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Christians for Biblical Equality

The Biblical ideal is the spiritual and social equality of the sexes.

Abstract:

Scripture has at various times and places been read as promoting the spiritual and social equality of the sexes.  ‘Evangelical’ women of the 1800s found in scripture a foundation for their call for the suffrage of woman and greater security for women in terms of property and child custody rights.  The rise of scholarly feminist exegesis since the 1980s, however, has begun seriously to question whether the Bible has anything positive to contribute on the matter of equality of the sexes.  Instead of ‘allies’, Biblical writers like Luke and Paul have been seen as complicit in the subjugation of women.

Principles of narrative criticism may offer a canonically respectful way to revisit the idea that the Bible encourages spiritual and social equality of the sexes. As illustration of how such re-examination might proceed, this paper describes and applies some of these general principles to Luke-Acts and provides a detailed exegetical example from Acts 21:1-14, a passage which includes the ‘silence’ of Philip’s four prophetic daughters.

The Biblical ideal is the spiritual and social equality of the sexes. Discuss.

In his bestseller, The God Delusion, atheist, Richard Dawkins, comments about the increase in social equality of the sexes that has been experienced in the West in the last two centuries. Dawkins attributes gender-equality reforms, together with other reforms such as the abolition of slavery and the rise of racial equality, to Zeitgeist (“spirit of the times”).[1] Dawkins claims that humans are imbued with a synchronicity of consciousness that simply leads to globe-wide improvement.  He claims that such progress would have been made without any recourse to religion or what the Bible may say about gender or race.[2]

Nevertheless, to view the gains in gender equity (or emancipation or racial equality) as independent of Christian religion and its scripture is tantamount to poorly researched revisionism.  In fact, Christian women and men, particularly of the ‘evangelical’ tradition, played a leading role not only in the abolition of slavery but also in gains for women’s rights.  These included rights for women (to the custody of children and to property) in the circumstance of divorce and women’s suffrage.[3] Because many of the these early feminists were of the ‘evangelical’ tradition, a large part of their motivation came not only from their experience of the plight of women, but from their reading of scripture.[4]

Space does not permit a survey of all the scripture passages of the Old and New Testament that these early feminists found inspiring.  Instead this paper will focus on the feminist reception of the writings of Paul and of Luke.  Together these two writers are responsible for more than a third of the New Testament.[5]

Of all scripture, perhaps the verse which most inspired the work toward gender equity in the last two centuries is Galatians 3:28 -  “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”.[6] More than any other verse it seems to support strongly the idea that the Biblical ideal is indeed the spiritual and social equality of the sexes.  However, this idea is not dependent on a single “proof text” alone, but on the broad thrust of scripture in which women play significant roles in the story of God from one end of the canon to the other. [7]

The prominence of women in scripture is nowhere more conspicuous than in the Lukan narratives.  Here is found a consistent “pairing” of men and women.  Zechariah has an annunciation – Mary has an annunciation; Simeon greets the baby Jesus in the Temple – then Anna does the same; Jesus is accompanied by the male ‘twelve’ and also by three named and many other unnamed women. The ‘pairing’ continues into Acts: Peter heals Aeneas - Peter heals Dorcas; Aquila and Priscilla work as a couple and both have a teaching ministry; Agabus is a prophet - Philip’s four daughters are prophets.  Early feminists interpreted the Lukan ‘pairings’ as commending an egalitarian participation of both sexes in ministry, discipleship, prophetic witness and the receipt and conveyance of the ‘good-news’ of salvation.

Although Paul’s writings have far less narrative quality than Luke’s, there is nevertheless a similar pattern of gender “pairing” that suggests that Paul also advocated gender equality. For example, 1 Corinthians contains many exhortations that have a perfectly symmetrical two-part form.  Using these “couplets” Paul makes the same exhortation twice – once to men and then, repeated word-for-word, addressed to women.[8]

Luke’s pairings are more numerous than Paul’s “couplets”.  So whereas Luke’s inclusion of women characters in his narratives earned him the reputation as the “champion of women”, Paul did not enjoy the same reputation.  Although Paul’s more common pattern was gender-balanced “couplets” of exhortation, there are also, in the Pauline corpus, some directives specifically for women that appear to restrict their equal participation in ministry (for example, 1 Tim 2:12, forbidding women to teach, and 1 Cor 14:34-35, forbidding speaking during worship).  These run against the grain of the more common egalitarian “couplets”.  Interpretations of Paul’s so-called ‘anti-women’ passages vary widely.[9]

Luke’s “golden” reputation as a “champion of women” also became significantly tarnished under the scrutiny of the feminist scholarship that began to make its mark in the 1980s.  Feminist scholars of religion re-examined the Lukan narratives and found the “pairings” to be greatly unbalanced.  For instance, Simeon got far more text space than Anna (whose speech was only reported indirectly). Women in each of the pairings seemed to speak very little.  Their speech was rarely recorded as quotation and, when they were recorded as speaking out, they were variously rebuked, contradicted or not believed. The woman who says to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you,” seems to draw criticism from Jesus (Luke 11:27-28); the women witnesses to the resurrection are not believed (Luke 24:11); Rhoda is not believed (Acts 12:15); the Philippian oracle who announces, “These men are servants of the Most High who are proclaiming to you a way of salvation,” gets exorcised for her trouble (Acts 16:17-18).

Feminist scholars noted that, as the narrative in Luke-Acts progresses, women become less noticeable, and the final straw is the episode with Agabus and Philip’s daughters (Acts 21:1-14).  There, Agabus delivers a dramatic prophecy about Paul’s fate. By contrast, Luke seems entirely uninterested in what Philip’s prophetic daughters may have had to say about the matter (regarding Paul’s final journey to Jerusalem).  With all these observations, suddenly the pendulum of opinion had swung against Luke, the brightest hope in the canon for the equality of the sexes.

For many feminists, the subordination of women remains the “Biblical position” on gender equality.  The Biblical testimony, rather than ally, is considered complicit in the subjugation of women.  If scriptural texts are to be read redemptively, then they have to be read with “hermeneutical suspicion” or “against the grain”.[10] If feminists are to find messages of spiritual and social equality they must be wrested from un-cooperative Biblical texts in ways that are “canonically transgressive”.

For women and men who believe that spiritual and social equality of the sexes is the ideal, and who also believe that scripture is authoritative and should be interpreted in canonically respectful ways, there is a dilemma.

A solution to this impasse may be offered by another relatively contemporary trend in Biblical scholarship.  This is the rise of Narrative Criticism.  Beginning with the pioneering work of Robert Alter in the 1970s, modernist and reductionist ways of critically interpreting scripture have been challenged by an authentically literary way of reading.  Narrative Criticism is more sensitive to plot, character, the narrator’s voice, irony, humour, rhetorical devices, gaps and silences in the text.[11] For the Lukan narratives to begin with, it is through such close reading, that a way might be discovered for reassessing the conviction that the Biblical ideal is spiritual and social gender equality.[12]

To demonstrate the potential of a narrative-critical reading, the second half of this paper reassesses passages from Luke-Acts that more recent feminist scholarship have identified as unsupportive to the case for gender equality.  The reassessment is in three sections: firstly, it examines passages in which women’s testimony is disbelieved; secondly, it examines passages in which women are silent; and thirdly, it tries a more detailed “test-case” with one of the most “difficult” passages to reconcile to gender equality - the complete ignoring of Philip’s four prophetic daughters.

The narratives of the first category in which women’s testimony is not believed, include: the dismissal of Elizabeth’s insistence that, against tradition, her son’s name is to be John and not Zechariah (Luke 1:57-66); the dismissal of the women’s testimony to Christ’s resurrection as “idle tale” (Luke 24:9-12); and the disbelief of Rhoda when she maintains that Peter is no longer in Herod’s prison but at the gate (Acts 12:12-17).

One of the principles of Narrative Criticism is to maintain a clear distinction between the voice of the narrator and the voices of characters.  When reading Biblical narratives, narrative critics assume that the narrator is, to all intents and purposes, omniscient and our most reliable guide to what is really happening.

It is significant that in each of the three passages the narrator has introduced the female characters positively. We are told that Elizabeth is a descendant of Aaron.  We also read that Elizabeth was righteous before God and lived blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord (Luke 1:5-6).  Of the women disciples, we are informed that they are generous with their resources in the support of the ministry of Jesus (Luke 8:1-3).  Of Rhoda, we learn that she is a maidservant  (Acts 12:13)– a category upon whom we anticipate the outpouring of the Spirit and prophecy because of Luke’s earlier quotation of Joel’s oracle within Peter’s first sermon (Acts 2:16-21).

In each of these passages, the narrator goes to great lengths to ensure that the readers know that what each woman says is true. Characters in the narrative doubt the truthfulness of the women; an observant reader does not.

Lastly, a narrative critic would observe that, at the conclusion of each of these narratives, the women receive strong vindication.  To the satisfaction of the other characters in the narrative, they are demonstrated to have been correct all along (Elizabeth’s son’s name is John; Christ is risen; Peter is out of goal).

The narratives of the second category, in which women receive less direct speech than men, include: Anna (Luke 2:36-8); the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet (7:36-50); Mary at the feet of Jesus (10:38-42); and Philip’s prophetic daughters.[13] Here a narrative critic might observe that in the whole of Luke-Acts there is great unevenness in speech allocation per se and the unevenness is independent of gender.  Narrative criticism encourages analysis of whole texts. Whole-text analysis reveals that there are many male characters whose speech might have been of interest and yet who say little or nothing.[14] Against these observations, the conclusion that Luke is singling out women and silencing their voice is untenable.

Narrative Criticism’s interest in the whole text and the consequent constraint of reductionist tendencies would also suggest that we avoid the danger of what could be dubbed “pericopisation” - looking at extracted passages in isolation from the whole text.[15] Many feminist commentaries have focused on narratives in which female characters are present.[16] On one hand, this is legitimate and justifiable after centuries of neglect of these passages by male-driven lectionaries and commentaries.[17] On the other hand, however, focusing solely on ‘female’ pericopes is exegetically dangerous because context and intertextuality that inform the interpretation of passages are often overlooked. To illustrate the benefit of placing passages within their narrative context this paper considers one final example from Luke-Acts – the silence of Philip’s four prophetic daughters.[18]

Feminist commentators see the ignoring of what Philip’s daughters have to say (regarding the question of whether Paul should return to Jerusalem) as the final confirmation of Luke’s disqualification to the title “the champion of women”.  Exegetes have expressed disappointment at these four women being “passed over” for the dramatic prophecy of Agabus.[19] It seems to erode any good that Luke may have done early in his two-part work setting up women as prophetic witnesses to God’s work (as with Elisabeth, Mary and Anna).  Luke’s treatment of Philip’s daughters seems to leave women of the belief community in a subordinate position – overlooked and silent.

The narrative exegete’s distinction between the narrator’s voice and the voices of characters is crucial to the exegesis of this passage.  An unhelpful exegetical tendency to make heroes or saints out of central characters can distract the reader from useful narrative insights. One insight is that, at significant moments in a character’s action, a narrator will withhold “editorial comment” and the deity (according to the narrator) will also be silent (give no instruction or command).  The implication in this situation is that the central character, far from acting “rightly”, has in fact wandered outside divine command.[20]

Combining this insight with a broader frame means we would pay particular attention to the point in the Lukan narrative where Paul first mentions the ‘necessity’ of returning (again) to Jerusalem (19:21). There is an ambiguity at this point.  Whose resolve is it that Paul must go to Jerusalem – Paul’s or the Spirit’s?  Because of a narrative critic’s sensitivity to intertextuality, a particular tension would be noticed.  There is a tension between Paul’s assertion and one of our most reliable references for the divine command in Acts - Jesus’ final words of commission (Acts 1:8).  Jesus’ words suggest a one-way centrifugal direction to mission and evangelism, in comparison to which reluctance to leave Jerusalem or a constant gravitation back to Jerusalem compares unfavourably (Paul was only just there in 18:22). [21]

Another strong clue that Paul may be acting outside of the divine command is the advice of the Tyrian believers (Acts 21:3-6).  The narrator states without any ambiguity, “through the Holy Spirit they [the Tyrian believers] told Paul not to go to Jerusalem”.  Paul ignores them and journeys on to Jerusalem (via Caesarea).  The narrator becomes laconic and, at least for the time being, reserves judgment.[22]

Then comes the stay at Philip’s house in Caesarea (Acts 21:8-14), where readers with a particular interest in the participation of women note the “overlooking” of Philip’s four prophetic daughters.  It is here that the male prophet Agabus joins the group and makes a dramatic prophecy suggesting that Paul’s continuing to Jerusalem will result in violent arrest. Then Paul’s travelling companions (‘we’) and ‘the other people there’ (in Caesarea), add their voices to the voices of the Tyrians and Agabus, and they urge Paul not to continue to Jerusalem.[23]

In the final part of the story before Paul arrives in Jerusalem (against all counsel) there is a further clue to the interpretation: when Paul’s companions saw that he would not be persuaded they agreed to be silent except to say, “The Lord’s will be done.”  From this I do not conclude that Paul is right and that all the others (including the Spirit) have been misguided, but rather that God can still achieve the divine purpose even through the actions of a person who will not listen to the consensus of many godly, Spirit-filled people.  Eventually, the “we” voice heed the wisdom of one of the Hebrew proverbs (Prov. 23:9) which recommends not speaking in the hearing of a person who will not listen and who will only despise the wisdom of the speaker’s words.  What is being proposed here is that Philip’s daughters grasped this proverbial wisdom more quickly than Paul’s companions, Agabus and the Tyrians.

Another insight of Narrative Criticism is that a narrator does not introduce a character who has no purpose or function.  To introduce characters who say and do nothing, is to have our attention drawn to their silence and inaction.  The reader is supposed to notice their silence and ask questions about it.  Why are they silent? Is anyone else silent?  In close proximity to their story, the companions (the ‘we’ voice which subtly includes the narrator) also eventually remain silent.  With less proximity, but no less relevance, we note that Jesus, also on a journey to Jerusalem, and in the face of audiences who will not hear wisdom chooses laconic responses (before Pilate in Luke 23:3) and eventually silence (before Herod in 23:9).  When a character becomes silent it would be wrong to read this as Luke’s disregard for them.

The conclusion in the last example may be contrary to conventional exegesis.  However, I contend that it is plausible within the wider narrative.  This paper’s broader thesis is that Narrative Criticism offers a canonically respectful retrieval of the conviction that the Biblical ideal is the spiritual and social equality of the sexes.  This conviction will by no means rest on the exegesis of one passage alone but on the cumulative weight of narrative-critical re-examination of the many passages that relate to the equal inclusion of women in ministry and proclamation. [24]

Contrary to Dawkins’s theory of Zeitgeist, the emancipation and suffragist movements of the 1800s demonstrated the effective use of responsibly interpreted scripture to extend justice to the oppressed.  The choice by contemporary feminist biblical commentators to follow a “canonically transgressive” path excludes the participation of those who have a positive doctrine of scripture.  It is to those who hold the Bible to be canon, but who also reject the subordination of women that this paper’s proposal of a narrative-critical reappraisal of ‘feminine’ scriptures will be good-news.


Bibliography:

Alter, Robert.  The Art of Biblical Narrative.  New York: Basic Books, 1981.

Bell, John L. One is the body: songs of unity and diversity. Glasgow: Wild Goose, 2002.

Carlacio, Jami. ‘ “Ye Knew Your Duty, But Ye Did It Not”: The Epistolary Rhetoric of Sarah Grimké.’ Rhetoric Review 3rd ser. 21.3, 2002, 247-263.

Culpepper, Alan R. “Luke” in The New Interpreters’ Bible Series. Vol IX: Nashville: Abingdon, 1995.

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. London: Bantam, 2006.

Dowling, E. V. Taking away the pound: women, theology and the parable of the pound in the Gospel of Luke. London: Continuum, 2007.

Epp, Eldon Jay.  Junia: The First Woman Apostle. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005.

Gaventa, Beverley, “What Ever Happened to Those Prophesying Daughters?” in A Feminist Companion to The Acts of the Apostles. Ed. Amy-Gill Levine; London: T&T Clarke, 2004.

Giles, Kevin. The Trinity and subordinationism: the doctrine of God and the contemporary gender debate. Downers Grove, IL.:IVP, 2002.

Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. NICNT series; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.

Grieb, A. Katherine  The Story of Romans: A Narrative Defense of God’s Righteousness. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.

Lerner, Gerda. The feminist thought of Sarah Grimké.  Oxford: OUP, 1998.

Mace, Emily R.  “Feminist Forerunners and a Usable past: A Historiography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s The Woman’s Bible,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 25, no. 2 (2009), 5-23.

Payne, Philip Barton. Man and woman, one in Christ: an exegetical and theological study of Paul’s Letters.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.

Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. In Memory of Her. London: SCM, 1983.

Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth (ed.).  Searching the Scriptures: A feminist commentary. New York: Crossroad, 1994.

Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. “Transgressing Canonical Boundaries” in Searching the Scriptures: Volume 2. Ed. E. Schüssler Fiorenza; London: SCM, 1994, 1-14.

Seim, Turid Karlsen.  The Double Message: Patterns of Gender in Luke & Acts. Nashville: Abingdon, 1994.

Spencer, Scott.  Dancing Ladies, Loose Ladies, and Women of the Cloth: The Women in Jesus’ Life. New York, N.Y.: Continuum, 2004

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady.  The Woman’s Bible: Part 1.  New York, NY: European, 1895.

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady.  The Woman’s Bible: Parts 1 & 2.  New York, NY: European, 1898.

 


[1]See Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam, 2006), 265-272.  Dawkins writes toward the end of the section about his theory of Zeitgeist, “For my purposes it is enough that as a matter of observed fact, it [moral Zeitgeist] does move, and it is not driven by religion – and certainly not by scripture” (272).

[2] Dawkins writes, “For my purposes it is sufficient that they [social reforms such as the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the refuting of racism] certainly have not come from religion.”  Ibid., 270.

[3] The fact that emancipation, feminism and evangelicalism were very strongly tied can be demonstrated by looking at the attendance of the 1840 World Anti-slavery Convention of London.  Emancipation was a movement that through the early 1800s had strong ties to ‘evangelical’ Christian traditions, as demonstrated by the leadership of William Wilberforce, Lord Shaftesbury and Thomas Buxton Fowell in the emancipation movement.  The roots of the women’s suffrage movement (which more generally could be called ‘19th century feminism’) also lie within this movement.  Among attendees of the 1940 World Anti-Slavery Convention were: Anne Knight (Quaker); Elizabeth Pease (Quaker); Baroness Byron (an evangelical women who had a trying marriage to Lord Byron); Mary Anne Rawson (abolitionist and member of the British and Foreign Bible Society); Elizabeth Tredgold (of the Congregational Union Chapel in Capetown); Mary Clarkson (daughter of evangelical, Thomas Clarkson), Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (both Quakers from the USA).  The last two mentioned went on to organize the 1948 Seneca Falls women’s rights convention in New York State. It was for the Seneca Falls convention that the Declarations of Sentiments was composed and at which it was first read.  Several of the women’s hopes in this declaration were in the areas of equal participation in religious ministry and in being allowed to follow religious vocation regardless of gender.  Sojourner Truth is another woman of the 1800s in whom evangelical Christian faith, abolitionism and feminism find a strong intersection.

[4] According to historian, Gerda Lerner, religious ideas provided a fundamental source for the Declaration of Sentiments which was first presented at the 1848 women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, N.Y. Most of the women attending the Seneca Falls convention were active in Quaker or evangelical Methodist movements.  The Declaration of Sentiments not only drew upon Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (from which it derived its form and rhetorical style), but according to Lerner, from writings by the evangelical Quaker, Sarah Grimké, to make Biblical claims that God had created woman equal to man and that man had usurped God’s authority by establishing “absolute tyranny” over woman (see Gerda Lerner, The feminist thought of Sarah Grimké. (Oxford: OUP, 1998), 3-8, 37, 87-8, 112. According to writer, Jami Carlacio (in ‘ “Ye Knew Your Duty, But Ye Did It Not”: The Epistolary Rhetoric of Sarah Grimké.’ Rhetoric Review 3rd ser. 21.3 [2002]), Grimké’s writings “opened the public’s eyes to ideas like women’s rights, and for the first time they were willing to question conventional notions about the subordination of women” (247-263).  Elizabeth Cady Stanton who wrote the Declaration of Sentiments went on to write, together with a committee of 26 women, The Woman’s Bible (1895, 1898) which sought to offer commentary to show that women should not be subordinate to men.

[5] In terms of Luke’s authorship, there is a scholarly consensus that the writer of the Third Gospel is also the author of Acts.  I use ‘Luke’ as a convenient way to refer to this author and make no other claims as to Luke’s identity.

The position for Paul is more complex in that, of the thirteen letters that were traditionally ascribed to his authorship, contemporary scholarship feels confident in only attributing to him Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon.  The academic ‘jury’ is still undecided on Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians and Colossians.  The consensus is that 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus belong to the ‘Pauline school’ rather than to the apostle himself.

[6] Galatians and the Luke-Acts were the ‘highpoints’ for early feminist Biblical scholars like Elizabeth Stanton.  She wrote in The Woman’s Bible – Part II (1898) “The sentiment concerning the equality of male and female, which Paul avowed to the Galatians, is perfectly in accord with what “Luke” reports of Jesus’ own custom.” (136) and “…women are quite highly honoured in the Book of Acts, if we except the tragedy of the unfortunate wife [Sapphira] who obeyed her husband.” (149).

[7] I see an analogy here with a distinction that Kevin Giles draws between “quoting texts” to defend a theology and trying to gain a “profound grasp of what Athanasius called the “scope” of scripture – the overall drift of the Bible, its primary focus, its theological centre.” In The Trinity and subordinationism: the doctrine of God and the contemporary gender debate. Downers Grove, IL.:IVP, 2002, 3.

[8] A list of Paul’s symmetrical two-part “couplets” that display radical gender-balance and equality includes the following (from the NRSV): “…each man should have his own wife and each woman should have her own husband.”  (1 Cor 7:2); “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.  For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does” (1 Cor 7: 3-4); “If a man has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.  And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him.  For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband” (1 Cor 7:12-14); “Wife, for all you know, you may save your husband.  Husband for all you know, you may save your wife.” (1 Cor 7:16); “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman.” (1 Cor. 11:11); “For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God." (1Cor. 11:12).

[9] A thorough exegetical examination of the so-called ‘anti-women’ passages in the Pauline corpus is beyond the scope of this brief paper and would preclude my more detailed exegesis of some passages from the Lukan narratives that I use to illustrate the usefulness of a narrative approach to exegesis.   Philip B. Payne’s Man and woman, one in Christ: an exegetical and theological study of Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009) offers a meticulous exegetical analysis of the Pauline corpus in relation to gender equality.  Payne takes Galatians 3:28 (‘the “Magna Carta of Humanity” ’) as a classic statement repudiating gender discrimination (79-108).  He also makes the observation about Paul’s “symmetrically balanced” wording (105) in many parts of 1 Corinthians (105-108).  He provides a helpful dramatis personae of women whom Paul names in his letters as ministry leaders (61-68) including Junia who was redeemed from being mistaken as a male by the masterful study by Eldon Jay Epp (Junia: The First Woman Apostle [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005]).  Payne commits very detailed sections of his book to two ‘difficult’ Pauline passages: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (which he concludes relate to contextual particularities of Sitz im Leben, 211-215) and 14:34-35 (which he concludes, through thorough textual analysis, is an non-Pauline interpolation, 217-267).

[10] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza suggests that feminist scholars of religion must read scripture with methods which are canonical transgressive. Schüssler Fiorenza calls for “canonically transgressive” feminist readings of the Bible that goes beyond the boundaries set by the authorised canon (in “Transgressing Canonical Boundaries” in Searching the Scriptures: Volume 2. Ed. E. Schüssler Fiorenza; London: SCM, 1994, 1-14.). Even though feminist scholars like Phyllis Trible, Dorothy Bass, Carol P. Christ, Mary Daly, and Judith Plaskow hailed Elizabeth Cady Stanton as a forgotten forerunner of feminist scholarship in religion, Schüssler Fiorenza considers that pioneers such as Stanton were not sufficiently canonically transgressive (see Emily R. Mace, “Feminist Forerunners and a Usable past: A Historiography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s The Woman’s Bible,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 25, no. 2 (2009), 4-6).  The dilemma for readers with a doctrine of scriptural inspiration and inerrancy is that their participation becomes by definition excluded from the ‘transgressive’ exegetical activity that Schüssler Fiorenza insists is the only way to wrest scripture from what she calls ‘kyriarchic’ interpretation.

[11] Joel B. Green offers a succinct explanation for the methodology of narratological exegesis in his recent commentary on Luke’s gospel, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, Mich., Eerdman, 1997), 11-20.  For a classic on reading scripture from a narrative viewpoint see Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981).

[12] Even though a narrative approach might seem more applicable to the Luke-Acts than the Pauline corpus, some commentators feel that Paul’s letters may also benefit from a more narrative approach, for example A. Katherine Grieb’s The Story of Romans: A Narrative Defense of God’s Righteousness (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), ix.

[13] Elizabeth V. Dowling, in Taking away the pound: women, theology and the parable of the pound in the Gospel of Luke. (London: Continuum, 2007) notes many instances in Luke’s writing where women seem to be silenced (189-201).

[14] Joseph, who is the only character in the NT to have his genealogy traced back to Adam and God (Luke 4:23-38), remains silent throughout the infancy narratives, even in places where we might anticipate his speech (e.g., Luke 2:48).  Lazarus, whom clearly Luke honours more than his negligent rich neighbour, says nothing, while the rich man says much (Luke 16: 19-31).  In the parable of the two men in the temple: the Pharisees says much and is honoured little; the tax-collector says little (“God be merciful to me a sinner”) and is honoured much (“I tell you this man went down to his home justified rather than the other” (Luke 18:9-14).  Joseph of Arimathea, a good and righteous man, says nothing that the reader hears (Luke 23:50-53). The prophets who come with Agabus from Jerusalem to Antioch – do not prophesy within the reader’s hearing (Acts 11:27).  Neither are we privy to the prophecies of Judas and Silas (Acts 15:32). Apollos, an “eloquent” teacher, says nothing that we get to hear (Acts 18:24-28).

[15] Joel B. Green in The Gospel of Luke explains why Narrative Criticism avoids exegeting pericopes in isolation to the entire text (11).

[16] One can trace back the practice of isolating “feminine” pericopes to Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s The Woman’s Bible (1895, 1898) which consisted of passages of the RV which featured women characters or references to women and equal amounts of commentary by herself and other women.  This was an understandable alternative to providing commentaries on whole texts, as Stanton could not enlist the support from academics who feared too much for their reputations to risk association with the controversial work.  And yet I still detect the tendency even in contemporary feminist biblical commentaries such as Schüssler Fiorenza’s Searching the Scripture to confine attention to feminine pericopes.

[17] I am grateful to the John Bell of the Iona Community for noticing and protesting occasions where denominational lectionaries omit feminine pericopes.  Bell composed There is a line of women partly as a response to the omission of the story of the Egyptian midwives, Shiprah and Puah, as the lectionary worked through the Exodus narratives. John L. Bell, One is the body: songs of unity and diversity. Glasgow: Wild Goose, 2002.

[18] An instance of impoverishing isolation suggested by Culpepper is to examine the story of Jesus, Mary and Martha in isolation from its neighbouring narrative, the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Culpepper builds a strong case for these two passages being a diptych.  This would add it to the list of Luke’s “pairings”, albeit a slightly unusual one where one story is the narrative and the other is a story within the narrative.  Nevertheless after listing linguistic clues of the “paired” nature of the parts of the diptych, Culpepper explains how both stories complement each other as they describe characters who are prepared to cross boundaries of the status quo in order to express something of the nature of the new community living in the light of the gospel.  The Samaritan transcends the bitterness between Jews and Samaritans to express love for his neighbour; Mary transcends the convention, whereby learning from a religious teacher was limited to males, by sitting and listening at the feet of Jesus.  Both main characters are commended for their boundary-crossing actions.

[19] See Beverley Gaventa’s “What Ever Happened to Those Prophesying Daughters?” in A Feminist Companion to The Acts of the Apostles. (ed. Amy-Gill Levine; London; T&T Clarke, 2004), 49; Elizabeth V. Dowling, Taking away the pound: women, theology and the parable of the pound in the Gospel of Luke. (London; T&TClark/Continuum, 2007), 199, F. Scott Spencer, Dancing Ladies, Loose Ladies, and Women of the Cloth: The Women in Jesus’ Life (New York, N.Y.: Continuum, 2004), 146, “Philip’s resident prophetic daughters remain mute in the background.”

[20] This principle of noting the approval of the narrator (or his report of the deity’s approval) or the absence of such narratorial approval, I suggest would make a great difference to traditional exegesis of many Biblical passages: the patriarchs’ trips back to Haran for brides; Joseph’s enrichment of the crown in Egypt by ‘selling’ the drought relief and making slaves from ‘one end of Egypt to another’; Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter; Ezra’s edict; the casting of lots to elect a replacement for Judas; and Paul’s last trip to Jerusalem.  When exegeting these passages we also need to be aware that in some instances ‘pious’ language or ritual, far from being an indicator of walking according to the will of the divinity, can be a smoke-screen to disguise walking in another direction altogether, e.g. Saul’s pious excuse for sparing the best cattle and sheep (1 Sam 14-5).

[21] The apostles seem reluctant to follow Jesus’ directive (Acts 1:8) when we read in Acts 8:1 that all the church, except for the apostles, were scattered throughout the countryside of Samaria and Judea (both mentioned in 1:8).  The narrative then follows those who leave Jerusalem and the advance of the gospel that follows on from their obedient centrifugal trajectory.  The apostles, on the other hand, cease to play any significant role in the narrative.

[22] Just because Paul is responsible for a large amount of the NT canon does not mean that his character in the narrative world of Luke is inerrant, nor infallible.

[23] I have assumed that ‘companionship’ is one of the implications of the ‘we’ voice that the narrator adopts in precise sections of the narrative.  There is much scholarly debate as to why Luke adopts a third-person plural voice in some sections of Acts.  Suggestions range from it possibly reflecting a particular source; possibly a typical narrative ‘device’ of the period and genre of story-telling; or possibly reflective of Luke’s actual accompaniment.  The third person plural (‘we’) voice, whatever its precise explanation, includes implicitly the voice of the narrator.

[24] By ‘retrieval’ I need to emphasize that this is in no way to lesson the significance of the contribution of feminist biblical scholars (especially since the 1980s) to an understanding of Biblical texts particularly as they relate to women.  For instance, they have demonstrated clearly that the simplistic reasoning behind Luke’s reputation as “champion of women” was deficient.  It was not sufficient that Luke be held in this position for merely having paired women and men in narratives.  The way in which Luke achieves an egalitarian narrative I think will be shown to be far more nuanced and complex that mere ‘cameo’ appearances.  His rhetorical methods will prove to be far more complex and subtle than was previously assumed.

Why would biblical writers like Luke choose to be subtle in their portrayal of the equal participation of women in the earliest Christian communities?  Subtlety is often an indicator of an attempt to be rhetorical effective in a complicated and possibly adverse Sitz Im Leben.  Luke had a complicated task in establishing the Christians origins in Judaism, explaining the rejection of Jesus by many Jews, and explaining the fledgling movement’s relationship with imperial Rome (a balance between demonstrating its distinctiveness but not to the point of making it seem a hostile threat).  Similarly Luke is portraying a radical inclusiveness in the participation of women in the eschatological community (the strongest evidence of which is perhaps in the choice of the Joel prophecy in Peter’s first sermon) and yet trying to avoid the type of backlash that this radical emancipation of women could unleash.

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