Baker Academic

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Early Women in Jesus Research

In a recent conversation with two senior colleagues, I asked, "Who is the first female voice to be heard in the field of historical Jesus?" I was aware that "George Eliot" translated Strauss' Das Leben Jesu kritisch bearbeitet, but I was looking for a more direct contribution. Eta Linnemann's PhD work in the 1950s toward her Gleichnisse Jesu, Einführung und Auslegung [trans. Parables of Jesus: Introduction and Exposition] might represent the first, original book-length treatment. But one colleague suggested Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s The Women’s Bible (1898). This book reproduces selections of biblical text and punctuates it with commentary. The section of the book that comments on Joshua-Revelation includes the voices of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ellen Battelle Dietrick, Louisa Southworth, Lucinda B. Chandler, Anonymous, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Frances Ellen Burr, Rev. Phebe A. Hanaford, Clara B. Neyman.

In reading through these comments, I found myself particularly fascinated by the comments of the woman called "Anonymous." She leans toward Anti-Judaism at times and questions the supernatural accounts of the Bible (both common features of historical Jesus scholarship of the day). But what makes her most remarkable is that she's interested in historical retelling that is decidedly feminist. Here are just a couple examples:

We owe the conquest of Christianity to two things. First, to Paul. Christianity never would have been anything but a little Jewish sect if it had not been for Paul. And the other thing is—what? The conquest over death. It was the abounding belief of the disciples that Jesus was alive, their leader still, though in the invisible, which made them laugh in the face of death, which made them fearless in the presence of the lions in the arena, which made them seek for the honor and glory of martyrdom, and which gave them such conquest over all fear, all sorrow, all toil, as can come only to those who believe that this life is merely a training school, that death is nothing but a doorway and that it leads out into the eternal glories and grandeurs beyond. 
I think that the doctrine of the Virgin birth as something higher, sweeter, nobler than ordinary motherhood, is a slue on all the natural motherhood of the world. I believe that millions of children have been as immaculately conceived, as purely born, as was the Nazarene. Why not? Out of this doctrine, and that which is akin to it, have sprung all the monasteries and the nunneries of the world, which have disgraced and distorted and demoralized manhood and womanhood for a thousand years. I place beside the false, monkish, unnatural claim of the Immaculate Conception my mother, who was as holy in her motherhood as was Mary herself. 
Another suggestion. This thought of Jesus as the second person of an inconceivable trinity, a being neither of heaven nor earth, but between the two; a being having two natures and one will; a being who was ignorant as a man, and who suffered as a man, while he knew everything as God and could not suffer as God—this conception is part of a scheme of the universe which represents humanity as ruined and lost and hopeless, God as unjust, and man as looking only to a fearful judgment in the ages that are to be. I believe that thousands of people have lived since the time of Jesus as good, as tender, as loving, as true, as faithful, as he. There is no more mystery in the one case than in the other, for it is all mystery. Old Father Taylor, the famous Methodist Bethel preacher in Boston, was a Perfectionist, and when he was asked if he thought anybody had since lived who was as good as Jesus, he said: "Yes; millions of them." This is Methodist authority. 
What made Jesus the power he was of his time? In the first place, there was an inexplicable charm about his personality which drew all the common people to him, as iron filings are drawn by a magnet. He loved the people, who instinctively felt it, and loved him. Then there was his intellectual power of speech. Most of the sayings of Jesus are not original in the sense that nobody else ever uttered any similar truths before. Confucius, six thousand years before Jesus, gave utterance to the Golden Rule. And then there was the pity, the sympathy, the tenderness of the man. And then he had trust in God— trust in the simple Fatherhood of God, that never could be shaken. Jesus taught us, as no one else has ever done it, the humanness of God and the divineness of man, so that, standing there eighteen hundred years ago, he has naturally and infallibly attracted the eyes, the thought, the love, the reverence of the world. 
When it is dark in the morning, and before the sun rises, there are high peaks that catch the far-off rays and begin to glow, while the rest of the world still lies in shadow. So there are mountainous men, not supernatural, but as natural as the mountains and the sun— mountainous men who catch the light before our common eyes on the plains and in the valleys can see it, who see and proclaim from their lofty heights far-off visions of truth and beauty that we as yet cannot discern. 
Is it not astonishing that so little is in the New Testament concerning the mother of Christ? My own opinion is that she was an excellent woman, and the wife of Joseph, and that Joseph was the actual father of Christ. I think there can be no reasonable doubt that such was the opinion of the authors of the original Gospels. Upon any other hypothesis it is impossible to account for their having given the genealogy of Joseph to prove that Christ was of the blood of David. The idea that he was the Son of God, or in any way miraculously produced, was an afterthought, and is hardly entitled now to serious consideration. The Gospels were written so long after the death of Christ that very little was known of him, and substantially nothing of his parents. How is it that not one word is said about the death of Mary, not one word about the death of Joseph? How did it happen that Christ did not visit his mother after his resurrection? The first time he speaks to his mother is when he was twelve years old. His mother having told him that she and his father had been seeking him, he replied: "How is it that ye sought me? Wist ye not that I must be about my father's business?" The second time was at the marriage feast in Cana, when he said to her: "Woman, what have I to do with thee?" And the third time was at the cross, when "Jesus, seeing his mother standing by the disciple whom he loved, said to her: 'Woman, behold thy son;' and to the disciple: 'Behold thy mother.'" And this is all.
I'd love to hear from our readers. Are there voices of women that predate 1898 in Jesus research?



  1. The twins Margaret Dunlop Gibson and Agnes Smith Lewis were working before this. Lewis's Syriac Gospels palimpsest was discovered and transcribed in 1892.

  2. Schweitzer devotes a couple of pages to 'das gläubige geoffenbarte Leben-Jesu der gottseligen Anna Katharina Emmerich' (published posthumously in 1834), so he actually seems to have considered hers a 'voice in Jesus research', if only a very unpleasant one.

  3. If you've not already checked, Elisabeth Fiorenza discusses Stanton and the Women's Bible in historical context in In memory of Her. I seem to recall her including some other names in that discussion.