On Women and Exegesis

I have often wondered why there are so few women in my field, New Testament exegesis. When I speak to other women, they often say that they feel that it’s impenetrable if you were born with the wrong gender. I’ve personally never understood this, since I haven’t felt like the field was closed off to me that way. It’s true that women often have to know much more than the men in the room if they want to be taken seriously, and that can be very frustrating at times. But NT shares this problem with many other academic fields, fields that don’t have such a shortage of female scholars.

There are in all likelihood a myriad of reasons as to why my field is so devoid of the fairer sex, but after thinking about it almost non-stop for the last little while, I have a (perhaps) new one to add to the list:

It’s harder for women to read the Bible.

This statement is only true for exegetical readings of the Bible. If you read the texts as Christian rather than a non-confessional scholar (is there such a thing?), the universal quality of the words will speak past the contextual wrapping paper and feel relevant to you, no matter who they were originally meant for. But when you read the Bible through the lenses of exegetical theories and the like, you will inevitably be caught in the contextual web of the narrative. It’s this web that creates problems for female exegetes. The majority of individuals who decide to pursue New Testament Studies do so because they come from a Christian background. Thus, the women entering the field are usually already familiar with the Bible, but they are familiar with it from a Christian perspective, a perspective from which many of the texts have personal significance for them. When they then learn to read these texts using exegetical methods, they soon realize that passages which they used to think were especially directed towards them were actually written by men, for men, about men. It can be a very difficult realization, because it separates the Bible from you – makes it more abstract, less personal, more distant. I have a theory that the process I just described is responsible for the fact that many of the women who actually stay in the field go on to write almost exclusively about women in the Bible.

As a woman who has absolutely no intention of ever writing about Feminist Theology or women in the Bible (not because I’m against it, just because I think temple theology, judgement, and the synoptic problem are so much more interesting), I nevertheless think it’s important to point out that even from an exegetical perspective, reading the Bible doesn’t have to be more difficult for women. We tend to focus all our attention on how marginalized women are in the Bible, and it taints our perception. Why don’t we reverse the exercise and emphasize some of the excellent female role models in the Bible, who are actually given a lot of narrative space and importance? Do yourself a favour and take an hour out of your day and read the Book of Esther or Ruth. Take some time to appreciate how many women are included in the New Testament narratives…they all seem to be named Mary, but at least they’re there.

When women decide that the Bible is not relevant to them because it was written by men, they are giving away their interpretative power, usually to other, more modern men. What we need to do is reclaim our interpretative power: the Bible is ours too, and even though it may seem like many texts have nothing to do with us, if you just keep knocking on the contextual walls around the text, eventually you’ll knock them down and reach the universal message encaged within, a message from God to all of humanity, man and woman alike.

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