Surprises are not always good things, but in the case of the Wisdom Commentary series entry, Luke 1-9, I found myself intrigued, inspired, and informed by a Gospel commentary written from a balanced, researched, and affective feminist perspective. I chose this commentary on Luke for my “Year C” Scripture reading, i.e., corresponding to the proclamation of Luke’s Gospel at all the Sunday Masses of 2022. The Wisdom Commentary series is a story unto itself, something of a gamble undertaken by the venerable Liturgical Press of Collegeville, Minnesota, the Benedictine publishing ministry which dates back at least as far as the 1920’s. As the General Editor Sister Barbara E. Reid, O.P., writes in this volume’s introduction, “Wisdom Commentary is the first series to offer detailed feminist interpretation of every book in the Bible.” [p. xxi]
On the practical side of matters, The Wisdom Commentary series is a massive financial commitment. Liturgical Press has committed to producing hardcover texts and commentaries of all seventy-two books of the Catholic Canon of the Bible. In some cases, individual biblical books will be multi-volume, as in the case here with St. Luke, the first volume covering chapters 1-9. Throw in the compensation to the authors and the time and resources involved in analysis of biblical texts, and it is easy to see that this project runs to the cost of millions of dollars. In part, this is reflected in the retail cost of the volumes. The texts are expensive. The publisher’s price for my Lukan commentary is listed at $50. Amazon’s price is presently $33, which is where I purchased mine. The book is also available on Kindle at $19, but I recommend the hard copies so that the reader can annotate and highlight for future reference. The Wisdom series is intended as a permanent reference for an adult Catholic’s library. [I get tired of saying it, but parishes need to offer its members multiple reminders and opportunities to fund the books, resources, courses, and workshops for their catechists and other ministers, and to provide libraries and other forms of access for adult Catholics wishing to pursue greater spiritual, biblical, and theological maturity.]
It is remarkable to see a Catholic publisher undertake a financial risk in today’s environment. But what is even more remarkable to me is the groundbreaking challenge of producing a full biblical commentary by noted feminist biblical scholars around the world. I would guess that in certain Church circles there is a certain shock value attached to the idea of studying the scriptures from a feminist perspective, as if that is somehow heretical or modernist. But one of the things a student of theology learns very quickly in the first year is that the formulation and interpretation of Scripture and doctrine are always the product of a perspective—a time, a culture, a mindset, an ethnicity.
God’s Word is unchanging and infinite. The variable is the ability of human comprehension. None of us is immune to the strengths and weaknesses of our cultural and religious outlook. The earliest Christians believed that the Second Coming was imminent, an event they would witness in their lifetime. St. Luke, by contrast, understood Christianity as a long-term community of faith. In the fourth century, when confusion about the nature of Jesus was rampant, the Council of Nicaea [325 A.D.] borrowed heavily from Greek Platonic philosophy to create the language we still use in our Nicene Creed at Mass, “consubstantial with the Father.” Time impacts our understanding of Jesus’ life and works.
The grandparent of all perspectives is sexual. No one can deny that the Scriptures are the product of male culture; and, to tread out the worn but accurate maxim, “the victors write the history.” One cannot fault the authors of the original biblical texts; they composed sacred revelation as they understood it in the prism of their times. What is less excusable is the absence of self-examination over time. Plato observed that “an unexamined life is not worth living,” and the principle is true even in matters of divine revelation. Put another way, are we constantly undertaking critical analysis of the way we understand Scripture to make sure we have not become prisoners of habit, or worse, of an interpretation of Scripture that protects the status quo, to the advantage of some versus the disadvantage of others?
It is a most pleasant surprise, then, to discover that since Vatican II a greater number of women are entering the field of Biblical research and bringing to their work a wholesome confidence of their place in the unending quest to unpack the riches of the Sacred Word. In reading Luke 1-9 I was floored by the number of women cited in the extensive bibliography [pp. 297-339] I decided to count the number of women scholars sourced for this text, and the number was 317! We are talking here about published and peer-reviewed experts in the field of Sacred Scripture. I get the impression that the future of Biblical study will be significantly enhanced by the growing presence of women scholars.
As I noted above, some people are a little squeamish about the adjective “feminine” when it is appended to matters religious. But we have lived with masculine bias for two millennia, to the point that we even refer to the Deity as “He.” An honest question that must be faced is whether the cultural dominance of the masculine experience has poisoned the well of all things religious. Is it possible, for example, that Christianity has coopted the male gender of Jesus as a template for male dominance in the Church or, for that matter, in marriage or in the workplace?
The Wisdom Commentary series, including my current read, Luke 1-9, adopts an approach to the Scriptures that builds upon the best of the Christian tradition of scholarship while introducing new insights into texts drawn from the personal experience of womanhood and texts and translations that have gotten lost in the shuffle. I will comment further on the style of this commentary in a following text, but one particularly good example will suffice. In Luke 2:19 the evangelist records that Mary, after the birth of Jesus and the reverencing by the shepherds, ‘treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” The authors Reed/Matthews note that “the word suneterei, rendered ‘treasured’ in the New Revised Standard Version [of the Bible], means more than simply storing something away. It has the nuance ‘to preserve against harm or ruin, to protect, defend’ and ‘to keep in mind, to be concerned about.’ Mary’s action is not the least passive. Like the shepherds who keep watch [2:8] …Mary guards all that has occurred, putting things together, connecting, and interpreting. Like a feminist theologian, she continually interprets what God is doing in her life and that of her family and her people.” [pp. 81-82] “The whole of the Lukan narrative is framed by women who keep the word, pondering, remembering, connecting, interpreting, and announcing it.” [p. 83]
I have been reading and reflecting upon this book for about six weeks. I am up to Chapter 3, the Baptism of Jesus, appropriate enough for the current liturgical calendar. I am pleased with the commentary, but more than that, there is an atmosphere of spirituality that, as a man, I find particularly welcome. In its own way this text not only enriches one’s spiritual life but also leads to reflection upon the sanctity of marriage, i.e., how my own wife’s faith and witness shores up my own commitment to everything in the Gospel and in real life that is worthy and wholesome.