied gender together with race, class, sexuality, disability, nationality, and geopolitical conditions. They have also adhered to different hermeneutical stances, preferring various disciplinary alliances based on individual preferences and epistemological assumptions.

Although many feminist biblical interpreters focused on the historical and literary recovery of women in the Hebrew Bible and the early Christian movements during the pioneering phase of the 1970s, the emergence of womanist, mujerista, queer, postcolonial, and postmodern interpretations in subsequent decades is intimately linked with the early phase in the 1970s and cannot be understood apart from it. Today’s feminist biblical exegesis foregrounds the vast diversity of approaches to studying women and gender. Feminist biblical interpretation has come to challenge modernist notions of objectivity, disinterestedness, and the possibility of extracting an original meaning inherent in the text. It understands its project as the critical analysis of multiaxial power relations in which gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, nationality, age, physical abilities, and other ideological-theological stances play central roles. In other words, the notion of “social location,” also prominent in other fields in the humanities, has gained considerable traction in feminist biblical interpretation since its inception.

More recently, some feminist biblical interpreters have expressed concern about the future and viability of the field. There are few degree programs with a specialization in feminist biblical interpretations, few if any endowed professorships in feminist biblical hermeneutics, and a decreasing number of explicitly feminist publications in the field. There are also co-opting tendencies among some women exegetes, as the field continues to face considerable hurdles in recognition and valuation. For instance, sometimes women exegetes avoid the term “feminist” in their work and adapt to the “malestream” status quo by avoiding explicitly feminist research topics. Institutional support for and cultural attention to feminist biblical hermeneutics are minor in contrast to the worldwide abundance of androcentric exegesis from Christian conservative literalist, modernist historical, and linguistic viewpoints. Thus, as an alternative hermeneutical enterprise, feminist biblical interpretation resides on the institutional and cultural margins despite its enormous exegetical accomplishments during the past 40 years.

Historical Development of Feminist Biblical Interpretation.

Since women have been Christians and Jews for as long as these religious traditions have existed, they have always participated in the reading of the Bible. While women were mostly recipients of biblical meanings as transmitted by androcentric institutions such as church and synagogue, and also faced considerable dangers in speaking before public audiences, some of them were nevertheless active and resistant readers of the text. Although most records of ordinary women’s resistance to androcentric biblical interpretation are lost to us, a few sources still exist that depict women in religious orders and the upper classes as biblical exegetes of high intellect and strong convictions. Their interpretations challenged male political and religious leaders, and they demanded women’s equality not only before God but also in society.

One of these was the fourteenth-century Christian writer, Christine de Pizan, who defended women’s equality on the basis of Genesis 1—2. She maintained that woman, like man, was not only created in God’s image but also consisted of much better material than man. Woman was taken from human flesh whereas man was only made from soil. Moreover, de Pizan observed that the location of woman’s creation was better than man’s. She was created in paradise, and so her noble nature was guaranteed by God. To de Pizan, woman was God’s masterpiece, the culmination of the creation.

Another courageous woman interpreter was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a renowned nineteenth-century US-American suffragist and abolitionist. Stanton gathered a team of like-minded white women to interpret the Bible against the status quo of patriarchal order and social hierarchies. Stanton considered the Bible as the original cause of women’s oppression. She was convinced that only a systematic study of oppressive biblical passages would dismantle sexist forces in society and lead to women’s equality. Stanton also wanted to dispel women’s attraction to religion by showing its deep complicity with androcentric domination. Her landmark anthology, The Woman’s Bible (1895 and 1898), exposed the negative influence of the Bible on women’s status throughout Western history. To be sure, Stanton’s vision was impaired with respect to questions of race, class oppression, and anti-Judaism; here she wore the same androcentric and patriarchal lenses as her male contemporaries. Yet, for the time in which she lived, Stanton was a courageous visionary in her insistence that the Bible itself was an androcentric product, and that women’s social and political equality could not be achieved without confronting the androcentric nature of the scriptures.

In the first half of the twentieth-century, many of the arguments of the nineteenth-century debate on women’s rights and the Bible were forgotten. Although women continued to publish books and articles on “women in the Bible,” including journalists such as Edith Deen, none of these works had the proto-feminist and early-feminist impetus of the earlier writings. In addition, few women were admitted to the ranks of academia and even fewer made it as biblical scholars. Those who did, such as Hedwig Jahnow (1879–1944) in Germany or Mary Ely Lyman (1887–1975) at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, enjoyed little academic support and fellowship. Moreover, they did not identify as feminist scholars during this era of sociopolitical, economic, and cultural retrenchment. Others, writing from feminist perspectives such as the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, did not concern themselves with the Bible and its history of interpretation.

The situation changed only in the 1960s, sometimes earmarked with Betty Friedan’s 1963 publication, The Feminine Mystique. After several decades of renewed compliance to patriarchal conditions, some women discovered their feminist voices and began questioning androcentric practices and traditions. In religious and theological studies Mary Daly’s books, The Church and the Second Sex (1968) and Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (1973), confronted male-dominated church power and society with a theo-historical analysis that provoked feminist Bible scholars to examine feminist concerns in biblical history and literature. For the first time, feminist Bible scholars located primarily in the United States, credentialed with doctoral degrees and teaching at colleges, universities, and seminaries, began examining the Bible and its history of interpretation with a feminist hermeneutic. They reissued the challenge that the Bible is gendered literature with a gendered history of interpretation.

In this early phase of academic feminist biblical interpretation, two publications shaped the feminist exegetical research agenda, and they were read by feminist Christians and Jews alike. They defined mainstream feminist biblical studies in North American religious and theological institutions of higher learning. By reframing epistemological, hermeneutical, and methodological priorities, they brought scholarly legitimacy to research on women and gender in the field of biblical studies. One of these pioneering books is Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her (1983). As Schüssler Fiorenza explained in the introduction to the tenth anniversary edition of her work, she “set out to explore the problem of women’s historical agency in ancient Christianity in light of the theological and historical questions raised by the feminist movements in society and church and to do so in terms of critical biblical studies” (1993, p. xiv). Schüssler Fiorenza showed that women and men of the first Christian century attempted to practice “the call to coequal discipleship,” but with various degrees and levels of success. At the time Schüssler Fiorenza worried whether feminists would dismiss the book as “male scholarship,” while mainstream colleagues would not take it seriously. She was also concerned that her book would be dismissed for eschewing value-neutrality and embracing an explicitly partisan perspective. Her worries were unfounded. Colleagues, such as feminist ethicist Beverly W. Harrison, immediately recognized the book as a milestone accomplishment, stating: “In Memory of Her is, I believe, the most fulsome proposal we yet possess for a feminist hermeneutics that addresses the full circle of human interpretation” (Horizons 11, no. 1 [Spring 1984], p. 150).

The other book that galvanized feminist biblical studies into today’s field is Phyllis Trible’s God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (1978). Equipped with the literary method of rhetorical criticism and a feminist hermeneutics, Trible examined biblical narratives and poetry that feature women and female metaphors. She defined feminism as a critique of culture in light of misogyny, applied this notion to her interpretation of the selected biblical literature, and demonstrated that in the process text and world gain renewed meaning. In her companion book, Texts of Terror (1984), Trible chose four “ancient tales of terror” because, as she explained, they “speak all too frighteningly of the present” (p. xiii). She read the narratives of Hagar, Tamar, an unnamed woman in the book of Judges, and the daughter of Jephthah as “stories of outrage on behalf of their female victims in order to recover a neglected history, to remember a past that the present embodies, and to pray that these terrors shall not come to pass again” (p. 3). Trible acknowledged that her study was possible only because of her earlier and more joyous work. Both volumes, but especially Texts of Terror, unearthed stories about women and gender in the Hebrew Bible that Christian and Jewish exegesis had previously neglected. Trible’s recovery project jolted scholars and lay readers alike into a newfound awareness that these biblical texts carry tremendous significance for discussions on women and gender.

Alongside the landmark works of Schüssler Fiorenza and Trible stand numerous other feminist publications of continuing significance that were produced in the 1980s and 1990s. Together they constitute a veritable explosion of feminist knowledge concerning biblical literature and related disciplines. In Hebrew Bible studies they include the publications of Phyllis Bird, Peggy L. Day, Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Esther Fuchs, Alice L. Laffey, Carol Meyers, Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, Elisabeth Schüngel-Straumann, and Renita J. Weems. In New Testament and Early Christian studies, they include the works of Bernadette Brooten, Mary Rose D’Angelo, Jane Schaberg, Sandra M. Schneiders, Luise Schottroff, Mary Ann Tolbert, and Antoinette Wire. Furthermore, feminist scholars from related fields, such as Judith Plaskow, Letty Russell, Ross Kraemer, Karen King, and Kwok Pui-lan, also enriched and strengthened explorations into the gendered nature of the Bible and the history of interpretation.

Current Trends in Feminist Biblical Interpretation.

During the past few decades, feminist biblical scholars have expanded and deepened their work, especially in two areas. First, feminist exegetes have produced an increasingly differentiated vocabulary on the interlocking structures of domination, owing in no small part to the contributions of women of color, both from North America and across the globe. Second, feminist exegetes, in contact with developments related to women’s studies, have engaged in discussions on the nature of gender. Like feminist scholars in other academic disciplines, feminist biblical exegetes learned to acknowledge that the study of gender does not pertain only to sexed bodies. Rather, it also requires the conceptualization of gender as a discourse of power in society, and within this discourse, sex itself must be understood as a social construct.

Increased Attention to the Multiaxial Nature of Structures of Domination.

Although it was not the central focus for all, some white feminists of the 1970s and 1980s understood the need for a broader analysis of the interlocking nature of systems of oppression. For instance, Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, in an article published in 1982, acknowledged the cultural and functional inseparability of racism, sexism, and classism, and encouraged feminist biblical scholars to pay more attention to these intersections. Also Phyllis Trible’s work showed sensitivity to the interlocking systems of gender with class and nationality. Similarly, the first volume of Schüssler Fiorenza’s Searching the Scriptures (1993) was dedicated to nineteenth-century African American feminist thinker, Anna Julia Cooper, and so signaled the “as yet unrealized possibilities of the diverse locations and divergent traditions of feminist biblical interpretation” (p. ix). Yet at the time, it was quite possible—as it still is in some quarters today—for white feminist Bible scholars to focus on gender oppression alone.

This cannot be said for womanist Bible interpreters who have always had a complex view of the interlocking nature of oppression. For instance, Renita Weems (1988) explored women of the Hebrew Bible with a focus on race, class, and gender, and systematic theologian Delores Williams (1986) posed piercing questions about the connection of race, gender, nationality, and class in her reading of Hagar. In 1987, ethicist and womanist scholar Toinette M. Eugene classified the examination of intersecting forms of oppression as central to womanist biblical hermeneutics. She explained that due to the doubly and triply oppressed status of women of color in patriarchal society, the analysis of sexism must be intrinsically linked to the study of other oppressive ideologies. She called for a feminist biblical hermeneutics, built upon both women’s struggles against oppression and women’s experiences of survival, envisioning a liberating praxis for all oppressed people.

In subsequent years, Eugene’s call has resonated in feminist exegesis, particularly with scholars embracing postcolonial and intersectional hermeneutical perspectives. They include a growing number of African American women interpreters, along with exegetes from African countries. All of them have challenged white feminist biblical discourse for the neglect of race. Many of them prefer the term “womanism” for Christian Black women’s scholarship, based on Alice Walker’s famous definition. Womanist theologians repeatedly state that racism is at least as urgent as sexism, and they propose that feminist biblical scholarship investigate both gender and race (e.g., Koala Jones-Warsaw 1993).

It is also important to note that postcolonial feminist interpreters from African, Asian, and Latin American countries have developed exegetical approaches that analyze biblical literature with political and social convictions at the forefront of their work. Hence, feminist postcolonial interpreters are less interested in historically reconstructed meanings and find textual alignments between biblical women and women of their societies significant. They recognize that ordinary readers, especially ordinary two-third world women, have much to contribute to the meaning-making process of biblical literature. They also place exegetical discussions within (post)colonial histories, as demonstrated in the work of Judith E. McKinlay (2004), and examine these histories in light of the Bible, its interpretation histories, and gender. Attention to the interlocking structures of domination is thus firmly established in feminist biblical interpretation today.

Theorizing Gender and Sex.

Another area in which the scope of feminist biblical interpretation has expanded in recent decades relates to the increasingly complex notion of what the study of gender entails. In the 1970s and 1980s, feminist scholars in biblical studies, as in the humanities in general, focused much energy on retrieving and restoring women to history and history to women. Theoretical discussions sharply influenced by historian Joan Wallach Scott’s essay, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” (pp. 28–50 of Gender and the Politics of History, New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), ensured that the early focus on “woman” expanded to “women,” gender, and eventually also to sexuality. A growing number of feminist exegetes began to view gender not just as the analysis of sexed bodies, but as part of the broad discourse on power, as it organizes social relationships. Results of this work in Hebrew Bible and New Testament Studies have included publications—sometimes, but not always, explicitly aligned with feminist perspectives—that demonstrate the socially constructed nature of masculinity, and the varying ways biblical texts either conform to or defy hegemonic notions of masculinity (e.g., Conway, 2008; Moore and Anderson 2004).

Finally, and similar to the academic shifts that morphed “Women’s Studies” into “Women’s and Gender Studies” and then into “Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies,” the field of feminist biblical interpretation has also opened up to sexuality studies. Although not all biblical scholars in sexuality studies work from an explicitly feminist perspective, often they do. Sometimes they employ traditional historical criticism (e.g., Brooten 1996), and sometimes a queer hermeneutics (e.g., Guest 2011). They aim to disrupt hegemonic heteronormative assumptions and argue for the socially constructed nature of gender and sex either in the societies that produced the biblical literatures, or in the literary meanings of the biblical texts, or in the world of the readers of the Bible.

Beyond the Canon and Toward the Readers: Illustrating Feminist Biblical Interpretation in Action.

Procedures and benefits of feminist biblical interpretation are far too numerous to describe comprehensively, so this section illustrates them only in regard to the discussions on the expanded canonical boundaries and the move toward a reader-centered hermeneutics. In the field of New Testament and early Christianity, one impetus for an expanded notion of canonical boundaries was the discovery of the so-called Gnostic texts from Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in the 1950s. These texts, dating to the early centuries of Christianity, contain numerous images of the divine as feminine, and otherwise push against conventional gender boundaries (see, for example, Thunder, the Perfect Mind, or the Hypostasis of the Archons). In addition, several of these texts privilege Mary Magdalene as a spiritual leader within the Jesus movement, thus reinforcing the strong image of Mary Magdalene already known from the extracanonical Gospel of Mary. Feminists have embraced these texts that challenge prevailing orthodox Christian assumptions on gender, including the fact that women have been unjustly silenced in dominant Christian theological settings. The newly discovered literature has also drawn attention to the gendered power dynamics in operation when Christian authorities classified persons and ideas as orthodox or heretical (King 1988; Schaberg 2004). Another impetus for the push beyond canonical boundaries has been renewed attention to the centrality of women in the Apocryphal Acts. The Acts of Thecla in particular, with its strikingly aggressive female protagonist, has garnered interest as a text probably produced by a community that rejected the stern patriarchal admonitions of the canonical Pastoral Epistles. Thus, feminists, working with extracanonical texts such as the Gnostic literature and the Apocryphal Acts, have shown that these texts preserve signs of early Christian struggles between orthodox and so-called heretical factions about the place of women in Christian communities.

In feminist biblical interpretation the question of how far the limits of canonical boundaries should be expanded is ongoing. Those equipped with a postcolonial critique of Western hegemony and wanting to include the world’s population in the conversation on the meaning of sacred literature have called for biblical scholars to embrace a much broader textual base for their inquiries than customary in (feminist) biblical studies. These exegetes have raised questions about what constitutes a religious text. For instance, Musa Dube (2000) criticizes Searching the Scriptures: A Feminist Commentary (1993), edited by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, for its exclusive focus on Jewish and Christian biblical texts. Dube charges that the volume, privileging Western voices, ignores indigenous voices of the Two-Thirds World. She proposes a vast expansion of what is meant by the “Bible” and suggests including religious sites, texts, and traditions of all the peoples of the world. Dube’s criticism of the Western focus in feminist biblical interpretation resonates with calls from scholars who emphasize race and postcolonialism in their efforts to decenter Western Christian scholarship. For example, postcolonial critic R. S. Sugirtharajah argues for an emphasis on the role of India in early Christianity, and New Testament exegete Gay Byron calls for more research on the Axumite Empire in Africa that produced many religious texts during the early centuries of Christianity.

An effort of expanding canonical boundaries and an increased concern for readers in the meaning-making process are also advanced in feminist Hebrew Bible Studies. Influenced by cultural studies, feminist Hebrew Bible scholars began transgressing the canonical configurations of traditional source materials, as they examined representations of women and gender in art, film, and music (e.g., Exum 1996; Leneman 2007). The notion of linking feminist biblical interpretation with texts, concerns, and worldviews from contemporary societies has also been productively applied to sexual violence and rape. One such work is Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible by Susanne Scholz (2010). This study relates contemporary feminist debates on rape to the interpretation of biblical prose, poetry, and legal codes. Taking a thematic approach, the volume organizes the selected literature according to contemporary categories of rape, such as acquaintance, marital, gang, or male rape, and analyzes numerous biblical texts as rape texts that other interpreters ignored or considered as literature about marriage, consensual sex, or even love. Scholz’s interpretation demonstrates that contemporary categories of rape, as developed in feminist theory, can productively be applied to the field of biblical interpretation. Accordingly, the story of Tamar in 2 Sam 13 is a tale of incestuous acquaintance rape, the fate of Hagar in Genesis 16 and 21 as well as the experiences of Bilhah and Zilpah in Genesis 29—30 turn into rape stories of enslaved women, and the encounter between Ehud, the judge, and the Moabite king, Eglon, depicts a murderous male rape (Judges 3)(see especially Guest, Deryn, Robert E. Goss, Mona West, Thomas Bohache, eds. The Queer Bible Commentary. London: SCM Press, 2006).

Another publication in feminist Hebrew Bible studies expands the notion of the biblical canon, while remaining connected to its rabbinical Jewish tradition. It also emphasizes the hermeneutical significance of readers. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (ed., Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss) makes a historic contribution to the feminist study of the Pentateuch from across the spectrum of mainly US-American Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox Judaism. The commentary’s effectiveness is easily illustrated with interpretations of Exod 19:15. In this verse Moses changes the divine command by adding that the male Israelites shall not go near a woman. Jewish feminist interpreter, Diane M. Sharon, states that the verse has been particularly painful for Jewish feminists because it reports of Moses modifying God’s command and it raises the problem of who is the final authority over divine revelation. To Sharon, this problem is only solved when the entire section of Exod 19:10–15 is interpreted from a reader-driven perspective that questions an omniscient external authority and empowers women readers to define biblical meaning. Another commentator, Judith Plaskow, also stresses the need to reject external voices of authority, such as from Moses, and to develop women’s understandings of revelation throughout Jewish history.

In short, feminist biblical interpreters are often much less bound to androcentric doctrines about the nature of the canon and sacred scripture. They propose biblical meanings that foster liberation, empowerment, and healing in a world filled with structures of domination and injustice, and they are willing to expand the notion of “bible” in the service of this liberation. The goal is to make the Bible relevant in its multivalent and plurivocal form as a resource for feminist analysis and practice. The notion of the biblical canon and its function in feminist biblical interpretation has been vastly expanded, and the significance of readers in the meaning-making process has been greatly emphasized both in feminist Hebrew Bible and New Testament studies.

Central Issues in Feminist Biblical Interpretation Today.

Feminist biblical interpretation is not monolithic and its practitioners do not proceed in lockstep when it comes to methods, approaches, and the proper scope of the field. Without being exhaustive, this section presents a sampling of ongoing concerns and debates animating current feminist biblical work.

Christian Anti-Judaism.

The historically intractable problem of Christianity’s repeated assertions of supersessionism, formulated against the foil of an inferior Judaism has also spilled over into Christian feminist biblical interpretation. One indication of the pervasiveness of the problem is that feminist exegetes often reproduce anti-Jewish formulations even when they are aware of the issue and attempt to avoid it. The problem of Christian (feminist) anti-Judaism becomes even more complex when it is viewed through the prism of global Christianity and postcolonial biblical interpretations.

The history of Christian anti-Judaism is tied specifically to the West, and redressing the problem has become acute in the post-Holocaust European and North American contexts. Yet the extent of Christian anti-Judaism is global, also due to earlier missionary movements from the West to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Sometimes interpreters attempt to redress anti-Judaism by avoiding dualistic assertions of Christian “goodness” over Jewish “badness.” For liberationist Christians from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, however, problems of more immediate urgency than anti-Judaism prevail. In these contexts, interpreters often utilize the New Testament as an emancipatory resource, sometimes highlighting Jesus’s goodness as a means to criticize oppressive Christian leaders and practices, while assimilating the Gospel’s “Jewish Other” with their own enemies. Interestingly, the issue of anti-Judaism in feminist Hebrew Bible studies is only marginally examined. The topic flared up in the late 1980s when the goddess movement tried to recover a prepatriarchal and pre-Israelite matriarchal era (Frymer-Kensky 1992). However, a broad-based discussion does not yet exist in feminist Hebrew Bible studies.

The Challenge of Competing Epistemological Paradigms.

Feminist biblical interpreters have always acknowledged the political and social impetus of their work, aiming for gender justice in religious traditions that have forsaken women for centuries. Initially and even today, feminist exegetes have relied on the dominant methods in the field, such as historical criticism. They also employed literary methods not widely recognized as mainstream exegetical tools in the 1970s and early 1980s. Since then, this situation has changed and nowadays a plethora of methodologies prevails. Still, an ongoing challenge relates to the divergent epistemological paradigms in the field. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (2007) has contributed to this discussion perhaps unlike any other feminist biblical scholar. She recognizes that biblical texts are sites of struggle over power, norms, and influence in society and religion, and she proposes to redesign the methodologies in biblical studies according to what she calls the rhetorical-political paradigm. This paradigm fosters explicitly ethical-political interests in opposition to the prevalent scriptural-theological and philological-historical paradigms. She thus criticizes sharply the empiricist-scientific epistemology, dominant since the emergence of the modern worldview in the sixteenth century C.E., and suggests that feminist biblical scholars examine the rhetorical function of biblical and other ancient texts in past and present historical and literary contexts.

The epistemological challenge is increasingly recognized in biblical studies. For instance, Todd Penner and Davina C. Lopez (2011) suggest that every interpretation of the Bible, whether historically or otherwise conceptualized, is never merely about a historical or literary account. Rather, such work is about (post)modern scholars using the ancient world to reconstruct biblical meanings for and in the present time. Thus, in their view, it is the task of contemporary exegetes to give an account of these usages and to expose the sociopolitical, economic, and religious interests that stand behind them.

The presentation of such accounts is, of course, exactly what feminist exegetes have done when they highlighted women’s roles in the text or in the worlds behind the texts. Thus, historically, feminist biblical interpreters were never only focused on antiquarian or literary biblical meanings, but worked to make the Bible relevant for contemporary feminist purposes. Indeed, much of the feminist biblical scholarship of the 1970s and 1980s was published within the context of heated ecclesiastical debates over women’s ordination. Many of these women, opting not to follow Mary Daly’s call to exit the church as hopelessly patriarchal, maintained ties, however loose, to Christian and Jewish theological institutions and faith communities, as numerous feminist Bible scholars still do. They continue to acknowledge the perspectival nature of all scholarship and repudiate the pervasive assumption that “real scholarship” aims for neutrality, universality, and objectivity. An advantage of the feminist epistemological premise is that it facilitates connections with grassroots groups interested in the Bible, who are most often affiliated with religious institutions. However, the epistemological challenge is ongoing because the empiricist-scientific paradigm is still dominant in biblical studies.

The Connections to Sexuality, Queer, and Masculinity Studies.

Although some feminist exegetes still focus exclusively on “women” and gender, recent developments in feminist scholarship have made the analysis of sexuality, queer, and masculinity studies central. In other words, the academic study of “women” is now embedded in a discourse on gender that includes matters of sexuality, the dominance of heteronormativity, the discourse of queerness as resistance to any kind of normativity, and also the study of masculinity. In biblical studies, historical critical investigations on lesbian life in early Christianity led the way to challenge and to reinvigorate feminist exegesis limited to “women.” For instance, Bernadette Brooten’s Love between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (University of Chicago: 1996) demonstrates that lesbians existed in the early Christian centuries. Similarly, but hermeneutically far less bound by historical criticism, Deryn Guest (2005) calls for a lesbian identified hermeneutic that breaks with heteronormative standards prevalent in biblical studies and in society at large. Furthermore, queer biblical theorists remind biblical scholars that no categories are stable and any notion of homosexuality merely reinforces heteronormativity (Punt 2011). The emergence of masculinity studies does not resolve this dilemma, but the critical analysis of maleness in biblical texts and scholarship nevertheless has further illuminated the discourse of power (Creanga 2010; Moore and Anderson 2004). In short, the emergence of a complex and differentiated discourse on women, men, sexuality, and queer studies constitutes an important development in feminist biblical interpretation.

The Challenges from the Christian Right.

The Christian Right’s discourse on gender and the Bible has proliferated since the 1990s. While located in the United States of America, its missionary zeal has spread far beyond the North American continent. The Christian Right considers the Bible as inerrant, and the movement communicates its biblical views on gender in widely distributed publications, as well as in visual materials, such as DVDs for children, and in an overwhelming online presence. Christian Right interpreters have taken three major positions. There is, first, the “complementarian” position, sometimes also identified as “hierarchicalism” or “traditionalism.” Second, there is the “egalitarian” stance that in evangelical circles is considered to be a feminist position. Third, there is a moderate evangelical conviction that consists mainly of evangelical Christian theologians who do not explicitly affiliate with either the complementarian or the egalitarian position. All three positions are deeply engaged in defining contemporary practices related to gender, family, and sexuality with the Bible, grounding their readings in a literalist methodology with historical claims.

Because of their remarkable expertise in communicating with today’s media tools, the Christian Right maintains a high profile on the North American continent and elsewhere. Although they participate in the conversation on feminism, religion, and the Bible, they do not usually engage feminist biblical interpretations directly, because they reject its politically progressive stance. The challenge for feminist biblical scholars is to identify and to develop academically sound procedures that investigate the Christian Right’s success in communicating theologically, hermeneutically, and socially conservative positions that are popularized far beyond the Christian Right context.

Moving toward an Interfaith Feminist Biblical Hermeneutics.

In recent years, at least two forces have encouraged feminist biblical interpreters to an increased collaboration across religious traditions. First, those working in feminist postcolonial interpretation have highlighted the damage done to indigenous traditions by zealous Christian missionary efforts. They want representatives of those indigenous traditions to have a rightful place in exegetical and theological discourse. Second, in the aftermath of the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York City on September 11, 2001, interest in interfaith relations among Jewish, Christian, and Muslim feminists has significantly increased. Feminist biblical scholars have also begun rereading biblical passages on religious exclusivism, and they have identified “minority” readings in the effort to create openness toward peoples of other faiths. An anthology, edited by Letty Russell and Phyllis Trible (2006), exemplifies this impetus. The various essays engage the stories of Sarah and Hagar from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim perspectives. However, these efforts are still in an incipient phase. A helpful institutional resource toward multireligious feminist dialogue is the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion (JFSR), which frequently publishes articles and discussions from multireligious perspectives and locations.

In conclusion, the field of feminist biblical interpretation has produced innovative and important scholarship that shapes historical, literary, and cultural explorations of the Bible and the Bible’s place in the world, it aims to eliminate structures of domination, and it nurtures religious, societal, political, and economic forces toward justice and peace.



For comprehensive bibliographies on feminist biblical studies, visit online:

  • Penner, Todd, and Davina C. Lopez. “Feminist Scholarship on the New Testament.” Oxford Bibliographies:
  • Scholz, Susanne. “Feminist Scholarship on the Old Testament.” Oxford Bibliographies:

Publications referenced in this article:

  • Brooten, Bernadette. Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Expert analysis on the history of lesbian existence in the early Christian period, as evidenced in both well-known and rarely consulted ancient texts, manuscripts, and artifacts.
  • Conway, Colleen. Behold the Man: Jesus and Greco-Roman Masculinity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. An exploration of how New Testament authors engaged the gender ideology of the Roman Empire in their depictions of the masculinity of Jesus.
  • Creanga, Ovidiu, ed. Men and Masculinity in the Hebrew Bible and Beyond. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2010. Pioneering anthology that interrogates biblical texts, ancient Near Eastern sources, and the history of interpretation on men and masculinity.
  • Dube, Muse, Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible. St. Louis, MO: Chalice, 2000. Landmark volume in postcolonial feminist biblical interpretation, considering biblical literature alongside other literature of colonization, in view of the perspective of women in the two-thirds world.
  • Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn, and Andrea L. Weiss, eds. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary. New York: WRJ, 2008. A historic contribution to the feminist study of the Pentateuch from across the spectrum of mainly US-American Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox Judaism.
  • Eugene, Toinette M. “A Hermeneutical Challenge for Womanists: The Interrelation between the Text and Our Experience.” In Perspectives on Feminist Hermeneutics, edited by Gayle G. Koontz and Willard Swartley, 20–28. Elkhart, IN: Institute for Mennonite Studies, 1987. Groundbreaking essay on the significance of a womanist heremeneutic in biblical studies.
  • Exum, J. Cheryl. Plotted, Shot, and Painted: Cultural Representations of Biblical Women. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996. Innovative feminist study on female characters of the Hebrew Bible in Western art, writing, and film that exposes the insistence of masculine superiority in Western culture.
  • Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. In the Wake of the Goddess: Women, Culture, and the Biblical Transformation of a Pagan Myth. New York: Free Press, 1992. Leading feminist-historical study on women and goddesses in biblical and ancient Near Eastern texts.
  • Guest, Deryn. When Deborah Met Jael: Lesbian Feminist Hermeneutics. London: SCM Press, 2011. Innovative hermeneutical study exploring the differing social locations of lesbian-identified hermeneutics in biblical studies.
  • Jones-Warsaw, Koala. “Toward a Feminist Hermeneutic: Reading of Judges 19–21.” In Feminist Companion to Judges, ed. Athalya Brenner, 172–186. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993. Important investigation on the horrific story in Judges taking into account the power dynamics of men over women as well as over men, especially when difference in race and ethnicity is taken into account.
  • King, Karen, ed. Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988. A collection of essays centered on understanding gnostic perspectives on gender, and the question of the relationship of gendered mythology to social description.
  • Leneman, Helen. The Performed Bible: The Story of Ruth in Opera and Oratorio. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, Press, 2007. Significant feminist scholarly contribution on the book of Ruth as appropriated in the selected Western musical genres.
  • McKinlay, Judith E. Reframing Her: Biblical Women in Postcolonial Focus. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2004. Important investigation of selected biblical texts and issues from a postcolonial feminist hermeneutical stance.
  • Moore, Stephen and Janice Cape Anderson, eds. New Testament Masculinities. Atlanta, GA: SBL, 2004. A collection of essays on the New Testament and related literature, exploring the construction and performance of masculinity.
  • Penner, Todd and Davina C. Lopez. “Homelessness as a Way Home: A Methodological Reflection and Proposal.” In Holy Land as Homeland? Models for Constructing the Historic Landscape of Jesus, edited by Keith W. Whitelam, 151–178. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011. Innovative proposal for a refocused investigation of the use of exegetical methodologies in biblical studies in general and early Christian studies in particular.
  • Plaskow, Judith. Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective. New York: Harper Collins, 1990. Highly influential work on feminist Jewish theology making many important references to the Hebrew Bible.
  • Punt, Jeremy. “Queer Theory, Postcolonial Theory, and Biblical Interpretation: A Preliminary Exploration of Some Intersections.” In Bible Troubles: Queer Reading at the Boundaries of Biblical Scholarship, edited by Teresa J. Hornsby and Ken Stone, 321–341. Atlanta, GA: SBL, 2011. Theoretical essay elaborating on the crucial links between queer and postcolonial theories for biblical hermeneutics.
  • Sakenfeld, Katherine Doob. “Old Testament Perspectives: Methodological Issues.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 22 (1982): 13–20. Important early discussion on methods in feminist biblical interpretation.
  • Schaberg, Jane. The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament. New York: Continuum, 2004. With Virginia Woolf as her companion, Schaberg employs a hermeneutics of suspicion in examining depictions of Mary Magdalene in ancient sources and up to the present. Credits Mary Magdalene with the invention of Christianity, and exposes the patriarchal forces that have distorted her legacy.
  • Scholz, Susanne. Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 2010. Comprehensive investigation on rape in biblical prose and poetry, as well as in selected ancient Near Eastern texts, interpreted within today’s global rape culture.
  • Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. The Power of the Word: Scripture and the Rhetoric of Empire. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 2007. An examination of the power exercised by scripture, and a call for a feminist decolonizing reading that identifies both the destructive powers and the radical visions of justice and wholeness contained in scripture.
  • Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. 10th Anniversary Ed. New York: Crossroad, 1983. 2002. A landmark volume in feminist biblical interpretation reconstructs Christian beginnings with women at the center of the story, while challenging androcentric and patriarchal methodologies that have excluded women from historical narratives.
  • Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth, ed. Searching the Scriptures, Volume 1: A Feminist Introduction. New York: Crossroad, 1993. The first of two volumes of feminist commentary on the New Testament and related literature, focused on methodological issues related to gender and other axes of domination, including race and nationality.
  • Trible, Phyllis. God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978. Pioneering feminist exegetical monograph on selected texts and characters in the Hebrew Bible.
  • Trible, Phyllis. Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984. Groundbreaking literary-feminist study on biblical stories about sexual violence, rape, and child murder previously ignored in Christian and Jewish exegesis.
  • Trible, Phyllis and Russell, Letty M., eds. Hagar, Sarah, and Their Children: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspective. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2006. Collection of biblical, historical, theological, and ethical explorations on Hagar and Sarah in the three religious traditions.
  • Weems, Renita J. Just a Sister Away: A Womanist Vision of Women's Relationships in the Bible. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1988. Influential study on selected biblical women and texts from a womanist exegetical perspective.
  • Williams, Delores S. “The Color of Feminism: Or Speaking the Black Woman’s Tongue.” Journal of Religious Thought 43, no. 1 (Spring–Summer 1986): 42–58. Influential essay on the nexus of womanist Christian theology and Hagar in Gen. 16; 21 in African American interpretation of the Bible.

Susanne Scholz and Shelly A. Matthews