Thursday, July 19, 2007

Remembering women disciples with Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza

I am re-reading Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza's In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. Schussler Fiorenza is a feminist theologian and New Testament scholar, on faculty as Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. Her other notable works include Bread Not Stone; But She Said; and Revelation: Vision of a Just World.

Schussler Fiorenza's aim in In Memory of Her is "to reconstruct early Christian history as women's history in order not only to restore women's stories to early Christian history but also to reclaim this history as the history of women and men" (xiv). She does so by employing historical and theological critical analysis as well as a developed feminist biblical-historical hermeneutic. Indeed, it is largely her feminist hermeneutic, which employs a self-identified "hermeneutic of suspicion," that leads to her conclusions.

I will not detail my disagreements with Schussler Fiorenza, for they are many and varied. If you want proof of my critical perspective on feminist theology, see my post An Evangelical Consideration of Feminism and Feminist Theology. I am the first to admit that there is much to be wary of (and to reject) in feminist theology. Yet, serious disagreement does not, in my mind, preclude serious examination of the benefits one may reap from feminist scholarship.

As evidence of this, I offer the following quotes from In Memory of Her. Although I am not saying that I agree with everything she says, I find Schussler Fiorenza's observations insightful and challenging overall. I am encouraged by her to claim for myself the feminine figures of early Christianity and re-envision the early church as a church of men and women. Let's listen carefully. Feel free to offer your thoughts in response.

In the passion account of Mark's Gospel, three disciples figure prominently: on the one hand, two of the twelve--Judas who betrays Jesus and Peter who denies him--and on the other, the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus. But while the stories of Judas and Peter are engraved in the memory of Christians, the story of the woman is virtually forgotten. Although Jesus pronounces in Mark: 'And truly I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she had done will be told in memory of her' (14:9), the woman's prophetic sign-action did not become a part of the gospel knowledge of Christians. Even her name is lost to us. Wherever the gospel is proclaimed and the eucharist celebrated another story is told: the story of the apostle who betrayed Jesus. The name of the betrayer is remembered, but the name of the faithful disciple is forgotten because she was a woman... (xiii).

...All four Gospels reflect the same basic story: a woman anoints Jesus. This incident causes objections which Jesus rejects by approving of the woman's actions. If the original story had been just a story about the anointing of a guest's feet, it is unlikely that such commonplace gesture would have been remembered and retold as the proclamation of the gospel...Since the prophet in the Old Testament anointed the head of the Jewish king, the anointing of Jesus...must have been understood immediately as the prophetic recognition of Jesus, the Anointed, the Messiah, the Christ. According to the tradition it was a woman who named Jesus by and through her prophetic sign-action...

Whereas according to Mark the leading male disciples do not understand this suffering messiahship of Jesus, reject it, and finally abandon him, the women disciples who have followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem suddenly emerge as the true disciples in the passion narrative. They are Jesus' true followers (akolouthein) who have understood that his ministry was not rule and kingly glory but diakonia, "service" (15:41). Thus the women emerge as the true Christian ministers and witnesses. The unnamed woman who names Jesus with a prophetic sign-action in Mark's Gospel is the paradigm for the true disciple. While Peter had confessed, without truly understanding it, 'You are the anointed one,' the woman anointing Jesus recognizes clearly that Jesus' messiahship means suffering and death.

Both Christian feminist theology and biblical interpretation are in the process of rediscovering that the Christian gospel cannot be proclaimed if women disciples and what they have done are not remembered. They are in the process of reclaiming the supper at Bethany as women's Christian heritage in order to correct symbols and ritualizations of an all-male Lord's Supper that is a betrayal of true Christian discipleship and ministry. Or, in the words of the artist Judy Chicago, 'All the institutions of our culture tell us through words, deeds, and even worse, silence, that we are insignificant. But our heritage is our power' (xiv).


Alycelee said...

Emily, You are a bold one :)
I read that first post you linked to and noticed you had 3 comments. All from women.
I hope to see some men come and respond to this one.
I think I have undeservingly been branded feminist from some here. You have no idea how funny that is. :) But, I do agree with some of what Ms Fioranza wrote.

The truth is I have my identy in Christ. Not as a women but as the unique person God created to respond to His wonderful grace.

We are different-men and women. I just prefer to believe those distinctions have little to do with ministry. I can honestly tell you that I've never been squelched in ministry, on the street or in the church and what God asked me to do, I'm eager to do. All a result of grace-nothing to do with me being worthy or female.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Alyce Lee,

Thanks for your comment and your perspective. I'm not trying to be "bold," per se. I'm certainly not seeking a fight. That's just not my personality.

I guess I've finally reached a place where I'm not afraid of being called a feminist. Like you said, I'm in Christ. He's my Teacher. I am grateful for a Rabbi who let women sit at his feet, anoint him for burial, and announce his resurrection. What a gift.

Thanks again, Alyce Lee.

Grace and peace,


Emily Hunter McGowin said...

P.S. Even though our identities are in Christ, I have found that from a pastoral/shepherding perspective, women need a firm grasp of their feminine faith heritage. There's something empowering about looking back to ladies of God and finding a part of yourself among them.

Moreover, men need the stories of women to strengthen their faith as well. If men and women together make up the image of God, then the story of God's people must include both.

The problem is not the Scripture, of course, for God has been faithful. The problem is that our interpretation and proclamation has, more often than we want to admit, neglected biblical women's stories and contemporary women's needs.

I could go on and on, but I'm going to stop now. That was more than one "P.S." should be forced to carry. :)

traveller said...

Well, I am a here goes.
While I may not agree with every nuance of the quotes provided I do not find them "wrong" or "offensive" but, rather, helpful and insightful. Indeed, the overall point that women played a much larger role with Jesus and perhaps more quickly understood who he was and why he was here may in fact be true.

Personally, I am often inspired and encouraged by the lives of women in the Bible and by the followers of Jesus I know today who are women. I gladly follow their leadership in areas where Father has gifted them and not me. I happily receive their pastoral care and insights when they are so gifted by Father.

In my view, much of our problem today results from 1700 years of an institution that was established by men for men. This institution changed giftings of the Spirit into roles and positions of authority within an institution, which was never intended by God. While there is certainly some room for debate, I think the better reading of Scripture is that gender is a non-issue. God's image borne in humans could only be fully expressed in both women and men.

Yes, there are different roles for different people but the differentiation has nothing to do with gender, it has to do with the will of the Spirit. May the Spirit blow wherever it brings glory to God.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


Thanks for your comments. I appreciate the masculine perspective very much. And, we are of a similar mind about gender roles. I hope to post something about that later.

Grace and peace,


Anonymous said...

A little research say the following.
Mar 14:3 - And being in Bethany,.... A place about two miles from Jerusalem, whither he retired after he had took his leave of the temple, and had predicted its destruction; a place he often went to, and from, the last week of his life; having some dear friends, and familiar acquaintance there, as Lazarus, and his two sisters, Martha and Mary, and the person next mentioned:

Joh 12:3 - Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard very costly,.... Worth three hundred pence, according to Judas's estimation of it. This Mary was the other sister of Lazarus; See Gill on Mat_26:7, See Gill on Mar_14:3, concerning the nature and value of this ointment:

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Yes, John's version of the story records Mary as the one who anoints Jesus' feet.

Here's the difficulty: Luke records the incident taking place in the home of Simon the Pharisee and only refers to the woman as "a sinner" (Luke 7:36-50). Mark and Matthew record it in the house of Simon as well, but this time he has a "serious skin disease." The woman is unnamed here also (Mark 14:3-11; Matt 26:6-16).

But, John is the odd one out, so to speak. He places the anointing at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, with Martha serving the dinner. This is not the same as the version in the Synoptic Gospels, although the meaning is similar: anointing for burial because Jesus' messiahship means suffering and death.

The question is, was there one anointing or two? I'm not sure what to think yet.

Still, I think the point remains the same: Whether or not Mary is the same woman in all four stories, the fact is that her story is often forgotten, as is the significance of her worshipful sign-action. She anointed Jesus for burial when the male disciples were still bickering over who is the greatest in the Kingdom.

Thanks for pointing that out, though.

Grace and peace,


Boyd Luter said...


In light of the quotes you produced from Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, I should have read her book more carefully before writing 'Women as Christ's Disciples.'

Thought-provoking, as usual!

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


Frankly, I was surprised to find such good points in someone who ultimately, I think, transgresses into something other than Christianity. But, at the risk of sounding disrespectful, I suppose a blind squirrel finds a nut every once and a while. :)

Enjoying your new blog,


Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Schussler Fiorenza is one of the most brilliant of current NT scholars. Reading her is very helpful.

Also, since a "feminist" is simply someone who believes in the equality of men and women (the radical notion that women are also in the image and likeness of God), if anyone calls you "feminist," wear the badge proudly. My teacher, Dr. Molly Marshall, when asked where she got her Christian feminism, replies, "Jesus and Paul! Compared to those radicals, Betty Friedan was a piker!"

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


I agree with your evaluation of Schussler Fiorenza's NT scholarship. And, I affirm the truth of your words about feminism. If more people in my circles could understand what I mean when I say "feminist," I would gladly bear the title.

I hope you can understand my concerns about the form of Christianity the main proponents of feminism espouse. I'm not certain it continues to have substantive connections with historic Christianity.

Nonetheless, I appreciate the work of Christian feminists overall and will continue to forage for redemptive and challenging truths.