A Respondent Spark: The Basics of Bible Study


Is This the Book For You?

This brief handbook is for certain kinds of people:

First, people who don’t know much about the Bible, but think they would like to.

Second, it is for people who are independent-minded,and prefer to form their own judgments rather than simply accept the pronouncements of a traditional authority, no matter how venerable.

Third, it is for those who have a high tolerance for ambiguity because, as we shall see, one thing the Bible doesn’t offer is easy, automatic, simple answers.

This book is also for people who want a practical approach. There is, of course, much more to this subject than could possibly fit into these few pages; but it is my hope that when you have finished it, and become familiar with the tools it describes, you will be able to pick up the Bible, begin to make sense of what you read, know where to get more information about it, and not be afraid of following your leadings about its meaning wherever they may lead.

Beyond the personal benefits it offers, the ability to find your way around in the Bible is of particular value these days, when groups who claim to have the exclusive, true understanding of Scripture are running around attempting to impose their understanding on everyone else, or else.

I happen to think that these groups are mostly wrong, especially about what the Bible means. But I don’t think their efforts can be effectively blunted except by people prepared to meet them on their own ground, that is on the basis of knowing something about what the Bible says and how to figure out what the text means.

If you too are worried about such groups, here’s your chance to start getting ready to stand up to them, and deny them their most powerful and dangerous weapon–their misuse of the Bible.

Building on a Quaker Perspective

It is fitting that a study like this is built on a Quaker perspective, because the independence of mind it presumes was a central aspect of the original witness of the Quaker movement, and remains a characteristic of Quakerism at its best today.

Indeed, reading some of the writings of early Friends on the Bible can be an illuminating, not to say astonishing experience. That is because much of their approach to Scripture, as well as many of their specific interpretations, sound remarkably contemporary, even though they were written more than 300 years ago.

Take, for instance, two related ideas:

First,that the biblical texts we read contain errors and even contradictions, which make ridiculous the notion of treating the Bible as an all-purpose, authoritative answer book about religion, ancient history and even science; and

Second, that a genuine and vigorous religious faith can nonetheless be nurtured and deepened by study of the biblical witness, contradictions and all. (Several striking quotes from early Quakers on the proper place and use of the Scriptures are included in the Appendix; see also Barclay, p.56ff.)

Today these propositions are taken for granted by many profound Bible students and scholars. Yet when they were presented by a great early Quaker theologian named Robert Barclay in his 1676 book The Apology, they were unheard of, and caused a ferocious uproar. Barclay’s Quaker ideas were widely and bitterly denounced as infidel heresies destructive of true biblical faith and deserving only to be crushed, by force if necessary. And persecuted the early Friends indeed were, by the thousands.

The Quakers stuck to their beliefs, however, including this pioneering approach to Scripture. From it they drew some practical conclusions which were likewise far ahead of their time. One early conviction was that women had as much right to participate in ministry as men.

The Quaker case for female equality was made as early as 1666 by Margaret Fell, one of the central figures of the first generation of Friends, in her fiery pamphlet, Womens Speaking Justified, Proved and Allowed of by the Scriptures….Fell based her argument almost completely on Biblical texts interpreted in the Quaker manner.

Reading her impassioned broadside today, it is amazing to see how closely her 320 year-old arguments prefigure the current, ongoing debate over the place of women now raging in many conservative Christian denominations. Even most of the biblical verses she cites are the same, and there is but little improvement made upon her argument even by the best of her modern imitators, a good many of whom very likely never heard of her. (See, for instance, Swartley, Chapter Four.) And don’t miss. Appendix Two’s discussion of The Women’s Bible Commentary.

Similar lines of Scripture-based argument led the Friends to oppose slavery about a century ahead of anyone else; and it has borne up their testimony against war since the beginning.

In more recent times, The Society of Friends, particularly in America, split into several separate groupings. Some of these groups have adopted a conventional, essentially fundamentalist understanding of the Bible, which displays little of the adventuresome approach of their forebears. Other more theologically liberal and humanist-inclined Friends have for some years largely neglected, ignored or rejected the Bible, at least what little they knew of it. But Bible studies have been making a comeback in recent years among these more liberal-humanist groups of Friends; and more than a few of the Evangelical Quakers are taking a fresh look at the Scripture through these early Quaker lenses, and finding the results both refreshing and creatively unsettling. It is my hope that this book is one example of this revival of Quaker biblical study, and can make some contribution to it.

At the same time, you don’t need to be a Quaker to make use of this book. I have tried to write it in such a way that it can equip readers from many denominational backgrounds, or none, to find their way around in the Bible and to get the most out of what they discover when they do.

That’s enough introduction.

Let’s get to work.


Suppose you could make a list of all the people who have been officially authorized to interpret the Bible for Jews or Christians down through the centuries. Until just a few years ago, despite the great variety of denominations and cultures represented, practically everyone on such a list has had one characteristic in common: Almost all of them were men.

Has this male monopoly made a difference? Consider this: whenever the meaning of a biblical text has been disputed, behind the issue of what it “really” means lies a more fundamental question: Who gets to decide what it “really” means?

Who gets to decide the “real” meaning is, you will recall from Chapter Four, the Hermeneutical Issue of Power, or what I call the HIP Question. Down the centuries, the answers to it have often been a matter of life and death. In the last generation more and more women have gained advanced degrees in biblical studies, and many of them say that having only men providing the answers is no longer acceptable: Hence we now have The Women’s Bible Commentary (WBC for short).

The Women’s Bible Commentary (Westminster/John Knox, 416 pages, cloth, $19.95), is an undeniable landmark in the 3000-plus year history of Judeo-Christian religion: It is the first all-female scholarly commentary on the entire Bible, Old and New Testaments plus the Apocrypha. The last time such an undertaking was attempted was a century ago, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a small committee of pioneer feminists(including at least one Friend) issued The Woman’s Bible in 1895.

(The Woman’s Bible is a fascinating but little-known tome; women were scarce in the theological guilds then, and few dared be associated with such extremism, so its commentary is perforce sketchy and uneven. But Stanton persevered, and acerbically summed up the results of her group’s work thus: “The Old Testament makes woman a mere afterthought in creation; the author of evil; cursed in her maternity; a subject in marriage; and all female life, animal and human, unclean. The Church in all ages has taught these doctrines and acted on them, claiming divine authority therefor….This idea of woman’s subordination is reiterated times without number, from Genesis to Revelations; and this is the basis of all church action.”)

The editors of the Women’s Bible Commentary, Carol Newsom and Sharon Ringe, seminary professors in Atlanta and Washington respectively, pay tribute to Stanton, but they are somewhat less sweeping in their verdict. Their starting point is the more moderate, or perhaps merely understated thesis that “the power of the Bible in women’s lives has been at best ambivalent….”

They acknowledge that many feminists, including some of their 41 contributors, confronted by the near-total androcentricity of the biblical text, are tempted to toss the entire cultural tradition it epitomizes aside and start over. But they are obliquely dubious about such efforts, insisting that, “for good or ill, the Bible is a book that has shaped and continues to shape human lives, communities and culture….The Bible has become part of the air we breathe without our even being aware of its presence or power.” Hence it needs to be examined by women from a consciously female perspective, if only to begin to resist its negative impact on them.

And examine it these women, including Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and none-of-the-aboves, do. They find plenty to deplore and lament there, much of which has been ignored or even perversely celebrated in most earlier, male-dominated commentaries. This goes beyond the easy stuff, from the warrant for witchburning in Exodus 22:18, to Paul’s oft-cited outburst against women speaking in church (First Corinthians 14).

Perhaps more egregious, for the WBC authors, are the repeated images, beginning with Hosea, and including Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Nahum and others, portraying God’s relationship to Israel and humans in general as a marriage. Here God is the steadfast, longsuffering (but all-powerful) husband, and Israel/humankind a chronically adulterous, promiscuous whore of a spouse. The female sinner is repeatedly punished by the righteously angry Divine Husband, through the most gruesome violence imaginable: exposure, multiple rapes, the murder of her children, dismemberment, cannibalism, etc.


Once this pattern is pointed out, its pathological character almost leaps out at you. Commenting on a typical passage, Nahum 3:5 (“‘Behold, I am against you,’ says the Lord of Hosts, ‘and will lift up your skirts over your face, and I will let nations look on your nakedness…”’), WBC contributor Judith Sanderson declares: “In a society where violence against women is epidemic, it is extremely dangerous to image God as involved in it in any way ….What would it mean to worship a God who is portrayed as raping women when angry?…To involve God in an image of sexual violence is, in a profound way, somehow to justify it and thereby to sanction it for human males who are for any reason angry with a woman.”

(Incidentally, a Quaker scholar, Gracia Fay Ellwood, summed up this analysis brilliantly and succinctly in her 1989 Pendle Hill Pamphlet, Batter My Heart.)

Nowadays, one might think, it would be hard to disagree with or ignore such attitudes. Yet a look into some other widely-used commentaries shows these images being taken in stride. This seems to be the case despite wide differences in theological perspective: The Interpreters Bible, probably the most widely used, is 1950s liberal Protestant in its stance, but its commentators on this and similar passages show little more sensitivity to the pattern than do the fundamentalists of The Liberty Bible Commentary, edited by Jerry Falwell, or those in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, a moderate Catholic effort to which several women contributed.

Once exposed, however, these misogynist attitudes seem flagrant and appalling. Indeed, if one wants evidence of destructive attitudes toward women, both in the Bible itself and in the way it has been interpreted (the HIP Question again), the WBC’s contributors dig it up by the wheelbarrowful. It’s easy to see, after absorbing some of their work, why many thoughtful women want nothing further to do with the Bible and the religions it spawned.

Yet overall the WBC writers don’t follow this path, above all because as misogynist as much of the Bible is, misogyny is not all that’s in it. In fact, there’s a good deal in it that is pro-women, if one knows how and where to look. (This is an old Quaker insight, about which more in a moment.)


Take the book of Genesis for example. Eve’s plucking the apple has been made the basis of Woman-as-Evil-Temptress by male interpreters for millenia. But Susan Niditch’s commentary deftly deconstructs this view, showing that it is not based on the text, but is rather a later imposition by the likes of Milton and that arch-misogynist, Augustine.

“What if one notices,” she inquires, “that the snake does not lie to the woman but speaks the truth when it says that the consequence of eating from the forbidden tree is gaining the capacity to distinguish good from evil, a godlike power which the divinity jealously guards…? [Eve] is no easy prey for a seducing demon, as later tradition represents her but a conscious actor choosing knowledge….The man, on the other hand, is utterly passive.” She also points out that “no weighty accusation of ‘original sin’ brought about by woman is found in the text. That is a later interpretation from authors with different theologies and worldviews.”

For that matter, throughout the stories of the patriarchs in Genesis, the major women characters–Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hagar–are persistently more active, inventive, and interesting than the men who are ostensibly the “real” protagonists of the tales. Niditch makes it plain that there’s much of value for women readers in Genesis once they have answered the HIP Question in their own way, discarding the baggage of androcentric hermeneutics.


Furthermore, as Gracia Fay Ellwood also pointed out in Batter My Heart, it is in the Hebrew canon that one finds the most strikingly pro-feminine scripture of all, the Song of Songs. This brief collection of sexy love poems could even serve as a veritable paradigm for “liberated” relationships, which is undoubtedly why male church authorities, both Jewish and Christian, have had so much trouble with it. (The Song is said to have been the last book admitted to the canon by the rabbis.)

And once past the Old Testament, the figure of Jesus, and the character of the community he gathered, are also shot through with signs favorable toward women. Jesus identifies himself with biblical Wisdom, a feminine figure; the gospels repeatedly portray Jesus treating women with unusual courtesy and affirmation. The WBC writers show that in the gospels of Mark, Matthew and John women played a central, and in many ways, equalitarian role in the community he gathered around him.

But this equalitarian aspect of early Christianity soon faded, first from its practice, and later from its writings. This backsliding into sexism was not an accident, insist the WBC scholars. They think they are able to trace with some rigor the pattern of retrenchment and growing repression in the early church. In fact, this pattern is the basis for something of an emerging Gospel According to the Feminists, which the WBC lays out in considerable detail.

The chief culprit in this process of repatriarchization (if there is such a word), at least as far as the New Testament is concerned, is not Paul (the usual prime suspect, though he does his share) but Luke, author of the Gospel and the book of Acts. WBC’s Jane Schaberg opens her introduction to Luke’s work with a bold headline: “Warning”, and declares flatly, “The Gospel of Luke is an extremely dangerous text, perhaps the most dangerous in the Bible.”

Luke is dangerous, she argues, because he’s a skillful artist, who seems to portray women frequently and positively, while in fact subtly and systematically showing them in subordinate positions and progressively downplaying their contributions, describing a community that is unmistakably and increasingly androcentric: “Women are included in Jesus’ entourage and table community,” she says, “but not as the equals of men.”


Once Luke gets Jesus out of the way, in Acts, Schaberg says women’s role rapidly fades: “In the teachings of Jesus in Luke, women are mentioned 18 times….In Acts, in the teaching of the apostles, women are mentioned only once.”

According to this feminist version, the process of subordinating women Christians was driven principally by a desire for acceptance (and later, advancement) in the larger pagan culture. There equalitarian notions were considered at least perverted, probably subversive and certainly not respectable. The later epistles show the process gaining momentum; of First Timothy, and its famous edict, “I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence”(2:12) Joanna Dewey says, “the author is asking women to behave in such a way as to give no offense to men in power, to conform to the values of the dominant pagan culture.” Soon enough, of course, church authorities didn’t just ask women to keep silence; they cited “scripture,” and silenced them.

The implications of this comprehensive rethinking of the HIP Question for the biblical religions are huge, and only beginning to be fleshed out. When WBC writers try to articulate them, they frequently lapse into PC jargon, such as: “to pray with Daughter Zion is to join with the struggles of women around the globe” (on Lamentations); or to become “committed to an ever-deepening understanding of the interactions of sexism, classism, racism, militarism and nationalism…” (on Amos). Such sloganeering obscures more than it explains but is, mercifully, rare.

Nonetheless, Jewish and Christian communities which absorb the insights abounding in the WBC will undoubtedly end up being a lot different from what they are now. My own suspicions are that the feminist gospel represented here will progressively undermine organizational hierarchy, doctrinal fixity, and received liturgical language and rituals, all of which are dear to partisans of the male status quo–and all of which will make them look more and more like the Society of Friends.

Such a development should be no surprise, nor is it, I think, mere group chauvinism. After all, the women of WBC have gone through a door that Quakers like Margaret Fell and later Lucretia Mott, helped to pry open, with their insistence that the Bible, rightly interpreted, was a tool for the liberation of women, slaves, and other oppressed people. They weren’t afraid of the HIP Question, and in many ways, the WBC is just now catching up to their witness and giving it a scholarly foundation.

As was true for both Fell and Mott, the Women’s Bible Commentary will give fits to the guardians of the male ecclesiastical status quo. This is nothing new: When William Tyndale published a clandestine English version of the Bible in the 1530s, the book was burned, and then so was he, in 1536; but his mission of making the scriptures available to those from whom the church authorities had kept them could not be stopped.

There’s a similar feeling of inevitability about this volume. While the WBC is not beyond criticism, and there is certainly much more to be done in this field, its status as a landmark of church and feminist history is secure, and its interpretations will be increasingly hard to ignore.

All the more reason why the Women’s Bible Commentary should be on the shelf in your meetinghouse, and within reach during your regular Bible study sessions.

What? You mean your meeting doesn’t have regular Bible study sessions? Good grief! How would you explain that to Margaret Fell and Quakerism’s other founding feminist foremothers?