One of the top books of 2022 in our annual Books of the Year is Joy A. Schroeder and Marion Ann Taylor’s Voices Long Silenced: Women Biblical Interpreters Through the Centuries (WJK). At this year’s Society of Biblical Literature an entire session was dedicated to this book. Four respondents followed by two follow-up responses by the authors. The four respondents were Jaime Clark-Soles, Mitzi Smith, Eunjoo Kim, and me. I am honored that each of the respondents has agreed to post their responses here at Tov Unleashed. Today’s post is by Jaime Clark-Soles.
Rev. Dr. Jaime Clark-Soles is Professor of New Testament and Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. She is also the Director of the Baptist House of Studies at Perkins. She is the author of numerous books and essays, including Women in the Bible (WJK, 2020), 1 Corinthians: Searching the Depths of God (2021), and Reading John for Dear Life: A Spiritual Walk with the Fourth Gospel (2016). She serves on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Disability and Religion.
In July 2020 I provided an endorsement for Dr. Lisa Bowens’ African American Readings of Paul: Reception, Resistance & Transformation. In Fall 2020 my own book on Women in the Bible came out ably edited by Dr. Susan Hylen. In December 2021 I endorsed Voices Long Silenced. In March this year I participated in a panel at our SBL Southwest Regional Meeting in March dedicated to reviewing the work of Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, another endorser of Voices. In July I provided an endorsement for Dr. Susan Hylen’s own book that will be out early next year titled Finding Phoebe: What New Testament Women Were Really Like. You could say, then, that I have a keen interest in these topics and in learning from the fine work of my colleagues whose scholarship has transformative power. You might also note the connections and community that exist when you hear of all of this mutual engagement. It’s exciting and hopeful. Today I am delighted to be included in a larger conversation around Voices Long Silenced. In addition, I’m honored to serve on a panel with these truly esteemed colleagues.
I am awestruck by this unique book. Spanning centuries from antiquity to today, it features female scriptural interpreters from across the globe from different denominational, class, cultural, racial, and ethnic backgrounds. Joining them, the reader sojourns through history, learning the names and work of the interpreters, the historical and political contexts in which they operated, the methods they used to interpret, and why it is essential for us to engage their work if we truly desire a faithful rendering of our religious history.
The Power of Scholarship for Transformation
This book is a scholarly tour-de-force. I learned something new from every chapter. I’ve made numerous notes about how I’ll use it as I work on my own current project related to embodied encounters with the divine in the New Testament. But what has gripped me the most at present is the book’s pedagogical power. Recently Elizabeth Schrader kindly Zoom lectured to my “Interpretation of the New Testament” seminary students, many of whom are first semester. If you don’t know her, Libbie has almost single-handedly made Text Criticism cool again with her stunning textual discoveries related to the sisters Mary and Martha and Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of John and elsewhere. For one hour straight she walked them step by step through ancient manuscripts to show literal erasures and “corrections” leading to a dilution of the presence of Mary Magdalene especially. She showed them the diversity in the ancient manuscripts (not to mention in their English translations, including the fact that not even all editions of the KJV agree). Though the ancient mss were in Greek and very few in that class know Greek, they were fully absorbed. She told them to take Greek or stay in Greek, even though it’s difficult. She showed them ancient artistic depictions that also show the kind of textual trends she was noting. When she opened to Q and A and they asked her how she would present this in a church setting, the personal faith, passion, and purpose that drives Libbie’s research was on full display and it became Holy Ground. Libbie spoke of texts that had been wounded (cut, scraped, had violence done to them to blot out inconvenient truths) and the ways texts sometimes work in history so that what may be hidden for a time will be revealed again for future generations. Recovering silenced voices through difficult academic practices like Text Criticism, finding time and funds to view manuscripts first-hand, sacrificing vast amounts of time in order to offer a more factual, life-giving truth about the history of Christianity—it’s worthwhile work.
After class a student came up to me. This student is young and smart with a witty, ironic sense of humor. She is not easily impressed. She stood before me trying to speak through her tears. She asked me to convey to Libbie her apologies for not being able to articulate her question well because she was so struck that she got tongue-tied. She wanted Libbie to know how much her TEXT CRITICISM lecture had impacted her. By her scholarship and her presentation of it, Libbie built community and connection not just between herself and the students, but also between the students and their ancient sisters in the faith, between the students and their received history.
Taylor and Schroeder teach this way, too. In their introduction they state: “This is what we would like this book to do: restore the works of overlooked or forgotten female scriptural interpreters and record their names and stories as part of the history of biblical interpretation.” They tell us that: “Thousands of women studied and interpreted the Bible from 100 CE to the present…In this volume, we connect readers with a lost tradition of women’s interpretation” (xii).
Do they ever. We meet historic figures who interpreted the Bible through art, music, preaching, research, writing, and teaching. You are likely to encounter women you’ve never heard of and women you may know in part, as in a mirror dimly, but now face to face. Some of the revelations are grand and inspiring. Who knew that when she wasn’t establishing the field of nursing, Florence Nightingale “investigated the meaning of Greek and Hebrew words” (187-8) as demonstrated by her biblical notes and annotations? Some of the revelations are sad or nauseating such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s working against African American men (170). All of them of them are necessary for a full understanding of our history.
Strengths of the Book: Method, Content, Structure, and Style
1. Praise for Cooperative Method
Earlier I noted that I did this kind of review for Gafney’s work and there I was impressed by that fact that one person could cover so much territory. Here I’m impressed by the fact that two people from such different fields could work together so productively over such a long period and produce something that perhaps neither could alone. In addition to their own expertise, they drew upon the assistance of colleagues from other fields so that we are provided with insights from the fields of history, theology, biblical scholarship, music, and art. As they note: “Some of these works are known only to a handful of specialists. Others were forgotten and remain altogether neglected in archives and library storage facilities” (p. xii). They have evidenced the effect that a dedicated group, each playing to their strengths, can have together. This is a model of interdisciplinary collaboration and I can’t imagine the kind of time and organization it required to sustain and complete.
The first ending of John (20:31) says “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.” The second ending (21:25) closes with these words: “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” There were many other biblical interpretations that women did that are not written in this book. But Taylor and Schroeder have judiciously chosen what to include to give us the big picture in one volume. It must have been difficult to choose what to leave out.
a. Chronological arrangement
The book contains 7 chapters chronologically arranged. Organization by chronology makes it especially useful for a 30,000 view over time.
b. The indices make it especially useful as a reference work. I love these five indices!
1. Primary Sources: Works Written before 1970.
2. Secondary Sources: Works Written in 1970 and later
3. Index of Ancient Sources
4. Index of Names of Women Biblical Interpreters
5. Index of Subjects
This makes the book versatile for people in different fields. Let’s say you want to see how often people care about 1 Timothy. Or, it’s instructive to simply look through the scriptural index and see which chapters or verses are cited most and explore that material (e.g. 1 Cor. 14, Gal. 3:28). It’s also worthwhile to explore unexpected scriptures that feature in the history.
You can look up a specific biblical woman by name (Mary is pretty popular!) or you can just read through the subject index and see who appears most often. I was surprised not to find Junia.
c. The footnotes are gold. I was introduced to information and materials I was previously unfamiliar with, including journals outside of my regular discipline.
Schroeder and Taylor are good storytellers. They have chosen engaging material and set the reader up well to understand the import of the primary material that they quote. The presentation is extensive yet concise, plus engaging—quite a feat.
Two areas of engagement
Of the many ways this book stimulated my thinking, I will briefly offer two here.
I. Reading in tandem with Bowens
First, as I read Voices, I couldn’t help but put it in conversation with Bowen’s book, which is the kind of move that Schroeder and Taylor themselves value and model. Here I list six commonalities.
1. Five Women in Common
As a reminder, Bowen’s book specifically addresses African American interpretation and includes multiple genders, whereas Voices focuses on women. The women listed in Bowen’s book are:
· Jarena Lee
· Zilpha Elaw
· Maria Stewart
· Julia Foote
· Harriet Jacobs
· Ida Robinson
Each of these women except Robinson features in Taylor and Schroeder as well. I found it worthwhile to compare each book. Doing so myself made me consider how fruitful it would be to have students do the following exercise:
1. read the introductions of each book noting the goals and thesis of each author
2. read the material for the five women they share in common
3. compare and contrast what they learn from each book along alone
4. note the insights gained or questions for further exploration raised by reading the books in tandem.
2. The value and importance of socially located readings. While they are different in focus and scope, both are books devoted to the ways people from particular social locations interpreted the Bible.
3. Both include poets, preachers, lecturers, activists.
4. Both make no claim to be exhaustive, given limited space and time.
5. Both discuss the courage needed and the price paid by many women.
As Taylor and Schroeder note, for example, “To avoid direct confrontation, harassment, and various forms of silencing, including execution, women feigned ignorance…” (Voices, 276).
6. Both call on the rest of us to get involved in the work.
Regarding figures who had to be omitted, Bowens writes: “Such omissions do not in any way reflect a lack of significance on their part. They do, however, represent, to this author’s mind, the vast amount of work yet to be done in African American Pauline hermeneutics” (African American Readings of Paul, 13). Compare this to Taylor and Schroeder: “There are more names to be found and works to be unearthed by combing archives, chronologies, library catalogs, booksellers’ lists, private letter collections, and even Google Books. Far more work needs to be done in searching colonial and missionary records for the voices and echoes of underrepresented groups” (Voices, 278).
Second, I remain haunted by the topic of female bible commentary authors. I celebrate what Voices has uncovered regarding female commentators, but I remain curious about the fact that there are still so few commentaries by women, probably the main resource used by clergy in preaching and teaching. Why is this the case?
In the introduction” Taylor and Schroeder state: “College and seminary Bible courses now regularly include readings from modern women interpreters” (xii; my emphasis). I’m not so sure. It depends on the college and the seminary and its confessional stance regarding gender. Some institutions don’t want to ruin people for patriarchy.
At the conclusion of the book, they tell a story about a group of students discussing an assigned reading by Karen Jobes. The students were puzzled that a man was named Karen: “It can’t be a woman. It’s a biblical commentary!” In the quote that follows, one sees that when people think about “serious biblical interpretation,” they typically think “commentaries.” After mentioning that most history books, unlike theirs, focus on “the voices of great men,” Taylor and Schroeder lament that this fact “has also contributed to a worldview in which people assume that serious biblical interpretation—such as writing commentaries—is primarily a male occupation” (268). But isn’t it? These two facts appear to still hold:
1. Commentaries are considered “serious biblical interpretation” and granted much authority, probably more than monographs.
2. Most commentaries are still written by men.
Consider the Hermeneia series, a top commentary series. Of the 42 volumes in print on the Old Testament and New Testament, there are 0 female authors in OT and 1 in NT (Adela Collins on Mark). Judges is co-written by Mark Smith and Elizabeth Bloch-Smith, with Bloch-Smith listed second though her last name starts with B, which precedes M in the alphabet.
Taylor and Schroeder go on to celebrate that those students now know that female commentators exist and we celebrate that Voices adds to that chorus. As they say: “[That] female ministry student, after learning she had foremothers who interpreted Scripture, is now able to see herself as part of a worthy tradition. We wrote Voices Long Silenced to honor the contributions of our female predecessors and to inspire and challenge our 21st century readers” (268).
Possible Questions for Discussion
1. In ch. 5, “A Fire Shut up in my Bones: the Long 19th Century,” you start with preachers, then reformers, then academics and then move to those who, informed by academics, wrote popularly. You then do the same thing for the modern era, moving from the preachers, reformers, and academics to influencers, such as the late Rachel Held Evans and Nadia Bolz Weber. More than once you speak about how the work of female academics doesn’t end up reaching many people and encouraging us to think about how we could reach a wider audience with our transformative scholarship. I agree. How might we achieve that?
2. You are excellent at collaboration. How might you collaborate with others to get the insights of Voices onto a website? You could include art images, music scores, links to primary texts, charts, handouts. I said earlier I was curious about how you chose what to include or leave out. It made me wonder if such a website could house what you had to leave out. It would be wonderful to view some of the art of the artists you include in the book.
3. I’ll now ask a question that no one should ask people who have just spent a decade on a project and produced a gem of scholarship: “What’s next?” I ask because I’m curious whether you are done with this topic and passing on the mantle or do you each have something separate or combined you will do that’s a next step for you on this topic?
4. What’s a next piece that you wish other Biblical or more specifically, New Testament scholars, would attend to?
Taylor and Schroeder end with stories about students so I will too. I recently received this email from a student who is new to seminary and comes from a tradition that does not ordain women. She is eager and invested and often stays after class.
“I have a basic question: is there a book about how to overcome the fears that the patriarchy instills in women, such as the fear of going to hell if we break with patriarchal ways of thinking and stuff like that? I would like to eradicate the fear that I'll lose my faith or that I'll lose Jesus somehow, if I address God the Father as Mother sometimes. I'm sure that someone has written on this subject, and that I'm not the only woman who has wrestled with the process of letting go of patriarchal ideas. Is not the idea of a punitive God who will throw us into hell for thinking or saying the wrong thing also rooted in patriarchy?”
A book? One? Yes, I think I can help with that. [Hold up a copy of Voices].
This is the kind of book that will bring out the emotion in the most apathetic among us. To inspire the next generation by not only claiming, but also showing for hundreds of pages in a row the transformative power of serious scholarly work is no small feat. You aimed to “connect readers with a lost tradition of women’s interpretation.” You’ve succeeded. By doing so, you’ve given us cause to celebrate and called us to join the continuing work of recovering and amplifying Voices Long Silenced. We are in your debt.
 Story used with student’s permission.
Link to Women in the Bible: