Slowly learning to love Augustine

The Word According to Eve
April 21, 2000

Cullen Murphy, an American Roman Catholic, writer and editor, has produced a lucid, balanced account of a movement that at times has provoked virtual gender war in the field of biblical studies. What a relief to find a history of this movement in biblical scholarship that maintains an element of humour without sarcasm. All the more disappointing, then, is the exceptionally poor introduction by Karen Armstrong. She dismisses the problem of inculturation of "sexist" language about God as mere ingrained prejudice and presents the problem of God-talk on the level of fascinating dilemma. Armstrong dredges up historicist fallacies about how the original message of faith was good for women, yet "men quickly hijacked the faith and made it endorse the old patriarchy". This anomaly to a well-researched and informative book is cause for concern. There is a real danger that it may confirm the prejudices of those who already approach feminist biblical scholarship with the same hermeneutic of suspicion that many feminists apply to the Bible. Murphy's aim is to make specialist feminist scholarship on the Bible accessible to "the people in the pews". He puts the feminist revolution on a level with the Reformation, in terms of forcing new ways of thinking about the faith. Such a claim needs to be tested properly; certainly embedded hostility to gender issues suggests that some deeply ingrained norms are being challenged.

This book is not a work of theology but an account of people and their scholarship. The biographical material woven with the scholarly gives it a friendly, accessible feel. Occasionally the author's comments on the women he describes betray amusement or exasperation. These potted biographies are both a strength of the book and a weakness. A strength because they underline the fundamental importance of linking scholarly foci to social ambit. A weakness because this gives rise to an oblique opening for each chapter, which soon grates. As Murphy skips from one scholar to the next, setting out their academic qualifications and expertise, nuggets of insight gleam and intriguing pathways open up. Perhaps the Bible uses women as Dickens used poor children, as an "index of social pathology"; we must learn to distinguish "Jesus the feminist" from "Jesus the Jewish man who treated women like people". On the other hand, working mainly on a scholar-to-scholar basis means that big methodological questions can only be dealt with piecemeal. Why has feminist criticism been so obsessed with the status of women? What risks to the integrity of the text(s) are posed by apologetics ("look how egalitarian the Creation story really is")? As a result, the book makes a good illustration of its own closing arguments, that the picture of "women in the Bible" refracts, fragments, becomes more complex and differentiated the closer we look. There is, for example, compelling evidence for women exercising authority in the Bible, and equally compelling evidence that gender stereotypes distort the judgement of New Testament scholars who emend manuscripts that show Junia as an apostle, or downgrade the title of deacon applied to Phoebe. There is debate at present on whether the earliest theology of Christianity was intentionally egalitarian, and this leads to a key question: did Christianity decline from proto-egalitarianism into hierarchy and oppression, or is Christianity a movement infected from the outset with the prejudicial gender templates of the time?

Murphy is aware of the danger of using the tools of criticism to construct support for a point of view, rather than examining evidence impartially. Feminist biblical scholars do it when they bend meaning to produce the required reading. So do Vatican theologians, with their "we tried it once but didn't like it" response to the clear evidence for women in the early centuries of the church exercising sacerdotal ministry.

Murphy avoids tangling at length here with the doctors of the church, and sticks firmly to his biblical brief. It is a pity, in the case of Augustine, for in the field of his writings, just as for the Bible, the battle lines are drawn. A lampoon of feminist scholarship quoted by Murphy makes the point brilliantly: "The Judeo-Christian tradition is Bad, though Jesus was Good. Paul was Bad. The Gnostics were Good. Augustine was Very, Very Bad." Murphy opines that it is unlikely there will ever be a book called "Feminists who Love Augustine" - possibly because it is an embarrassingly bad title, yet with time and a contract, it would be a challenging pleasure to write. In biblical studies, as in Augustine studies, context is everything. We cannot take elements out of their context without doing violence to the sense. Murphy's voice is refreshingly unpartisan, perhaps too level-headed to please all. He succeeds in convincing us of the greatness of the task, but it would be a mistake to rejoice that the strife is o'er, that gender studies has changed for ever how Christianity thinks and speaks about women, or that equality between the sexes is now the norm.

Revd Carolyn Hammond is an assistant curate and former research fellow, University of Cambridge.

The Word According to Eve: Women and the Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own

Author - Cullen Murphy
ISBN - 0 713 999 4 and 0 14 0887 7
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £20.00 and £8.99
Pages - 300

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