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Why a New Bible Encyclopedia? Gender Matters



Why Gender Studies? In the contemporary climate, debates rage about the Bible’s relevance for the design and maintenance of modern social structures. For examples, does same-sex marriage violate the biblical “creation order”? Does the Bible dictate particular styles of child discipline or the gender requirements for religious leaders? What does it say about abortion? Did early Christianity promote women’s equality or subvert it? What about Mary Magdalene? Does the Bible consistently portray the deity as masculine? In Romans 1, did Paul condemn same-gender loving persons or those in pederastic relationships? Are only men’s interests reflected in the Bible?



See Also: The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies (Oxford University Press, 2014).



By Julia M. O’Brien
Lancaster Theological Seminary
November 2014


Of the making of Bible encyclopedias (and dictionaries and handbooks and annotated Bibles) there seems to be no end. The New Oxford Annotated Bible is currently in its 4th edition; DeGruyter Press’ recent The Bible and its Reception series includes an encyclopedia, handbooks, and a journal; and Oxford University Press is currently issuing several new series of encyclopedias and handbooks.

It is tempting to interpret this proliferation of biblical reference materials as solely driven by economic concerns. After all, because reference materials are marketed primarily to institutions they tend to be more profitable than monographs that are marketed to individual readers.

And yet, the field of biblical studies continues to need new reference works. As readers’ questions and assumptions change, both within the field and within the larger society, modes of interpretation change as well, as does what people find important about the Bible.

The history of the Bible’s interpretation well chronicles such changes. Driven by the desire to integrate Scripture with Greek philosophy, Philo of Alexandria (1st c CE) and Origen (3rd c CE) turned to allegorical interpretation, while the precepts of Enlightenment thought led nineteenth century interpreters to eschew allegory in favor of more “scientific” methods. As Ken Stone has convincingly demonstrated, early Christian commentators such as Jerome and Tertullian understood the biblical stories of Creation as primarily “about” food consumption, while modern interpreters often see them as “about” sex (Practicing Safer Texts: Food, Sex and Bible in Queer Perspective, T&T Clark, 2005; ch. 1).

To address current concerns in Bible interpretation, Oxford University Press is issuing a series of topically-oriented Encyclopedias of the Bible. Edited by Michael D. Coogan, the series includes (among others) the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Archaeology, the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology, and the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Law. It was my privilege to serve as the Editor-in-chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies (OEBGS), which was published in November 2014.

Why Gender Studies? In the contemporary climate, debates rage about the Bible’s relevance for the design and maintenance of modern social structures. For examples, does same-sex marriage violate the biblical “creation order”? Does the Bible dictate particular styles of child discipline or the gender requirements for religious leaders? What does it say about abortion? Did early Christianity promote women’s equality or subvert it? What about Mary Magdalene? Does the Bible consistently portray the deity as masculine? In Romans 1, did Paul condemn same-gender loving persons or those in pederastic relationships? Are only men’s interests reflected in the Bible?

OEBGS attempts to address these and other concerns by systematically exploring the ways in which gender is constructed in the diverse texts, cultures, and readers that constitute “the world of the Bible.” It includes various types of entries:

(1) Substantive entries devoted to the theory and history of gender studies: e.g., Sexuality, Heterosexism/Heteronormativity, Queer Studies, and Intersectional Studies;

(2) Entries summarizing and evaluating the history and future of particular modes of interpreting the Bible in light of gender: e.g., Womanist Criticism, Intersectional Studies, Queer Readings, Historical Critical Approaches, and Third Wave Feminism

(3) Entries on topics that span the Jewish and Christian canons: e.g., Creation, Canonization, and Authorship;

(4) A large number of entries investigating the social and ideological dimensions of gender-related topics within specific periods and collections of literature. For example, the entry on Marriage and Divorce is divided into subentries on the Ancient Near East, Hebrew Bible, Greek World, Roman World, New Testament, Early Judaism, and Early Church. These entries include not only the work of established and newer biblical scholars but also the contributions of contemporary theorists, classicists, archaeologists, and ancient historians whose work bears upon our understandings of the biblical material.

This 4th set of entries, focusing primarily on the social world in which biblical texts were composed, have wide significance. Condensed into relatively-short essays are key discussions on family structures in the ancient world, evidence for women’s leadership in various communities, and understandings of same-sex and male-female sexual relationships; recent scholarship on Paul, Jesus, and women in Early Judaism, usually found only in specialized studies, is here synthesized for a broader audience. Entries written by specialists in Classics and ancient Near Eastern studies, I believe, facilitate comparative study in ways that few reference works do.

I have assigned drafts of these entries in seminary courses on The Bible and Homosexuality and The Bible and the Family. Students have been astounded by the width of the gap between ancient and modern conceptions of family, children, marriage, sex, and the divine. Entries on sexuality and children, for example, stress that for most of the periods under consideration girls were regularly betrothed by the age of 12 and “married” by the age of 13; given that the age of men at marriage was higher (perhaps 20), then those we would consider adult men were regularly having sex with those we would consider female children. After reading numerous entries, working pastors enrolled in a Doctor of Ministry seminar immediately understood the relevance of ancient constructs of masculinity for modern debates regarding same-sex relations: the ancient equation of penetration with domination allowed them to connect the dots between sexism, heterosexism, and kyriarchy (the term coined by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza to stress the ways that gender-based subordination frequently interacts with other systems of subordination such as race and class). In discussing these entries, we have become more aware not only of the role that modes of production played in the configuration of ancient families but also of the economic dimensions of shifting household structures in the U.S. during the last century. Student assumptions about the gender of ancient Near Eastern and Israelite deities and the rights of women in the ancient world have been challenged by the research presented.

Written from differing methodological perspectives and by experts trained in different fields, the entries of OEBGS at times stand in tension with one another. Some disagree, for example, on the role of pederasty in ancient Greece and Rome and Jesus’ perspective on gender and marriage. These debates are important, not only for academics but also for popular readers whose views about the Bible are too often shaped primarily by novels such as The DaVinci Code and The Red Tent.

In working through each of the project’s 162 entries in detail, I was struck again at how central ancient and modern constructions of gender are to the big debates I hear in modern religious and even secular circles. Debates about same-sex marriage, women’s roles in the workplace, men’s roles in parenting, and the impact of the 2008 economic downturn on childbirth rates are, I believe, essentially about gender and its proper performance, played out in our own social context and our own economic realities. The integration of OEBGS into Oxford Biblical Studies Online, an electronic resource to which new content is regularly added, will make the material even more accessible and economically viable for use in the classroom. I hope that its impact is even broader, helping a wide range of people talk better about “what the Bible really says” about key issues that matter to people today.





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