Feminist Hermeneutics – Prophets and Saints – Change and Reform.

Reflection: and Assessment Item B, Assignment 1 (500 words)

This essay will show that the rise of a feminist biblical hermeneutics came about when the original vision of early Christianity became stagnant, no longer answering the deeper questions and reflections of women in the church.

Feminist biblical hermeneutics, is “the process by which human beings understand, including the conditions under which they happen” (p 17 Majella).  In the field of biblical interpretation feminist hermeneutics houses many different positions and might be likened to a social revolution.  In keeping with Goodwin, the work of feminist hermeneutics is “intentional intervention”, by employing, a “hermenutics of suspicion”,  and a new methodology: Firenza’s methodology.

It is purposive and goal seeking, either working as isolated individuals or as organised groups (p 78).

In this sense “as a critique of culture in light of mysogyny, feminism is a prophetic movement, examining the status quo, pronouncing judgment and calling for repentance: (Phyllis trible in Feminist Hermeneutics and Biblical Studies p 23).  Like any new movement, it has made mistakes, such as picturing Judaism and Jewish women in a negative light in order to bolster Christianity (p 36 Jewish Women and Christian Origins: Some Caveats).or reproducing its own structures of oppression by ignoring Islamic hermeneutical perspective.  Majella Franzmann in her work ‘Women and Religion” addresses this issue “Thus an integral part of the hermaneutical process involves reflecting on these levels at every stage of questioning, analysis, and making critical judgments”. (p 19).

Seeking radical change, some woman/feminists goal is to re-found the existing group.  On the contrary, others do not believe it can be redeemed and desire to build a new foundation outside it.  Altogether their goal is to “pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow” “to build and to plant” (Jer 1:9-10).  Feminist hermeneutics bring “an alternative to the dominant myth, the old myth that can no longer claim these women’s allegiance” (p 81).

Women have always resisted masculine supremacy, however the roots of feminism as a social and intellectual movement are found in the European Enlightenment.  The doyenne of the present movement was Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “Woman’s Bible” published in 1895, on her eightieth birthday. (Feminist Theology A Reader Ed Ann Loades) and more recently, feminist theologian Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza who became the first woman president of the Society of Biblical literature (p 15 Ann Loades).

Feminist hermenutics explores the implications and possibilities of a biblical interpretation that calls to account the androcentric or patriarchal explanation of Scripture.  This took place at a time when the church was stagnant and theology did not interpret women and men as co-equal members in the body of Christ, but rather as women needing a guardian, and accepting the authority of the male, mirroring the image of unjust antiquated Athenian democracy where only males of free birth could be full citizens.  Such ideology has grossly affected the way in which the scriptures have been handled.  Conversely, feminist hermeneutics offers justice and liberation to women.  It carries a message that seeks to eliminate women’s subordination and marginalization.

Other areas undergoing change is religious liturgy, linguistic structure, public worship.  Symbols that had become utterly meaningless, for example, where only male priests could act as priests to offer Eucharist or mass have been reimaged and women priests now function within the Anglican and Episcopal churches.

In sum, altogether feminist biblical hermeneutics has changed the overall understanding of women in the church and in the Scriptures, bringing about a new vision.  This movement has arisen and is renewing, reviving, refreshing, and re-imaging women and the church, women in the church, and women in the scriptures, changing the stagnation so evident a decade ago to one of fresh and living water.

Extract below from Freedman, David Noel, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary, (New York: Doubleday) 1997, 1992.


 Writing a dictionary article on feminist hermeneutics may encourage several misconceptions. It gives the impression that feminist hermeneutics is a finished research product rather than an ongoing process within the context of women’s societal and ecclesial struggles for justice and liberation. It also highlights proposed solutions rather than the experiences and questions which have Engendered them. Insofar as this article is qualified by “feminist” and other entries are not marked, for instance, as “masculinist” or “white,” readers may assume that an objective discipline and unqualified approach to hermeneutics exists. As long as other contributions do not explicitly articulate the fact that knowledge and scholarship is perspectival, such a misapprehension seems unavoidable. Yet feminist inquiry is not more, but less, ideological because it deliberately articulates its theoretical perspective without pretending to be value-free, positivistic, universal knowledge.

  1. A Delineation of Terms

Since the expression “feminist” evokes reactions, emotions, and prejudices, it becomes necessary to delineate the ways in which the term is here used in conjunction with hermeneutics.

  1. Feminist/Womanist. The term “feminist” is commonly used today for describing those who seek to eliminate women’s subordination and marginalization. Although women have resisted their subordinate position of exploitation throughout the centuries, the roots of feminism as a social and intellectual movement are found in the European Enlightenment.
  2. Although there are diverse articulations of feminism, feminists generally agree in their critique of masculine supremacy and hold that gender roles are socially constructed rather than innate. The “root experience” of feminism is women’s realization that cultural “common sense,” dominant perspectives, scientific theories, and historical knowledge are androcentric, i.e., male-biased, and therefore not objective but ideological. This breakthrough experience causes not only disillusionment and anger but also a sense of possibility and power

Feminist analyses often utilize categories such as patriarchy, androcentrism or gender dualism as synonymous or overlapping concepts. Patriarchy is generally defined as gender dualism or as the domination and control of man over woman. Androcentrism refers to a linguistic structure and theoretical perspective in which man or male represents the human. Western languages such as Hebrew, Greek, German, or English—grammatically masculine languages that function as so-called generic languages—use the terms “male” or “human” as inclusive of “woman” and the pronoun “he” as inclusive of “she.” Man is the paradigmatic human, woman is the other.

Masculine and feminine are the two opposite or complementary poles in a binary gender system, which is asymmetric insofar as masculine is the primary and positive pole. Dualistic oppositions such as subject/object, culture/nature, law/chaos, orthodoxy/heresy, and man/woman, legitimate masculine supremacy and feminine inferiority. Franco-feminist criticism therefore has termed this structuring of man as the central reference point “phallocentrism,” understanding the phallus as a signifier of sociocultural authority.

The philosophical construction of reason positions elite Western man as the transcendent, universal subject with privileged access to truth and knowledge. The Western construction of reason and rationality has been conceived within the binary structure of male dominance as transcendence of the feminine

Femininity is constituted as an exclusion. In analogy to “woman” and the “feminine” the nature of subordinated and colonialized peoples is projected as the devalued other or the deficit opposite of elite Western man, rationalizing the exclusion of the “others” from the institutions of knowledge and culture.

  1. In protest of this ideological construction feminist liberation movements around the globe unmask the universalist essentializing discourse on “Woman” and the colonialized “Other” as the totalizing discourse of the Western Man of Reason. Instead, they insist on the specific historical-cultural contexts and subjectivity, as well as on the plurality, of “women.”

Women of color consistently maintain that an analysis of women’s exploitation and oppression only in terms of gender does not suffice, for it does not comprehend the complex systemic interstructuring of gender, race, class, and culture that determines women’s lives. Therefore, feminist hermeneutics must reconceptualize its categories of analysis. It has to distinguish between the categories of androcentrism or gender dualism as ideological obfuscations and legitimizations of elite male power on the one hand, and patriarchy in the strict sense of the word defined as a complex social system of male domination structured by racism, sexism, classism, and colonialism on the other hand. The system of Western patriarchal ideology was articulated centuries ago by Aristotle and Plato in their attempt to define the democratic polis, which restricted full citizenship to Greek, freeborn, propertied, male heads of household. Although cultural and religious patriarchy as a “master-centered” political and cultural system has been modified throughout the centuries its basic structures of domination and ideological legitimization are still operative today

African-American feminists in religious studies, therefore, have introduced Alice Walker’s term “womanist” (i.e., feminist of color) to signal the fact that feminism is more than a political movement and theoretical perspective of white women. When we speak of Africans, Europeans, the poor, minorities, and women, we speak as if women do not belong to all the other groups mentioned. Yet the expression “women” includes not just white, elite, Western, middle- or upper-class women, as conventional language suggests, but all women. Whereas feminist scholarship has become skilled in detecting the androcentric language and patriarchal contextualizations of malestream theory and biblical interpretation, it does not always pay attention to its own inoculation with gender stereotypes, white supremacy, class prejudice, and theological confessionalism.

Jewish feminists in turn have pointed out that Christian feminists perpetuate the anti-Semitic discourse of otherness ingrained in Christian identity formation when they uncritically reproduce the anti-Jewish tendencies inscribed in Christian Scriptures and perpetrated by malestream biblical scholarship. This is the case, e.g., when Judaism is blamed for the “death of the Goddess” or when Jesus, the feminist, is set over and against patriarchal Judaism. It also would be the case if this article on “feminist hermeneutics” would be read as giving a descriptive and comprehensive account of feminist biblical hermeneutics as such, although it is written from a Christian but not from a Jewish or Islamic hermeneutical perspective. If feminist interpretation does not wish to continually reproduce its own internalized structures of oppression, it must bring into critical reflection the oppressive patriarchal contextualizations of contemporary discourses and those of the biblical writings themselves.

  1. Feminist/Womanist Hermeneutics. While women have read the Scriptures throughout the centuries, a feminist/womanist hermeneutics as the theoretical exploration of biblical interpretation in the interest of women is of very recent vintage
  2. When one remembers Miriam, Hulda, Hanna, Mary Prisca, Felicitas, Proba, Macrina, Melania, Hildegard of Bingen, Margret Fell, Antoinette Brown, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jarena Lee, Katherine Bushnell, Margret Brackenbury Crook, Georgia Harkness, or Else Kähler, it becomes apparent that women have always interpreted the Bible. Moreover, books about Women in the Bible—mostly written by men—as well as studies of prescriptive biblical male texts about women’s role and place have been numerous throughout the centuries.

Biblical scholarship about women Engages diverse historical, social, anthropological, psychological, or literary models of interpretation without analyzing their androcentric frameworks. In addition, it tends to adopt the scientific posture of “detached” inquiry that eschews feminist politics. Although such scholarship focuses on “women,” it reproduces and reinscribes the androcentric-patriarchal dynamics of the text as long as it does not question the androcentric character of biblical texts and reconstructive models

Only in the context of the women’s movement in the last century, and especially in the past twenty years, have feminists begun to explore the implications and possibilities of a biblical interpretation that takes the androcentric or patriarchal character of Scripture into account. This exploration is situated within the context of both the academy and the church. Insofar as feminist analysis seeks to transform academic as well as ecclesial biblical interpretation, it has a theoretical and practical goal. This praxis-orientation locates feminist hermeneutics in the context of philosophical/theological hermeneutics as well as critical theory and liberation theology

  1. The technical term hermeneutics comes from the Greek word hermeneuein/hermeneia and means the practice and theory of interpretation. The expression was first used as a technical term for exegetical handbooks that dealt with philology, grammar, syntax, and style. Today the term exegesis is generally used to describe the rules and principles for establishing not only the philological, but also the historical sense, of biblical texts.

Hermeneutics, by contrast, explores the dialogical interaction between the text and the contemporary interpreter in which the subject matter of the text or the reference of discourse itself “comes-into-language.” It is not simply conveyed by, but manifested in and through, the language of the text. Understanding the meaning of texts emerges from a dialogical process between interpreter and text. This dialogical process presupposes a common pre-understanding of the subject matter of the text, since we cannot comprehend what is totally alien to our own experience and perception.

Biblical interpretation seeks to understand the text and its world as a rhetorical expression in a certain historical situation. Insofar as the interpreter always approaches biblical texts with certain preunderstandings, and from within a definite linguistic-historical tradition, the act of interpretation has to overcome the distance between the world of the text and that of the interpreter in a “fusion of horizons.” Biblical interpretation seeks to understand the text and its world as a rhetorical expression in a certain historical situation. Insofar as the interpreter always approaches biblical texts with certain preunderstandings, and from within a definite linguistic-historical tradition, the act of interpretation has to overcome the distance between the world of the text and that of the interpreter in a “fusion of horizons.” c. However, insofar as patriarchal ideology and systemic domination have been passed down through the medium of Christian Scriptures, feminist biblical interpretation does not only seek to understand but also to assess critically the meaning of androcentric texts and their sociopolitical functions. Although I have introduced the nomenclature “feminist hermeneutics” into the theological discussion, I have at the same time maintained that a critical feminist interpretation has to move beyond dialogical hermeneutics. It does not just aim at understanding biblical texts but also Engages in theological critique, evaluation, and transformation of biblical traditions and interpretations from the vantage point of its particular sociopolitical religious location. Not to defend biblical authority but to articulate the theological authority of women is the main task of a critical feminist hermeneutics.

Insofar as hermeneutical theory insists on the linguisticality of all reality and on the sociohistorical conditioning of the act of interpretation, it is useful for womanist/feminist biblical interpretation. However, dialogical hermeneutics does not consider that classic texts and traditions are also a systematically distorted expression of communication under unacknowledged conditions of repression and violence. It therefore is not able to critique the androcentric, male-centered character of Western classics and texts, nor to problematize the patriarchal character of the “world of the text” and of our own. Even Ricoeur’s insistence on the restoration of the link between exegesis and hermeneutics as the dialectics between alienating distanziation and appropriating recognition cannot encompass the transformative aims of a critical feminist hermeneutics for liberation, because such a dialectics does not get hold of the “doubled vision” of feminist hermeneutics.

  1. A Critical Feminist Hermeneutics of Liberation. Feminists/womanists have become conscious of women’s conflicting position within two contradictory discourses offered by society. Unconsciously women participate at one and the same time in the specifically “feminine” discourse of submission, inadequacy, inferiority, dependency, and irrational intuition on the one hand and in the “masculine” discourse of subjectivity, self-determination, freedom, justice, and equality on the other hand. If this participation becomes conscious, it allows the feminist/womanist interpreter to become a reader resisting the reifying power of the androcentric text.
  2. The theoretical exploration of this contradictory position of women from the vantage point of an emancipatory standpoint makes it possible to “imagine” a different interpretation and historical reconstruction. For change to take place women and other nonpersons must concretely and explicitly claim as their very own those values and visions that Western Man has reserved for himself. Yet they can do so only to the extent that these values and visions foster the liberation of women who suffer from multiple oppressions.

This “doubled vision” of feminism leads to the realization that gender relations are neither natural nor divinely ordained but linguistically and socially constructed in the interest of patriarchal power relations. Androcentric language and texts, literary classics and visual art, works of science, anthropology, sociology, or theology do not describe and comprehend reality. Rather they are ideological constructs that produce the invisibility and marginality of women. Therefore a critical feminist interpretation insists on a hermeneutics of suspicion that can unmask the ideological functions of androcentric text and commentary. It does not do so because it assumes a patriarchal conspiracy of the biblical writers and their contemporary interpreters but because when reading grammatically masculine supposedly generic texts women do not, in fact, know whether they are meant or not.

  1. The realization that women are socialized into the “feminine discourse” of their culture and thus are ideologically “scripted” and implicated in power relations Engenders the recognition that women suffer also from “a false consciousness.” As long as they live in a patriarchal world of oppression, women are never fully “liberated.” However, this does not lead feminists to argue that historical agency and knowledge of the world are not possible. Western science, philosophy, and theology have not known the world as it is. Rather they have created it in their own interest and likeness as they wished it to be. Therefore, feminists/womanists insist that it is possible for liberatory discourses to articulate a different historical knowledge and vision of the world.

In order to do so feminist/womanist scholars utilize women’s experience of reality and practical activity as a scientific resource and a significant indicator of the reality against which hypotheses are to be tested. A critical feminist version of objectivity recognizes the provisionality and multiplicity of particular knowledges as situated and “embodied” knowledges. Knowledge is not totally relative, however. It is possible from the perspective of the excluded and dominated to give a more adequate account of the “world.” In short, womanists/feminists insist that women are “scripted” and at the same time are historical subjects and agents.

Therefore, a critical feminist/womanist hermeneutics seeks to articulate biblical interpretation as a complex process of reading for a cultural-theological praxis of resistance and transformation. To that end it utilizes not only historical and literary-critical methods which focus on the rhetoric of the text in its historical contexts, but also storytelling, bibliodrama, and ritual for creating a “different” feminist imagination.

  1. Approaches and Methods

In conjunction with feminist literary criticism, critical theory, and historiography, four major hermeneutical strategies have been developed for such a critical process of interpretation.

  1. Texts About Women. a. In pondering the absence of women’s experience and voice from biblical texts and history, a first strategy seeks to recover information about women and to examine what biblical texts teach about women. This analysis usually focuses on “key” women’s passages such as Genesis 1–3; the biblical laws with regard to women; or on the Pauline and post-Pauline statements on women’s place and role. This selective approach was adopted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in The Woman’s Bible and has strongly influenced subsequent interpretations. Its “cutting up and cutting out” method isolates passages about women from their literary and historical contexts and interprets them “out of context.”

After having gathered the texts about women, scholars then catalog and systematize these texts and traditions in a dualistic fashion. They isolate positive and negative statements in order to point to the positive biblical tradition about woman. They isolate positive texts about women and the feminine from “texts of terror” that are stories of women’s victimization. All statements about woman and feminine imagery about God are cataloged as positive, ambivalent, or negative strands in Hebrew-Jewish and early Christian tradition. Negative elements are found in the Hebrew Bible as well as in the intertestamental and postbiblical writings of Judaism, whereas in the Christian tradition they are seen as limited to the writings of the Church Fathers. Such a biased classification favoring Christian over and against Jewish tradition Engenders anti-Jewish attitudes and interpretations.

  1. A second approach focuses on the women characters in the Bible. From its inception, feminist/womanist interpretation has sought to actualize these stories in role-playing, storytelling, and song. Whereas the retelling of biblical stories in midrash or legend is quite familiar to Jewish and Catholic women, it is often a new avenue of interpretation for Protestant women. Interpretations that focus on the women characters in the androcentric text invite readers to identify positively with the biblical women as the text presents them.

Since popular books on “the women of the Bible” often utilize biblical stories about women for inculcating the values of conservative womanhood, a feminist/womanist interpretation approaches these stories with a hermeneutics of suspicion. It critically analyzes not only their history of interpretation but also their function in the overall rhetoric of the biblical text. Such a critical interpretation questions the emotions they evoke and the values and roles they project before it can reimagine and retell them in a feminist/womanist key.

Within the African-American tradition of storytelling R. Weems, e.g., creatively reconstructs the “possible emotions and issues that motivated biblical women in their relation with each other” in order to draw “attention to the parallels between the plight of biblical women and women today.” Weems informs her reader that the only way she could “let the women speak for themselves” was to wrestle their stories from the presumably male narrators.

Although it is important to retell the biblical women’s stories, it is also necessary to reimagine biblical stories without women characters. In order to break the marginalizing tendencies of the androcentric text feminists/womanists have also to retell in a female voice and womanist perspective those stories that do not explicitly mention women.

  1. A third approach seeks to recover works written by women in order to restore critical attention to female voices in the tradition. This work has restored many forgotten or obscured women writers. In early Christian studies scholars have, e.g., argued that the gospels of Mark and John were written by a woman evangelist or that Hebrews as authored by Prisca. Others have pointed out that at least half of the Lukan material on women must be ascribed to a special pre-Lukan source that may have owed its existence to a woman evangelist. While such a suggestion expands our historical-theological imagination, it does not critically explore whether the androcentric text communicates patriarchal values and visions, and if so to what degree. It fails to consider that women also have internalized androcentric stereotypes and therefore can reproduce the patriarchal politics of otherness in their speaking and writing.
  2. Historical studies of women in the Bible or that of Jewish, Greek, or Roman women are generally topologicalstudies that utilize androcentric texts and archaeological artifacts about women as source texts. They understand these sources as descriptive data about women in the biblical worlds and as “windows” to and “mirrors” of women’s reality in antiquity. Sourcebooks on women in the Greco-Roman world assemble in English translation literary documents as well as inscriptions and papyri about women’s religious activities in Greco-Roman antiquity. However, such source collections are in a certain sense precritical insofar as they obscure that androcentric texts are ideological constructions. They must be utilized with a hermeneutics of suspicion and placed within a feminist model of reconstruction.

Recognizing the absence or marginality of women in the androcentric text feminist historians have sought to articulate the problem of how to write women back into history, of how to capture the memory of women’s historical experience and contribution. The historian Joan Kelly has succinctly stated the dual goal of women’s history as both to restore women to history and to restore our history to women.

Feminist/womanist historical interpretation conceptualizes women’s historical agency, resistance, and struggles.  Women have made sociocultural contributions and challEnged dominant institutions and values as well as wielded destructive power and collaborated in patriarchal structure.

Feminist/womanist scholars in religion have begun to open up many new areas of research by asking different historical questions that seek to understand the socioreligious life-world of women in antiquity. What do we know about the everyday life of women in Israel, Syria, Greece, Egypt, Asia Minor, or Rome? How did freeborn women, slave women, wealthy women, or businesswomen live? Could women read and write, what rights did they have, how did they dress, or which powers and influence did they gain through patronage? Or what did it mean for a woman of Corinth to join the Isis cult, the synagogue, or the Christian group? What did imprisonment mean for Junia, or how did Philippian women receive Luke-Acts?

Although many of these questions need still to be addressed and might never be answered, asking these questions has made it possible for instance to rediscover Sarah, the priestess, or to unearth the leadership of women in Judaism as well as in early Christianity, or to locate the household-code texts in Aristotelian political philosophy.  However, insofar as such sociohistorical studies do not problematize the descriptive character or the androcentric source text as reflecting sociohistorical reality, the cannot break through the marginalizing ideological tendencies of the androcentric text.

  1. Ideological Inscription and Reception. Whereas feminist historical interpretation tends to be caught up in the factual, objectivist, and antiquarian paradigm of biblical studies, literary-critical studies insist that we are not able to move beyond the androcentric text to the historical reality of women. They reject a positivist understanding of the biblical text as a transparent medium as reflecting historical reality or as providing historical data and facts.
  2. Their first hermeneutical strategy attends to the ideological inscriptions of androcentric dualisms or the politics of gender in cultural and religious texts. The relationship between androcentric text and historical reality cannot be construed as a mirror image but must be decoded as a complex ideological construction. The silences, contradictions, arguments, prescriptions, and projections of the androcentric text as well as its discourses on gender, race, class, or culture must be unraveled as the ideological inscription of the patriarchal politics of otherness.

Feminist literary studies-be they formalist, structuralist, or narratological-carefully show how the androcentric text constructs the politics of gender and feminine representation. By tracing out the binary structures of a text or by focusing on the “feminine” character constructs (e.g., mother, daughter, bride) of biblical narratives, structuralist and deconstructionalist readings run the risk of reinscribing rather than dislodging the dualistic gender politidcs of the text.

By laying out the androcentric bias of the text feminist literary criticism seeks to foster a hermeneutics of resistance to the androcentric politics of the canonical text. Such a feminist literary hermeneutics aims to deconstruct, debunk, and reject the biblbical text. However, by refusing any possibility of a positive retrieval they reinscribe the totalizing dynamics of the androcentric texts that marginalize women and other nonpersons or elminate them altogether from the historical record. Such a hermeneutics relinquishes the heritage of women be it cultural or religious, since not only the Bible but all cultural classics written in adrocentric language contain such an androcentric politics. A critical feminist reading can only break the mold of the sacred androcentric text and its authority over us when it resists the androcentric directives and hierarchially arranged binary opposisitions of the text, when it reads texts against “their androcentric grain.”

  1. A second strategy of feminist readings shifts the attention from the androcentric text to the reading subject. Feminist reader-reponse criticism makes conscious the complex process of reading androcentric texts as a cultural practice. By showing how our gender affects the way we read, it underlines the importance of the reader’s particular sociocultural location. Reading and thinking in an androcentric symbol system forces readers to identify with what is culturally “male.” This intensifies women’s internalization of a cultural partriarchal system whose misogynist values alienate women from themselves.

The androcentric biblical text derives its seductive “power” from its generic aspirations. For instance, women can read stories about Jesus without giving any significance to the maleness of Jesus. However, theological emphasis on the maleness of Jesus reinforces women’s male identification and establishes Christian identity as a male identity in a cultural masculine/feminine contextualization. Focusing on the figure of Jesus, the Son of the Father, when reading the Bible “doubles” women’s oppression. Women not only suffer in the act of reading from the alienating division of self against self but also from the realization that to be female is not to be “divine” or “a son of God.” Recognizing these internalizing functions of androcentric Scriptural texts which in the liturgy are proclaimed as “word of God,” feminist/womanist theologians have insisted on an inclusive translation of the lectionary.

Women’s reading of generic androcentric biblical texts, however, does not always lead with necessity to the reader’s masculine identification. Women’s reading can deactivate masculine/feminine gender contextualization in favor of an abstract degenderized reading. Empirical studies have documented that so-called generic masculine language [“man,” pronoun “he”] is read differently by men and by women. Whereas men connect male images with such language, women do not connect images with the androcentric text but read it in an abstract fashion. This is possible because of the ambiguity of generic masculine language. In the absence of any clear contextual markers a statement such as “all men are created equal” can be understood as generic-inclusive or as masculine-exclusive.

When women recognize their contradictory ideological position in a generic androcentric language system they can become readers resisting the master-identification of the androcentric, racist, classist, or colonialist text. However, if this contradiction is not brought into consciousness, it cannot be exploited for change but leads to further self-alienation. For change to take place, women and other nonpersons must concretely and explicitly claim as our very own the human values and visions that the androcentric text ascribes to “generic” man. Yet once readers have become conscious of the oppressive rhetorical functions of androcentric language, they no longer are able to read “generically” but must insist on a feminist/womanist contextualization of interpretation as a liberating practice in the struggle to end patriarchal relations of exploitation that generate “the languages of oppression” and are legitimated by it.

  1. A Critical Rhetorical Paradigm of Historical Reconstruction. A third approach seeks to overcome the methodological split between historical studies that understand their sources as windows to historical reality and literary-critical studies that tend to reinscribe the binary structures and dualistic constructions of the androcentric text. It does so by analyzing the rhetorical functions of the text as well as by articulating models for historical reconstruction that can displace the dualistic model of the androcentric text. It does not deny but recognizes that androcentric texts are produced in and by particular historical debates and struggles. It seeks to exploit the contradictions inscribed in the text for reconstructing not only the narrative “world of the biblical text” but also the sociohistorical worlds that have made possible the particular world construction of the text.
  2. Such a critical feminist reconstruction, therefore, does not heighten the opposition of masculine/feminine inscribed in the androcentric text but seeks to dislodge it by focusing on the text as a rhetorical-historical practice. Androcentric texts produce the marginality and absence of women from historical records by subsuming women under masculine terms. How we read the silences of such unmarked grammatically masculine generic texts and how we fill in their blank spaces depends on their contextualization in historical and present experience.

Grammatically masculine language mentions women specifically only as a special case, as the exception from the rule or as a problem. Whereas grammatically masculine language means both women and men, this is not the case for language referring to women. Moreover, the texts about women are not descriptive of women’s historical reality and agency but only indicators of it. They signify the presence of women that is marginalized by the androcentric text. An historically adequate reading of such generic androcentric texts therefore would have to read grammatically masculine biblical texts as inclusive of women and men, unless a case can be made for an exclusive reading.

By tracing the defensive strategies of the androcentric text one can make visible not only what the text marginalizes or excludes but also show how the text shapes what it includes. Androcentric biblical texts tell stories and construct social worlds and symbolic universes that mythologize, reverse, absolutize, and idealize patriarchal differences and in doing so obliterate or marginalize the historical presence of the devalued “others” of their communities.

Androcentric biblical texts and interpretations are not descriptive of objective reality but they are persuasive and prescriptive texts that construct historical reality and its sources. Scholars have selected original manuscript readings, established the original text, translated it into English, and commented on biblical writings in terms of their own androcentric-patriarchal knowledge of the world. Androcentric tendencies that marginalize women can also be detected in the biblical writers’ selection and redaction of traditional materials as well as in the selective canonization of texts. It is also evident in the use of the Bible in liturgy and theological discourse. As androcentric rhetorical texts, biblical texts and their interpretations construct a world in which those whose arguments they oppose become the “deviant others” or are no longer present at all. The categories of orthodoxy and heresy reinscribe such patriarchal rhetoric.

Biblical texts about women are like the tip of an iceberg indicating what is submerged in historical silence. They have to be read as touchstones of the reality that they repress and construct at the same time. Just as other texts so also are biblical texts sites of competing discourses and rhetorical constructions of the world. We are able to disclose and unravel “the politics of otherness” constructed by the androcentric text, because it is produced by a historical reality in which “the absent others” are present and active.

A feminist/womanist interpretation is able to unmask the politics of the text because women participate not only in the androcentric discourse of marginalization and subordination but also in the democratic discourse of freedom, self-determination, justice, and equality. Insofar as this “humanistic” discourse has been constituted as elite “male” discourse the reality to which it points is at the same time already realized and still utopian. It has to be imagined differently. Such “imagination” is, however, not pure fantasy but historical imagination because it refers to a reality that has been accomplished not only in discourse but also in the practices and struggles of “the subjugated others.”

  1. The second strategy elaborates models of historical reconstruction that can subvert the androcentric dynamics of the biblical text and its interpretations by focusing on the “reality” that the androcentric text marginalizes and silences. One has to take the texts about women out of their androcentric historical source contexts and reassemble them like mosaic stones in a feminist/womanist model of historical reconstruction that does not recuperate the marginalizing tendencies of the text.

A critical feminist reconstructive model, therefore, aims not only to reconstruct women’s history in early Christianity but seeks also a feminist reconstruction of early Christian origins. To that end, it cannot limit itself to the canonical texts but must utilize all available texts and materials.

Another strategy questions androcentric models of interpretation that interpret early Christian origins, e.g., in terms of the split between the public and private spheres. This model renders women’s witness to the resurrection and their leadership in the early Christian movements “unofficial” or distorts it to fit “feminine” cultural roles. Another strategy looks at economic and social status, at domestic and political structures, at legal prescriptions, cultic prohibitions, and religious organizations. However, reconstructions of the social world often uncritically adopt sociological or anthropological models of interpretation without testing them for their androcentric ideological implications.

The strategy of a “negative” mirror image which constructs early Christian women’s history in contrast to that of Jewish women or Greco-Roman and Asian women in the first century is not only biased but also methodologically inadequate. Instead, a feminist reconstruction must elaborate emancipatory tendencies in Greco-Roman antiquity that made it possible for the early Christian movements to stand in critical tension to their dominant patriarchal society. It must identify institutional formations that have enabled the active participation of women and other nonpersons.

Finally, a critical feminist/womanist reconstruction does not take the texts indicating the gradual adaptation of the early Christian movement to its dominant patriarchal culture as descriptive of historical reality. Rather it understands them as rhetorical arguments about the patriarchal “politics of submission.” They do not reflect “what really happened,” but construct prescriptive arguments for what the authors wished would happen. This applies not only to biblical texts but also to those “parallel” texts that are cited for the “depraved status” of Jewish or Greco-Roman women.

In short, in a critical model early Christian history is reconstructed not from the perspective of the “historical winners” but from that of the “silenced” in order to achieve a historically adequate description of the social worlds of early Christian women and men. The objectivity and reliability of scientific historical reconstructions must therefore be assessed in terms of whether and how much they can make present the historical losers and their arguments, how much they can make visible those who have been made “doubly invisible” in androcentric sources.

Feminist/womanist historiography, therefore, understands itself not as antiquarian science but as Engaged inquiry since it seeks to retrieve women’s history as memory and heritage for the present and the future. Insofar as reconstructions of the past are always done in the interest of the present and the future, a critical reconstruction of early Christian history as the history of those who have struggled against hegemonic patriarchal structures seeks to empower those who today Engage in the struggle to end patriarchy.

  1. Theological Hermeneutics

Both sides in the often bitter struggles for ecclesial leadership and full citizenship of freeborn women, for emancipation of slave women and men, and for the survival of poor women and their children have invoked biblical authority to legitimate their claims. Consequently, a feminist theological hermeneutics has centered around the question of Scriptural authority.

Several hermeneutical positions have crystallized in confrontation with biblical authority claims. The first rejects the Bible because of its patriarchal character. The Bible is not the word of God but that of elite men justifying their patriarchal interests. The opposite argument insists that the Bible must be “depatriarchalized” because, correctly understood, it fosters the liberation of women. A middle position concedes that the Bible is written by men and rooted in a patriarchal culture but nevertheless maintains that some biblical texts, traditions, or at least the basic core, essence, or central principle of the Bible are liberating and stand in critique of patriarchy.

  1. Biblical Apologetics. Historically and today the Bible has functioned as a weapon against women in their struggles for access to public speaking, to theological education, or to ordained ministry. In response, a Christian feminist apologetics asserts that the Bible, correctly understood, does not prohibit but rather authorizes the equal rights and liberation of women. A feminist hermeneutics, therefore, has the task to elaborate this correct understanding of the Bible so that its authority can be claimed.

However, insofar as historical-critical scholarship has elaborated the rich diversity and often contradictory character of biblical texts, it has shown that taken as a whole the canon cannot constitute an effective theological norm. Therefore it becomes difficult to sustain the traditional understanding that the canon forms a doctrinal unity which in all its parts possesses equal authority and which in principle rules out theological inconsistencies.

Feminists who feel bound by this understanding of canonical authority propose three different hermeneutical strategies. A loyalist hermeneutics argues that biblical texts about women can be explained in terms of a hierarchy of truth. Whereas traditionalists argue that the household code texts require the submission and subordination of women or that Gal 3:28 must be understood in light of them, evangelical feminists hold that Ephesians 5 requires mutual submission and that the injunctions to submission must be judged in light of the canonical authority of Gal 3:28.

A second strategy is revisionist. It makes a distinction between historically conditioned texts that speak only to their own time and those texts with authority for all times. For instance, the injunction of 1 Cor 11:2–16 to wear a head covering or a certain hairstyle is seen as time-conditioned whereas Gal 3:28 pronounces the equality of women and men for all times.

A third approach is compensatory. It challEnges the overwhelmingly androcentric language and images of the Bible by pointing to the feminine images of God found throughout the sacred writings of Judaism and Christianity. It uncritically embraces the divine female figure of Wisdom or the feminine character of the Holy Spirit in order to legitimate the use of feminine language for God and the Holy Spirit today.

  1. A Feminist Canon. Recognizing the pervasive androcentric character of biblical texts, other feminists isolate an authoritative essence or central principle that biblically authorizes equal rights and liberation struggles. Such a liberation hermeneutics does not aim to dislodge the authority of the Bible but to reclaim the empowering authority of Scripture over and against conservative, right-wing, biblical antifeminism.

A first strategy seeks to identify an authoritative canon within the canon, a central principle or the “gospel message.” Since it is generally recognized that the Bible is written in androcentric language and rooted in patriarchal cultures, such a normative center of Scripture allows one to claim biblical authority while rejecting the accusation that the Bible is an instrument of oppression. Feminist biblical and liberation theological scholarship has not invented but inherited this search for an authoritative “canon within the canon” from historical-theological exegesis that recognizes the historical contingency and contradictory pluriformity of Scripture but nevertheless maintains the normative unity of the Bible.

Just as male liberation theologians stress God’s liberating acts in history or single out the Exodus or Jesus’ salvific deeds as “canon within the canon,” so feminist liberation theologians have sought to identify God’s intention for a mended creation, the prophetic tradition or the prophetic critical principle as the authoritative biblical norm. However, such a strategy reduces the historical particularity and pluriformity of biblical texts to a feminist “canon within the canon” or a liberating formalized principle.

The debate continues in feminist hermeneutics as to whether such a feminist normative criterion must be derived from or at least correlated with the Bible so that Scripture remains the normative foundation of feminist biblical faith and community.

Some would argue that the Bible becomes authoritative in the hermeneutical dialogue between the ancient world that produced the text, the literary world of the text, and the world of the modern reader. Yet such a position rejects any criteria extrinisic to the biblical text for evaluating the diverse, often contradictory biblical voices. Instead it maintains that the Bible contains its own critique. It points, for instance, to the vision of a transformed creation in Isa 11:6–9 as a criterion intrinsic to Scripture. The principle of “no harm”—“they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain”—is the normative criterion for assessing biblical texts. However, this approach does not critically reflect that it is the interpreter who selects this criterion and thereby gives it normative canonical status.

A second strategy recognizes that a feminist critical norm is not articulated by the biblical text. However, it insists that a correlation can be established between the feminist critical norm and that by which the Bible critiques itself and renews its liberating vision over and against corrupting deformations. Such a feminist hermeneutics correlates, for instance, the feminist critical principle of the full humanity of women with the prophetic-messianic critical principle or dynamics by which the Bible critiques itself. However, such a hermeneutics of correlation reduces the particularity and diversity not only of biblical texts but also of feminist articulations to abstract formalized principle and norm. It neglects biblical interpretation as the site of competing discursive practices and struggles.

A third hermeneutical strategy argues that feminists must create as a new textual base a feminist Third Testament that canonizes women’s experiences of God’s presence. Out of their revelatory experiences of agony and victimization, survival, empowerment, and new life women write new canonical stories. Such a proposal recognizes women’s experiences of struggle and survival as places of divine presence. Just as the androcentric texts of the First and Second Testaments reflecting male experience, so also the stories rooted in women’s experience deserve canonical status. However, such a canonization of women’s stories rescribes cultural-theological male-female dualism as canonical dualism. Just like canonized male texts, so also are women’s texts embedded and structured by patriarchal culture and religion. Consequently, both must be subjected to a process of critical evaluation.

  1. Critical Process of Interpretation. A critical feminist hermeneutics of liberation, therefore, abandons the quest for a liberating canonical text and shifts its focus to a discussion of the process of biblical interpretation that can grapple with the oppressive as well as the liberating functions of particular biblical texts in women’s lives and struggles.

Such a critical process of feminist/womanist interpretation for liberation presupposes feminist conscientization and systemic analysis. Its interpretive process has four key moments. It begins with a hermeneutics of suspicion scrutinizing the presuppositions and interests of interpreters, and those of biblical commentators as well as the androcentric strategies of the biblical text itself. A hermeneutics of historical interpretation and reconstruction works not only in the interest of historical distanziation but also for an increase in historical imagination. It displaces the androcentric dynamic of the text and its contexts by recontextualizing the text in a sociopolitical model of reconstruction that can make the subordinated and marginalized “others” visible.

A hermeneutics of ethical and theological evaluation assesses the oppressive or liberatory tendencies inscribed in the text as well as the functions of the text in historical and contemporary situations. It insists for theological reasons that Christians stop preaching patriarchal texts as the “word of God,” and cease to proclaim the Christian God as legitimating patriarchal oppression. Finally, a hermeneutics of creative imagination and ritualization retells biblical stories and celebrates our biblical foresisters in a feminist/womanist key.

Since such a critical process of interpretation aims not just to understand biblical texts but to change biblical religion, it requires a theological reconception of the Bible as a formative root model rather than as a normative archetype of Christian faith and community. As a root model, the Bible informs but does not provide the articulation of criteria for a critical feminist/womanist evaluation of particular in the interest of liberation. Christian identity that is grounded in the Bible as its formative prototype must in ever new readings be deconstructed and reconstructed in terms of a global praxis for the liberation not only of women but of all other nonpersons.

Such a proposal does not abandon the canon as some critics have charged. It also cannot be characterized as extrinsic to the text, insofar as it works with the notion of inspiration. Inspiration is a much broader concept than canonical authority insofar as it is not restricted to the canon but holds that throughout the centuries the whole Church has been inspired and empowered by the Spirit. The NT writings did not become canonical because they were believed to be uniquely inspired; rather they were judged to be inspired because the Church gave them canonical status. Inspiration—the life-giving breath and power of Sophia-Spirit—has not ceased with canonization but is still at work today in the critical discernment of the spirits. It empowers women and others excluded from ecclesial authority to reclaim as Church their theological authority of biblical interpretation and spiritual validation.

The “canon within the canon” or the hermeneutics of correlation locates authority formally if not always materially in the Bible, thereby obscuring its own process of finding and selecting theological norms and visions either from the Bible, tradition, doctrine, or contemporary life. In contrast, a critical evaluative hermeneutics makes explicit that it takes its theological authority from the experience of God’s liberating presence in today’s struggles to end patriarchal relationships of domination. Such divine Presence manifests itself when people acknowledge the oppressive and dehumanizing power of the patriarchal interstructuring of sexism, racism, economic exploitation, and militarist colonialism and when Christians name these destructive systems theologically as structural “sin” and “heresy.” For this process of naming we will find many resources in the Bible but also in many other religious, cultural, and intellectual traditions.

Understanding the act of critical reading as a moment in the global praxis for liberation compels a critical feminist hermeneutics to decenter the authority of the androcentric text and to take control of its own readings. It deconstructs the politics of otherness inscribed in the text and our own readings in order to retrieve biblical visions of salvation and well-being in the interest of the present and the future.


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