Voices from the Margin

Interpreting the Bible in the Third World, 25th Anniversary Edition

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
R. S. Sugirtharajah
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , November
     2016.
     496 pages.
     $48.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626982055.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This historic volume is a monumental contribution the introduction of Third world voices into Euro-Western biblical scholarships. This new edition of R.S. Sugirtharajah’s Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World has been revised to reflect changes in the field in the twenty-five years since its first publication in 1991. In a field traditionally dominated by Euro-western, white, and male scholars, this volume presents the voices of the oppressed and marginalized who have gone largely unrecognized. 

The essays in this volume are divided into six themes, one per part. Part 1, “Reading Strategies,” contains nine essays—including two new works—explaining the role of Postcolonialism in reading the sacred texts, and challenge dominant power to reveal a colonizing tendency (Sugirtharajah). The contributors provide new ways to interpret biblical texts through the perspective of Indigenous peoples (Elsa Tamez), African-American women (Renita J. Weems), Africans (Justin S. Ukpong), Islanders (Jione Havea), the Chinese (Chen Jianming), and Dalts (Monica J. Melanchthon).

Part 2, “Subaltern Readings,” contains essays about Korean, Japanese, Indian, aboriginal, immigrant, economically marginalized, and in general, subaltern readings of sacred texts. Three new articles provide fresh readings of the sacred texts through the eyes of the displaced and victimized (A. Maria Arul Raja), compare the Malaysian court’s prohibition on using the word “Allah” to Qoheleth’s witness of the judicial system’s wickedness (Elaine W.F. Goh), and analyze the biblical story of Naboth’s vineyard in 1 King 21 through the eyes of the indigenous people of New Zealand (Nasili Voka’uta). 

Part 3, “Many Readings: Exodus,” offers various readings of the book of Exodus by using postcolonial interpretations to understand the significance of the liberation, not only of the Israelites, but also generally in contemporary society (Clodovis Boff), Asian women (An Asian Group Work), Palestinians (Naim S. Ateek), American Indians (Robert A. Warrior), Filippino-Americans (Eleazar S. Fernandez), and African-Americans (Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan). While the circumstances of marginalization, colonization, displacement, and isolation are diverse, the desire for freedom is consistently described as universal. 

Part 4, “Postcolonial Readings,” applies postcolonial methods to interpreting particular biblical passages. Essays in this part also comparatively read the book of Isaiah and the political texts of Hon Kong in terms of hybrid identities (Archie C.C. Lee), and examine the imperial, colonizing strategies embedded in John chapter 4 (Musa Dube). Two new articles use postcolonial criticism to read texts: Tat-siong Benny Liew articulates the significance of gender and race for Chinese-Americans by evaluating and comparing Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Women’s Bible to Sui Sin Far’s political-critical reading of the biblical texts. Uriah Y. Kim examines four anti-conquest ideologies reflected in the book of Judge, and shows how the Israelites at once dominated the land and portrayed themselves as victims of foreign, imperial power. 

Part 5, “Intertextual Readings,” includes important contributions to the reading of sacred texts in conversation with other religious traditions. Essays in part 5 reread biblical texts to question traditional triumphalism in light of Buddhism (George M. Soares-Prabhu), put Christianity in dialogue with Thai Buddhism (Seree Lorgunpai), Islam (Asghar A. Engineer), and Hinduism (Samuel Rayan), and demonstrate the possibility of reading the biblical texts in the context of religious plurality (S. Wesley Ariarajah). Part 5 seeks to reread first Corinthians to defend Chinese ancestor worship, thereby revealing the meaning of the text for a contemporary Chinese audience (Khiok-Khng Yeo). Furthermore, Layang Seong Ja, a new contributor, interestingly compares two stories about conflicts—one between Jesus and the Jewish leaders in the Gospels, another between poor orphans and the majority Kachin people of Myanmar. He warns that those who abuse their power will meet doom and shame, and calls on the orphans and the marginalized to focus on their final victory, just as Jesus ultimately triumphed. 

Finally, part 6, “Peoples as Exegetes: Popular Readings,” which includes a new afterword by Sugirtharajah, offers essays about the importance of regarding the socially marginalized as primary subjects of biblical interpretation, which can be applied to the marginalized in Brazil (Carlos Mesters), non-literate Malawian people (Patrick A. Kalilombe), politically oppressed groups in Indonesia (an anonymous author), and non-academic, African Black women (Gloria K. Plaatjie). While consistently reflecting on the historical context of Euro-centric biblical scholarship, Sugirtharajah concludes the volume by calling for biblical interpretations that oppose Western universalism. 

This volume—revised in part but largely unchanged—is a buffet of marginalized voices that represent the fundamental concerns of Third world biblical scholars. By adopting historical and sociological methods, the authors provide various resources for interpreting the sacred texts that are not commonly employed in mainstream academia. Reading biblical texts from the perspective of various communities and cultures is beneficial to those who are rooted in the dominant perspective. While it is regrettable that the volume does not represent several key voices (such as those from LBGTQ communities), the diversity of communities and cultures demands that this volume, and the endeavor it represents, be an ongoing one. Despite the editor’s voiced disappointment with the current postcolonial movements’s lack of political commitment, and affinity for domesticated interpretations that imitate Euro-western universalism, Sugirtharajah remains positive about the principle of bringing diverse readings and interpretations to light. Voices from the Margin revives the political commitment of biblical scholarship to check the power of the dominant over the marginalized and oppressed in our contemporary world. It also instills in readers the value of providing ordinary people “a chance to determine whether society should change” (606). I would recommend the 25th Anniversary Edition of this classic volume to anyone who is interested in teaching, learning, or listening to the voices of the oppressed and marginalized in order to challenge the dominant mainstream.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Chang Seon An recently completed his doctorate in New Testament and Early Christianity at Boston University.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

R. S. Sugirtharajah is Professor Emeritus in Biblical Hermeneutics at Birmingham University, U.K. He is author and editor of significant volumes on biblical studies, and his writings have been translated into multiple languages around the globe.

Add New Comment

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.

Log in to post comments