The Gospel According to Eve
A History of Women's Interpretation
- ISBN: 9780830852277
- Published By: IVP Academic Press
- Published: October 2019
Amanda W. Benckhuysen’s The Gospel According to Eve: A History of Women's Interpretation outlines the history of women’s voices interpreting biblical texts that portray the nature of women, their status within the order of creation, their role in marriage, and their position in the church. According to Benckhuysen, this history of women interpreters has been neglected for many years (5). Hence, the author focuses on women’s reception of Genesis 1–3 and the character of Eve. In nine chapters, she explores how the conception of women as the weaker sex, which prevailed for more than 2,000 years in the Christian tradition, has been challenged by more than sixty women writers from the 4th to the 21st century whose names, works, and biographies are often overlooked in both the history of the Christian religion and in the history of Biblical interpretation. Thus, the book is an effort to name and situate female interpreters.
In chapter 1, Benckhuysen briefly discusses the readings of Eve by the so-called fathers of the church and later Christian thinkers. The author cites Tertullian of Carthage, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, and Peter Comestor as examples of a mostly negative interpretation of Eve. In this tradition, Eve, who represents women in general, is seen as subordinate and inferior to man and as mainly culpable for the first sin and worldly evil (7). These interpretations became fundamental to the Christian understanding of gender throughout history. To be sure, there was some support for women in the works of, for instance, John Chrysostom, Gregory the Great, and Basil of Caesarea, but it has been less influential. Chapter 2 focuses on women’s interpretations of the narrative of Eve and their apology for women’s dignity between the 15th and 17th century throughout Europe.
At the same time, women interpreters began to publicly respond to the above-mentioned traditional interpretation of Eve’s story. The work of Christine de Pizan can be seen as a starting point for women “publishing defenses of women in growing numbers, which, among other things, offered alternative readings of Eve” (22). Besides de Pizan, Benckhuysen refers to another Italian Humanist scholar, Isotta Nogarola, as one of the first female intellectuals whose close reading of Genesis 1–3 intends “to deconstruct the gender ideology of her day” (31) and to “change … common perceptions about women” (35). De Pizan and Nogarola “paved the way for other women interpreters who would advocate for social changes as an application of this reading of Eve’s story” (35), as Benckhuysen aptly points out. In this chapter, other biblical commentators like Moderata Fonte, Arcangela Tarabotti, Rachel Speght, and Ester Sowernam are also identified as belonging to the tradition of women’s readings of the first chapters of Genesis.
Chapter 3 considers how Genesis 1–3 was interpreted as a plea for classical education for women in the early modern era. According to women writers like Lucrezia Tornabuoni and Anne Wheathill, Eve’s attitude demonstrates the necessity of women’s formation (54–55). Marie de Gournay and Anna Maria von Schurman are portrayed as some of the first female thinkers who called for access to formal education for women (61–62, 64–65). Chapter 4 examines the traditional role of women in marriage, as wives and mothers, which was discussed in women’s works from the 17th to the 19th century. Women interpreters of Genesis 1–3 like Mary Astell, Dorothy Leigh, and Lucy Hutton argued that “God’s original intention for marriage” (82) does not entail female subjugation.
During this same time period, women also argued that they should be able to preach and teach the gospel, which is the focus of chapter 5. Benckhuysen specifically examines women who reinterpret 1 Cor 14:34–35 and 1 Tim 2:11–15. For a long time, Pauline texts have been read solely in the misogynist tradition that demands the silence of women in worship (109). Women commentators like the British Quaker Margaret Fell, along with Americans like Harriet Livermore and Frances Willard, questioned “the validity of arguments against women preaching” (110) by reading the Pauline statements in a canonical context, especially in the context of Genesis 1–3 (111).
In chapter 6, Benckhuysen surveys the image of Eve in children’s Bibles, as well as in religious and educational material written in the 19th century by women like Esther Copley, Lucy Barton, Sarah Hale, and Sophia Ashton. This material, which was designed to educate children and women, represented women’s “different approaches and interpretive strategies which led them to different conclusions about Eve” (145) and influenced public discussions about the nature and role of women and their rights, which began to emerge at the end of the 19th century (171). Furthermore, the impact of women on social reforms of the 19th century, as shown by the example of Hannah Crocker, Sarah Grimké, Lucretia Mott, and Sojourner Truth, to name only a few, is the subject of chapter 7. Benckhuysen examines how women, referencing Genesis 1–3, raise their voices for the rights of the marginalized and suppressed—the female sex, poor, and people of color.
Chapter 8 outlines the impact of Genesis 1–3 on the ruling ideology of gender, especially in the modern Christian community. In this chapter, Benckhuysen focuses on the works of social activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Katherine Bushnell, and Lee Anna Starr. She also introduces works of feminist biblical scholars of the 20th century like Phyllis Trible and Phyllis Bird.
The last section, chapter 9, discusses the importance of women’s approaches interpreting the narrative of Eve “within its historical, literary, and canonical contexts” (230–231) to offer a reconsidered conception of gender. Women commentators on the Bible reclaim Eve’s legacy by describing her in terms of female empowerment and gender equality in God, and by disassociating her from notions of female inferiority and male leadership (8, 26, 230–231).
It is fascinating to see that women writers sometimes make use of quite divergent and even conflicting argumentation strategies to make their point. Benckhuysen presents an extensive overview of women’s Bible exegesis on the story of Eve. She documents the main arguments of each woman writer concentrating on the primary sources. To point out the perspectives and strategies of women reading biblical texts, she highlights the close reading of women interpreters and presents women’s contributions to biblical interpretation (8, 26). She emphasizes the “situatedness of our readings of Scripture,” which is highlighted in the works of women bible readers (11). The Gospel According to Eve contributes to the important reappraisal of the tradition of women thinkers in the history of philosophy and theology, whose impact has been forgotten and disregarded in the course of time.
Isabelle Vowinkel is a PhD Student in Protestant theology at Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz (Germany).Isabelle VowinkelDate Of Review:May 15, 2020