Talking Back to Jesus

Mary R. D'Angelo

These words from Debbie McLeod Sears’ article in the Fall 2010 Reflections immediately evoke heroic images of women in the Hebrew Bible: Deborah’s triumphant song, Miriam leading the victory dance of the Israelite women, Hannah telling Eli that she was not drunk, but praying.

Bold images of women speaking truth to power from the New Testament are fewer. The great hymnic prophecies of Mary and Elizabeth in Luke announce a radical revision of power, but they are spoken to each other and to the reader. The woman who comes closest to speaking truth to power in the New Testament is the Greek, Syro-Phoenician woman who talks back to Jesus in Mark 7:24-30. In some ways, that example seems appropriate. For women in the churches, speaking truth to power has often meant talking back to our own – our communities, our churches, our families.

Unlocking the Silences

When I took up residence in the YDS library to work on a doctorate in New Testament in 1969-70, there were no women faculty in either the Divinity School or the Religious Studies Department, very few women students, and no feminist interpretation to study. In the succeeding forty years, feminist interpretation has transformed the population of the New Testament as radically as the population of YDS has changed. Uncovering more of the women who inspired Sears’ hope and hearing them into speech has been the product of the long and ongoing labor of feminist interpretation.

This interpretive enterprise was driven in good measure by the struggles to get women ordained in the majority of churches that prohibited or avoided the ordination of women, to expand the opportunities of women to minister whether or not they were ordained, to reorient ministry to acknowledge and combat the realities of rape, domestic violence, and social subordination, and to create inclusive worship. Addressing these issues required finding the texts that could speak to women’s needs and developing the questions that would unlock their silences.

The baptismal proclamation that in Christ “there is no Jew nor Greek, there is no slave nor free, there is no ‘male and female’ ” (Gal 3:28), was the first platform in the case for women’s ordination and equality. But the application of its spectacularly radical interpretation of Gen 1:27b was contested. Krister Stendahl provided a way past the conflict when, in 1958, he made the case for ordaining women in Sweden’s Lutheran Church. This text was central to his argument, but Stendahl positioned the problem as one of hermeneutics, arguing for the potential, the future of the text. Paul intended, indeed de- manded, the full implementation of “no Jew and Greek” in his communities. The other two pairs should be understood to have the same potential for implementation.1

Stendahl’s highly influential reading was a turn toward the future of the text: Paul never envisioned abolition or the civil rights movement, nor did he foresee women’s liberation or the ordination of women (or for that matter, of men). But the proclamation lives to celebrate the hope of radical human equality. As Letty Russell suggested, it is a vehicle for “God’s intention to mend creation,” a “memory of the future.”2

The Search Begins

The search for a “useable past” was the inspiration for the enterprise of women’s history, a history that could support emancipation. Reading the New Testament in search of “real women” has transformed one of the all-time great contestants for least-read passage in the Bible: Romans 16, which consists largely of greetings from Paul to people otherwise unknown. One catalyst of this transformation was Bernadette Brooten’s article that uncovered a wom- an apostle under an entirely fictive masculine name in Rom 16:7. Her article was published in Women Priests (1977), a collection that sought to refute point by point the arguments excluding women from ordination in the 1976 Vatican Declaration.3 On the basis of her work, “Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen,” who were “men of note among the apostles” ac- cording to the RSV, in the NRSV became “Andronicus and Junia, my relatives” who were “prominent among the apostles.” As Paul’s kin, Junia must have been a Jew; she was clearly a speaker of Greek. Her Roman name reveals her past (or her heritage) in slavery; it may also identify her as a Roman citizen.

Illumined by the figure of “Junia the first woman apostle,” Christian origins in Rome look very different; the labor of Mary (16:6), Tryphaena and Try- phosa (16:12) and Persis (16:12), as well as Prisca (3-5) becomes visible as missionary work.4 Other research and more accurate translation turned Phoebe, a “deaconess” and “helper” in the RSV, into a “deacon” and “benefactor” in the NRSV (16:1- 2). The less specific word “minister” would be a better translation than deacon (cf. 2 Cor 3:6, where Paul applies this word to himself) and the more specific word “patron” could replace benefactor. The commendation Paul gives Phoebe is undoubtedly a two-way street; she is likely to have been the letter-carrier, and in that role to have been able to interpret the letter, and in particular to be specific about what help Paul wants from the Roman communities, if he is to “somehow at last succeed in coming to” them (1:10).5

Paul Among the Women

These rereadings make it possible to listen to women’s silences in new ways. Did the women of Romans 16 understand the baptismal proclamation “no ‘male and female’ ” as a warrant for their ministries? As an invitation or even a commitment to sexual abstinence? Or, according to Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s suggestion, as the abolition of patriarchal marriage?6 Did Tryphaena and Tryphosa (Rom 16:12) live out the proclamation “no male and female” in their partnership? What of Urbanus and Stachys (16:9), and Paul and his multiple male missionary partners?7 How do the households (largely of slaves; 16:10, 11) and the quasi-familial groups (16:13,14,15) understand their own relationships in the mission? Set amid these women (and men), Paul looks different; he emerges as an apostle who had to work within a web of missionary relationships that included financial and spiritual indebtedness to women leaders, including at least one women apostle “who was in Christ before” him (16:7).

As women’s history has revised the population and shape of the early Christian mission, intensive feminist rereading has recast the gospel narratives, drawing attention, for instance, to the startlingly assertive women in the Gospel of John (the mother of Jesus, John 2:1-12; the Samaritan woman, 4:1- 42; Martha the sister of Mary, 11:1-12:8; Mary Magdalene, 20:1-18). One wrong turn taken by some approaches to the Gospels was the claim that a “feminist” Jesus rescued women from a Judaism constructed as relentlessly repressive and misogynist – in the words of Judith Plaskow, “blaming patriarchy on the Jews.”8 Despite John’s overt hostility to “the Jews,” Adele Reinhartz’s work on the Gospel has shown that it is in the dialogues with these women that Jesus is most clearly identified as a Jew.9

Encounter at the Well

A close, critical reading of the rhetoric of John 4:1-42 transforms the Samaritan woman at the well. Once an exemplar of obtuse misunderstanding and of sexual sin, she emerges in a careful reading as the most persistent and astute of all Jesus’s interlocutors in this Gospel. In contrast to Nicodemus (3:1) she comes to Jesus in the brightest light of day (4:6- 7). When he accosts her asking for water, she points out to him (and the reader) his transgression of propriety (4:9). To his oblique cue “if you knew who speaks to you” (10) she poses the right question: “Are you greater than our (common) father Jacob … ?”(12) When he offers the living water of Spirit and Wisdom (13-14), she makes the perfect response: “give me always this water” (15) – and having received it, leaves her water jar behind (28). When he asks for her husband, she hears “everything (she’s) ever done” (29, 39). But she does not hear an accusation of sexual sin: she does not repent, and Jesus sees no need to forgive her. Because he knows her, she knows him: he is a prophet (19; prophet is by no means a lesser title in John). Thus she asks him the theological question that has separated his people and hers (20). So pleased is she with his response (21-24) that she wrests from him the confession of his messiahship (25-26), then goes on to become a source of life to her own city (27-30, 39-42).10

In counterpoint to my retrieval of the Samaritan woman, Musa Dube’s decolonizing reading addresses the missionary character of John 4:1-42. The universalizing claim that Jesus is the “savior of the world” (4:42) takes on an imperialist character, especially in light of the quite startling cultural chauvinism he expresses in 4:22. In response, Dube offers a decolonized rewriting of the story by Mositi Torontle, a Botswanan woman novelist: in it Jesus is replaced by a prophetess, Mother Mary Magdalene, who affirms rather than denigrates the national identity of the woman, now named Mmapula, and announces healing for her people. She also explains why Mmapula has no husband: her husband be- longs to the mines.11

Reading Amid Poverty

This decolonizing reading is a reminder that feminist interpretation is a task of the utmost urgency for the churches attempting to read scripture in our world. Women make up two-thirds of the billions of poor and very poor people, and the use of sex and gender prescriptions to circumscribe their lives has made that so. Putting women’s lives and experiences at the center of Biblical interpretation is essential if the churches are to avoid reinforcing the power relations that enforce poverty and hunger, promote disease, and have propagated AIDS. If the churches wish to empower the humiliated to rise up and the hungry to be filled with good things, they must read the scriptures in ways that enable the women of the world to sing out the Magnificat as a “memory of the future.”

Feminist interpreters continue to struggle, talking back to the texts, to the churches, and to our- selves. We attempt to be what Adele Reinhartz has called the engaged reader, seeking to befriend these ancient, beloved, and dangerous texts by probing directly “some of our (the texts’ and the readers’) deepest convictions and our (the texts’ and the readers’) most profound differences.”12 

Mary R. D’Angelo ’76 Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology at Notre Dame. Her research areas include the origins of Christianity, Judaism in Roman antiquity, and Greek and Roman religion, with special interest in women and gender in ancient religion. 


1 Stendahl’s essay was translated by Emilie T. Sander, who would later become the first woman to teach New Testament full-time at YDS. It was published as The Bible and the Role of Women: A Case Study in Hermeneutics (Facets 15; Fortress, 1966).

2 This principle already appeared in Human Liberation in a Feminist Perspective (Westminster, 1974), pp. 72-103, but appeared consistently in all her work; see also Household of Freedom: Authority in Feminist Theology (Fortress, 1987).

3 Bernadette J. Brooten,”`Junia….Outstanding Among the Apostles’ (Romans 16.7),” Women Priests, A Catholic Commentary on the Vatican Declaration, edited by Leonard Swidler and Arlene Swidler (Paulist, 1977), pp. 141-44.

4 Eldon J. Epp, Junia, The First Woman Apostle (Fortress, 2005). It is of course not really possible to know who was the first woman apostle.

5 Jouette Bassler, “Phoebe,” Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books and the New Testament (Houghton Mifflin, 2000), edited by Carol Meyers, Toni Craven and Ross Kraemer, pp.134-36.

6 In Memory of Her: A Feminist Reconstruction of Christian Origins (Crossroad, 1983), p. 211.

7 See D’Angelo, “Women Partners in the New Testament,” JFSR 6 (1990), pp. 65-86; republished in Que(e)rying Religion, edited by Gary Comstock and Susan Henking (Continuum, 1996), pp. 441-55.

8 “Christian Feminism and Anti-Semitism,” CrossCurrents 28 (1978), pp. 306-309.

9 Reinhartz, “From Narrative to History: The Resurrection of Martha and Mary, in Women Like This”: New Perspectives on Jewish Women in the Greco- Roman World, edited by Amy-Jill Levine (Early Jewish Literature 1; Scholars Press, 1991), pp.174-76.

10 On John 4:1-42, see Reinhartz, “John” in Searching the Scriptures 2 A Feminist Commentary, edited by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza with Ann Brock and Shelly Matthews (Crossroad, 1994), pp. 572-3; D’Angelo “Representations of Women in the Gospels of John and Mark,” in Women and Christian Origins, edited by Ross Shepard Kraemer and Mary Rose D’Angelo (Oxford, 1999), pp. 133-36.

11 Musa W. Dube, “Reading for Decolonization (John 4:1-42)” Semeia 75 (1996), 37-59. Torontle’s novel is called The Victims (Botsalano Press, 1993).

12 Befriending the Beloved Disciple: A Jewish Reading of the Gospel of John (Continuum, 2001), p. 157; parentheses mine.