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Turid Karlsen Seim, The Double Message: Patterns of Gender in Luke & Acts. Abingdon. 1994.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price

Are the Lukan writings, which constitute so large a slice of the New Testament canon, pro-women or anti-women? That is, in terms of the contemporary discussion, does Luke-Acts foster the equality of women in church life and ministry, or does the work impede such equality? For a long time, traditionalist exegetes saw "the ladies" in Luke-Acts in sentimental, patronizing terms. More recently, feminist exegetes have appealed to Luke's depiction of women in roles of religious service as evidence for a "discipleship of equals" in sectarian early Christianity. But no matter which side of the debate one seeks to recruit Luke-Acts for, the book remains an ambiguous witness, as when “Jane Roe” allowed herself to be placed before the cameras as the newest protege of anti-abortion forces but then admitted she still didn't exactly opposed all abortions. Oops. Turid Karlsen Seim joins with the most recent group of exegetes who realize Luke is not that easily pigeon-holed. His texts point in opposite (or at least disparate) directions. Seim carefully delineates the stance of Luke as the inheritor of traditions depicting the Christlike service of women, and as an ecclesiastical theorist for whom women are disqualified from holding positions of church authority. Luke seems to make it about as explicit as he can that the ministering women from Galilee lived out the ideal of the disciple who follows Jesus and donates worldly possessions for the upkeep of the apostolic "poor." And Luke makes equally clear that leaders of the church are to emulate Jesus, who came among his people not as the one served but as their servant. What comes next? We would expect that the women, having been positioned for the job, would be celebrated as leaders of the early church. But instead we see them by-passed in favor of self-important males who disdain serving at table as their master did; they have more important things to do, like preaching the word of salvation. Luke tries to camouflage the abrupt transition by applying the euphemism "service" to whatever it is the male apostles are in fact shown doing.

Similarly, Seim shows how Luke hermetically seals off the home as the place where women may minister and prophesy, while the public sphere is the domain of men and male leadership. Ironically, Luke shows a gradual transition from public spaces (temple and synagogue) to house-church as the center of Christian activity, but this does not lead to the conclusion we would have anticipated, that women's leadership grows more important. Just the opposite. Seim argues that Luke probably did not even intend the reader to imagine the presence of women in his public crowd-preaching scenes. When he has Peter say "Men and brethren," he means it! As Origen and the Princeton theologians of the last century argued, even women's prophecy was exercised only in the home. In short, Luke, as Seim paints him, was pretty much like that first group of exegetes who saw Luke as putting women on display in a gilded cage.

Whence the double message? Seim seems to view Luke as some "biblical feminists" view Paul, as someone who could not help appreciating the leadership gifts of women and their equality in the gospel, but just could not see his way past traditional male chauvinism. Pretty much like the Pope. The ambivalence must be traced back to Luke himself, not just to his preservation of traditions ill-suited to his redactional purpose (the approach I take in The Widow Traditions in Luke-Acts: A Feminist-Critical Scrutiny, Scholars Press, 1997), Seim argues, because the portrait he paints of the Galilean women, idealizing them, seems to be his own work.

The Double Message is fascinating not only above but equally below the footnote line. Her (polite) critiques of Ben Witherington (the Benjamin Warfield of our generation) on the right and of Luise Schottroff, Bernadette Brooten, and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza on the left are consistently informative and illuminating. Must we understand the Mary versus Martha pericope as a discussion of the diaconate of women? Only if we can be sure it reflects some uniform ecclesiastical terminology, ands we can't. Can we be sure that Phoebe or female synagogue patronesses were more than big donors? Not without more evidence than we have.   

Seim's is a rewarding study written from an informed and independent perspective. It is as resistant to stereotype categorization as Luke-Acts itself, and that is much to its credit.


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