Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 20 (2020) - Review

Calvert-Koyzis, Nancy, and Heather Weir (eds.), Breaking Boundaries: Female Biblical Interpreters Who Challenged the Status Quo (LHBOTS 524; New York/London: T&T Clark, 2010). Pp. viii + 214. $160.00 Hardback: ISBN 978-0-56759-503-4. $44.95 Paperback: ISBN 978-0-56737-503-2.

The present volume collects essays drawn from the work of the program unit “Recovering Female Interpreters of the Bible” at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting and from sessions on “Female Interpreters of Scripture” at the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies. The editors, Nancy Calvert-Koyzis and Heather Weir, are known from another project pointing in the direction of the recovery of women as interpreters of biblical texts, the 2009 volume Strangely Familiar: Protofeminist Interpretation of Patriarchal Biblical Texts (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2009). In the volume at hand they again challenge the status quo of biblical scholarship, where the endeavour of integrating the work of female interpreters into the history of exegesis is still in its early stages. This endeavour, of course, poses certain difficulties, as does the preoccupation with reception history in general. How can completely different periods of time, confessional imprints, and cultural contexts be gathered under a certain question? How can scholars trained in different areas that are relevant for the topic of reception history collaborate productively? How should the results of research into reception history be presented and discussed with regard to the results of other fields of exegesis and research in the humanities? Any attempt to challenge these questions by publishing a volume like the present one therefore is a work of merit and may offer new possibilities for (interdisciplinary) discussion and point to problems from which we can learn.

The introduction to the volume offers a brief explanation of important concepts (boundaries, marginality, periphery/centre) that are used to tie the various essays together. These concepts may apply to different periods of time—the contributions range from antiquity to the early twentieth century—and to varying cultural and confessional contexts, which are shortly portrayed, disemboguing into the description of the ambition of the volume:

All of the women writers studied in this volume broke boundaries and challenged the status quo of their particular contexts. Each interpreter needs to be heard again with her context in mind in order to gain new appreciation for her work. With other women who interpreted the Bible in the past, these women contribute to a fuller understanding of the reception history of the Bible. (p. 11)

With “Retelling and Misreading Jesus: Eudocia’s Homeric Cento,” Brian Sowers opens the bouquet of contributions by taking readers into the world of educated women in antiquity—admittedly a region and timeframe far from the contexts of the other contributions in the volume, which concentrate predominantly on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Great Britain and North America. However, one does learn a lot about both the story Eudocia lived and the stories she told, focusing on a special literary genre, the “cento.” The conclusion of the article (pp. 32ff) again points explicitly to the large variety of interpretations of biblical texts and the striking openness that gives distinction to Eudocia’s work. In light of the positive evaluation of this openness, the negative connotation in the title “misreading Jesus” is a trifle puzzling and perhaps would have benefitted from further premeditation.

Caryn A. Reeder discusses interpretations of Gen 1–3 in “Vindicating Womankind: Aemilia Lanyer’s Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum.” Here we encounter the second article outside the major timeframe of the other contributions, which takes us to the Jacobean period. Lanyer’s reading of Gen 1–3 through the eyes of none other than Pilate’s wife is impressive, given the age-long dominant interpretations enhancing the oppression of women already with the first chapters of the Bible. Reeder succeeds in providing a lucid introduction to Lanyer’s intellectual background and how that background is reflected in her major work, first published in 1611.

“Reading Nature before Reading the Bible” is the title of Heather E. Weir’s investigation of Sarah Trimmer’s Natural Theology, focussed on Trimmer’s first work “An Easy Introduction to the Knowledge of Nature and Reading the Holy Scriptures” from 1780, where she elaborates natural theology as a basis for all further learning and religious life. Weir suggests recovering Trimmer as a theologian and not (only) as a children’s book writer. In this genre, in the context of early (scientific) education it does not seem entirely reasonable to consider her as a woman who is really “breaking boundaries.” Maybe it is more about “breaking boundaries” in our common understanding of what it is to be called a theologian, and in which genres theology may be communicated—educational literature for children and parents at least was an acceptable genre for female (and male) writers in the eighteenth century and is to be integrated into the research being done by biblical scholars and theologians today (p. 67).

Bernon Lee’s article, “Eliza Smith’s The Battles of the Bible: Biblical Interpretation in Service of a Christian Social Agenda in Nineteenth-Century Urban Scotland,” carefully analyses the dynamics between exegesis and the possibility of communicating certain social agendas. Lee gives the case of Scottish middle-class values in the nineteenth century. The book Lee discusses is designed as a dialogue between a grandfather and his grandchildren, talking about the different battles of the biblical narrative. Similar to Heather Weir’s essay, it is difficult to detect what specific role questions of gender play for Lee’s protagonist Eliza Smith and in how far she is really “breaking boundaries” as a woman in that time. However, the interdependencies between social discourse and biblical interpretation depicted remain fascinating and enhance more questions for both biblical scholars and historians.

Every apprentice and lover of Hebrew grammar will enjoy J. Glen Taylor’s essay on “‘Miss Greswell honed our Hebrew at Oxford’: Reflections on Joana J. Greswell and Her Book Grammatical Analysis of the Hebrew Psalter (1873).” It is especially fascinating to find that Joana Greswell, like other female authors in that period, explicitly comments on her scientific activities and defends them against opposition from the largely male spheres of scholarship. She therefore employs recommendations by male scholars in the preface to her book, which was aimed to enhance the Hebrew skills of Oxford students. Greswell combined her interest in philology and exegesis with her pedagogic ideas; she intensively discusses grammar and has the self-confidence to propose new explanations for difficult forms and phrases. Taylor also portrays her as a theologian with a christological hermeneutic and thus succeeds in gathering different aspects of an interesting female scholar hitherto almost unknown.

One of the editors, Nancy Calvert-Koyzis, contributes two articles on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work: “Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Interpretation of the Virgin Mary: The Significance of Maternal Ideology for Home and Society” and “Ready to Sacrifice All: The Repentant Magdalene in the Work of Harriet Beecher Stowe.” It does come as a bit of a surprise that the two articles are not grouped together in the volume or tied together with regard to content. Grouping them together could have contributed to comprehensive insights concerning Beecher Stowe’s work as an exegete. Such work was fundamental to her biography, both in the private and public sphere. She wanted to reform her perception of social reality by pointing to female virtues as she found them in Mary, the mother of Christ, and in Mary Magdalene. Beecher Stowe’s fundamental critique of society is found throughout her works, the fictional but also the non-fictional; all her works are tightly connected through social questions, theology/christology in pastoral and scientific reification, and biographical foundations.

Another interesting figure is presented by Beth Bidlack in “Olympia Brown: Reading the Bible as a Universalist Minister and Pragmatic Suffragist.” Already the title points to the two fields in which Olympia Brown literally “broke boundaries”—as a female minister, pioneering in the discourse on women’s ordination and as a leader of women’s suffrage in the nineteenth century. Bidlack carefully highlights the biographical context and the general social situation, paying appropriate attention to details and informative facts. It becomes clear how the Bible was used to support the struggle for women’s rights and contributed to the opening of boundaries (see citation on p. 125). It also becomes clear that her use of scripture was not “scholarly and technical, but rather … pragmatic” (pp. 142f)—one would, however, wish to have learned even more about these specific hermeneutic devices and strategies that Brown used in her reception and utilisation of biblical texts.

While the articles of Beth Bidlack, Bernon Lee, and Rebecca G.S. Idestrom, for example, take strong narrative approaches to the task of presenting and restoring the (hi)story of female biblical scholars, Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s essay argues for a more explicit point as she unfurls her account of Katharine Bushnell and Lee Ann Starrs (who each lived from the 1850s to the 1930/40s). Du Mez carefully analyses why and how these two women had to break boundaries and why they could not but challenge the status quo of their—and our—time, aspects she already points to in the clever title of her article, “Leaving Eden: Resurrecting the Work of Katharine Bushnell and Lee Anna Starr.” Du Mez summarizes:

By the time they published their major works, Bushnell and Starr were increasingly out of step with prevailing trends within American Protestantism, and within the women’s movement. Rejecting traditional Christianity as male dominated but upholding the authority of the Scriptures, Bushnell and Starr did not fit securely within either the conservative or the liberal factions of an increasingly polarized faith. (p. 166)

Rebecca G.S. Idestrom succeeds in taking the readers of her article into the world of “Elizabeth Mary MacDonald: An Early Canadian Contribution to the Study of Women in the Ancient Near East”—that is, merely into her biographical background and her doctoral dissertation “The Position of Women as reflected in Semitic Codes of Law.” The dissertation appeared in 1931 and “raised the bar by setting a high standard for other doings in doctoral work” (p. 175). Although Idestrom’s account of MacDonald is predominantly descriptive, she raises some interesting questions, which could fertilize further discussion on women pioneers in higher academia in certain historical and cultural contexts, working on biblical texts and their ancient Near Eastern background as well as on the construction of their own identity in largely male-dominated fields.

As holds true for every attempt to gather a variety of persons, texts, themes, and questions into one volume, Breaking Boundaries, too, has its limitations, as noted in the brief reviews of every article presented above. Much more significant, however, is the aim of the volume: access to inspiring fields of biblical scholarship, the ability to discuss them with knowledge of the cultural and historical backgrounds, and thus to fill—step by step—the many blank spaces in the history of scriptural interpretation with all its boundaries and with the enduring possibility to “challenge the status quo.” To further work on these questions and to make them even more fruitful, it will be necessary to enhance collaboration between our colleagues in different research areas and to reflect on basic questions concerning both reception history and hermeneutics—one good example of such work, and a hint at what might be expected in this area of scholarship in the decades to come, is the vast and multi-publisher project The Bible and Women: An Encyclopaedia of Exegesis and Cultural History, edited by Mary Ann Beavis, Irmtraud Fischer, Mercedes Navarro, and Adriana Valerio, with its latest publication Early Jewish Writings (ed. Eileen Schuller and Marie-Theres Wacker; Atlanta: SBL Press, 2017).

Nancy Rahn, Universität Bern