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Review of Susanne Scholz (ed.), Feminist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Retrospect; Panel from the 2017 SBL Annual Meeting in Boston (MA)

Christl M. Maier

I thank Susanne for the tremendous work she has done in editing these three volumes of forty-six essays, among them three and a half essays from her own hand plus three lucid introductions. I would also like to thank David Clines and his team from Sheffield Phoenix Press for their unrelenting interest in feminist interpretation. When I first read the main title, I stumbled over the wording “in retrospect,” wondering if it is already time to look back. Are we not at the beginning of the feminist endeavor? Yet then I realized that, indeed, if we start counting in the 1970s, feminist biblical interpretation is almost fifty years old, and so it is time to evaluate what has been achieved so far and what still needs to be done.

Several audiences come to mind for the three volumes. They are important for teaching and introducing students to the hermeneutics, methods, and intricacies of feminist interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. Hopefully, our colleagues who are not yet familiar with the feminist way of reading the Bible may get interested in these volumes. I also imagine that feminist biblical scholars who want to check what has been achieved in the various sub-fields or specific biblical books, and I count myself among this third group. As the need to focus on specific topics and particular discourses is ever more pressing for university professors like myself, I am grateful for these volumes that offer surveys and in-depth studies to specific questions.  For all of these audiences, the subdivision of the volumes in biblical books, social locations, and methods is extremely helpful and an appropriate way of ordering the field.

How should one review forty-six essays in fifteen minutes? Well, it is an impossible task and one must pick and choose according to one’s interests. Accordingly, I will only briefly deal with volume I and talk more about the other two volumes.

Focusing on Female Biblical Characters

Volume 1 follows an already established pattern that summarizes the state of research for one or more biblical books.[1] This arrangement has perhaps grown out of the Feminist Companion to the Bible Series, edited by Athalya Brenner; they are organized by biblical books.[2] The pattern is also applied in the Compendium of Feminist Biblical Interpretation, edited by Luise Schottroff and Marie-Theres Wacker, published in German in 1998 and translated into English in 2012.[3] The essays of Volume 1 demonstrate that those biblical books on narratives about women are more prone to feminist readings than books of poetry or books without female characters.[4]

A second observation: the focus on female characters and women’s lives is still in the foreground although feminist theory has moved towards an intersectional approach that examines the reciprocity of several categories of oppression. In the introduction Scholz mentions a third point, namely “the general lack of theory in feminist exegesis” and a dearth of “self-reflective and meta-level interrogations into … implied epistemological and political research procedures” (vol. 1, p. 8). I fully agree, but at the same time, I think there are at least three plausible reasons for this situation. First, within 2,000 years of biblical reception history, fifty years are a relatively short time. Second, due to the hegemonic historical-critical approach, feminist readings of the Bible have been marginalized from the beginning, with many attempts to silence feminist scholars and hinder their academic careers. Even in the mid-1990s, my benevolent mentor advised me not to acknowledge my feminist perspective in the preface of my dissertation because such self-disclosure would lead to the verdict “ideological,” i.e. understood as an illegitimate approach, before colleagues would even pick up the book.[5] I was aware, of course, that scholars like Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza called for deep theoretical reflections. Yet apart from the academy, at least in Germany, feminist readings have emerged in the churches in Bible studies and adult education. Alternative interpretations have been crucial but more debates about theory would have further alienated our audiences.[6]  Third, by reading the second volume on social locations, readers learn that the contexts of feminist biblical interpreters are varied in every part of the globe and theory is usually not the most pressing issue.[7] 

Acknowledging the Social Location of Scholars

What in Western Europe and North America is called as first-, second-, and third-wave feminism and perceived as an ever growing awareness of differences, intersections, and theoretical work is a fictitious and highly constructed narrative of progress. If one takes seriously the assessment of feminist interpretations on the other continents, as they are discussed in Volume 2, one has to acknowledge that all of these phases exist simultaneously, and their sequence is not even fixed. The breathtaking descriptions of women’s struggles in East Asia and South Asia, for instance, confirm once more that “gender” is only one category among many, and often it is not even the most pressing one in women’s struggle toward a life that is not daily threatened by starvation, violence, and death.[8] 

Not only in this respect, however, are the contributions to Volume 2 inspiring and illumi­native. The essays of Esther Fuchs and Pamela Milne reveal some tensions between feminist exegetes who identify as non-denominational or non-religious and others who work in church-related institutions and for a Christian constituency. While Fuchs compares a feminist hermeneutics of suspicion and a feminist post-secular deconstruction of biblical texts,[9] Milne addresses the debate on secular readings.[10] Although they do not say so explicitly, their reflections imply that a deconstructive secular criticism is more radical, and that feminist scholars with a denominational or religious background limit their critique on the Bible unduly and are less active in the political arena. For instance, in the first volume, Julie Kelso accuses some colleagues of a recuperative reading of Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles that, in her view, is “misleading” and “anti-feminist.”[11] While I concur that the Bible is androcentric and the product of a kyriarchally-structured world, I think it is detri­mental to quarrel about who is more feminist or the right feminist, especially since feminism has so many facets and various social locations – as the three volumes under review aptly demon­strate. We may challenge each other’s arguments or controversially discuss hermeneutical issues, as Katharina von Kellenbach does in her reflections on a feminist post-Holocaust hermeneutics of the Hebrew Bible.[12] There will always be different readings of any given Bible passage.  Our conversation will yield more effective results if we first appreciate each other’s position.

Focusing on Theory and Methodology

After almost fifty years, I think that theoretical grounding is absolutely necessary, especially in those academic contexts, in which feminist exegesis has gained some standing. My impression is that not only feminist studies in other disciplines of the humanities, but also queer studies and postcolonial studies have led to more theoretical considerations. Leading critical reflections beyond the binary of male/female and asking for a refined epistemology, Deryn Guest is mentioned several times in these three volumes as a pioneer of these more theoretical horizons.[13] Thus, I would like to focus on the third volume on methods. In her stimulating introduction, Scholz reflects upon the lack of theoretical debate on method in feminist exegesis. She argues that many feminist scholars adopt the method in which they trained during their doctoral studies, pursue during their career, and mostly refrain from discussing the reasons for their preferences.[14] 

Scholz also laments that most feminist interpreters use text-based methods, and not, for instance, participatory research or comparative case studies or cross-cultural analysis of bible readings (vol. 3, p. 9). Scholz describes the situation appropriately, but I think that most of us are text-based because the Bible is first of all a text, and an ancient one, too, a fact that rules out any direct questioning of its authors and complicates any sociological analysis of the community from which it emerged. I do not find the multitude of text-focused approaches regrettable but appropriate to the object of study. What I find regrettable, and here I concur with Sarah Shectman’s essay, is the fact that feminist scholars often disregard the historical dimensions of the biblical text.[15] In searching for reasons for this neglect, Shectman rightly points out that there is “a dearth of historically reliable information about women in the Bible” (vol. 3, p. 55). Moreover, “feminist historians are often caught between feminism’s rejection of the notion of objectivity and a historian’s desire to chronicle historical reality” (vol. 3, p. 58). Finally, feminists “are less interested in the composition history of the Bible, a primary concern of historical-critical scholarship” (vol. 3, p. 69) because they consider source- and redaction criticism to be androcentric tools. Nevertheless, Shectman maintains, and I fully agree, that feminist scholars have to use these methods if they seek to reconstruct the lives of women in antiquity, their histories, and their contributions to ancient Israelite society.  It is interesting to note that most of the scholars Shectman names as protagonists of feminist historical research are either feminists from the first generation, such as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Phyllis Bird, Carol Meyers, and Susan Ackerman, or European scholars trained in historical-critical methods like Irmtraud Fischer, Hennie Marsman, Hanna Stenström, and Kristin de Troyer.

That the task of feminist historiography and socio-historical location is difficult and complex becomes clear in Carol Meyer’s impressive overview on archaeology and ethnohistory,[16] and by Johanna Stiebert’s fine introduction to the use of anthropological approaches.[17] Both essays plausibly outline that these fields are huge, their methodologies complicated, and their methods so specialized that it is almost impossible for any biblical scholar to comprehensively apply them and still focus on the biblical text. As Rebecca Hancock shows, comparative analysis is important as it investigates ancient Israel and its scriptures within ancient Near Eastern cultures and religions.[18] At the end of her essay, she cites Marianne Kartzow who pleads for an intersectional approach that explores how categories of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, disability, and age are interlinked and reinforce each other.[19] If feminist scholars are not willing or able to contribute to this multi-dimensional research, their questions will not be included. In my view, the only way out of this impasse is to collaborate across disciplines and to bring a feminist perspective to archaeology, ethnohistory, anthropology, and comparative historical criticism.

There is no Specific Feminist Method of Interpretation

The question whether there is a specific feminist method of Bible exegesis has been contemplated during all of these years. In a vividly written dialogue, Pamela J. Milne and Susanne Scholz contend that there is much confusion and lack of definition of the terms “method” and “methodology” within feminist biblical interpretation.[20] Especially Milne pleads for a clear distinction of these terms. She defines methodology as a meta-level debate of “systems of methods, principles, and rules for regulating a given discipline” (vol. 3, p. 22).  In difference, method is a “systematic procedure or mode of inquiry” (vol. 3, p. 22), such as form criticism or narrative analysis. What makes a reading feminist is, therefore, not the choice of a particular method but of methodology as well as the hermeneutics and goals that shape the inquiry. In Milne’s view, feminist scholars should not only disclose their theoretical assumptions that inform their research but also “the motivation that led to an interpretation” (vol. 3, p. 25) and their “underlying commitments” (vol. 3, p. 26). Milne explains: “If our work is feminist, we need to say why and how it is feminist. We need to show how it will contribute to improving the lives of women and how it contributes to the feminist movement in general. … This is the kind of methodological discussion that would make feminist exegesis more readily appreciated by those outside the field of biblical studies.” (vol. 3, p. 33). I am glad that this conversation is included in Volume 3, and I would fully concur with Milne and Scholz that there is not “the one” feminist method because a feminist perspective is a matter of methodology, not method.

The helpful distinction between methodology and method becomes obvious in several essays in this volume on methods, such as in Karin Baker-Fletcher’s overview on womanist approaches to the Hebrew Bible[21] or Jeremy Punt’s essay on postcolonial feminist Hebrew Bible criticism.[22] It would have been important for the contributors of the volume to be aware of the difference between methodology and method, especially since some contributors discuss epistemology and methodological questions but still conflate them with “method”, such as Nicole Ruane,[23] and Tina Pippin.[24] Yet Ruane also follows Milne when she asserts that feminist scholars “need to be clear about the implicit and explicit politics of their work” (vol. 3, p. 259).

Most essays in this volume on methods provide clear explanations about the various methodologies that always mentions the leading scholars in the field and their work. I find particularly informative Roland Boer’s article on Marxist feminist criticism[25] and Caroline Blyth’s essay on cultural feminist interpretations of the Hebrew Bible.[26] I also find it essential to discuss the limits and gaps of a particular approach. Since all the essays are written by experts of the respective approach, this volume is a highly valuable anthology of current methodologies to be considered not only in retrospect but also as they present themselves today and may be further developed in the future. By collecting and editing these essays on methods, Scholz has greatly contributed to the theoretical debate in feminist biblical exegesis. 

Next Steps

What are the next steps in feminist interpretation of the Hebrew Bible? As the essays demonstrate, there are different issues to be tackled with regard to the different regions and social and hermeneutical locations. I think that we as feminist exegetes from all over the globe, should strengthen our existing networks and build new alliances in order to move the feminist interpretation of the Bible and feminist activism forward.  I only dare to speak for my own context in the German academy and the German Protestant church context. For my location, it would be fruitful to focus on methodology and intersectional analysis, which will include more conversations and collaboration with feminist colleagues from other secular disciplines such as sociology, philosophy, and political studies. I would also like to engage more with queer theory and postcolonial approaches. On occasions such as this annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, I appreciate the conversations among the international groups of colleagues, and I hope that future sessions of the program unit “Feminist Hermeneutics of the Bible” will take up some of the issues as they have arisen from this panel.



[1] Susanne Scholz, ed., Feminist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Retrospect, 1: Biblical Books (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013).

[2] Athalya Brenner, ed., A Feminist Companion to the Bible (16 vols.; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993-2001).

[3] Luise Schottroff and Marie-Theres Wacker, eds., Kompendium Feministische Bibelauslegung (Gütersloh: Kaiser and Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 1998, 2nd ed. 1999); Feminist Biblical Interpretation: A Compendium of Critical Commentary on the Books of the Bible and Related Literature (trans. Lisa E. Danhill et al.; GrandRapids/ Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2012).

[4] Scholz makes this observation in her introduction (vol. 1, p. 7).

[5] Scholz observes the hesitation of some feminist scholars to admit the locatedness of their work, see Scholz, “Introduction,” (vol. 2, p. 5).  I think that most scholars acknowledge their social location, but not all of them dare to disclose it.

[6] The situation is different in other parts of the world, see, e.g., the strong influence of the secular feminist movement in India as described by Monica Jyotsna Melanchthon, “Engaging Women’s Experiences in the Struggle for Justice, Dignity, and Humanity: Hebrew Bible Readings by South Asian Women,” (vol. 2, p. 51–69, esp. p. 54–56, 67).  In contrast, feminist readings in Latin America emerged within the churches and out of liberation theology; see Mercedes L. García Bachmann, “Thirsty Enough for Feminist Biblical Interpretation: Contextual Readings by Women from Latin America,” (vol. 2, p. 97–117, esp. p. 102).

[7] Scholz, Susanne, ed., Feminist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Retrospect, II: Social Locations (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014).

[8] Cf. Wai Ching Angela Wong, “Beyond Colonialism and Postcolonialism: Feminist Readings of the Bible in East Asia,” (vol. 2, p. 28–50); Melanchthon, “Engaging Women’s Experiences” (see note 6), p. 51–65.

[9] Cf. Esther Fuchs, “A Feminist Hermeneutics of Resistance: A Jewish Response to Interpretive Hegemony,” (vol. 2, p. 151–87, esp. p. 153–54). Fuchs argues on page 154 that “no single approach can claim to be more or less feminist based on its genealogy, but rather on the extent to which one or the other has been adapted and adopted by feminist critics.”

[10] Cf. Pamela J. Milne, “Feminist-Critical Scholarship from Secular Perspectives: The Hebrew Bible in the Context of Women’s Lives in this World,” (vol. 2, p. 234–49).

[11] See Julie Kelso’s harsh critique on interpretations by Eskenazi, Karrer-Grube, and Wacker in her essay, “Reading Silence: The Books of Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah, and the Relative Absence of a Feminist Interpretive History,” (vol. 1, p. 268–89, esp. p. 280 “plain misleading”), p. 281 (“outlandish and largely unsupportable statements”), p. 283 (“a frustratingly anti-feminist stance”).

[12] Cf. Katharina von Kellenbach, “Cultivating a Hermeneutics of Respect for Judaism: Christian Feminist Interpretations of the Hebrew Bible after the Holocaust,” (vol. 2, p. 250–68).

[13] Cf. Jane Everhart, “Women Who Love Women Reading Hebrew Bible Texts: About a Lesbian Biblical Hermeneutics,” (vol. 2, p. 188–204, esp. p. 195–98); further references to Guest are in Volume 2 (vol. 2, p. 88–89, 139; vol. 2, p. 254–55, 314, 318, 321–22).

[14] Scholz, Susanne, ed., Feminist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Retrospect, 3: Methods (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2016), 5.

[15] Sarah Shectman, “Back to the Past: An Overview of Feminist Historical Criticism,” (vol. 3, p. 55–73, esp. p. 55).

[16] Carol L. Meyers, “Beyond the Bible: Archaeology, Ethnohistory, and the Study of Israelite Women,” (vol. 3, p. 74–90).

[17] Johanna Stiebert, “Within and Without Purity, Danger, Honour, and Shame: Anthropological Approaches in Feminist Hebrew Bible Studies,” (vol. 3, p. 111–35).

[18] Rebecca Hancock, “Advantages and Challenges: Comparative Historical Criticism and Feminist Biblical Studies,” (vol. 3, p. 91–110).

[19] Cf. Hancock, “Advantages,” 110.

[20] Pamela J. Milne and Susanne Scholz, “On Method and Methodology in Feminist Biblical Studies: A Conversation,” (vol. 3, p. 19–34).

[21] Karin Baker-Fletcher, “Seeking our Survival, Our Quality of Life, and Wisdom: Womanist Approaches to the Hebrew Bible,” (vol. 3, p. 225–42).

[22] Jeremia Punt, “Dealing with Empire and Negotiating Hegemony: Developments in Postcolonial Feminist Hebrew Bible Criticism,” (vol. 3, p. 278–303).

[23] Nicole J. Ruane, “When Women Aren’t Enough: Gender Criticism in Feminist Hebrew Bible Interpretation,” (vol. 3, p. 243–60, esp. p. 243).

[24] Tina Pippin, “Biblical Women as Ideological Constructs toward Justice: Ideological Criticism as a Feminist/Womanist Method,” (vol. 3, p. 261–77; esp. p. 277) and in her title.

[25] Roland Boer, “Modes of Productions and Reading Labors on the Margins: Marxist Feminist Criticism of the Hebrew Bible,” (vol. 3, p. 326–44).

[26] Caroline Blyth, “Engaging with Cultural Discourses: Cultural Feminist Criticism in Hebrew Bible Studies,” (vol. 3, p. 364–79).



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Christl M. Maier is Professor of Old Testament at Philipps-University Marburg, Germany. Previously, she taught at Yale Divinity School, New Haven, CT (2003–2006) and at Humboldt University Berlin (1990–2003). Since 2010, she is editor-in-chief of Supplements to Vetus Testamentum. Her research focuses on Jeremiah, wisdom literature, and feminist hermeneutics. Among her recent publications are Daughter Zion, Mother Zion: Gender, Space, and the Sacred in Ancient Israel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008) and The Writings and Later Wisdom Books, co-edited with Nuria Calduch-Benages, The Bible and Women (1.3; Atlanta: SBL, 2014).

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© Christl M. Maier, 2017, lectio@theol.unibe.ch, ISSN 1661-3317

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[ Inhaltsverzeichnis ] [ Contents ] [ Table des matières ]