Retrieving the Voices of Women

Christian women had inherited a tradition that argued that the woman and the serpent, representing the devil, enjoyed an ancient and treacherous alliance determined to bring about the downfall of men. The serpent was often depicted with a female face and long tresses, a mirror image of Eve.

See Also: Judging Deborah: The Prophetess and Gender Debates through the Centuries.

By Joy A. Schroeder
Bergener Professor of Theology and Religion
Capital University and Trinity Lutheran Seminary
July 2014

Women have been interpreters of scripture for more than two thousand years. Until recently, however, scholars have paid relatively little attention to the work of females who wrote before the late twentieth century. Apart from the occasional mention of The Woman’s Bible (1895-1898), edited by suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, there is often little notice of women’s contributions prior to the seminal work of feminist luminaries such as Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (In Memory of Her, 1983) and Phyllis Trible (Texts of Terror, 1984). For instance, one recent dictionary of major biblical interpreters, published in 2007, includes only three women in its more than two hundred entries.[1]

In the last two decades, biblical scholars and religious leaders have shown increasing interest in the history of biblical interpretation—“reception history.” John L. Thompson’s wonderfully accessible book Reading the Bible with the Dead: What You Can Learn from the History of Exegesis that You Can’t Learn from Exegesis Alone (Eerdmans, 2007) celebrates—and sometimes laments—the contributions of interpreters from previous centuries. Volumes of the popular Ancient Christian Commentary series (InterVarsity Press), which contains selections from patristic commentaries, sit on the bookshelves of numerous scholars and preachers. The publisher’s website promises that the reader can “study scripture with the Church Fathers.”[2]

A far more recent (and, I would argue, vitally needed) development is the inclusion of women’s writings in reception history. In the 1990s, there were several groundbreaking studies of women’s interpretive writings.[3] However, it is not until the current millennium that we see focused efforts to retrieve and examine the work of female scriptural interpreters.[4]

There are numerous challenges to the retrieval of women’s biblical scholarship produced prior to the late twentieth century. Nearly all of women’s interpretive work has been ephemeral—mediated orally to their families or communities and now lost. (This would, of course, also be the case for male interpreters through the centuries.) Much of women’s written work has been discarded or destroyed. However, despite the fact that so many writings have been lost to the ages, an enormous treasure trove of women’s writings remains to be discovered, examined, and incorporated into the history of reception of the Bible. Some beginning points for this work include Marion Ann Taylor and Heather Weir’s anthology Let Her Speak for Herself: Nineteenth-Century Women Writing on the Women of Genesis (Baylor University Press, 2006). Taylor and Weir discovered some of the women’s writings by entering “Mrs.” as the author and “Bible” as subject in library search engines! (They also searched for common Victorian women’s names such as Mary, Sarah, and Elizabeth.) In 2012, Marion Ann Taylor, together with associate editor Agnes Choi, published a Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters (Baker Academic), with one hundred eighty entries on historical women interpreters who worked prior to the second wave of feminism.

Who are the women who engaged in biblical scholarship through the centuries? The following list offers a brief sampling of their diverse range. Some of them were extraordinarily learned. Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922), born in India, studied Greek, Hebrew, and Sanskrit. She produced a Bible translation into the Marathi language designed to be accessible to the everyday believer. Regina Jonas (1902-1944), ordained as a rabbi in Berlin in 1935, wrote a Halakhic treatise supporting women’s ordination. Olympia Morata (c. 1526-1555), an Italian Protestant proficient in ancient languages, translated Hebrew psalms into classical Greek meter. Bathsua Makin (c. 1600—after 1675) could read Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac. She taught ancient languages to young men in her father’s academy and opened a school for young women in London. Emilie Briggs (1867-1944), daughter of Charles Augustus Briggs, finished her doctoral dissertation at Union Theological Seminary in 1913. There is evidence that she researched and authored a significant number of the entries in the magisterial Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew-English lexicon that sits on the shelves of countless scholars and students. Jerome’s patron and pupil, the ascetic Roman matron Paula (347-404), mastered the Hebrew language. Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695), a learned Mexican nun, interpreted scripture in her poetry and prose. The work of Grace Aguilar (1816-1847), a British Jew, was read widely in the Victorian period. Devorah Ascarelli, a sixteenth-century Italian poet, translated Hebrew synagogue prayers into the vernacular and wrote sonnets about Susanna and the Elders. Rivkah bat Meir of Prague (d. 1605) was educated in rabbinic literature and wrote biblical interpretation in Yiddish for a female audience—sometimes mildly challenging the rabbinic commentary that she inherited.[5]

In other cases, female interpreters had little or no formal instruction, but they studied earnestly on their own or in conversation with others. Sojourner Truth (c. 1791-1883), the famous abolitionist and former slave, was unable to read, so she had children read aloud to her—since adult lectors were too inclined to offer their own commentary, impeding Truth’s own interpretive work. Rebecca Cox Jackson (1795-1871), a free woman of African descent, reports that, after prayer, she opened her Bible to the book of James and miraculously began to read. Each of the above-named women has a fascinating story of her own—a story of how she gained access to the Bible and to resources for interpretive study (including language skills) and how she negotiated her position as a woman in religious and scholarly settings that undervalued her contributions or challenged her right to study and write.[6]

Although an in-depth analysis of how their gender influenced the interpretive work of individual women is beyond the scope of this article, one example is illustrative. Christian women had inherited a tradition that argued that the woman and the serpent, representing the devil, enjoyed an ancient and treacherous alliance determined to bring about the downfall of men. The serpent was often depicted with a female face and long tresses, a mirror image of Eve. Women like the visionary nun Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) and Quaker founder Margaret Askew Fell Fox (1614-1702) challenged this tradition by engaging in a careful, literal reading of Genesis 3:15, which speaks of “enmity” between the woman and the serpent. Hildegard and Fox, each in her own way, argued that oppressing or silencing women on account of their gender was the work of the serpent, who is the ultimate misogynist.[7]

Writing in 1889, temperance leader and suffragist Frances Willard declared: “We need women commentators to bring out the women’s side of the book; we need the stereoscopic view of truth in general, which can only be had when woman’s eye and man’s together shall discern the perspective of the bible’s full-orbed revelation.”[8] The recovery of female interpreters’ voices calls us to a new appreciation of the contributions of both women and men to the task of reading and interpreting scripture.


[1] Donald K. McKim, Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters (Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity, 2007). Marion Ann Taylor makes this point in the introduction to her Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters: A Historical and Biographical Guide (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2012), 2. The three women included in McKim’s dictionary are Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Phyllis Trible, and medieval mystic Julian of Norwich.


[3] See Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Feminist Consciousness from the Middle Ages to Eighteen-Seventy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), and Marla Selvidge, Notorious Voices: Feminist Interpretation, 1500-1920 (New York: Continuum, 1996).

[4] Much of this work was spearheaded by a small group of Canadian scholars who organized sessions about historical female interpreters at the annual meetings of the Canadian Society for Biblical Studies and the Society of Biblical Literature. Many of these papers have been collected in Christiana de Groot and Marion Ann Taylor, eds., Recovering Nineteenth-Century Women Interpreters of the Bible (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007) and Nancy Calvert-Koyzis and Heather Weir, eds. Strangely Familiar: Protofeminist Interpretations of Patriarchal Biblical Texts (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009). De Groot, Taylor, Calvert-Koyzis, and Weir, who have been leaders in North American efforts to retrieve the work of female interpreters, were organizers of the SBL Recovering Female Interpreters of the Bible section. A European effort, the multi-volume Die Bibel und die Frauen: Eine exegetisch-kulturgeschichtliche Enzyklopädie is currently in process. It will include significant attention to historical women’s interpretive work. See

[5] All of these women except Devorah Ascarelli and Rivkah bat Meier are included in Taylor, Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters. For Ascarelli, see “Volume Editor’s Introduction,” in Sarra Copia Sulam, Jewish Poet and Intellectual in Seventeenth-Century Venice: The Works of Sarra Copia Sulam in Verse and Prose, along with Writings of Her Contemporaries in Her Praise, Condemnation, or Defense, ed. and trans. Don Harrán (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 6. Rivkah bat Meir’s work is available as Meneket Rivkah: A Manual of Wisdom and Piety for Jewish Women, trans. Samuel Spinner, ed. Frauke von Rohden (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2008).

[6] Not every female-authored text is uplifting. Through the ages, there have been female interpreters limited by colonialist, anti-Jewish, patriarchal, or racist perspectives.

[7] Joy A. Schroeder, “The Woman and the Dragon: Feminist Reflections on Sexual Violence, Evil, and Bodily Resurrection,” Dialog: A Journal of Theology 33 (1994): 135-41.

[8] Frances E. Willard, Woman in the Pulpit (Chicago: Woman’s Temperance Publication Association, 1889; repr., Washington, D.C.: Zenger, 1978), 21.

Comments (3)

I've just read John Court's short book on the generation of British NT commentators who worked mainly 'between the wars' - men to a man. There is an index of about 200 names of which only a handful refer to women, some in extremely tangential roles like that of a detective novelist (Margery Allingham) whom one of the theologians enjoyed as light reading. What struck me is that we are still going round much the same circuit: debating the question of 'Jewish' vs. (or not so versus) 'Greek' for instance, trying to come to terms with the theory of Evolution. On the other hand, things are utterly different: no longer involving with colleagues who were Nazi party members. And of course feminist readings were unheard of.

#1 - Martin Hughes - 07/31/2014 - 15:22

Thank you for those great observations. A few women working in the first half of the twentieth century include Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson, who discovered a number of manuscripts, including a Syriac palimpsest containing the gospels; British archeologist Kathleen Kenyon (1906-1978); German scholar Hedwig Jahnow (1879-1944); and Charlotte von Kirschbaum who served as secretary and researcher for Karl Barth (and, some have argued, may have written portions of the historical and exegetical sections of Barth’s Church Dogmatics). I think there is still a lot to be uncovered about the women working in the twentieth century prior to the second wave of feminism.

#2 - Joy Schroeder - 08/01/2014 - 13:48

Didnt answer my queston. What does the Bible actually quote about including, all public appearances, working , public positions etc.

#3 - jmassey - 10/08/2014 - 02:28

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