In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins

It’s been a while since I read a big serious theology book. Back when I was taking seminary classes, I read this kind of thing all the time, but now I tend to read books that are written for a more general audience or that are more devotional in nature. I hardly even know how to approach more academic texts anymore, I’ve had this modern classic of Biblical scholarship by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza on my shelves for a while and decided around Easter to start making my way slowly through it — a chapter or even half a chapter per week — taking notes as I go in hopes that some of the learning would seep in and stay. Maybe some of it did.

The “her” in the title is the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet in Matthew and Mark, about whom Jesus said, “What she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” What’s remarkable about that is that in both Matthew and Mark, the woman remains unnamed, although she is identified as Mary of Bethany in John’s gospel. And Mary of Bethany eventually becomes identified with Mary Magdelene. The lacked of clear identification and possible collapsing of women’s identities, never mind that the act of anointing and Mary Magdelene both become associated with sexual sin, despite a lack of textual evidence, shows that the memory of this woman, indeed of all women in the early church, hasn’t been particularly well preserved.

So Fiorenza makes it her task to pull apart what the Bible actually says about women in Jesus’s lifetime and the early years of the church, set it against what is known about women’s lives at the time and against written records outside the Bible. The idea is that the Bible is by its very nature, androcentric (i.e., focused on men’s perspectives), and the interpretive tradition even more so, which means some digging is required to give a fuller account of women’s lives. And these investigations show that women were heavily involved in the church from the very beginning, sometimes taking on leadership roles and providing financial support. She describes some of the tensions within the early church, many of which influenced the writing of the Bible and the selection of books to be included, and considers different interpretations of the Biblical passages used to subjugate women.

One of the things I liked about this book is the deep respect Fiorenza shows for the Bible without treating it as an object of worship. I grew up and spent much of my early adulthood in the more conservative wing of the Baptist church, where the assumption is that the Bible is the inerrant word of God and must be taken literally. And once I discovered more progressive strands of Christianity, within and outside the Baptist church, I also saw a tendency to just want to excise the hard passages and everything associated with them. For example, there’s an idea that Paul is no good at all because of the admonitions within some of this letters that women are to submit to their husbands or be silent in church. Fiorenza writes in a way that doesn’t necessarily excuse the writers of such passages, but instead opens the doors to possible gaps between the declarations in these verses and actual practice in the church of the time. She treats the writers and compilers of the Bible as actual people living and being within a particular context, surrounded by other people, within and outside the church, with their own ideas that may or may not have affected what made it into the Bible and what the church actually did in practice.

Of course, any attempt at reconstructing a history of events that took place 2,000 years ago will be speculative, and I suspect Fiorenza got some things right and some things wrong. That’s the work of doing history. The value here is her rigorous approach to opening the doors to other ways of viewing the time of the early church, taking the focus off Paul and Barnabas and Silas and thinking about the early house churches or the widows who mentored younger women or the women prophets who shared their gifts. These women are all there, right there, in scripture, but forgotten in the focus on the men and what some of them eventually decided women couldn’t do. And remembering their stories is valuable not just for women but for anyone who wants to see a church that is less interested in enforcing hierarchy and more interested in unity and mutuality.

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