Reading the Bible in a Feminist Key: Three Challenges for Feminist Biblical Interpretation Today

Yet despite these and many other scholarly accomplishments, feminist biblical interpreters face several cultural-intellectual challenges. They pertain to the pervasive ignorance about feminist biblical studies among lay and scholarly Bible readers, the persistence of essentialist views about gender in (feminist) biblical studies, and the overall lack of engaging feminist theories and practices in feminist biblical exegesis.

See Also: Introducing the Women's Hebrew Bible (Bloomsbury T&T Clark; 2 edition, 2017).

By Susanne Scholz
Professor of Old Testament
Southern Methodist University
October 2017

In the past fifty years, feminist biblical research has emerged as a dynamic, vital, and provocative area of scholarly research in the academic field of biblical studies. In the English-speaking world, several comprehensive introductory volumes on reading the Bible with feminist concerns appeared in the last few years. They squarely focus on feminist biblical scholarship as a field that deals with gender and sexuality issues, within their intersectional manifestations. Among them are Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s edited anthology Feminist Biblical Studies in the Twentieth Century: Scholarship and Movement (2014), Nyasha Junior’s An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation (2015), and my own Introducing the Women’s Hebrew Bible: Feminism, Gender Justice and the Study of the Old Testament (2017).

Of course, there are also comprehensive one-volume commentaries that present feminist exposition of each biblical book, such as The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eshkenazi and Andrea L. Weiss, featuring multiple Jewish feminist voices and approaches to the first five books of the Bible. Then there is the Women’s Bible Commentary, edited by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, which contains feminist interpretations of every book of the Christian canon and the Apocrypha (Newsom/Ringe 1992, 1998, 2012). Even Christian evangelical women theologians have contributed to this research area with The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary, edited by Catherine Clark Kroeger and Mary J. Evans (Kroeger/Evans 2002). It should be noted that the volume, written in relative disjunction from feminist scholarly discussions, wrestles with the inner-Christian right’s challenges to feminism. In the German-language a one-volume feminist commentary appeared in 1998, edited by Luise Schottroff and Marie-Theres Wacker and translated into English in 2012. The Feminist Companion Series is another highly influential publication that includes nineteen volumes for the Hebrew Bible, edited by Athalya Brenner-Idan (1993-2001; 1998-2002), and thirteen volumes for the New Testament and early Christian literature, edited by Amy-Jill Levine (since 2000). A very long list of monographs and doctoral dissertations further enriches feminist scholarly work on biblical literature (Scholz 2013, 2014, 2016).

Yet despite these and many other scholarly accomplishments, feminist biblical interpreters face several cultural-intellectual challenges. They pertain to the pervasive ignorance about feminist biblical studies among lay and scholarly Bible readers, the persistence of essentialist views about gender in (feminist) biblical studies, and the overall lack of engaging feminist theories and practices in feminist biblical exegesis.

Challenge Number 1: Ignorance

The first challenge consists in the fact that very few people have heard of feminist biblical studies. This situation is regrettable, but it is also easily explained. The intellectual, theological, and cultural resistance to alternative Bible readings goes deep. Often it is not even limited to feminist exegesis but also affects postcolonial, anti-racist, queer, or ecological biblical readings (Liew/Runion 2016; Marbury 2015; Hornsby/Stone 2011; Stone 2018). Emerging from the civil-rights and anti-colonial socio-political struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, these approaches have found a hearing only in the most progressive Christian and Jewish communities. In contrast, traditional historical and religiously conservative approaches still dominate mainstream religious, Christian evangelical-conservative and fundamentalist groups, as well as secularized settings.

It needs to be acknowledged that in Western societies Bible readers are a shrinking group of people because of the pervasive notion that the Bible belongs to a long-gone world and that, at its best, the Bible offers antiquarian information about the past. The feminist conviction that the interpretation of the Bible is significant for the understanding and transformation of society seems thus bizarre to most people, whether they are secular or religiously conservative. Substantial ignorance, manufactured for different intellectual and religious reasons, prevails when it comes to feminist biblical studies. Most people see little need for it. As a result, entire commentary series are published without any substantive or even marginal engagement with feminist biblical scholarship. The same is true for many preachers and teachers of the Bible who talk as if nothing ever changes in the field of biblical studies.

In short, feminist biblical researchers have yet to receive the recognition, authority, and status for their scholarly accomplishments, insights, and innovations from scholarly and lay audiences. What will it take for people to accept feminist biblical exegesis?

Challenge Number 2: Essentialism

The second challenge has to do with the persistent gender essentialism in biblical studies. Essentialism is the idea that the core identity of a person or a thing consists of an essence that is rooted in biological characteristics. Because they regard gender as a physical characteristic independent of societal norms and conventions, proponents of essentialism assume that women are different from men in their essence. Exegetes who take for granted essentialist notions about gender usually ignore feminist-theoretical research. They also disregard the emergence of queer and masculinity studies that have further explored the historical, cultural, socio-political, economic, and religious reasons for the prevalence of essentialism in gender discourse.

Interestingly, feminist exegetes of the 1970s and early 1980s often seem like proponents of gender essentialism. They uplifted female characters, vocabulary, and themes as they countered hegemonic androcentrism that for centuries ignored women as worthy research subjects. Feminist Bible exegetes also exposed that traditional notions of scholarly universality, objectivity, and value neutrality are quite particular, subjective, and biased in favor of men. Feminist exegetes established that androcentric readers have almost exclusively been interested in male characters and their texts. Consequently, early second-wave feminist exegetes often developed apparently essentialist interpretations but with the goal of subverting and exposing androcentric biases and assumptions. Yet as they stayed within an apparently essentializing gender binary, many of them opened the door for alternative, feminist readings of the Bible.

Another observations has to be mentioned. Early feminist biblical researchers were usually in conversation with the feminist movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, even when they did not make this connection explicit. As feminists asserted women’s centrality over against androcentric conventions, laws, and practices in society, they emphasized the category of woman as a politically, culturally, and socially significant research area. Usually, they did not intend to advance essentializing views but to develop the study of women as a mandatory research topic for the transformation of the world. Accordingly, some early feminist Bible scholars articulated already then that the study of biblical women was not necessarily a feminist move. For instance, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza explained in 1983 that the collection “of so-called data and facts on ‘Women in the Bible’…take[s] the androcentric dynamics and reality constructions of patriarchal texts at face value” (Schüssler Fiorenza 1983, xxiii-xxiv, 30). She observed that a focus on “women” often legitimizes “societal and ecclesiastical patriarchy and…women’s divinely ordained place’” (Schüssler Fiorenza 1983, 7), serving doctrinal claims that turn the Bible into “an absolute oracle revealing timeless truth and definite answers to the questions and problems of all times” (Schüssler Fiorenza 1983, 5).

Said differently, essentialist views about gender are not indigenous to feminist biblical studies. Instead, feminist exegetes have employed the concept of intersectionality to emphasize the interrelatedness of various structures of domination, including gender, shaping the production of biblical meanings (Anderson 2009). Yet this constructivist conceptualization of feminist biblical research is not always the basis for investigations of gender and sexuality in biblical studies. In fact, resistance to intersectional feminist biblical scholarship comes from many quarters.

One of the biggest obstacles exists in the institutional power of academic gatekeepers who have cemented their exegetical superiority and authority by ignoring innovative exegetical developments, including feminist exegesis. The academic hallways are filled with stories from feminist Bible scholars who did not gain entry into academia due to their feminist convictions. Even when feminist exegetes succeed in being fully credentialed with the highest academic degrees, producing long publication lists, and holding respectable academic positions, they still face overt and subtle practices of exclusion, discrimination, and marginalization. The hegemonic architecture of academic and religious institutions is not friendly to feminists in any field but the ease with which feminist Bible scholars are sidelined is remarkable. Often, therefore, potential feminist interpreters advance their careers by following the path of least resistance.

Accepting essentialist notions of gender, they avoid explicit feminist topics. Unsurprisingly, safe essentialist publications on biblical women are common even today. Disregarding critical gender theories, they reinforce the common misperception that feminist exegesis focuses on biblical women, as if such a focus challenged the hegemonic forces of kyriarchal power in biblical studies and elsewhere in society.

The problem of essentialism is also reinforced in Christian right’s interpretations of the Bible that essentialize gender in countless popularizing books. The Christian right consists of Christian evangelical and fundamentalist groups that advance a relatively wide spectrum of conservative theological and political convictions. Commonly they read the Bible with essentializing notions of gender and a strict view of the Bible as the inerrant word of God. There are many examples for popularly written and successfully distributed Christian right’s books that assume essentializing notions of gender (Scholz 2017, 149-169). They articulate women’s experiences as monolithic and unified, and as rooted in women’s biological functions and roles. Accordingly, they attribute ontological autonomy to the category of woman, as if the concept is independent of time and space. Since they apply the same idea to the category of man, Christian right’s interpretations stabilize the heteronormative gender binary in the Bible and beyond. The essentializing framework within which the construct of woman is upheld also prevents the possibility for acknowledging differences among women. Very few of the Christian right’s books explore intersectional issues of class, race, ethnicity, or geopolitics in their retellings of biblical women’s stories. As a result, almost all of them privatize, sentimentalize, and spiritualize biblical meanings. They universalize women’s experiences into the single grouping of “women,” not recognizing that women are a diverse group facing different issues in society.

Of course, Christian right’s books are not the only ones essentializing gender in the Bible. Many scholarly books in biblical studies fail to contribute to gender justice in its various intersectional manifestations. Esther Fuchs characterizes this tendency of essentializing discourse on biblical women as a neoliberal hermeneutical preference that lacks feminist-theoretical engagement (Fuchs 2016, 55070). Yet, ultimately, the charges against essentializing readings of women in the Bible are even more serious. These interpretations do not only lack feminist-theoretical engagement, but they also fail to conceptualize the feminist study of the Bible as a constructive-contextual democratic practice.

Challenge Number 3: Engaging Feminist Theories and Practices

A third challenge to feminist biblical interpretation consists in the existence of feminist theories and practices outside of biblical studies. Feminist Bible exegetes are generally reticent to engage them and to orient their scholarship accordingly. In fact, Esther Fuchs observes that very few feminist biblical scholars work with feminist theoretical notions when they develop the definition, purpose, and trajectory of their work. Since feminist theorists maintain that all feminist work is “the site of production, contestation, and dialogue between and among various feminist discourses,” that all feminist work avoids “normative, authoritative, or prescriptive language in describing its own projects,” and that all feminist work stands in an epistemological evolution or genealogy that engages “previous or adjacent feminist work” as “its point of departure,” feminist biblical studies ought to be self-critical and skeptical of “emerging orthodoxies, individual authoritative voices, or consensus” (Fuchs 2016, 1). It ought to be “inclusive of different ‘feminisms’” and define these differences politically and in theoretical terms. It also ought to be intersectional and nurture “a politics of alliance and solidarity” (Fuchs 2016, 1-2). These are only a few of Fuchs’s ideas about the development of feminist biblical interpretations in conversation with feminist theories.

As Fuchs elaborates on feminist theoretical ideas, she recognizes the aspirational aspects of feminist readings of the Bible. If we defined it accordingly, she explains, we would see it “as a mapping of a trajectory, a movement toward a kind of knowledge that may not be achievable” (Fuchs 2016, 9-10). Feminist exegesis might then turn into a form of “nomadic scholarship” that transcends “traditional disciplines in its quest for ever more radical questions” (Fuchs 2016, 10). As such, the posture of feminist biblical scholars should be dialog “between feminism and other discourses of oppression” (Fuchs 2016, 10). The tentative, nomadic, or diasporic qualities of feminist biblical scholarship finds expression in womanist, postcolonial feminist, or queer exegesis, all of which emphasize the intersectionality of various structures of oppression, including misogyny, sexism, and heteronormativity (e.g. Byron/Lovelace 2016; Smith 2015; Guest/Goss/West/Bohache 2006; Dube 2000). Although such work does not always engage feminist theories, it illustrates the need for theoretical engagement with academic discourses beyond the traditional confines of biblical studies.

The significance of feminist theories is also related to another important issue. It has to do with feminist methodologies. Pamela J. Milne explains that feminist theorists have produced extensive works on the topic that would be beneficial to feminist biblical scholarship (Milne/Scholz 2016, 19-34). Yet so far, these works are rarely engaged in feminist exegesis. Milne believes that the lack of clarity on this theoretical-hermeneutical matter contributes to the irrelevance of biblical studies in the academic world. This is a harsh judgment. However, Milne’s astute observation that feminist exegetes do not usually articulate the feminist purposes of their research, the assumptions of their readings, or the kinds of data collected and highlighted in their studies is important.

In short, the lacuna of feminist theoretical conversations within the field of feminist biblical studies indicates considerable theoretical deficiency. Thus, one should take note whether feminist exegetes subscribe to Cartesian positivism or whether they participate in the ongoing struggles for socio-political, economic, geopolitical, and religious justice. One should also ponder what topics contribute to an end of gendered domination in its intersectional manifestations and which topics reinforce the status quo. Since every interpreter makes choices, one has to ask what choices are made and for what reasons. One needs to decipher which exegetical methods are employed, what purposes are served, and how the choices relate to the political goals of gender justice in which social locations. It is also important to consider why some feminist interpreters relegate such considerations beyond the task of biblical exegesis. What power dynamics do they advance and why?

These and many other theoretical considerations bring feminist clarity to the value of this or that feminist reading. It is high time for feminist Bible interpreters to address these complex meta-level issues within feminist-theoretical frameworks so that feminist biblical exegesis contributes to feminist practices in the world. What will be the feminist exegetical questions in light of contemporary culture, politics, and religion, and how will feminist theories, epistemologies, hermeneutics, and values shape feminist biblical scholarship? Unquestionably, it is an exciting time to be part of the ongoing effort to examine biblical texts and their interpretation histories from exegetical positions that take seriously gender and sexuality in their intersectional manifestations, as examined in feminist-theoretical discourse in academia and as lived by feminists around the world.

Toward a Gender-Just Future in Biblical Studies: Concluding Comments

The current generation of feminist Bible exegetes confronts several challenges. First, very few people know much about feminist biblical exegesis. Second, gender essentialism is pervasive in all kinds of biblical readings, including some feminist biblical interpretations, and prominently communicated in widely distributed Christian right’s readings. Third, feminist exegetes need to engage systematically and comprehensively feminist theories and practices. Since research on “women” does not automatically imply a feminist-theoretical framework, feminist Bible scholars have to explain how their work contributes to feminist thought or how it relates to the development of a gender-just society. Without a doubt, feminist exegetes have much exegetical, hermeneutical, and conceptual work to do, many theoretical and practical connections to make, and much to teach so that one day in the near future people wonder how they ever lived without feminist biblical interpretations.

Perhaps Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza said it best, at least within the US-American setting, when she posited that feminist biblical interpretations ought to be understood as “a social-political and cultural-political practice” that takes “seriously its public responsibility, because the bible shaped and still shapes not only the church but also the cultural-political self-understanding of the American imagination” (Schüssler Fiorenza 2007, 55). It is worrisome, to say the least, that so many books on biblical women incorporate androcentric and heteronormative perspectives about gender that are divorced from feminist and genderqueer theories, as well as from intersectional considerations. It is urgent for scholarly and lay readers of the Bible, whether they are feminist, womanist, queer, or progressive in any other way, to interrogate biblical interpretations with the goal of producing alternative visions for a gender-just world.


Anderson, Cheryl. Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies: The Need for Inclusive Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Brenner-Idan, Athalya (ed.). Feminist Companion Series of the Bible. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press,1993 to 2001; republished by Bloomsbury T&T Clark in London, UK.

__________ (ed.). The Second Series of the Feminist Companion Series of the Bible. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998 to 2002; republished by Bloomsbury T&T Clark in London, UK.

Byron, Gay L. and Vanessa Lovelace (eds.). Womanist Interpretations of the Bible: Expanding the Discourse. Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 2016.

Dube, Musa W. Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible. St. Louis, MO Chalice Press, 2000.

Eshkenazi, Tamara Cohn and Andrea L. Weiss (eds.). The Torah: A Women’s Commentary. New York: WRJ/URJ Press, 2008.

Fuchs, Esther. Feminist Theory and the Bible: Interrogating the Sources. Feminist Studies and Sacred Texts. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016.

Guest, Deryn and Robert E. Goss, Mona West, Thomas Bohache (eds.). The Queer Bible Commentary. London: SCM Press, 2006.

Hornsby, Teresa J. and Ken Stone (eds.). Bible Trouble: Queer Reading at the Boundaries of Biblical Scholarship. Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 2011.

Junior, Nyasha. An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation. St. Louis, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.

Kroeger, Catherine Clark and Mary J. Evans (eds.). The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002.

Levine, Amy-Jill (ed.). Feminist Companion Series to the New Testament and Early Christian Literature. London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2000-.

Liew, Tat-siong Benny and Erin Runion (eds.). Psychoanalytic Meditations between Marxist and Postcolonial Readings of the Bible. Semeia Studies. Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 2016.

Marbury, Herbert Robinson. Pillars of Cloud and Fire: The Politics of Exodus in African American Biblical Interpretation. New York University Press, 2015.

Milne, Pamela J. and Susanne Scholz. “On Method and Methodology in Feminist Biblical Studies: A Conversation.” In Feminist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Retrospect. Vol. 3: Methods, ed. Susanne Scholz, 19-34. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2016.

Newsom, Carol A. and Sharon H. Ringe (eds.). Women’s Bible Commentary. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1992; 2nd exp. ed., 1998; 3rd rev. ed., 2012.

Scholz, Susanne. Introducing the Women’s Hebrew Bible: Feminism, Gender Justice and the Study of the Old Testament. 2nd rev. and exp. edn. London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017.

__________. (eds.). Feminist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Retrospect. Vols. 1-3: Biblical Books, Social Locations, Methods. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013, 2014, 2016.

Schottroff, Luise and Marie-Theres Wacker (eds.). Feminist Biblical Interpretation: A Compendium of Critical Commentary on the Books of the Bible and Related Literature. Trans. Lisa E. Dahill, Everett R. Kalin, Nancy Lukens, Linda M. Maloney, Barbara Rumscheidt, Martin Rumscheidt, and Tina Steiner. Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans, 2012.

__________. (eds.). Kompendium: Feministische Bibelauslegung. Chr. Kaiser Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 1998.

Schüssler, Elisabeth Fiorenza (ed.). Feminist Biblical Studies in the Twentieth Century: Scholarship and Movement. Atlanta, GA: SBL Publications, 2014.

__________. The Power of the Word: Scripture and the Rhetoric of Empire. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2007.

__________. In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. (New York: Crossroad, 1983.

Smith, Mitzi J. (eds.). I Found God in Me: A Womanist Biblical Hermeneutics Reader. Eugene OR: Wipf and Stock, 2015.

Stone, Ken. Reading the Hebrew Bible with Animal Studies. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018.

Comments (2)

It is sometimes claimed that women finding the empty tomb in the Gospel of Mark is historically accurate, since women weren't relied on as witnesses in the ancient Jewish culture. Myself, I don't think the pericope of the women finding the empty tomb is historical.

In the Gospel of Mark, the tearing of the veil seems to symbolize the reconciling of humans to God, while the words of the soldier at the cross seems to symbolize the reconciling of Jews and Gentiles. Might not the women discovering the empty tomb symbolize the reconciling of men with women in the age to come, where women will be equal to men? After all, Mark says "But many who are first will be last, and the last first (Mark 10:31)."

The Old Testament has some wonderful, cunning female characters, such as Rahab.

We read that Rahab was approved of by God when she lied about Joshua's spies:

(A) "And the woman [Rahab] took the two men and hid them and said thus: There came men unto me, but I wist not whence they were; and it came to pass about the time of shutting of the gate, when it was dark that the men went out; whither the men went I wot not; pursue after them quickly, for ye shall overtake them. But she had brought them up to the roof of the house and hid them with the stalks of flax. (Joshua 2:4-6)"

(B) "Was not Rahab, the harlot, justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? (James 2:25)."

If anyone is interested, I wrote a blog post the other day about how the "Rahab-type" might have influenced the New Testament portrayal of Jesus. It's here:

#1 - John MacDonald - 11/03/2017 - 03:48

Thanks for the thoughtful article. I am not well-versed in feminist biblical studies, but I have regularly thought that one of the main difficulties for feminist biblical interpretation is that it is working on an androcentric text that has been interpreted within a patriarchal context for several thousand years. How can you undo or critique those texts and interpretative tradition without it constantly coming back to texts that are still there being read by the religious communities? For feminist scholars who want to remain part of their religious tradition, I imagine they may want to throw out some passages of scripture, like Thomas Jefferson cut out the miracles of Jesus, but they would almost automatically put themselves outside their tradition. I guess my question is, how does a feminist scholar maintain a level of interpretive legitimacy within a religious tradition (assuming some feminist scholars want this), while at the same time seriously critiquing that tradition's sacred text? A similar question could be asked of LGBTQ interpretation, and even in some cases of more 'traditional' historical critical biblical scholarship.

#2 - Craig Tyson - 11/06/2017 - 19:18

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