Review of Dale B. Martin, Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation

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Review of Dale B. Martin, Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation (Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 257 pp.

Dale Martin's newest book serves two functions that some scholars would have handled in separate volumes. For more than a decade, Martin has been writing essays on gender, sexuality, and biblical interpretation that have proven to be indispensable reference points for biblical scholars and theologians wrestling with such topics. Sex and the Single Savior gathers a number of those essays (about half of which previously appeared in other places) and makes them available in a single volume. Martin's reader will find here incisive discussions of New Testament, early Christian, early Jewish and Greco-Roman texts that deal, or (and this is important for Martin's approach) are sometimes read as dealing, with a wide range of topics including gender roles and ideologies; desire and asceticism; kinship, marriage and divorce; and homoeroticism. However, Martin's book also includes several chapters that focus on methodological and theological matters, such as the roles of rhetoric, culture, and experience in interpretation; the status of historical criticism as modernity's privileged strategy for reading the Bible; and the nature and function of "Scripture" in communities of faith, ancient and modern. At first glance, these hermeneutical emphases might seem out of place in a volume devoted to "gender and sexuality in biblical interpretation" (to quote the book's subtitle). Yet Martin does not only use debates over sex, gender and family as test cases for his methodological inquiries. He also demonstrates that contemporary arguments about sex, gender and family inevitably rest upon presuppositions about textual meaning and interpretation, which in many cases need to be interrogated critically. Thus, matters of gender and sexuality, and matters of hermeneutics and methodology, are inextricably intertwined already. Martin's volume helpfully explicates some of the relationships between them while offering a series of proposals for rethinking those relationships.

Many of Martin's arguments are aimed at what he refers to as "textual foundationalism." As used by Martin, the phrase "textual foundationalism" is not identical to "fundamentalism." Although fundamentalists may be foundationalists, many foundationalists reject beliefs about the inerrancy, theological authority, or historical accuracy of biblical texts. Foundationalists, however, whether they are fundamentalists, theological liberals, or critical scholars working in the university, usually subscribe to some version of what Martin calls "the myth of textual agency," that is, the "common assumption ... that the Bible 'speaks' and our job is just to 'listen'" (p. 1). Against this assumption about a "speaking" Bible, Martin argues forcefully that textual meaning is inseparable from interpretation, which itself takes place in specific contexts and under the influence of traditions and interpretive communities (religious and scholarly). Recognition of this fact does not at all entail a rejection of the historical, contextual analysis of texts, an important modern type of analysis at which Martin himself--formerly a Professor of New Testament at Duke University and now for several years at Yale--excels. It does, however, require interpreters of all stripes to take responsibility for the ethical consequences of their own interpretive moves rather than projecting those moves onto the supposed agency of texts.

Some of these points have been made before, though seldom with the clarity that one finds throughout Martin's essays. However, Martin considers the consequences of such points for contemporary debates over Bible, gender, and sexuality, including the debates over homosexuality. Martin points out, for example, how assumptions about textual agency shape both the rhetoric of scholars who oppose homosexuality and the rhetoric of scholars who condone it. …