By James F. McGrath
Cascade Books, 2021
Hardcover, 290 pages
Reviewed by Mark Mattison
Every new book seeking to recover women’s voices in the Bible deserves serious consideration. James McGrath’s new book is an impassioned plea for the Church, including its scholars, to seriously engage the problem of the Bible’s silencing of those voices. McGrath notes that feminist scholars have been pioneering this effort for years, but invites others to the cause, as well. In his introductory comments, he deftly addresses key questions, including “why it is not merely appropriate but important for men to engage in studies that focus on the exploration of women’s perspectives and voices,” noting “the long history of marginalization of women’s studies as an academic subject” (p. 6). Citing authors like Judith Plaskow and Amy-Jill Levine, he goes on to acknowledge the potential pitfalls of anti-Semitism, “denigrating Judaism to elevate Jesus” for his positive treatment of women (p. 7).
As a reader, I encountered many new insights in this book, many great questions I had not even considered, and many satisfying observations. It’s empowering to read the story of the widow’s mites as an illustration of institutional economic injustice (rather than just a commendation of an individual). Posing new questions and chiseling away assumptions that we bring to the texts is always helpful. And McGrath persuasively argues for an evangelical approach to the question of Jesus learning as an important theological affirmation of his full and true humanity. McGrath’s bibliography and depth of appreciation of feminist scholarship is impressive, as is his noteworthy humility and sensitivity, as when he writes of the “woman caught in adultery”: “Reading this familiar story again, now as part of an investigation of what Jesus learned from women, I feel ashamed, being suddenly made aware that I had not truly seen and heard the woman at the center of this story before now. Not really” (p. 198).
I found these and many other aspects of the book delightful.
However, as an independent scholar who shares McGrath’s interests in the historical Jesus and literary interpretations of the Bible, I also felt frustrated with his historical-critical methodology. He notes: “Our discussion will at times seem like typical discussions of history, while at other times will resemble literary study, and at still others will seem either like a bit of both or perhaps not quite either” (p. 11). Indeed, while using some of the language of historical and literary criticism, the discussion largely falls short on both counts. This book does easily succeed in inviting us to “become a part of the story” (p. 199) and be transformed thereby, but it does not necessarily succeed as a lasting contribution to the study of the historical Jesus.
McGrath addresses methodologies of historical-critical approaches early on: “An older approach to historical investigation looked for individual details (words, phrases, actions) that could be judged historical. Only then could one try to weave those details into a big picture reconstruction of a person’s life” (p. 10). True as it is that traditional historical-critical tools are increasingly being reconsidered, however, McGrath himself does not clearly articulate alternative methodologies. What he provides, instead, is a vague counsel not to miss the forest for the trees, using as a touchstone “the gist” of what Jesus said and did (p. 199), which simply begs the question. The result is an exercise in circular logic, judging the historical veracity of literary narratives by comparing them to our overall sense of what a historical Jesus would have said and done. As he writes in his conclusion, “We simply had to look for this Jesus, and he emerged readily from the stories and came into view” (p. 276).1 McGrath’s confidence extends even to guessing Jesus’ Myers-Briggs personality type (p. 77).
To be clear, I very much appreciate McGrath’s objectives and intentions. If he didn’t present arguments using purported historical reconstructions, I wouldn’t have a problem with his insightful deconstruction of biblical narratives and their popular interpretations. As I read the chapter on the “woman caught in adultery,” I imagined how effective the discussion would be if I were sitting in a circle, reading John 8 in a group and following up with perceptive discussion questions, learning about myself and my prejudices by listening to the personal reactions of others as they relate to the story. As McGrath puts it, “Like so many of Jesus’s parables, the lack of a satisfactory ending represents a call for us to decide how the story continues. Its open-endedness is an invitation to become part of the story and determine where it goes from here” (pp. 198, 199). This book would have been outstanding if it had consistently invited us into the Bible’s narratives in this way.
Instead, the reader encounters numerous confident assertions with little to back them up. For example, most of the chapter on Anna (the legendary mother of Mary) is predicated on the identification of Sepphoris as Mary’s birthplace, yet McGrath’s only argument for this is confined to a single small footnote:
“Massey, Women in the New Testament, 7, says that Mary’s birthplace is variously assigned to Sepphoris, Jerusalem, and Bethany down the ages, although without providing specifics about which sources are being referred to. Nevertheless, Sepphoris still stands out as historically preferable, since of these three locations it is the only one not mentioned in the New Testament and thus unlikely to be a name simply chosen from there” (p. 51, n. 4).
But the tradition that Mary was born in Sepphoris dates to the late sixth century. Though the analogy isn’t perfect, think about a future historian arguing for the historical veracity of something regarding Joan of Arc that wasn’t otherwise expressed in history until last month. Yet McGrath writes that “Understanding Sepphoris and the connection of Jesus’ family with it on his mother’s side is crucially important to understanding Jesus” (p. 54, emphasis mine).
Other examples could be cited, but hopefully this will suffice.
To his credit, McGrath often does grant that his suggestions are a matter of speculation. For example, writing of Tamar and Bathsheba in Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew, he writes, “It would be fun to imagine Jesus sharing his thoughts on this with his disciples, and this directly inspiring the inclusion of Tamar and Bathsheba in the geneaology of Matthew’s Gospel!” (p. 194, n. 24). And that’s fine, as long as we’re clear that it’s an act of imagination.
Creatively filling in the gaps of the Bible’s narratives and posing questions that pull us into the story is a very effective learning technique. Will it help some evangelicals to learn, grow, mature, and be transformed by emphasizing womens’ experience? Absolutely. Will it make a lasting contribution to historical Jesus studies? Only time will tell.
1 Albert Schweitzer’s oft-quoted criticism of the quest for the historical Jesus is as true as ever: “Thus each successive epoch of theology found its own thoughts in Jesus … each individual created Him in accordance with his [sic] own character” (The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 1910, p. 4). (back to text)
© 2021 by Christian Feminism Today.
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