Semeia 28

The Bible and Feminist Hermeneutics

Mary Ann Tolbert, ed.

Copyright © 1983 by Society of Biblical Literature.

Published in Chico, CA.


Contributions to This Issue


Matthew: Gender and Reading

Janice Capel Anderson

Fallible Followers: Women and Men in the Gospel of Mark

Elizabeth Struthers Malbon

Tradition and Convention in the Book of Judith

Toni Craven

“You Shall Let Every Daughter Live”: A Study of Exodus 1:8–2:10

J. Cheryl Exum

Luke 9:28–36: The Beginning of an Exodus

Sharon H. Ringe

The “Theology of Woman’s Place” And the “Paulinist” Tradition

William O. Walker, Jr.

Defining the Problem: The Bible and Feminist Hermeneutics

Mary Ann Tolbert

Contributions to This Issue

Janice Capel Anderson

517 East B Street

Moscow, ID 83843

Toni Craven

Brite Divinity School

Texas Christian University

Fort Worth, TX 76129

J. Cheryl Exum

Department of Theology

Boston College

Chestnut Hill, MA 02167

Elizabeth Struthers Malbon

Department of Religion

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Blacksburg, VA 24061

Sharon H. Ringe

Methodist Theological School in Ohio

Delaware, OH 43015

Mary Ann Tolbert

The Divinity School

Vanderbilt University

Nashville, TN 37240

William O. Walker, Jr.

Department of Religion

Trinity University

San Antonio, TX 78284


Mary Ann Tolbert

The Divinity School

Vanderbilt University

How one interprets, understands, and uses past traditions in the present is the perennial hermeneutical issue of biblical studies. It was the issue facing the earliest Christians in their attempt to perceive in the Jewish Scriptures patterns for comprehending the Christ-event, and their descendants through the ages have struggled to proclaim the enduring significance of those early Christian efforts for new and different times.

At no other point in history has the continuing relevance of the Bible been as severely challenged as it is now. The mythological language and ancient worldview embodied by the text is almost incomprehensible in this scientific age of computers and space exploration. Moreover, the economic and political milieu of the biblical world, in which slavery, sexual oppression, and restrictive class structures were common, permeates the Bible itself to a degree that modern cries for liberation are sometimes turned away by so-called biblical authority.

For Christian and Jewish feminists, the matter of biblical interpretation is crucial and urgent. Is the Bible to be an ally or an adversary in the struggle for human rights, equality, and dignity? The essays in this volume attempt some answers to that question by approaching the Bible and the biblical world in light of the feminist critique of patriarchal culture. All of the essays except the final one study specific texts or stories to see how they characterize women or present liberation themes. The final essay tries to reflect more generally on the problems raised by such feminist work. These articles, then, should be seen as part of a growing dialogue between liberation movements and biblical scholarship, a dialogue that is calling into question past assumptions and posing difficult and unavoidable hermeneutical issues.

My thanks go to the Semeia editorial board for encouraging this project and to the authors of these essays for undertaking the task so fruitfully. Special mention should also be made of two graduate assistants, Edgar Peters and Dick McLean, for their patient and careful help in putting this volume together.

Matthew: Gender and Reading

Janice Capel Anderson

Moscow, Idaho


In keeping with the self-definition of Semeia this is an experimental article. It explores the usefulness of certain literary approaches for a feminist exegesis of the Gospel of Matthew. It begins with a comparison of the paths taken by feminist literary and biblical criticism. It then offers two tentative analyses. The first is an analysis of the symbolic significance of gender in the gospel. The second is an analysis of the role of the implied reader in relationship to a feminist’s reading of the gospel.

Feminist Literary Criticism and Feminist Biblical Criticism

There are a number of interesting parallels between feminist literary criticism and feminist biblical criticism. The first steps in both fields included (1) the highlighting of androcentrism in canonical texts and the interpretations of those texts and (2) attempts to recover positive images of women and attitudes toward women in the texts along with revisions of previous androcentric exegesis. In feminist literary criticism a third direction has also been pursued. Women writers have become a center of attention:

Female experience displaced male bias as the center of analysis; female literary genealogies jostled male traditions. Literary studies emphasized the distinctive features of female texts and traced lines of influence connecting women in a fertile and partially autonomous tradition.

This focus has included examination of the ways women writers have responded to androcentric literary tradition and conventions, translating “sexual difference into literary differences of genre, structure, voice and plot” and revising “prevailing themes and styles.” As a result there has been a renewed interest in how sexual difference has influenced male texts: “Women emerge in these analyses no longer as the passive victims of male authorial desire but rather as powerful figures that elicit texts crafted to appropriate or mute their difference.”4 In literary history it has become important to ask: “… 1) How do contemporary women’s lives, women’s concerns, or concerns about women constitute part of the historical context of this work? and 2) What is the symbolic significance of gender in this text?” Interpreters must take seriously not only language, class, ethnic, and other analytic categories, but also gender.

Corresponding to the focus on the author and text in various types of feminist literary criticism there has been a focus on the reader. Judith Fetterley in The Resisting Reader, for example, concentrated on the way in which women readers are often forced to read as males in American literature. Annette Kolodny in a stimulating article “A Map for Rereading: Or, Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts” argued for “… the crucial importance of the sex of the ‘interpreter’ in that process which Nelly Furman has called ‘the active attribution of significance to formal signifiers.’ ” She used two short stories, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Susan Keating Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers,” as paradigms. In Glaspell’s story men and women look for clues to the motive for a woman’s murder of her husband. Only the women are able to see the clues because the men are unable to “read” the importance and significance of the women’s arena of activity and meaning. Men and women can learn to read and understand each other’s texts, she argues. However, they must be aware of “the fundamental problem of ‘reading correctly within cohabiting but differently structured worlds.’ “8 Such an awareness requires a “revisionist rereading” of the literary canon and the expansion of that canon to include the work of women writers. This, in turn, offers “us all a potential enhancing of our capacity to read the world, our literary texts, and even one another, anew.”

In religious studies there has been a parallel concern for women’s experience and women’s texts. However, in biblical studies scholars have had to try to recover repressed women’s traditions within and without the canon. There are few Jewish or Christian texts known to have been produced by women prior to the modern period. As theologians have sought to develop a feminist hermeneutic, complex questions concerning the nature and authority of Scripture and canon have been raised.11 Are only non-androcentric Scriptural traditions authoritative? What is the status of marginalized or “heretical” texts which preserve women’s traditions and experiences absent or muted in canonical texts? What attitude should be taken toward androcentric traditions of interpretation? These questions have their counterparts in literary studies, but take on unique dimensions in the context of Jewish or Christian theology and praxis. Two directions that have not been explored fully are (1) how patriarchal biblical texts embody responses to female difference and (2) how the sex of woman reader/interpreters influences their readings of male texts. These directions, suggested by feminist literary criticism, bear investigation. Not only would exegeses which ask these questions be interesting in their own right, they would also contribute to the discussion of difficult issues raised in feminist hermeneutics. For example, how has it been or could it be possible for women positively to appropriate androcentric texts as authoritative texts for their religious experience?

This article attempts to move in the two directions mentioned above. First, it begins to explore the symbolic significance of gender in the Gospel of Matthew. Second, it looks at the role of the implied reader in relationship to a feminist’s reading of the gospel. These analyses are experimental and limited in a number of ways. Literary methods alone, primarily rhetorical criticism, are used.14 The gospel as a narrative whole is the context for interpretation. Neither source nor redaction criticism is employed. Only the most basic competence in the text’s linguistic, historical, and social codes is assumed. The full historical dimensions of the questions posed are not explored. This is due partly to the limitations of space and expertise and partly to the fact that we have a limited knowledge of the social world(s) of early Christianity. The examination of the interplay between the representation of gender in New Testament texts and the actual roles of men and women in various early Christian communities awaits further study. Similarly, the response of actual first century women reading or listening to the Gospel of Matthew remains an area of conjecture. Furthermore each reader, male or female of whatever historical matrix, will have a unique response to the gospel. This article only focuses on the role of the implied reader and possible feminist responses to that role. Finally, although it is an exercise in feminist biblical criticism there is no attempt to articulate a nuanced feminist position. The article operates within a broad definition of feminism as beliefs and actions which support the possibility of authentic existence for both females and males and oppose the oppression of either sex by the other.

Gender in Matthew

The first question to be approached is the symbolic significance of gender in the text. This, as noted above, is an important approach in feminist literary criticism. As Annette Kolodny has written, this approach is crucial:

… because it acknowledges the often subtle distinction between the depiction of male or female characters for their recognizable gender behaviors and the manipulation of gender for symbolic purposes that may have only incidental relation to actual contemporary sex roles. Pursuing this second concern thus sometimes reveals little about the authentic reality of men and women but much about the symbolic terms through which a given cultural group struggles to define the meaning of its most perplexing dilemmas.

Although gender roles are not a major theme in the Gospel of Matthew, its norms and values incorporate attitudes toward gender. The narrator, Jesus, and other characters speak about men and women. Women and men also appear as characters. In this section the overall androcentric perspective of the gospel will be briefly established. Then several passages which deal with women will serve as examples of ways in which the gospel treats gender. These passages include the genealogy (1:1–17); two scenes concerning the faith and initiative of marginal women characters (the woman with the hemorrhage, 9:20–22, and the Canaanite woman, 15:21–28) and passion and resurrection scenes involving women characters (the woman at Bethany, 26:6–13, the women at the cross, 27:55–56, and the two Marys, 27:61; 28:1–10).

The Androcentric Perspective of the Gospel

There is no doubt that the author of the Gospel of Matthew wrote from an androcentric perspective. Whether the author was male or female, the story world embodies patriarchal assumptions. There are many examples which illustrate the pervasive androcentrism. The opening genealogy is patrilineal and the birth story centers on Joseph. Positions of power and status including those of the Jewish leaders and the disciples are male. God is repeatedly pictured as Father. Patriarchal marriage and inheritance practices are assumed (1:18–25; 5:31–32; 19:1–12; 21:33–43; 22:23–33, etc.). The narrator speaks in a brief but telling phrase of “four thousand (five thousand) men besides women and children” (14:21; 15:38) in the feeding stories. Even Jesus’ teaching often assumes a male audience. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus warns “everyone who looks on a woman with desire” and “everyone divorcing his wife apart from a matter of unchastity” (15:28, 32).

The Genealogy

The narrator begins the gospel of Matthew with a superscription and genealogy (1:1–17). This passage is a form of direct commentary to the narratee. Since the implied author and narrator and the implied reader and narratee are virtually identical in Matthew, direct commentary guides the reading process. It may explain or call attention to the significance of a narrative element, provide criteria for evaluation, etc. Actual readers are free to accept or reject this guidance but must respond to it as they read. The superscription and genealogy set the stage for reading the rest of the gospel. They establish the implied reader’s initial understanding of Jesus’ identity. The heading characterizes Jesus as the Christ, the Son of Abraham, and the Son of David. The genealogy begins to supply clues to the content of these titles. The expectations or associations evoked in actual readers will be confirmed or denied, expanded or narrowed as they read.

In terms of gender, the genealogy substantiates Jesus’ patrilineal claim to the titles. It also locates him in the sweep of salvation history from Abraham to David, from David to the exile and from the exile to the Christ. This salvation history is viewed essentially as a male enterprise. The stereotyped pattern of the genealogy—male δὲ ἐγέννησεν τὸν male(s)—repeats itself thirty-nine times. The most striking break in this patriarchal pattern is the inclusion of five female names in the line of descent, four of whom are named in another repeated pattern:

ἐκ τῆς Θαμάρ (1:3)

ἐκ τῆς Ῥαχάβ (1:5a)

ἐκ τῆς Ῥούθ (1:5b)

ἐκ τῆς τοῦ Οὐρίου (Bathsheba, 1:6)

Μαρίας ἐξ ἧς ἐγεννήθη Ἰησοῦς (1:16)

Why has the narrator included these women? What is the symbolic significance of these obvious breaks in an otherwise male genealogy? Raymond E. Brown summarized the three most common interpretations offered by actual readers over the years in The Birth of the Messiah. These are:

(1).    “… the four Old Testament women were regarded as sinners and their inclusion for Matthew’s readers foreshadowed the role of Jesus as the savior of sinful men.”

(2).    “… the women were regarded as foreigners and were included by Matthew to show that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, was related by ancestry to the Gentiles.” (This would not apply to Mary.)

(3).    The women share two things in common: “(a) there is something extraordinary or irregular in their union with their partners—a union which, though it may have been scandalous to outsiders, continued the blessed lineage of the Messiah; (b) the women showed initiative or played an important role in God’s plan and so came to be considered the instrument of God’s providence or of His Holy Spirit.”

The variety of interpretations indicates the important part the reader plays in creating textual meaning. The first interpretation reads the first four women in terms of the Eve/Mary polarity. Women, sexuality, and sin are linked. The second ignores the fact that the four persons viewed as Gentiles are women and paradoxically thereby—perhaps—characterizes women as foreign. This interpretation, however, is supported by the identification of Bathsheba as the wife of the Gentile Uriah. It also takes into consideration the role of outsiders—the poor, blind, Gentiles, women, etc.—in the gospel. Justification of the mission to the Gentiles is a major theme. The key to the third interpretation is that it asks what Mary and the other four women have in common. This eliminates the first and second interpretations. Mary is neither a sinner nor a Gentile. The third interpretation also points to the unusual circumstance that Jesus has no male progenitor. The irregularities in the ways the first four women produced the male heirs prepares for the irregularity of Jesus’ birth. The initiative of the women and the role of the Spirit have the same function. The difference between Mary and the others is also taken into account. The shift of the verbal pattern from “(male) begot child ‘out of’ (woman’s name)” to “Mary, of whom was born Jesus” indicates this difference. There is no father. The genealogy raises the question about Jesus’ birth and identity. Why does Jesus have no father? How can Jesus be the heir of Abraham and David with no father from whom he can trace his descent? The birth story begins to offer a more complete explanation. Jesus was conceived ἐκ πνεύματος ῾αγίου (1:18, 20) and becomes Joseph’s legal heir when Joseph names him. Jesus is thus both “Son of God” and a Davidid.

In what way does the text deal with female difference? If the third reading is adopted, the patrilineal genealogy and the birth story’s concentration on Joseph can be seen in part as attempts to come to terms with female difference. Birth belongs to the female sphere. Not only does Mary give birth to Jesus, she produces him without male assistance. The Holy Spirit employs no male partner. The gospel speaks of Mary as Jesus’ mother, but never of Joseph as his father. Although in later passages the gospel views God as Jesus’ ultimate Father (Jesus is the Son of God), this does not ameliorate the difficulty of a woman conceiving without a male. The text does not portray God or the Spirit as a male progenitor. The genealogy and Joseph’s role in the birth story incorporate Jesus back into the male sphere, the ordinary scheme of things. They place him within an androcentric perspective. From that perspective a genealogy traced through Mary would be of questionable validity. Yet the problem of the “otherness” and divine mystery of Jesus’ birth remains. The inclusion of the women in the genealogy foreshadows and explains Mary’s role. It provides a means of pointing to and at the same time coming to terms with the female production of the Messiah. God has acted in a radically new way—outside of the patriarchal norm. Although Jesus is Son of David through Joseph, he is Son of God through Mary.24

The Faith and Initiative of the Marginal

There are five major character groups in the gospel of Matthew: the Jewish leaders, the disciples (οι ῾μαθηταὶ), the crowds (οἱ ὄχλοι), the supplicants, and the Gentiles. Each group is primarily characterized in terms of its relationship to Jesus, the protagonist. Their interactions with Jesus are compared and contrasted. They serve as foils for one another. To the extent that characters change in the course of the narrative they do so primarily in terms of their acceptance and/or understanding of Jesus and his mission. After the exposition, the plot moves forward as Jesus interacts with the various groups and the individuals who make them up. The most obvious conflict is, of course, with the Jewish leaders. Other tensions are apparent as well. Will the disciples come to full understanding and mature faith and thus fulfill their calling? Will the crowds side with Jesus or the Jewish leaders? Will Jesus’ mission be extended to Jewish outcasts and Gentiles? The implied author guides the implied reader’s response to each group by arranging the episodes to highlight the comparison and contrasts between them. He or she also guides the implied reader’s response by means of Jesus’ reactions to each group. As the most central and consistently reliable character, his judgments are virtually equivalent to those of the implied author.

The woman with the hemorrhage (9:20–22) and especially the Canaanite woman (15:21–28) play important roles in the narrative. Both are supplicants and members of marginal groups. The woman with the hemorrhage is ritually unclean. The Canaanite woman is a Gentile. Both, of course, are also women. They appear alone with no indication of an embedded status in a patriarchal family. The way they are introduced emphasizes their double marginality:

καὶ ἰδοὺ γυνὴ αἱμορροῦσα δώδεκα ἔτη (9:20)

καὶ ἰδοὺ γυνὴ Χαναναία ἀπὸ τῶν ὁρίων ἐκείνων (15:22)

Both exhibit initiative and faith in their approach to Jesus. Jesus highlights their faith:

Be of good cheer, daughter: Your faith has

healed (σέσωκέν) you. (9:22a)

O woman, great is your faith. (15:28b)

In both cases the healing takes place “from that hour” (9:22b; 15:28c). Jesus’ treatment of both explodes the boundaries of acceptable association. This is also true of other healing episodes with which these two scenes have links. Jesus responds positively to the blind, the lepers, women, etc. Jesus’ healing of these outcasts characterizes him as the messianic salvation bringer. The Jewish leaders, crowds, and disciples are characterized in contrast to these figures. Reactions to Jesus’ healings are part of the developing plot.

The Woman with the Hemorrhage. The woman with the hemorrhage episode occurs early in the gospel. It forms part of the so-called Matthean “Miracle Chapters”, 8–9. Scholars often subdivide chapters 8–9 thematically. The healings of 9:18–31—the ruler’s daughter (9:18–19, 23–26), the woman with the hemorrhage (9:20–22), and the two blind men (9:27–31)—focus on the faith of the supplicant. These scenes form the immediate context for the hemorrhaging woman episode. It is intercalated into the healing of the ruler’s daughter. This intercalation creates a suspenseful interlude between the ruler’s request and the healing of his daughter. It also encourages the implied reader to read each story in the light of the other. The socially acceptable ruler publically approaches, does obeisance to Jesus, and makes his request. The ritually unclean woman approaches Jesus from behind, hoping only to touch the fringe of his garment. The intercalation indicates that although not equal in status, they are equal in faith. If anything the intercalation emphasizes the faith of the doubly marginal woman. Her faith, which Jesus commends, also contrasts with the ridicule of the flute-players and the terrified crowd. She is healed (saved, σέσωκέν, ἐσώθη, 9:22) while they are cast out (ἐξεβλήθη, 9:25).

The healing of two blind men (9:27–31) immediately follows the combined ruler’s daughter-hemorrhaging woman episodes. This juxtaposition underscores similarities between these scenes. The blind men are outcasts like the woman. They “approach” Jesus as did the ruler and woman. Faith also plays a role in their cure. They are healed by physical contact. The report of their healing goes out as did that of the ruler’s daughter “in all that land” (9:26, 31). Yet the blind men differ from the ruler and the woman in at least two ways. First, they address Jesus as Son of David and Lord, recognizing him as the messianic healer. Second, they receive and disobey a command to tell no one of their cure. Despite their confession, the blind men’s faith contrasts negatively with that of the woman. Jesus says to her, “Your faith has healed (saved, σέσωκέν) you” (9:22). To the blind men he says somewhat ambiguously, “According to your faith let it be to you” (9:29b). Their eyes are opened, but are they fully healed?

The stories which precede and follow 9:18–31 also cause the implied reader to compare and contrast the hemorrhaging woman and her fellow supplicants to the Jewish leaders, crowds, and disciples. Opposition between Jesus and the Jewish leaders figures strongly in the three previous scenes. The faith of the supplicants contrasts with the reactions of the Jewish leaders and the crowds in 9:1–8. The Jewish leaders think Jesus blasphemes by forgiving sins (9:3), while the crowds fear and glorify “God who gives such authority to men” (9:8). In the next two episodes the leaders and even the disciples of John the Baptist challenge Jesus’ and his disciples’ violation of accepted norms. They associate with tax collectors and sinners (9:9–13) and do not fast (9:14–17). This prepares for Jesus’ healings of the ritually impure in 9:18–31: a dead girl, a hemorrhaging woman, and two blind men. In fact, the ruler approaches Jesus while he is still speaking of putting new wine into new wine skins (9:18). Instead of challenging Jesus, the supplicants put their faith in Jesus. The final episode in the miracle chapters which immediately follows the healing of the two blind men summarizes the developing reactions of the Jewish leaders and the crowds. Jesus’ healing of a dumb demoniac evokes two responses. The crowds marvel, “Never was anything like this seen in Israel” (9:33b). The Pharisees condemn Jesus, “By the ruler of demons, he casts out the demons” (9:34). In comparison to the woman with the hemorrhage and the other supplicants in 9:18–31, the Jewish leaders have no faith. They are Jesus’ enemies. The crowds are amazed and perhaps can be led to faith. Indeed, following the transitional summary passage of 9:35, Jesus’ compassion on the crowds leads to the missionary discourse of chap. 10. What of the disciples? In chap. 10 Jesus gives them the authority to undertake a preaching and healing mission to Israel, replicating many of his own activities. However, in at least one episode in chapters 8 and 9 their faith is negatively contrasted to that of faithful supplicants like the hemorrhaging woman. In the stilling of the storm (8:23–27) instead of confidently trusting Jesus, they exhibit “little-faith.”

The woman with the hemorrhage rendered doubly marginal by her gender and gender-related affliction serves as an outstanding example of faith and initiative. Along with the characterization of Jesus as healer of the most marginal members of society, her faith is the focus of 9:20–22. This faith is contrasted with that of the Jewish leaders, crowds, and disciples in chapters 8 and 9.

The Canaanite Woman. The Canaanite woman episode accomplishes many of the same objectives as that of the woman with the hemorrhage. She approaches Jesus as an unembedded female. However, she is a Gentile. Jesus’ initial response to her verbally echoes his restriction of the disciples’ mission in 10:6: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24). Her faith and persistence lead him to expand his mission and heal her daughter. Her confession of Jesus as Lord and Son of David casts the rejection of Jesus by the Jewish leaders and crowds in a dark light. Together with direct narratorial comments (4:14–16; 12:18–21) and the Magi (2:1–12) and Roman centurion (8:5–13) episodes, this episode makes a powerful argument justifying the mission to the Gentiles. This is an important theme in the gospel, coming to a climax in the Great Commission. Thus the Canaanite woman scene is more significant for the gospel as a whole than that of the hemorrhaging woman.

The significance of this pericope is reinforced structurally. It is the fulcrum of a chiastic pattern of nearly identical Matthean doublets:


The Canaanite woman is included in this pattern because it forms a triad with the blind men doublets. It follows the same pattern as the other two members: cry for help, (attempt to silence), renewed request—questioning by Jesus, healing on the basis of faith. The supplicants also offer word for word the same request for help:

… cried out saying: “Have mercy on me Lord, Son of David.” (15:22)

… cried out saying: “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David.” (20:30)

… crying out and saying: “Have mercy on us, Son of David.” (9:27) “Yes, Lord.” (9:28)

The chiastic pattern draws sharp comparisons between character groups. The repetition with slight variation of similar episodes also causes the implied reader to read each member of a doublet in light of the other. The faith of the outcast supplicants—the blind men and the Gentile woman—contrasts with the sign seeking of the Jewish leaders who would reject them and with the wavering faith and understanding of the disciples in the feeding stories. The second sign of Jonah episode emphasizes the contrast with the Jewish leaders. There the Jewish leaders try to “tempt” Jesus. If their first request is genuine, their second is not. The second episode also serves as a transition to Jesus’ condemnation of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees in 16:5–12. It recalls Jesus’ condemnation of their teaching on defilement (15:1–20) which immediately precedes the Canaanite woman scene. The second feeding episode underlines the disciples’ failure in understanding. Why do the disciples wonder where the loaves to feed the crowd will come from when they have so recently participated in the first feeding? The motif of bread introduced by the first feeding ties together a number of episodes. Since the feeding of the four thousand immediately follows the Canaanite woman episode, the contrast between the disciples and the woman who is willing to receive “bread crumbs” is strong. It is also highlighted by the disciples’ subsequent difficulty in understanding Jesus’ teaching about the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees (16:5–12). They do not understand until Jesus reminds them of the loaves involved in the two feedings.

The faith of the Canaanite woman also contrasts with the faith of her fellow outcasts in the blind men episodes. As noted above, the first pair of blind Jewish men are healed according to their faith (9:29) but immediately disobey Jesus. She calls Jesus Lord three times and worships (προσκυνεῖν) him. Jesus declares her faith to be great. He heals her daughter “from that hour.” In comparison to the second pair, who overcome the objections of the crowds (20:31), she must overcome objections from the disciples (15:23) and Jesus himself (15:24).

What is the significance of gender in the hemorrhaging woman and Canaanite woman scenes? Female gender is paradoxically a strength and weakness. Gender makes these women doubly marginal, heightening their accomplishments. It creates a greater contrast between their model faith and the failings of those more priviledged such as the Jewish leaders and disciples. Gender is not a barrier to faith. Indeed, these women unembedded in any partriarchal family structure show great initiative and are rewarded. Yet their roles are limited. The episodes involving these women are isolated and self-contained. The women never reappear in the narrative nor become members of the inner circle of disciples. This is also true of other outcast supplicants.

As noted above, the supplicant episodes characterize Jesus as the messiah who heals the outcast. They illustrate the theme of God’s concern for all and provide the occasion to show various reactions to Jesus and his ministry. The supplicants serve as models of faith and foils for other character groups. Nevertheless, they do not have a continuing narrative role in the same way as the Jewish leaders, disciples, or crowds. Although some commentators argue the blind men’s and the Canaanite woman’s confessions of Jesus as Lord and Son of David,37 or the blind men’s following (ἀκολουθεῖν in 20:34 indicate discipleship, other commentators deny this. The difference in evaluation depends on whether “discipleship” is viewed as membership in the character group “the disciples” or as the proper response to belief in Jesus. If the first definition is adopted, none of these supplicants is a disciple. They are never pictured as members of “the disciples” as a character group. Although in contrast to Jesus’ enemies who call Jesus rabbi or teacher, certain supplicants and disciples call Jesus Lord, the disciples never call Jesus Son of David. In addition to God and the Roman centurion in 27:54, only they call Jesus Son of God. Finally, “following” often refers metaphorically to a disciple or discipleship in Matthew. J. D. Kingsbury, however, argues it does so only when Jesus speaks and not in the narrator’s voice as in 9:27 or 20:34. Kingsbury has also argued that two factors are always present when ἀκολουθεῖν is to be understood metaphorically: “personal commitment,” where Jesus summons disciples or addresses those who are already disciples; and “cost,” where following involves sacrifice or leaving one’s former life. With these two factors as criteria, Kingsbury limits himself almost entirely to contexts involving members of the character group.41 One might add that the supplicants’ function as foils would be limited if they became disciples.

The dispute over the “discipleship” of supplicants including women points beyond itself to the reading experience. What role do the supplicants and the disciples play in the rhetoric of the gospel? Does the implied reader identify with both groups, with one, with neither? How do actual readers respond? Do they view any of the character groups as role models? The questions of gender and discipleship and the reading experience emerge also in the next set of passages.

The Women at Bethany, the Cross, and the Tomb

The final set of passages to be examined is associated with the passion and resurrection narratives. The woman at Bethany (26:6–13) and the women at the cross and tomb (27:55–56, 61; 28:1–10) serve as foils for the disciples and play important roles the disciples should have played. They also are the means by which the disciples are reunited with Jesus and receive the great Commission. Their gender allows them to take on these functions without supplanting the disciples.

The Woman at Bethany. As the passion narrative begins a woman annoints Jesus at Bethany (26:6–13). She is described only as “a woman (γυνὴ) having an alabaster vial of very expensive ointment” (26:7). She anoints Jesus’ body beforehand for burial, possibly with messianic overtones. The disciples protest her action. They do not understand its significance although Jesus has just uttered the final preparatory passion prediction in 26:2. Judas, “one of the Twelve,” leaves the scene to make his bargain with the chief priests. The failure of the disciples, but also their reconciliation with Jesus, is highlighted by Jesus’ concluding declaration foreshadowing the Great Commission. The woman is to be memorialized “wherever this gospel is proclaimed in all the world” (26:13).

This unembedded woman succeeds where the disciples fail. Her gender highlights their failure. Her actions honor her and shame them. Nonetheless, the woman’s gender and limited role prevent her from becoming a rival despite her “good work” (26:10).

The Women at the Cross and Tomb. As the woman at Bethany provides a non-threatening contrast with the disciples so do the women at the cross and tomb. The women at the cross (27:55–56) stand with Jesus in the hour of his passion when the disciples have forsaken him and fled. Two of them, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, watch over his burial (27:61). Later the two Marys are the first to learn of Jesus’ resurrection. They receive an angelic commission to tell the disciples of Jesus’ resurrection and future appearance in Galilee (28:1–7). As they run to tell the disciples, the resurrected Jesus appears to them and reiterates the angel’s commission (28:8–10). These women, not the disciples, are “last at the cross and first at the tomb.” They remain faithful to Jesus, and their faith enables the disciples to be reunited with Jesus. Details of the resurrection appearances also underscores a contrast with the disciples. When the women meet Jesus they hold his feet and “worship (προσεκύνησαν)” him (28:9), a favorite Matthean term indicating the proper attitude toward Jesus. When Jesus appears to the eleven, some “worship” Jesus, but some doubt (28:17).

What is the status of these women? Why do they pose no threat to the disciples? The women at the cross are described as women “who followed (ἠκολούθησαν) Jesus from Galilee serving (διακονοῦσαι) him; among whom was Mary the Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (27:55–56). Some commentators treat the women as disciples. Four pieces of evidence shape this interpretation. One is the verb “followed,” often indicative of discipleship in Matthew. Second is the verb “serving” or “ministering.” Third is the phrase “ὃς καὶ αὐτὸς ἐμαθητεύθη τῷ Ἰησοῦ”, used to describe Joseph of Arimathea in 27:57. Fourth is the character of the women’s actions. Other interpreters do not raise the issue or deny that the women are disciples. Kingsbury argues that ἠκολούθησαν does not characterize the women as disciples. As with the two blind men in 20:34 (discussed in the previous section), the word “to follow” appears in the narrator’s voice and the criteria of “personal commitment” and “cost” are absent. He adds, “The appended notation that they were ‘waiting on him’ is not meant to characterize them as disciples of Jesus in the strict sense of the word but instead explains why they had been in his company.” An examination of Matthew’s use of διακονέω (wait on, serve, minister to) supports Kingsbury’s contention. In 4:11 the angels minister to Jesus following the temptation. In 8:15 Peter’s mother-in-law ministers to Jesus after he enters Peter’s house and cures her fever. In 25:44 those on the left in the parable of the sheep and goats say, “Lord, when did we see you hungering or thirsting or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison and did not minister to you?” In 20:25b–28 Jesus responds to the anger of the Ten at the sons of Zebedee:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and great ones have authority over them. It is not so among you; but whoever among you wishes to become great, will be your servant (διάκονος), and whoever among you wishes to be first, he shall be your slave; as the Son of Man came not to be served (or ministered to, διακονηθῆναι, but to serve (or minister, διακονῆσαι) and to give his life as a ransom for many.

In the first three cases “ministering” or “serving” connotes caring for primarily physical needs. In the last instance, “service” involves taking or the role of a slave and dying for others. The Twelve never serve in this fashion in the narrative nor are they ever described as “ministering” or “serving.” Thus the description of the women at the cross as “ministering” seems to indicate that they cared for Jesus’ needs on the journey from Galilee. That women would perform these tasks is not unusual given the narrative’s social world. The use of διακονέω perhaps also characterizes the women as servants, the role that the disciples should have pursued. As with the discussion of whether or not certain supplicants are disciples, the difference between “discipleship” and being a member of the character group “the disciples” influences interpreters’ readings.

The same is the case with various interpretations of 27:57. Joseph is described as “a rich man from Arimathea who also was discipled (ἐμαθητεύθη) to Jesus.” Does μαθετεύω indicate that Joseph is one of “the disciples”? Does ὃς καὶ indicate that in addition to being a rich man from Arimathea Joseph was discipled to Jesus, or that “he, as well as the women, had become a disciple”? No critical consensus has emerged in answer to these questions.50 The phrase “who was also discipled to Jesus” may explain why this particular rich man would want to bury Jesus. It also prevents a negative comparison between Jesus and John the Baptist whose disciples retrieve and bury the body of their master in 14:12. Certainly neither the women nor Joseph are members of the Twelve, the disciples who fail and (with the exception of Judas) are reunited with Jesus in the passion and resurrection scenes.

Although the women play an important part in the narrative, gender seems to prevent their identification as disciples. They are an auxiliary group which can conveniently stand in for the disciples. Their presence at the cross is explained in terms of caring for Jesus’ needs on the journey to Jerusalem. One to the three women named in 27:56 is identified as the mother of the sons of Zebedee, two of the Twelve. Earlier in the gospel she accompanied Jesus and the Twelve on the way to Jerusalem (20:20). This accords with the description of the women in 27:55–56. She accompanied them but was not privy to the private instruction given the Twelve. She approached Jesus after he took the disciples aside to predict the passion and resurrection in 20:17–19. The only role of this mother was to request places of honor for her sons. Like Peter’s mother-in-law, who, like the women at the cross, “ministers” to Jesus, her relationship to Jesus is related to that of her sons.

Perhaps most telling are the references to “the disciples” after the resurrection. These references clearly distinguish the women from the disciples. The angel commands the two Marys to “tell his disciples” of Jesus’ resurrection and appearance in Galilee (28:7). The narrator describes them running to tell “his disciples” (28:8). Jesus commands them to “tell my brothers to go to Galilee” (28:10). When they obey, “the eleven disciples” go to Galilee, “to the mountain where Jesus appointed them” (28:16). The women are not strangers or outsiders, but neither are they among the inner circle of disciples.

As with the supplicants discussed in the previous section, interpreters’ reading of the women as disciples are influenced by whether they define discipleship as membership in the character group or the proper relationship to Jesus. Attitudes toward gender also influence various readings. Although it has been argued here, some interpreters simply assume that the women are not “disciples.” Other interpreters assume women can be “disciples” or that “discpleship” as allegorical representations of church leaders may also influence interpretation. Patriarchy has sometimes perpetuated itself by insisting female readers are to see themselves only in the women of the gospel.

Tensions in Matthew

The exploration of the symbolic significance of gender has revealed tensions in Matthew. There is a tension between the treatment of female gender as a positive attribute or irrelevant in comparison to other values and its treatment as a mark of subordinate status. Women are not characterized as deficient in faith, understanding, or morality due to gender. In fact, with the exception of Herodias and her daughter in 14:1–12 and Jesus’ family in 12:46–50, women are portrayed favorably. The important roles of women and Jesus’ response to women supplicants strain the boundaries of the gospel’s patriarchal worldview. Yet female gender renders the exemplary behavior of women as more of an achievement and heightens contrasts with male characters. It ensures for women subordinate and auxiliary positions. Mary’s extraordinary role is contained by a patrilineal genealogy and birth story. The important roles of the female supplicants and the women at Bethany, cross, and tomb are contained within a model that assumes male gender as a requirement for becoming a disciple.

The exploration of the symbolic significance of gender has also revealed how these tensions in Matthew have evoked various responses in readers. Interpretations are affected not only by the treatment of gender in the gospel, but by the ways interpreters are predisposed to view gender as they approach the text. The presence of the women in the genealogy has led to at least three different readings. Various interpretations of the status of women as “disciples”have emerged.

Gender and the Implied Reader

Two aspects of the role of the implied reader in Matthew begin to shed light on how actual women readers may respond to that role and how different readings of gender in the text arise. Both involve point of view. One is the effect of the ideological alignment of the points of view of the narrator and Jesus on the implied reader. The other is the frequent alignment of the temporal perspectives of the narrator, Jesus, and the implied reader.

The implied author of the Gospel of Matthew shapes the role of the implied reader in many ways. Among them are direct commentary, the arrangement of episodes, the use of characters as foils, etc. Examples of these were seen in the exegeses above. Real readers respond to the role of the implied reader as they read. Part of this role is internal to the text and is sometimes called the inscribed or ideal reader. Part is external, the vantage point outside the text from which textual structures are actualized. To oversimplify, the implied reader is a set of instructions for reading the text. That set of instructions, however, includes gaps and areas of ambiguity. Real readers do not create identical readings of a text. The crucial question is often whether a particular reading violates or ignores textual instructions or whether it is a legitimate actualization.

Point of view is one of the most important means of shaping the role of the implied reader and determining actual readers’ responses. Point of view involves the perspectives from which a narrative is presented and viewed. Narrator, narratee, and characters have various interrelated points of view. Boris Uspensky has proposed a helpful typology of point of view. It includes four levels or planes: the ideological, “the system of ideas which shape the work”;52 the phraseological, speech characteristics which indicate point of view; the temporal and spatial, position in and view of time and position in space; and the psychological, the subjective perspective inside a mind.

Ideological Alignment of Points of View

In Matthew one of the most significant factors in shaping the implied reader is the alignment of the ideological points of view of the narrator and Jesus. This alignment is supported by the partial alignments of their points of view on the other planes. Among other things Jesus and the narrator share certain speech characteristics such as the use of the phrase “in their synagogues” (4:23; 9:35; 10:17; 12:9, into; 13:54; and 23:34, in your synagogues). For most of the narrative their spatial positions are nearly identical. The narrator follows Jesus in much the same way as a movie camera. The narrator offers frequent sympathetic inside views of Jesus. Like the narrator, Jesus possesses a certain degree of omniscience. From time to time he correctly reads the minds of other characters and predicts the future. The implied author also accomplishes the ideological alignment of Jesus and the narrator by bestowing upon Jesus the “badge of reliability.” The heading and genealogy, the birth story, and the baptism and temptation scenes establish Jesus’ identity and reliability before his ministry begins. Since their ideological points of view are aligned, the narrator and Jesus serve as reinforcing vehicles for the implied author’s norms and values—the norms and values he or she imposes on the implied reader.

What is the significance of the alignment of the ideological viewpoints of Jesus and the narrator for a female reader? On the one hand responding to them is negative. If the actual reader uncritically adopts the patriarchal worldview represented by the narrator and Jesus, she assumes a worldview which abridges the full humanity of female and male. The reading experience is destructive.

On the other hand the fact that both the narrator and Jesus serve as vehicles for the ideology of the implied author is constructive. The narrator provides the implied reader with knowledge unavailable to characters within the narrative. He or she does this, for example, through the use of direct commentary and the provision of privileged inside views of characters including Jesus. In the case of the genealogy the implied reader has a superior knowledge of Jesus’ identity, an identity which includes his being the Son of God through Mary. In addition to standing with the narrator, the implied reader also stands with Jesus as he evaluates characters and events. The implied reader evaluates characters regardless of ordinary status markers. Wealth, occupation, purity, ethnicity, and family ties are less important than the stance characters take in relationship to Jesus. The Jewish leaders, the story world’s male establishment, are judged negatively; the male disciples positively and negatively, and so on. While it is true that the disciples become the new establishment with special teaching and governance responsibilities (16:18–19; 18:15–20; 28:19–20), their strengths and weaknesses are revealed. This reinforces anti-hierarchical aspects of Jesus’ teachings on discipleship such as 20:25–28 and 23:8–12. Marginal characters including women receive fairly positive evaluations.

In accepting the role of the implied reader, then, an actual female reader is free to judge the ideological stances of the various character groups, male and female. In following the guidance of the narrator and Jesus, the actual reader may also be led to judge some of the patriarchal assumptions implicit in their ideological viewpoints.

Since the norms and values of the implied author are lodged with the narrator and Jesus, the implied reader is also directed to see in various characters traits to be prized or eschewed. No one group embodies the implied author’s ideology nor serves as a single role model. This explains why some actual readers call characters like the Canaanite woman and the women at the cross and tomb disciples. If “discipleship” is defined as the norms and values the implied author wishes the implied reader to adopt rather than as membership in the character group, then various male and female characters embody aspects of discipleship. The superiority of the implied reader to all character groups also gives the lie to any interpretation which insists certain readers must identify with certain character groups. Although actual readers—male or female—may identify with the points of view of various character groups ultimately they must judge all of them. A single reader might see his or her own worldview partially embodied in the Jewish leaders, the crowds, the disciples, or any combination of character groups. If an actual reader assumes the role of the implied reader, he or she will evaluate all ideological points of view from the aligned perspectives of the narrator and Jesus.

Alignment of Temporal Perspectives

Another important aspect of Matthew’s implied reader is the occasional alignment of the temporal position of the implied reader with those of the narrator and characters, especially Jesus. Most of the narrative takes place in the narrator’s and reader’s past. This is marked by the past tense. However, at important junctures their temporal positions are synchronized with that of Jesus. This is accomplished through the narrator’s use of the historical present,57 extended speeches by Jesus, and the introduction of direct discourse with the present participles of λέγειν.

A typical example of the narrator’s use of the historical present is Matt 22:41–46:

When the Pharisees were assembled, Jesus questioned them saying: “What does it seem to you concerning the Christ? Whose son is he?” They say to him: “of David.” He says to them: “How then does David call him lord in the spirit saying: ‘The Lord said to my lord: Sit on my right until I put thy enemies underneath thy feet?’ If then, David calls him lord, how is he his son?” And no one was able to answer him a word nor dared anyone from that day to question him any more.

The introduction and conclusion in the past tense frame the central conversation. The characters, the narrator, and the implied reader are contemporaneous during that exchange. This means that the characters’ words are addressed to the implied reader as well as each other. This example is typical because the narrator overwhelmingly uses the historical present in conjunction with Jesus’ speech.

Obvious examples of extended direct discourse are Jesus’ five major discourses. Dialogue produces “the illusion of immediacy and presentness in the reader.” The length of Jesus’ uninterrupted discourses enhances this effect greatly. It is as if Jesus speaks in the implied reader’s present. The discourses, then, become addresses to the implied reader as well as the audiences designated in the narrative.

Three of the five major discourses as well as the woe discourse of chap. 23 are introducted with a present particle of “to say” (5:2; 10:5; 13:3; 23:1–2). This is true of shorter sections of direct discourse as well such as Jesus’ speech in 22:41–42 above. This device reinforces the temporal alignment of narrator, characters, and implied reader. The action denoted by the present participle, speech, occurs at the same time as the action denoted by the main verb. Thus the main verb freezes the moment of action and the participle indicates what was said at that moment as if it were being spoken in the present. Thus λέγων is often translated as “saying” even though the main verb is an aorist.

The importance of the frequent synchronization of the temporal perspectives of narrator, implied reader, and characters associated with Jesus’ speech is that Jesus’ speeches are addressed to the implied reader as well as characters. Through the medium of Jesus the implied author presents his or her ideology in the moment of reading. Actual male or female readers “hear” the Sermon on the Mount with its two level narrative audience of crowds adn disciples as well as privileged instructions such as the Missionary Discourse or the Great Commission. Although no women are portrayed as disciple, women readers are addressed as “disciples.” Even though Jesus’ speeches are colored by androcentrism, actual women readers have read “Blessed are the peace-makers for they shall be called sons of God” (5:9) inclusively and have responded to the Great Commission. Such readings could be destructive if women thus adopt an anti-female perspective and deny their own. However, since the androcentrism of Jesus’ speeches consists for the most part in using non-inclusive language and he often attacks oppressive norms, this is not necessarily the case. The speeches often reflect tension between patriarchal and non-patriarchal values.

The reception by the implied reader of speeches addressed to the disciples also challenges certain interpretations of the gospel. Some interpreters limit the ultimate addressees of such discourses to male church leaders or members—either in Matthew’s community or in any age. In addition to committing the referential fallacy by positing a direct correlation between the disciples and persons in the real world, they ignore the fact that a variety of actual readers may assume the role of implied reader.


This article has tentatively explored the symbollic significance of gender and the reading process in Matthew from a feminist perspective. More questions are raised than answered. It can only be hoped that readers will be stimulated to offer criticism and proposals of their own.

Appendix Verses Concerning Women in Matthew (There is Some Overlap Between Categories)

Women Characters

Mary, Jesus’ mother—birth narrative 1:18–2:23, see specially 1:18–25; 2:13; 2:19–21

mother and brothers—12:46–50

Mary, brothers and sisters—13:53–58

Peter’s mother-in-law—8:14–17

Ruler’s daughter—9:18–19, 23–26

Woman with hemorrhage—9:20–22

Herodias and daughter—14:1–12

4,000 (5,000) men besides women and children—14:21; 15:38

Canaanite woman—15:21–28

Mother of the sons of Zebedee—20:20; 27:56

Woman at Bethany—26:6–13

Pilate’s wife—27:19

Maid who confronts Peter—26:69

Women at the cross and tomb—27:55–56, 61; 28:1–10 including Mary the mother of James and Joseph, Mary Magdalene and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

Women in Jesus’ Teaching


Divorce and Marriage—5:31–32; 19:1–12

Enmity in families—10:21, 35–39; 19:29

Children in Marketplace—11:16–17


Queen of the South—12:42

True family—12:46–50

Woman and leaven—13:33

Honoring father and mother—15:1–9; 19:19

“with his wife and children”—18:25

Tax collectors and harlots—21:31, 32

Controversy with Sadducees involving Levirite marriage—22:23–33

Jerusalem, hen, brood—23:37–39

Birth pangs of new age—24:8

Those who give such and are with child—24:19

Two women grinding—24:41

Wise and foolish maidens—25:1–13

Female Imagery

Woman (Rachel) represents Israel—2:18

Woman with leaven represents God—13:33

Daughter of Zion—21:5

Jerusalem as mother—23:37

Birth pangs of new age—24:8

Women in Direct Narratorial Comments


Israel as Rachel—2:18

Besides women and children—14:21; 15:38

Pilate’s wife—27:19

Fallible Followers: Women and Men in the Gospel of Mark

Elizabeth Struthers Malbon

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


Literary analysis of the Gospel of Mark reveals that the Markan portrait of the followers of Jesus is both complex and composite: complex in portraying both the success and the fallibility of followers; composite in including not only the twelve disciples but also the crowd, certain exceptional individuals like Bartimaeus and Jairus, and women. This study focuses on two questions concerning the latter group: (1) how do the women characters shed light on what it means to follow Jesus?, and (2) why are women characters especially appropriate for the role of illuminating followership? Attention is given especially to the hemorrhaging woman and the Syrophoenician woman, the poor widow and the anointing woman, and the women present at the cross and the tomb. It is concluded that by providing a complex and composite image of followers—fallible followers, women and men—the author of the Markan gospel is able to communicate clearly and powerfully to the reader a twofold message: anyone can be a follower, no one finds it easy.

Discipleship—that is, following Jesus—has been recognized as a central theme or motif in the Gospel of Mark. Understandably enough, the portrayal of the disciples in Mark has often been the focus of scholarly investigation of the theme of discipleship. Ernest Best’s study, Following Jesus: Discipleship in the Gospel of Mark, serves as an excellent example. Best also exemplifies a certain over-schematization of the Markan relation of disciples and discipleship. “If a writer wishes to talk about discipleship using men as examples,” proposes Best, “there are two obvious approaches.”

He may either set forward a series of examples of good discipleship with the implication that these examples should be followed (so Daniel 1–6; 2 Maccabees; Maccabees) or he may instruct through the failures of his examples (so many of the stories about the patriarchs and David). Mark chose the latter course.

I agree with Best, against Weeden, that the “failure” of the disciples contributes to a characterization of discipleship rather than to a polemic against the historical opponents of the author of Mark’s gospel. Yet I disagree with Best on two important points. I affirm that: (1) what Mark has to say about discipleship is understood not only from the failure of the disciples but also from their success, and especially from the tension between their success and failure; and (2) what Mark has to say about discipleship is understood in reference not only to the disciples but also to other Markan characters who meet the demands of following Jesus. Followers and followership might be better keys to our investigation than disciples and discipleship.

Fallible Followers

Certainly the disciples are chief among the followers of the Markan Jesus. And, equally certainly, the disciples are fallible followers. The reason for this portrayal is to be sought in the author’s approach to the reader, as both Robert Tannehill and Joanna Dewey have persuasively argued. According to Tannehill:

a reader will identify most easily and immediately with characters who seem to share the reader’s situation.… [The author] composed his story so as to make use of this initial tendency to identify with the disciples in order to speak indirectly to the reader through the disciples’ story. In doing so, he first reinforces the positive view of the disciples which he anticipates from his readers, thus strengthening the tendency to identify with them. Then he reveals the inadequacy of the disciples’ response to Jesus … [which] requires the reader to distance himself from them and their behavior. But something of the initial identification remains, for there are similarities between the problems of the disciples and problems which the first readers faced. This tension between identification and repulsion can lead the sensitive reader beyond a naively positive view of himself to self-criticism and repentance. The composition of Mark strongly suggests that the author, by the way in which he tells the disciples’ story, intended to awaken his readers to their failures as disciples and call them to repentance.

Dewey adds to this view by noting that the implied reader identifies both with the disciples and with Jesus: the implied reader’s situation is that of the disciples, but his or her values are those of Jesus; “both the disciples and the implied reader are to live according to the behavior demanded by Jesus.” The ups and downs of the Markan disciples, then, suggest the demands of discipleship. Followership is not easy.

Nor is followership exclusive. The disciples are not the only Markan characters who follow Jesus. Throughout the narrative, exceptional individuals believe in Jesus (Jairus, 5:22–24a, 35–43), follow Jesus (Bartimaeus, 10:46–52), agree with Jesus (one of the scribes, 12:28–34), recognize Jesus (centurion, 15:39), honor Jesus (Joseph of Arimathea, 15:42–46)—and thus exemplify to the reader, in at least one special action, what following Jesus entails. In his response to Jesus, the centurion is the exceptional soldier, Jairus the exceptional synagogue ruler, Joseph the exceptional council member, and the scribe who is “not far from the kingdom of God” (12:34; contrast 12:38–40) the exceptional scribe. Perhaps Bartimaeus, whose only group membership seems to be the crowd, is less exceptional in this sense.

The crowd, I have argued elsewhere, is portrayed in the Gospel of Mark—as the disciples are portrayed—in both positive and negative ways in relation to Jesus; and the crowd serves to complement the disciples in a composite portrait of the followers of Jesus. Jesus calls to himself both the disciples and the crowd (disciples: 1:16–20; 3:13–19; 6:7; 8:1, 34; 9:35; 10:42; 12:43; crowd: 7:14; 8:34). And both the disciples and the crowd follow Jesus (disciples: 1:18, 20; 6:1; 10:28; crowd: 2:15; 3:7; 5:24; 10:32?; 11:9). Jesus teaches and feeds both the disciples and the crowd (teaching disciples: esp. 8:31; 9:31; teaching crowd: esp. 2:13; 4:1–2; 6:34; 10:1; feeding disciples: 14:22–25; feeding crowd: 6:39, 41, 42; 8:2, 6)—and also heals the crowd (esp. 1:33–34; 3:10; 6:56). And both the disciples and the crowd are amazed or astonished at Jesus (disciples: 4:41; 6:50, 51; 9:6, 32; 10:24, 26, 32; crowd: 1:22, 27; 2:12; 5:15, 20; 6:2; 7:37; 9:15; 10:32?; 11:18). Again and again the crowd comes to Jesus, time after time the disciples go with Jesus spends more time with the disciples and asks more assistance from them—in teaching (3:14; 6:12, 30), healing (3:15; 6:7, 13), feeding (6:41; 8:6), and other tasks (1:17; 3:9, 14–15; 6:7, 37, 41, 45; 8:6; 11:1; 14:13, 32, 33–41). Yet the crowd crowds Jesus (2:4; 3:9, 20; 6:31), and the disciples misunderstand discipleship (e.g., 9:33–37, 38–41; 10:35–45). Although both the disciples and the crowd find themselves in opposition to Jewish leaders because they follow Jesus (disciples: 2:15–17, 18, 23–27; 7:1–13; 8:15; 9:14; crowd: 11:18, 32; 12:12; 14:2), in the end both abandon Jesus, who must then face the opposition of Jewish leaders alone (disciples: 14:10, 43, 50, 66–72; crowd: 14:43, 56?; 15:8, 11, 15). Both the disciples and the crowd are fallible followers.

The Gospel of Mark is not an allegory in which a group of characters in the story may be equated with a group of persons beyond the narrative. The disciples are equivalent to neither Mark’s supposed opponents nor Mark’s imagined readers. The Gospel of Mark, however, is metaphoric and imagistic, and the disciples and the crowd—especially taken together—do evoke a composite image of the followers, the fallible followers, of Jesus. Were only the disciples depicted as followers, the demands of discipleship would be clear, but discipleship might appear restrictive. Were only the crowd depicted as followers, the outreach entailed in following Jesus would be clear, but followership might appear permissive. With both disciples and the crowd depicted as fallible followers, the Markan narrative message is plain: discipleship is both open-ended and demanding; followership is neither exclusive nor easy.

Besides the disciples and the crowd in general and a handful of individuals (such as Jairus, Bartimaeus, and Joseph) in particular, are there other followers of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark? Are there other Markan characters whose actions and whose relations to Jesus present to the readers an image of followership? I believe the women of the Markan gospel are just such characters.

Women as Fallible Followers

Other commentators have suggested that the women characters of Mark are to be viewed as models of discipleship, but these suggestions are linked with views of the overall pattern of characterization in Mark that I find untenable. On the one hand, both Marla Schierling and John Schmitt posit that the women characters provide a positive model of discipleship over against the negative model presented by the twelve male disciples. On the other hand, Winsome Munro argues that, although a strong and positive image of women as disciples is alluded to or presupposed by the Markan text, the Markan author has suppressed this image as much as possible—its probable historical reality posing an insurmountable obstacle to its total suppression.11 Furthermore, Munro suggests, the Markan author’s “suppression” of a more positive image of women as disciples parallels his negative portrayal of the disciples (and the family of Jesus)—not as θεῖος ἀνέρ advocates à la Weeden, but as representatives of the Jerusalem church hierarchy à la Schreiber and Tyson. Thus, while Schierling and Schmitt and Munro disagree on whether or not Mark evidences a positive attitude toward the women characters, they agree that Mark depicts the disciples negatively. This latter view, I have suggested above, is a half-truth—with all the dangers thereof.

The entire Markan pattern of characterization is, I believe, more complex. The disciples are not simply the “bad guys”; and the women do not simply oppose them or parallel them. Rather, the women characters (along with the crowd and several exceptional male characters) supplement and complement the Markan portrayal of the disciples, together forming, as it were, a composite portrait of the fallible followers of Jesus. Thus, two questions will be central to our consideration of the women characters in Mark: (1) how do the women characters shed light on what it means to follow Jesus?, and (2) why are women characters especially appropriate for the role of illuminating followership?

A quantitative analysis of the Markan women characters establishes a useful baseline for comparing Mark with the other gospels. Winsome Munro enumerates the female and male characters in each of the gospel sources—”excluding genealogies, lists of authorities, undifferentiated groups, and characters in parabolic and other teaching material”—and concludes that Mark and John include about the same proportion of women characters (roughly one-fourth), while “L,” the material unique to Luke, features the greatest proportion (three-eights), and “M,” the material unique to Matthew, and “Q,” the material shared by Matthew and Luke, include the smallest—and nearly negligible—proportion. In addition, Munro notes that “more actual women appear in Markan material than in any other source, though this is to be expected since Mark contains more narration than any other.”

A quantitative analysis has its limits, of course; and a qualitative analysis of the passages enumerated is more essential to our understanding of them in their Markan context, as Munro recognizes. In her analysis Munro makes a distinction between the Markan women characters before 15:40 and those in 15:40–16:8. Although I do not agree with Munro’s conclusions, I share with her (and also with Schmitt) the desire to investigate a possible pattern in the Markan presentation of women characters.

Munro seems to underestimate the importance of the women characters prior to Mark 15:40, yet she is surely correct in observing that not all references to women characters are equally significant within the Markan narrative. Munro also correctly notes that “the anonymity and relative invisibility of women in Mark is due in part to the androcentric bias of his culture which viewed women only in terms of their relations to men, usually as their mothers, wives, or daughters, except in instances of extraordinary importance.” I would add that those women or girls who are visible in the Markan narrative as daughters, mothers, or mothers-in-law seem almost incidental to it.

The Markan Jesus heals the daughter of a Jewish father (5:22–24, 35–43), the daughter of a Gentile mother (7:24–30), and the mother-in-law of a disciple (1:30–31). The healings of females naturally suggest that Jesus did not limit his healing power to one sex; however, the two healed daughters contribute little else to the narrative. (The same cannot be said, of course, of the healed daughter’s mother, the Syrophoenician woman.) Upon being healed, Simon’s mother-in-law does contribute to the narrative and to Jesus and his first four disciples—in serving (διηκόνει, 1:31) them, although it is not clear at this early point in the narrative whether her service, her ministry, shares—and foreshadows—the theological connotations that the ministry of Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome manifests later διηκόνουν, 15:41).

The presence and action of Jesus’ mother (and brothers) elicits not a healing but an important saying from Jesus (3:31–35). In fact, Jesus’ mother and brothers seem to appear in the narrative—not by name (for which see 6:3) but as “mother” and “brothers”—for the sake of saying: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother” (3:35). It is generally argued that Jesus’ mother is implicitly included among οἱ παρʼ αὐτοῦ at 3:21, and that—since 3:21 and 3:31–35 frame the Beelzebul argument of Jesus and the scribes—Jesus’ family is linked with the scribes in misunderstanding Jesus. While this seems reasonable in a text so fond of framing and intercalation, Jesus’ mother is no more central to the action than Jesus’ brothers, and no more—or less—fleshed out as a character. Yet the saying elicited by the presence of Jesus’ mother and brothers is central to the breakdown of status criteria for followers of Jesus (family membership, selection as one of the twelve disciples, etc.) and the insistence upon action criteria (“whoever does …”).21 Women characters who are more involved in the Markan narrative than Jesus’ mother continue to be involved in this shift of criteria for followership.

Jesus’ mother Mary provides the occasion for Jesus’ designation of his family as “whoever does the will of God.” Two other Marys and Salome (15:40) observe the occasion on which Jesus most clearly embodies doing the will of God (see 14:36). Between the appearance of Jesus’ mother at 3:31–35 and the appearance of the women at the crucifixion at 15:40–41, two women characters are the beneficiaries of Jesus’ healing power (one for herself and one for her daughter) by virtue of their bold and active faith; and two women characters are examples of the self-denying service following Jesus entails. Furthermore, in each of the four cases the woman initiates the action in a striking way; Jesus responds or observes.

Bold and Faithful Women

The hemorrhaging woman emerges from the great crowd that followed Jesus (ὄχλος, 5:24, 27, 30, 31), giving evidence of the presence of women in the crowd, a presence generally “obscured by the androcentric nature of the language which uses masculine forms for common gender.” Yet by her emerging, the hemorrhaging woman distinguishes herself from the other women and men of the crowd; she is bold, for her faith is strong. The account of the hemorrhaging woman emerges from the account of Jairus and his daughter; the woman’s faith is a model for the faith Jairus will need. In addition, the intercalated healings of Jairus’s daughter and the hemorrhaging woman (both Jews) seem paired with the immediately prior healing of the Gerasene demoniac (a Gentile).23 All three are severe cases: the illnesses of the Gerasene and the woman have proven intractable (5:2–5, 25–26); Jairus’s daughter dies before Jesus arrives (5:35).

The healing of the hemorrhaging woman is unique in the Markan gospel, however, in taking place solely at the woman’s initiative (5:28–29). Jesus feels his flow of power that stops her flow of blood (5:30) and confirms what she has already experienced: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace …” (5:34; cf. 10:52, to Bartimaeus). As Schierling points out, the hemorrhaging woman has suffered as Jesus: “Only here and in relation to Jesus is the word ‘suffering’ [πάσχω, 5:26; 8:31; 9:12] ever mentioned.… Mark recognizes the suffering of this woman in society as similar to that which Jesus experienced before his death.” Moreover, the Markan Jesus brings an end to the hemorrhaging woman’s physical and social suffering with no reference to ritual “contamination” from her touch (see Lev 5:3); bold faith, not bodily purity, is a criterion of followership.

Bold faith characterizes the Syrophoenician woman as well. The hemorrhaging woman reasoned within herself that Jesus’ power was such that touching his garments would provide healing (5:28); she proved to be right. The Syrophoenician woman reasons with Jesus (metaphorically) that Gentiles can be served with no loss to Jews (7:28); the Markan Jesus decides that she too is right. The healings these daring women seek are dramatic: the healing of the hemorrhaging woman is the only Markan healing that occurs without the expressed intent of Jesus; the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter is the only Markan healing that occurs at a distance from Jesus. And, as the intercalated healings of Jairus’s daughter and the hemorrhaging woman are paired with the immediately preceding healing of the Gerasene demoniac, so the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter is paired with the immediately succeeding healing of the deaf mute in the Decapolis. Perhaps Luke was not the only evangelist to establish male/female pairings.

The focal point of the encounter between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, however, is the question of the scope of Jesus’ healing power: is it to be offered to Gentiles as well as Jews, to outsiders as well as insiders? Although at this point in the narrative the Markan Jesus has already healed the (Gentile) Gerasene demoniac, and although Jesus’ presence in the Gentile region of Tyre (7:24) undermines his statement that “it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (7:27), the Syrophoenician woman’s clever reply to Jesus’ saying is presented as convincing him to change his mind (7:29). The Syrophoenician woman, an outsider as a Gentile and an outsider as a woman, achieves her goal because of her “saying” (λόγος, 7:29), not because of her faith alone or her reasoning alone, but because of her speaking up and speaking out—because of her action.

Active faith characterizes both the Syrophoenician woman and the hemorrhaging woman and involves them both in the life-giving power manifest in Jesus. Active faith is a signal of followership (e.g., 11:22–24), life-giving power a sign (e.g., 10:29–31). Self-denying service is a further signal of followership (e.g., 8:34); a further sign is death-defying life (e.g., 8:35–37). Self-denying service characterizes both the poor widow and the anointing woman who appear near the close of the Markan Jesus’ death-defying life.

Self-Denying, Serving Women

The poor widow who gives away her last two coins does not encounter Jesus; Jesus observes her. And Jesus calls her action to the attention of his disciples as his final act in the temple. The Markan Jesus’ initial act in the temple was the driving out of those who bought and sold there (11:15–19), an account intercalated with the cursing and withering of the fig tree (11:12–14, 20–26). The episode of the poor widow’s gift might well be understood as an enacted parable parallel to the fig tree incident or parallel to the intercalated fig tree/temple incident as a whole. The fig tree episode introduces a series of controversies between Jesus and Jewish religious authorities in the temple; the account of the poor widow’s gift closes the series. As the withering of the fig tree alludes to the destruction of the temple cult and the temple itself (see chap. 13), so the widow’s gift of “her whole living” (ὅλον τὸν βίον αὐτῆς, 12:44) alludes to Jesus’ gift of his life (see chaps. 14–15). And Jesus’ death is related to the temple’s downfall (see 15:37–38).

The poor widow who gives all (12:41–44) is in striking contrast to the scribes who take all (12:38–40), who “devour widows’ houses” (12:40), that is, their means of living. From beginning to end Jesus’ ministry is in striking contrast to the scribes’ activities and attitudes (1:22; 2:6, 16; 3:22; 7:1, 5; 8:31; 9:11, 14; 10:33; 11:18, 27; [12:28, 32 refer to the exceptional scribe]; 12:35, 38; 14:1, 43, 53; 15:1, 31). Thus Jesus is unlike the self-centered scribes and like the self-denying widow in being one who gives. Addison Wright’s argument to the contrary seems more ingenious than convincing. Stressing the immediate context of the account of the widow’s gift (esp. 12:40 and 13:2), Wright concludes that one must

see Jesus’ attitude to the widow’s gift as a downright disapproval and not as an approbation. The story does not provide a pious contrast to the conduct of the scribes in the preceding section (as is the customary view); rather it provides a further illustration of the ills of official devotion.… She has been taught and encouraged by religious leaders to donate as she does, and Jesus condemns the value system that motivates her action, and he condemns the people who conditioned her to do it.

Wright correctly insists that we must not ignore the context of the account of the widow’s gift, yet that context includes the episode’s place in a whole series of events. As Jesus’ first action in the temple, the driving out of buyers and sellers, points to the temple’s end, so Jesus’ final action in the temple, or rather his reaction to the poor widow’s action, points to his own end. Moreover, the temple’s end and Jesus’ end are carefully interrelated in the Markan gospel, not only in the juxtaposition of Jesus’ death on the cross (15:37) and the rending of the temple curtain (15:38), but also in the intercalation (admittedly in the broadest sense) of the accounts of the passion of Jesus (chaps. 11–12, chaps. 14–16) and the passion of the community (chap. 13). The crises the community of Jesus’ future followers (Mark’s readers; see 13:14) will face are to be interpreted in light of the crises Jesus does face in Jerusalem.

Even though the frame and middle of this large-scale intercalation are to be interpreted together, one can skip from 12:44 to 14:1 with no noticeable gap in the story line. Chapter 13, the eschatological discourse, is intrusive. And the intrusion is framed by two stories about exemplary women in contrast to villainous men. Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes’ typical actions and his commendation of the poor widow’s exceptional action immediately precede chapter 13; the accounts of the chief priests’ and scribes’ plot against Jesus and the woman’s anointing of Jesus immediately succeed chapter 13. One woman gives what little she has, two copper coins; the other woman gives a great deal, ointment of pure nard worth 300 denarii; but each gift represents self-denial.

It is perhaps ironic that the poor widow’s gift occurs in the doomed temple; it is surely ironic that the anointing of Jesus Christ, Jesus Messiah, Jesus the anointed one, takes place not in the temple but in a leper’s house (14:3), and not at the hands of the high priest but at the hands of an unnamed woman. Munro considers “the seclusion of the home” simply the characteristic place of appearance of the women characters in Mark’s gospel, since for Mark “women do not seem properly to belong in the public ministry of Jesus.” This interpretation misses the irony of the anointing scene—and the significant connotation of the house as the place of gathering of Jesus’ followers as opposed to the synagogue and the temple.35 A further irony is manifest in the juxtaposition of the unnamed woman, who gives up money for Jesus and enters the house to honor him (14:3–9), and Judas, the man who gives up Jesus for money and leaves the house to betray him (14:10–11).

Whatever the woman’s reason for the bold yet gracious anointing she initiates, Jesus graciously accepts it as an anointing “beforehand for burying” (14:8). To this interpretation Jesus adds an equally significant comment: “And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (14:9, RSV). This woman’s gracious self-denial is forever linked with the good news of Jesus’ gracious self-denial. No other Markan character is given this distinction. Whoever would follow Jesus must deny himself or herself (8:34). The anointing woman, like the poor widow, embodies the self-denial of followership. The Markan Jesus presents the demand for self-denial in a striking statement (8:34); two Markan women characters enact the demand in equally striking actions. Thus their actions are to be followed by those who would follow Jesus’ words and follow Jesus.

Women as Followers from Beginning to End

At 15:40–41 we learn that not only do women characters exemplify (or even symbolize) followership, but women characters have been followers of Jesus throughout his ministry, from its beginning in Galilee to its end in Jerusalem. After Jesus’ death on the cross (15:37), after the rending of the temple curtain (15:38), after the centurion’s “confession” of Jesus as “Son of God” (15:39), the narrator informs the reader that “there were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome, who, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered to him; and also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem” (15:40–41, RSV). Although, in my view, Munro distinguishes too sharply between the Markan women characters prior to and subsequent to 15:40–41, she is surely right in observing a significant shift at this point. While there may be “little preparation for the women who appear at the death and burial of Jesus and at the empty tomb” in the sense of literal and straightforward narrative anticipation, the same cannot be said in terms of metaphorical and allusive narrative dimensions. Individual women characters have previously exhibited in particular actions the active faith and self-denying service of followership, but at 15:40–41 we learn that many women (πολλαί, 15:41), and especially three named women (Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome, 15:40), have continuously followed (ἠκολούθουν, 15:41) Jesus and ministered to (διηκόνουν, 15:41) him.

Munro argues persuasively and on several grounds that these women are to be identified as disciples: (1) the verb ἀκολουγέω (cf. 1:18; 2:14) “always denotes commitment to some degree and never mere physical following when it is applied to Jesus”; (2) the parallel verb διακονέω (cf. [and contrast?] 1:31; cf. 1:13; 10:45) must be related to Jesus’ saying at 10:45 where διακονέω is “of the essence of the messianic ministry in which disciples are called upon to participate—which is to say, it is of the essence of discipleship”; and especially (3) the pattern of “a nucleus of three within an inner circle or crowd”40 links the πολλαί with the disciples and Mary, Mary, and Salome with Peter, James, and John. Yet the fact that the narrator has delayed this reference to women as disciples until nearly the end of the gospel, together with “the overall invisibility of women in the Second Gospel,” suggests to Munro that “Mark is aware of a female presence in Jesus’ ministry but obscures it.”42 It suggests a different reading to me.

In terms of the narrative theory of Gérard Genette, 15:40–41 is a repeating analepsis, an “analepsis on paralipses,” that is, a retrospective section that fills in an earlier missing element (or paralipsis). The missing element that a repeating analepsis fills in, however, is “created not by the elision of a diachronic section but by the omission of one of the constituent elements of a situation in a period that the narrative does generally cover.”44 Something that happened earlier is told only later—and perhaps not to obscure but to clarify. That 15:40–41 appears to be the only repeating analepsis in the gospel increases its significance; its narrative role and content, however, are not without parallel. It is frequently argued that the Markan narrator delays the recognition of Jesus as “Son of God” by a human character (not the narrator [1:1] or unclean spirits [3:11]) until that moment when the true meaning of Jesus’ sonship can be understood—the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross (15:37, 39). Could it not also be argued that the Markan narrator delays explicit reference to the women disciples or followers until that moment when the true meaning of discipleship, followership, can be understood—again, the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross?

The effect of this delay with regard to women disciples/followers only is to compound the surprising reality of Jesus’ crucifixion with the surprising reality of the women’s discipleship. Within the Markan story, only the women follow Jesus to the end. At Gethsemane one of the twelve betrays Jesus (14:43–45) and the remaining eleven forsake him (14:50). The women, on the other hand, witness the crucifixion—though “from afar” (15:40–41)—and the empty tomb (16:1–8). Experience of the crucifixion and resurrection is central to followership. Again, it is frequently argued that the fact that it is a Roman centurion who recognizes the crucified Jesus as “Son of God” suggests the surprising openness of the Christian faith to the Gentile world. Could it not also be argued that the fact that it is the women disciples/followers who follow to the end suggests the surprising openness of Christian discipleship/followership to all people?

From the first-century Jewish and Jewish-Christian point of view, one could hardly be more of an outsider to the central dramas of religious faith and practice than a Roman centurion—or a woman! But the reversal of outsiders and insiders is basic to the good news of Jesus according to the good news of Mark. For example, being family (expected insider status) does not necessarily make one a follower (true insider status; see 3:31–35); instead, being a follower makes one family (see 10:28–31). And, for example, “many that are first will be last, and the last first” (10:31). In the first-century Jewish world, Roman centurions were surely among “the last”; and in the first-century Jewish, Christian, and Roman worlds, women were surely among “the last.” But “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1) is, according to Mark, the beginning of the end of that old order.

Munro sees Mark as so caught up in the old order that he suppresses—narratively—the discipleship of women that was part—historically—of the new order inaugurated by Jesus’ ministry and the early Christian response to it. By contrast, I find Mark’s gospel permeated—narratively—by the reversal of expectations—historically conditioned expectations. It would seem that the historical reality of women’s lower status and the historical reality of women’s discipleship50 together support in Mark’s gospel the surprising narrative reality of women characters who exemplify the demands of followership. How do the women characters shed light on on what it means to follow Jesus? By following and ministering, by bold and active faith and self-denying service. Why are women characters especially appropriate for the role of illuminating followership? Perhaps because in the community of the author women were in a position to bear most poignantly the message that among followers the “first will be last, and the last first.”

At 15:40–41 women characters are most clearly depicted as followers of Jesus. Many women follow even when the twelve disciples flee. I have argued that fleeing indicates that the disciples are fallible, not that they are non-followers. Are the women followers fallible as well? Certainly the fact that the women followers at Jesus’ crucifixion looked on “at a distance” (ἀπὸ μακρόθεν, 15:40) reminds the reader that upon Jesus’ arrest Peter followed “at a distance” (ἀπὸ μακρόθεν, 14:54). Presumably a stronger disciple or stronger followers would have drawn nearer to Jesus at these critical moments of trial and crucifixion. To be present at all is a mark of followership, but remaining “at a distance” is a mark of fallibility—for Peter and for the women.

After Jesus’ death only Joseph of Arimathea and Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome are present. When Joseph lays Jesus’ body in the tomb just before the sabbath, the two Marys are there to observe (15:47); and just after the sabbath the two Marys and Salome (16:1) go there to anoint Jesus’ body.53 Some interpreters fault the three women characters for this move; the women should have known, they argue, that Jesus would be resurrected, that Jesus’ anointing for burial had already taken place at the hands of the unnamed woman in the house of Simon the leper. But the Markan narrative makes no mention of the presence of the women followers at Simon the leper’s house and explicitly states that the predictions of Jesus’ passion and resurrection are presented to the disciples, the twelve (8:31; 9:31; 10:33–34; cf. 9:9; contrast Luke 24:5–8). Those at Simon the leper’s house do not understand the implications of the anointing (14:4–5; τινες at 14:4 is ambiguous), and the twelve do not understand the reference to the resurrection (9:32; cf. 9:10). It seems unlikely, then, that the Markan narrator and implied reader would expect the women followers to anticipate or understand the resurrection with no forewarning.

More often, however, the three women are faulted not for coming to the tomb with the intention of anointing Jesus’ body but for going out from the tomb in silence. Some interpreters emphasize that the women’s presence at the tomb at all is a positive sign of their followership in contrast to the disciples’ absence as a sign of their fallibility or failure. Yet other interpreters focus on the women’s silence—either as an element that seals the disciples’ failure (the disciples never hear the news)56 or as a parallel to the disciples’ fallibility (the women never tell the news). I find convincing David Catchpole’s argument concerning 16:8b. Based on the analysis of the redactional context of 16:8b (especially the silence) and of the textual parallels to fear in Mark, the Pauline corpus, and Jewish tradition, Catchpole concludes “that Mark 16:8b can be interpreted within an established and continuing tradition. The fear and silence of the women belong to the structure of epiphany.” Thus the women’s fear and silence are as much signs of the limits of humanity in the presence of divinity as signs of fallibility as followers in the usual sense. Yet the fear and silence are sure signs of distinction between the silent followers and the one they follow, and all followers are fallible in this sense.

Perhaps one’s initial impression is of a certain irony to the women’s silence: throughout the narrative Jesus asks various characters to be silent and they rarely are; here the young man who speaks for Jesus asks the women not to be silent and they are. But the closest Markan comparison with οὐδενὶ οὐδὲν εἶπαν at 16:8 is μηδενὶ μηδὲν εἴπῃς at 1:44, and the earlier passage may help clarify the later one. At 1:44 Jesus charges the healed leper to “say nothing to any one (μηδενὶ μηδὲν εἴπῃς); but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to the people” (RSV). Surely in showing himself to the priest the former leper would say something to the priest; the priest, however, would not be just any one, but the very one the leper was instructed to inform. At the close of Mark, the disciples and Peter are not just “any one,” but the very ones the women are instructed to tell. Thus οὐδενὶ οὐδὲν εἶπαν, like μεδενὶ μηδὲν εἴπης, may mean “said nothing to any one else” or “to any one in general.” Who but a disciple, a follower, of Jesus would be able to accept and understand the women’s story? And the story of Jesus’ resurrection, like the story of Jesus’ healing of the leper (1:45), does seem to have gotten out.

As Tannehill and Dewey have sought the reason for the mixed portrayal of the twelve disciples in the author’s approach to the reader, so I suggest that the significance of the women’s silence is to be found in the outward movement of the text from author to reader. It would appear that the narrator assumes that the hearer/reader assumes that the women did tell the disciples about the resurrection, because later someone surely told the narrator who now tells the hearer/reader! In addition, at the close of the Markan gospel the narrator’s story and that of his characters comes to an end—it reaches the point of silence, but the hearer/reader’s story is at a new beginning—it is the hearer/reader’s turn to speak now.61 The women characters follow Jesus after the disciples flee; the narrator tells Jesus’ story after the women’s silence; it remains for the hearer/reader to continue this line of followers.

Thus, although women characters are portrayed as followers in the Markan gospel, minimal emphasis is placed on their fallibility as followers in comparison with the crowd and especially the disciples. In interpreting this observation we do well to remember the tendency of the Markan gospel to overturn expectations. Apparently Mark’s implied reader expects disciples to be exemplary; their fallibility is surprising. The implied reader expects little from the crowd—and even less from women; their followership is surprising. Perhaps the Markan accenting of both the fallibility of the twelve male disciples and the followership of the women serves to counter the stereotyping of the followers and potential followers of Jesus. It would be a sad irony to respond to Mark’s refusal to absolutize the twelve as models of discipleship by absolutizing the women as disciples.

Women characters of Mark are “good” or “positive” because they are followers or exemplify followership—not because they are women. Women can be villains as well as heroes in the Gospel of Mark. Herodias instigates actions that result in the death of John the Baptist by using a person of lower status and authority than herself, her daughter, to influence a person of higher status and authority than herself, her husband, King Herod (6:17–29). Similarly the chief priests instigate actions that result in the death of Jesus by using the lower status crowd to influence the higher status Pilate (15:6–15). In an additional parallel of male and female opponents of Jesus, the high priest’s maid twice questions Peter (14:66–72) as the high priest twice questions Jesus (14:53–65), marking Peter’s denial in the courtyard as an ironic transformation of Jesus’ trial in the house. The high priest and the chief priests are the archenemies of the Markan Jesus, and two women characters function in comparable roles in relation to John the Baptist who comes before Jesus and Peter who follows after him.

Thus not all women in Mark are followers of Jesus, just as not all followers of Jesus in Mark are women. Women characters are not as numerous as men in Mark, nor are their names as frequently given, but their connotative value, like that of the men, is determined not by their sex or their numbers but their relation to Jesus and their actions—either toward Jesus himself or in light of Jesus’ demands for followership. No one is excluded from followership; no one is protected from fallibility.

The Markan portrait of fallible followers is a composite one; it includes the disciples, the crowd, women, certain exceptional individuals like Bartimaeus and Joseph of Arimathea, whoever takes up his or her cross, whoever does the will of God. Only by such a composite and complex image of followers is the author of the Markan gospel able to communicate clearly and powerfully to the reader the twofold message: anyone can be a follower, no one finds it easy.


My observations about women and men in the Gospel of Mark have been literary. But one might well ask: what are the implications of these literary observations for historical reconstructions of the relations of Christian women and men in the first century and for ethical guidelines for Christian women and men in the twentieth century? How is one to relate the Markan narrative to early church history and to contemporary church policy? Weeden, for example, interprets the Markan disciples of Jesus as representatives of the historical opponents of Mark, and Munro understands the Markan women followers in a similar way. An increasing number of articles and books for laity suggest correlations between Jesus’ relation to women and men as portrayed in Mark and other biblical texts and appropriate responses of churchwomen and men today.

And yet, even though both the relation of the Markan narrative to early Christianity and its relation to contemporary Christianity represent valid movements outward from the text, neither is given directly and unambiguously within the text. A danger common to movement outward in either temporal direction is allegorization of the Markan text in terms of something beyond the text: equating, for example, the disciples (and/or the women) with the opponents of Mark’s church, or the women followers of Jesus with ordained clergywomen. Without doubt the Gospel of Mark is not simply a literal narrative; it moves and means by metaphors, but it is not an allegory. By its internal subtlety and complexity the text defies fragmentation and resists allegorization. Women and men, disciples and crowds, all contribute to the development of a composite and complex image of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. The women characters themselves are presented in an interwoven pattern that resists reduction to “what the women stand for.” Perhaps the complex relations of characters within the text should prepare us for the complex relations of the text to realities beyond it.66 Perhaps Markan fallible followers have something to say to Markan historians and hermeneuts: interpretation, like followership, is never easy, and never perfect, and never ending.

Tradition and Convention in the Book of Judith

Toni Craven

Brite Divinity School

Texas Christian University


Comparison and contrast of Judith, Esther, and Ruth highlight women as participants in the hermeneutical process of maintaining tradition through acts which both continue and change past beliefs and practices of the covenant community. Of these three women, Judith merits special attention. As theologian and hermeneut, she challenges the theological posture of the religious establishment. Both Part I (chaps. 1–7) and Part II (chaps. 8–16) of the Book of Judith contain elements found in laments. Comparison of Judith’s mode of complaint with that of her community points to the shallow beliefs espoused by the officials of Bethulia and the radical faithfulness of the woman Judith. In her, Israel finds a model of faith that allows permanent access to right fear of the Lord. Though she rejects the traditional roles of wife and mother, and often behaves in unconventional ways, Judith’s work conserves tradition and preserves the faith community.

In an article entitled “Life, Faith, and the Emergence of Tradition” Walter Harrelson maintains that continuity and change are the hallmarks of the traditions of Israel. He posits that each generation shapes tradition in ways appropriate to its own experience: “Tradition does not remain fixed; it grows.”2 Thus, women and men in ancient Israel preserved, challenged, and appropriated the religious beliefs and practices of their society.

Among those who radically reinterpreted traditions, forcing certain conventions to give way, are Ruth, Esther, and Judith. They are the only women whose names are titles of biblical books. Canonical status indicates that the community accepted their stories as valid, authoritative interpretations of the covenant relationship. Comparison of the stories illuminates the participation of these women in the hermeneutical process of continuity and change, as well as highlights the singular contribution of Judith.

Canonical Counterparts

As skillfully constructed short stories, the tales of Ruth, Esther, and Judith are remarkably similar. The plot of each moves from tragedy to triumph through the resolute acts of the female character.6 No miracles or promises from God assure success for the women. They are victorious because they use well the human resources available to them. In a situation of famine and death, Ruth heeds the advice of her mother-in-law Naomi about securing a spouse and a home (Ruth 3:1–5). With annihilation threatening the Jewish people, Esther brings about the downfall of their enemy by persuading the Persian king to act according to her desires (Esth 5:1–7:10). When the Israelites are about to surrender to the Assyrians, Judith delivers her community by first beheading the enemy general and then leading a military counteroffensive (Judith 8–13). Each of these females is subject, not object, of her own story.

The societal hierarchies in these stories, however, are male dominated. Independence and decision-making belong to men. For example, in Ruth, the elders of Bethlehem decide the future of Naomi and Ruth (4:1–12). In Esther, men have the king decree that women of the Persian empire must honor and obey them (1:15–22). In the opening chapters of Judith, men in Jerusalem and Bethulia control all political and religious offices and make all decisions. Without question, Ruth, Esther, and Judith are stories of “women in a man’s world.”

Nonetheless, within this patriarchal milieu, the three women emerge as independent, making their own decisions and initiating actions in unconventional ways. When widowed, Ruth rejects Naomi’s instruction that she return to her own family (1:8); but at the time of the barley harvest, she accepts her mother-in-law’s advice that she “uncover the feet” of Boaz and propose to him (3:6–9). Both Ruth and Naomi act in ways which radically defy traditional standards of patriarchy. Esther’s behavior is also irregular. As a candidate for the Persian king’s harem, she obeys Mordecai’s charge that she keep her Jewish identity secret (2:20); but as queen, she refuses his first request that she entreat King Ahasuerus to forbid the destruction of the Jews (4:8–11). Eventually, Esther does agree to go unbidden before the king, but she declares that such an act is unlawful and may cause her to perish (4:16). Although Judith punctiliously obeys religious regulations, fasting only when the law allows (8:6) and eating and drinking only ritually pure food even when in the enemy camp (12:2–4, 19), she rejects male authority as absolute. When Uzziah tells her to pray for rain, she responds by upbraiding his lack of faith, urging him and the other officials of Bethulia to listen to her voice (8:32; cf. 8:11). She decides for herself that she will go against the enemy with a planned deceit that culminates in an assassination (Judith 9–13). Unconventional conduct is not only permitted these women, but it is approved because through their acts tradition is being served.

Theological motives lie behind the telling of each story. Even though God is not mentioned in the Hebrew text of Esther, the narrative is a rescue story in which a woman mediates continued freedom for the covenant people. The feast of Purim, which develops out of this story (9:1–28), celebrates God’s deliverance of the Jews. Hence by extension, the story functions theologically. In Ruth, the narrator and the community more explicitly credit God with a causative role as the one who blesses and curses in hidden ways. For instance, though God does not appear personally, Naomi charges that the Almighty is the one who has caused her grief (2:13, 20–21), and the narrator acknowledges God as granting conception to Ruth (4:13). The women of Bethlehem make the startling declaration that the Lord has restored the fortunes of Naomi by giving her a daughter-in-law whose love is of greater value than seven sons (4:14–15). In Judith, too, God is presented as the one behind the scene who gives and takes away blessing. This story is a contest between rivals who champion the causes of opposing gods. Holofernes claims Nebuchadnezzar as the one to whom allegiance is owed; Judith defends Yahweh as the protector of Israel. The covenant people must decide which God better gives and takes away life. Thus the whole book addresses the question of the identity of the true God for Israel. In sum, then, explicit theological concerns are peripheral in Esther, hidden in Ruth, but central in Judith.

Comparison of Ruth, Esther, and Judith shows tradition undergoing modification in similar ways through reinterpretation. Each story is a vehicle for change. But whereas alteration of theological understanding occurs as a byproduct of the stories of Ruth and Esther, it is a primary objective in the book of Judith. This woman unequivocally declares the theology of the establishment invalid. Like Ruth, Judith knows a God who acts in hidden ways; unlike Ruth, she speaks openly and directly about this God. Like Esther, Judith uses her sexuality to her own advantage; but unlike Esther, Judith preserves her purity while still winning the favor of those whom she wishes to beguile.12 Of all women in scripture, Judith alone says that theological misrepresentations cannot be tolerated. Thus the particularities of her story merit further attention.

Narrative Counterpoints

The Book of Judith is a narrative about faith lost and found by a people sorely tested. Judith herself does not appear nor is she even mentioned until the second half of the story. The book, which is sixteen chapters long in its Greek version, is structured in two parts. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Assyria, governs the actions of Part I (chaps. 1–7); Judith, a widow of Bethulia, leads the way in Part II (chaps. 8–16). In a story whose details are fanciful overlays of geographical and historical data, a contest is struck to prove who is the true God, the true Lord of all the earth. The contest is played out in a life or death situation in which Holofernes, who is leading punitive forces against the nations that refused to aid Nebuchadnezzar in battle, claims that his king is the sovereign God (3:8; 6:2). Israel, one of the nations attacked by Holofernes, is ready to surrender when Judith appears and risks her life and reputation by making the counter-claim that Yahweh is the one, true God (cf. 8:20). Part I narrates the military aggression of the Assyrian enemy and Israel’s near submission to their rule and claim that Nebuchadnezzar is God. Part II records Judith’s triumph over the Assyrian enemy and the consequent transformation of the fear which paralyzed the covenant community. Together, Parts I and II disclose what is involved in knowing the covenant God, Yahweh.

Literary artistry and theological concerns work together in the book of Judith to produce a finely crafted narrative which checks the human tendency to bind the purposes of God. The entire first half of the book builds sympathy for the frightened people of Israel who cry passionately to a God who seems to have failed them. Despite numerous prayers and pious acts, the covenant people are dying of thirst as Part I ends. They know only terror and the feeling of abandonment. These seven chapters prompt the consideration: What more or what else could the people of Israel have done? When Judith appears in Part II, she unhesitatingly assumes control of the situation and the story.15 She knows no agony or doubt as she chastises the leaders of Bethulia and then destroys the enemies of Israel. Her heroism and triumph prompt the consideration: Why did God grant her such success, and how did Judith know what to do?

Traditional practice would suggest it fitting for the Israelites and Judith to take their distressful situation before God. Models abound in psalms and narratives for the community or one of its members to protest oppression and call God to action. Such models of lament regularly contain elements of (1) an address to God, (2) a complaint, (3) a petition, (4) an expression of trust, (5) a word of assurance, and (6) a vow.17 In both Parts I and II, these components appear as first the community and then Judith act out laments to God. Examination of the laments, element by element, illuminates the turns at which the practices of the community do not measure up to those of Judith.

Lament components appear in Part I as follows:

Address to God

The covenant people appear for the first time in the narrative in chap. 4. This entire section is given over to public acts which draw God’s attention to the plight of the temples of their neighboring nations, the Jerusalem high priest, Joakim, orders the Israelites to seize all the passes which lead to their hilltop towns. Then in a public ceremony, all in Israel cry out to God with great fervor, fast, put ashes on their heads, and cover everything with sackcloth. The text records that “the Lord heard their prayers and looked upon their affliction” (4:13). As the situation worsens, the people repeat their cries to the Lord (6:18–19, 21; 7:19, 29).


In Part I, the complaint is first expressed as concern for Jerusalem and the temple (4:2). But as the enemy approaches, the terrified Israelites say to one another: “These men will now lick up the face of the whole land; neither the high mountains nor the deep ravines nor the hills will bear their weight” (7:4). As thirst overcomes the Israelites, their courage fails, their self-interest becomes central, and they complain: “We have no one to help us; God has sold us into their hands” (7:25). Thus a complaint which first identified the Assyrians as the enemy shifts as the crisis becomes acute to identify God as the one who does terrible things to Israel (7:28).


At first, the request is simply that the “Lord look with favor upon the whole house of Israel” (4:15). When the people believe that Yahweh is on their side, they ask that God take pity on them because of the arrogance of their enemies (4:12; 6:19). But when the covenant people lose heart, their petition changes to a request for surrender. Believing that God has sold them into the hands of the enemy to be slaughtered, they decide that capture by the Assyrians is preferable to death (7:23–28).

Expression of Trust

Nowhere in Part I do the people of Israel express trust in their God. Neither explicit words of trust nor passages recounting God’s past deeds of protection appear. The closest the narrative comes to expressing trust in Yahweh is the half-hearted statement of Uzziah that God “will not forsake us utterly” (7:30c).

Word of Assurance

In Part I, this element takes the form of the compromise proposed by Uzziah that the covenant people allow God five more days to deliver them before surrendering to the Assyrians (7:30–31). That the people are not comforted is evident in their reaction of great depression (7:32).


The only promise made in Part I is the five day postponement of surrender which Uzziah pledges (7:30–31). He agrees that if in five days God has not come to the help of the people of Israel, then he will hand over the town of Bethulia to the enemy.

In sum, then, as a lament Part I is sadly lacking. Ironically, the public actions which the people perform to get God’s attention are successful; God does hear their prayer and does see their affliction (4:13). But because God does not act in the way which the people desire, they turn against the very one whose protection earlier they begged in their complaint and petition. Trust is entirely wanting, and the word of assurance offered by the community leaders is hollow and empty. The vow is surely not a promise to praise God, but rather an ultimatum to coerce the deity’s action.

False guilt seems to have brought about confusion for the people of Israel. When they ask the town leaders to surrender their city because they fear God wills them evil, the people say that God is punishing them according to their sins and the sins of their fathers (7:28). The officials make no attempt to dissuade them from this interpretation of the Assyrian’s apparent success. The leaders, too, are disoriented by crisis. Their faith, as well as that of the people, is found wanting when tested. Insufficient, indeed, is their trust in God.

Judith now enters the story as theologian and hermeneut. Before she addresses God, she has her maid summon Uzziah, Chabris, and Charmis to her house. She soundly upbraids them for promising to surrender the city. In the first section (8:11–17) of a long speech to the town officials, she declares that what they have done is wrong. She charges that they have exceeded their authority by “putting God to the test” (8:12). She insists that they, who are unable to plumb the depths of the human heart, are surely unable to search out the ways of God. She argues that God has the power to protect or to destroy (8:15). Judith defends God’s freedom, saying:

Do not try to bind the purposes of the Lord our God;

for God is not like a man to be threatened,

nor like a human being to be won over by pleading.


The Assyrians had threatened the covenant people with a great display of military might; the Israelites had pleaded with God by numerous acts of penitence. And now the town officials have failed to understand that faith means “waiting for deliverance” (8:17), not coercing God.

In the second section of her speech (8:18–27), Judith reminds the officials that since their generation has not sinned by knowing other gods, they have every reason to hope that God will not disdain them (8:18–20). She points out that capture would mean the desecration and plunder of the sanctuary (8:21) and that slavery would mean dishonor (8:23). Therefore, she urges the officials to set an example for the towns-people (8:24). She argues that they are being tested (8:25), just as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were tested (8:26).

Judith is convinced that to God alone belongs the right to test. She calls for a reversal in the thinking of officials who have put God to the test with their five day plan. But they do not understand her words. Still looking for a miracle, Uzziah responds by asking her to pray for rain (8:31)! Ignoring his request, she tells the officials to meet her at the town gate that night. Though she does not explain exactly what she plans, she does claim that within the days in which they have said that they would hand over the town the Lord will look with favor on Israel in an act accomplished through her hand (8:33). The officials bless her and take their leave (8:35). At this point in Part II the components of a lament appear, but in striking contrast to their use in Part I.

Address to God

Alone, Judith turns to God and begins a lengthy prayer which occupies the whole of chap. 9. Using ashes and sackcloth and crying out in a loud voice, she implores God to listen to her, a widow (9:4). Again before the gate of Bethulia is opened for Judith and her maid to leave for the Assyrian camp, she will raise her voice to God (10:8). And when with the enemy general, she describes herself as one who is “religious and serves the God of heaven day and night” (11:17). She claims prophetic fore-knowledge, explaining to him that she needs to go outside the camp each night to pray so that God can tell her when the time is right for Holofernes to attack the Israelites (11:18–19). Thus her habit of prayer provides the ruse which permits her escape from the enemy camp. When she has chopped off the general’s head, she simply walks out of the camp. Holofernes’s attendant assumes that she has gone out to pray as usual (13:3).

Words addressed to God appear on Judith’s lips at literally every turn in the narrative. She prays twice before killing Holofernes (13:4b–5, 7b); she praises God as she asks the Bethulians to open the gate upon her return to the town (13:11); and she leads a triumphant prayer of thanksgiving to God at the conclusion of the narrative, in which she and the people of Israel address a new song to the Lord who crushes wars (16:1–17). In addition to all these explicit words of address to God, the narrative states that Judith had been involved with private devotions for the three years and four months of her widowhood (8:4–8). At the end of the story, she returns to this solitude, living as a woman accustomed to prayer and strict religious observance until her death at 105 years of age (16:23).


Judith’s complaint is not with God, but rather with the town officials who have struck the compromise with the people of Bethulia, postponing surrender for five days. She has told the officials that what they have said is not right (8:11b). They have put themselves in the place of God, and their promise to surrender may mean the destruction of the sanctuary itself (8:21). Judith defends both God’s freedom and the people’s innocence as she laments the actions of the town officials (see 8:11–34).


In her opening prayers (chap. 9), Judith asks three things of the Lord: (1) that God hear her widow’s prayer (9:4), (2) that God break the strength of the Assyrians (9:8), and (3) that God give to her, a widow, the strength to crush the arrogance of the Assyrians by the deceit of her lips (9:10). She desires these things so that the whole nation and every tribe will know that Yahweh is the God of all power and might and that there is none other who protects Israel (9:14). Vulnerability does not concern Judith for the power of her God does not depend upon numbers or strength; Yahweh is the “God of the lowly, helper of the oppressed, upholder of the weak, protector of the forlorn, savior of those without hope” (9:11). She closes her requests with a repeated entreaty that God hear her prayer and make her “word and deceit for the wound and bruise of those who have purposed hard things” against Israel (9:13). As Judith readies to chop off Holofernes head, she once again asks God to look on the work of her hand and grant her strength (13:4b–5, 7b).

Expression of Trust

Unlike the community of Israel, nowhere does Judith express anything except complete trust in God. She says explicitly that to God alone belongs the right to protect or destroy (8:15). Implicit in her every action is the conviction that God will hear her voice and the voice of her people, if God so pleases (cf. 8:17). Because her trust does not depend on visible results, she is more optimistic than the townspeople who despair and Uzziah who grows faint-hearted when the situation worsens. She unreservedly argues that since neither she nor the people know other gods their hope is that Yahweh will not disdain them (8:20).

Word of Assurance

Because Judith’s trust is so complete, all of her actions in the narrative function to convince the covenant people that faithfulness is the proper way of life for them. She says to Uzziah, Chabris, and Charmis that the lives of the people depend on the kind of example they set for them (8:24). The rightness of her assurance is made clear in her triumph. When she returns to Bethulia after beheading the enemy, she cries to those who open the gate that God is still with the covenant people, that God’s strength has vanquished the enemy (13:11b). She sweeps the people into her prayer of praise as she ecstatically declares that God has not withdrawn mercy from the house of Israel but has destroyed their enemy by her hand (13:14). She is an examplary model of faith, and in her the covenant people are loosed from their fears. Their cowardice and desire for surrender are transformed by her triumph. As Achior the Ammonite is converted to Judaism on her account (14:10), so too are the covenant people converted to right fear of the Lord. Uzziah says to Judith, “Your hope will never depart from human hearts, as they remember the power of God” (13:19). In Judith, all have come to the assured knowledge that the one “who fears the Lord shall be great for ever” (16:16b).


The success of Judith’s promise that God would deliver the people by her hand before the five days of compromise had passed is celebrated in a triumphant liturgical procession which she leads to Jerusalem. Her song in chap. 16 is now not only her own. Shifts from first person narration to third person description of her deeds indicate that other voices have joined Judith’s. She and her community feast in Jerusalem before the sanctuary for three months (16:20). Judith and the people give back to God all the spoils of the great victory which the Almighty has won for them through the hand of the woman Judith.

Thus in Part II, God grants the prayer of a pious, wealthy widow and brings down the arrogance of the enemy of the covenant people. To this woman who trusts wholly in the Lord is granted triumph such as the armies and leaders of Israel were unable to achieve. Because Judith did not hold the covenant relationship a guarantee to victory, she did not despair when God seemed to have given the people over to slaughter. Because she believed in a God whose success did not depend on might, she was free to act according to a plan of her own making. Clearly, Judith understood lament more authentically than did her community. Trust, not manipulative demands, marks her faith.

Work Suited to the Female Charism

At the close of the book, the text records that many desired to marry Judith; yet she remained a widow all the days of her life (16:22). Her fame increased, and she grew old alone with her favorite maid. Before her death, she distributed her wealth and freed the faithful woman who had accompanied her to the enemy camp (16:23–24). The story concludes, “No one ever again spread terror among the people of Israel in the days of Judith, of for a long time after her death” (16:25).

For a total of only sixty-four days does Judith publically participate in a battle which has raged for close to seven years (cf. 1:1, 13; 2:1, 21; 7:20). Since most of her life is devoted to private religious observances, the community finds in her not a permanent leader, but rather a model of how to acquire permanent freedom. She embodies the ancient truth that by vocation the covenant people are freed to choose life if they rely wholly on their God.

Judith works to conserve traditions as old as the Exodus. By her own example, she makes the covenant community of her narrative world mindful that they must serve only one God, turn to this God for an easing of their plight, and trust God to free them from bondage. She communicates these fundamental truths through actions which shatter narrow orthodoxy. It is indeed exceptional in ancient Israel that a woman chop off a man’s head, lie for the sake of her people and the sanctuary of their God, upbraid the theological posture of community leaders, delegate the management of her household to another woman, and refuse to marry. Yet the high priest and senators of the holy city itself say of this woman:

You are the exaltation of Jerusalem, you are the great glory of Israel, you are the great pride of our people! By your hand you have done all this; you have done a great deed for Israel, and God is well pleased with it. May you be for ever blessed in the eyes of the Lord! (15:9b–10a)

If Judith had believed that status and gender excluded her from responsibility for the community, then she would have allowed the town officials to surrender Bethulia. Had she not understood that authentic lament requires unquestioning trust, then the religious heritage of Israel might have ceased. Because this servant of the Lord was convinced that God upholds all, she was free to say to the men who governed Bethulia: “Let us show an example to our people, for their lives depend on us, and the sanctuary and the temple and the altar rest upon us” (8:24). Faith makes this childless woman a mother to Israel and a model of true freedom.

Judith and her canonical sisters Esther and Ruth conserve ancient religious truths and preserve the life of the covenant community in ways suitable to their times. Each woman does her own kind of work in a man’s wor ld. In Ruth and Judith, women bind together for mutual support. Ruth has the counsel of Naomi; Judith has the help of her favorite maid. In Esther and Judith, political concerns motivate sexual involvements. Esther wins the favor of Ahasuerus as the most pleasing maiden in the Persian empire; Judith dares much with Holofernes as a daughter of Israel feigning escape. Ruth, Esther, and Judith teach that certain conventions may be forced to give way so that tradition can be faithfully preserved. No unalterable set of prescriptions regarding appropriate female behavior forbids their participation in the process of modifying tradition. And no small debt is owed these women of scripture for their part in the hermeneutical process of continuity and change.

“You Shall Let Every Daughter Live”: a Study of Exodus 1:8–2:10

J. Cheryl Exum

Boston College


Exodus begins with a focus on women. This study of Exod 1:8–2:10 investigates the portrayal of women in the story of events surrounding the birth of Moses. Exod 1:8–2:10 tells of three unsuccessful attempts of pharaoh to stem the growth of the chosen people, two of these are stories of defiance on the part of women (1:15–22; 1:22–2:10). The subtle disobedience of the midwives is followed by the open defiance of Moses’ mother and the pharaoh’s own daughter. The midwives’ fear of God, the resourcefulness of Moses’ mother, the quick-thinking of his sister, and the compassion of an Egyptian princess all work together to overcome the evil designs of the king of Egypt. In the refusal of women to cooperate with oppression, the liberation of Israel from Eguptian bondage has its beginnings.

“Every son that is born you shall expose on the Nile, but every daughter you shall let live” (Exod 1:22). With these words, an Egyptian pharaoh hoped to check the uncanny growth of the Hebrews. P. Trible remarks that had Pharaoh anticipated the effectiveness of women in thwarting this decree, he might better have commanded that all female infants be killed.2 The present study seeks to illuminate the role of women in Exod 1:8–2:10 the story of events surrounding the birth of Moses. It investigates the narrative in its present form on the premise that an understanding of its literary contours will aid us in perceiving its meaning. Analyses which divide the material between the pentateuchal sources, J, E, and P, and discussions of the growth of the tradition are available in the commentaries, and is not my intention to delve into these matters here. There are, to be sure, logical inconsistencies and tensions in the narrative which bear witness to a long and complicated process of development. As they meet us in the narrative now, however, they contribute to its richness, its irony, and its humor, and as in the case of Moses’ sister, who appears suddenly out of nowhere, they surprise us by giving the story a new direction. The present analysis likewise does not endeavor to elucidate the historical background of the narrative. The value of the early chapters of Exodus for historical reconstructions is a much debated issue, and one about which I am highly skeptical. I am interested rather in the Israelite view of events which finds expression in Exodus 1 and 2.

Discussion of women in Exod 1:8–2:10 requires consideration of their place within the total configuration of the narrative—a narrative which does not become a woman’s story until 1:15, and, even then, has as its goal the birth of a son who will become the leader of his people. Though space does not permit an adequate analysis of it, we must keep in mind as well the larger context, Exod 1:1–2:25, the prologue proper to the exodus. As the book of Exodus opens, part of the promise to the patriarchs has been fulfilled (Israel has become a great nation), and interest is aroused concerning that part of the promise which has yet to reach consummation (that Israel will possess the land of Canaan). The prologue has three parts: (1) Exod 1:1–7 points back to Gen 46:8–27; 47:27; and 50:22–26, and provides the transition from the patriarchal period; (2) Exod 1:8–2:10 sets forth the problem of Egyptian oppression and recounts the birth of the hero, Moses, who will be instrumental in its resolution; and (3) Exod 2:11–25 deals with events which occur later, when Moses is an adult. Exod 1:8–2:10 is thus the centerpiece of the prologue. It is set off from its surrounding context by temporal notices, each of which accomplishes a major time transition in a single verse: “there arose a new king” (1:8) places us suddenly in a new era only minimally prepared for in v 6 by the death of the old generation; “when Moses had grown up” (2:11) takes us from Moses as a child (ילד, נער) to Moses as a young man (אישׁ)

Exodus 1:8–2:10, the center of the prologue and our primary concern here, displays a pattern of organization of two parts with three movements. The two parts deal with a threat to the Hebrews as a people (1:8–22) and a threat to one particular Hebrew, Moses (2:1–10). The three movements (1:8–14; 1:15–21; 1:22–2:10) correspond to three solutions of pharaoh to the problem of Israelite proliferation. Verse 22 functions as the end of the first part and as the beginning of the third movement, producing an overlapping structure. The command, “every son that is born you shall expose on the Nile, but every daughter you shall let live,” rounds off the story of the midwives and forms an inclusion with v 16, “if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she may live.” At the same time that it closes the preceding unit, v 22 opens the following unit by providing the necessary introduction to the birth account. Not only does it contribute the setting (the Nile), but without it, the story of Moses’ exposure would make no sense. Let us consider first the configuration of the parts, then the movements.

The two parts begin in a similar narrative fashion: summary statements set the stage by describing events which will have momentous consequences.

There arose a new king over Egypt who did not know Joseph. (1:8)

A man from the house of Levi went and took (as a wife) the daughter of Levi. (2:1)

Neither the new king of 1:8 nor the man of 2:1 is identified. Though they stand at the beginning of the action, it is not their actions but rather the actions of women which will constitute the narrative’s primary concern. Indeed, the man of 2:1 disappears immediately from the story. The situation described in 1:8 will lead to Egyptian oppression of the Israelites, 1:8–14, and an attempt to check the ever-increasing Hebrew population through the murder of male babies, 1:15–22. The notice of 2:1 introduces the birth story in which the child’s rescue defies the new pharaoh’s command to kill male babies. Here the daughter of the pharaoh appears as a counterfoil to her oppressive father. Whereas the oppression theme introduced in 1:8–14 is not resolved until later in the book of Exodus, when the Israelites actually leave Egypt, interestingly, the theme of Egyptian attempts to check Israelite increase is never really resolved. By the time we reach the goal of the narrative, the birth of Moses, the problem of Israelite proliferation is all but forgotten. Having provided the backdrop for the birth account of Moses, the theme of pharaoh’s attempt to counter Israelite proliferation drops from the remainder of the exodus account.

The dominant theme of 1:1–2:10 is the growth of the Hebrew population, in accord with the blessing of Gen 1:28 (“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the land and subdue it …”; cf. 9:1, 7) and the promise of numerous descendents to the patriarchs (Gen 17:4–8; 35:11–12 et passim). The theme finds expression in part one of our story in the motif of the multiplication of the people, already prepared for by the introduction, v 7, “And the Israelites were fruitful and increased greatly and multiplied and became very, very strong, and the land was filled with them.” In v 9 the pharaoh recognizes this incredible expansion and captures it picturesquely, if not hyperbolically, in his outcry, “Look, the Israelite people is greater and stronger than we are!” Then, “lest they multiply” (v 10), he schemes to limit their growth through affliction and hard labor. However, “the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied,” (v 12). A second plan, involving the cooperation of the midwives, is likewise unsuccessful, and “the people multiplied and became very strong,” (v 20). The second part of our story, 2:1–10, contains a variation of the multiplication motif. It shows the increase of the people by one, who, though only one, is the most important of all.

The theme of proliferation is sounded again in the strategically placed references to sons and daughters: sons (בן) and daughters (בת) determine the course of events. The term בן appears throughout the story within an increasingly narrow frame of reference and delineates the structural units. The phrase בני ישׁראל (literally, “sons of Israel”) forms an inclusion around the introduction, 1:1–7. Its appearance in v 1 with reference to the twelve sons of Jacob and in v 7 to all the Israelites achieves a skillful transition from the story of Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 37–50) to the present situation of the Israelites in Egypt. In 1:8–14 בני ישׁראל refers to Israelites as a people (עם), whom pharaoh fears precisely for the reason that they have become a people (v 9). In vv 15–22 the semantic range of בן is limited to male babies. tb appears for the first time in 1:16, and together the pair בן / בת forms an inclusion which marks off the story of the midwives’ defiance (v 16 and v 22). In 2:1–10 the focus narrows as far as possible, with בן referring to one particular child, Moses. Here, too, we have an inclusion formed by the pair בן / בת: the story begins with the birth of a son (בן) to the daughter (בת) of Levi (v 2), and ends with his becoming a son (בן) to the daughter (בת) of pharoah (v 10). By means of this narrowing of focus, the text turns our attention away from the multitude with which it began (“the sons of Israel were fruitful … and the land was filled with them”) and directs it to the one who will play an instrumental role in attaining the freedom of Yhwh’s “first-born son” (4:22), Israel. But before this famous son takes center stage, his story yields, as we shall see, to a story of daughters.

Turning to the three movements of the story, we find the narrative flow dictated by three attempts of pharaoh to stem the growth of Israel. The attempt accounts follow a pattern of increasing concentration, as pharaoh repeatedly undertakes a course of action, only to have it meet with failure at each turn. In two of the three cases his failure results from disobedience on the part of women. We shall begin with an overview of the pattern, after which we shall investigate more closely each of the attempt stories, with a view, in particular, toward illuminating the portrayals of women.

The following outline summarizes the pattern’s distinctive features.




Response of those addressed


Exod 1:8–14

Pharaoh speaks to hispeople

deal wisely

obedience (affliction, service)

Hebrews increase

Exod 1:15–21

Pharaoh speaks to midwives

kill male babies; let females live


Hebrews increase

Exod 1:22–2:10

Pharoah commands all his people

kill male babies; let females live

disobedience (on the part of Moses’ mother, pharoah’s daughter)

the future leader of the Hebrews is spared

A directive of pharaoh introduces each attempt account. In 1: (8) 9–14 pharaoh speaks to his people. His solution to the Israelite problem is to deal wisely with them, and this “wise dealing” takes the form of affliction and hard service. As a result, the opposite of what he expected occurs: the Hebrews increase (v 12). Next, 1:15–21, pharaoh speaks to the midwives. His solution is to kill male babies, but again the result is the same: the Hebrews increase, v 20. In the first case, the directive was carried out by the people, but the solution was unsuccessful. In the second case, the directive was not carried out, and the effectiveness of the solution was thus not adequately tested. Consequently, in the third attempt account, 1:22–2:10, pharaoh tries the same solution (the murder of male babies), but turns again to the people to carry out his plan. Now the solution is overt, whereas in the case of the midwives it had been covert; and this time the verb is stronger: he no longer simply speaks (אמר), he commands (ויצן, v 22).

The story has gone full circle, from the pharaoh speaking to the people, to the midwives, and again to the people. The situation, however, is by no means the same, and pharaoh, though still issuing directives, yields to women his role as the moving force behind events (we should assume also the hidden activity of God). Pharaoh determined the action in 1:8–14. He spoke; his people obeyed. In 1:15–21 the midwives determine the action. Pharaoh speaks, but so do the midwives. They share the stage and, in fact, engage in dialogue in which they have the last word. In 1:22–2:10 pharaoh gives the directive, but thereafter a mother, a sister, and a daughter determine the course of events, and pharaoh does not appear again in the story. This increasing concentration on women invites us to consider the significance of the fact that ancient Israelite storytellers gave women a crucial role in the initial stages of the major event in the nation’s history.

The First Solution: 1:8–14

The first attempt to deal with the problem of Israelite proliferation sets the tone for the rest of the chapter. Pharaoh is portrayed humorously, his speech is ironic, his solution not wise, and the very thing he seeks to prevent (“lest they multiply … and go up from the land”) will come to pass. As pharaoh describes the situation, Israel already has the advantage: they are “more numerous and stronger” than the Egyptians. A frightful scenario looms in pharaoh’s mind: in the event of war Israel might fight against Egypt and “go up from the land,” a phrase which the biblical tradition characteristically uses for the exodus. We have, therefore, in these words a foreshadowing of the exodus event, and, ironically, the first person to consider such an idea is the pharaoh of Egypt!

Pharaoh proposes to “deal wisely” with the Israelites. Commentators have traditionally pointed out logical inconsistencies in the problem and the solution of vv 8–14. Overpopulation is a problem, yet the pharaoh is afraid the Israelites will leave. He wants to check the population growth, yet the fact that he puts the people to work on his building projects suggests that he needs them as slave labor. Explanation of the incongruity is often sought in source critical theories, but as the story now stands, the absurdity of the solution is only one example of the folly of pharaoh’s wisdom. It is seen again (vv 15–22) in the decision to kill male babies, a solution which neither alleviates the present problem nor represents the logical way to control overpopulation, which would be to kill females.

Following the voicing of the problem by pharaoh, the Egyptians undertake the solution. It takes two forms, affliction (vv 11–12) and service (vv 13–14). These two variations on the oppression theme are separated by the notice about Israelite increase and the statement that the Egyptians are in dread before Israel (v 12). Set off and surrounded by reports of the hardships the Egyptians inflict upon the Israelites, v 12 stands out as witness both to the futility of Egyptian measures against the chosen people and to the evil effects of oppression on the oppressors themselves. Affliction and service fail to solve the overpopulation problem, and again Pharaoh speaks. This time he relies on two women to implement his plan, Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives to the Hebrews.

The Second Solution: 1:15–(21) 22

The scope narrows. Attention centers on two women who give life in a double sense: by profession they are midwives, and through their action they defy the death edict of pharaoh. The midwives let the boys live (חיה, vv 17, 18). When asked for an explanation, they reply that Hebrew women are חיות. Although the precise meaning of this word is not certain, the context makes clear that it refers to the ease with which the women bring life into the world. Even baby females are associated with life, not death, for they are singled out to be spared from the death edict, “if it is a daughter, she may live” (חיה, v 16); “every daughter you shall let live” (חיה, v 22).

The story begins by introducing the characters: the king of Egypt, Shiphrah (whose name means something like “beauty”), and Puah (“girl”).12 In a narrative which shows virtually no concern for names (pharaoh, pharaoh’s daughter, Moses’ mother and father and sister remain unidentified), the names of these two women are recorded, thus assuring that they will be remembered throughout generations for their important contribution. The only other name which appears in Exod 1:8–2:10 is that of Moses. Moses delivers the Israelites in one way; the midwives, in another. Not only do they save countless Hebrew babies (because of them the people increase, v 20), but perhaps Moses, too, owes his life to them.

The two midwives appear two times before the king of Egypt. Beggining with their second audience, the major themes of the account occur in reverse order.


Vv 15–16


Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, of whom the name of one was Shiphrah and the name of the second was Puah,


“When you serve the Hebrew women as midwife, and see the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, she may live.”


V 17


But the midwives feared God,


and they did not do (עשׂו) as the king of Egypt commanded (דבר) them, but let the male infants live.


Vv 18–19


So the king of Egypt called the midwives, and said to them,


“Why have you done (עשׂיתן) this thing (הדבר) and let the male infants live”?


The midwives said to Pharaoh,


“Because (בי) the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for (בי) they are vigorous; before the midwife comes to them they are delivered.”


Vv 20–21


So God dealt well with the midwives, and the people


increased and grew very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he made (ויעשׂ) them houses.


V 22


Then Pharaoh commanded all his people,


Every son that is born you shall expose on the Nile, but every daughter you shall let live.”

The outer members of the chiasmus (A and A’) portray pharaoh as the source of death; the inner members (C and C’) focus on the midwives as the source of life. Between them stands the fear of God—as a motivating factor (B) and as an attitude of faith which reaps its reward (B’). Themes C’ and B’ appear in conjunction with other elements, the midwives’ clever response to pharaoh and the action of the deity, both of which stand out in the story since they appear without counterparts in v 17 (themes B and C).

A and A’. Pharaoh issues his decree of death first to the midwives (A, v 16) and, when this covert method proves unsuccessful, to all his people (A’, v 22). verse 15 confronts us with one of the most nettling ambiguities of the text. Does pharaoh speak to the Hebrew midwives or to the midwives of the Hebrews? In other words, are the midwives Hebrew or Egyptian? Whereas the Masoretes construed the word “Hebrew” as an adjective, the consonantal text is ambiguous. The Septuagint and the Vulgate read, “the midwives of the Hebrews.” No amount of scholarly ingenuity has been spared in marshalling evidence for one side or the other. The names Shiphrah and Puah are Semitic, but this fact does not constitute a conclusive argument. It has been maintained that pharaoh would not have trusted Hebrew women to carry out his command; on the other hand, reliance on Hebrew women might be taken as another example of pharaoh’s lack of wisdom, which he demonstrates with remarkable consistency.18 Whether or not Egyptian midwives would have been accepted by the Hebrew women or Hebrew midwives by the Egyptians (v 19), or whether the retort of v 19 would make more sense in the mouth of Egyptians or Hebrews remain moot issues. The ancient listener may have known what we cannot now recover with certainty. Our present inability to be specific enables us to emphasize larger possibilities of meaning. If Hebrew, the midwives, like Moses later, are deliverers of their own people. In that case it is important to note that their reason for defiance is “fear of God,” and not simply their loyalty to their people. If Egyptian, their fear of God leads them to defy their pharaoh, considered divine by the Egyptians. Thus the midwives would belong together with the daughter of pharaoh as examples of “righteous gentiles” who follow the dictates of conscience and compassion rather than the mandate of a despot. In its very ambiguity, the text moves beyond nationalistic concerns to bear witness to the power of faith to transcend ethnic boundaries.

After the midwives defy the command to kill male babies and spare females (A, v 16), pharaoh issues the directive again, this time to “all his people” (A’, v 22). The command is varied to fit the situation, “Every son born you shall expose on the Nile, but every daughter you shall let live.” Exposure was in ancient times a common means of disposing of unwanted children. We should understand “every son born to the Hebrews” here; the phrase is witnessed by the versions (SP, LXX, T, TJ). Its omission in the Hebrew text produces the humorous result that, in his anxiousness to include “all” (בל: “all his people,” “every son,” “every daughter”), the pharaoh forgets the most important thing of all, to exclude Egyptian male infants.

B and B’. The text provides only one motivation for the midwives’ defiance. Nothing is said of loyalty to the Hebrews or of anticipation of a reward from God. Indeed, their fear of God leads them to take a considerable risk. To “fear God” does not mean simply to be afraid of God or God’s punishment; it is, on the contrary, a far broader theological concept, having at its center the element of mysterium tremendum and extending to conduct which is guided by basic ethical principles and in harmony with God’s will. We may recall from Proverbs that “the fear of Yhwh is the beginning of knowledge” (1:7), and that “in the fear of Yhwh is strong confidence, and for one’s children it will be a refuge” (14:26). If the midwives are Hebrew, S. Plath’s observation that “fear of God” prevents interference with God’s promise of numerous descendents to the patriarchs seems especially fitting, as it connects the midwives’ motive with the proliferation theme which plays so large a part in the narrative. On the other hand, fear of God is not the exclusive prerogative of the Israelites (Gen 20:11; 42:18; cf. Deut 25:18). It may be that the narrative attributes fear of God to the Egyptian midwives just as it later attributes to the Egyptian princess a knowledge of Hebrew. If so, the text again scores an ironic point against the Egyptians: their own midwives fear God (that is, the God of Israel) and not pharaoh (the god of Egypt).

The proper theological attitude receives a divine blessing. verses 20–21 record the only action of God in Exod 1:8–2:10. Unfortunately, the sense of these verses is not altogether clear. The text reads literally,

20    So God dealt well with the midwives and the people increased (sing., but pl. in SP, SAL, TJ) and grew very strong (pl.).

21    And because the midwives feared God, he made them (masc. pl.) houses.

The house refers to progeny, a blessing traditionally conferred upon men (Exod 1:1; 20:17; 1 Sam 25:28; 2 Sam 7:11; 1 Kgs 2:24; Rachel and Leah are credited with building up the house of Israel, Ruth 4:11). A problem arises with regard to the second verb in v 21 and the antecedent of “them.” The Septuagint reads the verbs of v 21 as plural, “they made for themselves houses.” Most interpreters take the reference in v 21 to God’s bounty toward the midwives; God gives them a reward which corresponds to their deed. In spite of the difficulty of the pronouns, it is clear that the growth of the Hebrew people has been made possible by the midwives. The proliferation theme which we met in vv 7, 9, 10 and 12 appears again in v 20, and the reference in v 21 to houses presents us with another variation of it (as well as a pun on בת, “daughter”).

C and C’. In C and C’ the midwives appear as givers of life; they “let the male infants live,” (vv 17 and 18). Defiance takes the form of noncompliance: they did not do (עשׂו) as the king of Egypt commanded (דבר). Pharaoh’s response sets their deed (הדבר) in sharp contrast to his command (דבר) as a direct action against him, “Why have you done עשׂיתן this thing הדבר?” He does not ask out of curiosity; his words take the form of an accusation found in juridical contexts. The midwives face a serious charge. They respond with a defense which would strain the gullibility of any pharaoh, and they manage at the same time to poke fun at Egyptian women: unlike Egyptian women, Hebrew women are vigorous and give birth before the midwife arrives. Frustrated a second time in his effort to control Hebrew increase, the pharaoh once again (v 22) turns to his people, who had earlier cooperated in his plan (vv 8–14).

The Third Solution: 1:22–2:10

Exodus 1:22 provides the introduction to this account. It sets the scene for the main action, the Nile, and presents the background against which the mother’s unusual behavior in 2:2–3 becomes comprehensible. Moreover, since pharaoh addresses “all his people,” the introduction makes unmistakably clear that pharaoh’s daughter knowingly acts in defiance of her father’s order.

Irony pervades the account. The pharaoh’s last recorded words (he dies, 2:23, without having uttered another) are “every daughter you shall let live,” and immediately (2:1) the story introduces a daughter of Levi and soon thereafter (v 5) the daughter of pharaoh himself, both of whom undermine the success of pharaoh’s plan. Their actions relate ironically to pharaoh’s decree. At first glance, Moses’ mother seems to be following the command of expose male infants upon the Nile. Is she being a model subject (or even more, since “all his people,” v 22, appears to mean only the Egyptians)? Or is she, like the midwives, ostensibly obeying pharaoh while in reality defying him? Whereas pharaoh had commanded that boys be exposed on the Nile (1:22), Moses’ mother places him there (2:3). Her ותשֹם stands in contrast to pharaoh’s תשׁליבהו as an indication of the care she lavishes on her child—this is no exposure story. The irony reaches its zenith in the action of pharaoh’s daughter, who does precisely the opposite of pharaoh’s command: she takes the baby out of the Nile (מן המים משׁיתהו).

Many women appear in this tale, all without names, but variously identified: Moses’ mother (בת, אשׁה, אשׁה מינקת, אם), his sister (אחתו, עלמה), the daughter of pharaoh (בת פרעה), and her maids (נערתיה, אמתה). Men are strikingly absent (Moses’ father disappears from the story after v 1) or passive (Moses cries, v 6, and grows up, v 10; otherwise he is the object of the actions of women). It is a women’s story in so far as their action determines its direction. But while narrative attention focuses on the activity of women, their attention centers on Moses. Referred to as a בן, a ילד, and a נער, at the end of the story he is given a name. Thereafter he becomes the central character of the exodus. An inherent narrative irony presents itself; without Moses there would be no story, but without the initiative of these women, there would be no Moses!

The speech and action of women shape the contours of the story. Moses’ mother acts but, interestingly, does not speak. In contrast, his sister and pharaoh’s daughter both act and speak. The story begins with a detailed account of the action of one woman, a daughter of Levi (vv 2–3). A small but significant role is assigned to Moses’ sister (v 4). Next we hear of considerable activity on the part of yet another woman, the daughter of pharaoh (vv 5–6), followed by the vital speech of the sister (v 7). Though she has little action and only one speech, the sister is crucial to the development of the story. She has the critical linking role between the two daughters (vv 4, 7). Once all three women are involved, narrative attention moves quickly back and forth between them (vv 7–10), until finally an unnamed daughter gives our hero his identity: “she called his name Moses.”

Vv 2–3. Moses’ mother, called here simply “the woman,” is the subject of a series of verbs (Moses is the object). The first two deal with procreation (she conceived and bore a son); the next two, with her response to the child she bears (she saw how goodly he was and hid him three months). A negative situation is introduced: she is able to hide him no longer. Her reaction takes the form of increased activity: she takes a papyrus ark, “bitumens” it with bitumen and pitch, places the child in it, and places it in the reeds along the edge of the Nile. All this activity on her part underscores the mother’s concern for her child and her resourcefulness in caring for him. Amid her activity, the text affords us little psychological insight, and I should not wish to contribute to scholarly speculation on this point. Whether she acts “eher aus Verzweiflung als aus Berechnung,” whether she knows the habit of pharaoh’s daughter to bathe in the Nile or simply hopes for a miracle to save her child29 are details which the text does not reveal. What it does reveal is her determination to act rather than to leave things to fate (the deity), and we might note as well that she proceeds without the counsel or assistance of her husband.

Her decision to prepare for her child a תבת גמא has significant associations, for the only other appearance of the word תבה in the Bible refers to Noah’s ark (Genesis 6–9). Commentators have not failed to note the connection and draw a parallel between Noah and Moses as deliverers who are rescued from death by drowning; a further parallel may be drawn between Noah who builds the ark that saves humanity and Moses’ mother who builds the ark that saves the future deliverer of Israel. The mother prepares the ark with care: she “bitumened it with bitumen and pitch,” v 3. The verb חמר is a hapax legomenon. The noun appears only here and in Gen 11:3 and 14:10. A related word, הֹמֶר, “clay, mortar,” is used in 1:14, with reference to the kind of work done by the Hebrews. What for them is associated with toil is for her a labor of love. She places the ark with the baby in it among the reeds. One can scarcely miss here an allusion to the famous deliverance at the Sea of Reeds and thus find a hint of Moses’ approaching rescue.

v 4. Out of nowhere, a sister appears. The text had not mentioned her before, and indeed v 2 gives the impression that Moses was his parents’ first child. Whereas her appearance comes as a surprise, her presence is essential: it is she who “joins the introductory theme of the mother and child with that of the princess and child. Moreover, the sister tempers the harshness of the exposure by keeping watch at a distance.” She stations herself nearby “to learn what would happen to him.” Matters are now in the hands of the deity.

Vv 5–6. As if by design, pharaoh’s daughter comes down to bathe in the Nile. Since her maids are walking beside the Nile, she, and not they, sees the ark among the reeds. A series of actions is attributed to her: she goes down to bathe in the river, she sees the ark among the reeds, she sends her maid to fetch it, she opens it and sees the child. Observing his tears, she has compassion. Surmising the situation, she says, “This is one of the Hebrew’s children.” The detailed attention to her activity recalls the elaborate consideration given to the preparations of Moses’ mother in vv 2–3. Her words which culminate her actions are all important. They show that she knowingly ignores her father’s command when she accepts the suggestion, soon to be proffered by Moses’ sister, to keep the child as her own.

Vv 7–10. Without hesitation the infant’s sister addresses the royal bather. Her daring proposal, ostensibly offered as a helpful suggestion, affords in fact the perfect solution to her brother’s plight: “Shall I go and call for you a nurse from the Hebrews to nurse this child for you?” By suggesting a nurse from the Hebrews, she prepares the way for the reunion of mother and child. Her careful phrasing, “shall I call for you … to nurse for you the child,” provides the idea that the princess keep the infant, and the repetition of “for you” creates the impression that she makes the proposal for the sake of the princess. By virtue of her quick-thinking and persuasive recommendation (the text says nothing about mother and sister having worked out a plan beforehand, though some commentators are inclined to think so), the sister deserves as much credit for saving Moses as her mother or the princess.

The princess accepts the suggestion as readily as it was offered (“go,” v 8), and the young woman goes to get the child’s mother. Two actions of the sister (keeping watch, v 4, and fetching the mother, v 8) and her single speech determine her brother’s future. Having made her inestimable contribution to the story, she drops out of the picture. With a propitious outcome assured, events draw quickly to a close. In offering to pay wages to the child’s mother (v 9), the princess makes an important addition to the sister’s proposal. Whereas many commentators have pointed out the irony of Moses’ mother being paid to nurse her own son, there may be even more to the idea than this. B. Childs presents evidence from extra-biblical sources which suggest that paying wages to a wet nurse may be a way of attesting the right of possession to a child. If this be the case, the princess accentuates (note the emphatic אני) what the sister had only intimated: she claims the child as her own, taking upon herself responsibility for its welfare.

The response of the mother in v 9, like that of the sister in v 8, is reported as simple action without discourse. Nothing more is necessary to indicate their accord with the princess’s requests. Verse 10 summarily reports the growth of the child and the fact that his mother brought him to pharaoh’s daughter. This event probably occurred sometime after the weaning, which usually took place about three years after birth. In what appears to be some form of adoption, the child “became a son” to the princess. Thus secured from any further attempts of pharaoh to deal with the Hebrew population problem, the future liberator grows up in the house of the oppressor.

The story ends with the naming of the child by the princess, another sign perhaps of her claim to the child. Customarily the mother named the child; here the unusual fact that Moses was not named at birth by his mother may be attributed to narrative necessity. “She named him Moses” (משׁה). Scholars are generally agreed that the name Moses is Egyptian, belonging to the same type as Thutmoses, Ahmoses, and Ramoses, but lacking the theophorous element (the god X is born or has borne him). But the text has the princess explain it with a Hebrew etymology, “I drew him (משׁיתהי) out of the water.” M. Noth is of the opinion that the Egyptian origin of the name was unknown to the Hebrew storyteller, who, otherwise, would have used it. This conclusion does not leave room for the possibility that the storyteller wanted to give an alternative etymology to the Egyptian one. “Es ist nicht daran zu rütteln, dass die Tora den Namen als einen hebräischen verstanden wissen will.…” The verb משׁה means “to draw out”; מֹשֶׁה is the active participle, “the drawer out.” Commentators point out that for the princess’s explanation, “for I drew him out of the water,” to fit, the name should be מֶשׁוּי, “the one drawn out.” That the aetiology be etymologically precise is neither necessary (this is seldom the case in the Bible) nor desirable (the irony which results from the allusion to Moses’ role in the exodus can scarcely be missed). Since one’s name and personality are intimately connected, to give a name is, in a sense, to chart a destiny. In a way, then, the princess contributes to the exodus not only by saving Moses’ life, but also by designating him “the drawer out.”

J. S. Ackerman takes a different view of the naming and in fact of the portrayal of the princess altogether. He believes that the story makes fun of the princess’s inadequate command of Hebrew: she means to give a name which designates Moses as passive recipient but ironically bestows upon him an active name. Ackerman’s contention that “there is all the difference in the world between the clever Hebrew midwives and the dumb Egyptian princess”42 is based on his assumption that the princess is unwittingly controlled by the clever sister. He takes her one word response to the sister’s proposal (“go”) as a sign of “supreme authority, a brusque manner in dealing with underlings, and perhaps some relief in having the problem so quickly resolved.” While he makes so much of her simple response, Ackerman has little to say about her compassion, suggesting only that its source may be the same power which hardens pharaoh’s heart. But surely due emphasis should be given to the princess’s reaction upon viewing the weeping child. The root חמל means “to spare,” “to have pity,” “to have compassion.” Lack of compassion is contemptible. Incensed upon hearing Nathan’s story of the poor man and his ewe lamb, David condemns the rich man precisely “because he had no compassion,” (2 Sam 12:6). Just as the midwives’ fear of God provides the explanation of their conduct, so the princess’s compassion furnishes the motivation for hers. She is not duped but simply prompted by the sister’s recommendation. Her acceptance of it is made possible by her compassion, without which it is unlikely that any amount of persuasion on the part of the sister would have accomplished the desired result. Note that compassion and recognition are linked: “She had compassion on him, and she said, ‘This is one of the Hebrews’ children,’ ” (v 6). B. Jacob has observed that the remarkable thing is not that, upon seeing the crying infant, she had compassion, but that she had compassion for a Hebrew child. She knows that in rescuing the child she is openly defying her father’s decree. Such flagrant disobedience on the part of a daughter is certainly no small matter. Moreover, she follows the sister’s proposal to its logical conclusion by taking upon herself responsibility for the child.

With regard to the naming of Moses, Ackerman’s thesis that the narrative ridicules the princess’s inability to handle Hebrew encounters difficulties. If one insists on a scientific etymology, then on the basis of numerous examples (Cain, Noah, Abraham, Samuel, to name a few), one might conclude that the Hebrews could not speak their own language very well. Even Moses names his son with an etymologically inappropriate explanation (2:22).

The paralleling of characters in the story seems to me to offer an additional narrative clue in favor of a positive view of the Egyptian princess. At two points the narrative pace slows to describe in detail the actions of women, the daughter of Levi and the daughter of pharaoh. The attention they give to the child is comparable, and in fact some of the same terms are used (ראח, לקח). By the end of the story, the two daughters have something more in common—a son. Thus I follow the majority of commentators, ancient and modern, in viewing pharaoh’s daughter as an example of the “righteous gentile.” She recognizes the child as Hebrew, saves him from the Nile in spite of her father’s decree, determines to keep him, and even hires a Hebrew woman to nurse him. She gives her Hebrew “son” a Hebrew name, one, in fact, which promises great things for him. Her compassion transcends ethnic distinctions. Appropriately, such distinctions are also set aside as Israelite tradition recounts her important contribution to the nation’s history.

Concluding Observations

Pharaoh’s three attempts to influence the course of history fail. First (1:8–14) the Israelites continue to increase in the face of oppression, a result which can only be attributed to behind-the-scenes activity of the deity. Next (1:15–22 and 1:22–2:10) women prevent the realization of pharaoh’s plan. God acts through women to free the chosen people. Women—at least one of whom is non-Israelite—are credited with the preservation both of the nation and of its greatest leader. In contrast to pharaoh’s people, who act en masse to carry out his will (1:8–14), women respond as individuals who act according to dictates of conscience and compassion. Their stories (1:15–22; 1:22–2:10) are stories of defiance. The defiance of the midwives is subtle: they act by choosing not to act in accordance with pharaoh’s edict. That of Moses’ mother and pharaoh’s daughter is open: in direct opposition to pharaoh’s command, they save the child Moses from death by exposure on the Nile. All the women knowingly take positions over against the king of Egypt: all make choices for life, and not death. They do not appear to think of the consequences their disobedience might have for themselves. Fear of God, which takes precedence over allegiance to pharaoh, motivates the midwives. Pharaoh’s daughter is moved by compassion, an emotion which extends to a people despised by her father and dreaded by her people. The midwives’ fear of God, the princess’s compassion, the resourcefulness of Moses’ mother, and the quick-thinking of his sister, all work together to overcome the evil designs of the king of Egypt. In the refusal of women to cooperate with oppression, the liberation of Israel from Egyptian bondage has its beginnings.

The prologue to the exodus (Exod 1:1–2:25) ends with a story about Moses. The repetition of the word “man” (אישׁ) eight times in this account alerts us to its male-centered emphasis. Now Moses, who himself had been rescued by daughters, rescues daughters. Moses, who had been given a name symbolic of his destiny by pharaoh’s daughter, now gives a name, symbolic of his status as a sojourner, to his son. While these reversals remind us of the patriarchal context of our narrative, they do not supersede what has gone before. Even here, it is through daughters that Moses finds a home, albeit a temporary one.

What are we to make of the considerable role given to women in the prelude to the exodus? To say that the story shows that God uses the weak and lowly to overcome the strong is to give only a partial answer. The question is not why does a story of daughters form the prelude to the exodus, but rather: what effect do these stories about women have on the way we read the exodus story as a whole? Exodus begins with a focus on women. Their actions determine the outcome. From its highly positive portrayals of women to its testimony that the courage of women is the beginning of liberation, Exod 1:8–2:10 presents the interpreter with powerful themes to draw on: women as defiers of oppression, women as givers of life, women as wise and resourceful in situations where a discerning mind and keen practical judgment are essential for a propitious outcome (the midwives’ response to pharaoh, 1:19; the sister’s suggestion to pharaoh’s daughter, 2:7). But this is only the beginning.

We should not stop with the prologue. It remains for future study to shed further light on the role of women in the remainder of the exodus account; Miriam, in particular, deserves careful attention for her role as leader along with Moses and Aaron (cf. Mic 6:4 which places her on equal footing with them). At least once more in the story a foreign woman, the resourceful Zipporah, intervenes to save Moses’ life (Exod 4:24–26). As the exodus account continues, Moses, as well as the deity, takes on female attributes, providing for the people on their journey from Egypt to Canaan (see especially Num 11:11–14 for explicit feminine metaphors). Reassessment of our traditional assumptions about women’s roles in the biblical story is in order. The present study has sought to provide some contribution to this task.

Luke 9:28–36: The Beginning of an Exodus

Sharon H. Ringe

Methodist Theological School in Ohio


The Lukan account of Jesus’ transfiguration is the basis for an example of the practice of feminist interpretation of scripture. Following an introduction in which some issues of feminist hermeneutics are identified, there is a detailed exegesis of Luke 9:28–36. Implications of the christological points found in the passage are then briefly explored in the context of larger issues of Lukan christology. Finally, there is a response to the passage from the perspective of feminist liberation theology.


The stories of Jesus’ transfiguration found in the synoptic gospels seem an unlikely place to engage in the practice of or reflection on feminist hermeneutics. At best, these stories appear to be neutral with respect to women’s concerns. They are clearly christological in focus and do not reflect upon the sort of human interaction in which one usually finds issues of human dignity and wholeness brought to the fore.

A closer look at the transfiguration accounts suggests that, far from being neutral, these stories are yet another example of the androcentric bias of first-century Palestinian society which has in turn found its way into the theological perspectives of the biblical texts. The christological focus is on a male savior, who takes aside three men from among his followers for a special revelation. These four men are joined by Moses and Elijah, two male figures from Israel’s religious past, and together they hear a voice which authenticates Jesus as Son of God. Read from this point of view, the transfiguration stories reinforce a less-than-benign neglect of women’s roles in the religious life of the communities counting these texts as scripture.

An even closer look at the accounts reveals that, similar as they are, there are nonetheless differences among them. Luke’s account in particular introduces a detail which opens up this pericope to interpretations from the perspective of the agenda of liberation. That detail is Luke’s introduction of a reference to Jesus’ ἔξοδος to be completed or fulfilled in Jerusalem. This verbal link, substantiated by details of Sinai imagery in the account as a whole, leads us at the very moment of christological confession into traditions about the Exodus, the paradigmatic event of Israel’s liberation.

Luke’s version of the transfiguration, therefore, becomes of particular interest to theologians of liberation, whatever our points of entry into the struggle for human liberation. Whether our engagement on behalf of liberation grows out of an awareness of oppression based on race, sex, class, or some other condition of human life, we find ourselves on certain common ground here. We are led to ask what it means to us in our struggles that Luke presents Jesus, this one we confess as the Christ, the Chosen One of God, as also one engaged on an Exodus, a journey from enslavement into freedom, from an alien land into a promised home.

This study pursues that discussion under the following headings:

1.    Exegesis of Luke 9:28–36 (par. Matt 17:1–8 and Mark 9:2–8)

2.    Implications for Lukan Christology

3.    Response from a Feminist Theological Perspective

Exegesis of Luke 9:28–36 (par. Matt 17:1–8 and Mark 9:2–8)

The Lukan transfiguration narrative is close to that of Mark in both content and immediate context. The latter can be seen from the following outline of the pericopes following Luke’s “great ommission” of Mark 6:45–8:26 and preceding Luke’s so-called “travel narrative” (9:51–18:14):





The Confession at Caesarea Philippi and the First Prediction of the Passion




The Conditions of Discipleship




The Transfiguration




The Coming of Elijah



An Epileptic Boy Healed




The Second Prediction of the Passion




(The Temple Tax




The Dispute about Greatness




The Strange Exorcist



Luke’s account of the transfiguration itself differs from Mark’s only in the following details:

a.    Luke places the event eight days after the preceding one, whereas Mark places it only six days after;

b.    Jesus’ purpose in ascending the mountain is specified by Luke as “to pray”;

c.    Luke does not use the verb to speak of what happened to Jesus, but speaks rather of a change in his face τὸ ἔιδος τοῦ προσώπου αὐτοῦ ἕτερον, Luke 9:29);

d.    Luke provides a much fuller description of the two heavenly figures, of their message, and of the experience of the disciples (vv 30–33a);

e.    In Mark, Peter calls Jesus ῾ραββί, whereas in Luke he calls him ἐπιστάτα;

f.    The fear of the disciples is mentioned at different points in the story;

g.    The voice from the cloud calls Jesus ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός in Mark 9:7 and ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἐκλελεγμένος in Luke 9:35.

The foregoing observations make clear Luke’s dependence on the Markan account (if one assumes, as I do, Markan priority), but they leave unresolved the question of whether Luke drew also on other sources. Luke’s own editorial hand could easily account for the introduction of the theme of prayer and for the different term of address to Jesus (ἐπιστάτα being a term found only in Luke among the synoptic writers, and there several times, e.g., 5:5; 8:24, 45; 9:33, 49; 17:13). Luke himself might also have omitted the verb μεταμορφόω, with its suggestion of pagan mythology which might have troubled Luke’s largely Gentle audience, in favor of a more vivid description of Jesus’ changed appearance recalling the description of Moses in Exod 34:29–35, a tradition which finds additional echoes in this pericope as well. In the final analysis, however, it is impossible to determine with certainty to what extent these variations are due to Luke’s own literary artistry and to what extent they have been drawn from other sources (oral or written) available to him. In any event, a study of the meaning of the account of the transfiguration for Luke involves a three-fold task of examining first the Markan tradition on which Luke apparently drew, then the specific variations in the Lukan account, and finally the larger Lukan context of the pericope.

An important factor in understanding the transfiguration account is determining the type of narrative with which we are dealing. Bultmann called it a misplaced resurrection story, but that label seems unwarranted for several reasons. Such titles as ῾ραββι (or ἐπιστάτα, for that matter) fit the context of Jesus’ earthly ministry and not the resurrection accounts. There is no report of a reunion of the disciples with the risen Lord, but rather they accompany him from the beginning. In the appearance stories Jesus is alone, and not accompanied by other figures such as Elijah and Moses as he is depicted here. While the appearance stories often report that Jesus brought a message to the disciples, in none of these stories is there an external word about Jesus or an instruction to listen to him. Finally, Jesus’ transformation appears to be temporary in this account, and after the event Jesus is said to have remained with the disciples in a form like that which he bore before. In addition to such internal details, we find that the tradition supported by all of the synoptic writers and (implicitly) by the authors of 2 Pet 1:17 and the Apocalypse of Peter seems to have associated this event with Jesus’ earthly life. It is impossible to determine whether this association of the transfiguration story with the period of Jesus’ earthly ministry can be traced to an actual external event, or to a visionary experience of Peter (or perhaps of the three named disciples), or to an attempt by Jesus’ followers to express in symbolic form their certainty about Jesus’ nature and his relationship to God.

This narrative does, however, resemble others in which story is told not of what Jesus did or taught, but of something happening to him. Such events allegedly clarify for those witnessing them who Jesus is and convey that testimony to subsequent hearers or readers of the stories. The most obvious parallel to this pericope is the account of Jesus’ baptism. Both events inaugurate major portions of Jesus’ ministry. Both scenes involve a voice from heaven speaking in identification of Jesus. Matthew presents the words of the voice in the two scenes in nearly identical form, and the quality of a theophany in the third person designation is sustained in both. The Markan transfiguration story also has this quality of a theophany, whereas in his account of the baptism the voice speaks in the second person singular, addressing Jesus directly. In Luke the voice at the baptism is also in the second person singular, calling Jesus ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός (Luke 3:22), whereas at the transfiguration Jesus is designated in the third person as ὁ ἐκλελεγμένος, a distinction more of terminology than of meaning (Isa 42:1; 44:1).

A second scene which resembles the transfiguration account is the scene on the Mount of Olives just prior to Jesus’ arrest (Mark 14:32–42 and parallels). In both cases there is a heavenly presence (appearing then only to Jesus, and at the transfiguration to the disciples as well), and an atmosphere of darkness, either of night or of an over-shadowing cloud. In the Lukan accounts there are also references to Jesus at prayer, to the sleeping disciples, and perhaps to the motif of death (insofar as one possible meaning of ἔξοδος, though probably not one of its primary ones, is death). Furthermore, the two episodes can be seen as points of climax of Jesus’ ministries in Galilee and Jerusalem, respectively.

Two more obscure Lukan parallels have been suggested in the narratives of the empty tomb (Luke 24:1–11, where the chosen witnesses, three of whom are named, are “the women who had come with him from Galilee”) and the ascension (Acts 1:1–12). In both of these episodes two heavenly figures (a detail inferred from their unusual clothing and dazzling appearance) comment on the proceedings and interpret to the witnesses something about Jesus’ significance. Whether these figures are intended to be understood as the same as those present at the transfiguration is impossible to determine. Indeed, such a detail appears to be beside the point, for the point in all of the pericopes cited is to highlight the ultimate significance of the moment and of the one identified at its core.

These various narratives, associated here with the transfiguration account because of their generally similar purpose or effect and by occasional similarity of detail, suggest a way to interpret the account of the transfiguration which would get at its general significance and put the Lukan variations in a proper perspective. Whatever may have been the experience which prompted it, the account attempts to express a moment of ultimate significance, an experience of the transcendent focused on Jesus of Nazareth. Insofar as such experiences can be communicated, they are expressed less by literal description than by evocation, by the involvement of hearers or readers in the experience underlying the accounts. As Perrin has observed, the language of such communication involves allusions to symbols and to the myths they evoke, which are both of a trans-cultural sort and of particular, limited, cultural range.

In the case of the language of the Bible, the symbols and myths serving as raw material for the expression of later experiences are most often those of the founding myths and symbols for Israel’s identity. Recovering the experience evoked in narratives such as that of the transfiguration, then, happens not by trying to discern precise, deliberate, conscious references, or technically exact midrashic constructions, or formal interpretations of messianic titles or functions. Rather such recovery involves exploring the overall tone of the narrative and the cumulative effect of the various disparate and imprecise accents and allusions. The appropriate question is not what caused or allowed the writer to present the narrative in a particular way. Instead, one must ask what effect is created, both for the original audience and for us who are their heirs, by the fact that the story is told in this particular way.

One can see, then, that the frame of the transfiguration account clearly is drawn from the narrative of Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24–34), and in particular the qualities of God’s presence and God’s communication of information and relationship which were experienced as being of ultimate significance for the people of Israel. There is in each case the mountain which becomes important as the place of God’s self-revelation, and indeed Luke’s adding of the detail of Jesus’ prayer serves merely to heighten that emphasis already present in the Markan account. The transforming effect of the Sinai experience on Moses (Exod 34:29–35) is mirrored in the reference to Jesus’ being transfigured (μετεμορφώθη), a detail accented and more closely linked to the Sinai narrative by Luke’s detailed rather than summary account, and by the description of the clothing. The brilliant whiteness of the clothes serves to emphasize the heavenly participation in this moment (Dan 12:3; Matt 13:43; Rev 2:17; 3:5; 6:2, 11), and to represent a transformation including the whole nature of Jesus (Ps 104:2; 1 Cor 15:44, 49; 2 Cor 5:2–5; Phil 3:21).

The overshadowing cloud stands as a mark of God’s presence in the place, not only in the Sinai narrative (Exod 24:15–18), but also elsewhere in the biblical traditions (Exod 13:21; 16:10; 19:9; 40:34; 2 Sam 22:12). In both the Sinai narrative and the transfiguration account, the voice from the cloud bears a message of relationship (the covenant in the first instance and the relationship of Jesus to God in the second) and of the people’s responsibility (the law from Sinai and the injunction to listen in the latter narrative). Again, in each case three leaders of the community are singled out to share—but not quite share—in the experience, as is indicated by the confusing instructions in Exod 24:1–2, 9 and the ambiguous αὐτούς over whom the cloud descends in the transfiguration scene. Again, the motif of the fear of the disciples or of the people is common to the Sinai story and to all three of the transfiguration accounts, although it is attributed to a different specific moment in each.14 Even Mark’s dating of the transfiguration “after six days” might have recalled Exod 24:16, which spoke of the glory of YHWH resting on Sinai, and then on the seventh day YHWH addressed Moses from the cloud. Mark’s formulation is nonetheless an awkward way of speaking of the seventh day, and what appears to have been persuasive to Luke was not the Exodus reference as much as the intimate linking of this event to the preceding confession of Peter and words about discipleship.

This framework or skeleton of the transfiguration account recalling the narrative of the Sinai covenant is filled out by its association with images drawn from other biblical traditions. Although in the transfiguration story the cloud does not function as a means of transport, echoes of the return of the Human One (ὁ υἱός τοῦ ἀνφρώπου) in the last days (Mark 14:62; Matt 26:64; Mark 13:26; Matt 24:30; Luke 21:27) sound at the edges of the narrative, as do remembrances of the times the cloud has functioned in the tradition as the locus of a theophany (Dan 7:13; Judg 5:4–5; Job 38:1; Ps 18:11; 2 Sam 22:12; Ezek 1:4; Zech 2:17 LXX). Similarly, Moses is not only the principal human actor in the Sinai story. His presence recalls also his roles both as law-giver and as leader of Israel on the journey out of Egypt and through the wilderness. He is joined by Elijah, another figure associated with the wilderness and with Sinai, a representative of Israel’s prophets, and, more than that, the prophet whose return would signal God’s ultimate intervention and eschatological act of righteousness on behalf of Israel and all humankind. According to the tradition, both Moses and Elijah, furthermore, had not died as had other people but rather waited in God’s presence for the events of the last days. Peter’s apparent enthusiasm for keeping the heavenly visitors near picks up not only on the drama of the transfiguration scene and on the natural inclination to mark in some way any experiences of God’s presence, but also on the hope that these figures symbolizing Israel’s longing might somehow be encouraged to stay and make this the longed-for moment.

The almost homely detail that Peter might, out of his confusion, keep Moses and Elijah nearby, building tents for them out of the branches available on the forested hillside, serves yet another function. It brings into the account of the transfiguration yet other symbols from Israel’s foundation, namely the feast of Tabernacles (Lev 23:33–43). The references to that festival are far from precise, such that one cannot say that the transfiguration is the church’s reinterpretation of that Jewish festival, but the allusions add to the multi-layered address of this narrative. During this festival the people were to build booths or tents (σκηναί) in which they would dwell for the days of the festival leading up to the solemn assembly on the eighth day. Indeed, the timing of the festival has been suggested as background for the reference to date at the beginning of the transfiguration account. That, of course, is possible, but the evidence is inconclusive.

In its early days the Feast of Tabernacles was primarily a harvest festival. By the time of Jesus it had become instead primarily a festival of pilgrimage celebrating Israel’s wanderings through the wilderness to freedom. It looked not only back to those formative, founding events of Israel’s original story of liberation, but also forward to the time when all nations would join Israel in the festival to celebrate God’s universal sovereignty (Zech 14:16–21). With the allusion to this festival, then, Peter would be depicted as linking his experience on the mountain both to this festival and to the joy of its promised fulfillment.

Again, it must be said that the reference to this festival, if indeed it is present, is oblique and not prescriptive. After all, Peter proposes to build the booths at the end of the stated time and as dwelling places for the heavenly figures instead of for the disciples as representatives of the people. Nevertheless, if I am correct about the allusive rather than exact quality of references to tradition in the formulation of such narratives, this imagery from the Feast of Tabernacles should be seen as part of the experience evoked in the transfiguration account. In a similarly allusive way, the σκηναί as dwelling places would evoke references to the tabernacle of God’s presence, the tent of meeting (Exod 27:21) or of testimony, the eschatological dwelling places of the messiah, or the place where the people would dwell in the last days (Hos 12:9), even though those references by means of Peter’s proposed three booths would in no way be exact.

Lest we the readers try like Peter to seize this story in too literal a fashion as a precise fulfillment of particular forms of Jewish expectation of the end time, or as a christological or messianic reinterpretation of founding myths or symbols, the story turns a bit on its axis and continues to confront us with an experience of that transcendent voice that can never quite be held captive to our interpretation. We are further reminded that Moses is not merely the ancient law-giver and covenant-maker, but also the “type” of one who is yet to come, and who when he does come is to be obeyed (Deut 18:15, 18–19, 22). Yet he no more remains in that past than Elijah remains a mere forerunner, for both are described as present at the moment of God’s identification of the one-to-be-obeyed. This one is not only the one like Moses, but also the beloved child of God, as Isaac was of Abraham (Gen 22:2), or as God’s servant was chosen or beloved for and through suffering (Isa 42:1; 44:1; 49:7; Luke 23:35). In that moment of identification by the voice from the cloud, both Moses and Elijah and all they represent are superseded. They disappear again, leaving only Jesus to accompany the disciples—a Jesus who looks, apparently, just as he did before the drama began.

To conclude that this pericope is primarily vindicatory and explicatory of the earlier prediction of the passion and resurrection hardly does justice to its evocative, multi-layered, and richly imaginative quality. Similarly, to attempt to make precise its christological statement, defining Jesus, for example, as the one who is at once beloved of God, suffering servant, and the coming one of whom Elijah was the precursor and Moses the “type,” seems to reduce to concepts what better remains story or the coalescing of symbols and metaphors. By the added details and by the placement of the transfiguration account in the larger context of his gospel, Luke appears to have provided within scripture itself a model for how one might begin to interpret such a narrative without trying to define it. It is Luke’s work with the transfiguration account to which we must now turn.

Of the differences identified above between the Markan and Lukan accounts of the transfiguration, the only one remaining to be discussed is the fuller description of the message of the two heavenly figures and of the disciples’ experience of the event. Several details merit attention. First, the mention of the sleepiness of the disciples makes more vivid the confusion and lack of comprehension evidenced in Peter’s stumbling suggestion about building the booths. On the level of the story itself, that detail suggests the very human response of being pulled toward sleep and unconsciousness when confronted with transcendent (and ultimately confusing and even frightening) experiences. With the disciples we experience a magnetic pull not to know that which confronts us.

Second, as in the Sinai episode, God’s glory is explicitly mentioned. That glory is present in this episode in the characters of Moses and Elijah as they bring their message (v 31), and finally in Jesus himself (v 32). This glory (δόξα, Hebrew כבוד) refers simply to the “divine mode of being,” associated now with Jesus in a way perhaps recalling the tradition expressed in Tanch. Buber BeMidhbar 20, p. 18: “In the coming aeon, when I have led my shekinah to Sion, I will disclose myself in my kavōdh to all Israel, and they shall see and live forever.” This glory, furthermore, is associated with an episode in Jesus’ earthly life, and not, as is more frequently the case in the synoptic gospels, only with his resurrection or parousia as the Human One (Mark 8:38; 10:37 and parallels; Matt 19:28; 25:31).

The third and final point from these verses that requires discussion is the specfic reference to Jesus ἔξοδος which he would complete (πληρόω) in Jerusalem. That ἔξοδος can refer to death is clear from 2 Pet 1:15; Wis 3:2; 7:6; and Jos. Ant. 4,8,2,189. That Jerusalem is presented as the place of Jesus’ death is too obvious to require discussion. Nevertheless, one can also make a case for the suggestion that what is to be fulfilled is not only Jesus’ death but also the subsequent events of resurrection and ascension (Luke 9:51), which are also associated with the city of Jerusalem in the Lukan tradition. In that vein, the verb πληρόω is most appropriate, in that it accentuates the notion that these events are part of God’s foreordained salvific plan as Luke understood it. Thus the pattern of Jesus’ departure from this life to return to God could be called an ἔξοδος, just as Jesus’ entry into this world could be called an εἴσοδος in Acts 13:24. Mánek suggests a third connotation of the word as it appears in the context of the transfiguration account, and that is that Jesus’ ἔξοδος refers to his death (primarily) as an act of salvation repeating the Exodus led by Moses. Mánek’s recognition that the word ἔξοδος clearly recalls the journey on which Moses led the Israelites to freedom is important, but he overlooks the fact that in the biblical traditions themselves ἔξοδος refers particularly to the beginning event of that journey (going out from Egypt) and not to its conclusion. A fourth interpretation, suggested by Marshall, recognizes that ἔξοδος implies a journey, but he understands it to refer to Jesus’ whole life as a “way” from the εἴσοδος (Acts 13:24) to its conclusion in Jerusalem. The wording of v 31 supports the suggestion that it is only the conclusion (πληρόω) of the journey which is to take place in Jerusalem, and that in turn would mean that the journey has been in process before. In fact, by referring here both to the ἔξοδος and to its completion, Luke does appear to have in mind the journey as a whole. However, to understand the ἔξοδος to refer to Jesus’ entire life’s journey blunts the particular force of that saying in the Lukan transfiguration account.

The larger context in which Luke has placed that narrative provides important clues to a more specific meaning of the ἔξοδος saying. As Fitzmyer points out, one way of interpreting the effect of Luke’s redactional hand on the material found in chap. 9 is to recognize the transfiguration account as one of several responses to the question about Jesus’ identity attributed to Herod in 9:9. This focus would, then, account for Luke’s “great omission” of Mark 6:45–8:26, which deals with matters not directly related to or responding to that question from Herod. The responses which Luke does present point both to the exaltation and to the rejection awaiting Jesus, and thus not only answer Herod’s question but also bring to a conclusion the first part of Jesus’ ministry and set the stage for the subsequent travel narrative.

One might, however, prompted by the Sinai imagery of the transfiguration account with its reference to the ἔξοδος whose goal is Jerusalem, find one’s attention drawn even more sharply to Luke’s travel narrative. It is this journey itself which appears to be the ἔξοδος to which the splendid visitors refer. C. F. Evans has presented a case for the recognition of close parallels between this peculiarly Lukan portion of the gospel (9:51–18:14) and the Book of Deuteronomy, which itself is a recapitulation of the account of Israel’s journey to freedom following the events at Sinai. James Sanders has made a similar point, with the added suggestion that what is being addressed in this section of Luke’s gospel is the theme of election and the meaning of and criteria for participation in the people of God convened in response to Jesus and his message.29 Without presenting a critique of the specific points each of these scholars makes, I would highlight their recognition that the Lukan travel narrative, like the Book of Deuteronomy and the longer account in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, presents teachings, stories of God’s activity, and elaborations of particular incidents interspersed with summary statements, all in the guise of a report of a journey. The exact route of the Exodus journey, like that of Jesus’ journey reported in Luke, is less significant than the accompanying events, the theophanies which set the context, and the projected conclusion, which for the Book of Deuteronomy as for Luke’s gospel lies beyond the final episode.

By alluding to the heavenly figures’ message in v 31, Luke has thus suggested a close link between the transfiguration account and the subsequent travel narrative. He has thereby added an important accent to the rich imagery already present in the transfiguration account on which he apparently drew. That accent is on Jesus as one who leads forth on a journey, an ἔξοδος, a journey of liberation.

Implications for Lukan Christology

It is significant that Luke felt compelled to write an entire gospel, and indeed to follow it by the collection of narratives, reports, sermons, and other materials in the Book of Acts, in order adequately to present “the things which have been accomplished among us” (Luke 1:1). Even a pericope as rich in christological motifs and language as that of the transfiguration cannot, therefore, be seen as adequately representative of Luke’s picture of Jesus. Nevertheless, one cannot help being struck by the extent to which Luke has used the coalescing of images as well as explicit titles in that pericope to make a statement about Jesus and about the meaning of his authority.

The titles are easy to identify. Jesus is presented as Child of God, Chosen One of God, and the One To Whom To Listen. These titles are presented in allusions to Hebrew scriptures attributed to the heavenly voice. The implication is clearly that we are to understand these references to the sacred traditions as God’s own words about Jesus. The images which coalesce in the transfiguration account, as I have shown in the preceding exegesis, recall in particular (though of course not exclusively) the stories of Moses on Mount Sinai, and by implication the larger context of the stories of Israel’s journey from Egypt to the promised Land. By means of the parallel imagery, Luke is proclaiming that, like the earlier Sinai experience of Moses, the transfiguration of Jesus is to be understood as revelatory of God’s presence and power. In addition, however, Luke’s emphasis on the Sinai imagery, and in particular his reference to Jesus’ ἔξοδος, forces us to take into account two other christological emphases: Jesus as journeyer, and Jesus as the one whose agenda is marked by concerns of liberation.

Conzelmann has developed at great length an argument for the importance of geographical details to an understanding of Lukan redaction. Conzelmann’s work, it seems to me, might be enriched by attention both to the connections between the Lukan travel narrative and the Book of Deuteronomy pointed out by C. F. Evans and to the Sinai imagery of the transfiguration account. I would suggest that Luke links the transfiguration account to his travel narrative by editorial placement and by introducing the reference to a journey whose place of completion would coincide with the end point of the travel narrative. Hence, Luke associates Jesus with Moses’ role as leader of the Israelites’ journey of liberation through the wilderness and to the border of the promised land, as well as with Moses’ roles as prophet and law-giver, and hence as “type” of the-coming-one-to-be-obeyed. Just as Israel’s Torah, in the sense of a paradigmatic narrative for their self-understanding, ended at the Jordan,31 but Israel’s story in light of Torah continued and continues, so also for Luke the Jesus-story, while paradigmatic for the church’s self-understanding, did not tell all of the story. The church’s story too continued and continues beyond the Jesus-story in both place and time. For Luke, then, with reference to both the geographical and the temporal understanding of the relationship between Jesus and the church, the image of Jesus as a journeyer like Moses appears to be significant.

Furthermore, by the brief reference to an ἔξοδος not yet completed for Jesus despite the drama and power of the moment celebrated in the transfiguration story, Luke points to a pattern of engagement in life as an essential aspect of the identity of this one confessed as Christ. The full story of Jesus’ relationship to God and of his significance for humankind is thus known less by formal roles and titles than by stories told of Jesus, and of the road he traveled, as well as of its beginning and its end. The sleepy disciples who nonetheless cannot take their eyes from the unfolding events become mirrors for Luke’s readers who recognize the liberating, empowering, and frightening consequences—the long journey ahead, with no shortcuts or quick solutions—for those who become involved with such a person, such a messiah.

Whether Luke intended this consequence or not, his presentation of Jesus as having a quest or journey to which he has been called by God adds a trans-cultural and, one might even say, an archetypal dimension to his christology. Stories of characters with such tasks or journeys to complete in order to fulfill the obligations or purposes of their lives as they are set by God, or by the gods, or by the very nature of life itself, are common to religious traditions of many cultures. Such stories serve as paradigms for expressing humankind’s vocation toward wholeness and reconciliation with that which is the ground and source of life, whatever the variety of mythic tales or symbolic language by which that vocation is expressed.

The picture of Jesus as journeyer is associated also with Luke’s connection of Jesus with the agenda of liberation. Liberation themes are present in Luke in several guises. One is the picture of Jesus as prophet, which includes Luke’s emphasis on Jesus’ concern for and identification with the poor and outcast of his society and in particular of his religious community. Liberation themes are present too in Luke’s highlighting of Jesus’ role as herald of God’s reign, and of the proclamation of a Jubilee at its near boundary. That proclamation on behalf of God as the eschatological sovereign amounts to a declaration of liberation from the various penultimate systems, rules, and patterns of indebtedness by which humankind seeks to escape the transforming power of God’s eschatological reign at hand. In the transfiguration account the liberation theme is carried by specific literary connections to the Sinai and Exodus traditions, in such a way that images and metaphors in these authoritative stories underlying Israel’s faith are read forward and specifically associated with Jesus. Just as the Israelites understood themselves to have been led by God’s own power and authority on their paradigmatic journey from slavery toward freedom, so now Luke affirms that that same power and authority is linked to Jesus’ journey and identity.

Luke’s portrait of Jesus is thus highlighted by the particular pattern and components of the transfiguration account. The emphases on liberation and on Jesus as journeyer which are found in this account are ones which I see as being of particular concern to feminist theology.

Response from a Feminist Theological Perspective

Responding to this text as a feminist theologian requires at least two steps. First of all, some methodological comments are necessary in order to clarify what I mean by feminist theology, and what some of the consequences of that might be for this exercise in biblical interpretation. Second, specific issues posed by the transfiguration account must be addressed.

To claim to work as a feminist theologian is to leave unanswered several questions, particularly concerning one’s relationship to the traditions and communities of Judaism and Christianity. Various answers to those questions are given by “feminist theologians” whose work has in common only the fact that it has been done in the context of women’s experience and in affirmation of women’s dignity and worth as full members of the human community. Otherwise, “feminist theology” can describe on the one hand expressions of goddess religion and “post-Christian” or “post-Jewish” theology. On the other hand, in the Christian context in particular, it can refer to “liberation theology” done from a feminist perspective by people often professionally and confessionally still within the church. Or “feminist theology” can describe anything between these two extremes.

My work is clearly closer to the latter pole. Being still within the confessing community, I acknowledge the Bible as authoritative for theological reflection but in a dynamic and originative rather than a normative sense. That perspective means first of all reading scripture as a collection of God. These witnesses can, in turn, mediate those experiences to others who read their accounts from the perspective of faith. These accounts proclaim, evoke, challenge, confront, change, support, comfort, and do a host of things, but they do not interpret, explain, or defend in a purely rationalistic fashion. That means that they operate primarily by means of such expansive and inclusive devices as images, stories, and symbols. They are literary creations, and should not be read in a literal, prescriptive, limiting fashion. Although as a woman I surely find myself addressed most directly and immediately by those portions of the biblical traditions having particularly to do with women, because of the tropic quality of biblical language I nevertheless find my story told elsewhere in the canon as well. Although I recognize the obvious differences between women’s experience and that of other oppressed groups, I nevertheless recognize common ground with them in the powerful word addressed through those biblical traditions which speak of liberation.

Discerning the meaning and implications of any biblical text, whether or not it deals specifically with women and whether or not it speaks of liberation, presents an additional problem when one tries to work from any liberation perspective, in that the very tools of biblical criticism are not value-neutral. As is well known, the traditional forms of historical and literary criticism developed under the promptings of Enlightenment science. Subsequent methodological developments, by and large, did not expand the community of origin beyond the male-dominated academies and churches of Western Europe and later of North America. It hardly requires noting that one’s historical, social, political, and economic location does influence even one’s most “objective” undertakings by coloring the questions one asks and consequently the answers one finds. The natural sciences again are leading the way in enabling us to recognize further that the very fact of investigation itself affects the data one is examining, and s the issues introducing particular slants to the work of biblical interpretation become ever more complex.

I do not know of a simple corrective to these biases inherent in the methodology of biblical criticism and so have attempted to address the problem in two ways in my exegesis of Luke’s version of the transfiguration story. First of all, I have proceeded in a deliberately eclectic fashion, drawing on various sub-disciplines of the traditional criticisms instead of adhering rigorously to one alone, in the hope that there might be some mutual correction among their concerns. Second, I have spent time at the beginning and end of my work to allow the various pictures and images found in the text to address some of the nonrational levels of my response and awareness, which may be less captive to academic methodology. I have also attempted to prompt these reflections by being attentive particularly to the sort of reactions and questions a woman might have had who heard the account in Luke’s church, or who might have waited at the foot of the mountain among Jesus’ followers (if indeed such an event really happened).

Turning from concerns of methodology to a response to content, I would note two issues raised by the transfiguration account which strike me as particularly important for my theological reflection as a feminist. They do not constitute a systematic interpretation of the account, nor do they both come from the same arena of theological discussion. The first point relates to christology, and the second to theological language.

First, the rich Sinai and Exodus imagery as a vehicle for a statement about the identity and significance of Jesus as the Christ makes it clear that liberation concerns are not peripheral to, but at the very heart of, the Christian faith. It is not by assuming that Jesus shared a particular political or social program that one must force a liberation agenda onto the gospels. Rather, as Luke points out most clearly, the paradigmatic liberation event of the Exodus provides language by which to talk about the meaning of the Christ of God. Luke’s apparent additional emphasis on the journey interpreted as Jesus ἔξοδος (defined by but not limited even to the dramatic theophany at its beginning and the crucifixion and resurrection events at its end) suggests that the Christ one confesses is one known not merely, and perhaps not even most clearly, by titles or formal roles. Rather, he is best understood through the stories arising in a liberation journey to which the Christ is said both to call and to be called. Confession of Christ, then, as we glimpse it through this pericope, is not doctrinal assent to statements about Jesus, or even simple trust in Jesus as the Christ, but rather praxis or engagement in that journey.

The second point is about theological language. This text speaks in images and is developed by allusions to stories and symbols deeply rooted in the cultural and trans-cultural past in which I participate as a Christian feminist. Its agenda of liberation are presented by symbolic and parabolic forms of speech, and not by concepts, ideas or specific programs. It is precisely this quality of language which is the basis of the power of this text to address us in a variety of circumstances, to evoke responses from us, and to place us in the midst of the experiences it sets forth. Such language is able to set in motion, to grow, to change, and to engage its readers or hearers. Therefore it is irreducible to concepts, blueprints, or specific programmatic conclusions which tend by their univocal, prescriptive quality to become time-bound or stuck. Symbolic or parabolic language as a vehicle for speaking about concerns of liberation, for example, retains a certain autonomy and will not be tied down to any single interpretation of what that liberation will look like or how it must be achieved, be it the interpretation of Luke’s audience, of our contemporary adversaries, or our own interpretation of ten years ago. At the same time, the concreteness and power of such speech to address and engage us means that it does not let us avoid responding in specific, practical ways. It simply refuses us the security of having prescribed responses carved in stone.

Parabolic or symbolic speech as a vehicle for expressing concerns of liberation leaves us, it seems to me, with Peter on the mountain of the transfiguration. We recognize most of the characters and allusions which encounter us, but they keep coming together in new ways. So we refine our concepts and develop more comprehensive programs, hoping to have built adequate “booths,” so that those we recognize and whose value we celebrate might stay for a while. But, like Peter, James, and John, when all the dust settles and the cloud goes away, we find ourselves left with only the Journeyer on an Exodus to Jerusalem.

The “Theology of Woman’s Place” and the “Paulinist” Tradition

William O. Walker, Jr.

Trinity University


In this paper, the following points are maintained: (1) All of the New Testament passages supporting the principle of male dominance and female subordination (i.e., 1 Cor 11:3–16; 14:34–35; Col 3:18–19; Eph 5:22–33; 1 Tim 2:8–15; Titus 2:4–5; and 1 Pet 3:1–7) can be traced to a common source, origin, or tradition. 2) This common source, origin, or tradition is to be located, not in the apostolic period or widely spread throughout the early church, but rather within one particular “wing” of early Christianity, namely, the “Paulinist” wing. 3) The passages in question reflect one aspect of a post-Pauline reaction against what can be termed the “radical egalitarianism” of Paul himself.

It is well known that certain passages in the New Testament deal with the status, role, attire, and/or general demeanor of women in such a manner as to support the principle of male dominance and female subordination, both in the home and in the church (and by implication in society as well). These passages are seven in number: 1 Cor 11:3–16; 1 Cor 14:34–35; Col 3:18–19; Eph 5:22–33; 1 Tim 2:8–15; Titus 2:4–5; and 1 Pet 3:1–7.

Over the years, there has been considerable discussion regarding the origin or source of the passages in Colossians, Ephesians, 1 Timothy, Titus, and 1 Peter, what their relationship is to the documents in which they now appear, and whether they represent an apostolic or a post-apostolic point of view. On the basis of some rather striking similarities in content, vocabulary, and form, many scholars have concluded that they can be traced to a common source of sources, or at least a common tradition, employed by the authors of the canonical writings.

Edward Gordon Selwyn, for example, argued that such a “common source or sources” consisted of some type of catechetical code governing domestic and social behavior and relationships that was widely known and used in the early church, suggesting further that the earliest stratum of this code represented “a fusion of Jewish and Gentile thought which may well have originated in Hellenistic Judaism, yet is perhaps most easily explained as due to the synthetic genius of the early Christian Mission.” Inasmuch as he regarded Colossians and Ephesians (but apparently not the Pastorals) as authentically Pauline and 1 Peter as authentically Petrine, he clearly envisioned this code as having originated no later than the apostolic period. According to this view, although Paul and Peter drew material for their statements about the status and role of women from the catechetical code, they apparently did so deliberately, thereby indicating their own agreement with its views regarding women. Selwyn’s position has not gained wide acceptance, however, principally because it appears unlikely that so well developed a catechetical code as he described could have originated and spread so widely as early as he imagined.

Other scholars have identified the passages in Colossians, Ephesians, 1 Timothy, Titus, and 1 Peter as components of the so-called Haustafeln (“Household Tables” or “Rules for the Household”), which apparently had their origin in Hellenistic popular philosophy, were adapted for use by Hellenistic Judaism, and ultimately were taken over and Christianized by the early Hellenistic church as it sought to adapt itself to continuing life in the Gentile world. For the most part, these scholars support a growing consensus that Colossians, Ephesians, and the Pastorals are pseudo-Pauline writings and 1 Peter is pseudo-Petrine and that, for this reason, the views expressed in these documents do not necessarily represent the views of the two Apostles.

Not mentioned, for the most part, in the discussions just summarized are the two passages in 1 Corinthians (11:3–16; 14:34–35), which differ somewhat from those in Colossians, Ephesians, 1 Timothy, Titus, and 1 Peter in both form and content, in the fact that the former, unlike the latter, do not appear in the context of general instructions regarding domestic and social behavior and relationships, and in the fact that 1 Corinthians, unlike the other documents in question, is almost universally regarded as authentically apostolic in authorship. Although 1 Cor 14:34–35 is now regarded by a substantial number of scholars as a Post-Pauline interpolation, and the same has recently been argued regarding 1 Cor 11:3–16, there has been little, if any, attempt to relate these passages directly to the passages dealing with women in Colossians, Ephesians, 1 Timothy, Titus, and 1 Peter.7

The suggestion of this paper is that it is now possible to identify more precisely the Sitz im Leben of all the NT passages supporting the principle of male dominance and female subordination, including the two passages in 1 Corinthians. Specifically, I propose to argue: (1) that all of the passages in question can, in fact, be traced to a common source, origin, or tradition; (2) that this common source, origin, or tradition is to be located, not in the apostolic period or widely spread throughout the early church, but rather within the post-apostolic “Paulinist” wing of the church; and (3) that the passages represent one aspect of a post-Pauline reaction against what can be termed the “radical egalitarianism” of Paul himself. In support of this argument, the following points are offered for consideration.

The first point to be considered is that, taken as a group, the seven passages in question exhibit some rather striking parallels in vocabulary and thought. For example, the term “submissive” or “subordinate” occurs in every passage under consideration except 1 Cor 11:3–16, where the image of man as the “head” of woman (v 3) and the observations that “man is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man” (v 7) and that “man was not created for woman but woman for man” (v 9) clearly carry the same general implication. Even more striking, however, is the complete command that wives be “submissive to their (own) husbands,” which occurs with essentially the same wording in Col 3:18; Eph 5:21–22; Titus 2:5; and 1 Pet 3:1, 5. Other parallels include references to “learning” (1 Cor 14:35; 1 Tim 2:11), “silence” or “silent” (1 Cor 14:34; 1 Tim 2:11, 12; 1 Pet 3:4), “not permitting” (1 Cor 14:34; 1 Tim 2:12), “pure” or “holy” (Titus 2:5; 1 Pet 3:2), “adornment,” “adorned,” or “adorning” (1 Tim 2:9; 1 Pet 3:3, 5), “clothing” (1 Tim 2:9; 1 Pet 3:3), “gold” (1 Tim 2:9; 1 Pet 3:3), “braided” or “braiding” (1 Tim 2:9; 1 Pet 3:3), “head” (1 Cor 11:3, 4, 5, 7, 10; Eph 5:23), and “disgrace” or “disgraceful” (1 Cor 11:4, 5, 6, 14; 1 Cor 14:35). Elsewhere, essentially the same ideas are expressed in two or more passages but with slightly different wording: for example, “it is not permitted for them to speak” (1 Cor 14:34) and “I do not permit a woman to teach” (1 Tim 2:12). Such parallels in vocabulary and thought, which link all of the passages under consideration in an interralated network, are sufficiently numerous and specific to suggest a common origin or source, or at least a common tradition, underlying the group.

The second point to be considered is that at least four of the passages in question appeal to the OT, and particularly to the book of Genesis, to support their views regarding women. 1 Cor 11:7–9 cites the creation of Adam and Eve, 1 Tim 2:13–14 the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve, 1 Pet 3:6 the story of Sarah and Abraham, and 1 Cor 14:34 simply “the law.” This, too, suggests a common origin or source, or at least a common tradition, underlying the various passages in question.

The third point to be considered is that, taken as a group, the passages in question deal generally with the same three aspects of what was apparently viewed as a single overall problem regarding women. These three aspects of the problem are evident from the three major concerns expressed in the passages: (1) the domestic status and role of women in relationship to their husbands, (2) the religious status and role of women in the life and worship of the church, and (3) the proper attire and demeanor of women in general. Except in Colossians and Ephesians, which deal only with the first concern, it appears that the three were interrelated. Thus, the discussion of attire and demeanor in 1 Tim 2:9–10 is “sandwiched” between a restriction of the activity of praying to the men (v 8) and a prohibition of teaching by women (vv 11–12), which also refers to the necessity for “submissiveness” on the part of women (v 11). Similarly, Titus 2:4–5 speaks of the general demeanor of women, concluding with the command that they be “submissive to their husbands.” In somewhat the same manner, 1 Pet 3:1–6 begins with an injunction that women be “submissive” to their husbands (v 1) and ends on the same note (vv 5b–6), but the major part of the passage (vv 2–5a) has to do with the attire and demeanor of women in general. The principal concern of 1 Cor 14:34–35 is that women not speak in church, but it also includes directives that they are to be “subordinate” or “submissive” and that, “if there is anything they desire to know,” they are to “ask their husbands at home.”

1 Cor 11:3–16 presents a special problem at this point, since the unity of the passage has recently been questioned. If, as has been suggested, the passage actually consists of three originally separate and distinct pericopes, each dealing with a somewhat different aspect of the status, role, and/or attire of women, then there is rather less indication of interrelation here than elsewhere, although the question of attire is still related to that of public worship in what has been labeled “Pericope B” of the passage.13 If, however, the unity of the passage is maintained, then here, as elsewhere, the three concerns are clearly interrelated, with vv 3, 8–9, 11–12 dealing with the domestic status and role of women in relationship to their husbands, vv 4–7, 10, 13, 16 dealing with the attire of women as they participate in the religious life of the church, and vv 14–15 dealing with the attire of women in general.

In all of the passages under consideration, the key motif is that women are to be “submissive” or “subordinate.” Apparently the problem, as seen by the authors, was that of women not being properly “submissive” or “subordinate” to men. This problem then manifested itself variously in domestic relationships, in religious matters, and in questions regarding attire and demeanor in general, and the passages in question attempt to deal with the various aspects of the problem. This, too, suggests a common origin or source, or at least a common tradition, underlying the passages being considered.

The fourth point to be considered is that, taken as a group, the passages in question exhibit the same three elements of what appears to have been a specific literary form developed for the express purpose of “keeping women in their place.” Characteristically, this form would have consisted of the following three elements: (a) a general statement, assertion, or command regarding the proper status, role, attire, and/or demeanor of women; (b) a reason or justification (theological, historical, rational, or pragmatic) for the statement, assertion, or command; and (c) a “mitigation,” “softening of the blow,” or “saving phrase” to make the statement, assertion, or command less offensive to women. The literary form can be seen most clearly and fully in 1 Tim 2:8–15, where all three of the elements are present and the pattern is a simple ‘a,’ ‘b,’ ‘c’:

a.    General Statement, Assertion, or Command (vv 8–12) I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; also that women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire but by good deeds, as befits women who profess religion. Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or have authority over men; she is to keep silent.

b.    Reason or Justification (vv 13–14) For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.

c.    Mitigation, Softening of the Blow, or Saving Phrase (v 15) Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

In some passages, the pattern becomes more complex, and, at times, it is not clear whether element “c” is present at all. Thus, the pattern of 1 Pet 3:1–6 is ‘a’ (v 1a), ‘b’ (vv 1b–2), ‘a’ (vv 3–4a), ‘b’ (vv 4b–6a), with v 6b either a continuation of ‘b’ or perhaps a very subtle form of ‘c.’ The pattern of 1 Cor 14:34–35 is ‘a’ (v 34a), ‘b’ (v 34b), ‘a’ (v 34c), ‘b’ (v 34d), ‘a’ or possibly a subtle form of ‘c’ (v 35a), ‘b’ (v 35b). In Titus 2:4–5, the pattern is a simple ‘a’ (vv 4–5a), ‘b’ (v 5b), with ‘c’ absent altogether. Three of the passages introduce a somewhat modified form of element ‘c’ with a command to husbands that they love their wives. Thus, Col 3:18–19 follows the simple pattern, ‘a’ (v 18a), ‘b’ (v 18b), ‘c’ (v 19), while Eph 5:22–33 has the more complex pattern, ‘a’ (v 22), ‘b’ (v 23), ‘a’ (v 24), ‘c’ (vv 25–33a), ‘a’ (v 33b); and 1 Pet 3:1–7 has the pattern, ‘a’ (v 1a), ‘b’ (vv 1b–2), ‘a’ (vv 3–4a), ‘b’ (vv 4b–6 or perhaps 4b–6a with 6b a very very subtle form of ‘c’), ‘c’ (v 7).

The analysis of 1 Cor 11:3–16 is again complicated by the question of the unity of the passage. If it is a single unit, then the pattern is apparently ‘a’ (vv 3–6), ‘b’ (vv 7–10), ‘c’ (vv 11–12), ‘b’ (vv 13–16), although the distinctions are not as clear here as they are elsewhere. If, however, the passage is divided into three pericopes, as has been suggested, then the following patterns emerge: “Pericope A” follows the pattern, ‘a’ (v 3), ‘b’ (vv 8–9), ‘c’ (vv 11–12); “Pericope B” the pattern, ‘a’ (vv 4–6), ‘b’ (vv 7, 10, 13, 16), with no ‘c’; and “Pericope C” consists almost entirely of element ‘b,’ with ‘a’ only implied and ‘c’ absent altogether.

The presence of at least traces of the same three formal elements throughout virtually all of the passages in question not only strengthens the case for a common source, origin, or at least a common tradition, underlying the various passages, it seems to me, but also suggests that a common literary form was, in fact, variously employed in different contexts for the purpose of “keeping women in their place.”

The fifth point to be considered is that all of the passages in question come from a single tradition within early Christianity, namely, what can be termed the “Paulinist” tradition, which, however, must be carefully distinguished from the authentically “Pauline” tradition. Although these passages are widely associated with Paul himself, inasmuch as all of them except 1 Pet 3:1–7 are found within the corpus of writings attributed to him, there is now, as was observed earlier in this paper, an apparently growing scholarly consensus that the passages originated, not with Paul himself, but rather within the “Paulinist” tradition, that is, with later writers who somehow stood within a tradition begun by Paul and looking back to him as its founder and inspiration. Thus, 1 Timothy and Titus are generally regarded today as “pseudo-Pauline,” as are Ephesians and Colossians by a somewhat smaller but substantial number of commentators. 1 Cor 14:34–35 is viewed by many as a post-Pauline interpolation, and the same has recently been suggested regarding 1 Cor 11:3–16. As regards 1 Pet 3:1–7, which, of course, no one has regarded as directly Pauline, it has long been believed by many that the pseudonymous author of 1 Peter “stands in the line of succession of Pauline theology” and thus quite properly can be seen as a representative of the “Paulinist” tradition.23

This suggests, as F. X. Cleary and others have recognized, that attitudes toward women in Pauline (or rather “Paulinist”) Christianity must be approached on more than one level. Cleary suggests a distinction that would include “authentic Paul” (Gal 3:28; 1 Cor 7:2–5, 10–16; 11:2–16), “rewritten Paul” (Eph 5:22–33), “ghostwritten Paul” (1 Tim 2:9–15), and “interpolated Paul” (1 Cor 14:33b–35). I prefer to speak of “authentic Paul” (Gal 3:27–28; 1 Cor 7), “pseudo-Paul” (Col 3:18–19; Eph 5:22–33; 1 Tim 2:8–15; Titus 2:4–5), “interpolated Paul” (1 Cor 14:34–35; 11:3–16), and “Paulinist” (1 Pet 3:1–7). For the sake of simplicity, however, I shall hereafter apply the label “Paulinist” to all except the authentically “Pauline” materials.

It is in the “Paulinist,” not the “Pauline,” passages that all of the material under consideration in this paper is to be found. Lest the significance of this fact be overlooked, it should be emphasized that, outside these “Paulinist” passages, there is not a single statement in the entire NT that supports the principle of male dominance and female subordination. This, like the four points previously cited, lends clear support to the case for a common source or origin, or at least a common tradition, underlying all such passages. Although the ultimate source of these materials may well have been Hellenistic or Hellenistic Jewish, they apparently entered the Christian tradition for the first time, not in the apostolic period, as Selwyn and others have assumed, but rather in the post-apostolic period and, even then, only through the “Paulinist” wing of Christianity, which, I have suggested, created a specific literary form for the express purpose of “keeping women in their place.”

The fact that it was precisely within “Paulinist” Christianity that it was believed necessary to formulate a “theology of woman’s place” and to create a literary form to express this theology implies rather clearly that it was also within “Paulinist” Christianity that women were claiming and perhaps exercising the type of equality with men that was viewed as a problem.27 This, in turn, has some rather clear implications for an understanding of the nature of “Pauline” Christianity. The reason for the women’s claims, no doubt, was the radically egalitarian teaching and practice of Paul himself, which apparently came to be viewed as a problem in the post-apostolic period, as the church lost much of its earlier eschatological and charismatic enthusiasm and sought to create for itself a measure of structure, order, and stability in the face of an increasingly hostile environment and growing internal pluralism. That Paul’s own teaching and practice were, in fact, radically egalitarian, particularly as regards the status and role of women, has been made increasingly clear by recent studies of Gal 3:27–28, which asserts the absolute equality of the sexes in Christ, 1 Corinthians 7, which insists that the two sexes have precisely the same freedom and the same responsibility in the marriage relationship, and the various NT references to women as Paul’s honored and esteemed co-workers in the church.30 The authentically “Pauline” materials are consistently and radically egalitarian in their outlook; the later “Paulinist” materials are equally consistently “patriarchal.” Here, as apparently at other points, Paul’s views and practices were no longer acceptable to the developing Hellenistic churches, and “Paulinist” teachers and writers found it necessary to “tame” or “domesticate” the now deceased Apostle.

In conclusion, while I agree with Selwyn and others that the NT passages supporting the principle of male dominance and female subordination have a common source or origin, I do not agree that this origin was apostolic. Rather, the passages in question were introduced in the post-apostolic period, within one particular “wing” of the Christian tradition, the “Paulinist” wing, and are directly at variance with the clearly articulated views and practices of the Apostle Paul. For a variety of reasons, however, Paul’s own views came to be interpreted in the light of the later “Paulinist” tradition, and the result was that the authentically “Pauline” insight and practice were largely forgotten in the post-apostolic church.

Defining the Problem: the Bible and Feminist Hermeneutics

Mary Ann Tolbert

The Divinity School Vanderbilt University


By exploring the influences of various definitions of feminism on the formulations of feminist hermeneutics some clarification is gained concerning what feminist reformists are doing and what they need to do in relation to the Bible. The paradoxical position of feminist hermeneutics is suggested, and then parallels between issues facing feminists and some of those addressed by Bultmann’s classic presentation of NT theology are underlined to point out the urgent and central nature of feminist hermeneutical reflection.

Recent feminist studies of the Bible and the biblical world have surfaced several crucial issues which require more attention and delineation than they have yet received. The definition of feminism, the description and grounding of feminist hermeneutics, the variety of responses to the Bible that feminists have proposed and the ramifications of those proposals are all areas demanding further clarity and exposition. This essay, while not intending to discuss every possible option suggested for these issues, will attempt to delineate and reflect on some of the major problems raised.

Hermeneutical theory, through the influence of such recent intellectual movements as the sociology of knowledge, depth psychology, and deconstruction, has become increasingly aware of the importance of the interpreter’s own biases in shaping the resultant interpretation. Feminists, as we shall see below, make this point with justified vehemence concerning the fiction of “objective” scholarship. Consequently, at the outset of this study I wish to dispel the notion that the author of this work is a dispassionate, omniscient chronicler of the contemporary feminist critique of Christianity by listing as honestly as possible the pre-dispositions that influence these reflections.

First, I have a clear commitment to feminism and its critique of all oppressive cultural structures, including Christianity. Second, I am trying to speak and think self-consciously within the Christian tradition, a tradition I recognize as having deeply shaped my identity, values, and worldview. This second bias has obviously affected the selection of positions and writers to be considered here. All of the issues raised come from the work of the so-called “reformist” group, those who are trying to remain within Christianity. Thus, while the influential work of Mary Daly on the one hand and the Goddess religion followers on the other should be acknowledged, they will not be generally discussed.3 In addition, the important contributions of Jewish feminists and evangelical Christian feminists will also be passed over. Hence, this bias like those operative in all reconstructions of history serves to select certain features for emphasis within a much broader spectrum of data.

Although I am trying to stand within the Christian tradition, the moral demands of feminism require me to risk discovering that that tradition is no longer viable. The joint force of my first two predispositions, then, is to make the reformists’ explorations of Christianity and especially the Bible of immense personal interest. However academically this analysis is phrased, it remains profoundly emotionally involved.

The third bias I must admit to is a bias in favor of the Bible. I frankly want to claim that text as a continuing resource for living in the modern age. I wish neither to relinquish its study to antiquarian motives nor to reject its concerns as unalterably oppressive. Again, as with my second bias, this favorable inclination toward the Bible must be open to judgment and, if necessary, dismissal.

Finally, I function, think, and write within an academic context in which clarity of thought, logical argument, and analysis are, or should be, the tools of discourse. I recognize that these tools have often been used for the ends of oppressions, but I want to claim them for liberation as well. As longs as logical thought is asserted as a male domain and intuition, emotion, and experience as female, regardless of which “side” is valued more highly, we are all diminished. Yet the use of logic and analysis does not in itself bestow upon one’s arguments moral authority, although the detached, objective conventions of scholarly wrting seem to suggest as much. From the ancient world to the present, the use of first person narration has been viewed as a sign of the fictive, subjective, or dubious quality of a work. What we seems to trust is the omniscient, distant third person authority who proclaims the objective truth, even though that authority is conferred by a convention of writing rather than an epistemological argument. Indeed, scholarly writing, like historical writing, like the gospels themselves, has been couched in a distant, authoritative style of narration that thoroughly disguises the personal intentions and biases which actually inform the work. As a means of undercutting the duplicity of that convention, I will throughout this study occasionally use first person narration to remind the reader of my own engagement in the task.

Definitions of Feminism

The nuances of the definition of feminism are almost as various as feminist writers themselve. Since a normative canon of feminist tradition is neither available nor desirable, and since a creedal formulation, by allegiance to which one could be judged orthodox or heterodox, is precisely the kind of oppressive structure feminism rejects, a broad spectrum of views should be expected. All would probably agree that, at the very least, feminism, like other liberation movement attempts a critique of the oppressive structures of society. The radicality of that critique, the possibility of male feminists, and the resultant feminist praxis are areas in which considerable difference of opinion can be found. The way these latter issues are construed by an individual feminist, moreover, affects the hermeneutical perspective she adopts.

Beyond the minimal level of agreement, two general approaches to feminism may be perceived. Some regard the goal of feminism to be the ascendancy of women, while others understand feminism to be primarily a movement toward human equality in which oppressed and oppressor are finally reconciled in a renewed humanity. The ascendancy position sometimes, though not always, arises from a more radical evaluation of the pervasiveness of androcentric structures and consequently pursues a more radical response of revolution and separatism. Men are usually excluded, although some feminists holding this view accept the participation of women-identified men. The equality position, in contrast, aims for reconciliation and the full humanity of women.7 It is concerned both for the condition of women and the condition of men, arguing that oppression destroys both parties. The center of attention must still be the subjugation of women, but men who recognize that their own humanity is diminished by dominance are partners in the feminist cause. In addition, some feminists would relate these two positions chronologically. The time for reconciliation lies in the distant future, while the task at hand is the sharp and often angry struggle against oppression.

Since the inequality between women and men is so ingrained, so ancient, and so thoroughly codified in all cultural institutions, forcing society to see that the issue even exists, that “the way things are” is terribly wrong, must consume the total commitment of women. I agree, then, with the criticism directed at the equality position that too great a present desire for reconciliation risks becoming a feminist apologetic which actually supports the status quo. I am not, however, at all sure that the risk is not worth taking, for the danger present in the ascendancy position lies in being satisfied with a reversal of power within the existing structure rather than the total abolition of the structure itself. If oppression is systemic, and its existence in so many realms—economic, political, ecological, racial, sexual—strongly suggests that it is, then, only a radical change of structure will suffice. The biblical proverb “the last will be first, and the first last” well illustrates the problem, for when the last become first, they then become last again. As long as the system requiring a first and a last exists, so will these shifts of power. One from the ascendancy view might justly object that these “shifts” appear altogether rare in the last several thousand years, and it is time one finally took place. While I must admit the cogency of that objection, I think the point still stands.

Even with in the Christian reformist group, these two positions on the goal of the feminist critique can be found, although the equality view tends to be the more common one. Whether one emphasizes reconciliation or, rather, emphasizes the critical struggle against androcentric society influences how one interprets the Bible, as we shall see. Before exploring the various specific responses to the biblical text found in the work of feminists, let us discuss several basic elements of feminist hermeneutics.

Feminist Hermeneutics

The most common objection to a feminist reading of a text—or a Marxist, Freudian, or any other special reading, for that matter—is that it is subjective. This subjectivity, it is argued, results from the vested interests of the perspective and tends to distort what the text is really saying. Indeed, this objection contains a correct observation but a faulty assumption. All interpretations are “subjective,” that is, all readings are influenced by the vested interests and concerns of the interpreter. Certainly the history of biblical scholarship, quite apart from either feminist critique or current sociological, philosophical, and psychological theories, bears out this assertion. Albert Schweitzer in 1906 pointed out the inevitability of just such subjectivity in relation to the life of Jesus quest: “But it was not only each epoch that found its reflection in Jesus; each individual created Him in accordance with his own character.” Recent biblical scholarship can chronicle its own examples of the same phenomenon.11 Interpretation, then, is always a subjective activity, in the sense that it is always influenced by the conscious and unconscious concerns of the interpreter. Bultmann’s concept of pre-understanding (Vorverständnis) is a limited acknowledgement of this same issue, for the question one asks of a text determines to a large extent the answer one gets. Thus all hermeneutical perspectives are advocacy positions.

Consequently, the whole objective/subjective (or exegesis vs. eisegesis) argument is a false perception of the issues involved in interpretation. Just as the naive fiction of the transcendent historian who looks with equanimity at all the data of centuries and records what actually happened has fallen to the more sophisticated, less godlike view of the limitations of historical reconstruction, just so must the image of the objective interpreter who only construes what the text really says give way to the admission of advocacy. To assert that all scholarship is advocacy is not, however, to chart new ground and invite anarchy. It is only to admit honestly what the case has been and still is. The criteria of public evidence, logical argument, reasonable hypotheses, and intellectual sophistication still adjudicate acceptable and unacceptable positions.

Yet, these criterial themselves raise additional problems. The “public” who determine what is reasonable, who form a “consensus view” are special interest groups with different canons of validity. For example, the use of the Pastoral Epistles as evidence for Paul’s theology would be acceptable to most evangelical scholars but unacceptable to most other scholars. I suggest that the fiction of an objective reading of a text asserts itself when the biases guiding the interpreter match closely the biases undergirding the evaluating group. Subjective interpretations, then, are ones which deviate from those views. Thus, the objective/subjective polemic is revealed to be a form of ideological pressure to concur with the dominant perspective. While few biblical scholars are so out of touch with modern philosophical positions on these issues as to claim pure objectivity as a goal, the hint that one’s work is really eisegesis rather than exegesis remains the most damning of criticisms.

Hence, feminist hermeneutics is not the deviant, subjective position to be contrasted to hermeneutics (no adjective), the objective, value-neutral position of the group in power. No value-neutral position exists nor ever has. Feminist hermeneutics stands over against patriarchal hermeneutics, an advocacy position for the male-oriented, hierarchically established present cultural power system. In the past and still for the most part in the present, biblical research which accepts, perhaps even unconsciously, the views of the patriarchal system has been deemed objective, value-neutral exegesis. Work that does not agree with those fundamental tenets, be it by feminist, black, third world, Marxist, or whatever group, is perceived as trivial, deviant, and subjective eisegesis. Since in most cases, though not all, the same data, research tools, and critical methods are being used by all groups, the differing evaluations arise from conflicting hermeneutical positions. And, it is the dominant group that brands one set as objective, reality-oriented exegesis and the other as subjective eisegesis.

Feminist hermeneutics itself can be defined, employing the minimal definition of feminism we established earlier, as a reading of a text (or the writing of an analysis, or the reconstructing of history) in light of the oppressive structures of patriarchal society. Such a reading can have either a predominantly negative or predominantly positive orientation. Some feminist interpretations aim primarily at exposing the androcentric bias or oppressive intention operative within a text, to show the text to be unalterably patriarchal and, therefore, without authority or value. The ascendancy view of feminism somewhat predisposes interpreters towards this direction. Other feminist readings attempt to highlight the social, religious, and political power of women which has been ignored, overlooked, or hidden by patriarchal hermeneutics. Most of the articles in this volume represent this latter type of feminist reading, and while both ascendancy and equality positions can support such work, the equality view tends to encourage it more. In addition, these positive interpretations fall along a spectrum which moves from the tentative recognition of hidden liberation potential within a text to the dangerous area of out-and-out apologetic.17

Whereas patriarchal hermeneutics grounds its perceptions in the ideological assurance of “reality” or “the way things are,” feminist hermeneutics self-consciously attempts to ground its analyses in the experience of women’s oppression. Actually, both hermeneutical positions, perhaps all hermeneutical positions, are grounded in experience. The experience of the powerful in a society that is structured for their benefit and advancement contains few disjunctions or anomalies; thus, the ideological assertion that their view represents reality seems unquestionable. It is only those whose very being (e.g., black, female, Native American) prevents them from fully participating in the dominant cultural structure regardless of ability or achievement who experience the aporia of life and who consequently understand “reality” to be ideologically formulated. Thus, the disjunctive, anomalous experience of women in an androcentric culture where they must both literally and symbolically deviate from the male norm is the bedrock on which feminism and feminist hermeneutic is built.

Yet, experience itself is interpreted. The data of our existence is filtered through some organizing matrix in order for us to categorize it, order it, and make it sensible. Culture inculcates, this matrix in the earliest stages of childhood with the learning of language, the adoption of manners, and the imitation of elders. Only when anomalies grow do we ever question the matrix itself. Even at that point, however, our questions are guided by the same interpretive grid. The cultural matrix founds its own interrogation. For anyone raised in Western society under the dominance of Judaism or Christianity, those religions and their sacred writings have profoundly affected the very categories by which experience is understood. Hence, while rightly castigating them for their support of oppressive structures, we must also acknowledge that our understanding of what oppression is and that it is wrong is to a considerable extent indebted to the influence of these religious traditions.

My second bias, to stand within the Christian tradition, is encouraged by this observation that the impetus toward recognizing oppression and struggling for liberation is in part constituted by the perspectives of Christianity. The Bible, then, is not only a book that has justified slavery, economic exploitation, and sexual oppression; it is also a book that has informed liberation, the infinite worth of the individual, and the call to fight against evil.

Feminists who too quickly reject or too thoroughly accept the biblical witness are in danger of oversimplifying the situation. Certainly the clearest move would be to turn away from the religious and cultural institutions that undergird the dominant androcentric society in which we live and create something entirely new. The major difficulty with such an impluse is that the patterns by which we think have been structured by the culture in which we learned, and the new thing we try to create will be unavoidably tied to the old. New patches on old cloth tear away.

We are inevitably, I think, in the position of having to dismantle the patterns themselves, and the only tools at hand are ironically the insights provided by those same patterns. So, one must struggle against God as enemy assisted by God as helper, or one must defeat the Bible as patriarchal authority by using the Bible as liberator. Feminist hermeneutics, then, is profoundly paradoxical. Such a tension is difficult to maintain, for one is always tempted to reject one side, God as enemy, and accept without qualification the other, God as helper, to discard one part of the canon (or even the canon within the canon) and lift up another as the real Word. Yet, I suggest that only by insisting on the paradoxical position of feminists within androcentric culture and, more specifically, Christian feminists within Christian tradition can a truly creative movement toward new patterns of existence arise.

To destroy the oppressive structure of society using the tools that structure itself supplies is a process of erosion. The complete shaking of the foundations of patriarchal culture which feminism envisions will not happen hastily. Brief, violent revolutions, I think, permit only minor changes, for example, the replacing of one oppressive system of government by a different oppressive system. The kind of vast structural alteration that feminism demands must occur gradually over a long period, and it will be achieved not by great acts of sacrifice, though those may occasionally be necessary, but by small, often unnoticed acts of subversion. Numerous such incremental changes, like erosion, will eventually bring down the fortress. The process feminism must pursue is not unlike the process suggested for the coming of the Kingdom of God in the gospel parables: Like the small seed planted in the ground which over time grows into the largest bush, or the small amount of leaven which infiltrates the whole loaf, or the seeds that almost unnoticed grow into the harvest, so vast revolutions slowly change the landscape. Unfortunately, the patience required for this process is generally beyond what human beings possess. Short-term goals are then substituted, much as the institutional church by the second-century C.E. began reaching for temporal power and ecclesiastical order rather than the Kingdom of God, and much as the earlier suffragettes after achieving the right to vote ended the campaign for full equality. Such lapses delay, but I hope do not finally prevent, the harvest.

To see within the biblical language of the coming of the Kingdom of God signs of the help chart the course of feminism is but one way the patterns that uphold patriarchal society may provide insights into its demise. To pursue further these reflections on the paradoxical nature of feminist hermeneutics, we now need to look more closely at some specific responses to the Bible proposed by feminists and the ramifications of those proposals.

Some Feminist Responses to the Bible

Within the reformist position, at least three relatively distinct responses to the Bible can be discerned. Of course, none of the definitions or divisions suggested by this essay should be taken rigidly. In attempting to delineate some issues clearly, I have purposely drawn the categories more distinctly than they probably ever appear in practice. Actual studies by feminists, even the ones in this volume, will not always fall into one category or another. Nevertheless, differences of emphasis and direction are apparent and should be analyzed.

All reformist work acknowledges that the Bible came into existence in a strongly patriarchal environment and is a product of its time; hence, a misogynistic bias in the text itself is to be expected. How strong that bias is and how it should be dealt with are points on which feminists differ.

Like other liberation theologians, some feminists argue for a “prophetic-liberating tradition of Biblical faith” present in texts from the exodus accounts through the prophets into the message of Jesus that can then function as a norm by which other biblical texts are judged. This prophetic tradition becomes “the central tradition” of the biblical witness and determines which other aspects of the Bible are or are not authoritative.21 Such a position is a version of the canon within the canon argument so familiar in recent research. It has the advantage of using a fairly large portion of scripture in its support and of providing criteria by which the patriarchal bias of other passages may be undercut. For those with an equality definition of feminism who are moving toward the goal of reconciliation, it is ideal. Women and men together must recognize that the essence of Christianity (or Judaism) is the prophetic call for liberation of the oppressed.

Related to this perspective, yet with its own distinctive emphasis, is a second reformist position which may be called the remnant standpoint. By making a conscious effort to retrieve texts overlooked or distorted by patriarchal hermeneutics, this response to the Bible attempts to uncover the counter-cultural impulses within the text. In accordance with this aim, the remnant position most often focuses its attention on texts involving women characters and explores their functions without the patriarchal presumption of marginality. In this task, some feminists have had stunning success.23 Although the number of such stories in the Bible is clearly limited and the number evincing counter-cultural values more limited still, one lives not by the majority but by the remnant. To find within the writings of a culture so thoroughly patriarchal any counter-cultural material witnesses to the theological vitality and importance of that remnant. While this strategy for approaching the Bible is amenable to both the ascendancy and equality views of feminism, the positive regard with which the text is held is more likely to be found among those who seek reconciliation and affirm the continuing value of the biblical tradition.

The third alternative eschews the present canon almost entirely and turns instead to the reconstruction of biblical history in an attempt to show that the actual situations of the Israelite and Christian religions allowed a greater role for women than the codified writings suggest. From the standpoint of Christianity, this perspective involves looking at the hints about powerful women in Paul’s letters and the synoptics, studying the evidence found in so-called “heretical” movements of the second and third centuries, and suggesting on the basis of this research combined with current sociological theory that the earliest phases of Christianity were egalitarian. The practical starting point for this position is the observation that the canonical writings have not only been subject to patriarchal interpretation through the centuries but are themselves products of patriarchal hermeneutics. The Bible is permeated with the language, symbols, and ideas of female inferiority and sub-humanity. Whatever the historical reality, the biblical authors, influenced by political and cultural tendencies, composed thoroughly patriarchal documents. The prophetic-liberation view, for example, must overlook the fact that the prophets never argued for the liberation of women, and indeed within the prophetic material itself one finds some of the most misogynistic passages in the Bible.

This radical evaluation of biblical material would seem to push one out of the Christian tradition, but the shift from text to history prevents that result. By arguing that the earliest Christian group, the Jesus movement, was in all ways egalitarian and that that counter-cultural phase is glimpsed in some of the earliest New Testament writings and in the later “heretical” movements, one establishes a ground for claiming the true Christian community as egalitarian. Although this feminist reconstruction of earliest Christianity has as much, perhaps more, in its favor as any other such reconstruction, several issues arise. Since this egalitarian period is quickly superceded by an increasingly patriarchal organization, how is it to be evaluated? Does its early date indicate a connection with Jesus that would give it pre-eminence over all that followed? Or, is it only a necessary sociological step to the more stable patriarchal structure? However one answers these queries, the crucial question from my standpoint is whether or not any historical reconstruction can form the basis of Christian faith and practice. Because of its basically negative evaluation of the text, this strategy is particularly valuable to feminists who reject reconciliation in favor of the more pressing struggle against oppression.

All three of these approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. All three are necessary and worthy of much more study and exploration. Yet, I find myself, no matter how widely I spread the net, still unsatisfied with the results of feminist biblical hermeneutics. If, to use the image of Luke’s parable, feminist readings are discovering the lost coin within Christianity—while that is joyous and a cause for rejoicing—the other nine coins of patriarchy seem overwhelming. When one recovers the liberation themes of the Bible, recovers the importance of women characters within the text, recovers the history of women in early Christianity and their rightful role in Church history, even with all of that material, one finds but one coin in ten, and what can be done with the other nine? When all the recovery is done, is it enough to live with? Can feminists remain satisfied with the discovery of the occasional or exceptional in a patriarchal religion? Another way of putting the problem is that if one is convinced, as I am, of the pervasively patriarchal nature of the Bible and yet not persuaded that reconstructions of history can replace the canon, is it still possible to stay within the Christian tradition?

Formulating the issue in this way suggests an interesting analogy to the problem Rudolf Bultmann tried to solve by his demythologizing program. While the medieval period had been able to deal with problematic material in the biblical text by means of allegory, the rise of historical consciousness in the West removed that possibility. How was a scientific age to understand or appropriate the mythological language of apocalyptic, miracles, and resurrection? Following the arguments of William Wrede in 1897, most New Testament scholars gave up the explicit attempt to address the current, normative problems of the day and confined their activities to describing the history of primitive Christian religion. Only Bultmann in the past century has self-consciously attempted to draw together the historical and the normative, “What it meant” and “What it means,” in a thoroughgoing synthesis. Yet, we know that historical research is constantly influenced by the current concerns, predispositions, and beliefs of the historian, that the neat separation of past and present is impossible. Consequently, Bultmann’s real value is in the self-consciousness and honesty with which he pursued his task.

The problem Bultmann squarely faced was how a pervasively mythological and Hellenistic document could continue to communicate anything of value to a scientific age which saw the universe in utterly different terms. Analogously, we are faced with the issue of how a pervasively patriarchal document can continue to communicate anything of value to those who reject all such oppression. The feminist formulation of the issue is more radical, for the Bible is not only intellectually unintelligible but actively evil, and the ethical results of one’s work have immediate and immense impact on the future of the Church. Yet, the hermeneutical and theological dilemma Bultmann struggled to address still remains: how does one deal with a biblical text that is so completely saturated in an unacceptable perspective?

Bultmann suggested that one needed to translate New Testament mythology into a new realm of discourse. Such a de-mythologizing process could be accomplished through Sachkritik, the method of separating the essence or concept from the particular objectification of it. Hence, the religious concept, expressed in existentialist terms, could be rescued from the intellectually unacceptable mythological objectification. Such a procedure or its modern descendants might well provide a fruitful approach for feminist hermeneutics that has yet to be explored.

If, however, one cannot accept Bultmann’s arguments for separating the concept from its expression, if one believes that the reality of the message is inextricably bound to its particularity, then Bultmann’s solution is unsuccessful, for to de-mythologize inevitably means to lose something essential to the message. If mythology and patriarchy are necessary to the formulation of the kerygma, how can it be appropriated? It is at this point that the paradoxical position of feminist hermeneutics may become a key to approaching the biblical text and, as an added benefit, to revitalizing the discipline of New Testament theology. The issues that feminists face, then, are not peripheral to biblical scholarship; in fact, the problems raised so urgently and so forcefully by feminist hermeneutics stand at the center of theological reflection on the relation between the text and the kerygma.

To understand the same God as enemy and friend, as tormentor and savior, to read the same Bible as enslaver and liberator, that is the paradoxical challenge of feminist biblical hermeneutics. It is, moreover, a challenge for every Christian living honestly in the modern world. Indeed, if New Testament theology has a future, I suspect at the moment it may well be with feminism.

Published: December 16, 2014, 13:47 | Comments Off on THE BIBLE AND FEMINIST HERMENEUTICS – via ArchBishop Uwe AE.Rosenkranz
Category: ROSARY 4 z Bishop

Comments are closed.

ROSARY welcome

Prayer Menu


Blog archive

July 2017
« May    

Bishop Rosary´s Arch