Other Thomas Scholar Interviews

I was reminded by André Gagné’s post in the Nag Hammadi Seminar Facebook group that Chris Skinner has conducted interviews with a number of other Thomas scholars over the years since he started blogging. He has moved them across from PEJE IESOUS to Crux Sola and you can find them here. He has interviews with Nicholas Perrin, Stevan Davies, Stephen J Patterson, Ismo Dunderberg, Risto Uro, Marvin Meyer, Simon Gathercole and Mark Goodacre.  The Nag Hammadi Seminar group is also worth looking at and joining, although it looks at more than just Gos Thom of course.

Bill Arnal on the Gospel of Thomas

Chris Skinner, over at Crux Sola, has recently posted the last of a series of three interviews with Bill (or more formally – but it seems that he rarely is – Dr William) Arnal from the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada. Bill’s paper,  “The Rhetoric of Marginality: Apocalypticism, Gnosticism and Sayings Gospels” (Harvard Theological Review, v. 88, n. 4, p. 471-494, 1995) was part of my early reading around Thomas and one of the things that really sparked my interest – so I was interested to read where he had moved to in the twenty years since he wrote it.  Since Chris blogs with Nijay Gupta, the posts aren’t adjacent to one another so here are the relevant links:

He makes some very interesting points about the nature of the Gospel of Thomas and areas that need (and don’t need) to be explored which are really worth reading. The highlight of my night, however, is this (yes, I know, I need to get out more):

…it seems to me that there is very little in Thomas that we could (were we so inclined) trace back to the historical Jesus with any confidence. I’m pretty sure the name “Jesus” (or rather, its equivalent) is historical. And I imagine Jesus said stuff, sometimes, so that’s probably accurate too. I’m not especially confident about anything else.

Bill doesn’t blog (at least not that I’ve found), but you can follow him on Academia.edu and get to see a lot of  his papers collected in the one place. 🙂

Growing wheat …

… or things the parable of the wheat and the tares almost certainly isn’ t saying

I have been working on the parable of the wheat and the tares Matt 13: 24-30 || GTh 57 and have been fascinated by some of the suggestions that various commentators have come up with in the way of interpretation. It is clear that they have never been involved in a wheat-growing enterprise. I have a degree in Agricultural Science and spent the first four years of my ministry in one of the major wheat-growing areas of Australia so I though I would share some of my learning about the process.

First, everyone seems to agree that the ‘tares’ or weeds of the biblical parable are a kind of bearded ryegrass also called ‘darnel’, and with the botanical name Lolium temulentum. For those of you who are not good at botanical names, both the uppercase L at the beginning of the Lolium (regardless of where it appears in a sentence) and the italicised words are essential if you want any agronomical cred at all.

Second, it appears that the basic method of sowing in first century Palestine was to walk through the plough field, throwing handfuls of seed out around you. You didn’t then cover it over, so it wasn’t particularly challenging for someone to come in during the night and throw darnel seed in with your wheat seeds. It appears that it was not until 1701 when Jethro Tull perfected the first horse-drawn seed drill that covering sown seed became anything like a common practice.  And because the seeds are about the same size and shape, unless you had reason to inspect them closely, you would not notice the new seeds sown on top of the old and if you did, you would have a snowball’s chance in hell of picking all the darnel seeds out of your wheat. It also appears that the practice of sowing darnel and wild oats in your neighbour’s crop was common enough in Rome in the early second century CE for there to be a law against it, so this was not just a rhetorical device. (A. J. Kerr, “Matthew 13:25. Sowing Zizania among another’s wheat: Realistic or artificial?,” JTS 48(1997): 108.)

Third, when the wheat and ryegrass plants are small, they look very similar to one another. As they grow bigger, it becomes obvious that the ryegrass leaves are narrower, have less prominent veins and are shinier. Thus, someone who is used to looking at fields of wheat will know before the crop starts to set seed if there is any significant infestation of darnel in their wheat crop. Unfortunately, by the time this becomes obvious, if you have planted your seeds closely enough to get a good yield per acre/hectare the roots of the plants are so intertwined that you run a very serious risk of pulling up wheat plants when you pull up the weeds and they will not respond particularly well to replanting. And while it was probably normal practice for the servants to pull out weeds when they were noticed in a crop, there wouldn’t be all that many in a well-cared-for field, so losing a few wheat plants along the way would not have been a big deal. The crop in the parable had far more darnel plants, though, because extras had been deliberately planted and the plants were probably closer together. The servants probably asked their master about pulling them out expecting that the answer would be ‘don’t.’

Fourth, once heads form even the most inexperienced person can tell the difference, as can be seen from the images to the right. It is not just at the harvest that the different kinds of plant are easily identifiable by all who care to look. The seeds of darnel are poisonous, or are commonly infested by a poisonous fungus, (Penn Veterinary Medicine, Poisonous Plants: Genus: Lolium (2014 ; available from http://research.vet.upenn.edu/PoisonousPlantsofPA/Loliumtemulentum/tabid/5459/Default.aspx) so they cannot be combined with wheat grain and must be disposed of before the grain is threshed from the plants, but when harvesting is done by hand, as happened in first century Palestine, it is easy enough to bind the darnel heads up in bundles and keep them separate from the wheat which is taken away for threshing. This is *not* possible with the modern combine harvesters.

Fourth, harvesting is a labour intensive, time critical activity. The grain cannot be harvested until it is ripe or it will not keep well, will not make good flour and will not sprout if it is being used to sow a new crop the following year. Once it is ripe, it needs to be cut as soon as possible because it will drop from the plant onto the ground and spoil if left too long, and if it rains while the ripe seeds are in the field, they will sprout in the ear and be unsuitable for flour making or replanting. The window of time is often only a few days. In the twenty-first century, the combine harvester goes into the field as soon as the dew has dried off enough and it works until late into the day and sometimes as far into the night as the dew makes possible. In pre-mechanised societies, it was customary to hire day workers as reapers to supplement the farmer’s normal workforce, so the reapers mentioned at the end of the Matthean parable are different people to the servants/slaves at the beginning – it is not just the literary device suggested by some commentators.

Fifth, burning the darnel is the appropriate method of disposing of it, because burning will kill the seeds and make sure that the next crop planted in the field is not infested with darnel plants from viable seed left lying in the field. The more weeds you have in the crop, the more important it is to kill the seeds so you don’t have the same problem the next year. Despite Hultgren’s footnote citing the Dictionary of Life in Bible Times, (Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary, Grand Rapids; Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2000 296 n 14. citing “Agriculture” in Willy Corswant (ed) Dictionary of Life in Bible Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960) it is highly unlikely that the tares would normally have been fed to stock, because the seeds are also poisonous to animals. (See, for example, M Tadych and J F White, “Endophytic Microbes,” in Eukaryotic microbes, ed. Moselio Schaechter; Amsterdam: Elsevier/Academic Press, 2012, 56.) Keeping them for fuel has some significant problems in that carrying the ripe darnel plants away from the field has the potential to broadcast the darnel seed across a wide area, thus introducing weeds into other places on your farm, although if fuel was in very short supply, the farmer might have been willing to take this risk.

Thus, the process described in the parable is not the unusual, allegorical account that some commentators want to make of it.

Update: On re-reading the last sentence, I see that this could be interpreted as saying that Matthew doesn’t allegorise the account – of course he does, but the story itself is highly likely to be an account of a normal, if not frequent, happening in first century Palestinian agriculture.

Burridge and the Life of Brian

Chris Keith on the Jesus blog draws our attention to an article in the UK Telegraph about Richard Burridge’s take on the Life of Brian. I first heard of Richard when I attended an international multifaith university chaplains’ conference in Vancouver. Richard was the Christian keynote speaker and his talk, “The Phoenix in the Marketplace”, used Harry Potter to link what chaplains do in universities into popular culture. His presentation was entertaining as well as helpful. I have referred to his What are the Gospels a number of times in my work on eyewitness testimony and memory and I also enjoyed hearing him when he visited Melbourne a year or two ago while he was on study leave and again reflecting on aspects of Christianity in the context contemporary society. I think the Pope and his advisors made a good choice in presenting him with the Ratzinger Prize.

Reading the Telegraph article took me back to the time when Life of Brian was first released in Australia. Richard says that those who called for the satire to be banned after its release in 1979 were “embarrassingly” ill-informed and missed a major opportunity to promote the Christian message and I can attest to a personal example of this. I was living away from home for the first time, in Brisbane (13 hours’ drive from friends and family). I was attending a continuing Presbyterian church (the more progressive members of the Presbyterian church had joined the Uniting Church and the Presbyterian remnant were contemplating whether they could unordain the women ministers who hadn’t left), so people in the congregation I attended were involved in picketting the local picture theatres because they were quite sure it was satanic. I was studying for a graduate diploma in a group of ten students – one Uniting Church person who had grown up Methodist; one Latter Day Saint, me and seven people who were not actively involved in any religious practice. We got to know one another quite well and hung out together quite a bit. Several of the seven wanted to know what the churches had against it and since I was the religious person who went to the pub with them (they wanted to know why the Uniting Church person wouldn’t – weren’t they good enough for her?), they asked me. I had to say that I didn’t know – the newspaper reports made no sense to me, either, but I wasn’t willing to go and see it at the picture theatre  because there was a very good chance that I would be spotted by a picketter and I didn’t know how to cope with that.

I have since seen it several times and cannot believe that anyone could possibly see such brilliant satire on the factions within the church as satanic.  It’s much more a wake-up call to people who get so fixated on the fine detail that they can’t see the big picture and had I attended a screening at the time, we could have had a very worthwhile discussion about it at the student bar, because these people were genuinely interested in what Christians believed and why. I certainly agree with the Telegraph article’s concluding quote from Richard:

They were satirising closed minds, they were satirising fundamentalism and persecution of others and at the same time saying the one person who rises above all this was Jesus, which I think is remarkable and I think that the church missed that at the time.

Maybe the Python reunion this year will provide us with the opportunity to redress that missed opportunity.

Old doctoral dissertations

When I started my doctoral candidature, I got the library to do a search to see if any doctoral dissertations had been written in my subject area. They found three: one from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; one from Emory University; and one from St Andrew’s University. I decided that the St Andrew’s one was not sufficiently interesting for me to be bothered going through the procedure needed to sight it. We had to borrow it on interlibrary loan and I had to sign a declaration saying that I would neither remove it from the library nor photocopy it; I could only have it for a relatively short period and that period included the postage time to and from Scotland. I must add that this was a number of years ago and St Andrew’s may have changed their policy since then. Emory already had theirs microfilmed and happily posted me a printout at a reasonable cost. Southwestern needed to photocopy their original but once they had worked out how to allow me to pay them from outside the US, they did the copying speedily and again at a very reasonable price. I got both of them softbound, skimmed them and then put them aside until I needed them for detailed text work.

I’ve just started working with them and am finding that they provide quite detailed information about the state of play of scholarship up to the first half of the 1960s – both were examined in 1965. I assume this is because there was a limited amount of material written at that stage, so they could describe it in more detail without exceeding the word limit. I am also in awe of the task that must have been involved in producing a thesis in the era before computers.

Hollie L. Briscoe’s  “A Comparison of the Parables in the Gospel According to Thomas and the Synoptic Gospels” (PhD, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1965) begins with the assumption that Gos Thom is a Gnostic adaptation of the Synoptics and unfortunately has a rather mechanistic approach to demonstrating that this is true. Any word or phrase that can be used in a Gnostic sense he claims as Gnostic and further proof of his claim, even though all his examples can be used in other ways as well. It’s not dissimilar to the approach taken by a number of other early Thomas scholars and I don’t find it particularly compelling. That aside, however, he provides useful summaries of the scholarship at the time, and a helpful bibliography. Theologically, I sometimes find it uncomfortable, but that is not particularly surprising given where it comes from. He nevertheless demonstrates the difference in emphasis between Thomas and the Synoptics effectively. My copy is now bristling with labelled sticky notes so I can find the necessary sections quickly as I address particular pieces of text. I appreciated his decision to transliterate all words that needed to be written in a non-English script, given the limitations of the manual typewriter that was used to produce the thesis. I also appreciate the footnotes which must have driven his typist demented!!!

I find John Bunyan Sheppard’s “A Study of the Parables Common to the Synoptic Gospels and the Coptic Gospel of Thomas” (PhD, Emory University, 1965) theologically more comfortable, but I do wish he’d decided to transliterate the Greek and Coptic rather than painstakingly hand writing slabs of both languages in a hand that would not have got him a job as a community scribe or in a scriptorium in earlier times. Again, he provides detailed summaries of the scholarship of the time and because of the way he’s divided the texts I can use the index to find the bits that interest me, which is better than sticky notes. On the other hand, unlike Briscoe, Sheppard has gone for end notes, which means sticky notes at the back so I can find the relevant notes reasonably quickly.

If, like me, you are interested in the specific parables that Thomas has in common with the Synoptics, both these dissertations are worth looking at, even though thought about them has moved on since 1965.

Asking questions, getting answers

Returning to my blog after a longish break, I came across this half-written post and thought I might finish it and publish it.

At the end of last year for the first time I was teaching earliest Christianity during the leadup to Christmas. It was a very interesting experience to sit in the pews and listen to preachers talking about the Advent readings from a faith perspective whilst preparing lectures for Studies in Religion students and then reading essays about the challenges for the early Jesus movement. Something that has stood out starkly for me is that the information that you get from the text depends to a very large extent on the questions you bring to it.

The Studies in Religion students had been asked to write about the challenges that the members of the early Jesus groups faced and how they responded. The preachers were talking about the challenges that Christians today face and how we might respond to them. Both groups were using the Bible as a primary source of their answers, but the answers they were giving me were quite different- or they should have been. Unfortunately, some of the students gave me information about how to live as a Christian today, which, whilst not unreasonable things to read out of the text, was the wrong answer to the question they were addressing. Because the preachers I was listening to are good preachers, I didn’t hear sermons that just told me about how the early Jesus groups responded to the challenges of their time, but I have certainly heard this kind of sermon in the past. Usually the preacher of the latter kind of sermon has offered a very reasonable assessment of the situation at the time of writing of the text, but it has not been the right answer to the questions that most members of congregations bring to Sunday worship.

The early Christian texts are capable of providing answers to a range of both historical and faith questions and I think it’s perfectly valid to ask both kinds of questions of them, but it’s important not to confuse the answers. Or to try to force the answers to your questions down the throats of people who are asking different questions. As someone whose initial training in biblical studies was focussed on answering faith questions, I find that I have to watch quite carefully at times that I don’t slip into that mode in my current writing, but careful historical work is an essential basis for the faith work.

More on Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses

I’ve just spent several hours reading two papers whose authors were kind enough not only to draw my attention to them but also to remind me that I had meant to read them but not managed to do so. One is a philosophy paper published in the Journal of Political Ecology and written by one of my office-mates. Tanzim Khan has written a fascinating account one of the outworkings of the tension between forest conservation and energy procurement in Bangladesh, which, of course, has nothing at all to do with the topic of this post, but I enjoyed reading it.

The second is by John N Collins – “Re-thinking ‘Eyewitnesses’ in the Light of ‘Servants of the Word’ (Luke 1:2)” (Expository Times 2010 121: 447). It is just the kind of thing I enjoy most. The first part sets Bauckham’s work in the context of Catholic scholarship over the past half century or so; the second takes a close look at translation issues and how they affect our understanding of theological concepts and as an added bonus John writes really well. Lest this sound condescending, I need to say that I’ve spent the last two days at work struggling with an abominably written report so John’s smooth prose was a delight. (Tanzim, writing in his second language produced a significantly more readable result than this report.)

In the first section of the paper, John traces the approach of the Catholic church to biblical scholarship from pre-Vatican II rejection of Bultmann through the 1993 Pontifical Biblical Commission’s The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church which states the importance of the place of the Historical Critical Method to the point where Pope Benedict XVI, writing as Joseph Ratzinger, expresses reservations about the historical method in his 2007 book Jesus of Nazareth. Collins suggest that Richard Bauckham “has arrived at the same conundrum as Benedict but after travelling in the opposite direction” (449). I think it is helpful to be reminded that there are times when Catholic biblical scholarship comes at issues from a somewhat different direction- something I was conscious of during my theological training at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Having established the differences and similarities between Bauckham and Benedict, Collins goes on to look at how the term ‘eyewitnesses’ (autoptai) is used at the beginning of Luke’s gospel. He argues that Luke’s autoptai are not the oral tradents that Bauckham suggests, but those who are working with a literary tradition; and that their role as “guarantors of the tradition” began siginficantly later than Bauckham’s argument would require. I can’t reproduce his reasoning here, but I would recommend the paper.

As I read through Collins’ paper, I was reminded again of why Bauckham’s thesis is so attractive to Christian biblical scholars. Those of us who grew up in a church community just assumed that the gospels were eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ ministry and our first encounter with twentieth-century biblical scholarship required a significant mental gear-change. At some level, I suspect we all want to be convinced that the gospels are historically accurate, because faith would be so much easier if we could prove this. Unfortunately, I don’t think this can be done without the aid of a time machine, but Bauckham’s work has certainly prompted a significant number of people to think in new ways about the gospels, which can’t be a bad thing. 🙂

Objectivity and interpretation of texts

I started writing this post several days ago in response to Christopher Skinner’s interesting post on his PEJE IESOUS blog. It’s part of a conversation with April DeConick about perspectives – here and here.  In his post, he talks about the fact that we all bring biases and presuppositions to our interpretation of texts so that it is impossible to be totally objective in our interpretations. Wade Greiner, April’s husband, has a post that suggests that while everyone has biases, not all biases are equal. Since then, April has added two more posts. The first,  entitled “Choosing your method” outlines her operating principles and is particularly helpful.  The second expresses her frustration at the way the medium allows for misinterpretation. Skinner has posted twice more on the general subject.  James McGrath also has a helpful post. I have previously touched on this issue, but want to explore it further, looking at a different way of thinking about it that I find helpful.

The reader response theory of literary criticism tries to take the differing perspectives of different readers/interpreters seriously, although it is open to serious abuse if taken too far. In part, it sees readers of a text as belonging to particular “interpretive communities” (a term which I think was coined by Stanley Fish), which influence the way in which they interpret particular texts. I think that another way of saying this is that the interpretive community to which one belongs influences the questions one asks of the text and the assumptions one makes about the text. Most of us belong to multiple interpretive communities, which sometimes results in interesting approaches to texts.

When I look at texts from early Christianity for the purposes of my doctoral studies, I ask different questions of them to those that I ask when I am preparing to preach or lead Bible study.  For my doctoral work which I do primarily as part of the interpretive community of academic scholars of studies in religion, I ask “what does this tell me about early Christian communities – how they lived, what they believed, etc?” If I were working on something different I might also be asking  “what does this tell me about the historical Jesus?”, but whatever I ask, I am using the historical-critical method as an end in itself and if I don’t use it properly, I’m in big trouble.

When I am preparing to preach or lead Bible study,  which I do primarily as part of the interpretive community of  Christian biblical scholars, I ask “what does this tell me about how early Christians related to/understood God?” and “what does this tell me about how I should live as a faithful Christian in the twenty-first century?” I have to be aware of the historical context in order to answer  the preaching/teaching questions or I could come up with some very weird answers, so I still have to use the historical-critical method properly.  Knowing the historical context is not the purpose of my questioning, though, it’s a stepping stone to developing a credible theology.

As a practising Christian, I am aware that I make different assumptions about GosThom to the ones I make about the Synoptics, even when I am not wearing my “minister” hat. I am getting better and better at catching myself at it, though. Although I don’t actually believe that there are questions one may not ask about those texts that the church calls Scripture,  I know that there are some questions that it just doesn’t occur to me to ask because I “know” the answers so well. Atheist scholars have different blind spots as a result of belonging to that particular interpretive community. For example, I think they are prone to writing off the unusual as superstition more quickly than is always warranted. James Crossley and Mike Bird’s How Did Christianity Begin?, which I have reviewed, provides a good illustration about the differing assumptions that an atheist and Christian scholar might bring to the texts of early Christianity.

Feminist scholars, womanist scholars, people of colour etc all bring different foundational assumptions to the text from their interpretive communities. I don’t see that there is anything preventing people from all these interpretive communities from doing good historical-critical work or good theology as long as they are aware that they are bringing these biases.

I don’t see that belonging to a confessional interpretive community necessarily prevents one from doing good historical-critical work, either. It depends on the particular confessional community. Things become problematic when the interpreters come from confessional interpretive communities that make strong faith claims such as “God dictated every word of Scripture, so it cannot contradict itself” – which requires some incredible gymnastics of the text  or “The Spirit speaks to me and tells me how to interpret Scripture in today’s world” – which may result in interpretations that have no real basis in the text in its context.

I think I need to finish here in the interests of getting this posted before this topic becomes totally passe. 🙂

Women and worship

This is my third post on the general subject of why there are so few women bibliobloggers – as opposed to Christian women who blog – of whom there are many, many. My general thesis is that women are less inclined to blog on the Bible because the culture of the Christian church, especially the more “conservative” expressions of it, inculcates in them a feeling that their gender means that they have nothing worthwhile to say about biblical studies.

What we do in our worship also shapes how women view their roles. Marjorie Proctor Smith (I think she is a Methodist laywoman – teaches liturgy and worship at Perkins) in In Her Own Rite talks about the way we use language and space and the effect this has. In the more mainstream denominations, it is tradition for the minister to be up the front, raised up and often dressed differently.  When the one raised up is always male, this gives a particular message to women. It is interesting that in many of the denominations that still do not ordain women, the minister is referred to as Father.  A number of male clergy from other denominations (who know I am ordained) have suggested that I might like to call them Fr John (or whatever their name might be).  Sometimes I just ignore this and call them by their given names, like the male ministers do.  Other times, I suggest that they might like to call me Rev Judy. They never do. 🙂 However, if the person who is raised up is always male and it is expected that he will be addressed as “Father”, it adds an extra layer of authority to men that isn’t available to women. I never suggest that one of my male clergy calls me “Mother Judy” – only an idiot would invite the kind of response that that would evoke!

Elizabeth J Smith, an Australian Anglican priest who (amongst other things) writes contemporary words to traditional hymn tunes, talks about the power of hymns to shape our theology:

The theology I sing will be the theology I remember. Even the reasons I give myself for praying, believing, serving in the name of Christ are rehearsed in the words of the songs I sing. How much more, when a stranger puts me on the spot about what I believe, will the most fluent phrases I have for my faith be the words I have sung a dozen or a hundred times…

The language we sing will shape the church we belong to… the Australian English of public discourse uses gender-inclusive pronouns and plurals for lawyers, doctors, nurses, sales representatives and book keepers.

…So the church needs songs where believers are not simply ‘brothers’ and where (despite widespread reluctance to change the words of existing songs) it is not only good Christian ‘men’ who rejoice with heart and soul and voice in Christmas carols.  The church needs songs that will celebrate not only the particularity of the incarnation of Jesus Christ as a Jewish man born two thousand years ago, but the revelation of the living God not merely as He Who Should be Obeyed but als as She Who Must be Enjoyed. (Elizabeth J Smith. “Crafting and Singing Hymns in Australia” in Stephen Burns and Anita Monro (eds) Christian Worship in Australia.  Strathfield, St Pauls Publications, 2009. 183-4)

She goes on to say that the Bible passages that come most readily to mind are those that we sing, but that the passages of Scripture that have been set to music are traditionally quite limited. My observation is that music that comes from the more conservative churches also uses exclusive language for both human beings and God – often the male triumphalist God language that Brian Wren (English, Anglican) critiques in What Language Shall I Borrow?

All this goes to reinforce the unconscious sexism and misogyny highlighted by Colin in his response to my last post. Regarding women’s theological input as unacceptable, irrelevant, is seen as quite normal in some/many churches by both men and women.

Experiencing women’s ministry on a regular basis helps overcome some of this, but lots of people haven’t. Although my denomination has been ordaining women for a long time, I still meet people who have never met a woman minister before. I still lead worship and have people say that they have never experienced a woman minister leading worship before. I will never forget doing the eulogy for an international student who had been found dead of a drug overdose in a park some two hours’ drive from the campus. The funeral director (aka undertaker for those in North America), an Anglican, had made it quite clear that he thought that the priest presiding at the funeral was stark staring bonkers to have invited me to take part (I actually knew the girl and he didn’t, but the parents wanted a Catholic funeral). As I left the crematorium chapel, the funeral director said to me in a tone of utter amazement “You actually know what you’re doing, don’t you? You did a good job!” At least he was honest enough to admit that he’d been wrong, albeit somewhat tactlessly. Lots of women just get the hostility, not the apology, and one of the characteristics of the blogosphere is that many people feel free to express opinions and ideas electronically that they would never dream of saying to someone in person, so being a female biblioblogger is risky.

There is a discussion going on at the moment about April’s plan to link to as many women bibliobloggers as she can in order to draw attention to their work. There is some feeling among (male) biblibloggers that they link to people whose blog interest them and gender plays no part. However, I would suggest that in this world of information overload, we have to find some method of limiting what we read and personal bias plays an important part. Men (and women) who have had significant experience of the kinds of things I’ve posted about recently are likely to disregard women bloggers more often than men bloggers because they have inbuilt biases that say that women don’t know about bible and blogging with no evidence that your work is being read is rather discouraging.  Which is probably another reason why there are so few women bibliobloggers – and this is something that a linking program might help.

Women and the Bible

Yesterday, I said I’d try to talk about the Bible and its effect on how women function in the church. I think I want to broaden this post a little, but I’ll see how I go.

I think it’s true that when pushed to justify their behaviour, most people will defer to some sort of higher authority. For Christians, this higher authority is usually  God’s will as revealed in Scripture, with or without reference to the tradition of the church. People who believe that they have a divine mandate for their behaviour are less likely to change it than those who appeal to a less powerful authority for justification for their behaviour.

The Bible in its Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic texts is seriously androcentric. Most English translations make it even more androcentric. Phylis Trible’s God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality provides an impressive set of examples of how this is so – how female images in the Hebrew text are “degendered” in English translations.  Her Texts of Terror gives some chilling examples of how Christian Scripture is not just androcentric but also misogynist.

How a particular church views the status of Scripture has some significant consequences for the place of women in their communities today and, as I suggested yesterday, I think that the place of women in a particular church community will influence how likely she is to become a biblioblogger. A church that believes that the stories in Scripture are socially located and a reflection of the culture in which they were written will have a very different approach to one that believes that Scripture is literally word-for-word Gods’ word and true in that form for all time. I don’t think that anyone actually takes the Bible word for word literally, but many people say they do.  There are quite a few commandments in the Hebrew Scripture that Christians cheerfully ignore. Like the one in Leviticus 19: 19

You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials. (NRSV)

Even when we still want to stand by some of the Levitical laws, we tend not to think that death by stoning is an appropriate punishment for breaking them, although that’s what the Bible often suggests. And I don’t think that many Christians think that it is OK to offer to throw their virgin daughters out to be raped by a crowd of rowdy blokes in order to protect visitors, as Lot did in Genesis 19.

Nevertheless, if you see Scripture as being socially located etc, you will be more inclined to look at what it meant in the context of the time in which it was written in trying to work out how to apply it today, and thus to critique the androcentricity and misogyny. If you consider it to be literally true, you are less likely to think about the fact that Scripture in general seems to say that it is OK to treat women badly and ask what that means for how you live today.  This is not to say that all members of all conservative churches are misogynist. Scot McKnight is an example of someone from a reasonably conservative branch of the Christian church who has gone into print (in The Blue Parakeet) to argue for a more egalitarian treatment of women and as a professor teaching at a university level tries to instill confidence in his female students.

It was certainly important to me that the professors where I studied theology evaluated our contributions on the basis of their academic worth, not on the basis of whether we were male or female. They also challenged students who made sexist comments, didn’t use inclusive language and so on. This was also important in my formation as a minister and as a biblical scholar.

I indicated at the top that I thought I wanted to talk about more than the Bible. I think what happens in worship also has an important role in forming women who are confident to have their biblical scholarship voices heard in the blogosphere and I will look at that tomorrow (or the next day).