If I asked you to name your favorite women interpreters of the Bible how many could you name? Maybe you don’t have a “favorite.” Could you name any? If it required more than a minute to come up with some names I’ve got just the book for you. The Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters edited by Marion Ann Taylor is an excellent introduction to 180 women interpreters of the Bible. Here’s how she describes a typical entry.
“Each of the 180 entries contains a short biography of a female interpreter of the Bible, where possible including factual details about her birth, family, education, and formative influences. Such information provides the context for here interpretive work. Her work is then analyzed, focusing on her approach and methods of biblical interpretation and highlighting key themes and providing examples. Attention is given to evidence of gendered exegesis, especially when a woman’s experiences shaped her interpretation or when she addressed traditionally problematic passages (e.g., Gen. 1-3; 1 Cor. 11 and 14; 1 Tim. 2) or discussed female biblical figures. Entries include comments on the interpreter’s significance and legacy and include a bibliography of primary and secondary sources. The entries vary in length, and the length generally reflects the person’s significance as an interpreter of the Bible.” (7)
Who is included? I think it is a testimony to the wealth of the contribution of women that anyone had to be omitted. Of the hundreds that could be chosen Martin says she chose “women whose interpretations were influential, distinctive, or unique in terms of ideas or interpretive genre, or representative of the kind of interpretive writings done by a number of women at a certain period of time.” (5) The book contains no entries “from the first, second, third, sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries.” Martin’s aim was to be as inclusive as possible with regard to religious, cultural, racial, and geographical diversity but notes that “Catholic female voices from Western Europe dominate until the time of the Reformation, after which point diverse Protestant voices prevail. British and American voices dominate the modern period, and non-Western and nonwhite voices are unrepresented in the book. Jewish idiosyncratic writers are included.” (6) Of the many contemporary interpreters Martin used the following criteria for who would be included: “the woman had to be deceased, her work had to be representative, and her primary publications had to predate the globalization of the profession of biblical studies and the significant expansion in the involvement of women and ethnic minorities in professional studies in the 1970s and ’80s.” (6)
I want to give just one short example from one of the entries. Anyone familiar with church history will recognize the Cappadocian fathers (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus). But have you heard of Macrina the Younger (ca. 330-379)? Here’s how her entry starts:
“Intelligent, capable, and wise, Macrina was elder sister to Cappadocian Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa, and the firstborn of Basil the elder and Emmelia. Referring to her as the fourth Cappadocian, Pelikan (ix) ranks her with her brothers for her contribution to fourth-century theological discussion. We know her from two works of her brother Gregory, the Life (Vita), and the Dialogue on the Soul and the Resurrection (Dialogus). Both feature her as teacher and leader in female monasticism.”
“These two works give ample evidence of Macrina’s confidence in the Scriptures for life and teaching. The Dialogue presents her skillfully confronting materialist and Platonist pagan though with the truth as she knows it from the Bible, Of course, her portrayal comes through the perspective of her brother Gregory; in that respect, assessment of Macrina is similar to assessing Socrates from the writings of Plato. Gregory’s sincere appreciation of her guidance as ‘my teacher in all things’ encourages us to take his presentation seriously. . . . Her life is depicted as a pursuit of the philosophical ideal of perfection, virtue, and wisdom characterized by ascetic restraint, ‘reason opposing the passions.’ After the death of her father, she was joined by her mother, family servants, and other devout women in establishing a religious community on the family estate in Pontus, and she consecrated herself ‘to the attainment of the angelical life’ (Life, 969-72).” (338-39)
Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters is from Baker Academic. It is a hardcover with 608 pages and sells for $44.99.
Marion Ann Taylor is editor and Agnes Choi is associate editor.
Marion Ann Taylor (PhD, Yale University) is professor of Old Testament at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, where she has taught for more than twenty-five years. She has devoted her scholarly research to the history of the interpretation of the Bible and has recently focused on women interpreters of the Bible in the nineteenth century. She is coeditor of Recovering Nineteenth-Century Women Interpreters of the Bible.
Agnes Choi (PhD, University of St. Michael’s College) is assistant professor of New Testament at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington.