Thursday, January 15, 2009

Was Jesus a Feminist?

Leonard Swidler has recently published a book arguing that Jesus was a feminist: Jesus Was a Feminist: What the Gospels Reveal about His Revolutionary Perspective. According to a recent review written by Kathleen E. Corley (PDF: book review), he is continuing his old contention that first century Judaism in Palestine was overwhelmingly oppressive to women and that the task of Jesus was to save women from it. "To support this thesis, Swidler reconstructs an overwhelmingly negative view of Judaism in Palestine of the first century but uses late rabbinic sources for his reconstruction." She continues:
This is an old script that the scholarship of the past thirty years has long disproved as being false. First, it is totally inappropriate to use late rabbinical sources to reconstruct first-century Judaism. When only first-century Palestinian sources are used, a different, more progressive picture of Palestine emerges. Women were in the Zealot movement and the movement of John the Baptist, may have written writs of divorce, owned their own property, and kept their own finances. Even the Gospels themselves show that women moved freely out in public and were in no way separated from men socially. There is social and religious mixture of women in the women’s court at the temple, where women such as the prophetess stayed day and night to worship God and greeted the infant Jesus (Luke 2). Far from being segregated from her community by some blood taboo, the women with the issue of blood moves freely amidst the crowd, nor was uncleanliness a matter of utter segregation, but both men and women became unclean as a matter of the course of their daily lives, and this was easily removed by ritual bathing. Furthermore, ritual uncleanliness may have only been truly significant when one entered the temple in Jerusalem, as the many ritual baths in the temple precincts show. Thus, the Judaism of Palestine was not one that made women utter social inferiors as Swidler attests.
What is more, Swidler completely ignores the feminist scholarship that since his first publication debunked his thesis and pointed out how without basis his argument was. Corley writes:
Finally, this book is marred by having no intercourse with feminist scholarship of the past thirty years, which has worked hard to correct the anti-Judaic reconstruction of Judaism that Swidler proposed when he first published his original articles in the early 1970s. The work of Ross Kraemer, Amy-Jill Levine, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Bernadette Brooten, Judith Plaskow and others has been simply ignored, and Swidler writes blithely on in this book as if thirty years of scholarship never happened to correct his ill-fated views since 1971. This book is thus a rehash of an argument long since abandoned by historical critics around the world in light of the last thirty years of feminist scholarship on Jesus and first-century Judaism.
One wonders why the publisher bothered to publish the book.

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