Women and Religion: The Original Sourcebook of Women in Christian Thought

Women and Religion: The Original Sourcebook of Women in Christian Thought

by Elizabeth A. Clark

Paperback(New revised and expanded edition)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060614096
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 11/20/1996
Edition description: New revised and expanded edition
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 898,011
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.91(d)

About the Author

Elizabeth A. Clark, a past resident of the American Academy of Religion, is the John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion at Duke University.

Read an Excerpt

The New Testament and Christian Origins


The New Testament Gospels, all of which were written about forty years or more after Jesus' death, present four different pictures of him. They were composed not as biographies but as confessions of faith, witnessing to their authors' conviction that the risen Lord was still guiding the Christian community. (we have no firsthand material from Jesus himself, as we do from Paul.)

The Gospels, as far as we know, were all composed by men or groups of men, and their readers and hearers were not part of a world in which women had equal rights with men. Yet the Gospels give us a picture of Jesus as a man who talked with women, who was not afraid of becoming ritually defiled by them, and who apparently did not think that their only function consisted of household and childbearing duties. All of the Gospels mention the female followers of Jesus and stress their roles in the resurrection events. The Gospel of Luke, in particular, stresses Jesus' friendship with Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), mentions Jesus' female traveling companions (Luke 8: 1-3 ), and even analogizes God to a woman in the parable of the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10). Although Jesus is represented as dealing with women in a kindly fashion, he is also shown treating other outcasts--lepers, tax collectors, the poor--with similar benevolence. Some have even suggested that the depiction of Jesus in the Bible gives us the right to claim him as a "feminist."

It is not just the gaps and silences in the Gospels that make an investigation of the topic "Jesus and Women" difficult; centuries of Christian readers who come to the textwith their interests and biases have construed the Gospels in ways that have supported their own assumptions about the nature of early Christianity. Scholarship of recent decades has done much to uncover these assumptions and explode the myth of the objective, neutral observer who approaches texts that are imagined to speak for themselves. Today, interpreters are more sensitive to the claim that history "is never simply `history of' but always `history for'"--in other words, writers produce their works with certain audiences, as well as their own ideological objectives, in mind. Thus we must always question not only the ancient social settings within which biblical texts were produced, as well as the audiences with their particular interests to which those texts were directed, but also the interests and audiences of modern commentators on biblical texts. The fact that even much modern scholarship operates within an androcentric framework that assumes men to have been the "actors" in early Christianity and that makes maleness the norm against which women appear as deviations has become increasingly clear to women scholars of the New Testament.' As feminist scholars have approached the New Testament tradition, they have learned to read against the grain of a text, to note its silences; these interpretive techniques are aimed at uncovering not so much what men thought of women or what prescriptions men made for them but what women may plausibly be expected to have done. Ancient reports by men about women have been assigned to the category of an "artistic rendering "--or, in more politically oriented language, of ideology.

A major theme of late twentieth-century New Testament interpretation that has been useful to feminist scholars is the understanding of early Christianity as a renewal movement within Judaism. In keeping with its devotees' expectation of an imminent end to the world, leaders of the new movement may have tolerated or even encouraged forms of behavior that would be considered bizarre by standards of a later, more established Christianity: itinerant preachers, women prophets, an emphasis on charismatic gifts. Enthusiastic bursts of new religious spirit are often accompanied by a loosening of societal structures, allowing more freedom of expression for marginal groups such as women--although it is also typical that as women's power and status increase, prescriptions (by men) attempting to limit their activities and behavior also increase. Scholars who believe that the Gospels and Paul's letters contain a liberating message argue that by the turn of the second century the freedoms that attended the earliest decades of Christianity were in the process of restriction. This model of interpretation often stresses (for example) the early Christian missionary movement as providing an avenue of female equality. Other scholars--equally feminist in their contemporary commitments--argue that Paul is a dubious ally for feminists.


Paul's letters are the earliest materials preserved in the New Testament, dating to the middle of the first century. Most scholars now believe that Paul himself did not compose the letters to Timothy, Titus, the Ephesians, and probably the Colossians, which are assigned to later decades; this reduction of the traditional Pauline canon eliminates from Pauline authorship some of the more problematic passages about women in the New Testament. But even if we limit our investigation to those of Paul's letters that are still considered authentic, there is considerable disagreement over their interpretation.

Gaps in our historical knowledge hinder our ability to understand the place of women in Paul's missionizing activities. Using the examples of two women who figure in New Testament accounts pertaining to Paul, Junia and Prisca, New Testament scholar Bernadette Brooten suggests the kinds of historical questions which arise as we attempt to grasp their roles more fully:

What are the sources for first-century Jewish women in Rome? What do we know about women and the Roman penal code? What do we know about Jewish women's education and about nonJewish Roman women's education in this period? Are there other examples of wives and husbands practicing a trade together? What would have been the income from such a trade? How much do we know about women and travel in this period? Did women serve as delegates or missionaries in other religious movements or in civic contexts? What can we know of the size, layout, and cost of a house in which a house church could have met? These questions are rather straightforward historical questions, unusual only because they simply presuppose that women, like men, are historical beings, and that the historical study of women is a worthwhile enterprise.

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