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INTRODUCTION TO THE WORK OF ELIZABETH SCHÜSSLER FIORENZA
(Chapter 1 section B)


For the full contents of "Authority in Feminist Biblical Interpretation" by Beryl Donnan, and other online sections see here.


box quoteAs an academic biblical scholar Fiorenza has been a prolific writer over the past twenty years, but the fundamental essentials of her contribution are contained in three major books: In Memory of Her in 1983, Bread not Stone in 1984, and But She Said in 1992.  Given her radical critical stance on biblical authority, it is of utmost significance that she reveals the "passionate", "interested" nature of her scholarship by choosing as titles fragments of biblical texts.  In this source it would seem she has found what Carol Christ describes as the "first moment of ethos or desire"[1] which motivates her work.  She will not relinquish the "power" of the "heritage", for to do so "merely reinforces the androcentric reality construction of Western culture according to which male existence and history is the paradigm of human existence and human history".[2] In each of these three books she approaches the task of biblical interpretation in a different way.  The foundational volume In Memory of Her is an exercise in "theological reconstruction of Christian origins", which she undertakes "in search of women's heritage".  However she does this "with the hope of moving away from the pervasive apologetic that characterises most treatments of women in the Bible, to a historical-critical reconstruction of women's history and women's contributions to early Christian beginnings".[3]  In each of the early chapters she is moving "towards" her defining critical perspectives on hermeneutics, method and reconstruction.  However the major part of the book is detailed historical-critical exegesis of New Testament texts where "the discipleship of equals", the "basilea vision of Jesus" as well as the struggle of this "alternative vision" with encroaching patriarchy are explored.

In the epilogue her concept of the ekklesia of women begins to take shape.  It is as much a "future hope as a reality today", a beginning of coming together of women excluded from the patriarchal church, for nurture and decision making.[4]  She is clear that "it is not over and against men that we gather together, but in order to become ekklesia before God".[5]  The ideal requires the overcoming of all divisions and dualisms among women themselves and a claiming of the tradition of the ekklesia of women past.  Women-church is to incarnate feminist biblical spirituality in a "historical movement of women struggling for liberation".[6]


Bread not Stone
moves away from detailed textual exegesis to the further development of her theoretical and methodological concerns.  But we need to remember that Fiorenza's scholarship is always "engaged" in the service of her practical goals.  In this book she begins by declaring the "ekklesia gynaikon" as the "hermeneutical centre of liberating biblical interpretation."  But she is clear that the term women-church is "not exclusionary" but a "political-oppositional term to patriarchy".[7]  It is in the light of this that she both positively expounds her hermeneutical proposals for feminist biblical interpretation and goes on to explore the tensions between biblical scholarship and the church, the commonalities between liberation and feminist theologies and the relationship between biblical scholarship and modern historical understanding.  Throughout she is challenging biblical scholarship and Christian ethics to develop a "critical evaluative hermeneutics that can elaborate the oppressive political impact of the Bible".[8]

In the process she locates her position and methods within scholarship and biblical criticism generally, and in relation to her Catholic tradition, raising sharply the questions of "revealed" text and the authority of text and tradition within Christian history and Christian communities today.  She also picks up and uses her earlier understanding of "Scripture not as mythic archetype but as a historical prototype".[9]  It is the use as archetype in traditional biblical interpretation that sets the limiting parameters for what is authoritative.  The challenge to these normative boundaries comes from the concept of prototype, because the image is dynamic - it is "critically open to the possibility of its own transformation"[10] and so enables the Christian community to experience a "continuity between past revelation and present revelation".[11]  So Fiorenza now suggests that this root model for women-church allows for exploration of "emancipatory praxis as well as patriarchal oppression".  It provides women-church with "experiential authority" and "allows us to reclaim the Bible as enabling resource, as bread not stone".[12]  The sustenance of "bread" is necessary for the conflict she engenders by attacking so-called neutral and objective positions in scholarship and taking up the advocacy stance of liberation theology that "all theology is either for or against the oppressed".[13]  For Fiorenza this means women in particular since they are likely in the poorest social groups to be subject to multiple oppressions.


After a space of eight years But She Said
not surprisingly demonstrates development in Fiorenza's thinking.  While she continues to put women's struggles to transform patriarchal structures at the centre of her attention "rather than focusing only on the androcentric text and its authority"[14] she does so by inviting readers to join a "spiralling circle dance" - a dance of feminist rhetoric.[15]  She explores the "hermeneutical process of a feminist biblical rhetoric of interpretation" and "the problems involved in constructing a feminist political hermeneutics" as well as reviewing attempts to "situate a feminist theological rhetoric within debates on the canonical authority of biblical texts".[16]

The book has a different shape and "feel" because she has learned (presumably from experience with women differently gifted in the struggle?) that "words that give meaning to our lives are not just unearthed through analytical thinking but envisioned in poetry".  So she uses the new "optic" and different "voice" of feminist poets to open each chapter.  Also following the example of Claudia Camp she calls on a woman's name at the beginning of each chapter to "figure" and "embody" her hermeneutical steps and rhetorical moves".  This book is also enriched throughout with Asian, womanist and mujerista perspectives because her vision has grown more inclusive. She intends it to "complement" Bread not Stone
by using "feminist interpretative practices" to situate her feminist critical interpretation for liberation "differently".[17]

So she returns again to the skilful and imaginative exegesis of texts which is her trademark.  But her sobering experience of resistance to feminist biblical interpretation has influenced her choice of title story, where a woman who appeals to Jesus on behalf of another who is suffering is met with initial non response, or rejected as too loud and noisy.[18]  She clearly identifies with the Canaanite woman "who becomes a paradigm for feminists who transgress intellectual and religious boundaries in their movements toward liberation".[19]  Fortunately it is clear from the rhetorical and political emphases in the book that Fiorenza intends to go on challenging traditional authority by speaking her characteristic "BUT".

[1]          A. Pears, Towards an Understanding of Feminist Method in Theology: Women's Experience and Authority, PhD Thesis, Nottingham University, 1993, p 127

[2]          E. Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, S.C.M. Press, London, 1983, p28

[3]          Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, p xvi

[4]          Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, p 344

[5]          Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, p 347

[6]          Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, pp 348-350

[7]          E. Schüssler Fiorenza, Bread not Stone, Beacon Press, Boston, 1984, p xiv

[8]          Fiorenza, Bread not Stone, p xxi

[9]          Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, p 34

[10]      Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, p 33

[11]      Dickey-Young, Feminist Theology, p 27

[12]      Fiorenza, Bread not Stone, p xvii

[13]      Fiorenza, Bread not Stone, p 45

[14]      E. Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said, Beacon Press, Boston, 1992, p 8

[15]      Fiorenza, But She Said, pp 9-10

[16]      Fiorenza, But She Said, pp 10-11

[17]      Fiorenza, But She Said, p 7

[18]      Fiorenza, But She Said, p 13

[19]      Fiorenza, But She Said, p 12


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