I was lucky enough to begin my search in the infamous 60s. I didn’t really know what I was searching for…but I just had this feeling that something was missing from the New Testament story that I could find. Not knowing specifically what I was looking for, it took a long time. I began at the “spiritual” end of the continuum with the New Age and ended up at the “historical” end.
I began looking for something about Jesus. Those were the days when New Testament research was a men-only club. Even with that, I was lucky enough to start my search for whatever at just the right time. The first two fields I studied in earnest were the Dead Sea Scroll books as they were published and then the Search for the Historical Jesus books…both very male studies…no women allowed. At the time, I think I sort of prided myself on ignoring the women, also because not only were there no women writing but if you looked in the indexes of the old books in my library where I began and the new Historical Jesus books just coming on the market, only a mandatory mention of Mary and/or Mary Magdalene could be found.
But there were two other forces at work in the Universe just getting published into books for the layperson in the 70s: the New Physics and the New Feminism. A paragraph in The Dancing Wu Li Masters, An Overview of the New Physics by Gary Zukav (first published in 1979 by William Morrow) changed everything. This paragraph and the concept behind it hit the women of biblical research hard:
The philosophy of pragmatism goes something like this. The mind is such that it deals only with ideas. It is not possible for the mind to relate to anything other than ideas. Therefore, it is not correct to think that the mind actually can ponder reality. All that the mind can ponder is its ideas about reality. …Therefore, whether or not something is true is not a matter of how closely it corresponds to the absolute truth, but of how consistent it is with our experience… (F)or the first time, scientists…were forced by their own finding to acknowledge that a complete understanding of reality lies beyond the capabilities of rational thought. ..(T)he deed was done. The new physics was based not upon “absolute truth,” but upon us.
Women trying to enter biblical research used the “philosophy” as a life-preserver and jumped in. If there was no absolute truth then even if the Pope wrote a book on some aspect of the New Testament, it would still be only his interpretation, not an ultimate TRUTH. It was liberating. Women just breaking into the field didn’t see themselves as Feminists, just women who were outsiders trying to get in. When the few that made it began writing their books, they took the New Physics with them. By the 80’s women were introducing themselves in the prefaces of their brave new books. (Your version of the truth will spring from who you are.)
Elaine Pagels wrote her iconic book, The Gnostic Gospels,[i] in 1979, just ahead of the new tide, but by the time she wrote the Introduction to her second book, Adam, Eve and the Serpent, in 1988, she called upon the New Physics to justify her first book from 1979:
One of my colleagues, misunderstanding the viewpoint presented here and in my previous book, The Gnostic Gospels, has objected that religious ideas cannot be reduced to practical (or, in his words, political) agendas. On this I wholeheartedly agree with him. I am not saying that religious ideas are nothing but a cover for political motives…What I am thinking of is what the anthropologists Foucault calls “the politics of truth” — that is, that what each of us perceives and acts upon as true has much to do with our situation, social, political, cultural, religious, or philosophical. Those who are unfamiliar with biblical interpretation or cynical about it may assume that the controversies and diverging interpretations described here merely confirm what they have suspected all along: that biblical interpretation is no more than ideology under a different name. Yet those who seriously confront the Bible will realize that genuine interpretation has always required that the reader actively and imaginatively engage the texts.
Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, in her Introduction to her also ground-breaking book, In Memory of Her, A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins[ii] was first published in 1983. She addressed the New Physics in her introduction:
Since historical knowledge is inferential (Collingwood), historians have to construct some frame of reference within which to discuss the available historical evidence. Such a frame of reference is always determined by their own philosophical perspective and values. Historians who pretend to record nothing but pure facts while refusing to acknowledge their own presuppositions and theoretical perspectives succeed only in concealing from themselves the ideologies upon which their historiography is based. All historiography is a selective view of the past…Historical “objectivity” can only be approached by reflecting critically on and naming ones’ theoretical presuppositions and political allegiances.
Jane Schaberg also used the New Physics in her Introduction to her startling book, The Illigitimacy of Jesus, A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narratives of Jesus[iii], published in 1987:
…We have become increasingly aware of the importance of the interpreter’s own bias in shaping her or his interpretation: what we see is substantially influenced by what we are prepared to see…Thus the importance of (a) self-consciousness and acknowledgment of our perspective; (b) a self-critical stance concerning it; and (c) an openness to new discoveries. The most common objection to a feminist reading is that it is subjective and… it tends to distort what the text is really saying. But all interpretation is subjective, and acceptable and unacceptable readings must be adjudicated by scholarly criteria.
The New Physics was also called upon in the preface to In the Wake of the Goddesses, Women, Culture and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth[iv] by Tikva Frymer-Kensky in 1992.
Part of the scholarly ferment in recent years has been the realization that the reader is always present in the reading of texts, and that the present is always part of the interpretation of the past. There is no such thing as the totally objective recovery of history, for something informs our choice of questions to ask and our selection of data that seems significant to us…Gone is the naive assumption that knowledge is absolute and absolutely attainable…But, if total objectivity is a chimera, how does one distinguish between free interpretative speculations and responsible scholarship?…(O)ne working principle is that if the reader is crucial to the interpretation, the then reader should be revealed…I therefore feel that it is important to introduce myself…
(I love this quote I recently found and am adding in. It is from the blog VRIDAR, “Musings on biblical studies, politics, religion, ethics, human nature, tidbits from science.” The quote is in an August 2018 post called Just what do you mean…HISTORICAL JESUS. Author of the blog Neil Godfrey is quoting T.W. Manson…
“By their lives of Jesus ye shall know them”)
I did, however, follow the feminist biblical scholars and their endeavors to rehabilitate and reevaluate New Testament women until some of them branched off into the whole Goddess thing…and into a new genre of Jesus was Married to Mary Magdalene. I read many of them but still I had this gut feeling that something was not being addressed, something had gotten overlooked…something “for those with eyes to see.” And it would have to be pretty much in plain sight for me to find it.
[i] Elaine Pagels, Random House, Inc., New York, 1979 and Random House, Inc. New York, 1988
[ii] Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 1985, copyright 1983
[iii] Jane Schaber, Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., New York, 1987
[iv] Frymer-Kensky, first published by The Free Press A Division of Macmillan, Inc., 1992