The Women in the Life of the Bridegroom: A Feminist Historical-Literary Analysis of the Gospel of John

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The Women in the Life of the Bridegroom: A Feminist Historical-Literary Analysis of the Gospel of John, by Adeline Fehribach. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998. Pp. viii + 22. $19.95.

Adeline Fehribach identifies her study of the women characters in the Gospel of John as a feminist analysis. Part of her agenda is to explain the combination of attention to strong, vivid women characters and the presence of traces of patriarchal understandings of gender that have been observed by feminist readers. Her method combines literary and historical reading with a reader-response approach. Using the text in its current state (that is, including John 21 but not 7:53-8:11), she attempts to construct the responses of a first-century reader. To do this, she selects an extratextual repertoire for ancient readers, consisting of "1) commonly known historical facts and figures; 2) classical and canonical literature; 3) literary conventions such as stock characters, type scenes, topoi, etc.; 4) social norms and structures" (p. 16). She also delineates an array of resources for disclosing the reader's "horizon of expectation" for female characters: "1) the Hebrew Bible; 2) Hellenistic Jewish writings; 3) popular Greco-Roman literature: 4) the concept of `honor and shame' as used by cultural anthropologists for the study of gender relations in the Mediterranean area; 5) the history of women in the GrecoRoman world" (p. 9).

In Fehribach's reading, the analogy put into mouth of John the baptizer in 3:29 is used to organize and interpret all the presentations of women. Beginning from the appearance of Jesus' mother at the wedding at Cana (2:1-12), Fehribach argues that when Jesus responds to her with the words "my hour is not yet come" (2:4), the (ancient) reader is led to interpret the coming "hour" as that of Jesus' own wedding. Jesus would then be seen (again, by the ancient reader) as refusing to take the limelight away from the bridegroom. His mother, cast in the role of a "mother of an important man" (cf. Sarah in Gen 21:9-21 and Rebecca in Gen 27:1-46), urges him to increase his own honor at the bridegroom's expense. The reader is then left to expect that the high point of the narrative will be the wedding of the messianic bridegroom, through which the familia dei will be reproduced and children of God begotten (1:14).

John 4:1-42 (the Samaritan woman at the well) and 11:1-12:8 (Martha, Mary, and Lazarus) are, like 2:1-12, read largely through "type scenes" from the Hebrew Bible and "the honor and shame concept" derived from cultural anthropology. The type scene that initiates betrothals through a meeting at a well locates the Samaritan woman as a metaphorical bride, a representative of the Samaritan people, divorced from the supposed five male gods of Samaria and reunited with her true bridegroom through whom many children (the converted Samaritans) are produced. Mary is seen as the fictive bride of the Messiah on behalf of the Jewish people, while Martha and Lazarus become his in-laws. The portrayal of Jesus' death is read as an example of the "dying king typescene"; the mother of Jesus is thus passed on to his heir, as first Darius and then Alexander pass on their female dependents. At the cross and tomb, Mary Magdalen appears climactically as the bride representing the entire community. Fehribach reads the death of Jesus as consummation and conception. The appearance to Mary (John 20:14-18) is juxtaposed with recognition scenes in the Greek romances Chaereas and Callirhoe and An Ephesian Tale, in which the lover believed dead is fortuitously discovered to be in fact alive. …