The Gospel According to Eve (Amanda Benckhuysen) -- A Review
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO EVE: A History of Women’s Interpretation. By Amanda W. Benckhuysen. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019. X + 262 pages.
The first three chapters of Genesis play a foundational role in the Jewish and Christian stories. Whether we look to them for historical accounts of creation is not really the point for many of us. What is important are the theological implications of these stories. When it comes to the portrayal of the primal couple—Adam and Eve—there is much at play, including issues of salvation and the manner in which sin entered the world. One of the central questions focuses on responsibility. Besides these questions, questions of authority also emerge. Does the fact that in Genesis 2 the man is created prior to the woman mean that he is in charge? In a related question, since the woman was taken from man, is that also a sign of his supremacy? With regard to the fall and its aftermath, does this change the relationship between man and woman? There is one other question to consider, and that question has to do with the gender of the interpreter. Does it make a difference if the one interpreting these stories is a woman rather than a man? These are the kinds of questions that are dealt with in The Gospel According to Eve.
The author of The Gospel According to Eve is Amanda Benckhuysen, a professor of Old Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary. She takes up these questions by looking at the texts and their interpreters through a historical lens. As she notes upfront, until recently most female interpreters were not theologians or biblical scholars, which means that by and large, they didn't necessarily write scholarly treatises. Nevertheless, women have been exploring these passages and offering their interpretations down through the centuries. While their interpretations are not uniform, they are illuminating. As a male historical theologian, I found the book fascinating, and a worthy read for all.
Benckhuysen explores the interpretive writings of over sixty women (all of whom are introduced in a biographical section at the end of the book, for quick reference). Many of the women responded to the dominant traditions, which were those espoused by men (and generally to the benefit of men). Some of the women embraced traditional interpretations, but they often reworked them in unique ways. Other women challenged traditional interpretations. To give context, Benckhuysen introduces us to the traditional interpretations as laid out by early church fathers and doctors of the church. Some were allies for women, but many were not. The focus of the book is on women interpreters who emerged from the fifteenth century to the present. She covers a few women from the period prior, including Hildegard of Bingen, but for the most part, these women affirmed the traditional interpretation. These interpretations generally asserted that women were the weaker vessel, and in many cases, the assumption was that Eve was responsible for the fall (due to Eve's inferior constitution). In other words, she was easily misled. What that says about Adam is another thing altogether.
In the chapters that follow the introduction, Benckhuysen takes us on a thematic journey. It is relatively chronological, but at each stage, the women represent a specific theme. Thus, in chapter two she explores women who wrote from the fifteenth to seventeenth century defending the worth and dignity of women. In one case, Isotta Nogarola suggested that Eve was less culpable than Adam because she was the weaker sex. While she may have argued this premise, it was done in a way that suggested that it was logically inconsistent to blame Eve for the fall if she was not as strong in her mental capacity as Adam. Why did he allow himself to get drawn in if he was the stronger partner? Then there were seventeenth-century Italian writers Moderata Fontes and Arcangela Tarabotti, who addressed the meaning of the words rib and helper, demonstrating that these words suggested equality, not subordination. Then in chapter three, she focuses on women who argued for educating women. These writers ranging from Lucrezia Tornabuoni in the fifteenth century onward argued that if Eve fell victim to the serpent it was due to a lack of education. The argument here was that the education of women would lead to moral improvement. That is, if Eve lacked education, that might explain her actions. The education of women would overcome the charge that women were not intellectually capable of making appropriate moral decisions. Benckhuysen notes that while these writers insisted that education would lead to moral improvement in society, they weren't arguing for education toward greater participation in the public sphere. That remained the domain of men.
Building on the previous chapter, in chapter 4, Benckhuysen looks at writers who defended the dignity of women based on their reading of the Eve story, but with a view to equipping women to be wives and mothers. The focus of these writers was the role of women in being a moral compass to husbands, and the teachers of religion and morality to children. Some of these women, such as Mary Astell, did argue against the subjugation of women and argued for their equality in marriage, but most focused on the moral teaching role of women in the home.
As we move to chapter five we encounter women who engage the story of Eve in relation to the call of women to preach and teach. Seventeenth-century Quaker writer Margaret Fell wrote of "Women's Speaking Justified," which was one of the earliest defenses of women's preaching. In her view preaching was the task of all Christians who had been indwelt by the Spirit. That included women. A number of defenses emerged in the years following, some of which corresponded to movements of social reform. Thus, the ministry of Catherine Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army, who wrote in defense of her call to preach. Another key figure was Frances Willard, who sought to defend the right of women to preach, but also for women's suffrage.
In chapter six we move back into the more traditional realm of the formation of children. During the nineteenth and twentieth century, a number of women devoted their attention to the creation of materials for children—to be used by women. Though they may have espoused more traditional roles they reinterpreted Genesis' picture of Eve, offering defenses of her moral and intellectual equality. The works produced in the 19th century became the foundation for materials that came afterward, including movements for women's rights.
Chapter seven explores the works of women such as Sarah Grinke, Sojourner Truth, and Lucretia Mott among others who became key leaders in advocating for social reform including the abolition of slavery. They argued this on the basis of human rights for women. Benckhuysen notes that "faced with the reality of their own disempowerment, disenfranchisement, and continued subjugation, many female abolitions turned their attention to advocating for women's rights." (pg. 178). Again, in doing so they engaged with the story of Eve. With that in mind, as we move to chapter 8, we are introduced to the question of gender ideology, and efforts of persons like Elizabeth Cady Stanton to expose the patriarchy present in both the Bible and in society. If Stanton believed that the Bible's patriarchy was problematic for women, Katherine Bushnell and Lee Anna Starr tried to use the Bible to support women's rights and equality. They gave their attention to questions of translation. Being a missionary to China, Bushnell was introduced to the challenges posed by culture to translation. She concluded that if Chinese culture posed problems, didn't English-speaking contexts offer the same challenge? If so, then maybe patriarchal interpretations were rooted in translation problems.
These three chapters of Genesis, and their interpretation regarding Eve, have influenced our understandings of women and men and our faith. Some of these interpretations are liberating and others are not. Hearing women's voices, especially as revealed historically, helps us get a better grasp of the issues at hand. It’s important to remember that not all women argued for equality or women's rights. Some embraced traditional readings suggesting that this first woman had culpability for the Fall and thus subordination of women was an appropriate response. They may have affirmed traditions that suggested that pain in childbirth was a logical punishment for her sin. Nevertheless, some of the same women defended the dignity of women and suggested that if nothing else the work of Christ reversed any of the curses she may have incurred. In the end, there isn’t just one interpretation. Women might be just as traditional as any man, but they still provide another vantage point. At the same time, they may offer a new perspective that is liberating.
This is an informative and challenging read. It is scholarly and deep. It will take a commitment to listen carefully to history. But, it also serves as a reminder that gender does play a role in one’s interpretation, as do race and sexual orientation and economic situations. Since men, especially white European and European Americans have dominated the scholarly and ecclesial worlds. Nevertheless, it is definitely worth giving one’s attention to—for the good of all.