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Feminist Criticism

I remember I was in Washington, DC for a lecture on Mary and Martha, the famous passage, and I gave the traditional interpretation that Mary was a student of Jesus and sat at his feet and listened to every word and Martha was just bustling around in the kitchen trying to be a good hostess.  So after the lecture, a woman came up to me and said, “I really hated what you did, because you followed the interpretation I heard all my life which dumps on Martha and praises Mary.”  So I said, “Yes, what’s wrong with that?”  And she said, “My name is Martha and I don’t understand myself like this.”  So in this process, I learned that I had to develop a different interpretation, which had explicitly as its audience women—women who had until then nothing to say about how the Bible is understood and interpreted. 

The gender analysis is important for the analysis of biblical languages.  Biblical languages are so-called androcentric, that is, male centered or masculine centered language.  That means Biblical languages, as most western languages, do not mention women explicitly.  They use men and male as a generic term, so for example, Paul writes to the Corinthians and says, “brothers.”  Then gendered language mentions just the brothers but includes the sisters, it does not explicitly mention women, it mentions women only if and when there is a problem, or if women are famous and outstanding or by accident. I always say to my students, if you want to go into historical records, you have to get a good male friend who will write about you.   

I remember the inclusive language lectionary was prepared by a committee before it was articulated.  I remember very a famous colleague of mine was sitting opposite of me like you, and we were talking about exactly gendered language and so and how to translate “brothers” in the Pauline text, and so I was arguing that one should translate it as “brothers and sisters” to make clear what the generic language actually means. 

He looks at me and says: “you can’t do that, it’s “brothers” in the text and it has to be,” so I answered and said: “Oh, do you want to argue that the Pauline communities were like the Mithras cult, a purely male cult, and women could not be Christians?” And so he looks at me and said: “Maybe not in Paul’s time, but later.”  You can see the contradiction if one wants to insist that generic language is gender specific language, so the gender analysis of language is very important contribution that feminists do because feminist historiography also sees that gendered language hides the historical reality of women.

  • Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza

    Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza is Krister Stendahl Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. She is a co-founder and co-editor of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion and has been a founding co-editor of the feminist issues of Concilium. She has authored of numerous books, including In Memory of Her (Crossroad), Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation (Beacon Press) and most recently, Changing Horizons: Explorations in Feminist Interpretation (Fortress).