Early Church Understandings of Jesus as the Female Divine

The Scandal of the Scandal of Particularity

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Sally Douglas
The Library of New Testament Studies
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury T&T Clark
    , May
     2016.
     240 pages.
     $114.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780567667144.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Early Church Understandings of Jesus as the Female Divine, Sally Douglas examines the textual evidence that might connect Jesus to the female divine, especially in terms of Wisdom, as the concept appears in the New Testament and selected writings from the first, second, and third centuries CE.

Douglas begins her treatment with contemporary debates among New Testament scholars about christology: did the understanding of Jesus among early Christians shift from being human to being exalted as God, or does the evidence suggest that even very early, Jesus was understood as divine? In the midst of this debate, Douglas addresses textual evidence that would connect Jesus to the figure of Woman Wisdom as one means of understanding early Christian claims about divinity. Douglas asserts that the connection between Jesus and Woman Wisdom can be found in the earliest layers of writings now contained in the New Testament (10). Only in subsequent writings in the second and third centuries CE are these associations rejected or redefined. For Douglas, this suggests that a Wisdom christology and Wisdom soteriology were articulated early in the process of understanding the person of Jesus.

Chapter 2 examines the use of language associated with Woman Wisdom in relation to the figure of Jesus in the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Second Temple period literature, and “orthodox” early church texts that were most likely composed before the middle of the second century. Douglas moves quickly but carefully through a wide range of texts and authors: Job; Proverbs; Sirach; Baruch; Wisdom of Solomon; First and Second Corinthians; Colossians; Hebrews; Mark; Luke; Matthew; John; Ephesians; First Clement; the Didache; and the writings of Justin Martyr. While the first five texts and the Gospels are well-rehearsed in scholarship on this topic, Douglas’s helpful treatment of the Pauline writings and these selected early Christian texts provides a useful approach and brings a wider range of texts into conversation. Douglas resists saying more than the texts allow and emphasizes the importance of the Wisdom connection, particularly in the use of female or feminized language.

Chapter 3 moves from the “what” reflected in these texts to questions about “why” this is the case. Douglas works with five categories to describe the relationship between Jesus and Woman Wisdom in these early texts expounded on in the previous chapter: radiant imparter of divine knowledge; giver of the divine feast; friend-maker with God; divine non-retaliatory sufferer; and the “First-Born” who infuses “all things” (75). With these five categories, Douglas successfully demonstrates the links between Jesus and Woman Wisdom as pervasive and multi-faceted.

Chapter 4 explores the reasons for the shift in language away from Woman Wisdom in texts from the late second and third centuries. Douglas argues that three main factors contributed to the shift away from this language: gender within the patriarchal context; the impact of Gnosticism and apologetics for an audience becoming more Gentile and less Jewish; and the role of experience within an “increasingly stratified church” (109). Douglas surveys several writings and authors here: the Montanists; Tertullian; First Clement; the Nag Hammadi writings; Proof of the Apostolic Preaching by Ireneaus; the Gospel of Thomas; Justin Martyr; and Origen. While many of the materials covered within this chapter are well known, Douglas not only provides an incredibly readable and useful survey of the texts, she also puts these texts into conversation with one another and in light of the five categories addressed in previous chapters. Thus, she is able to demonstrate lines of continuity and discontinuity over time in particularly clear and direct ways. Of particular importance is the shift away from a Jewish audience to a more Gentile audience, which accounts for some of the imagery associated with Woman Wisdom (from the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition) being reinterpreted or ignored.

Chapter 5 argues for a reappropriation of the connections between Woman Wisdom and Jesus as not being foreign to the tradition, but as an integral, if not original, early association and understanding. Douglas attempts to show that a view which maintains these early links between Woman Wisdom and Jesus remains an authentic and appropriate theological position within Christianity. Her reasoned examination of the textual evidence is used to make a theological and practical case for such continued claims about how to understand the christological claims about Jesus through the lens of Woman Wisdom. The short conclusion (205-208) restates the book’s main arguments.

This is a detailed yet accessible treatment of a complex issue in the history of Christian theology. Douglas has made a valuable contribution to continued discussions about use of language associated with the female divine in relationship to Jesus, demonstrating that such terminology and concepts are a valuable, early, and even essential part of the Christian tradition. Those wishing to explore the concepts of the female divine, Woman Wisdom, and the development of Christology in the first three centuries CE will find an excellent resource that presents and interprets the textual evidence with scholarly acumen and clarity of thought.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steven Schweitzer is Academic Dean and Professor at Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Indiana.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sally Douglas is a doctoral graduate from the University of Divinity, Melbourne, Australia. She is a Uniting Church minister with an inner city congregation and is an adjunct teacher within the University of Divinity at Pilgrim Theological College, Australia.

Keywords: 

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