The Biblical Scholar from the Throw-out Box

By Lucy Peppiatt, who can be followed @lucepeppiatt

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The Biblical Scholar from the Throw Out Box

Last Thursday I met an amazing woman, Katharine C. Bushnell (sometimes misspelled as Katherine). Unfortunately, like so many of the people I wish I’d met, she’s dead. She was born in 1855 and died in 1946. I read a book that she wrote in 1921 detailing all the information she could possibly gather on women in the Bible and laying out her case for why God never intended for women to be subjugated, subordinated, disqualified from ministry, or subjected to their husbands in any form.

‘Nothing is of more importance to the Christian woman to-day than to understand that God did not Himself subordinate woman to man.’ (Par. 450)

Lucy Peppiatt WTCI was sent her book by a man who had taken our open online course that we run at our college, while living in South Africa. He had then seen an interview with me on my work on 1 Corinthians, and he thought I would like her work. I’d never heard of her. He rescued her book, God’s Word to Women, from the ‘throw out box’ of a South African seminary.

Before I started to read, I looked her up. Here’s what I found. Not only was she a medical doctor specializing in nerve disorders and a medical missionary to China, she worked tirelessly fighting against the degradation of women as sex-slaves and victims of abuse wherever she saw this happening – including in the U.S. In addition to this, she was a formidable biblical scholar. She was fluent in seven languages; her command of the biblical languages and the texts is remarkable. Her work is ground-breaking and creative (still), and totally radical for her own times. If she had been a man, every single contemporary Bible scholar writing on gender would have had to reckon with her findings. As it was, she was a woman, and her work was ignored.

Her pastor, Dr Gray, said this about her, ‘She was one of America’s noblest women.’ What about her work? ‘Her work was like a rock dropped to the bottom of the ocean. Kerplunk. It was gone, and it seemed the end of it.’ And as if to confirm his verdict – there she was in the throw out box. I have asked among my friends and peers if anyone had heard of her. The answer was no.

But I opened her book and I found one gem after another.

The book is 100 ‘Bible studies’ on key texts that give us an understanding of the scriptural view of the identity, role, and character of women. She calls it a ‘study book’ but this is misleading, as if it were a guide for home groups. It is a major piece of scholarship, reliant on a close textual reading of the original languages and textual variants, reference to ancient and contemporary scholarship, and awareness of other relevant contemporary texts and historical documents. In her conclusions, she provides the reader with her own informed and robust views. At times, she is very amusing, as well as intolerant of the ‘stupidity’ of the deliberately misinformed! In addition to this, every now and then, there is an almost prophetic exhortation to her women readers: to gain scholarship for themselves so that they will have a true understanding of God’s word; to learn who they are in Christ so they will no longer be downtrodden and subjugated; to speak up for what is right, humbly but firmly, in the face of injustice – because this, she believes, truly reflects God’s own heart.

In all this, she is a committed evangelical. The Bible is ‘authoritative, inspired, infallible, and inviolable.’ It is this that drives her to discover the correct meaning.

On dealing with mistranslations, she writes that they are like ‘strong talons holding tenaciously to the only correct sense that can be legitimately made of the sentence.’ This has so often held us in error. Consider, for example, the refusal to acknowledge that Junia was a woman, ‘of note among the apostles’, now a well-known case.

Her job, as she sees it, is to prise apart these talons to release the original, intended meaning. Where she finds a bias has operated that skews the meaning of a word, she digs deeply into her scholarship. For example, in her word study of cha-yil she lists every instance – normally a word denoting strength, might, power, and variations on a military theme – until used of a woman. Suddenly, it becomes ‘virtue’! See Ruth 3:11, Proverbs 29, and Proverbs 12:4. This was in her day. Now it is more likely you will find ‘nobility’ or ‘noble character’ – a step forward? Possibly, but still not the power, strength, and valour that the word conveys.

There is no doubt that, at times, she can become a bit convoluted, thus proving herself to be a true biblical scholar! Nevertheless, my point stands. If she had published as a man, her findings could not have been ignored for so long.

She begins at Genesis, and systematically works her way through the Bible, arguing that if we assume that God’s intention was for the full equality of men and women in all spheres, and then revisit the texts with fresh eyes, we will find in our Bibles God’s message that women are co-image-bearers, co-rulers, co-heirs, and co-ministers of the Gospel with men. There are many now, as there were some in her own day, who agree with her. She’d be delighted.

Much of what she argues is now being acknowledged: the prevalence of matriarchy in the ancient world, the provision of protection for women in the Mosaic law, and (my own interest) the concern in Paul’s writing for the full participation of women in the church. She was a hundred years ahead of me on 1 Corinthians 14:33-36 as containing a quotation from Corinth. On 1 Corinthians 11 she tangles up a bit, but we share our conclusions: ‘Shall man attempt to require that woman veil out of respect for his authority (?) over her? Not when God does not require man to veil out of respect for God’s authority over man.’ (Par. 248)

She is adamant: Paul did not want women to veil.

I was so pleased to have connected with one scholar who has worked on Bushnell. Kristin Kobes Du Mez (Calvin College) has written A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism (OUP, 2015). I can’t wait to read it.

I’m really grateful to Scot for allowing me to give Katherine Bushnell a hearing here. I’ll be spending time with her for a while and blogging on her work at our own WTC blog in the future Check in there if you’d like to read more.



About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.