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Wives, mothers, and tigresses

27 January 2017

Bridget Nichols on the 19th century’s female readings of scripture

Women in the Story of Jesus: The Gospels through the eyes of nineteenth-century female biblical interpreters
Marion Ann Taylor and Heather E. Weir, editors
Eerdmans £29.99
Church Times Bookshop £26.99


THIS fascinating collection of writings on the women of the Gospels by 19th-century women builds on the editors’ published work on biblical interpretation by women.

They locate the enterprise in the field of reception history, setting out three stages in the task of “hearing women’s voices”: recovering the evidence, analysing it, and integrating it into the history of biblical interpretation. The extracts presented in this volume, enriched by biographical information about the authors and an indication of the contexts in which their writings and addresses were first received, lie on the continuum from the second to the third stage.

Some of the authors represented are familiar (e.g. Christina Rossetti, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Josephine Butler), but other names are new to me. Although none of them had the benefit of an academic education, they were, without exception, widely read, and several showed critical awareness of trends in biblical criticism and translation.

The editors have met the challenge of making a relatively unknown body of writing visible by defining eight topics, and illustrat­ing them in each case with reference to a few responses to particular Gospel women.

Thus Mary the mother of Jesus typifies women’s spirituality. Mary and Martha are discussed with reference to spirituality in the workplace. Anna (Luke 2) is ident­ified as a woman with a vocation to preach, while the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4) is treated as the first Samaritan evangelist. Herodias and Salome, arrestingly described by the writer and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe as “royal tigresses”, become examples of women influencing men for ill.

Three very interesting chapters on the encounter with the biblical text use the Canaanite woman whose daughter is ill (Matthew 15.21-29), the woman taken in adultery (John 8.1-11), and Mary Magdalene respectively, to consider how one might imaginatively enter into a narrative, how a troublesome text might be taught, and how to deal with a character whose alleged history is entrenched in tradition.

The study questions at the end of each chapter are most helpful in these instances; for here the audience makes a difference: a group of Sunday-school children might not be treated to remarks on adultery and prostitution, while a mothers’ meeting might well be addressed on public morality.

The women whose work this book allows us to discover did not always read as we do, and their responses to certain characters — notably Martha and Mary Magdalene — can be surprisingly judgemental. On the other hand, the devotional and affective depth of their response restores something that is mostly absent from contemporary biblical criticism. Perhaps this is not simply a matter of “manly” or “womanly” ways of reading.


Dr Bridget Nichols is Lay Chaplain to the Bishop of Ely.

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