The best books about women who interpreted the Bible before the twentieth century

Joy Schroeder Author Of Voices Long Silenced: Women Biblical Interpreters Through the Centurie
By Joy Schroeder

Who am I?

As a historian with expertise in the early church, Middle Ages, and Reformation, I am obsessed with finding the writings and stories of women of the past. Whenever we discover works written by an unknown or forgotten woman in an archive or historical record, my co-author Marion Taylor and I excitedly email one another: “We rescued another woman!” I study the history of biblical interpretation and the history of women in religion. In most of my books, these two interests intersect—as I write about men throughout history who viewed stories of biblical women through patriarchal lenses and how women themselves have been biblical interpreters, often challenging men’s prevailing views. 

I wrote...

Voices Long Silenced: Women Biblical Interpreters Through the Centurie

By Joy Schroeder, Marion Ann Taylor,

Book cover of Voices Long Silenced: Women Biblical Interpreters Through the Centurie

What is my book about?

This is the first-ever 2000-year history of women who interpreted the Bible. Countless Jewish and Christian women studied and wrote about scripture from 100 to 2000 CE, but their stories remained largely untold. Co-author Marion Taylor and I combed historical records, unearthing fascinating accounts of women from diverse communities throughout the world. Female rabbinic experts, nuns, mothers, mystics, preachers, suffragists, and household managers interpreted Scripture through writings, music, and art. We narrate the struggles and achievements of women who gained access to education and biblical texts. We lament writings that perished, whether deliberately destroyed or lost simply because no one bothered to save them. Often interpreting scripture differently than men did, women argued for expanded roles in the church, synagogue, and society.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters: A Historical and Biographical Guide

Why did I love this book?

In 2007, when Marion Ann Taylor, a pioneer researcher in the study of historical women biblical commentators, picked up a newly-published biographical encyclopedia of 200 “major biblical interpreters,” she was appalled to discover that it contained entries on only three women! This inspired her to edit a biographical dictionary dedicated solely to women who interpreted scripture. Taylor’s handbook contains 180 short articles, authored by expert historians and biblical scholars, about inspiring Jewish and Christian women who wrote about the Bible through the centuries. Readers learn biographical information about these women, as well as their approaches to scriptural interpretation, especially how they commented on the story of Eve and passages about other biblical women.

By Marion Ann Taylor,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The history of women interpreters of the Bible is a neglected area of study. Marion Taylor presents a one-volume reference tool that introduces readers to a wide array of women interpreters of the Bible from the entire history of Christianity. Her research has implications for understanding biblical interpretation--especially the history of interpretation--and influencing contemporary study of women and the Bible. Contributions by 130 top scholars introduce foremothers of the faith who address issues of interpretation that continue to be relevant to faith communities today, such as women's roles in the church and synagogue and the idea of religious feminism. Women's…

Book cover of Transforming Scriptures: African American Women Writers and the Bible

Why did I love this book?

Drawing upon her expertise in African American literature, Katherine Clay Bassard writes about the ways Black women poets, novelists, preachers, and orators from the 1700s through the 1900s used biblical themes and images to challenge the dominant culture’s oppression of women and people of color. African American women used a variety of scriptural images, including the Queen of Sheba and the “black but comely” female speaker in the Song of Songs, to argue for Black women’s dignity. Bassard celebrates African American women’s creativity and their shrewd employment of scriptural passages to engage in resistance to racism and sexism.   

By Katherine Clay Bassard,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Transforming Scriptures as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Black women writers reclaim the sacred text. ""Transforming Scriptures"" is the first sustained treatment of African American women writers' intellectual, even theological, engagements with the book ""Northrup Frye"" referred to as the 'great code' of Western civilization. Katherine Clay Bassard looks at poetry, novels, speeches, sermons, and prayers by Maria W. Stewart, Frances Harper, Hannah Crafts, Harriet E. Wilson, Harriet Jacobs, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Sherley Anne Williams and discusses how such texts respond as a collective 'literary witness' to the use of the Bible for purposes of social domination. Black women's historic encounters with the Bible were,…

Book cover of The Gospel According to Eve: A History of Women's Interpretation

Why did I love this book?

For centuries, Christian preachers and leaders held all women responsible for Eve’s sin. Since Eve ate forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, leaders called womankind “the devil’s gateway” and the source of all suffering and death. Men also used the Genesis account of Eve’s creation from Adam’s rib to argue that all women should hold a secondary status in church and society. However, as Amanda Benckhuysen shows, women through the centuries created a counter tradition. They reinterpreted Eve to argue for women’s dignity and their right to preach, teach, and receive an education. Made from superior substance (Adam’s flesh) rather than the dirt of the ground, Eve was God’s worthy creation. Eve sinned, but so did Adam. Thus, Eve’s “curse” did not bar her female descendants from ministerial roles.  

By Amanda W. Benckhuysen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Gospel According to Eve as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

2020 Word Guild Awards Shortlist - Academic What does it mean to be male and female? Do women and men have different intellectual, spiritual, moral, or emotional capacities? Are women especially suited for serving and men for leading? Are women and men equal? While these may seem like relatively recent questions, they have been a topic of conversation throughout Christian history. At the center of this conversation is the biblical character Eve, the archetypal woman of Genesis 1-3. Not simply one woman among many, Eve comes to represent all women, defining the very essence of what it is to be…

Book cover of Strangely Familiar: Protofeminist Interpretations of Patriarchal Biblical Texts

Why did I love this book?

The Bible contains stories of unspeakable violence and brutality against women: the rape of Abraham and Sarah’s enslaved servant Hagar, the incestuous assault of David’s daughter Tamar, the human sacrifice of the warrior Jephthah’s unnamed daughter, and other horrifying accounts. Scripture also contains passages by the Apostle Paul and men writing in his name—passages that restrict women’s roles in churches and which subordinate women in households. In the late twentieth century, feminist scholars challenged these passages and critiqued the patriarchy found in the Bible. But women’s challenge to patriarchal biblical texts did not begin in the twentieth century, In this essay collection, authors identify women working in the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s who had similar insights into the gendered problems found in the Bible. 

By Nancy Calvert-Koyzis, Heather E. Weir,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Strangely Familiar as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Until recently, the voices of women who interpreted the Bible prior to the feminism of the late twentieth century had been largely forgotten. However, the current recovery of these women's interpretive works reveals writings that seem "strangely familiar" in their anticipation of later feminist approaches to the biblical text and their thematic interest in liberation. In this volume, the contributions of seventeenth- to nineteenth-century women-including Arcangela Tarabotti, Aemelia Lanyer, and Josephine Butler-are addressed in their historical and cultural contexts. Each of these recovered authors worked to liberate women from interpretations of the Bible that proved oppressive to them. Leading feminist…

Book cover of Veiled Intent: Dissenting Women's Aesthetic Approach to Biblical Interpretation

Why did I love this book?

Barred from university education and ministerial roles, most women in the 1700s did not have opportunities to write commentaries or sermons. Instead, some female authors turned to poetry and devotional writing as a vehicle for biblical interpretation. According to literary scholar Natasha Duquette, female poets such as Phillis Wheatley, an enslaved African American servant, “veiled” their dissenting viewpoints in religious verse. By “clothing” their calls for social justice in genres considered acceptable for female authors, these poets and devotional writers ensured a wider readership for their provocative perspectives on the Bible and society. 

By Natasha Duquette,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Veiled Intent as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How were eighteenth-century dissenting women writers able to ensure their unique biblical interpretation was preserved for posterity? And how did their careful yet shrewd tactics spur early nineteenth-century women writers into vigorous theological debate? Why did the biblical engagement of such women prompt their commitment to causes such as the antislavery movement? Veiled Intent traces the pattern of tactical moves and counter-moves deployed by Anna Barbauld, Phillis Wheatley, Helen Maria Williams, Joanna Baillie, and Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck. These female poets and philosophers veiled provocative hermeneutical claims and calls for social action within aesthetic forms of discourse viewed as more acceptably…

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