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Sara Parks Bernadette Brooten. Outstanding Among 125 Years of Women in the SBL

It is a pleasure to be here in San Diego, and I want to extend thanks to everyone who has joined us to celebrate this 125th anniversary, everyone who has agreed to contribute on this panel, and to Nicole Tilford who’s worked all year to organize this and other anniversary celebrations. When I was invited to join the panel to tell the story of a woman scholar worthy of note in the field of second-temple Judaism, my choice was made in nanoseconds. The scholarship, both published and public, of Professor Bernadette Brooten has on numerous occasions catalyzed for me major turning points in my ways of thinking about the ancient world, about the intersection of academic scholarship and personal ethics, about writing, and about feminism.

Bernadette Brooten is the Robert and Myra Kraft and Jacob Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies, emerita, at Brandeis University. She is a Resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis. She’s a Professor Emerita of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, of Classical Studies, and of Religious Studies. And she is now the Director of the Brandeis Feminist Sexual Ethics Project.[1] Her Harvard PhD Dissertation in 1982 was titled “Inscriptional Evidence for Women as Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue,” and since then she has authored a 23-page CV of books and articles in several languages, not to mention a lifetime of service contributions, with no signs of slowing down anytime soon. In particular, her incisive and exhaustive monographs Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism[2] and Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue: Inscriptional Evidence and Background Issues[3] still constantly inform my work and blast my students’ stereotypes about women in antiquity into smithereens.

Knowing how people who are raised as women are often socialised, perhaps it should come as no surprise that these women we are honouring for their scholarship also deserve honour for their mentorship. Professor Brooten received the Society of Biblical Literature Award for Outstanding Service in Mentoring in 2001. I experienced this mentorship firsthand when Brooten delivered the Birks Lectures at McGill University as I was just starting my PhD in 2006. Her talk was called “Slavery’s Long Shadow over the Lives of Girls and Women,” and there was a special reception just for grad students. This was a time before I had heard the term “imposter syndrome,” but: I had it, badly. The thought of possibly speaking to a scholar whose work was already influential in my graduate work made me so nervous that I came very close to skipping the luncheon. If I had, I would have missed a pivotal learning experience which played an important role in sustaining me when, in the following years, I sometimes considered dropping out of academia. Brooten’s example at that luncheon, where she spoke to graduate students with genuine curiosity, serious respect for our ideas and concerns, and simple kindness, was an image I would later call repeatedly to mind when tempted to quit. Brooten’s generosity with us reminded me that the main reason I had enrolled in a PhD was not to complete a dissertation, but to become that type of encourager for others.

It is another example of her mentoring spirit that she kindly provided me with much of the information that follows. I wanted to make sure that this talk mentioned some of the achievements she herself in hindsight has judged to have had the most impact, and she was gracious in sharing her reflections. I will take this opportunity to share just a few of her field-changing contributions.

Number One

Let’s start with a bang. In 1977, Brooten published a piece called “‘Junia...Outstanding among the Apostles’ (Romans 16:7).”[4] In this piece, she used epigraphy and reception history to demonstrate how women can, in her words, “be hidden in plain sight.” She noticed that the feminine name Ἰουνίαν (which would translate to something like Julia or Junia) had been transformed to the masculine Ἰουνιᾶν (as if it were an abbreviation of Junianus or Junilius). In the ancient and early medieval church, the Ἰουνία of Rom 16:7 was a woman, who sneakily became Ἰουνιᾶς in order for male interpreters to avoid the discomfort of dealing with a named female apostle in the undisputed Pauline epistles. This article, together with the subsequent work of others, resulted in a modification of the accents in Greek editions of the New Testament and a reversion to the feminine name in many contemporary translations of Romans. So I could just end my paper now: “Bernadette Brooten fixed the Bible.”

Number Two

In 1981, Brooten published “Jüdinnen zur Zeit Jesu. Ein Plädoyer für Differenzierung” (Judaism in the time of Jesus: A plea for differentiation). [5] We who work today in the field of women in early Judaism and early Christianity are quite mindful of the dangers of throwing the rest of Judaism under the bus when elevating Jesus as a proto-feminist, but Brooten’s 1981 article was one of the earliest that spoke out against the methodological (and factual) error in using Judaism as a negative patriarchal foil against which to contrast Jesus’ treatment of women. Brooten told me that piece was a major catalyst to her monograph Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue, which I’m saving for the end.

Number Three

I’ll start number three with a story. I did my undergrad just a few miles from my home, at a small Baptist University. The Baptists gave me just enough of an education to free me from the shackles of fundamentalism. (They probably didn’t mean to, but what did they expect if they taught me Greek?) But I still had a lot of catching up to do in terms of critical thinking and academic writing. So when I was accepted to McGill University for my Masters I approached my supervisor with a well-meaning but grandiose topic: “Homosexuality in the Bible: A Biblical Case for Ever Widening Circles of Compassion.” The draft thesis proposal I handed in had no footnotes and no biblical citations, and included vague phrases like “the Bible says….” When I asked my supervisor, Prof. Gerbern Oegema, where to go from there and how to start, he simply handed me his copy of Brooten’s “Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism.”[6] He said, “First you read this from cover to cover. You will enjoy it.” I did, and by the time I got to the end I knew exactly why he’d assigned it. He knew I would compare my own sweeping generalisations with Brooten’s meticulous caution, and my untested assumptions with the signature Brooten move: an exhaustive catalogue of primary texts including inscriptions, coins, and other material evidence. In the end, I narrowed my project drastically, to women in 1 and 2 Maccabees. Via Oegema, Brooten had changed my focus AND taught me scholarly method. Let’s talk about this book for minute:

  • Winner of a 1997 Lambda Literary Award in the Lesbian Studies Category
  • Winner of a 1997 Judy Grahn Award for Lesbian Non-Fiction
  • Winner of a 1997 American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the Historical Studies Category
  • Nominated for a 1996 National Book Award
  • Several additional accolades
  • Currently being translated into German in a revised edition with a new foreword.

It might be considered obvious today, but Love Between Women forcefully established that sexual desire and sexual relations between women occurred within the ancient Mediterranean world. Scholars beforehand had actually argued that early Christian, ancient Jewish, Roman, Greek, and other discussions of female homosexuality were purely hypothetical.

But that’s not all. This book also established an intimate connection between, on the one hand, a rejection of the existence of sexual desire and behaviour between women, and on the other hand, female subordination – and the rigid gender expectations that come with it. The book also demonstrated that the scholarly discourse on sexual relations between men differed significantly from that on relations between women, and that subsuming women under men (which is still being done) is a methodological flaw. Love Between Women also collects many precious contributions to our knowledge of the history of women: women commissioned love spells to attract other women; some women may have viewed their long-term relationships with other women as marriages, although this was not legally recognized; some women were subjected to clitoridectomies as adults if they had, as one ancient source puts it, “masculine desires.”

It would be nice to see historians, classicists, and biblical scholars really engage this work, rather than only mentioning it, and if that only sparsely. Brooten confided to me that one scholar at a distinguished U.S. institution offered a “helpful” explanation for this lack of engagement: the book is “too hard.” The ways in which this important book is NOT used are unfortunately typical of the gendered politics of citation. In a recent article Bible & Critical Theory I have described the scholarly tendency to perpetuate a cycle of ignoring books by or about women as “The Brooten Phenomenon.”[7]

In fact, just as I was getting ready to come to SBL, a colleague Stephen Young, sent me an example of why this book deserves more widespread engagement. He gave permission to share his email. Stephen wrote:

“As you know, there is endless scholarship on Rom 1.18–32, and most of it interacts with male commentators. In fact, I not infrequently hear a bemoaning mansplainy excuse, ‘But there are no major commentaries on Romans by female scholars!’ And yet, one of the most detailed commentaries on the passage in the last generation is by Bernadette Brooten (Love Between Women 219–302). That entire section of the book is, indeed, called, ‘Romans 1:18-32: A Commentary’ plus ‘Intertextual Echoes in Romans 1:18-32’ (thus the other thing commentators obsess over these days). It remains rare for mainstream publications on Rom 1.18-32 to engage with Brooten […] Another example of your Brooten Phenomenon.”

In writing this paper, along with the above article, I hope that I might push the academy to engage deeply with the work of women scholars – especially Brooten – and to stop seeing work on women in antiquity as ‘niche’ work that is ‘optional’.”

Number Four

Next I want to mention the book Beyond Slavery: Overcoming Its Religious and Sexual Legacies, along with Brooten’s array of articles on enslaved women and female slaveholders in early Christianity, and the website the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project. Few have focused on enslaved women and female slaveholders, especially regarding sexual dynamics and sexual abuse. Brooten demonstrates the gendered nature of slavery: the enslavement of women and the enslavement of men are both horrible, but often in different ways. Only since the early 2000s have scholars seriously examined what the toleration of slavery means for early and later Christianity. Few have engaged critically with the ethical contradictions between promoting virginity and chastity for certain women, while tolerating the sexual abuse of enslaved women. Brooten demonstrated that female slaveholders were not kinder and gentler, which also helps us to understand intersectionally gendered ways of being. Beyond Slavery and the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project are to be commended for this intersectional work, which brings Brooten’s ancient slaveholding research into the present day. Here, as elsewhere, her rigorous historical research and careful writing translate directly into practical ethics.

Number Five

Brooten is currently working on a collaboration with the social sciences on “Hindrances Faced by Black Women Students in Reporting Sexual and Racial Harassment and Violence.” Combining social-scientific approaches with Brooten’s typical rigour and tendency toward being exhaustive will undoubtedly produce an extremely useful tool against Harassment and Violence at the intersection of race and gender, and will fill a gap in research, which remains largely focused on either sexual violence OR racial violence.

Number Six

I will finally circle back to Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue, the book that inspired my phrase “The Brooten Phenomenon.” “The Brooten Phenomenon” refers to the way in which women’s scholarship, and scholarship on women, doesn’t cross the bridge into what is considered to be “real” (i.e. male-centred) scholarship. I chose this term because of the crowning example of Brooten’s Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue, which has yet to pass through the barrier to change the classroom or the field outside of what is incorrectly perceived as the realm of “women’s” scholarship.[8]

Although at least half of the scholars entering the fields of early Judaism and Christian Origins may now be women, and although scholarship on ancient women, on biblical and apocryphal female characters, and on the construction of femininity and masculinity in antiquity is now thriving, there remains an impermeable wall between them and what is perceived as “real” scholarship. The unwritten rule, that the study of women and gender is “niche,” conceptually delimits investigations into ancient women, into ancient female literary characters, and into the construction of gender in the Second-Temple Period and early Christianity as “ancillary.” The way Brooten’s work on women leaders in the ancient synagogue has been used (or not used) over the years is a perfect example.

In this book, Brooten refutes the unargued assumption that, unlike other religions in Greco-Roman antiquity, Judaism had no female religious leadership in the form of priestesses or synagogue heads. Each inscription analysed in the book provides evidence for women leaders in Jewish antiquity. The effect is all the stronger when the totality of the evidence is considered.

Each scholar before Brooten who had treated these inscriptions – to a man – had dismissed the plain sense of each inscription as being impossible. A priori they had collectively said, “we know that women were not leaders in ancient Judaism, so this inscription must have a meaning other than what it says.”

Although Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue is incorporated into other works on women, such as A Companion to Women in the Ancient World,[9] or Daughters of the King: Women and the Synagogue,[10] it is not incorporated into general scholarship on synagogues or on the Jewish priesthood. If it is, it is in the manner of the influential volume on Synagogues by Lee Levine in 2000, The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years.[11] That is, it has a chapter on women in which Brooten’s work, along with the work of others – such as Kraemer, who analysed an inscription with a diasporic Jewish woman elder – is discussed.[12] Yet the contents of the one chapter called “Women in the Synagogue” remain compartmentalised. While Brooten’s and others’ evidence of the active leadership of Jewish women is treated in this chapter, the material is kept hermetically separate from influencing the rest of the book, including, remarkably but typically, the chapter called “priests.”

Over her lifetime Bernadette Brooten has done the slow and painstaking work of really learning ancient languages to be able to interact competently with fragments and inscriptions. She has wrestled with method, by no means only to make her own work impeccable, but also to communicate methodological discoveries and errors to the field and especially to junior scholars. She has brought her discoveries into frequent, sustained conversation with contemporary society in a way far above and beyond the norm. She has put research funding straight to work not only investigating but working to remedy the legacies of slavery and sexual violence. All of this is done while maintaining a strong mentoring presence, a highly engaged ethics of community service, beautiful writing, and all around excellence. On a personal note, I consider my discovery of Brooten’s work to have been nothing less than life-changing. I will end my talk here by expressing my deep gratitude, both personal and on behalf of our field, to Professor Brooten for her lifelong work. I look forward to her continued contributions.



[2] Bernadette Brooten, Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[3] Bernadette Brooten, Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue: Inscriptional Evidence and Background Issues (Chico: Scholars, 1982).

[4] Bernadette Brooten, “‘Junia...Outstanding among the Apostles’ (Romans 16:7),” Women Priests: A Catholic Commentary on the Vatican Declaration (ed. Leonard Swidler and Arlene Swidler; NY: Paulist, 1977), 141–144; German translation in Frauenbefreiung. Biblische und theologische Argumente (ed. Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel; Munich: Kaiser, 1978), 148–151.

[5] Bernadette Brooten, “Jüdinnen zur Zeit Jesu. Ein Plädoyer für Differenzierung.” Theologische Quartalschrift 161 (1981): 281–285; also appeared in Frauen in der Männerkirche? (ed. Bernadette Brooten and Norbert Greinacher; Mainz: Grünewald; Munich: Kaiser, 1982), 141–148.

[6] Brooten, Love Between Women.

[7] Sara Parks, “‘The Brooten Phenomenon’: Moving Women from the Margins in Second-Temple and New Testament Scholarship.” The Bible & Critical Theory 14/2 (2018): 46–64.

[8] Section six is dependent on material that first appeared in Parks, “‘The Brooten Phenomenon’: 46–64, and is used by permission of The Bible & Critical Theory journal.

[9] Sharon L. James and Sheila Dillon, eds., A Companion to Women in the Ancient World (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2012).

[10] Susan Grossman and Rivka Haut, eds., Daughters of the King: Women and the Synagogue (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992).

[11] Lee Levine, The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years (New Haven: Yale, 2000).

[12] Ross S. Kraemer, “A New Inscription from Malta and the Question of Women Elders in the Diaspora Jewish Communities,” Harvard Theological Review 78/3–4 (1985): 431–38.

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Sara Parks (Ph.D., Early Judaism, McGill University, 2017),

is Assistant Professor in New Testament Studies at the University of Nottingham in the U.K. Her research focuses on women in the Second-Temple Period, and on gender and anti-Judaism at the “Parting of the Ways.” She is the author of Gender in the Rhetoric of Jesus: Women in Q (Lexington Fortress 2019).

© Sara Parks, 2020,, ISSN 1661-3317