Feminist readers of the Bible differ in many areas when it comes to their conclusions as well as methodologies (1). However, what they generally agree on is, explains Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, the W. A. Eisenberger Professor of Old Testament Literature and Exegesis at Princeton Theological Seminar, “the beginning point, shared with all feminists studying the Bible, is appropriately a stance of radical suspicion” (2).
Robin Parry, in her informative paper Feminist Hermeneutics and Evangelical Concerns, has identified several reasons for this suspicion (3). This, she explains, is because women’s experiences have been excluded from the official interpretations of the Bible, and often from the Bible itself making the Bible a powerful tool in the oppression of women. Letty Russell, a feminist Reformed theologian, writes that,
“it has become abundantly clear that the scriptures need liberation, not only from existing interpretations but also from the patriarchal bias of the texts themselves” (4).
Feminist theologian Elisabeth Fiorenza sees such bias in the language itself as the Bible was “authored by men, written in androcentric language, [and] reflective of male experience” (5). According to Rosemary Ruether the Bible can and has been used as a justification of patriarchy,
“The Bible was shaped by males in a patriarchal culture, so many of its revelatory experiences were interpreted by men from a patriarchal perspective. The ongoing interpretation of these revelatory experiences and their canonisation further this patriarchal bias by eliminating traces of female experience or interpreting them in an androcentric way. The Bible, in turn, becomes an authoritative source for the justification of patriarchy in Jewish and Christian society” (6).
It is no secret that Christian and Jewish theologians and feminists have grappled with these issues, and have had to think long and hard about them. Carolyn Osiek has identified five ways in which feminist scholars have viewed the Bible (7):
The Rejectionist – The rejectionist simply rejects the Bible as authoritative and inspired which usually leads to rejecting Christianity itself.
The Loyalist – This embraces perhaps the opposite of the rejectionist approach. This is the view the Bible cannot be rejected under any circumstances including because of its apparent undermining of women. This opens up two possibilities for the loyalist: “one can reinterpret ‘oppressive’ texts in non-oppressive ways, seeing the problem not with the text but with its readers, or one could opt for the complementarian position which, strictly speaking, is not a feminist position.”
The Revisionist – This person believes that the Bible and the Christian tradition have been influenced by the patriarchal culture in which they arose but they are not essentially patriarchal and can be reformed.
“The ‘submerged female voices’ of women hidden behind text and tradition can be recovered from scraps of linguistic, rhetorical and narrative evidence. The intention is to reconstruct, as far as possible, the lives of ordinary Israelite women at different periods of the nation’s history. One may also try to bring to the surface often ignored texts which present women in a more positive light among other methods.”
The Sublimationist – “The ‘feminine principle’ of life-giving and nurturing are glorified and the tradition is scoured for feminine symbols of God and the church.”
The Liberationist – According to this view the Bible generally looking for theological perspectives which can be used to critique patriarchy (e.g. new creation, shalom, prophetic critique of oppression, koinonia). The central message of the Bible is seen to be that of human liberation motivated by eschatological hope.
“Letty Russell finds a biblical basis and motivation for her liberationist message ‘in God’s intention for the mending of all creation’ and Ruether seeks strands of cultural critique from Israel’s prophets with which to attack patriarchy. Both, however, take the starting point of a feminist ideology which comes from beyond the text and is brought to it with the hope of correlating the feminist critical principle with one internal to scripture.”
These are just a few very brief outlines of the different approaches scholars, feminists, and theologians might approach the biblical texts from a feminist perspective. It is true that a combination of two or more of these views could be held at the same with the exception of the rejectionist approach being compatible with any of the others.
1. Lewis, J. 1992. Perspectives of the New Age. p. 16–18.
2. Sakenfeld, K. 1985. Feminist Uses of Biblical Materials. Feminist Interpretation of the Bible. p. 55.
3. Parry, R. 2002. Feminist Hermeneutics and Evangelical Concerns. Tyndale Bulletin. p. 1-28.
4. Russell, L. Authority and the Challenge of Feminist Interpretations. Feminist Interpretation. p. 11.
5. Elisabeth Fiorenza quoted in A Feminist Companion to Reading the Bible: Approaches, Methods and Strategies. p. 67.
6. Reuther, R. Feminist Interpretation: A Method of Correlation. Available.
7. Osiek, C. 1997. The Feminist and the Bible. p. 97.