Gospel Women

Gospel Women

by Richard Bauckham


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Gospel Women by Richard Bauckham

There have been many studies of women in the Gospels, but this is a new kind of book on the subject. Rather than offering a general overview or focusing on a single theme, Richard Bauckham examines the individual women who appear in the Gospels and the specific passages in which they appear.

This unique approach reveals much more about these characters than previous studies have assumed. Employing historical and literary readings of the biblical texts, Bauckham successfully captures the particularity of each woman he studies.

An opening look at the Old Testament Book of Ruth introduces the possibilities of reading Scripture from a woman's perspective. Other studies examine the women found in Matthew's and Luke's geneaologies, the prophet Anna, Mary of Clopas, Joanna, Salome, and the women featured in the Gospel resurrection narrative.

Bauckham's work is not dominated by a feminist agenda and does not presume in advance that the Gospel texts support patriarchal oppression. He does, however, venture some of the new and surprising possibilities that arise when the texts are read from the perspective of their women characters.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780567088703
Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic
Publication date: 07/01/2002
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Richard Bauckham is Professor of New Testament Studies, St Mary's College, University of St Andrews, UK.

Read an Excerpt

Gospel Women

Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels
By Richard Bauckham

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2002 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-4999-7


Imaginatively adopting the perspective of biblical wo/men rather than just looking at them as fixed objects in texts in a fixed context yields a different world and set of possibilities.

This is not just another book on women in the Gospels. Of course, it is a book that reflects the huge wave of interest in this subject over the last two decades, especially since Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza's pioneering and immensely influential In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (1983). A succession of books have studied women in the ministry of the historical Jesus or in the Gospels in general, while others have taken one or other of the four canonical Gospels for its subject. Other books that are significant in marking out an area of scholarship in which I would place my work in this volume are recent studies of women in the life and literature of Jewish Palestine in the late Second Temple period, especially the studies by the Israeli scholar Tal Ilan. Of course, in addition to the books listed in the notes to this paragraph, there have been a host of journal articles and articles in multi-authored volumes on the theme, some of which appear in footnotes throughout this book. There has also been much work on women in the Paulinechurches and in the early church generally, including the period immediately after that of the New Testament writings: it would be artificial and unhelpful to isolate studies of women in the Gospels from such work. Less often acknowledged as important for its relevance to the Gospels is the large literature of feminist scholarship in the field of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament; from some of the best of this work I have learned things I could not have learned from New Testament feminist scholarship.

This literature is quite varied in its methodological approaches, and, while almost all of its authors would identify themselves and their approach to the subject as feminist, they would understand that in somewhat different ways. But, taken as a whole, this body of work has considerable achievements to its credit, achievements to which I am much indebted and which, to a large extent, I take here as achievements on which subsequent scholarship can build. (Of course, I take issue with many of these scholars on specific points, sometimes on quite wide-ranging arguments, just as they do with one another.) Most fundamentally, these scholars have made the women in the Gospels visible simply by attending to the evidence of the texts that generations of male scholars had (to put it charitably) not found very interesting or had not thought significant enough to deserve their labors. It is remarkable, for example, how cavalierly major scholars once dismissed the key role of the women disciples in the resurrection narratives as the stuff of apologetic legend and therefore, in effect, best ignored in any properly scholarly account of Christian origins. In this sense modern historical-critical study achieved what centuries of androcentric but (to use the pejorative cliché) precritical interpretation could not: it denied the Gospel women their prominent place in the saving events of the Gospel story of Jesus: his incarnation, cross, and resurrection. After feminist criticism, such a move can no longer be regarded as a purely objective historical judgment, though many feminist critics (this is a distinction among them) are no less skeptical about the general historical reliability of the Gospels. Historical or not, the women are prominent in the birth, passion, and resurrection narratives, and the least that feminist scholarship has done for us all is to make us realize that this is significant and interesting.

If feminist scholarship has drawn our attention to what is really there in the texts about women and exposed the androcentric prejudice that prevented this evidence from claiming our attention, feminist scholarship has also drawn our attention to what is not there in the texts. Once we pay attention to the Gospel women, we begin to wonder whether they were more important than appears in the texts: have they been marginalized and others like them pushed altogether out of the story by the androcentric perspective of the male evangelists or, before them, male transmitters of the oral traditions? Has even Luke, traditionally thought especially favorable to women, given them greater representation in his Gospel only at the cost of putting them firmly in their place? These are important questions, but they can be answered only by attending as seriously as possible to what is in the texts, and it is therefore primarily to that task that I have devoted the essays in this book. Before we get to wondering what might have been left out, it is essential to read the texts themselves for all they are worth and with self-critical alertness to our assumptions and prejudices. Behind many a judgment of what is historically plausible or probable lie assumptions derived from patriarchal traditions of historiography or (more recently) from androcentric traditions of social anthropology, and sometimes the most "radical" feminist criticism is captive to just such assumptions, failing to attend tow hat the texts might mean if considered afresh, all too precipitately eager to expose every Gospel text as irredeemably oppressive to women. There is much to be said for Schüssler Fiorenza's contention that the criteria of historical plausibility or probability are too vulnerable top rejudice, and that we should look instead for what is possible. History in the biblical-Christian tradition is the sphere of ever-new possibility, and hermeneutics is about discovering the possibilities of the text as possibilities for new living today.

When we consider the roles of women in the Jesus movement and in society there are two sorts of possibility, and it is useful to be aware of both: one is that women should step outside their accepted social roles or (as I would prefer to say of the Jesus movement) that women and men together should step outside their accepted social roles; the other is that women (or, again, women and men together) should discover new possibilities within the socially accepted framework of their lives. My own judgment is that we can see both possibilities actualized in the Gospels, but we should be careful to distinguish them and not to take evidence for one as evidence for the other, and we should not insist on assimilating all the evidence to one or the other possibility. Some confusion here seems tome to account in part for the difference between more radical and more conservative readings of the Gospels' portrayals of the roles of women. There is also an aspect of the kind of perception of the Gospels that a feminist concern for the visibility of women should have promoted among us that is not, in itself, concerned with either of the forms of new possibility but is nonetheless significant. In contrast to the androcentric perspective of much ancient narrative, which focuses on the aspects of life in which men were most important and interested, this is about the way that gynocentric narratives open up for us the world of women simply as it was for them. While some feminist critics, more with respect to the Hebrew Bible than to the New Testament, have been alert to this, others have been slow to recognize that narratives can be gynocentric without being overtly critical of patriarchal structures. We need to learn more discrimination in deciding whether a passage presents a male view of women or an authentically (i.e., authentically with due regard to its time and place) women's perspective.

A point at which I find myself dissenting from a strong tendency in some feminist critical work on early Christian literature is what seems to me excessive and dogmatic use of a feminist hermeneutic of suspicion. A proper use of a hermeneutic of suspicion should make us conscious that men and women were in different positions in a society where those who exercised authority in the public world were almost all men. We should be alert to whose interests texts or ideas may serve, and we should be aware that the world that texts present from the perspective of men might look very different from the perspective of women. Texts are not ideologically neutral. (Of course, such considerations should not be confined to the difference made by gender, as socially constructed, but must also extend to social and economic place in the hierarchy of power.) But a problem arises when a feminist hermeneutic of suspicion becomes the only controlling principle of a reading of the texts. Then the result of interpretation is already determined by the methodological starting point and approach. The texts are bound to be read as supporting patriarchal oppression of women. They are, so to speak, not assumed innocent until proved guilty, but assumed guilty without a chance of a fair hearing. Clichés about patriarchy or ancient patriarchal society take the place of patient interpretation that attends carefully to the text. If our interpretation is not to be subject to immovable prejudice, we must attend to the particularity of the texts and the persons and situations they portray and be open to the perhaps surprising possibilities they disclose. Although I might easily be misunderstood here, I suspect that part of the problem lies in "one-issue exegesis": the issue of patriarchal oppression of women is the only interest the exegete brings to the text and therefore the feminist hermeneutic of suspicion the only exegetical tool that is employed. It is hard to attend fairly and openly to a text unless one is genuinely interested in all that the text is about, and unless one takes the trouble to approach it with the rich resources of interpretation available in the form of historical and literary methods that are designed to open up the text for its own sake and not just for ideological illustration. Blinkered use of a feminist hermeneutic of suspicion is much like an old-fashioned form of dogmatic theological interpretation, which knew in advance what was to be found in all the texts and whose exegesis of them was just one illustration after another of predetermined dogmas. The word "blinkered" in that sentence should make clear that I am not saying we should (or can) come to the texts without perspectives and interests and frameworks of interpretation, only that these should be adequate to what the texts are about and should promote rather than impede patient attention to the texts in their own particular integrity.

Resuming my account of the major achievements of two decades of work on women in the Gospels, I must mention the issue of anti-Judaism, especially since the essays in this volume all, in one way or another, place the Gospels and their women characters in a thoroughly Jewish context. Essential to the particularity of these texts, in my view, is their Jewishness, and, much though Jewish Palestine participated in the general culture of the Mediterranean world and whether we read that in terms of hellenization or Mediterranean anthropology or both, the Jewish religious and cultural tradition had strong distinctives with which any interpretation of the Gospels or study of Christian origins must come to terms. As is now well recognized, some of the early scholarly work on women in the Gospels, while well aware of the importance of their Jewish context, succumbed to what was still a not uncommon model in New Testament scholarship: portraying Jesus and his movement only by contrast with contemporary Judaism, such that whatever the scholars found admirable about Jesus and his movement was set against a dark background of its opposite in Judaism. One could sometimes get the impression that women followers of Jesus were perhaps not in an enviable position by modern standards, but when compared with how truly awful it was to be a Jewish woman at that time the position of those women who joined Jesus' movement looks wonderful. In my judgment the danger of Christian or feminist anti-Judaism has been well recognized and largely avoided in most recent work on women in the Gospels. Jewish women scholars have played an important role in counteracting it. Of course, we cannot substitute as an a priori principle that the roles or status of women in the Jesus movement could not have been any different from those which prevailed in Palestinian Jewish society in general. What seems to me the most effective safeguard against the ideological abuse of Jewish history is a different principle: that scholars should give as much attention to the Jewish texts and evidence that indicate different possibilities for women as we do to the Christian texts and evidence of this kind. The literature of Second Temple Judaism includes both texts that one can only call misogynist (such as Sirach) and texts (such as Pseudo-Philo's Biblical Antiquities, a retelling of the biblical history from creation to Saul, a Palestinian work of the second half of the first century CE) that one is tempted to call "feminist" and probably could do without too much anachronism. Again this requires attention to the particularity of the texts without the prejudgment that they are all bound to be patriarchal (even if some are more subtly so than others), whether one's interests in making such a prejudgment are feminist or androcentric.

I have not yet justified the claim that this is not just another book about women in the Gospels, but I have said enough about the achievements of recent work on women in the Gospels to make clear that I am far from depreciating it. But I have a sense that there may not be much further to go with the approaches hithertoen, and I have not wished to go over ground already well trodden. Therefore this is not a generalized study of the women around Jesus nor a redactional or literary study of women in one of the Gospels. I have written only on particular persons or passages in the Gospels about which I have genuinely fresh things to say. In place of an overview or synthesis, I have conducted a series of deep probes. Of course, others have made studies of individual women in the Gospels. Most of the studies in this volume are of women who have not been so studied or have only been studied much more briefly. I hope readers will be surprised to discover how much can be known about some of these women. I have attended to these individuals not primarily as representative of anything (of the roles of women in early Christian communities or of the Gospel writer's view of women in general), but primarily as individuals (whether historical or as characters in the Gospels: often both, sometimes only the latter). Therefore I have asked not only "feminist" questions about them, but whatever questions seemed capable of interesting answers. For me these have been a series of exciting journeys of discovery. I have realized afresh what I formulated for myself on an earlier occasion: that although the Gospels are primarily the story of Jesus (biographies of Jesus in the sense of the ancient genre of biography), they are also, precisely because of the nature of Jesus' story, also the stories of many individuals who encountered him and followed him. His story is not well served by allowing it to crowd out the other stories, as happens in most of the current "historical Jesus" research and writing (in which his women disciples still have very little place). Though it was not a matter of conscious intention, I realize now that there is hardly anything in this book about "Jesus' attitude to women," not because I find that unimportant or uninteresting, but because I have focused rather on the women's side of their relationship to Jesus and the events of his story. I also realize that this is also how the Gospels themselves largely enable us to see things.

Methodologically, these essays are doubtless quite eclectic. I think the character of the Gospels and the range of questions that can properly be brought to them make a range of methods of interpretation appropriate. Historical and literary approaches are certainly not mutually exclusive, and indeed should not normally proceed without some reference to each other. Especially in chapters 4, 5, and 8 I deploy them in close conjunction with each other to illuminate both the world of the text and the world to which the text makes historical reference. What happened, how the text constructs its literary version of what happened, and how the text invites us to read its narrative are all important, and the first is certainly not accessible at all without attention to the others. Some readers may be surprised that one currently dominant model for the interpretation of the Gospels is conspicuous by its absence from these essays: the Gospels as products of, addressed and tailored to the specific needs and circumstances of each evangelist's own Christian community. I have argued elsewhere that the Gospels were not addressed to specific Christian communities, about which we can know very little, but to a wide audience in all the Christian churches to which they would naturally be expected to circulate.


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