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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Why People Don’t Like the Holy Sepulchre and Why They’re Wrong

I was in Israel this summer for a course at the Galilee Center for the Study of Jewish Christian Relations (it was an amazing experience, if you’re interested in the subject, check out their website: http://csjcr.com/). My father and I spent some time in Jerusalem before the start of my course, visiting some of our friends from when we used to live there and just enjoying what has to be the most beautiful city in the world. I think one of the reasons why the city appears so stunning to its visitors is because so many people consider it to be holy, and you can almost feel the hopes and dreams of these people pulsating through the sand-coloured stones. For most Christians, the holiest site in the city is the Holy Sepulchre, the Church erected over the place where it is believed Jesus died and resurrected. However, over the years I have heard so many people say that they don’t see the Church as holy, in fact, many Christians don’t even want to visit it. When I asked them why not, almost everyone, without exception, answers either that the Church isn’t actually built over the place of Jesus’ tomb, so there’s no point in visiting it, or that there is so much conflict between different Churches associated with it, that it depresses them. When I first heard these arguments, it was difficult to challenge them. Yes, it is true that the Church may not be built on the exact place of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and yes, it is true that monks from different denominations sometimes get into fist fights when someone cleans their part of the Church. This is a little depressing, and perhaps doesn’t showcase the best this religion has to offer.

But upon closer analysis and some insight from a friend, I have come to realize that these arguments fall when one inspects the issue closer. Let us start with the first point: that the Church may not be built on the exact spot of the Passion. It’s a fair point if one thinks it important to worship at the exact spot of Jesus’ cross. But the fact is that most of the people whom I have heard criticize the Church for this reason are Protestant, so this is a non-issue to begin with. Our faith does not depend on finding the exact spot of these occurrences, but it does build on cultivating a relationship with the trinitarian God. And the Church, with all its faults, is at very least a symbolic reminder for us of Jesus’ atoning death which has freed us from the downfall of evil. Our religion is one of continuity: we believe that our canon and our traditions about Jesus go back more than 2000 years, and that we have kept the message more or less intact through it all, so what better way to interact with our God than in a place where Christians have been worshipping since the 300’s CE? That’s right: the Holy Sepulchre is built on top of one of Helena’s churches, dating all the way back to the fourth century. This not only increases the historical likelihood that this was indeed the place of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it also means that when we visit the church in order to cultivate our relationship with God, we are walking in the footsteps of thousands of faithful, who have been coming to this spot since the reign of Constantine. Because of this, the church becomes a meeting place of those who believe which transcends time and space.

Moving on to the next criticism of the church: that it represents the conflict between Christian denominations. While it seems a hard bargain to argue that the ladder perpetually leaned against the front of the church is a sign of friendship (it has been there since the Tuks decreed a complete freezing of the status quo sometime during the 1800’s because the monks couldn’t get along), I have recently been introduced to a new way of viewing the situation. One of my father’s friends in Jerusalem told us that her husband used to say that he didn’t understand why Christians complained so much about the Holy Sepulchre. He found it fascinating that it actually works as well as it does. If you think about it, he’s right. It’s actually incredible that after years and years of conflict, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, the Armenian Church, the Ethiopian Church, and so many others share a church. Sure, it may not always be a walk in the park, but when you put it in its historical perspective, it’s a miracle that all these denominations are still more or less united in this place. Can you imagine a Synagogue being shared by Ultra-Orthodox and Conservative Jews, or a Mosque shared by Sunni and Shia Muslims? Despite the tension which occasionally erupts in open and ugly conflict, in the grand scheme of things we are lucky to have a place on earth where different, sometimes warring denominations can worship and reflect on what we all share: the belief that God was incarnated and died for our sins, perhaps under the very stones over which the monks argue.

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Q is Passé

For those of you who have a life and thus probably don’t know what the title refers to, Q (or the Two Source Hypothesis) is the love child of nineteenth century German exegetes and liberalism.

If you pick up your Bible (Christian canon implied) and leaf through the four Gospels, you will soon come to the unsettling realization that not only do the four narratives contradict each other on some very important points (like the  chronological placement of the cleansing of the temple, see Mark 11:15-19, Matt 21:12-17, Luke 19:45-48, and John 2:13-25 or Jesus’ last words on the cross, see John 19:30, Mark 15:34 with synoptic parallels). Attempts to “harmonize” these four narratives have been made throughout the history of Christendom, since for many people it is a theological problem that the life of Jesus is told in such different ways – indeed, scholars today often speak of the “Matthean Jesus” or the “Lukan Jesus” in order to emphasize that he often takes a different role in the different Gospels (of course, all Gospels unite on the fact that he is the Messiah, but just how he is related to God, why he came, and, perhaps most importantly, who he came for is often not agreed upon between the evangelists). However, Mark, Matthew, and Luke are strikingly more similar than John, both in chronology, diction, content, and theology. Therefore, these three are often called the Synoptic Gospels. Sometimes the similarity between the three is so close that it’s almost verbatim, as you saw when you looked up the cleansing of the temple (so if you didn’t look it up before, now is your chance). This begs the question: who copied who? Most scholars agree that Mark was written first (around 95% of Mark can be found in Matthew and Luke), but where Matthew and Luke are concerned, the whole thing gets a bit messy.

The German exegetes who, from the depths of their nineteenth century liberalism brought forth the monster that is Q, were attempting to solve this question (called the Synoptic Problem by those in the know – which you can now classify yourself as). Except instead of using the sources available to them, like any other normal historian would, they decided to make everyone’s life a little more complicated by introducing (or perhaps inventing is a better verb here) a new source – the mythical Q.

Q serves the convenience purpose of explaining why there is significant overlap between Matthew and Luke that does not come from Mark. Now, anyone who is unfamiliar with the Synoptic Problem would look at me with a quizzical look and say “why has this occupied scholars for over a century? Can’t they just say that Matthew copied both Luke and Mark, or the other way around?” And if you said this, you would have a point. For some inexplicable reason, the midwives of Q and their colleagues had decided that Luke and Matthew were too different from each other to allow the possibility that they may have had access to each other. Yes, Luke and Matthew are sometimes like day and night, but this should not have to mean that one could not have copied the other. After all, we have many example of ancient authors writing to correct other writers, perhaps the most relevant example here is Josephus, who states that he is writing the history of the Jews to correct Roman misunderstanding and misinformation. Does this sound familiar? If you’ve read the beginning of Luke, it should, because it’s pretty much exactly how the author introduces his gospel – he even openly states that his aim is to organize all the Jesus traditions/narratives into its correct chronology, indicating that he has access to more than one other source about Jesus (of course, this does not at all have to Matthew, but it’s a point worth noting). Indeed, there are a plethora of arguments as to why Q is completely superfluous. If you’re interested in finding out more about the specifics , I suggest you read Mark Goodacre’s excellent book “The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze” (which you can find here : http://www.markgoodacre.org/maze/).

But I do not wish to bore you with the specific exegetical arguments against Q, which can get very complicated and confusing (ergo, let Mark Goodacre lead you through the maze). Instead, I wish to leave the more exegetical tone of this post and venture into a more theological discussion. If we allow ourselves to think hermeneutically for a moment (and I think it’s important that we do), the following question makes itself known: why was it so unthinkable for the nineteenth century German exegetes that Luke should have copied Matthew? Perhaps one may go out on a limb and suggest that it had something to do with their understanding of the Christian faith and its origins. If Luke had access to Matthew, that would mean that he purposefully changed a variety of things (including Matthew’s drool-worthy chronological organization, which is a thing of pure beauty). If the Gospels are divinely inspired, Luke purposefully removing or changing parts of the Matthean narrative becomes problematic. Of course, this applies to the Markan narrative as well, but the changes there are not as extreme, and Luke and Mark are in a higher level of agreement than Luke and Matthew.

Q then, solves this problem by serving as a sort or “ur-gospel” (and thus, according to the linear manner in which we unfortunately often think, the most authentic representation of Jesus). It should then come as no surprise that the parts of Matthew and Luke that were supposedly copied from Q (the beatitudes being the most relevant example) fit very well with a liberalistic, nineteenth century European evaluation of religion. If one were to read Q on its own (and one can, because scholars have attempted to piece it together and have published it as an independent document), Jesus appears as an ethical teacher who roams around the Galilee on a sort of ‘holy’ road trip with his Jewish-yet-not-so-Jewish friends. Q does away with any “uncomfortable” mention of temple theology, cultic activity, or eschatological references. Indeed, there isn’t even a passion narrative, meaning that most of what Paul says about Jesus is seen as not authentic, since it almost exclusively revolves around Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins.  Thus, everything that has to do with Jesus’ atoning death and subsequent resurrection is seen as  later,”un-authentic” additions to the Jesus tradition which are “Christian” in nature rather than Jewish. Nothing could be farther from the truth. As Daniel Boyarin as argues in his brilliant book “The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ” (which I highly recommend to anyone interested in Christian origins – it’s easy to read and very thought-provoking), the Gospels’ portrayal of Jesus as a messianic figure who absolves his people from their sins through his death and begins a new era with his resurrection is a thoroughly Jewish thought with which we can find many textual parallels, both in the Hebrew Bible and in non-canonical texts from the Second Temple period (such as the book of Enoch). Indeed, Boyarin argues convincingly that the idea that the Messiah is the son of God, something which the theology of Q alone does not allow as authentic, and something which is often all too hastily labelled as non-Jewish, is in fact a thoroughly Jewish idea which was blossoming during the time of the Gospels’ composition. Ergo, the Two Source Hypothesis is based on an inadequate understanding of Second Temple Judaism(s), and as such should be labelled as anachronistic.

So, what can Christians take away from this (because let’s face it, this is more of an issue if you believe in the holiness of the Gospels than if you don’t)? The Gospels are not perfect in the way that we are usually taught in Sunday School, and Q, despite trying so hard, does not solve this problem. But is it really a problem? I think that one should view the Gospels as the treasure put into clay jars (2 Cor 4:7). We have been given this amazing and wonderful treasure – the life of Jesus – and God has stored it in clay jars that are cracked and sometimes not as neat and pretty as we would like to think. But, as Leonard Cohen sings in Anthem, “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”. The fact that our canon contains such varied and diverse traditions about Jesus is not a disadvantage. If we choose to accept it, it can be our greatest strength.

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