Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet: Critical Issues in Feminist Christology. New York: Continuum, 1994.
Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza is a feminist biblical scholar. I read her book, In Memory of Her, back when I was an undergraduate. I liked that book for two reasons. First, it argued that the Jesus movement was non-patriarchal and egalitarian. That resonated with me, as one who wanted to believe that the Bible was progressive rather than regressive. Not only would that make me feel better about God, but it would also give me a way to respond to atheists who said that the Bible was sexist and patriarchal. I realize that Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s approach to Scripture was more nuanced than the way that I was applying it—-that she actually sees regressive and potentially liberationist voices within the Bible—-but I figured that I could take what I liked, and leave the rest. Second, I vaguely recall that Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza argued that the Greek word adelphos in the New Testament could apply to both men and women. The New Revised Standard Version was being criticized at the time for gender inclusive language—-for saying “brothers and sisters” rather than merely “brothers” or “brethren.” I was impressed that Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza defended the idea that adelphos could mean brothers and sisters, not through an appeal to political correctness, but rather by pointing out how the term was used in the New Testament.
I did not take a class with her when I was a student at Harvard Divinity School. I was aware that she employed a “hermeneutic of suspicion” when it came to the Bible, and I much preferred what Richard Hays called the “hermeneutic of trust” (as I understood that). I understood the hermeneutic of suspicion to a suspicion of biblical writings, as if they reflected attempts to reinforce oppressive power structures, and that did not agree with my desire to believe that the Bible was God’s word, illuminated by the Holy Spirit. Moreover, I thought that she tended to reduce biblical studies to political issues, whereas I believed that Christianity should have a significant spiritual component. I do not know if I was understanding the hermeneutic of suspicion or her overall stance correctly, and perhaps I would have done well to have audited one of her classes and just listened (I would not have been brave enough to take her class for a grade!). I did not, though, but at least I can still read her writings!
Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet: Critical Issues in Feminist Christology is a critique of other feminist theologians and scholars (including critics of In Memory of Her), and it also explores issues in feminist Christology. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s desire is for a democratic society of justice and social equality, and one of her problems with a number of feminist theologians and scholars is that she does not believe that their ideologies or arguments are sufficient to dismantle patriarchy or oppression, but may even reinforce the current system and its mindsets. A lot of her book seems to me to be an exploration of the pitfalls that can come with doing feminist theology. One may want to argue that Jesus was a step-up from the oppressive patriarchy of the Judaism of his day, for example, but the problem there is that such an argument reinforces anti-Judaism and maybe even supersessionism, ideas that have had disastrous historical consequences. One may note that wisdom was a feminine manifestation of God within the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, or that Mary is significant within Catholicism, but could these notations lead to a reinforcement of gender stereotypes? Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza quotes someone who recalled her negative experiences in Catholic school, and how the nuns appealed to Mary in an attempt to encourage girls to be passive, quiet, and submissive.
Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s approach, it appears to me, is to identify potentially liberationist ideas within Jewish and Christian traditions, and to encourage society to acknowledge those, which could perhaps lead to society’s betterment. Rather than saying that Jesus was a step-up from Judaism, why not note the liberationist tendencies within Judaism, such as the female heroine Judith? Why not stress Mary’s call for the dismantling of oppression in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55)? While wisdom literature may reflect a sexist society or sexist groups, one could point to wisdom groups that may have been open to women: consider the Therapeutae. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza also appears to gain hope from the empty tomb traditions, in which Jesus appears to women after rising from the dead and goes before them. She supports encouraging women to work for equality and democracy, and she seems to believe that, on some level, the Jesus movement was doing so by being a movement of equals, against a system of prevalent patriarchy, classism, and oppression.
A question that enters my mind is whether we can pick and choose what we like in a religion. Why do the liberationist tendencies within Christianity have a truth value of reflecting the will of God, whereas the patriarchal tendencies do not? I do not know how Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza would answer that question, or if she would even accept my framing of the question or its premise. Perhaps her focus is more on the social consequences of theological ideas rather than their truth value. Or, alternatively, perhaps she actually does believe that the liberationist tendencies within Christianity are authoritative because they reflect how the early Jesus movement was, whereas patriarchal aspects of Christianity came later and primarily reflected the patriarchy and sexism of the surrounding culture, rather than anything distinctly Christian. Perhaps she believes that Jesus really was a prophet of sophia, wisdom, a feminine manifestation of God.
Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza also seemed to me to have a problem with Paul’s conceptualization of Jesus as Lord. For one, she appears to see that as part of a sexist narrative in which a woman brought sin into the world and a man came to earth to fix that. (Whether or not Paul blamed the woman for the Fall, some of his ideas became a part of that Christian narrative.) Second, she is quite critical of oppression and authoritarianism, and so she may believe that seeing Jesus as Lord reinforces an authoritarian mindset, as opposed to the discipleship of equals that she prefers. I believe that seeing Jesus as Lord can give people the hope that God will one day end oppression. Does Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza envision more of a bottom-up than a top-down process, in which people work for equality and encourage society to embrace equality voluntarily?