News testaments on women and religious history
Bible scholar Phyllis Trible was leafing through the Jerusalem Bible translation one day when her eyes lit upon the phrase "the God who fathered you" (Deuteronomy 32:18).Skip to next paragraph
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Turning to compare the original Hebrew text, she was shocked at what she found. The Hebrew word translated "fathered" in the Jerusalem Bible was actually the word for a woman in childbirth travail.
"Talk about male bias!" she murmured. "If they didn't want the literal meaning, they could at least have said, 'the God who mothered you.'"
That was years ago.
Now Professor Trible isn't so surprised by such discoveries. Since those early discoveries she and a growing cadre of women who study the history of religion have unearthed an impressive number of female dimensions that have been overlooked down through the centuries.
Female metaphors for God, they say, are far more abundant in Scripture than has often been recognized.
Women, it turns out, played a more active and leading role in early Christianity than historians have acknowledged.
Some Renaissance churchmen apparently made less room for women in the scheme of salvation than has often been assumed -- so much so that certain women researchers are beginning to regard the proverbial "Renaissance man" more as a "Renaissance male."
The list goes on and on.
There is by no means unanimity about the implications of the new studies. Some women scholars view them as much-needed correctives; others as ammunition for advancing feminist causes in secular life.
Interfaith dialogue on these questions has been dampened lately by opposition from conservative Evangelicals. Many women who rallied feminist religious causes in the mid-'70s feel that the traditional churches are hopelessly committed to women's subordination and have left the fight.
Still, all this has not deterred Harvard Divinity School from launching a new program for women's studies in religion -- the first of its kind. Here, women researchers hope to examine religious history under a "non-male microscope" to see what it can mean for women -- and men -- today.
A recent roundtable discussion of women researchers and professors currently at Harvard, indicated that the roots of their motivation reach far deeper than personal religious interests. They are looking for concrete answers to the broader social dilemmas in which women find themselves -- problems from career choices to marriage life styles, from abortion rights to the increasing contact of Western women with other women from more traditional cultures around the world.
"So many women come to me feeling helpless in these areas because they feel that family, church, or society will not permit them the authority to make decisions they need to make," says Carol Robb, a research associate at the Harvard Divinity School and Protestant chaplain at Suffolk University in Boston."we can't help reflecting on how history and tradition hamper women's sense of possibility."
Although Harvard's new program officially gets off the ground next fall, its organizers are convinced that women's research is already having an impact.
The new-found female metaphors for God, for instance, are sending shock waves through some longstanding religious views, according to Professor Trible, who teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York and serves on the advisory committee for the new Harvard program.