Sorting by

Skip to main content

In Matthew’s telling of the feeding of the five thousand, he relates that after the crowd has eaten and were satisfied, the disciples gathered up the leftover loaves and fishes in baskets. The account concludes, “And those who ate were five thousand men, not counting women and children” (Matt 14: 21). Mark and Luke note that five thousand men were fed (Mark 6:44, Luke 9:14). Matthew’s is the only gospel to notice that women and children are not included in the final tally, so although he excludes women and children from the count, he does include them in the crowd.

What if women and children were included in the count? How many might there be? Drawing on the work of sociologists, Megan McKenna suggests in her book Not Counting Women and Children (Orbis, 1994) that the ratio of women and children to adult men would be 5 to 1 or 6 to 1, so the size of the crowd would be much larger. She also suggests that it is likely that women were the ones who would have taken care to pack provisions in baskets when families set out to follow Jesus. The disciples were able to produce loaves and fishes because mothers thought to bring them along. Then as now, it is usually women who plan ahead, cook, bake and pack the food to be eaten at a church potluck or family gathering. According to this scenario, women and children outnumbered the men, and women played a key role with Jesus in feeding the crowd. Their presence was significant, yet it is overlooked by Mark and Luke and given only a sideways glance by Matthew.


In an analogous way, the history of interpretation of the Bible has mostly ignored the contributions of women, even though they engaged the text in significant and profound ways. A prime example of not counting women today is InterVarsity Press’ Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters (IVP Academic). The first edition (1998) includes only two women interpreters: Phyllis Trible and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, both of whom are still living. The second edition (2007) is only marginally better – Julian of Norwich has been added. Does it really seem likely that in two thousand years of biblical interpretation, the work of only three women is important enough to include? The recognition that the typical histories of interpretation do not include women’s voices has led in recent years to a blossoming of monographs and handbooks and even an encyclopedia devoted to women’s reception of Scripture. This last effort, The Bible and Women: An Encyclopedia of Exegesis and Cultural History, is international in scope and published simultaneously in English, German, Spanish and Italian. It is projected to comprise 21 volumes when finished ( I am privileged to be the English-language editor of the series and a contributor to the volumes on the 19th century.

What if women and children were included in the count?

What happens when biblical scholars decide to include the voices of women in their study of the history of interpretation? For one thing, the understanding of what constitutes interpretation needs to expand. It is no accident that the first edition of IVP’s Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters included only two women. Trible and Fiorenza wrote learned commentaries and were professors in stellar universities and leaders in the world of academia. Their scholarly work reflects the changes in opportunities that have occurred in the past century. Women can now study and teach theology in university and seminary settings, so it is possible for them to write in the same genre and to the same audience as do their male colleagues. This has not been the case, however, for most of the past two millennia. Although women have been reading Scripture and engaging with the text in many ways, they have not had the opportunities to study and hold leadership positions in the church and university. Yet when we widen the net of what constitutes biblical interpretation, we discover a treasure trove of women’s contributions. We discover that women wrote Bible stories for children, composed lyrics for hymns, wrote sermons that men preached, did behind-the-scenes work writing theology, produced translations and dictionaries, narrated visions and wrote liturgies and pamphlets – that is, interpreted Scripture. Once we begin listening to their voices, we realize that by overlooking women’s contributions, we impoverish our understanding of the Bible and how it has shaped our culture, in addition to perpetuating incorrect notions of women’s abilities and contributions.


Let me give a few examples of the insights of women interpreters, produced often at great cost to themselves. Many had to address the classic biblical verses that were used to denigrate women, such as the role of Eve in bringing sin and death into the world or Paul’s silencing of women in church or women portrayed as deceptive or seductive. In her essays, Mary Astell (1666-1731) considers the relationship between the sexes and claims that Scripture supports equality and mutuality. God endowed both men and women with minds and souls and intends for both to train their minds to rational thought and hence supports equal education for women and men. She studies Genesis and notices that God’s statement that women will be dominated by men (Gen. 3:16) is not a command but a prediction. It relates what would be, not what ought to be. Elsewhere she notes that Paul refers to Priscilla first, before her husband, Aquila, and that both are teachers. The passage in 1 Corinthians 11 that draws an analogy between God and Christ and husband and wife is interpreted by Astell to negate hierarchy between the sexes because there is no hierarchy within the Trinity. Through careful reading of Scripture, rational discourse and a deep understanding of theology, she undermines the traditional support for patriarchy, and instead promotes a “feminist” reading. (The Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters [Baker Academic, 2012] is a good place to find an introductory essay on Astell, one of 180 female interpreters of Scripture featured.)

Much of the interpretive work that women produced was apologetic – they needed to defend their authority to address men and expound on sacred Scripture. They needed to remove the obstacles that prevented their speaking at all, and in their writing they continued to visit the same handful of texts over and over because there was no tradition of women’s interpreting to draw on. Each one had to reinvent the wheel. As Gerda Lerner’s essay “One Thousand Years of Feminist Biblical Interpretation” (in The Creation of Feminist Consciousness from the Middle Ages to Eighteen-Seventy [Oxford Press, 1993]) documents so well, women could not stand on the shoulders of the preceding generation and go further. Because they were not part of the official church structure, because they were barred from the academy, their writings were not included in the canon of what was studied and passed on. Women interpreters knew of men’s writings but not of their fellow women’s. The recent efforts at producing a handbook, a dictionary, anthologies of women’s writings, collected essays and monographs on women interpreters are changing that situation, so that women and men can learn from a more inclusive history of interpretation.

Women did not write only for the sake of defending themselves, nor did they focus solely on narratives that featured women. Sarah Trimmer (1741-1810) wrote a commentary on the entire Bible, and Julia Greswell published a grammatical analysis of the Hebrew Psalter in 1873 that was used as a textbook for second-year Hebrew students at Oxford University. Some women realized that it was not prudent to speak with authority as a woman and so either attributed their opinions to the men they had learned from or claimed to have had a vision from God or used a pseudonym. For example, Marcella (327-410) was a learned woman in Rome, especially gifted in languages. From the correspondence between her and Jerome, we learn that she adjudicated disputes about the meaning of particular passages but claimed that what she was teaching came from Jerome or another man (M.A. Taylor, presidential address to the Canadian Society of Biblical Interpreters Congress, 2012). The work of recovering the voices of these hidden women is difficult yet important, as it serves to correct the illusion that only men were experts in ancient languages and educated interpreters of Scripture.


Those women who wrote self-consciously as women held a variety of positions on gender relations. Just as men endorse a spectrum of views on the respective roles of women and men, so do women. Some educated women promoted a traditional patriarchal view of the way men and women should relate to each other, and others were more feminist. Some understood patriarchy to be an unjust system and read a critique of it in Scripture, and some understood that the Bible endorsed patriarchy. For example, a study of 19th-century British women who interpreted the Deborah/Barak narrative in Judges reveals that some, such as Grace Aguilar (1816-1847), homed in on Deborah’s status as judge and saw her as an example of God calling both women and men to positions of leadership in society. Because being a judge requires extensive education, Aguilar noted that ancient Israel must have educated both girls and boys. On the basis of this narrative, Aguilar castigates her own Jewish community for not providing equal religious education for both girls and boys. Elizabeth Baxter (1837-1926), however, concluded that although Deborah was useful to God, she should not be a role model. Baxter claimed that God only calls women as leaders in society in order to shame men into taking their rightful place at the helm. Women should not aspire to leadership in public positions but should remain content in the domestic sphere. Both Baxter and Aguilar read Scripture in light of their contexts and came to different understandings of the message of this passage. That a single narrative could support such divergent readings of Scripture has been the case for male interpreters for centuries, so it should come as no surprise that women also arrived at differing interpretations.

Comparing the interpretation of women and men illuminates why including the voices of women is so significant. For example, Joyce Zonana studies how men and women of the 19th century read the Esther story (in Through a Glass Darkly [Fordham University Press, 1996]) and demonstrates that gender significantly affected their interpretation. According to Zonana, Matthew Henry’s commentary (1804) typifies his age, in that he reads the narrative as an example of nonmiraculous providence. He likewise is typical of male commentators in that he finds moral lessons to be learned in the behavior of Vashti and Esther. He faults Vashti for disobeying her husband and presents her as a negative example for wives. He praises Esther for her humility and her obedience to Mordecai and claims that her deference is the reason for her advancement. Henry does not notice that while Esther obeys Mordecai, she disobeys Ahaseurus, her husband. Nor does he notice her qualities of courage and foresight, qualities that were crucial to the salvation of the Jews. Zonana surveys other 19th-century male interpreters and notes that they, too, interpret the story to support patriarchy by setting the humble Esther in contrast to the rebellious Vashti. However, women interpreters read the story differently. In plays, poetry, novels and essays, women such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Charlotte Bronte see commonality between Esther and Vashti. Both women resisted Ahaseurus and both were courageous. Women interpreters construed the relationship between the two queens as complex and engaged the narrative to explore the cost of defiance, the limits of authority and the strategies of resistance. These women interpreters read the story in ways that problematized patriarchy. They discovered themes and nuances that the men had missed. Surely these women deserve a hearing.


We are still in the infancy of this emerging field, but it is already moving from the margins to the center. An example of this progress involves my own education years ago, pre-Google or Wikipedia. During a koine Greek class, I was assigned to present the thorny passage 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. Glad of the opportunity to explore these verses that silenced women in church and instructed them to ask their husbands at home if they had any question, I consulted major commentaries and checked a number of translations and discovered the work of Katharine Bushnell, author of God’s Word to Women. She argued that these verses were not Paul’s but were a quote from the letter he had received. She argued that Paul’s own words occur in the next verse: “Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?” (1 Cor. 14:36). Paul, she claimed, was castigating those who would silence women. Her interpretation was plausible yet was not engaged by other commentaries. Nor could I find out more about her. The edition of God’s Word to Women that I had located did not include a publication date, and was published by an individual, Roy Munson. Who was this woman, and when did she write? Since then I have learned much more about Bushnell, thanks to the recently published monograph by Kristin Du Mez, A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism (Oxford, 2015). Because of scholarship such as this, some biblical commentaries are including the history of women’s interpretation as well as men’s. For example D.M. Gunn’s Judges commentary in the Blackwell series (2005) and the third edition of the Women’s Bible Commentary (Westminster John Knox, 2012) include contributions from women interpreters.

This is good news for women and men. We all need to start counting the many women throughout the ages who have been nourishing us by bringing the loaves and fishes and working with Jesus to feed the multitudes.

Christiana de Groot teaches in the religion department at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is the co-editor of Recovering Nineteenth-Century Women Interpreters of the Bible (SBL, 2007).

Photo: The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, by James Tissot, public domain.