When Elizabeth Cady Stanton published her "Woman's Bible" in 1895, seeking to revise all texts and ideas that were degrading to women, she correctly perceived that it would cause a furor. "Both friend and foe object to its title," she reported. Even her suffragist sisters considered the publication a political mistake (it was censured in 1896 by the National American Women Suffrage Assn.), and Cady Stanton had no success in her attempts to enlist the support of female scholars who, fearing for their academic reputations, wanted no part in such an alarming enterprise.
Not until the last decade and a half have feminist scholars in any numbers awakened to Cady Stanton's conviction, born of experience, that any advances women tried to make--in politics, education or employment--would be opposed by the religious establishment as contradicting the will of God.
Today, with their awareness raised by the opposition of the religious right to the Equal Rights Amendment, to the 1973 Supreme Court decision regarding legal abortions and to the ordination of women to the ministry, a new generation of feminist Bible scholars, both Jewish and Christian, is meeting the opposition on its own terrain, rereading the sacred texts with a critical and spiritual attention that calls into question key aspects of contemporary religious life.
In the front wave of this movement of revision and renewal is German-born theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, who joined the Notre Dame University department of theology in 1970 and currently is professor of New Testament studies at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. Her 1983 book, "In Memory of Her," her first book in English, was acclaimed for its solid scholarship in radically reconstructing the first three centuries of the Christian Church's life from the viewpoint of the many women who were participants.
In "Bread Not Stone," she applies the same scholarly rigor to the task of redeeming the Bible itself from the confines of patriarchy in a series of essays that serve as a provocative guide for a feminist reading of Scripture.
While acknowledging the arguments by contemporary secular feminists that energy spent on religious reform is energy wasted, Schussler Fiorenza warns that by such attitudes, women run the risk of conceding--mistakenly and to their own political harm--that they have no authentic history within biblical religion. Like Cady Stanton, she understands the Bible as not simply a religious book but also a profoundly political weapon with great flexibility. "American women . . . will either transform biblical history and religion into a new liberating force, or continue to be subject to its patriarchal tyranny." In this sense, "Bread Not Stone"--its title is from Matthew 7:9, which she translates, "Who of you if their children ask for bread would give them a stone?"--is her scholarly road map.
The compass points are laid out in her first chapter. A critical rereading of the Bible from the viewpoint of women, she maintains, requires two shifts in perspective. First, the Bible must be understood as androcentric, " . . . not only written in the words of men but also serving to legitimate patriarchal power and oppression insofar as it renders God male and determines ultimate reality in male terms which make women invisible or marginal." Once the reader understands that androcentric language is inclusive in gender--referring to both men and women when addressing "my brethren in the lord,"--then the presence of women in what has seemed to be all-male history begins to take shape.
Second, the Bible, with its variety of texts and often contradictory messages, must be understood as a historical prototype, open to ongoing revelation and applicable to women's experience today, rather than as a mythical archetype. In short, the Bible can and must be critically evaluated, and it is this evaluation, set forth in a series of tests, that comprises Schussler Fiorenza's feminist theology.
The first test for the authority of any scripture is this: Is this text oppressive? Does it perpetuate patriarchal oppression and dehumanization? If so, maintains Schussler Fiorenza, as do many of her contemporaries, the text is not valid as the word of God.
The author, a Roman Catholic, justifies her critical evaluation of texts theologically and personally: "Whenever one cannot accept the religious, political and personal ethos and ethics of a biblical text, one cannot accept its authority as revealed and as Holy Scripture, that is, if one does not want to turn the biblical God into a God of oppression."
This test for oppressiveness, which Schussler Fiorenza describes, after Paul Ricoeur, as a "hermeneutics of suspicion," is the first in four steps that the author sets up as a model for a feminist theology. In due course, the hermeneutics of suspicion gives way to, successively, the hermeneutics of proclamation, of remembrance and historical construction, and of ritualization and celebration.
Having established her feminist theological model in the book's first chapter, Schussler Fiorenza, in succeeding chapters, measures it against other approaches to biblical interpretation, such as contemporary liberation theology.
The result of this approach is a certain overlapping of information and the sensation for the reader of re-entering a circle at different points. Yet most of the material is fascinating, particularly a discussion of the tensions between historical biblical scholarship, with its attempts at purely objective reconstruction of texts, and the subjective use of the Bible in preaching ("instant Scripture"). A final chapter, "Toward a Critical-Theological Self-Understanding of Biblical Scholarship," as heavy as its title, suffers most from the author's tendency to tell too much.
Heavily footnoted, "Bread Not Stone" is an enriching, altogether challenging discussion of the complexities involved in Schussler Fiorenza's crisp observation that "Christians are a people who derive their identity from a book."
The Bible is technically a collection of books rather than a single book, and more radical revisions of the collection may lie ahead than even Schussler Fiorenza foresees. In "Womanguides, Readings Toward a Feminist Theology" (Beacon: $21.95), Rosemary Radford Ruether joins biblical texts to other mostly ancient but sometimes modern texts, creating what her publisher calls "a handbook from which a new canon may emerge."
But no such canon will emerge at all soon; and in the meantime, Schussler Fiorenza has provided the feminist reader a valuable new and redemptive way to read the received Bible, a reminder that the Bible is not just used against women, to "keep them in their place," but is also the source of authorization for liberation; that the same Gospel that bids women to keep quiet in church also proclaims (Galatians 3:28) that "there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free men, between men and women: You are all one in union with Christ Jesus."