The Women in the Life of the Bridegroom: A Feminist Historical-Literary Analysis of the Female Characters in the Fourth Gospel

By Kitzberger, Ingrid Rosa | Interpretation, July 2000 | Go to article overview

The Women in the Life of the Bridegroom: A Feminist Historical-Literary Analysis of the Female Characters in the Fourth Gospel


Kitzberger, Ingrid Rosa, Interpretation


The Women in the Life of the Bridegroom: A Feminist Historical-- Literary Analysis of the Female Characters in the Fourth Gospel by Adeline Fehribach Liturgical Press, Collegeville, 1998. 222 pp. $19.95. ISBN 0-8146-5884-9.

TAKING SERIOUSLY INTO AccouNT the literary nature of the Fourth Gospel and consequently the literary function of the women as characters in a story, the author investigates the portrayal of the Johannine women who are explicitly mentioned: the mother of Jesus, the Samaritan woman, Mary and Martha of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene. By employing a historical-literary approach, she concentrates on how a first-century implied reader (i.e., a reader that can be constructed from the text itself) would have read and understood the text and the women in the text. Thus, the Gospel is interpreted in relation to the cultural and literary milieu of the first century. Thereby, however, Fehribach wants to put the present reader in the position of the past reader and enable today's reader to view the Gospel with new eyes and detect hitherto unknown dimensions of meaning in the text.

Fehribach explores a wide range of other texts which formed the "repertoire" of the Fourth Gospel and thus influenced both its production and its reception: the Hebrew Bible, Hellenistic-Jewish writings, and popular Greco-Roman literature. The concept of "honor and shame" as used by cultural anthropologists for the study of gender relations in the Mediterranean area and the history of women in the Greco-Roman world are also taken into consideration. Thus, textual components of the characterization of women are analyzed in conjunction with the cultural, historical, and literary context or "extra-text" of the Gospel.

After an introductory chapter, in which past approaches to women in the Gospel are summarized and in which the author explains her own approach, she offers five chapters in which the respective Johannine women are investigated within the literary context of the Gospel and within the context of "extra-texts" (or "intertexts"). Special attention is paid to literary conventions, character-types, and type-scenes involving women, in particular from the Hebrew Bible. Chapter two deals with the mother of Jesus at Cana (2:1-11); chapter three with the Samaritan woman at the well (4:1-42); chapter four with Mary and Martha of Bethany ( 11:1-46; 12:1-11 ); chapter five with the mother of Jesus at the cross ( 19:25-28); and chapter six with Mary Magdalene at the tomb (20:1-18). A summary chapter contains the author's conclusions regarding the depiction and function of the women in the Gospel based on a feminist, historical-literary approach, as well as some ten, tative suggestions as to how a reader from the twentieth or twenty-first century might counter-read the characterization of these women.

The thesis of the book is that the primary purpose of the women in the Fourth Gospel is to support the portrayal of Jesus as the messianic bridegroom and further the plot of Jesus' giving people the power to become children of God ( 1:12). This is demonstrated by detecting allusions and references in the Johannine text to intertexts, especially of the Hebrew Bible and Greco-Roman literature, in which women feature as brides/wives/mothers in relation to the male hero.

The result of Fehribach's historical-literary analysis is a highly androcentric and patriarchal text of John's Gospel (and thus a portrayal of the women as marginalized) that reflects the non-egalitarian community behind the Gospel.

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