Mitzi J. Smith
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 Mitzi J. Smith.
Dr. Mitzi J. Smith’s Response to Voices Long Silenced: Women Biblical Interpreters Through the Centuries by Marion Ann Taylor and Joy A. Schroeder (Westminster John Knox 2022). Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) November, 2022, Female Biblical Interpreters Program Unit.
Thank you for this wonderful accessible compilation of women interpreters, many with whom I was not familiar. Thank you for including me and other Black women interpreters and scholars in this volume. While Marla Selvidge, mentioned in your text, was preparing for her PhD qualifying exam in the 1980s, I was responding to and struggling with my call to ministry. You write, Selvidge’s advisor, a NT expert advised her that no women were “worthy of inclusion” in her “list of fifty interpreters of the Bible from the past two millennia” (xi). But there were “thousands of women who studied and interpreted the Bible from 100 CE to the present” (xii). It matters who decides who to include and where we start? Thank you for mentioning the fact that enslaved women throughout the ages and women of color “faced particularly brutal obstacles” (id). It is significant to me that you as two white women scholars name many nonwhite women and not simply as footnotes or in a marginalized, dismissive manner, as continues to be the case far too often. In your attempt to narrate a 2000-year history, you have not forgotten or dismissed us.
However, as you note, most of those you include are elite women, “women of privilege” (xiv); their voices survive more often even if only mentioned in the works of elite white men. I wonder what a comprehensive study of women’s interpretations of scripture imbedded in oral communities or in oral traditions would yield? Women who could not read or without access to education “gained access to Scripture through hearing it read aloud during worship and listening to sermons” (2). We have always had and continue to have layers of patriarchy to unravel or sludge through. Sometimes, as I teach it seems like now that we can read and have access to the Scriptures ourselves, too many still rely upon or prefer hearing Scripture read aloud to them during worship and listening to sermons (rather than reading/interpreting for themselves), imbibing commentaries primarily written by white men, and resigning ourselves to a final word or interpretation. It is not easy to convince women (and men) to assume their own interpretive agency. Yet, many of these women did so against daunting odds and ultimate erasure or the muting of their voices.
It is interesting that both educated and elite white women as well as illiterate enslaved and free Black women relied on spiritual knowledge, revelation/inspiration, imagination for or when interpreting the Bible.
Did you find that some Scriptures were more useful to women over the years than others or within any particular periods of time? Beyond women’s stories in the Bible, where did they focus their attention? Is there a pattern? I must admit I am interested in how these women used the Apostle Paul’s writings, particularly First Corinthians, as I work on finishing my own womanist reading of that letter. Did you find any patterns in their use of Paul?
I was struck by the many women over the years, including Valeria, Maxmilla, Montanist women, Julian of Norwich, Margaret Kempe, Catherine Mumford Booth, Jarena Lee, Zilpha Elaw, Frances Elizabeth King and others, who interpreted First Corinthians, particularly, chapters 7, 9, 11, and 14. How was Paul useful to them? How would you describe their relationship to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, which has been so often used against women who desire to teach, preach, and perhaps write? Would you describe that relationship as ambivalent or decisive?
In Julian of Norwich’s interpretation of Genesis 3, “the Fall” of humanity through a parable, she draws upon 1 Cor 15:45, the “New Adam.” At the center of the parable is a servant—are we talking about an enslaved person? The servant represents Adam and all humanity; he worked obediently for a great lord and was sent on an errand. While on the errand, he falls and is seriously injured, is in great, pain, and is helpless. In considering the scene, Julian “found herself amazed that God did not chastise humanity for the fall. Drawing upon the “new Adam” in 1 Cor 15:45, Julian concludes that the servant represented “God the son.” She wrote “God’s Son fell with Adam, into the valley of the womb of the maiden who was the fairest daughter of Adam, and that was to excuse Adam from blame in heaven and on earth; and powerfully brought him out of hell” (51). Did many of these elite women interpreters own enslaved persons and/or poorly paid laborers? What could have been their part in the creation or preservation of these women’s writings?
Caritas Pirckheimer, a 16th century nun, deployed Paul’s writings, particularly 1 Cor 7:38 to counter the claims of Lutheran preachers lodged against nuns: Marriage is honorable but it is even better not to marry (91). Emilie Du Chatelet (18th century, Mathematician and physicist) found the Bible problematic, filled with inaccuracies. She argued that Jesus was “not divine but was a charlatan who deceived his followers” (148). She suspected the relationship between Jesus and the beloved disciple as “not very honorable.” Ironically, Paul was authoritative. She felt the Catholic Church sinned by requiring nuns to cut their hair, since Paul taught that the cutting of women’s hair was shameful in 1 Cor 11:6.
In the 19th century, women like Harriet Livermore and Jarena Lee defended Paul’s words in First Corinthians, arguing that those who use [1 Cor 14 and 1 Cor 11] against women’s right to preach “misread Paul.” And of course, women like Zilpha Elaw used Paul to defend their right to preach (153-57). The Englishwoman Catherine Mumford Booth (1829-90), cofounder of the Salvation Army published a pamphlet titled Female Ministry; or, Woman’s Right to Preach the Gospel (1859). “She was convinced that the unjustifiable application of the passage ‘Let your women keep silence in the churches’ [1 Cor 14:34] had resulted in more loss to the church, evil to the world, and dishonor to God, than any of the [other] errors of biblical interpretation of texts related to women” (161). A number of women have identified themselves with Paul.
As an undergraduate student in 1981, I struggled with my call to ministry—to what kind of ministry I was called, I did not know. But when I attempted to write a paper against women’s ordination to pastoral ministry for an English literature class, I initially agreed with the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) church’s interpretation that women should not be ordained to pastoral ministry, since they should not preach publicly. I remember calling my mother to ask what she thought. She said she was taught that a woman should only preach in public if there is no man available or present to preach. That was how she was taught, but that was not how she acted toward my call; she unreservedly supported me and my call, whatever that might look like. She was filled with pride when I had opportunities to preach. I changed my mind about women’s ordination. In a rewrite of that English paper, I argued that the SDA prophetess Ellen G. White—mentioned on page 221 of your text, Voices Long Silenced—said women can and should preach. Ellen White was my primary source. Then I attempted to interpret Paul in his first century context, as a non-scholar, to make sense of what Paul wrote. I wanted him to support women’s ordination and call to preach. I have evolved from that position. As a biblical scholar, I have turned my attention toward Paul, and we are simply at odds on a number of things. I believe God called me, met me personally, tapped me on the shoulder, before the church or any woman or man affirmed my call. My call is a very intimate personal encounter with the Divine. The Apostle Paul was not there, so he has no say in the matter. I am close to completing a womanist reading of First Corinthians and have freed myself to see in the Apostle Paul a very imperfect man, a fallible man, whose approval I do not need. Paul demonstrates everything from callous oppressive patriarchy to moderation and or ambivalence toward enslavement, the enslaved, and women. But it seems we, like the women before us, always retain something of the master’s tools while trying to dismantle the master’s house and constructing our tools.
Bio: Mitzi J. Smith is the J. Davison Philips Professor of New Testament, Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA and Professor Extraordinarius, Institute for Gender Studies, University of South Africa. Smith earned her PhD from Harvard University, M.Div. from Howard University School of Divinity, and M.A. in Black Studies from The Ohio State University. Her eight book publications include Toward Decentering the New Testament (co-authored with Yung Suk Kim; Cascade); Bitter the Chastening Rod. Africana Biblical Interpretation after Stony the Road We Trod in the Time of BLM, SayHerName, and MeToo (co-edited with Angela Parker and Ericka Dunbar Hill; Fortress Academic); Womanist Sass and Talk Back: Social Injustice, Intersectionality, and Biblical Interpretation Cascade). Smith proposed and is the first chair of the Womanist Interpretation program unit of the Society of Biblical Literature. She launched the Beyond the Womanist Classroom podcast on Sept 2, 2022. Her personal website is www.mitzijsmith.net.