This report of a conversation between Christine Mitchell, a student at Harvard Divinity School, and feminist biblical scholar Jane D. Schaberg is the inaugural interview of the Across Generations project of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. This project aims to connect younger feminists with pathmaking feminist scholars in the study of religion in order to foster feminist knowledge and promote dialogue among different feminist generations.
The Groundwork for the Interview
On the first day of my Feminist Biblical Interpretation class at Harvard Divinity School, Professor Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza handed out the course syllabus, a list of our readings and responsibilities for the semester printed on brightly colored paper. One section of these pages offered our class the opportunity to interview a “pathmaking feminist scholar in Biblical studies,” followed by a list of some of these pathmaking scholars. I had little knowledge of many of the scholars on the list, but in the process of researching to decide whom to interview, I was impressed by the diversity and importance of the work these women had accomplished. My excitement about their work was also somewhat dampened by the disheartening fact that I was unfamiliar with their work. This is one reason I find the Across Generations project to be so important to the world of feminist studies in religion: it can introduce budding feminist scholars to the work of women and men already in the field, and foster an appreciation for that work, as well as build relationships among feminists.
After working through the list, I found myself deeply interested in the work and career of Dr. Jane Schaberg, Professor of Religious Studies and Women’s Studies at University of Detroit Mercy. She is known for her work on the infancy narratives in her book The Illegitimacy of Jesusand her work on Mary Magdalene in such books as The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene andMary Magdalene Understood (with Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre).1 Other publications focus on feminist biblical interpretation and feminist studies. As a Catholic woman myself, I was very interested in her particular location as a Catholic woman in feminist biblical studies teaching at a Catholic university. Her work itself—reclaiming women’s voices and stories in scripture—and the public reaction to that work fascinated me—and that was simply after reading some articles about her on the Internet. Once Schaberg agreed to be interviewed, I chose to read two of her books to better prepare questions that were relevant, informed, and specific to her work: The Illegitimacy of Jesus and Mary Magdalene Understood. I will briefly summarize these two pieces of Schaberg’s work in order to situate some of my questions. Of course, these short summaries do not do justice to the detail, depth, and diversity of Schaberg’s body of work.
In The Illegitimacy of Jesus, Schaberg reclaims the story of Mary, mother of Jesus, as a woman who had been seduced, raped, oppressed, and marginalized, and who had faced violence, perhaps at the hands of a Roman soldier. By identifying her as the mother of Jesus, God reclaimed Mary and her illegitimate child as sacred. Mary conceived and birthed “Emmanuel”—God with us—placing God in a location where society may not recognize God: in the illegitimate child of a raped woman. Schaberg begins to uncover this story in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. In the genealogy in Matt 1:1–17, she notes that five women are listed in this succession: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. The other four women mentioned were associated with some sort of sexual story that placed them outside of the social order. “Mention of these four women,” Schaberg writes, “is designed to lead Matthew’s reader to expect another, final story of a woman who becomes a social misfit in some way; is wronged and thwarted; who is party to a sexual act that places her in great danger; and whose story has an outcome that repairs the social fabric and ensures the birth of a child who is legitimate or legitimated.”2 By including these women, Schaberg argues, Matthew is passing down a tradition of illegitimacy. She also notes several other moments in Matthew’s infancy narrative that provide evidence for the illegitimacy of Jesus, including the implications of the way he describes Mary and Joseph’s relationship in Matt 1:19, and the legal situation surrounding seduction and rape at that time. She also analyzes some of the intricacies of Matthew’s word choices, such as “begotten by the Holy Spirit” and his use of Isa 7:14.
Schaberg then moves on to Luke’s infancy narrative, focusing on specific translations of several Greek phrases throughout the narrative. For instance, she draws attention to the phrase “meta spoudes” which translates to “with haste.” This phrase is used to describe the manner in which Mary gets to Elizabeth’s house after the annunciation. Schaberg notes that “in the Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible it often has overtones of terror, alarm, flight, and anxiety,” perhaps implying that there was a situation of violence or fear related to Mary’s pregnancy.3 She also identifies Mary’s Magnificat as a song of liberation and as a proclamation of God’s liberating actions “on behalf of the lowly, the oppressed, the suffering.”4 Finally, Schaberg addresses several noncanonical texts and their contributions to her hypothesis. For instance, she notes that in the Acts of Pilate, Jesus is identified as having been “born of fornication,” raising questions of whether Jesus was conceived before or during the betrothal of Mary and Joseph.5 Schaberg also discusses the Gospel of Thomas, the only text in which Mary is blamed for the conception of Jesus and identified as a harlot. Schaberg does not agree with this claim, but presents it as an example of attention to Mary’s sexuality. Other noncanonical texts she uses are Origen’s “Against Celsus” and various Rabbinic texts in which hints of Jesus’s illegitimacy are strongly present.
In Mary Magdalene Understood, Schaberg reclaims the story of Mary Magdalene, a woman in scripture who has been popularly depicted as a prostitute. In fact, in popular media and some scholarship, she is identified almost entirely in sexual terms—occasionally linked sexually to Jesus. However, this reduces Mary Magdalene to a solely sexual being, or to a tool used for the purpose of giving Jesus a sexual identity. Her whole personhood, her being beyond her sexuality, is forgotten. Especially troublesome is that her identity as a prophet, leader, and mystic of the early church is forgotten. Schaberg works to reclaim that identity of Mary Magdalene as a biblical and historical example of a strong woman in a leadership position in the early church. Schaberg uses gnostic and apocryphal texts to strengthen her point. For instance, she points out that in the Dialogue of the Savior, Mary Magdalene is identified as the “woman who had understood completely,” whom Jesus constantly praised for her spiritual understanding, even at one point proclaiming, “You are she whose heart is more directed toward the Reign of Heaven than all your brothers.”6 Another example appears in the Gospel of Philip, where Mary Magdalene is identified as a be-loved “companion of Jesus”—a term that has been interpreted sexually, linking Mary Magdalene and Jesus romantically, but at the very least it certainly conveys some intimacy between the two. Schaberg uses several other apocryphal texts, including the Gospel of Mary, to show that Mary Magdalene held a position of prominence and leadership among the apostles.
I have found Schaberg’s work of uncovering these two central women’s stories to be critical to the field of feminist biblical interpretation. First, this task of reclaiming women’s voices within the biblical text is important, as the text has been so entrenched in a patriarchal system that women’s voices have been sublimated. In the same way that Mary’s sexuality and the violence that was done to her was sublimated, Mary Magdalene’s true importance as a woman leader was also sublimated. These women’s voices need to be heard, to stand as liberative models for women in the contemporary world. Second, the work of liberation for women who are cast out and marginalized due to rape or violence that Schaberg does in The Illegitimacy of Jesus is such a needed message. These women now have the opportunity to reclaim their lives and their experiences, recognizing a God who placed God’s self in the context of illegitimacy, rape, and oppression, allowing space for transformation and liberation. Third, in Mary Magdalene Understood, Schaberg reidentifies Mary Magdalene as a female leader and mystic, and as a whole being not defined solely through her sexuality. In a church that has been dominated by patriarchal, hierarchical, and kyriarchical structures, and in a text that has been inscribed with domination due to these structures, Schaberg uncovers a strong female figure, and for me, uncovers a female role model within the text.
Unfortunately, Schaberg’s work was met with great opposition and controversy within the academy and the Catholic Church. When Schaberg published The Illegitimacy of Jesus, the university where she teaches received hundreds of phone calls and letters and lost thousands of dollars in donations from alumni. Schaberg was called horrible names and received death threats. She writes about the experience in her article “A Feminist Experience of Historical-Jesus Scholarship.” Despite all of the opposition, Schaberg recounts how most of the mail she received was in support of her work—from women and men, young and old, concerned with the role of women in Christianity. She writes, “Many remarked that the article had helped them see how the tradition could function to create compassion for the most powerless members of our society.”7Schaberg’s work allows women who have experienced violence or rape, women who have been oppressed, and women and men in general to feel reclaimed, heard, and valued. In my opinion, that is the purpose of biblical scholarship.
Having read and processed some of Schaberg’s work, I set about formulating questions to ask her. I wanted to ask some questions that were just generally about feminist biblical studies, some that were specific to her work, and some that were specific to her own personal journey as a feminist scholar. I was particularly interested in her journey as a feminist scholar within Catholic institutions— both her university and the Church in general—as I know this has been difficult in my own exploration of feminist scholarship in religion. I also did not want to focus too much on the controversy Schaberg’s work stirred up, as I found great value in her work itself and deeply appreciated her scholarship beyond all of the controversy. However, I did want to touch upon it, as it was certainly a part of her career, and a part of many feminist scholars’ careers. I had found Schaberg’s work so fascinating, so provoking, I cherished the opportunity to ask her questions specific to that work. I wanted to explore further some of the themes within her work—women’s sexuality, the use of canonical and extra-canonical texts, reclaiming women’s voices—and some of the methodology of her work—“reading into the silence,” imaginative historical-exegetical work, reading past the inscribed domination in the text. Finally, I wanted to ask some general questions that could speak to budding feminist scholars of my generation, both now at the beginnings of our journeys, and as our work progresses—what sort of things might we work on within the academy? What sort of things might we be cautious of, be aware of, be hopeful for? What might we expect in the community and world of academic scholarship about feminist biblical studies? I ended up putting together fifteen questions, asking Schaberg to choose ten or so to answer. Her answers were genuine, encouraging, and an honor to receive.
1. What do you hope for the future of feminist biblical studies in general? What do you hope for the future of your own specific location within feminist biblical studies (Magdalene Christianity, an imaginative historical-exegetical reclaiming of women’s roles in scripture, etc.)?
Kindness and helpfulness in mentoring one another; financial help more available; more Internet savvy to get feminism and our feminist studies out to a wider public; more humor; more artistic interests; interest in canonical as well as noncanonical. My own specific location: I’m not sure what this means. Certainly I’d like to see my work remembered; and myself as a good scholar—not just for being attacked—and a feminist. I think I am in somewhat of a strange spot in feminist biblical studies. I am not much of a theorist. The materials and responses I receive from readers are often along the lines of poems, novels, theater pieces, and personal accounts. Physical location matters to me: Detroit and Detroit residents (their stories, experiences still astonish and frighten me and impact my work).
2. Would you still identify yourself as a Catholic? If so, how do you navigate your feminist biblical work with your Catholic faith?
Yes, I identify myself as a Catholic, but I rarely attend any services because I find them insulting and/or boring. I am and have been for years on the private, secret list of those not allowed to speak in Catholic institutions. Many invitations have been offered me, and then taken back. This is a sadness to me as I come to the end of my life. I would have liked to contribute to the Catholic Church—if only as a friendly irritant—and I would like my friends to have a memorial service for me at the church near me which has great stained glass, or some church. I don’t really “navigate.”
3. How would you describe your methodology as a feminist scholar and your pedagogy as a teacher?
Both are interactive. An incident comes to mind: I was Elisabeth’s suggested replacement one summer at Boston College for a short course in Feminist Biblical Studies. Trible went the week or so before me. I designed the course as short readings and discussion. It soon became clear that few were reading; I had not known that many of them were auditing. The dean phoned me to say that two students complained that I was disorganized in my teaching; he asked if I had ever taught a graduate course, and said he had not read my syllabus, and did not know anything about me except that Elisabeth recommended me. I tried to use this—well—insult as a teaching moment in the class—about how much work one must do to connect one’s life experiences with close reading of the texts, etc. The general atmosphere got better. But one student at the end wrote on his evaluation (out of anger, I think): “I learned nothing in this course.” So be it. I personally learned a lot. I am not a positivist; I think there is no neutral stance; that knowledge is socially constructed; that we must learn from those not privileged as well as from the privileged.
4. How did you come to be interested in studying, writing, and teaching feminist theology?
I had no women teachers or feminists in grad school at Union Theological Seminary. But I had excellent scholars. One semester Dorothee Soelle was there and I sat in on some of her lectures, which were not lectures but respectful and demanding conversations. I wanted to teach like that. Feminism was an “of course” as soon as I heard of it.
5. How has your understanding of “feminism” changed over your career, if it has changed?
It has become deeper and more global—thanks to publications such as JFSR and Ms. Magazine and conferences. It has been the basis of my writing and thinking and teaching.
6. You faced very serious and great opposition with the publication of The Illegitimacy of Jesus, and recount what some of that was like in your article “A Feminist Experience of Historical-Jesus Scholarship.” How did you deal with that opposition? What made you decide to stay within the University of Detroit Mercy and within the Catholic Church? What is the force that drives you to continue to do this work?
The serious opposition I faced was unexpected, since I did not (and never really do) think directly of my audience when I write unless it is something like this for you, Christine. I know that seems like a contradiction when I say my pedagogy and methodology are interactive. In the case of opposition I never did get a chance to “talk back”—except that the AAUP [American Association of University Professors] did a session at my university about my case and academic freedom. I wrote an article that is published in the 2nd edition of Illegitimacy, and one that is in Biblicon, from a conference at SBL [Society of Biblical Literature]. Holly Hearon is working on a collection of my articles, talks, poems, biographical material. By “talk back” I mean discuss with biblical scholars the actual points of my interpretation that they disagreed with, peer to peer. Mostly I was ignored academically, or it felt like it. I stayed at the University of Detroit perhaps because I had no other offers. I interviewed over the years at Yale, Princeton, Wellesley, Vanderbilt, and elsewhere, sometimes for chairs—but got no offers (sometimes because others had already been hired [those were the days]). I did not have the connections or the energy to pursue other jobs. The force that drives me: I continue because I like it.
7. What advice would you give a student just beginning work in feminist studies? Or, differently phrased, what do you know now (or how do you do things now) that you wish you had known when you were just beginning this work?
Tell the truth as you see it. Don’t be afraid.
8. Especially with your focus both on Mary Magdalene and your use of apocryphal works discussing her, as well as your use of pre- and postgospel works on the illegitimacy of Jesus, do you think that feminist biblical interpretation demands a reconsideration of biblical canon? Why or why not?
Sure, feminist interpretation demands a reconsideration of canon. Without that, we are seeing only part of the picture of the past. With that, too.
9. How do you think feminist biblical studies is situated within the study of religion? In other words, what has been your experience in the academy as a feminist biblical scholar? Have you been silenced, ignored, questioned? Or supported, voiced, held in high regard? How has this changed over your career, if it has?
The election of Trible and Schüssler Fiorenza to high rank in SBL I hope has not been a temporary high. So much depends on who comes after our generation of feminist scholars. Many male scholars still brush off feminist studies. Example: Princeton Seminary sponsored an international symposium in Jerusalem in ’08 on Jewish Burial Practices in the First Temple Era. It was mostly on the Talpiot Tomb (Google it). Of the many scholars, three of us were women, feminists (Brock, De Conick, and me). One of the most important puzzles investigated was the presence in the tomb of a sarcophagus inscribed “Mary—Master (or: Revered Teacher).” When our turn came to speak, fully one-third of the room walked out (for dinner, to see a video). At the summing up, Simha Jacobovici commented that the women scholars had not really been heard. Charlesworth who led the whole conference said, “Well. Let’s hear from the ladies.” His remark was met with some soft boos and I remarked, “There’s no need to be patronizing.” The proceedings from this conference, which was very important in many ways, and controversial, have never been published; my contribution I hope will appear in the Hearon collection.
Aspects of my own career have been pretty negative. I have never been held in high regard as far as I know, but I also was never silenced. I could do my own work; but never had enough time off from teaching to take on large projects (like the Eucharist—I wanted to work on that book length). I wish I had had more time. Now I am working on a memoir with my godson and goddaughter—I hope I live long enough to finish my part.
10. You write about the importance of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s concept of basileiain Mary Magdalene Understood. Do you think that this basileia of equals is attainable in today’s church? Today’s society? Why or why not?
I don’t see the basileia of equals in any church or in any society, just groups of friends. We can work toward it and glimpse it.
11. You accomplished many important and liberative things for women’s sexuality with the writing of The Illegitimacy of Jesus. For instance, you challenged the idea of virginity being an ideal or more sacred state of being for women and you reclaimed the birth narratives as a story of transformation and liberation for women affected and marginalized by violence, rape, and oppression. In Mary Magdalene Understood, you also discuss the role of sexuality in the perception of Mary Magdalene. How do you think women’s sexuality, as inscribed in the biblical text, can be redeemed so that it is not ignored (as in the case of Mary’s virginal conception), but also not overemphasized (as in the case of Mary Magdalene)?
I said as much as I can in those two books about women’s sexuality—but in my treatment of Virginia Woolf I maybe should have explored her bisexuality (criticism from a Woolf scholar); but I didn’t see how to do this at the time. The Metropolitan Opera held an exhibit of recent artistic works on Mary Magdalene two years ago or so. All the works were traditional representations of exaggerated sexuality, but one was not: Julian Schnabel’s Magdalene just stared out at the viewer with keen intelligence, that’s all.
12. You write that in order to uncover the story of Jesus’s conception in Matthew, one must “read into the silence.” Could you describe more about what the process of “reading into the silence” is?
First, listen and find the silence. What is not being said? What sort of situation is this narrative depicting / taking for granted, etc.? For one thing, you can notice there are four women in the genealogy [in Matt 1:1–17] and no explanation of their presence. There is silence also about Mary’s dilemma. Also, turn it around and look at it from other perspectives. Who is not depicted? Some of this is intuitive; so it is important to develop your intuitive powers.
Reflection on the Interview
I was so thrilled when I received Schaberg’s answers. I read them over several times, carefully Googling the Talpiot Tomb, the Princeton conference, the pertinent biblical studies acronyms, Julian Schnabel’s portrait of Mary Magdalene. Suddenly, the questions I had written became alive. They were no longer just words on a page, questions posed to some unknown, un-answering voice. My monologue became a dialogue, and it was exciting and fulfilling for me to enter that conversation. I have never met Schaberg, never seen her or heard her in person, but I felt a closeness to her and to her work as I read her answers. I had read her work all semester, thought through it enough to formulate questions on it, represented it in a class presentation, and discussed it with the class and with friends. Though I was not familiar with her work prior to this class, by mid-semester, I was comparing other authors, their methodologies, their challenges, and their oppositions to Schaberg’s. By the end of the semester, my group may have been sick of hearing me say, “That reminds me of Schaberg.” That connection I feel to Schaberg and her work is worth fostering and establishing, both for me as a student and for feminist scholars like Schaberg. This is one of the reasons the project of Across Generations appeals to me, given this experience.
Specific to Schaberg’s answers, I appreciated her genuineness and willingness to share her personal experiences. On a theoretical level, I appreciated her assessment of knowledge as socially constructed, that everyone has something to offer to knowledge. This conception of knowledge gives authority to everyone involved in the conversation; it empowers everyone—rich or poor, young or old, male or female—to enter the conversation and to create one’s own meaning. It seems that Schaberg puts this in action in her conversations with her readers and in her witness to the stories and experiences of people in Detroit. I also appreciated her explanation of what it means to “read into the silence,” and hope to use this practice more as I critically read texts—asking the questions she suggested as I read. On a personal level, it saddened me at times that she had such difficult experiences as a feminist theologian and that she has not been given the time she needed to achieve what she would have wanted to achieve. I would have enjoyed reading her analysis of the Eucharist and her dialogue with those who critiqued her work. However, it gave me hope that some women have been promoted to higher positions in the Society of Biblical Literature, and that there have been developments in feminist publications such as the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. It also gives me hope that there are feminist scholars like Schaberg at work in the academy, scholars who are willing to speak up for themselves and for their work.
It also brought me great sadness that Schaberg, as she describes it, seems to be approaching the end of her life. At the beginning of this interview process, Professor Schüssler Fiorenza encouraged me to connect with Dr. Schaberg, sharing that Schaberg had had some struggles with her health, and that this project—important to the sharing between feminist scholars, the handing on of work and of experiences—may be a beautiful project to share with her. This immediately drew me even more to Schaberg and to developing a relationship with her, having experienced a great deal of my own health difficulties over this past year and recognizing the influence of such experiences. As it happened, Schaberg was in the hospital around the time of this interview, yet she still took the time and the energy to respond to my questions. Failing health is such a difficult topic of conversation, and I hesitate to even write about this piece of the process here, but it seems important to the particular project of speaking “across generations.” As saddened as I am that Schaberg is struggling with these particular difficulties, I am also deeply honored to be a part of the process of drawing attention to her scholarship, to pass on her work to the emerging scholars of my generation, to help her voice to continue to be heard and to echo “across generations,” and to encourage other emerging scholars to do the same in order to ensure that the voices of feminist scholars before us are not lost.
On a personal level, Schaberg’s advice to a student just beginning work in feminist studies—“Tell the truth as you see it. Don’t be afraid”—very much touched me and challenged me. I am a young Catholic woman, very involved in my parish and in Catholic events in the archdiocese. I attended Catholic school for twenty years of my life, from kindergarten through college. A large number of my friends and mentors are Catholic, varying in their stances from very traditional and conservative to very liberal. Before I began as a student at Harvard Divinity School, people warned me to “watch out for those liberals at Harvard,” and that my faith would be shaken at this institution. I have struggled to share what I am learning and studying in classes with some of these friends, struggled to identify the “truth as I see it,” and struggled to stand up for that truth. I have been afraid to do these things, for fear of losing the more conservative ones among my community of friends, ones who have been so genuinely important to me, regardless of our different truths. Schaberg’s advice challenges me and encourages me to take a stand, to not be afraid, and to share the truth I find in so much of feminist biblical scholarship.
This will be my challenge as I forge forth in theology and follow in the footsteps of “pathmaking feminist scholars in biblical studies” such as Schaberg. And again, this accents the importance of building together a community of feminist scholars in religion, to support one another, encourage one another, and challenge one another in an academy that so frequently wants to disregard our work. Projects such as Across Generations foster that community and promote open communication, relationship, and mentorship between women and men of many generations of feminist scholarship. We have much to learn from one another, working together to construct that knowledge of liberation and transformation in feminist studies in religion. May we not be afraid to do so.
Christine Mitchell is a Master of Divinity student at Harvard Divinity School, prospectively graduating in May 2012. She graduated from Merrimack College in 2009 with a BA in religious studies and philosophy. Over the past two years, Christine has been working as a chaplain intern at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, while completing her studies in the divinity school. [firstname.lastname@example.org]
1. Jane Schaberg, The Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narratives (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1987), Jane Schaberg and Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre, Mary Magdalene Understood (New York: Continuum, 2006), and Jane Schaberg, “A Feminist Experience of Historical-Jesus Scholarship,” in Whose Historical Jesus? ed. William Edward Amal and Michel Robert Desjardins (Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1997).