By Elisabeth Schuessler Firoenza
Table of Contents I. Introduction..p.3
A. An Historical Overview..p.3-4
B. An Overview of Feminist Hermeneutics..p.4-5
A. Introduction and Preface to the Hermeneutics of ..p.6
Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza
B. Scripture: Mythical Archetype vs. Historical Prototypep.6-8
C. Egalitarianism and Genderp.8-9
V. A Hermeneutics of Proclamation: Goals of Feminist Hermeneutics.p.10-12
A The Discipleship of Equals: Historical Reconstruction…p.12-14
B. A Hermeneutics of Suspicion and Actualization..p.15-16
VII. Fiorenza in Action!: Galatians 2:28..p.16-17
VIII. Conclusion ..p.17-18
IX. Works Citedp.19
For millennia, indeed all of recorded history, women have remained in drastic seclusion in society and historical studies. The Bible provides no radical difference in this historical analysis. Indeed, the Bible maintains much of the patriarchal presuppositions and attitudes of surrounding cultures and societies. The OT contains many patriarchal mindsets and laws; the NT canon seems somewhat contradictory over the place of women in the church, family, and society. It is in this environment that women find themselves in the twentieth century. Women, particularly egalitarian feminists, struggle over what is the appropriate response to the Bible, Christian traditions, and the church. Phyllis Trible comments on feminist hermeneutics and theology (which is often hard to distinguish) as follows:
But perhaps I have said enough to show that in various and sundry ways feminist hermeneutics is challenging interpretations old and new. In time, perhaps, it will yield a biblical theology of womanhood (not to be subsumed under the label humanity) with roots in the goodness of creation female and male.1
We shall see if it does.
A. Historical Overview and Context
Only recently, the last one hundred and fifty years, has a sustained feminist consciousness arisen. That consciousness began almost exclusively in western society, with little of the third and second worlds partaking. This struggle came to climax in the 1960s, after the conservative reactions of both world wars had subsided. The extended peacetime allowed a strong feminist awareness to take place. It is in this environment that women began to look critically at the Biblical text itself. The feminists could not simply ignore religion, because despite its regressions, religion still plays an important role in the life experience of millions of women across the world. Thus began the process of re-interpreting and examining the Bible with a feminist critique in mind.
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B. An Overview of Feminist Hermeneutics
The largess of feminist hermeneutics is as diverse as any other field of hermeneutics. Techniques and presuppositions vary and differ across many different spectrums. Evangelical feminists believe in the historical accuracy of the Biblical text and its inerrancy. These feminists tend to hold to an equal-but-different analysis of gender, marriage, and sexuality. They attempt to stay within the orthodox understanding of the Christian faith, but raise serious questions regarding the common male interpretation of texts. Unlike liberal feminist scholarship, they never question the truthfulness of the text itself. Evangelical feminists wish to bring women into all spheres of the church, but tend to overlook many of the patriarchal assumptions of the text. They tend to use the historical-grammatical method, so long as it embraces conservative Protestant theology (that is to say in the essentials of doctrine).
Liberation feminist scholarship tends to have a much lower view of scriptural authority. They are for the most part egalitarians, who wish that women and men should be treated equally and endorse and equality of ends, in which all members of society have equal treatment and life. Egalitarians also dismiss most so-called natural differences between the sexes as socially constructed phenomena. Thus, their goal is to interpret the text with feminist concerns in mind and liberate it from its androcentric beginnings. These liberation feminists are closely aligned with other liberation hermeneutical groups, including: Latin, African, and African-American liberation theology. These feminists hope to not only change the church, but also interpret the text in a socio-political context of feminism, thus challenging the culture with a prophetic-messianic mandate. As Elisabeth Fiorenza states:
The Bible is not simply a religious but also a profoundly political book as it continues to inform the self-understandings of American and European secularized societies and cultures. Feminist biblical interpretations therefore have a critical political significance not only for women in biblical religion but also for all women in Western societies.2
This liberation feminist scholarship is rooted in the emancipation of women from all patriarchal structures and authority. Rather, it seeks relationships based on mutual benevolence, without domination or authority.
Thirdly, there are the feminist interpreters who have fundamentally discarded the Biblical text as a hopelessly lost document, whose purpose is to enslave women. They view the Bible as a text that has contributed to the subjection of women in Western society. As such a patriarchal document, they discard it as they would any other book or piece of literature. While such an analysis of this group might prove interesting, for the purposes of this essay and audience, such an analysis would be ill advised and fruitless.
II. PresuppositionsA. Introduction and Preface to the Hermeneutics of Elisabeth Schuessler FiorenzaBecause Feminist hermeneutics is so multi-faceted, this essay will examine the feminist scholarship of Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza almost exclusively. She has written many books and articles, including: In Memory of Her and Bread not Stone. She is a landmark writer and pioneer in terms of feminist Biblical and theological scholarship. Thus, her examination is well deserved and needed. As well, it is often difficult to examine the differences of technique, presuppositions, and goals, since much of the time these three areas seem to intermesh and often remain indistinguishable in the feminist hermeneutic. The normal logic of scientific-historical analysis seems not to be taken at face value with these post-modern feminists as it is with much Biblical scholarship. However, a definite attempt will be made to distinguish and present a logical analysis of these three areas, even though at times, it may seem repetitive or undistinguishable.B. Scripture: Mythical Archetype vs. Prototype
Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza is not an evangelical feminist and thus does not hold to the inerrancy of scripture. Fiorenzas understanding of the Bible is formed around the concept of prototype juxtaposed against the traditional or evangelical understanding of mythical archetype. According to Firoenza, an archetype is an ideal form that establishes an unchanging timeless pattern.3 While evangelicals allow the cultural and historical accounts to be taken into consideration while developing the archetype, the principles developed out of the archetype are a timeless pattern. Fiorenza, instead, advocates a view of scripture known as prototype. That is, the Bible is critically open to the possibility of its own transformation.4 This view allows for the Bible and the Christian community to reintegrate different views and identity into its framework. Fiorenza states regarding prototype:
Such an understanding of Scripture not as a mythic archetype but as a historical prototype provides the Christian community with a sense of its ongoing history as well as of its theological identity. Insofar as it does not define the Bible as a fixed mythical pattern, it is able to acknowledge positively the dynamic process of biblical adaptation, challenge, or renewal of social-ecclesial and conceptual structures under the changing conditions of the churchs social-historical situations.5
Fiorneza is advocating a historical relativist interpretive guide to hermeneutics. She views the Bible more as a living and evolving text that can be used even in current struggles, even though much of it may be contradictory to those struggles.
Fiorenzas views of scripture are also highly selective. She is not subversive or deceptive in her views of the bounds of scriptural authority. Through the eyes of feminism and egalitarianism she states, only those traditions and texts that critically break through patriarchal culture and plausible structures have the theological authority of revelation. The advocacy stance of liberation theologies cannot accord revelatory authority to any oppressive and destructive biblical text or tradition.6 The locus of authority in Fiorenzas hermeneutics is not Biblical authority but a preconceived notion of egalitarian feminism. Texts that do not follow this pattern are dismissed because of their oppressive nature, such as the household codes in first and second Timothy. Thus, Fiorenzas places revelatory status on those texts that fit into egalitarian feminism.
C. Egalitarianism and Gender
One of the most important presuppositions in Fiorenzas and most feminist thought is the notion of egalitarianism. Egalitarianism is, according to Miriam-Websters Online Dictionary, a belief in human equality especially with respect to social, political, and economic rights and privileges.7 This notion is Fiorenzas (and most other feminists) guide to all scriptural authority and thought. Egalitarianism may be a philosophical concept, but it is a concept that seeks to transform society from one of domination and oppression to one of equality in all realms. It seeks to transform not only individuals to its stream of thought, but also the overarching societal structures that may instill domination in society.
Egalitarianism obviously has implications for gender roles and formation. Egalitarianism sees all people as equal, regardless of gender, race, or societal factors (wealth, status, etc.). Through this lens, gender differences are usually explained as socially constructed. From a very young age, girls and boys are raised differently in many households across the world. Boys are instilled with the ideals of manly courage and fortitude and women with grace and compassion. Labels accorded to women, such as the fairer sex, are used according to the egalitarian critique, as a means to enforce societal structures of dominance. The Christian right in particular, speaks of family values connoting the ideal family as a male breadwinner and a female homemaker. These societal structures in both the family and moral development are seen by Fiorenza and others as an affront to their humanity. Thus the egalitarian ethic, contextualized in gender, is a prophetic movement, hoping to change the very structure and foundations of society. Rosemary Ruether describes it as such:
This biblical principle of prophetic faith parallels the critical dynamic of feminism, which likewise examines structures of injustice toward women, unmasks and denounces their cultural and religious sanctifications, and points toward an alternative humanity, an alternative society, capable of affirming the personhood of women.8
Thus, feminism finds its tradition in the prophetic movements of both testaments, while rejecting elements in scripture that reflect domination and subjection.
While patriarchy has been defined above, it is important to develop a deeper understanding of patriarchy as suggested by feminist biblical scholars. Patriarchy, in the Christian context, is the divinely ordered roles of men and women. Evangelicals typically refer to this as the equal but different concept of gender distinction and roles. In this ideal, women are divinely worked differently then men and are usually in some sort of subjection to them, whether it be in church or the household. This ideal has roots in the altruistic ethics and theology of mainstream Christianity. Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker comment on theological nature of patriarchy in Christianity:
Christianity has been a primary-in many womens live the primary-force in shaping our acceptance of abuse. The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the message that suffering is redemptive. If the best person who ever lived gave his life for others, then, to be of value we should likewise sacrifice ourselves. Any sense that we have a right to care for our own needs is in conflict with being a faithful follower of Jesus.9
As we see, the feminist critique seems to strike at the very heart of the altruistic ethic that Christianity seems to advocate. This theological observation combined with womens lesser role in society, as advocated by the household codes in Timothy and obvious patriarchal texts in the OT, seem to advocate a patriarchal church and societal structure, whose inevitable conclusion leads to the abuse and oppression of women-physically, emotionally, economically, and spiritually. This altruistic ethic of self-sacrifice is seen by women as advocating oppression more than love or acceptance.
III. A Hermeneutics of Proclamation: Goals of Feminist Hermeneutics
The goals of Fiorenzas feminist hermeneutics are both scholarly and ideological. The scholarly goals will be taken up under the section Techniques. Feminist hermeneutics are typically ideological by their very nature. Fiorenza comments on the ideological goal of her hermeneutics:
No reform is possible in one area of society if it is not advanced also in all other areas. One cannot reform the law and other cultural institutions without also reforming biblical religion that claims the Bible as Holy Scripture. Since all reforms are interdependent, a critical feminist interpretation is a necessary political endeavor, although it might not be opportune. If feminists think they can neglect the revision of the Bible because there are more pressing political issues, then they do not recognize the political impact of Scripture upon the churches and society, and also upon the lives of women.10
Fiorenza characterizes this hermeneutic as a hermeneutic of proclamation. The hermeneutics of proclamation seeks to rediscover or recapture those texts that speak of liberation of oppressed people. It then proceeds to contextualize it for modern society and peoples. Thus, this hermeneutical method becomes a highly politicized reading of the text. Fiorenza comments as follows on proclamation hermeneutics:
In conclusion, a feminist hermeneutics of proclamation must on the one hand insist that all texts identified as sexist or patriarchal should not be retained in the lectionary and be proclaimed in Christian worship or catechesis. On the other hand, those texts that are identified as transcending their patriarchal contexts and as articulating a liberating vision of human freedom and wholeness should receive their proper place in the liturgy and teaching of the churches. 11
The church is then faced with a canon within the canon, so to speak. The liberating traditions of the Bible become the locus of authority and teaching, whereas all others are discounted.
Fiorenzas hermeneutical goals can also be termed as advocacy scholarship. That is, advocating for a specific pre-conceived notion or presupposition, such as egalitarian feminism. This advocacy is highly related to not only the oppressive structures contained in modern, Western, society, but also women and their dependents in Third World countries. This advocacy seeks to empower women in all spheres of life. This hermeneutics seeks out texts that reinforce ideals of legal equality, political equality, and economic equality. It could be said that Fiorenzas model of hermeneutical advocacy contains similar parallels to Marxist economic and political thought, with the exception of women and not class distinctions, as its locus. Fiorenzas advocacy scholarship is highly international and holistic. She recognizes the plight of poor women across the world and not just the minor problems that characterize western European societies.
A. The Discipleship of Equals: Historical Reconstruction
Fiornezas analysis of the Biblical text is centered on historical reconstruction. Historical reconstruction is the task of recreating the historical situation of a given community of history. In Fiorenzas case, it is the early Jesus movement and the missionary movement. This reconstruction is a difficult task, because much of the text is silent, especially regarding the roles of women. Fiorenza uses the model of historical reconstruction to come to her thesis-that the Jesus movement and the subsequent gentile missionary movement, was a primarily egalitarian movement that transcended the patriarchal models of both the traditional Jewish and Hellenistic societies, that patriarchal texts are generally understood as redacted material or pseudo-canonical literature (non-apostolic authorship, particularly some letters attributed to St. Paul).
Firoenza constructs Jesus life and teachings as stressing the present reality of the Kingdom of God. Fiorenza has noticed a theme that has been stressed in much contemporary Christian theology and hermeneutics.12 She states that, Jesus stresses that, in his own ministry and movement, the eschatological salvation and wholeness of Israel as the elect people of God is already experientially available.13 She goes onto later characterize this kingdom of God as a humanizing and socio-political praxis of human holiness.14 This humanizing Kingdom societal ethic translates into all arenas of life. Fiorenza characterizes the members of this Jesus movement as such, No one is exempted. Everyone is invited. Women as well as men, prostitutes as well as Pharisees.15 For Fiorenza, the early Jesus movement was a discipleship of equals that was characterized by its belief in a different future and different human relationships on the grounds that all persons in Israel are created and elected by the gracious goodness of Jesus Sophia-God.16 This egalitarian ethic threw off patriarchal power structures and domination and asked all members of the community to respect each other as co-equals in Gods kingdom without relation to sex or status.
Fiorenza deals with the Jesus movement as separate from that of the gentile missionary movement that endured in western civilization. She sees them as two distinct branches of religious ideals and views that must be dealt with separately, although with obvious parallels and similarities. The missionary movement developed sociologically different from that of the Jesus movement. The missionary movement had to deal with Greco-Roman culture to a much greater extent than that of the predominantly Jewish Jesus movement. Fiorenza however, continues her interpretive key, that women and men were co-equals in the beginnings of both the early Jesus and missionary movements:
Rather than to project our own cultural-historical assumptions on the New Testament text, we must replace them with a historical model that makes it possible to conceive of the early Christian movement as a movement of women and men. Such a model allows us to do justice to these New Testament texts that suggest womens leadership and contributions were central to the early Christian missionary movement as well as to those texts that seek to prescribe womens role in terms of Greco-Roman patriarchal culture.17
Characterizing the early missionary movement as a predominantly house-church formulation, Fiorenza develops the model of early egalitarian church life and practice, The house church, by virtue of its location, provided equal opportunities for women, because traditionally the house was considered womens proper sphere, and women were not excluded from activities in it.18 While Fiorenza uses many other sociological observations to prove her assertions of an egalitarian community, her thought is consistent with her overall thesis and practice-to develop an egalitarian and liberating worldview out of the early Christian writings and history.
B. Hermeneutics of Suspicion and Actualization
In Fiorenzas attempt to develop a feminist critique and reclamation of scripture, redaction criticism, a hermeneutics of suspicion, and pseudo-Pauline critique is used to dismiss texts that do not follow with her previous thesis. Unlike evangelical feminists, Fiorenza admits quite readily that androcentric and patriarchal texts exist. However, she contests the androcentric and supposedly objective interpretive model in western society:
Far from being objective or descriptive, androcentric texts and knowledge produce the historical silence and invisibility of women. Although, women are neglected in the writing of history, the effects of our lives and actions are a reality in history.19
This critical analysis of the text is formulated in her hermeneutics of suspicion. This critical analysis has as its foundation the assumption that the texts are androcentric and serve patriarchal ends.20 She bases this claim on the fact that almost all biblical texts originate from the male authors and academic elite of their respective communities.
Not only does this hermeneutics of suspicion challenge the very text itself, but also the academic and traditioning communities that have established the predominant interpretations of the texts and the very canonization of the texts themselves. This hermeneutics of suspicion does not take the few statements regarding gender roles as descriptive of the actual historical community interactions. Rather, it suspects that the patriarchal prescriptive elements of texts are actually in response to a feminist egalitarian ethic that was developed or developing. These statements confirm the evidence of the egalitarian Christian ethic itself. As well, those few texts that seem to evidence the descriptive and prescriptive elements of early Christian feminism are seen as an indication of a larger role of woman than described. Fiorenza describes it as such, references to early Christian women therefore should be read as the tip of an iceberg, indicating what is submerged in grammatically masculine language and how much historical information is lost to us for ever.21 Because of the lack of information, Fiorenza advocates a process of hermeneutical actualization. She advocates a system of reading into the text those concerns that women probably would have had in the Biblical era, to reclaim and recreate feminist rituals and traditions which seem to have been lost to history. Fiorenza feels that this process is requisite for the transformation of the church and society. As she states, Only by reclaiming our religious imagination and our sacred powers of naming can women-church dream new dreams and see new visions.22 This process has its roots in most Christian traditions, which idealize and mythologize the early Christian founding fathers and saints. Fiorenza uses this tradition for her advocacy stance of egalitarian feminism.
VII. Fiorenza in Action!: Galatians 2:28
No report of Fiorenza or other feminist scholars would be complete without an example of their work on the Biblical text itself. The much debated Galatians 3:28, There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,23 is the perfect text to analyze from a feminist perspective, since it forms the locus of much feminist biblical scholarship. Fiorenzas examination of the text criticizes the notion that there is somehow a difference between the order of creation and redemption. She analyzes such an approach as such, Widespread in exegetical commentaries and articles on women in the Bible is the distinction between the order of creation, to which the household codes 1 and 2 Timothy belong, and the order of redemption-though neither expression is found in the New Testament.24
Fiorenza goes on in her analysis to link the text to the preceding verse that is seen as a baptismal confessional. She notes that baptism functioned much like circumcision in Jewish religion, as an initiation into the community. Baptism, unlike circumcision, is applied to both sexes, and thus women are garnered the same ability and right of men to enter into the community as equals. Fiorenza also notes Pauls desires to break down the barriers between Jews and Greeks in much of his writings. For Paul, racial distinctions were wiped away in Christ. Fiorenza comments that in the same way, while not as prevalent through his literature, the Galatians passage confirms the egalitarian message of equality to women and men.
Fiorenza presents an egalitarian vision of reality and philosophy. Her ideology is clear and forthright. Through both her hermeneutics of suspicion and reconstruction, she paints a picture of Christian community that focuses on the fundamental equality of all peoples-not just women. While not evangelical in her understanding of scripture, she advocates a very honest analysis of the text and its patriarchal and androcentric beginnings. Her hermeneutics of proclamation and actualization seek to reintegrate and transform the church and society into an egalitarian framework. While definitely complex and challenging, Fiorenzas feminist hermeneutics are revolutionary and needed as a sound critique and message to paternal Christianity and society.
Author Unknown. Meriam-Websters Online Dictionary. http://www.m-w.com/cgi-
Brown, Joanne Carlson and Bohn, Carole R (editors). Christianity, Patriarchy, and
Abuse: A Feminist Critique. New York: Pilgrim Press, 1989.
Firoenza, Elisabeth Schuessler. Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical
Interpretation. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984.
Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schuessler. In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological
Reconstruction of Christian Origins. New York: Crossroad, 1989.
Loades, Ann (editor). Feminist Theology: A Reader. Louisville: John Knox Press,
Russel, Letty M (editor). Feminist Interpretation of the Bible. Philadelphia:
Westminster Press, 1985.
1 Phyllis Trible. Feminist Hermeneutics and Biblical Studies, Feminist Theology: A Reader, p.29.
2 Elisabeth Fiorenza, Bread not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation, p.xi
3 Elisabeth Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, p.33.
4 Elisabeth Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, p.33.
5 Elisabeth Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, p.34.
6 Elisabeth Fiorneza, In Memory of Her, p.33.
7 Author Unknown. Meriam-Websters Online Dictionary. http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary
8 Rosemary Ruether, A Method of Correlation, Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, p.118.
9 Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker, For God So Loved the World? Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse. p.2.
10 Elisabeth Firoenza, In Memory of Her, p.11.
11 Elisabeth Fiorneza, Bread Not Stone, p.18.
12 Authors such as G. Ladd, John Wimber, and Liberation scholars all pick up on this theme, as well as the teaching at this institution.
13 Elisabeth Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, p.119.
14 Elisabeth Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, p.120.
15 Elisabeth Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, p.121
16 Elisabeth Fiorenza, In Memory of Her. P.142.
17 Elisabeth Firorenza. Missionaries, Apostles, Co-workers: Romans 16 and the Reconstruction of Womens Early Christian History, Feminist Theology: A Reader, p.59.
18 Elisabeth Fiorenza, In Her Memory, p.176.
19 Elisabeth Fiorenza, Feminist Theology: A Reader, p.58.
20 Elisabeth Fiorneza, Bread Not Stone, p.15.
21 Elisabeth Fiorenza, Feminist Theology: A Reader, p.60.
22 Elisabeth Fiorenza, Bread Not Stone, p.21.
23 New International Version.
24 Elisabeth Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, p.206.