The Power of the Word: Scripture and the Rhetoric of Empire

by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.
Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.
280 pages.

Reviewed by Reta Halteman Finger

The Power of the Word book coverThe weekend before the 2004 presidential election, I attended a conference on “The New Testament and the Roman Empire” at Union Theological Seminary in NYC. Through lectures and workshops (many by well-known scholars), I learned how pervasively Rome advertised its power in the ancient world and how the gospel of Jesus resisted it by providing a radical alternative. So when I heard about a follow-up conference on the same topic, scheduled for April 2008, I eagerly registered.

But the planners had listened to Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s critique that the first event had been “top-down” and had been modeled after  the very structure of dominance and submission that the presenters were challenging. Thus the April weekend included many different speakers with very brief presentations, along with more open-ended sessions encouraging audience participation.  (More about that later.)

New Method of Biblical Interpretation

Those of us who have lived Christian feminism for years may have some sense of Schüssler Fiorenza’s impact on biblical and religious studies. Her ground-breaking 1983 volume, In Memory of Her,brought into focus the essential role of women in the early church as reflected in and underneath the biblical writings. The above example also demonstrates her stature in such scholarship today.

Schüssler Fiorenza has provided a new method of interpretation that has challenged traditional ways of reading the Bible. If the heart of the gospel was radical democracy in a “discipleship of equals,” then all scripture should be evaluated from that perspective. Whatever does not reflect this democratic spirit is simply not the authoritative “Word of God.” “Women-church,” her term for the contemporary discipleship-of-equals, would define what was life-giving and thus authoritative, and what was not. This latest volume integrates her previous perspectives into two emerging interrelated emphases in biblical interpretation: postcolonial and anti-imperial criticism.

If you’re reaching for your theological dictionary by this time, you’ve hardly begun! Schüssler Fiorenza creates her own vocabulary in order to better critique reigning paradigms of thought and contrast it with her own vision of radical democracy. If you want to learn about “detoxification” and “the undecidability of meaning,” here’s the place to come!

Postcolonialism and Imperialism

Let’s unpack a few other terms first:

Those of us in the West have inherited an assumption that our culture and intellectual heritage is superior to non-western cultures. We colonized those cultures, taking their land and wealth while at the same time bringing “civilization” to, for example, the “dark continent” of Africa. But the globalization of education, commerce, and communication is now challenging these assumptions. Previously marginalized people are exposing Western assumptions as arrogant and oppressive. Scholars like Musa Dube and Ferdinand Segovia (whose important books I reviewed here in 2003) are examples of those from former colonies of the West who analyze biblical writings and western culture from their own perspectives in Africa or Latin America.

With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, the United States emerged as the remaining superpower. Scholars of antiquity and the New Testament are now making many comparisons between the Roman Empire, the context of the early church; and the American Empire, whose imperialistic industrial-military tentacles reach around the globe.

Into this theological ferment, Schüssler Fiorenza inserts her feminist vision of radical democracy. Rather than “patriarchy” or “hierarchy,” what she opposes is “kyriarchy/kyriocentrism.” These terms derive from the Greek kyrios (lord) and describe how empire works—through “domination by the emperor, lord, master, father, husband, elite propertied male” (p. 14). Kyriarchy, then, must be opposed wherever it is found, including any biblical texts that “inscribe” this kind of domination.

Kyriarchy can be seen in two perspectives toward scripture which still dominate public and religious life as well as the study of religion and theology. The first is fundamentalism. This attitude can be found in all religions, but we have seen it most obviously in recent years in American Christianity and Islam. Since fundamentalists are convinced their interpretations of their sacred scriptures are the only right ones, they seek to convert (or banish) those outside the pale.

In the academy, at the other end of the spectrum, is logical positivism—the view that science and logic can lead us to objective truth that is neutral and non-ideological. Although both perspectives have been challenged in recent decades, Schüssler Fiorenza insists they are pervasive and insidious. A feminist, non-kyriarchical vision must constantly seek to avoid both of these oppressive presumptions.

Why is Rhetoric Important?

“Rhetoric,” in the book’s subtitle, clues in readers to the importance of language and linguistics to Schüssler Fiorenza’s feminist vision. As I write this, Scott McClelland’s book on his years working in the Bush administration has just come out, highlighting the deception necessary to get the American people to support attacking Iraq. The rhetoric of “smoking gun as a mushroom cloud” or “weapons of mass destruction” powerfully swayed mass populations and political leaders to endorse a mistake of colossal proportions.

Rhetoric in its original meaning is not the empty promises we often expect from politicians. Schüssler Fiorenza insists that language is by nature rhetorical. It almost always attempts to persuade. It is not neutral. As we read our scriptures, we must see all of them as rhetorical, either inscribing kyriarchy or opposing it with the gospel of radical democracy.

For her part, Schüssler Fiorenza coins various other terms to carry through her own rhetorical ideology. She uses G*d “out of respect for Jewish feminists” (p. 1). I can handle that, but her parallel change from “theology” (the study of G*d) to “the*logy” becomes annoyingly pervasive and sometimes hard to read in context. More satisfying is her use of “wo/men” in an inclusive, generic sense, in order to “lift into consciousness the linguistic violence of so-called generic male-centered language…. Wo/man includes man,
‘s/he’ includes ‘he,’ and ‘female’ includes ‘male’” (p. 6). She figures that, since women have always had to “think twice” about male-generic language in order to feel included, it is a “good spiritual exercise” for men to do the same! (p. 7).

Though Schüssler Fiorenza does apply her theory to biblical texts such as 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, the female images of Revelation, the domination/submission household codes of 1 Peter, and the positive “open house of Sophia” in the Wisdom traditions, much of this book is theoretical. Without knowing her previous work, it is not easy to read. Indeed, the book seems to have been written mostly for the academy, for her final chapter discusses how religious education on the master’s and doctoral levels should be “transformed.”

A Few Caveats

Though I support much of Schüssler Fiorenza’s feminist democratic vision, here are a few caveats:

1) Does her theory do away with G*d as Sovereign entirely? Other biblical critics of empire would say that the NT writings challenge “Caesar as Lord” with “Jesus as Lord.” African slaves groaning under American slavery in previous centuries found solace in the belief that there was only one Master—Jesus—and not their white “massa.” If this theology (oops, the*logy) was in this book, I missed it.

2) Though the goal of ESF’s theory is to include “the least of these” in her democratic vision, this book will not be accessible to people without significant education. It is true that ideas of some hard-to-read intellectuals like Kant and Hegel eventually become part of mainstream worldviews. We do need deep thinkers with visions beyond ordinary vocabulary to explain them. On the other hand, I do not see how we can escape the elitist aspect of education. Learning does confer power. In significant ways, educated people have power over those with less.

3) Which brings me back to that “NT and Empire” conference last April. I did not enjoy it half as much as the first one. With such an attempt to avoid “top-down” structure, presenters with important things to say lacked sufficient time in which to say them; and those with little to say had too much time! Smaller sessions lacked structure; too many people rambled on, wasting words and time. Though there were exceptions, I left having learned little about either the New Testament or the Roman Empire.

Contrasting Concepts of Power

As a college professor myself, I teach students skills, concepts, and facts they need to learn. I have power over them because I have to assign grades. I don’t see how that can be avoided. But as we teach each other in the process, my ultimate goal is to bring them up to my own level of understanding in a particular area—not to eternally lord it over them. That, I think, is the radical difference between the gospel and the rigid kyriarchy of the Roman Empire. As we can see in Ephesians 2 and 5, God gives Christ God’s own authority; Christ raises the church to his level; and the Roman husband breaks ranks to raise his wife to his level of authority and power.

On the practical level, I appreciated footnotes on each page rather than endnotes. The bibliography was extensive and helpful. However, a glossary of terms and an index would make this book more accessible.

Even though many of us may not read The Power of the Word in its entirety, wo/men of all cultures need to live out these inclusive, democratic ideals if our species is to survive in a peaceful world.


© 2008 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus volume 32 number 2 Summer (July-September) 2008


Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.


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