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Christl M. Maier and L. Juliana Claassen Assessing the Use of Gender in Current Biblical Scholarship: A Panel Discussion at the IOSOT Congress in South Africa


Die hier dokumentierte Podiumsdiskussion fand am 8. September 2016 während des Kongresses der Organization for the Study of the Old Testament (IOSOT) in Stellenbosch, Südafrika, statt. Die beteiligten Theologinnen aus vier Kontinenten sollten zwei Fragen beantworten: 1. Was ist aus ihrer Erfahrung und für ihren Kontext der größte Gewinn, wenn Sie die Genderkategorie als hermeneutischen Schlüssel für die Interpretation des Ersten Testaments nutzen? 2. Was ist die größte Herausforderung für ExegetInnen, die an „Gender“ interessiert sind, vor allem im Blick auf den Diskurs über Kontexte und Kontinente hinweg? Alle Diskussionsbeiträge weisen auf die Bedeutung der Erkenntnis hin, dass „Gender“ eine soziale Konstruktion ist und gendergerechte Exegese diese Konstruktion in den Texten aufdeckt und kritisch hinterfragt. Außerdem betonen alle Beteiligten die Bedeutung des Kontexts der Auslegenden für die Exegese, in den Worten Jacqueline Lapsleys: „Es gibt zwei Arten von Theologie oder Exegese, solche, die bewusst kontextuell sind und solche, die sich ihres eigenen Kontexts nicht bewusst sind.“ Aus den Beiträgen wird zum einen deutlich, wie die Biographie der Exegetinnen in die Arbeit einfließt und welche Konsequenzen ihre exegetische Arbeit für die jeweilige Biographie hat, zum anderen aber, wie sehr feministische bzw. gendergerechte Bibelauslegung im Gespräch mit dem biblischen Text auch die soziale Situation der jeweiligen RezipientInnen in den Blick nimmt. Aufgrund unterschiedlicher Bedingungen und Kontexte ist feministische bzw. gendergerechte Exegese vielfältig und kann keine global gültige Lösung bieten. Ihre kritische Perspektive trägt jedoch dazu bei, Diskriminierungen im Blick auf Geschlecht, Ethnie, soziale Schicht und Religion aufzuzeigen und sich aktiv für eine gerechtere Welt einzusetzen.


Christl M. Maier and L. Juliana Claassens

The International Organization for the Study of the Old Testament (IOSOT) was founded in 1950 in order to foster collaboration between scholars from the different nations, which had been at war with each other, by way of organizing a triennial international conference. The organization held its 22nd congress in Stellenbosch, South Africa on September 4-9, 2016, the first one on the African continent, and only the second outside of Europe. It was hosted jointly by Stellenbosch University (SU) and the Old Testament Society of South Africa (OTSSA) while the South African Society for Near Eastern Studies (SASNES) cooperated in organizing the program. At Stellenbosch University, the Department of Ancient Studies (at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences) and the Discipline Group Old & New Testament (at the Faculty of Theology) took responsibility for the practical arrangements of the congress. Besides the main papers delivered by invited speakers and a number of short papers, there were nine seminars that discussed current scholarly issues pertaining to the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in its ancient Near Eastern context, among them also some that focused on contemporary contexts and readings.

The seminar on Gender in Current Biblical Scholarship, the contributions of which are published here, was jointly organized by L. Juliana Claassens, Stellenbosch University, and Christl M. Maier, Philipps-University Marburg, Germany. The participating panelists were feminist/womanist scholars from four different continents. The invitation read as follows: In biblical studies, the analysis of gender has still not reached the main stream of exegesis, yet contributed a great deal to the development of new perspectives, especially in literary methods and socio-historical investigations of Hebrew Bible texts. Within the last decade, gender studies have focused on the intersection of different categories of discrimination such as race, class, gender, age, sexuality etc. This broadening of perspective led to acknowledging differences in scholarly approaches and contexts. The seminar has two goals. First, it aims at reviewing the impact and benefits that gender as a category of analysis has in the field of biblical exegesis. Second, it aims at evaluating the global discourse that a gender perspective promotes. The panelists are asked to reflect on the following questions: 1. In your experience and scholarly context, what has been the greatest gain for using gender as a hermeneutical lens for reading the Hebrew Bible? 2. What would you say is the greatest challenge faced by scholars interested in gender and the Bible, especially with regard to a discourse across contexts and continents?

The invited panelists, all outspoken feminist/womanist scholars, come from different continents and contexts. Christl M. Maier, who was also presiding the seminar, teaches Old Testament at Philipps-University Marburg in Germany; Madipoane Masenya(ngwan'a Mphahlele) chairs the Department of Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at the University of South Africa (UNISA) in Pretoria; Jacqueline E. Lapsley teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey in the USA and is Director of its Center for Theology, Women, and Gender; Charlene van der Walt is the Gender, Health and Theology Coordinator at the Faculty of Theology, Stellenbosch University and also the Research and Program Director of the newly established Gender Unit at the Faculty of Theology. The response was offered by Mercedes García Bachmann, until recently Professor at the Bible Department of the Instituto Superior Evangélico de Estudios Teológicos (ISEDET) in Buenos Aires, Argentina. As Juliana Claassens, who teaches Old Testament at Stellenbosch Univer­sity and is the Director of the Gender Unit at the Faculty of Theology, was not able to attend the conference due to a research visit in the United States, she here provides her concluding reflections based upon the written statements.

At the IOSOT panel on Gender in Current Biblical Scholarship, the original contributions generated a lively discussion that emphasized the multiplicity of the various contexts and discourses of feminist biblical interpretation. As organizers of the panel, we thought it a worthwhile endea­vor to have the panelists rework their contributions so as to be able to present it to a broader readership. The organizers would like to thank Silvia Schroer and Nancy Rahn for accepting to publish these statements, the response and further reflections.

Christl M. Maier

It is a great pleasure for me that we were able to organize this seminar on Issues of Gender in Current Biblical Scholarship at an IOSOT conference, especially since this learned body of scholars has not particularly embraced feminist or gender studies in the past. At this conference, however, three of our panelists, Mercedes García Bachmann, Jacqueline Lapsley, and Madipoane Masenya were also invited to give a main paper in the plenary sessions of the IOSOT congress. As an introduction to our discussion, let me first present some personal reflections on the impact and benefits of gender as a category of analysis in the field of biblical exegesis:

My own studies in theology and exegesis in Germany in the mid-1980s were dominated by the historical-critical paradigm and at least 95% of my professors at the universities in Tübingen and Western Berlin were male. Since there was hardly any seminar on feminist or gender analysis available, we female students started to read feminist books in student groups. During my time as PhD student and Assistant Lecturer in Berlin in the 1990s, feminist biblical interpretation was a burgeoning field of interest in the humanities, yet still marginali­zed in biblical studies. For myself as a young scholar, a critical feminist approach and the use of gender as a category of analysis, however, was essential. For instance with reference to my PhD topic—the portrait of the so-called “foreign” woman in Proverbs 1-9—I would not have been able to write a dissertation on this text without this feminist critical lens.

During the 1990s, I was glad to see the evolution of gender studies in the humanities in Berlin and I even took part in designing and implementing a graduate program in gender studies. Yet, I also experienced the harsh debate among feminist scholars, for instance the controversy between gender equality and gender difference as contrasting definitions and models of political agency.[1]

In my experience and scholarly context, the greatest gain for using gender as a hermeneutical lens for reading the Hebrew Bible is to reveal the constructedness of male and female exper­ience and how it pertains to the roles of men and women. As these gender constructs are depen­dent on specific societal and cultural traditions at a particular point in time, they can change and be transformed. Here, I concur with Mercy Amba Oduyoye, who by introducing Musimbo Kanyoro’s feminist cultural hermeneutics, states, “feminist methodologies challenge the assumption that the roles of men and women have been fixed, either by the Creator or by culture.”[2] A feminist, gender-sensitive perspective not only exposes an androcentric bias present in biblical texts but also in their interpretation and interpretative communities. The critical exploration of gender hierarchies in societies both ancient and modern challenges male experience, narrowly defined, as the norm for identity and for poli­ti­cal and clerical authority. In my German context, it initially supported the claim of feminist scholars and pastors to get positions in the academy and the churches.[3] While feminist exegesis still does not belong to the main stream of my academic discipline in Germany, there are quite a number of feminist exegetes and theologians working in higher education in my country. The results of feminist exegesis steadily found their way into commentaries on Old Testament scriptures and are widely known in both Roman-Catholic and Protestant conger­gations in Germany.[4] Moreover, feminist interpretations and reflections increasingly are finding a growing readership in Christian circles and many female pastors use feminist insights in their bible studies. This increased exposure may be due to the efforts of feminist scholars at European universities, who in recent years have published anthologies on feminist exegesis.[5] I vividly remember a conference about the hermeneutics of liberation held in 2000 in Ascona, Switzerland, at which feminist scholars from 17 countries discussed varied inter­pretations of the Bible.[6] Moreover, the European Society of Women in Theological Research organizes an international conference every second year and publishes both the papers and thematic issues in its journal.[7] Finally, yet importantly, the European electronic journal of feminist exegesis lectio difficilior provides an open access space for feminist interpretations of biblical and extra-biblical texts.

My own focus on gender led me to analyze critically the “master narratives” and the unquestioned traditions of my guild as well as the current methods of analysis. In gender-sensitive literary studies that focus on the modern readers, I encounter the limits and blind spots of the historical-critical approach. Since the mid-1990s, however, it has become obvious that gender can no longer be the only category of analysis. In my German context, US-American Jewish feminists challenged Christian feminists by revealing anti-Jewish arguments in feminist biblical interpretations.[8] Even without knowing the concept of inter­sectionality coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989,[9] who theorized race, class, and gender as a trilogy of discrimination, we experienced the challenge to identity politics along gender lines. Although there were hardly any exegetes of color, or at least from other European countries, working in Germany, the concept of intersectionality is calling for a widening of perspectives beyond gender issues.[10] Acknowledging whiteness and middle-class status as privileges socially constructed in a grid of power relations, for instance, revealed that feminist scholars in Germany experience discrimination with regard to their gender, but benefit from privileges with regard to class or race. This diverse experience became even more evident when I moved to the United States because my feminist studies had hindered me from finding a position in Germany. While teaching at Yale Divinity School in 2003-2006, I encountered a completely new world of exegesis, including theories of space, trauma studies, and postcolonial perspectives. Thus, my focus on gender widened significantly and included other categories of discrimination.

In my view, the greatest challenge facing scholars interested in gender and the Bible, is to know enough about other contexts—both ancient and modern—as well as to recognize the situation of women in other continents. It is my aim to analyze biblical texts intersectionally, i.e., not only with regard to gender, but also considering class/status, race/ethnicity, religion, and so on.[11] Yet, the information that I need in order to do this is hard to obtain since such analysis requires a deeper understanding of history, archaeological finds, and cultural settings of the ancient texts. In terms of my German academic heritage, I consider it important to eva­lu­ate the situation of the ancient biblical authors and their implied audience adequately. Historical inquiry in the twenty-first century can no longer be naïve, of course, about the values and biases that interpreters bring to their readings. Yet, it remains essential to analyze critically the ways in which texts as cultural productions reflect the historical circumstances of their composition and editing. Besides the historical inquiry, I feel challenged to interrelate the situations of ancient and modern readers of the Bible in a way that is perspicuous, methodologically sound, and inspiring. My solution to this challenge is to abandon the idea that one category fits all. Instead, I would opt for a discourse of different voices in feminist scholarship, a discourse between women from different continents and different traditions—just as we organized it in this seminar. There is not just one interpretation to any given biblical text but a multitude of perspectives and legitimized readings. What seems essential to me is an insight that the literary critic Stanley Fish formulated already in 1980. He posits that the reader is the one who ‘makes’ literature. Yet Fish situates the reader in an interpretive community that would select specific readings and contain the number of possible readings.[12] Following Fish in this respect, I would argue that each feminist scholar should aim at recognizing his or her own interpretive context and community and then should explain which categories he or she foregrounds and for what reasons. Additionally, one should know the studies of other feminist scholars around the world in order to realize whether one’s own stance unduly negates other perspectives. If we are clear about our hermeneutic presumptions and the effects of our reasoning, a fruitful discourse among exegetes will ensue. Thus, I argue for naming our own social, political, theological, and cultural commitments in an academic guild that has embraced for far too long the chimera of neutral, “objective” interpretation. The flourishing of feminist and postcolonial criticism marks the end of the hegemony of the historical-critical model of interpretation and thus helps to secure the future of biblical interpretation.


[1] See Seyla Benhabib et al., Der Streit um Differenz: Feminismus und Postmoderne in der Gegenwart (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1993); Hadumod Bußmann and Renate Hof, eds., Genus: Zur Geschlechterdifferenz in den Kulturwissenschaften (Stuttgart: Kröner, 1995).

[2] Mercy Amba Oduyoye, “Do You Understand What You Are Reading? African Women’s Reading of the Bible and the Ethos of Contemporary Christianity in Africa,” in Faith and Feminism: Ecumenical Essays, ed. B. Diane Lipsett and Phyllis Trible (Louisville: West­minster John Knox, 2014), 217–232, 225. Cf. also Musimbo R.A. Kanyoro, Introducing Feminist Cultural Hermeneutics: An African Perspective (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2002).

[3] The implementation of feminist theology in the German academy and churches is documented in Gisela Matthiae et al., eds., Feministische Theologie: Initiativen, Kirchen, Universitäten – eine Erfolgsgeschichte (Gütersloh: Gütersloher, 2008).

[4] In Germany, there is an online study course on Feminist Theology available for lay people, see [accessed 30 October 2016] as well as seminars and lectures at church academies and in women’s networks; cf. Feministische Theologie: Initiativen, Kirchen, Universitäten, 89–190.

[5] The first to publish anthologies of feminist interpretations was Athalya Brenner, who pro­duced two series of Feminist Companions to the Bible on specific biblical books starting in 1993, for which she collected articles of authors from many countries, mostly Europe and Northern America. A German production is Luise Schottroff and Marie-Theres Wacker, eds., Kompendium Feministische Bibelauslegung (Gütersloh: Gütersloher, 1998); its translation to English was published as Feminist Biblical Interpretation: A Compendium of Critical Com­men­tary on the Books of the Bible and Related Literature by Eerdmans in 2012. See also the 22-volume project The Bible and Women: An Encyclopedia of Exegesis and Cultural History, edited by Christiana de Groot, Irmtraud Fischer, Mercedes Navarro Puerto, and Adriana Valerio in English, German, Italian, and Spanish with various publishers.

[6] Cf. the proceedings of this conference, Sophia Bietenhard and Silvia Schroer, eds., Feminist Interpretation of the Bible and the Hermeneutics of Liberation, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. Supplement Series 374 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2003).

[7] Journal of the European Society of Women in Theological Research (Leuven: Peeters, 1993ff).

[8] See, e.g., Judith Plaskow, “Blaming Jews for the Invention of Patriarchy,” in Nice Jewish Girls, ed. Evelyn T. Beck (Trumansburg: Crossing Press, 1982), 255–265; Susannah Heschel, “Altes Gift in neuen Schläuchen: Anti-Judaismus und Antipharisäimus in der christlich-feministischen Theologie,” in Querdenken: Beiträge zur feministisch-befreiungstheologischen Diskussion, ed. Frauenforschungsprojekt zur Geschichte der Theologinnen (Göttingen; Pfaffen­weiler: Centaurus, 1992), 65–77. An outcome of this debate was the volume Von der Wurzel getragen: Christlich-feministische Exegese in Auseinandersetzung mit Antijudaismus, ed. Luise Schottroff and Marie-Theres Wacker, Biblical Interpretation Series 17 (Leiden: Brill, 1996).

[9] Cf. e.g., Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43 (1991): 1241–1299.

[10] Among the first studies to assess whiteness as a category of privilege in Germany was Eske Wollrad, Weißsein im Widerspruch: Feministische Perspektiven auf Rassismus, Kultur und Religion (Königstein: Helmer, 2005).

[11] Cf. Christl M. Maier, “Der Diskurs um interkulturelle Ehen in Jehud als antikes Beispiel von Intersektionalität,” in Doing Gender – Doing Religion: Fallstudien zur Intersektionalität im frühen Judentum, Christentum und Islam, ed. Christine Gerber, Ute Eisen and Angela Standhartinger, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 302 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013), 129–153.

[12] See Stanley E. Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 340–45.

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Christl M. Maier,

is Professor of Old Testament at Philipps-University Marburg, Germany. Previously, she taught at Yale Divinity School, New Haven, CT (2003–2006) and at Humboldt University Berlin (1990–2003). Since 2010, she is editor-in-chief of Supplements to Vetus Testamentum. Her research focuses on Jeremiah, wisdom literature, and feminist hermeneutics. Among her recent publications are Daughter Zion, Mother Zion: Gender, Space, and the Sacred in Ancient Israel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008) and The Writings and Later Wisdom Books, co-edited with Nuria Calduch-Benages, The Bible and Women 1.3 (Atlanta: SBL, 2014).

© Christl M. Maier , 2016,, ISSN 1661-3317