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Deconstructing the Bible: a consideration of the interpretive possibilities inherent in deconstructionist readings of the biblical text such as those offered by feminist hermeneutics
Derek Gillard
August 1991

copyright Derek Gillard 2001
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In this paper I shall examine what is meant by textual deconstruction, assess the particular contribution of feminist hermeneutics to this process and then offer some suggestions as to the possibilities raised.

Deconstruction literally means 'taking apart' and should not be confused with destruction! I suggest that textual deconstruction involves examining a text contextually, bearing in mind the time and culture in which it was written, and the purpose for which it was written. 'Liberation theology and contextualisation ... both study the influence of culture on the shape of our theological questions and answers. They involve strenuous re-examination of traditional interpretive method' (Poythress 1988:169).

Hermeneutics, which has traditionally been understood as 'the study of the locus and principles of interpretation' (Ferguson 1986:4), thus takes into account not just the text but also the reader. It acknowledges that we come to a text with certain predispositions which Ferguson has categorised as informational, attitudinal, ideological and methodological, and that it is dishonest not to admit that these affect our interpretation of the text. In the light of these perspectives - our 'preunderstanding' - hermeneutics then involves the 'reconstruction' of the text - a term used by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza - so as to be both true to the original text but also meaningful to present day readers.

Ferguson offers a definition of modern hermeneutics from Carl Braaten (1966:131): 'the science of reflecting on how a word or an event in a past time and culture may be understood and become existentially meaningful in our present situation' (quoted in Ferguson 1986:5).

But to return to the concept of 'preunderstanding': it is essential to appreciate the importance of this concept of 'a body of assumptions and attitudes which a person brings to the perception and interpretation of reality or any aspect of it' (Ferguson 1986:6) because feminism is just such a body of assumptions. Daphne Hampson defines feminism as 'a certain set of views, which could be held by men but rarely are, about the equality of the sexes and the need for example for non-heirarchical relationships' (Hampson 1990 p.x).

Rosemary Radford Reuther identifies two feminist frameworks: liberal feminism (concerned mainly with issues around equal opportunities); and what she calls 'romantic feminism':

Liberalism assumes the traditional male sphere as normative and believes it is wrong to deny people access to it on the basis of gender ... romanticism, in contrast, recognises the moral ambiguity of the roles traditionally associated with masculinity. (Reuther 1983:109-110)
If one accepts this argument, the gnostic Gospel of Thomas concludes with a passage which could be defined in terms of liberal feminism and clearly indicates its limitations:
Simon Peter said to them [the disciples]: 'Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life.' Jesus said 'I myself shall lead her, in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven'. (quoted in Pagels 1979:72)
Having briefly established what we mean by textual deconstruction, hermeneutics and feminism, I now turn to the possibilities inherent in such an approach to biblical interpretation.

I believe these fall into two main categories (though the line between them is often unclear - they are mutually interdependent). There are possibilities on the one hand for greater understanding of the text itself; and on the other for a better appreciation of its meaning for us in terms of our understanding of humanity and of God:

As a critique of culture in the light of misogyny, feminism is a prophetic movement, examining the status quo, pronouncing judgement and calling for repentance. In various ways this hermeneutical pursuit interacts with the Bible in its remoteness, complexity, diversity and contemporaneity to yield new understandings of both text and interpreter. (Trible 1982:23-24)
The possibilities for understanding in deconstructionist readings of the biblical text are enormous and only become clear when one begins to understand the extent to which our preunderstandings colour our reading. 'In Bible study we may not see a possible interpretive alternative until we abandon familiar ways of thinking' (Poythress 1988:86).

Feminist hermeneutics reminds us that the Bible was written to promote an androcentric view of the world and has been used over the centuries to maintain this view. For Fiorenza, it is necessary to overcome both the 'obfuscating functions of androcentric language of biblical sources' and the 'unconscious bias of established so-called objective scholarship' to achieve 'a hermeneutics of suspicion' which is 'able to recover glimpses of the discipleship of equals in the beginnings of Christianity as a heritage and vision for all of us' (Fiorenza 1986:71).

Other feminist writers have taken this line: so Phyllis Trible says:

Born and bred in a land of patriarchy, the Bible abounds in male imagery and language. For centuries interpreters have explored and exploited this male language to articulate theology: to shape the contours and content of the Church, synagogue and academy; and to instruct human beings - female and male - in who they are, what rules they should play, and how they should behave. So harmonious has seemed this association of Scripture with sexism, of faith with culture, that only a few have even questioned it. (Trible 1982:23)
Elisabeth Cady Stanton, whose book The Woman's Bible (1895) has been seen as the progenitor of feminist theology, felt that women had been forced by legislators and priests, religious parties and denominations into 'a fundamental conviction of their inferiority, conveyed to them not least by their incapacity to "image" God' (Loades 1990:15). And Ruth Page says of her: 'Stanton found it necessary to engage in interpretation of the Bible because it was used as the ultimate sanction against any change of conditions for women' (Page 1987:18).

It is possible to identify four possibilities relating to the text itself and our interpretations of it.

First, underlining the importance of our understanding of the context in which the Bible was written, Phyllis Trible draws conclusions about the inferior status of women in Old Testament society:

Defined as the property of men (Ex. 20:17, Deut. 5:21), women did not control their own bodies. A man expected to marry a virgin, though his own virginity need not be intact. A wife guilty of earlier fornication violated the honour and power of both her father and husband. Death by stoning was the penalty (Deut. 22:13-21). Moreover, a woman had no right to divorce (Deut. 24:1-4) and most often, no right to own property. Excluded from the priesthood, she was considered far more unclean than the male (Lev. 15). Even her monetary value was less (Lev. 27:1-7). (Trible 1982:24)
Here it is clear that the writers of the text were operating in an androcentric society - the important point is that we should acknowledge this in our reading of it.

Second, we need to appreciate the emphasis which traditional biblical interpretation has placed on the roles of men and women. In a sense, Fiorenza takes this process a stage further. Her primary interest is in 'reconstruction' of our Christian origins. Take, for example, Romans 16. Here, the significance of the leadership of Phoebe, Prisca or Junia has been downplayed by traditional interpretations of the text because it was exercised in the house rather than in public. Fiorenza suggests that 'This distinction is not only anachronistic but also overlooks that in the house church the "private" and "public" spheres of church overlap', and goes on to say that 'The contributions of our early Christian foresisters to early Christian faith, community and mission can only become historically visible when we are willing to abandon our outdated androcentric models of historical reconstruction (Fiorenza 1986:71).

Third, we need to understand how traditional biblical interpretations have distorted - even changed - the meaning of the text. I offer three examples of these distortions.

First, from Genesis 1:27-28: 'So God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them' (NEB).

Rosemary Radford Reuther suggests that this passage uses the term 'man' generically, so that the image of God is shared by both male and female, as in the second part of verse 27. However, she points out that 'practically the whole patristic and medieval tradition rejected the possibility that women were equally theomorphic' (Reuther 1985:139). And she quotes Augustine's Treatise on the Trinity where he says that:

the woman, together with her own husband, is the image of God ... but when she is referred to separately ... then she is not the image of God, but as regards the man alone, he is the image of God as fully and completely as when the woman is joined to him in one. (Augustine de Trinitate 7.7.10 quoted in Reuther 1985:139)
The text does not say this: Augustine does. Ursula King suggests that 'patriarchy is not only about social, economic, religious and political power structures, but is rooted even deeper than that in attitudes, values, language and thought' (King 1989:25).

Another powerful example of misrepresentation is to be found in I Corinthians 7:1. 'And now for the matters that you wrote about. It is a good thing for a man to have nothing to do with women; but because there is so much mmorality, let each man have his own wife...' (NEB).

Angela West points out that this verse has been crucial in the history of Christian sexual repression and that this has been based on a misinterpretation of the text:

Paul is not giving his own opinion directly - he is almost certainly quoting the opinion of his correspondent whose sexual ideals and practice he does not endorse. (West 1987:75)
She suggests this translation:
Now, concerning the matters you mention in your letter. You say: it is a good thing for a man not to have intercourse with woman. I say: that each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband because of the dangers of prostitution. (West 1987:75)
Paul's writings have almost always been used to support repressive Christian sexual ethics. Yet feminist hermeneutics suggests that this interpretation is at best misleading and at worst profoundly mistaken.

Take the question of Paul's celibacy, for example. 'The patriarchal Church, in line with its sex-repressive ideology, has presented Paul as embodying its ideal of apostolic virginity' (West 1987:77). In fact, it is most likely that Paul had been married. As a good Jew he would have been expected to marry, and when he writes 'To the unmarried and to widows I say this: it is a good thing if they stay as I am myself' (I Corinthians 7:8), West points out that 'the word used for "unmarried" in fact means either someone who is separated after a marriage or a widower', so when Paul goes on to discuss the problems of Christians married to non-Christians, 'it is by no means impossible that he is speaking from his own experience - out of which, perhaps, his own celibacy had been painfully born' (West 1987:77).

Fourth, there are examples where the actual translation of a text is simply dishonest. Take Deuteronomy 32:18, for example: 'You forsook the creator who begot you and cared nothing for God who brought you to birth' (NEB).

Phyllis Trible (1982:25) says: 'We need to accent the striking portrayal of God as a woman in labour pains, for the Hebrew verb has exclusively this meaning.' She goes on to say 'How scandalous, then, is the totally incorrect translation in the Jerusalem Bible, "You forgot the God who fathered you"' (Trible 1982:25). What possible reason can the translators of the Jerusalem Bible have had for this mistranslation, other than the desire to perpetuate their androcentric view of the world and of God?

In each of these four cases, having acknowledged the existence of the context, bias, misinterpretation or dishonesty of translation, feminist hermeneutics is able to offer a 'reconstructed' view of what the text is saying to us.

What, then, are the possibilities in the broader context of our understanding of the nature of God, of women and of humanity as a whole?

Daphne Hampson (1990:170) is concerned that much modern theology - not just feminist theology - has become profoundly secular - 'as though theology has lost its moorings'. She criticises Fiorenza for talking of the community of women in the early church; Reuther for looking to alternative traditions within the Christian heritage so as to find communities 'the knowledge of which will empower us'; Mary Daly, who 'advocates the self-realisation of women and the overcoming of oppression'; and Catherine Keller, who talks of understanding the person as relational without spelling out what the implications of such a construal of reality might be for our understanding of God (Hampson 1990:170). So what does feminism offer us theologically? (The word itself has a male root - perhaps we should talk about thealogy?)

There is no doubt that our western image of God has traditionally been male: God as father, brother, husband, king, lord, master, judge and so on. Indeed, as Elaine Pagels has pointed out, 'the absence of feminine symbolism for God marks Judaism, Christianity and Islam in striking contrast to the world's other religious traditions' (Pagels 1979:71).

While the image of God as father has certainly been the most powerful, Sara Maitland suggests that it is interesting that

the concept of the first person of the Trinity as increasingly distant, judgemental and punitive, with a newer focus on Mary as mother and Jesus as friend and brother, grew up in Europe at almost exactly the same time as the educated writing and thinking people were becoming urbanised - that is, their father's work and family life were becoming separated. (Maitland 1986:153)
Is the answer to this to promote a female image of God? Sara Maitland is doubtful. If this were to happen, would it suggest that 'tender nurturing was somehow a female characteristic and that it was less incumbent upon men to develop it?' (Maitland 1986:154). Personally, I am not convinced that simply thinking of God as female would serve any useful purpose: what would be the advantage of a female image of God rather than a male one? And I do not believe that this is what most feminists are arguing for.

Some feminists have suggested that we should stop thinking of God as a noun and think instead of a verb. This is not new, of course: the God of the Hebrews was 'I AM'. But Sara Maitland suggests that we need to go further than this, finding ways of relating to God not just as the verb of being, but as an active verb, too. She writes:

Bernard of Clairvaux put this more clearly than I can when he described the Holy Spirit as the passionate kiss between the Father and the Son. Although you construe 'kiss' as a noun, it is really as verb, because the kiss only exists in the act of kissing. (Maitland 1986:156)
Gail Ramshaw (1982:179) sums up this area of possibility when she says 'What is required is not only the will to change one's vocabulary, but a renewed perception of God.' She suggests that if we can rid ourselves of our sex-stereotyping of mailmen and nurses, we release them from the categories of sex. Similarly:
if we again meet the God of the burning bush, the God of the parting waters and the raining manna, the God of the wings - the mother eagle teaching her young to fly, the mother hen protecting her chicks - the God of the cross, we might be so overwhelmed by God that we laugh at the inadequacy of 'he' and resolve to be more articulate in our speech. (Ramshaw 1982:179)
The possibilities of new understandings and perceptions of God, then, are enormous. Alla Bozarth Campbell testified to the power of such a new understanding when she wrote:
I was not able to approach God with this kind of engagement until I began to open up my prayer life to the feminine aspects of God ... I didn't suspect the wholeness I missed until I began to experience it ... I don't suggest that this process is possible only for women. (quoted in Maitland 1986:150)
Fundamental as our understanding of God is, feminist hermeneutics also offers us opportunities to re-evaluate our attitude to women themselves - and to humanity as a whole - in relation to a newly-interpreted biblical text and perception of the divine. Rosemary Radford Reuther, who takes a reformist stance, illustrates this point. For her, the critical principle of feminist theology is to promote 'the full humanity of women' (Reuther 1983:18).
Theologically speaking, whatever diminishes or denies the full humanity of women must be presumed not to reflect the divine or an authentic relation to the divine, or to the nature of things, or to be a message or work of an authentic redeemer or a community of redemption. (Reuther 1983:19)
And there is no doubt that such a re-evaluation is long overdue. Christianity and the Bible have had such a profound effect in moulding our attitudes that it will be impossible to change them without reconsidering their roots in the biblical text: 'Whatever advances women tried to make - in education, or employment or political rights - were held to contradict the will and word of God as revealed in the Scriptures and interpreted by ministers' (Griffith 1984:210).

Elisabeth Cady Stanton wrote:

The chief obstacle in the way of women's elevation today is the degrading position assigned to her in the religion of all countries - an afterthought in Creation, the origin of Sin, cursed by God, marriage for her a condition of servitude, maternity a degradation, unfit to minister at the altar and in some churches even to sing in the choir. Such is her position in the Bible and religion! (quoted in Griffith 1984:210)
There are a number of possibilities for those who share this view, which I would broadly categorise under two headings.

The first is what we might describe as an approach based on continuity; its essence lies in the recovery of neglected traditions and texts by which the reader can discover women's part in the Gospel and through which s/he can come to understand its power in relation to the life of women today. Much of Fiorenza's work is on these lines:

Only in and through a critical evaluative process of feminist hermeneutics can Scripture be used as a resource in the liberation struggle of women and other 'subordinated' people. (Fiorenza 1983:343)
Phyllis Trible takes a similar line, using 'sad stories' as readings 'in memoriam'. In her book Texts of Terror she writes, 'As a critique of culture and faith in light of misogyny, feminism is a prophetic movement, examining the status quo, pronouncing judgement, and calling for repentance' (Trible 1984:3).

Trible uses, among others, the story of Lot and his visitors in Genesis 19. When Lot offers two females to protect his male visitors, Trible comments 'No restrictions whatsoever does this lord place upon the use of the two women. Instead, he gives wicked men a licence to rape them' (Trible 1984:74).

Interestingly, Bishop John Shelby Spong also uses this story in his book Living in Sin. He argues that this is a very strange text to use to condemn homosexuality:

'It approves Lot's offer of his virgin daughters to satisfy the sexual demands of the angry mob. It suggests that incest is a legitimate way of impregnating women when there is no man around save the father of those women. What society would today be willing to incorporate either of these practices into its moral code? Who among us is willing to accept the definition of women implicit in this account? If we reject the denigration of women as property or the practice of incest ... are we not also free to reject this society's faulty understanding of homosexuality as being also based upon inadequate moral grounds?' (Spong 1988:141)
Here feminist hermeneutics is being used as a vehicle for the liberation of some of the other 'oppressed' people of whom Fiorenza speaks.

A second possibility is to take a discontinuous approach, as advocated by Daphne Hampson. Fiorenza and Trible, she says, 'never tackle the prior question as to whether feminism is in fact compatible with Christianity, such that one should want to stand in relationship to biblical women' (Hampson 1990:32). She argues that:

the challenge of feminism is not simply that women wish to gain an equal place with men in what is essentially a religion that is biased against them ... the masculine nature of Christianity ... is becoming increasingly problematic to a large number of women. (Hampson 1990:4)
And she criticises some feminists for being syncretistic in their use of religious language:
they will draw on the biblical language in so far as this is useful, and supplement what is perceived to be a deficiency in the Jewish and Christian traditions by drawing on other sources. (Hampson 1990:157)
Basically, then, a discontinuous approach seeks to start afresh, from what Hampson calls a 'post-Christian' position. 'I deny that there could be a particular revelation of God in any one age, which thenceforth becomes normative for all others' (Hampson 1990:41).

Another feminist, Mary Daly, started out as a Roman Catholic but now finds traditional religion impossible:

We cannot really belong to institutional religion as it exists ... singing sexist hymns, praying to a male God breaks our spirit, makes us less than human. The crushing weight of this tradition, of this power structure, tells us we do not even exist. (quoted in King 1989:170)
Arguing her case in Beyond God the Father she writes: 'What is involved, then, is a religious struggle, and this is so because the conflict is on the level of being versus nonbeing. The affirmation of being by women is a religious affirmation, confronting the archaic heritage of projections that deny our humanity' (Daly 1986:139).

If feminist hermeneutics offers possibilities for the liberation of women, does it have anything to offer to humanity and society in general? I believe it does. For how can men be in a right relationship with God (assuming they still believe in him/her) if they are not even in a right relationship with their fellow human beings? 'The narrative literature ... makes clear that from birth to death the Hebrew woman belonged to men' (Trible 1982:24). Surely no right thinking person would defend such a situation today? And yet the world is full of examples of just such oppression - from the virtual slavery of women in some societies to the sex-ads in the gutter press of our own. Plus ça change...

Feminism is not going to disappear ... The religion which we have known commences with Adam, the archetypal man, naming and thereby (in Hebrew thought) defining the essence of all living things - including the woman and her reality. The coming of age of women as feminists in theology consists in women beginning to undertake that process of naming for themselves. That, after four thousand years, constitutes a revolution. (Hampson 1990:6)
Vive la Revolution!

References

Braaten C (1966) History and hermeneutics Philadelphia: Fortress

Daly M (1986) Beyond God the Father London: The Women's Press

Ferguson DS (1986) Biblical hermeneutics: an introduction London: SCM Press Ltd

Fiorenza ES (1983) In memory of her: a feminist theological reconstruction of Christian origins London: SCM Press Ltd

Fiorenza ES (1986) 'Missionaries, apostles, co-workers: Romans 16 and the reconstruction of women's early Christian history' Word and World 6(4) 420-33 reprinted in A Loades (1990) Feminist theology: a reader London: SPCK 57-71

Griffith E (1984) In her own right: the life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton Oxford: Oxford University Press

Hampson D (1990) Theology and feminism Oxford: Blackwell

King U (1989) Women and spirituality Basingstoke: Macmillan

Loades A (ed) (1990) Feminist theology: a reader London: SPCK

Maitland S (1986) 'Ways of relating' The Way 26(2) 124-33 reprinted in A Loades (1990) Feminist theology: a reader London: SPCK 148-157

Page R (1987) 'Elizabeth Cady Stanton's The Woman's Bible' The Journal of the Modern Churchpeople's Union 29(4) 37-41 reprinted in A Loades (1990) Feminist theology: a reader London: SPCK 16-23

Pagels E (1979) The gnostic gospels London: Penguin Books

Poythress VS (1988) Science and hermeneutics Grand Rapids: Zondervan

Ramshaw G (1982) 'The gender of God' Worship 56 117-31 reprinted in A Loades (1990) Feminist theology: a reader London: SPCK 168-180

Reuther RR (1983) Sexism and God talk London: SCM Press Ltd

Reuther RR (1985) 'The liberation of Christology from patriarchy' New Blackfriars 66 (1985) 324-35 and 67 (1986) 92-3 reprinted in A Loades (1990) Feminist theology: a reader London: SPCK 138-148

Spong JS (1988) Living in sin? San Francisco: Harper and Row

Trible P (1982) 'Feminist hermeneutics and biblical studies' The Christian Century 3-10 February 116-18 reprinted in A Loades (ed) (1990) Feminist theology: a reader London: SPCK 23-29

Trible P (1984) Texts of terror Philadelphia: Fortress Press

West A (1987) 'Sex and salvation: a Christian feminist Bible study on 1 Corinthians 6.12-7.39' The Journal of the Modern Churchpeople's Union 39(3) 17-24 reprinted in A Loades (ed) (1990) Feminist theology: a reader London: SPCK 72-80

  • This article is a modified version of an essay submitted in August 1991 as part of my MA in Religious Education course at the University of London Institute of Education.