By Laura Thierry
Amanda W. Benchkhuysen’s, The Gospel According to Eve: A History of Women’s Interpretation is a timely and significant work. The book traces the way women interpreters from the fifteenth-century to the present day have read and applied the narrative of Genesis 1-3, centring on how the character of Eve has been understood.
Benckhuysen begins by setting the scene, tracing the “traditional” reading of Eve within patristic and medieval thought. While certainly not true of all theologians, the general trend as Benckhuysen traces it, has been towards viewing Eve in almost an exclusively negative light, and as the primary one responsible for the entrance of sin into the world. Now, as the women interpreters of following generations consistently (and seemingly intrinsically) knew, to depict Eve in this way was to necessarily denigrate women per se, and to do this had implications upon ever so many spheres of life. Against this backdrop Benckhuysen narrates a deeply fascinating counter-narrative—of women deeply wrestling with the text of Scripture, and seeking to tell a truer story, beginning with the very ground so often used against them, namely, Genesis 1-3.
The following chapters go on to tell the story of how a veritable army of intelligent and faithful women throughout multiple centuries engaged deeply with the story of Eve: in their defence of the worth of women (ch. 2), their efforts to promote the education of women (ch. 3), to give support, value, and dignity to women’s contribution to family life (ch. 4), to empower women to preach and teach (ch. 5), to shape the character of children (ch. 6), to advocate for social reform (ch. 7), and to influence gender ideology (ch. 8).
This book makes several deeply beneficial contributions. Firstly, it does tremendous work in rebalancing how we perceive history. By drawing on lost voices throughout such a broad timeframe, it breaks the myth of a single story in which women were supposedly always viewed negatively in Christian theology, until the true message of the Bible’s view on women was rediscovered within the last few generations. Benckhuysen’s thorough research demonstrates that such a take simply has no ground. Secondly, this book opens the way to stand on the shoulders of the women who have gone before, rather than always starting from square one. As Benckhuysen writes, “because these women’s representations of Eve have been lost and ignored, female biblical interpreters have found themselves reinventing the wheel from generation to generation.” (p. 5). Thirdly, Benckhuysen’s work breathes a fresh and lifegiving perspective on what can often be a very fraught issue. The tendency in evangelical circles sadly still too often is to pick a side (or a fight) regarding where one stands on issues regarding gender and the church. Benckhuysen’s special gift is the capacity to open up the topic by bringing voices to the table who sound neither like egalitarians nor complementarians, but who have wise perspectives to share and shake up all of us. Benckhuysen brings fresh material to bear on gender questions for our time in a way that goes well beyond our time. This work gives a new generation of Christians the opportunity to choose to think long and hard with the women who have gone before, rather than merely choosing a tribe. Overall, The Gospel according to Eve is a deeply stimulating and informative read—highly recommended for anyone wanting to think well with the communion of saints about biblical perspectives on gender questions.
Laura Thierry a PhD student at Ridley College, researching medieval hagiography, Christology, and theology of the body.