An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation

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Nyasha Junior
  • Louisville, KY: 
    Westminster John Knox Press
    , October
     2015.
     180 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780664259877.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Bible is a problematic text. Not only is it problematic, it also has two millennia of interpretation added to it. No biblical scholar can be fluent in every approach currently applied to the text. Nyasha Junior’s An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation serves as a valuable exploration of one category of womanist readings of the Bible, inside and outside the academy. This exploration comes with a caveat, however. Junior is an African American woman, but not a self-identified womanist. She addresses this fact directly at the start of her study, recognizing that some will be confused by this. Ultimately what she distills in Womanist Biblical Interpretation is the problematic nature of labels.

The book is divided into two parts: a historical section of three chapters and a contemporary interpretation section also of three chapters. The material is logically laid out in a nearly poetic bicolon ABC / A’B’C’ pattern. Chapter 1 addresses the “three waves” approach to feminist studies and this is then narrowed to forerunners of feminist biblical studies in chapter 2. Chapter 3 is devoted to the history of forerunners in womanist biblical interpretation. This history is more complex than it might seem at first. Junior adequately demonstrates how womanist studies did not grow directly out of feminist studies, but has a rich historical background of its own. This background includes both non-academic readings of the Bible by African American women, and womanist studies in other academic fields.

Using great precision, Junior clearly shows that feminism and womanism are not unified fields or even a single focus of study. Not all feminists agree on the three waves model, and not all women scholars are feminists. The same truth applies to biblical studies: not all women who study the Bible do so as feminists. Having established this concept, Junior problematizes the question as to why all African American women should be assumed to be womanists. Once this platform is laid out in part 1, part 2 covers some of the same ground, but with specific focus on the development of womanist biblical studies.

Chapter 4 looks at womanist studies in the broader field of religious studies and other related disciplines. Womanist scholars are more common in this wider area of scholarship than they are in the circumscribed field of biblical studies. Feminist biblical studies occupy chapter 5, where Junior takes care to show that feminism and womanism have different concerns when it comes to the Bible. In the final chapter a history of womanist biblical interpretation is presented, but the chapter also includes a critique. Junior points out that “womanism” is not a widely practiced “method” and so considerable confusion remains over whether being an African American woman makes one a “womanist” or not. She suggests that to be a proper method, an approach to biblical texts must be identified by something more than demographic factors.

In her conclusion Junior offers some thoughts about the future of womanist interpretation. If the field is to grow and become established, womanists must publish more as “womanists.” Although a focus on multiple oppressions characterizes womanist concerns, an academic approach must develop a viable method to address these texts. Junior treats the movement respectfully, underscoring her intention not to air “dirty laundry” here. She instead offers a well thought out critique of what may become a valuable academic movement for understanding the Bible. First however, womanists must find a center beyond the individual identity of scholars.

This brief introduction offers a helpful entry point for scholars who may not understand what womanism is, or how it differs from feminism. For me, the most important point Junior underscores is that scholars should not be primarily identified by their gender or race. While “normative” objectivity is itself a myth—and is under suspicion by many scholars, as Junior notes—it does have the virtue of removing the person from the results of research as does a double-blind review process. What Junior rightly promotes is the idea that it is the scholarship that should be judged, and not the scholar. Those who approach biblical studies (or any discipline) do so from unique backgrounds: privileged or poor; of many ethnic heritages; female, intersex, and male; and others as well. Trying to identify a movement by these markers may be convenient at first, but unless an academically sound method derives from these initial forays, a promising movement may become yet another means of differentiating people on the basis of their birth and background. This is a small book with a very large message by a scholar who has a clear vision forward.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steve Wiggins is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
August 26, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nyasha Junior is Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible at Temple University. She writes frequently for several websites and journals, includingThe Huffington Post, The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, and Inside Higher Ed. 

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