In the autumn of 2006, the Austrian biblical scholar, Irmtraud Fischer and I, respectively presidents from 2001 to 2007 of the European Society of Women for Theological Research (ESWTR), reflected on the possibility of launching a project that would give voice and strength to the studies of European women theologians. Thus was born the series The Bible and Women: Exegesis, History and Culture, which, through seminars held in the most important international research centers, launched the publication of twenty-one volumes in four languages (Italian, Spanish, English, and German).
The innovation of this particular project lies not only in its inter-confessional and inter-religious approach - since it involves Catholic, Protestant and Jewish specialists - but also in the comparison of the exegetical approach with the historical one. This approach is in order to identify the complex, conflicting or liberating relationships that have existed between the sacred text and women over time. Over the past fifteen years, the project has had to coordinate more than 300 female researchers, relying on an organisational centre, the “Institut für alttestamentliche Bibelwissenschaft” of the University of Graz; the participation of publishing houses (Il Pozzo di Giacobbe, Verbo Divino, Kohlhammer, SBL), and a series of institutional and private financiers to guarantee the realisation of preparatory seminars and translations. In Italy, for example, the financial contributions of La Tavola Valdese 8x1000, the Abbey of Montecassino, the Curia of Naples, the Valerio Foundation and the Associazione Viandanti have been fundamental.
In May this year, the Italian edition of The Bible and Women, under the patronage of the Coordination of Italian Women Theologians, brought out its tenth publication dedicated to Old Testament Prophecy. The text was Edited by three specialists in the field, Irmtraud Fischer, L. Juliana Claassens and Benedetta Rossi, and carries a significant subtitle, The Authoritative Voice of Women. This was chosen so as to emphasise how the transmission of the divine will in ancient Israel was not entrusted only to male prophets, but also to women, whose voices have too often been silenced or confined to marginal positions. The volume intends to restore the centrality of the female face of biblical prophecy in the context of the Ancient Near East, while exploring the variegated typology of the roles of those women involved in different capacities in the society of the time. By adopting this editorial approach, we hope to bring to the attention of our readers the significant influence of the female prophets and those who, like them, had an impact on the political destiny of Israel and Judah.
This text completes the first section of the series concerning biblical exegesis relating to the Hebrew Bible (Torah, Prophecy, Writings), the configuration of which lends itself best to grasping the importance of women. In fact, in the Hebrew canon, the Prophets -subdivided into anterior (from Joshua to 2 Kings) and posterior (from Isaiah to Micah)-, are placed at the centre, between the Torah and the Writings. This was conceived as a continuation of the prophetic charisma of Moses and Miriam and, significantly, are framed by female prophecy that starts with Deborah, Mother of Israel, and ends with Huldah, the authoritative interpreter of the Law. In contrast, in the Christian Bible, the prophetic section is placed at the end of the canon to link theologically to the Gospels and open up to the Christ event, and refers to male names and personalities. For this reason, when we think of Old Testament prophecy, only men come to mind; for example, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea and so on.
The prophetic phenomenon is, therefore, much broader than it appears, since it goes from the Exodus to the Babylonian exile, including a wide-ranging, widespread and active female experience. This consideration is of no small importance for the important political and religious role assumed by the prophet, the interpreter of the events of history in the light of the message of salvation. Moreover, prophecy is a charismatic function that is independent of the genealogical route, election by institutions, priesthood or the consent of the people, because the persons touched by this gift, whether women or men, exercise it by direct designation by God who bestows this charisma on whomever he wishes in order to exhort, edify and shake up believers for the good of the community. We could also say, in picking up here a thought of the Jewish writer Giacometta Limentani, that prophecy is in its essence feminine: in fact, the prophet is the receptacle of the Word to be guarded, elaborated and dispensed. This is why the metaphor of the womb is well suited to express the ability to welcome the seed of the Word, nourish it and let it grow within oneself without holding it back when it wants to come out and manifest itself. Both the peculiarity of the prophetic way of cbeing and the bestowal of this charisma have fostered in the history of Christianity a strong female presence. This is ascertainable from the very beginning, - in Paul’s letters, as well as in the Gospels - and that will resume with vigor from the 13th century with Hildegard of Bingen; with her an inexhaustible string of women are inaugurated who, in the name of God, have taken the floor, free and subversive, for the renewal of Churches and societies. These texts are discussed in the other volumes of the series, which span the historical periods and highlight the authoritative role of women touched by the prophetic spirit who, in the name of the Word of God, exhort evangelical conversion, challenging even the most rigid traits of the institution, which is too often uninclined to question its own structures. Those who want to know more can go to www.bibleandwomen.org. While the German edition has come to an end, the Italian edition has difficulty to be published due to printing costs. Therefore, in order to help the next volumes to be completed, after a first successful attempt at crowdfunding, a new fundraising campaign promoted by the Naudet Library is underway at www.bibliotecanaudet.it.
By Adriana Valerio
A theologian and historian