Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Review of Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza's In Memory of Her
Dennis Ingolfsland
In Memory of Her was a feminist reconstruction of Christian origins. Part one had chapters on feminist hermeneutics, critical method and a feminist model of historical reconstruction. Fiorenza’s method was one that accepted the presuppositions of critical biblical scholarship including a hermeneutics of suspicion toward the biblical texts. But Fiorenza’s method went beyond the general skepticism of most non-evangelical biblical scholars.

Since the biblical writings were written by men, Fiorenza assumed that the biblical texts were, therefore, androcentric and strongly biased against women. This being the case, the silence of the texts about women should not be read as if women had no important role to play, but rather as evidence that the male authors were covering up the role of women in the early church. Women must, therefore, be assumed to have been at the center of Christian history alone with the men and the task of feminist scholarship was to work as detectives, not only uncovering the facts, but also engaging in “imaginative reconstruction of historical reality (Fiorenza 1989 41).

One example of this method at work was the list in which Paul greeted “women as leading missionaries and respected leaders of churches” and passages in which Paul expressed his appreciation toward women co-workers. Since Fiorenza’s method requires her to find anti-women sentiment in New Testament writings, however, Fiorenza wrote that Paul probably had no choice but to recognize these women because they were on his leadership level (Fiorenza 1989, 50).

Fiorenza concluded, therefore, that “the androcentric selection and transmission of early christian traditions have manufactured the historical marginality of women” (Fiorenza 1989, 52). Not only that, but the church itself, according to Fiorenza, was not built on the prophets and apostles, but “on the backs of women, slaves and the lower classes” (Fiorenza 1989, 79).

Having laid the hermeneutical ground work in part one, Fiorenza used that ground work to reconstruct the Jesus movement in part two. Fiorenza made a distinction between the Jesus movement in Palestine which was initiated by Jesus and was an “alternative prophetic renewal movement” and the Christian missionary movement which preached “an alternative religious vision” and practiced “a countercultural communal lifeestyle” (Fiorenza 1989, 100). Both were inspired by Jesus.

The Christian missionary movement has often been attributed to Paul since his letters have survived, but Paul was “neither its initiator or its sole leader” (Fiorenza 1989, 101). Realizing that Paul was just one among many early Christian leaders “allows us to conceptualize this movement in such a way that women can emerge as initiators and leaders of the movement and not just as Paul’s helpers” (Fiorenza 1989, 101). Along the same lines, the Gospels must be understood as having undergone an lengthy redational and traditioning process in which the writers were not so much concerned about what really happened as they were with interpretative expressions of what Jesus meant in their own situations. Feminist Jesus’ scholars must, therefore, analyze these accounts critically (Fiorenza 1989, 102).

According to Fiorenza, the earliest “remembrances and interpretations” of Jesus “understood him as Sophia’s messenger and later as Sophia herself” (Fiorenza 1989, 134). Jesus called people to a “discipleship of equals” (Fiorenza 1989, 107) and proclaimed that God was the God “of the poor and heavy laden, of the outcasts and those who suffer injustice” (Fiorenza 1989, 135). This God, Fiorenza assured her readers, did not will Jesus’ death and did not need atonement or sacrifices (Fiorenza 1989 135).

“Women were the first non-Jews to become members of the Jesus movement” (Fiorenza 1989, 138) as seen by the legend of the Syrophoenician woman who argued with Jesus against limiting his ministry to Jews. The fact that this argument was placed in the mouth of a woman, according to Fiorenza, was a sure “sign of the historical leadership women had in opening up Jesus movement and community to ‘gentile sinners” (Fiorenza 1989 138). The story was significant because hit showed that women were “leaders in expanding the Jesus movement in Galilee” (Fiorenza 1989, 138). In Jesus’ ministry of “the discipleship of equals, the ‘role’ of women is not peripheral or trivial, but at the center” (Fiorenza 1989, 152).

Since Acts was androcentric, one-sided and neglected the contribution of women in the early church, that contribution “must be rescued through historical imagination” (Fiorenza 1989, 167). Fiorenza then rightly pointed out the prominent place women had in the early church as illustrated in the examples of Prisca, Phoebe, Junia, Euodia, Syntyche, Mary, Tryphosa and Persis (Fiorenza 1989, 169-184). Against this background the theology of Paul and women was discussed. Fiorenza concluded that Paul had a “double-edged” impact on women in early Christianity. On the one hand he affirmed equality, freedom and independence for women, but on the other hand he restricted the rights of women in marriage and worship (Fiorenza 1989, 236).

Part three traced this negative impact on through the rest of the first and into the second centuries as patriarchy developed and gradually took over the Christian movement, according to Fiorenza. Fiorenza saw signs of developing patriarchy in the so-called dutero-Pauline epistles of Colossians, First and Second Timothy and Titus as well as in the Petrine letters and Revelation. She also discussed the contribution of non-canonical writings such as First Clement, the letters of Ignatius, the Didache, Shepherd of Hermas, and various Gnostic writings (Fiorenza 1989, 251-315). Fiorenza concluded that the Pastoral epistles and the letters of Ignatius pointed to the gradual patriarchalization of the church which eventually controlled and restricted women’s church and religious associations (Fiorenza 1989, 315).

Schussler-Fiorenza's work was an ideologically motivated re-imagination of Jesus in line with her radical feminist leanings. It was something akin to me re-imagining Jesus as Norwegian (my ancestry). Why don't the gospel writers say he was Norwegian? They were obviously predjudiced against Norwegians and sought to remove any reference to them in their story of Jesus! What nonsense!

With all due respect to Ms. Schussler Fiorenza, some of us are interested in the Jesus of history, not the Jesus of feminist--or any other--imagination.