Trying to Prove That the Bible Is Pro-Woman: How Some Feminists Perpetuate Patriarchy

By Ksarjian, Lena | Free Inquiry, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Trying to Prove That the Bible Is Pro-Woman: How Some Feminists Perpetuate Patriarchy


Ksarjian, Lena, Free Inquiry


In the August 1993 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Cullen Murphy, managing editor, wrote an article called "Women and the Bible." The article is alluded to on the cover of the monthly by the following statement: "A new generation of scholars is bringing to light the buried history of Jewish and Christian women in ancient times - including their sometimes surprising prominence in religious life." Murphy explores this new generation of scholars through a series of discussions with female theologians who contribute to the ongoing projects of feminist scholarship. Two theologians Murphy cites are Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza of Harvard and Phyllis Trible, a feminist theologian, from Union Theological Seminary in New York.

To the unsuspecting reader, Murphy's article looks promising because it highlights some of the latest currents in biblical feminist scholarship and appears to be sympathetic with these trends. It focuses on certain feminist scholars who construct a case for women's equality based on biblical texts. Indeed, to the unsuspecting reader, Murphy's article appears to show significant strides made by feminist scholars in a field traditionally guided by patriarchy.

However, I am not an unsuspecting reader. On the contrary, I am suspicious of feminist or non-feminist scholars who attempt to create, in the words of one feminist theologian, "a discipleship of equals"(1) originating from modern theological arguments that have little to do with the historical problems present in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. I am skeptical of those who lift ancient texts from their historical milieus in order to make arguments that may not be binding in the light of secular-historical analysis and of those who seek to procure a sense of equality for women from the Bible that, to quote Murphy, "is an androcentric document in the extreme."(2)

A Bible-based feminism actually promotes the patriarchy it tries to eliminate. When feminist scholars seek to use the Bible as a proof-text for defining women's identities, then these scholars are seeking legitimacy from a patriarchal document written by men, edited by men, and canonized by men thriving in male-dominated cultures. One of the motivating forces behind this type of feminist scholarship is our Jewish-Christian culture, which looks to the Bible as a document to provide answers for complex gender issues.

The Bible is so much a part of our culture that many scholars, feminist or otherwise, do not realize they are defending it when they think they are critiquing it. To quote from Alfred North Whitehead: "In each period [of human history] there is a general form of the forms of thought; and like the air we breath, such a form is so translucent, and so pervading, and so seemingly necessary that only by extreme effort can we become aware of it."(3) To use Whitehead's insight, feminists who look to the Bible for women's equality are pervaded by the general form of the forms of thought known as Judeo-Christianity; and, like the air they breath, the infiltration of Judeo-Christian thinking is so translucent, and so pervading, and so seemingly necessary that only by extreme effort can some feminist scholars become aware of the ways by which their particular brand of scholarship actually limits female freedom within American culture.

A DOSE OF REALISM

What then are the alternatives? I suggest a few possibilities. First, there are women scholars who do recognize the thoroughgoing patriarchy of biblical texts and investigate these texts on the basis of the text's patriarchal terms. For example, Nancy Jay, educated at Harvard and Brandeis universities, wrote a ground-breaking book entitled Throughout Your Generations Forever in which she recognizes the patriarchal nature of biblical texts and, based on this historical understanding, demonstrates how ancient peoples subordinated women in both patriarchal and matriarchal cultures through a complicated system of kinship and sacrificial ritual. …

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