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 CNS Story:

SCRIPTURE-WOMEN Oct-10-2008 (1,190 words) With logo posted Aug. 21 and photos posted Oct. 10. xxxn

Women of the Bible held wide range of roles throughout history

By Dennis Sadowski
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Benedictine Sister Ruth Fox likes to tell stories about women. Not just any women, but women of the Bible.

She talks about Shiphrah and Puah in Exodus, two women who put their lives at risk by defying the pharaoh's law of death in order to uphold God's law of life.

Then there's the prophet Huldah -- one of few women or men called a prophet -- who made history, as told in Chapter 22 of the Second Book of Kings, by verifying the authenticity of an ancient scroll discovered in the Temple.

And there's Phoebe, whom Paul refers to by the Greek word for deacon in his Letter to the Romans because of her service to the church of Cenchreae. (The New American Bible uses the word "minister" in place of the Greek "diakonis" because the concept of deacon had yet to evolve in the young church.)

Sister Ruth, 72, said she tells these stories -- and many others -- because they are important for the faithful to hear, and especially because they are not included in the Lectionary used at Sunday Masses.

"I believe women have a very, very important role in Scripture and it's not recognized," Sister Ruth told Catholic News Service. "Women are often taken for granted but their role is so very important. I would hope it would be recognized by the church."

It's been about 20 years since Sister Ruth wrote her widely circulated article, "Women in the Bible and the Lectionary." In it, she briefly recapped the stories of numerous women from the Old and New Testaments, sharing their inspiring examples of faith and leadership.

Her article was based on a lengthy study she conducted on the Lectionary, which found that the Mass readings in use since 1976 omitted or designated as optional numerous Scripture passages that refer to women's leadership roles. She also found that some of the passages about women that remained in the Lectionary reinforced what some consider to be more passive roles of women.

Today, Sister Ruth is prioress of her community at Sacred Heart Monastery in Richardton, N.D., and still is called upon to lead retreats and talk about women in Scripture.

"I'm not a flaming feminist," Sister Ruth said. "I'm the quiet one. I come forth with the facts and not just opinions and ranting and raving, but with the facts that can't be denied. And what people do with it is their responsibility."

Sister Ruth's work is one aspect in the burgeoning research field of women in Scripture. Interest in the topic has exploded since the 1970s, corresponding with the secular women's movement. Dominican Sister Barbara Reid, professor of New Testament studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, said the field has opened new ways to look at Scripture by "holding up the lost stories of women."

Such work has spanned both the Old and New Testaments as scholars try to decipher the role of women in history and in ministry. Some women have been depicted as influential, being counted on by early Jewish kings for their advice and viewpoints. Others have been acknowledged as disciples for their work in establishing the church in far-off places in the first and second centuries. Many more go unnamed and contribute in small ways to the modern understanding of Scripture.

Carol Meyers, professor of religion at Duke University in North Carolina and a scholar on women of the Old Testament, said biblical women can serve as role models for anyone today. She is one of the principal authors of "Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament," which has become a widely used reference work.

The book contains more than 800 entries examining the women in Scripture. It includes prominent women, such as Deborah, Esther and Mary Magdalene, as well as unnamed women and female imagery developed by Scripture authors.

"In terms of public roles and community roles ... there's 15 to 17 public roles depicted for women in the Old Testament," she explained. "It means that women were not all relegated to the household, that there are women with positions of authority in the community.

"We tend to forget about that and think about women who are subordinate and subservient and that's not necessarily the case," she added.

Like Meyers, Sister Barbara has studied the topic of women in Scripture -- in her case the New Testament -- for much of her career. She approaches her work from a feminist perspective, examining the role of women from the viewpoint of women's experiences.

"It's not about analyzing female characters but more about using lenses of feminist consciousness and having been trained to be alert, reading with the eyes, mind and hearts of women, with women's realities in the forefront," Sister Barbara explained.

"Women have always been interpreting the Bible," she said. "What's new is that women are starting to have each other's work to build on."

Sister Barbara's work has focused on what the roles of women in Scripture say to women today. She said that while New Testament books do not tell the stories of women being called as the Twelve Apostles were, women were alongside Christ on his journey through Galilee and later to Jerusalem. The Gospel of Luke tells of Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna accompanying Christ as he went "from one town and village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God."

After Christ's ascension, the first generations of the church were largely domestic in nature, meaning the faithful met and worshipped in someone's home, many times with a woman leading the gatherings, Sister Barbara explained. Paul's letters to emerging Christian communities and Luke's Acts of the Apostles mention several such women: Nympha (Col 4:15) and Prisca, or Priscilla, and her husband, Aquila (Acts 18:2-3 and Rom 16:3-5).

Such house churches were portrayed to show the connection between faith and family life, which was the domain of women, said Sister Carolyn Osiek, Catholic professor of New Testament at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. She said some women traveled, like Paul, as evangelists for Christ. But it was the house churches, she explained, where people formed bonds while learning the faith, providing hospitality for visiting Christians, baptizing new believers and networking first-century style.

The women mentioned by Paul were among the most prominent and likely the most prosperous in their communities, said Sister Carolyn, a member of Society of the Sacred Heart. Nonetheless, their example of living faith-filled lives can serve to inspire women and men alike in the 21st-century church, she said.

Even with their prominent roles in the early church, how women were portrayed in Paul's letters depended more on geography, social class and what he wanted to emphasize, said Allen Kerkeslager, associate professor of theology at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.

"In Paul's churches, in some wings of the church, the women did have leadership roles and in some places they did not," Kerkeslager said.


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