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REVIEWS

 

 

Luise Schottroff, Lydia's Impatient Sisters: A Feminist Social History of Early Christianity. Translated by Barbara and Martin Rumscheidt. Westminster/John Knox, 1995.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price

All of Luise Schottroff's previous works display both an eagle-eye for neglected nuances of the New Testament text and an anti-docetic propensity for keeping that text close to the real world in which it was written. But these gifts are nowhere better evidenced than in Lydia's Impatient Sisters. The book is filled with arresting insights as well as alarming questions.

The Sitz-im-Leben of the book is set forth clearly and unabashedly: it grows out of the author's long experience of discrimination against women (in her case, in the "Old Boy" network of German university life) and of the sectarian religiosity of Women-Church. These experiences make the book breathe everywhere with a certain hands-on seriousness that undergirds the ideological criticism of the New Testament text, which nonetheless is affirmed as capable of becoming the Word of God for those willing to test the spirits within the canon. At no time will the reader get the feeling that he or she is a spectator at a purely theoretical exposition. This is engaged scholarship at its best. And when, as I will suggest momentarily, she begins to coopt the text for the sake of that engagement, Schottroff does not take such a maneuver for granted but openly argues for the necessity of the move.

Lydia's Impatient Sisters is unparalleled in the searching scrutiny with which it lays bare New Testament androcentricity (and kyriocentricity, accentuating the focus on both divine and  human lordship at the expense of common humanity). The work of building a vineyard is attributed, by kyriocentric metonymy, not to the laborers themselves, but rather to the landlord who hired them (Mark 12:1). We always seem to hear only of men engaged in various trades, when historical data make it clear that women were just as involved in them. We hear that Simon, Andrew, James, and John were Galilean fisherman, but Mary Magdalene and the Galilean women just seem to pop up out of nowhere. There is no better guess than that they, too, were fisherfolk. It is mere male-bias that thinks not to refer to women by the work they do, but rather by association with male relatives (Mary of Cleopas, Mary of James). Similarly, we see women's work transferred to men, as when Jesus says that not even an evil father would hesitate to give a bread roll to his son instead of a stone; but wouldn't it be the mother who would have baked the bread and given it to the boy (or girl)? Jesus asks the men present which of them would not search for a lost sheep until he found it, but then he asks the men if they can imagine a woman who would not search the house till she found a lost drachma. Women were most likely present to hear such a speech, but, like Elisha speaking to Gehazi about the Shunnemite in her presence as if she weren't there, Jesus talks past the women directly to the men! There are exceptions to these trends, Schottroff is happy to admit, and it is for the sake of them that she can still find liberating nourishment from such a book as the New Testicle, er, Testament.

It is Schottroff's critical loyalty to the canonical text that occasions her most fascinating hermeneutical musings. She recognizes the difference between liturgical use of the text and scholarly study thereof, though she admits the two cannot be effectively divorced. She recommends inclusive language "translations" in cases where passages seem implicitly to include women. Acts' "men and brethren" ought to become "brothers and sisters." The Kenosis Hymn in Philippians 2:6-11 may be rendered so that the Preincarnate One took on the form of a woman, since, Schottroff says, we ought always to ask who are the last who the Gospel says will be first. We ought to fill in the names of the oppressed who will be vindicated. By thus removing their anonymity, we will already be vindicating them. And since, as John Lennon said, "woman is the nigger of the world," why not (at least sometimes) specify her as the identity of the slave whose form the Preincarnate One took?

But there are also various passages which just plain denigrate women, and one cannot make any better sense of them without whitewashing, and thus perpetuating, their guilty secrets. Yet even such texts may not be removed from the canon. The canon must stand as a record of human oppression. Anamnesis works both ways, in the same way that the Holocaust, the Satanic threat to Judaism, has become assimilated into Judaism as a kind of canonical stone of witness. To retain the canonical scriptures of oppression seems, for Schottroff, to be to remember the rock from which Women-Church Christians were hewn, the Egyptian Captivity from which they are being delivered. But when in liturgy the scripture becomes the Word of Life, it must be recast appropriately to this end. Texts are not, she reminds us, fixed, stable entities, anyway, as a comparison of various translations will show. No wonder that they should show different faces in different lights.

But I wonder of Luise Schottroff is not after all, and at a deeper level, ready to rewrite that history of oppression to make it more "usable." For it seems to me that at a few critical points she allows ideology to become methodology, and thus to rewrite the sources. Exercising the hermeneutic of suspicion (without which no historical-critical work can get off the ground), she rejects Gerd Theissen's scenario of a kind of Theravada Jesus Movement of elitist itinerant radicals embracing voluntary poverty. She doesn't like the implication that the Jesus Movement aimed counsels of perfection at the affluent, enabling them to atone for their sins or assuage their consciences by the penance of renunciation. She would rather have the beatitudes upon the poor (and the injunctions to give to the poor) referring to the real poor, the involuntary poor. If the Gospel is asking people like Francis of Assisi to renounce wealth, it makes a mockery of the real poor. Though she doesn't say so, one can even more clearly see the distasteful implications of Theissen's theory for the injunctions to give to the poor, since on his reading Jesus should be understood as asking not for contributions to the poor of the land, but for handouts for himself and his friends, who could have been gainfully employed back in the fisheries and carpenter shops of Galilee! One can only commend her for these suspicions as well admire her sharpness of eye. But on the other hand, Theissen's theory should rather be judged by the sense it makes of the relevant texts, and by its viability in the face of historical analogy, as witness the Buddhist itinerants of the Theravada school. If we were to find Theissen persuasive, and to agree that such radical itineracy must sooner or later have succumbed to the (oppressive) stability of the patriarchal church (as pacifists must fall to the depredations of barbaric foes), this need not in itself be condemned as buying the patriarchy's bill of goods, as Schottroff fears, but rather as revealing an even deeper and more serious level of oppression in the biblical text. But if the text, if early Christianity, were really this patriarchal, this indifferent to the oppressed, would there be anything left to nourish Schottroff and her sisters?

In the same way, Schottroff calls attention to the way F.C. Baur's division of early Christianity into legalistic Jewish Christianity and Gentile law-free Christianity has functioned as a piece of anti-Semitism. Jewish Christians were viewed simply as reactionaries who were like the legalistic Pharisees, opposed to the "more spiritual" internationalism of the Mediterranean, i.e., Gentile, world. This tendency culminated in the efforts of National Socialist theologians to make Jesus into a Galilean Gentile, still a popular position today among racist lunatics in the Christian Identity Movement (to say nothing of the illustrators of Vacation Bible School curricula). So, instead, Schottroff posits early Jewish Christian communities all over the Mediterranean essentially at one in their (slightly) revisionist veneration of the still-valid Torah. But many of us find some version of the pluriform Jewish and pagan character of early Christianity to be not only exegetically sound and even inevitable, but even an instrument for breaking the very oppressive character of Christianity Schottroff bemoans. Witness the recent work of Robert Eisenman and Burton L. Mack. As Schottroff herself says in reference to the canon of scripture and the Christian tradition as  a whole, we can try to protect a good thing from being used as a bad thing without having to dispense with it altogether. Why throw the baby out with the baptismal water?

(Similarly, I wonder if the tendency of liberation theologians to elevate the exegesis of the peasants of Solentiname to normative status is another case of the "Noble Savage" fallacy, the romanticization of the poor. Is it possibly more Margaret Mead-ism, utilizing the supposed innocence of the "natural" poor as a weapon to disqualify the supposedly sophistical ways of the rotten West, and in the process utilizing those poor as a ventriloquist dummy for one's own leftist views? Alas, one probably cannot even raise the question without being branded a capitalist running dog.)

Among the very many noteworthy observations in this book, let me indicate but one more. Schottroff writes off yet another venerable piece of critical exegesis as a patriarchalist trap, namely the notion of the delay of the Parousia and its decisive significance in taming the originally radical Christian ethic as an implicitly fanatical "interim ethic" no longer binding on increasingly comfortable bourgeois Christians. Again Schottroff's ideological-critical eye is sharp! But on the other hand, what if the evidence really does seem to you to point that way? Are you to be dismissed without further ado as a victim of false consciousness?

To reinforce her point, Schottroff argues that the very concept of linear time is alien to the New Testament eschatology, and that it, too, functions as a prop for patriarchalism. Instead, she discerns a view of time where certain seasons of endeavor or experience are defined by what characterizes them. There is a time for hope and a time for mourning, a time of rejoicing, a time of hunkering down to resist oppression, and a perpetual springtime of Christian hope that assures us not to grow weary in well-doing for the reign of God's sake. Linear time is the illusion of endless, mundane succession, the very thing condemned in the eschatological warnings that in the days of the Son of Man people will be taken unawares, will fail to discern the signs of the times, will not see the kingdom already among/within them, since they are obliviously buying and selling, marrying and giving in marriage, business as usual. Schottroff asks us why we cannot discern the signs of the present time?

If she is right about this, it seems to me that she is engaged in Sachkritik, not just exegesis. Or to put it another way, I see Schottroff as deconstructing the very notion of exegesis. That is, she seems to be, a la Derrida, up-ending the traditional dualistic hierarchy of exegesis (what it meant) versus hermeneutics (what it means today). Our exegetical (historical-reconstructive) choices must inevitably stem from our prior commitments pro or con liberation, so she avowedly builds hers in from the first, at the methodological level. "Is presuppositionless exegesis possible?" No--but surely that's not the last word. If it were, we should expect to see Schottroff pursuing the feminist-apologetics agenda of some "biblical feminists." But she is scrupulously careful not to do so. She is not afraid to let the Bible stand naked before its feminist critics, herself included. But when it comes to Theissen, Baur, and Schweitzer, I am not sure whether she is able to be as impartial. But it is an ongoing discussion, and I for one am happy to be instructed now and in the future by Luise Schottroff's insights and suggestions.

 

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