My faith tradition doesn’t have the same concepts of “Biblical Womanhood” as many I have read about before, as well as discussed in this book. I hadn’t heard of a “Proverbs 31 woman” until recently – a woman modeled after the scripture verses in that chapter – which can be viewed as both a sweet sentiment and a unattainable ideal. Many of the ways I see “Biblical Womanhood” is from Rachel Held Evans’ book A Year of Biblical Womanhood (a book I highly recommend all around, as it boosted my knowledge and faith in the gospel quite a bit and I’ve re-read it a few times). So reading this book was eye-opening in many ways, from introducing to me how other faiths view women in the church, and the ways that this medieval scholar turns those interpretations on their head based on scholarly research of the contemporary understandings as medieval interpretations, and how both have been skewed over the centuries since.
The essential premise of this book is that the view of women in the church has shifted so much, and when you go back to find the reasons why in the text… it’s not there or not clear. Barr brings in her background as a pastor’s wife and academic scholar and uses those skills to show how the role of women has shifted and used to be far greater. She states in the opening of her book that this whole book stemmed from her husband being terminated from his position at their church of 15 years after questioning how women were utilized within the church. Barr wrote this almost as an angry rebuttal, with all the uncomfortable conversations and thoughts she’s had about how women are treated in the church, and showing how hollow the justifications for them are.
My own church has had similar trajectories, and not just with the role of women. Many argue that the way women are treated in our church is not based in doctrine but in cultural traditions that have little to do with being followers of Christ. This was a similar argument in Barr’s book, how the cultural treatment of women in society becomes reflected in the church, when really it should almost be the other way around. That women have a far greater standing in God’s and Christ’s eyes than church administration/governance allows. I’ve sensed this kind of idea in waves over the years, but seeing it put so blatantly obvious in front of me was quite a thrill and an aggravation at the same time.
I found SO MANY passages to highlight while I read this book! In my church I have taught our “Gospel Doctrine” class on and off for years. This is a curriculum that rotates through all our standard works of scripture every four years. When it comes to the New Testament especially, I try to seek out different interpretations and translations to add to our study of those books of scripture, and pride my classes on being very discussion-driven and helpful for a lot of students who attend. This is a book I know I’m going to be referencing a lot in that class. I found myself transcribing passages from this book onto notecards to put in my study Bible because they were important enough to me to not want to forget. Honestly, I’m an academic at heart, and if I can find good discussion questions to use down the road, I want to get them immediately in place.
There’s an article of faith in my church that states that we believe the Bible to be the word of God “as far as it is translated correctly.” And while I had that line memorized as a little kid, it wasn’t until I was much older than I began to understand how deep that one line can go. The Making of Biblical Womanhood demonstrates to me just how incredibly nuanced the Bible is, how complex and even broken it is, due to the translations and scholarship around it.
For instance, the author gives an example of how Paul declares in his epistle to the Romans that women should be quiet in church (a verse that vexes at least one student in my gospel doctrine classes I teach when that lesson comes around), and how simple punctuation can change the whole meaning to be the opposite of what most of us think Paul is saying. The author shows how certain Hebrew words get simplified so that the many ways that women are depicted in the Bible get boiled down to “wife” and “woman” when there were broader depictions.
I could tell this was a cathartic book for the author to write. She’s clearly been mulling over these concepts for years, and relates how she’s had to contort her thinking to justify the treatment she’s received, or the teachings she’s been taught in church that contradict what she learned in the classroom, and now she’s had the opportunity to lay it bare and call out the inequalities and misinterpretations she sees so clearly.
In addition to this books that I highly recommend, I would also suggest reading A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Evans and Jesus and John Wayne for added context to the concept of Biblical Womanhood and how the interpretation of it has changed and evolved over the centuries and especially in the last few decades. There are many things to mull over and reassess.