In the Women’s Bible Commentary, Jane Schaberg argues that Luke is dangerous because of its portrayal of women. Here’s a brief except from this commentary:
The Gospel of Luke is an extremely dangerous text, perhaps the most dangerous in the Bible. Because it contains a great deal of material about women that is found nowhere else in the Gospel, many readers insist that the author is enhancing or promoting the status of women… The danger lies in the subtle artistic power of the story to seduce the reader into uncritical acceptance of it as simple history, and into acceptance of depicted gender roles as divinely ordained.
While it seems as though Luke tells of a radically egalitarian community, Schaberg posits that this is not the case once considering the details of the narrative. Ultimately, men play the most integral roles in the storyline. Disciples such as Peter are well-developed and named. The twelve male disciples are key characters to the gospel. Furthermore, the entire Acts narrative is largely oriented towards the activities and journeys of (male) characters like Paul and the apostles throughout the Mediterranean world.
On the other hand, women are supposedly cast off as secondary and minor characters. For example, while women are included among Jesus’ followers in Luke 8, they are not given names or identities. It appears as though Luke-Acts itself actually affirms the patriarchal system in which it was written in. While women may become followers of Jesus, they are essentially secondary beings and ultimately insignificant in comparison to their male counterparts. Schaberg asserts that women in Luke are praised for being submissive and quiet. In other words, while a “quick reading” of the narrative appears to affirm the dignity and role of women in the mission of Jesus, at closer inspection do more oppressive elements surface.
This charade of egalitarianism carries dire consequences for contemporary times. If this understanding is to be taken as normative, then women today must be nameless, secondary, and even submissive in contrast to the superiority of men. Likewise, Luke is indeed dangerous in that such interpretations may be used to systematically discriminate women.
Schaberg’s argument is quite similar to two other feminist scholars, Esther Fuchs and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. Fuchs examines how women have been portrayed in the Hebrew bible and ultimately argues that there is a systematic erasure of women. Instead of receiving commendation for their acts of prophecy and heroism (as Moses, Isaiah, and the like receive), the roles of people like Deborah and Miriam are essentially minimized. While Fuchs does not deal with Christian texts in her erasure argument, this directly correlates to the situation and depiction of women in Luke. Additionally, Schüssler Fiorenza, focusing in on early church history, approaches texts through a “hermeneutic of suspicion.” This is especially helpful when considering how patriarchal cultures portray women in their sacred texts. Likewise, there must be a cautionary hesitation on part of the reader when studying a narrative such as Luke-Acts. The supposed message of equality does not necessary result in proper praxis. Instead of unquestionably assuming an egalitarian ideal, Schaberg and other feminist scholars are more critical of this matter. Luke may potentially prove dangerous to contemporary readers with its submissive and silenced depiction of the second sex.
I somewhat agree with Schaberg in her criticism, though her argument must meet further qualification for my support. My partial criticism is twofold:
- I would like to note that this issue must be considered a significant hermeneutical matter. In other words, criticism of this gospel in-and-of-itself is groundless. This is because texts are inherently flexible. Readers must form interpretation and craft meaning once encountering scripture. Authorial intent and the “real Jesus” or the “real Luke” are ambiguous matters. I think Schaberg constructs a sort of dummy-argument by attacking the abstract essence of “Luke.”
- This text contains its own historical context. The way in which Schaberg criticizes the nature of the Lukan narrative is cause for hesitation. Holding texts and other cultures accountable to our contemporary westernized understanding of liberal egalitarianism fails to recognize that history and culture are both evolving processes. While some readings of Luke may appear to us modern day readers as potentially sexist, I argue that Luke would read quite differently given a less egalitarian era. Historical insight into the text does prove valuable in this critical issues. In sum, with characters such as Mary, Elizabeth, and Anna, Luke may have actually been one of the most radical messages for its time. One must also beware of a “hermeneutics of paranoia” in this manner.
Once considering my initial hesitation, I would argue that certain interpretations of Luke can be dangerous. While this revised statement is similar to Schaberg’s argumentation, these qualifications are necessary. The danger lies not in Luke itself, but with where our hermeneutics may take us–could this be used to advance complementarianism, or is Luke liberative?
Personally, I have found the Gospel of Luke to be highly profound, from the traditional focus of Jesus as healer to its truly revolutionary message. Schaberg’s arguments are worth considering, but I do believe that this gospel is a bit more radical than most people expect.