An extended review of a 2022 book by Marion Ann Taylor and Joy A. Schroeder
Note: Our print issue contains a shorter version of this review. Faith Today welcomes your thoughts on any of our reviews. We also welcome suggestions of other Canadian Christian books to review: Contact us.
Westminster John Knox Press, 2022. 373 pages. $50 (e-book $38).
One of my favourite classes at Regent College in Vancouver was on the history of Christianity. I became acquainted with the communion of saints from the first century to the Reformation. I particularly enjoyed learning about women of faith through the ages, like martyrs Perpetua and Felicitas, the desert mothers, and spiritual mystic Julian of Norwich.
During this class I wondered if there were more women I could read about and research on for my academic papers. Regrettably, I did not succeed very well on this front and mainly encountered women’s stories through their male counterparts. (For example, I met Monica through Augustine’s writings and Macrina via Gregory of Nyssa’s account of her life.)
Marion Taylor and Joy Schroeder’s Voices Long Silenced: Women Biblical Interpreters through the Centuries is the book I wish I could’ve taken up and read then.
Taylor, a Canadian Anglican biblical scholar, and Schroeder, an American Lutheran pastor and church historian, have teamed up on this lofty, laborious undertaking to “restore the works of overlooked or forgotten female scriptural interpreters and record their names and stories as part of the history of biblical interpretation.”
Another feather in the authors’ caps: This is the first book that has attempted to compile, uncover and disclose two thousand years of rich history of women interpreters of Scripture.
Each of the book’s seven chapters is devoted to a particular time period. They move from late antiquity to the Middle Ages, the Reformation era, the early modern period, the long 19th century, the 20th century, and the 1970s to 2020.
Every chapter highlights countless women from North America, Europe, Africa and Asia from various denominations (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox) and other faiths such as Judaism. These illustrious women all had one experience in common – they faced immense difficulties and challenges in receiving theological education, teaching appointments at the academy, and opportunities to write and publish.
Nevertheless, they persisted. Thank God for that!
Some women Bible interpreters challenged male perceptions of inferiority head on. Katharina Schutz Zell, a reformer in Strasbourg who “likened God to a nursing mother,” delivered a funeral oration at her husband’s grave to a several thousand-strong crowd in a time where women were not often in a position to speak publicly. Seventeenth century Dutchwoman Anna Maria van Schurman was even dubbed the “eighth wonder of the world” by men for displaying a proficiency in ancient languages.
Other women wrote devotionals or hymns and created art as a means of interpreting Scripture. Eighteenth-century enslaved African poet Phyllis Wheatley wrote verses that retold the David and Goliath story with mythic Greek undertones. Another18th-century figure, Ukrainian composer Sarah bas Tovim, wrote tkhines, or Yiddish devotional prayers, about women’s religious duties, like Sabbath candle lighting, while South Indian evangelical preacher Sarah Navaroji wrote Tamil devotional songs based on the Psalms. Beloved Canadian poet Margaret Avison also drew inspiration from the Psalms as well.
Then there were those who marched courageously and confidently into the male-dominated world of Christian academia and pastoral ministry. Support from evangelical organizations like CBE International helped women greatly in promoting “an egalitarian reading of Scripture” based on Galatians 3:28. American academic Louise Pettibone Smith was the first woman to be published in the Journal of Biblical Literature. Fellow American writer Mary Ellen Chase’s focus on studying Scripture’s literary features foreshadowed what we know as narrative criticism today. Swiss Catholic physician Adrienne von Speyr founded a community for priests, sisters, and laity (Johannesgemeinschaft) and wrote several Bible commentaries.
The list of achievements could go on. One will inadvertently realize, through this book, that women were absolutely capable and more than able to read and interpret the Bible for all it was (and is) worth despite experiencing fierce opposition and oppression.
As the book title alludes to, the problem, it seems, has never been the lack of women’s voices but the lack of clear, concise and thoughtful scholarship that pays heed to them and invites others to do the same.
What could have strengthened Taylor and Schroeder’s endeavour? Presenting information in a more accessible manner, such as including images of women and the works described, where possible. The chapters seemed so full of (important) information, and I found it hard to recollect names and anecdotes off the top of my head. But as it stands, this is a valuable read that seminary professors would do well to assign or recommend for further reading.
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