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  • Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Postcolonial Studies
  • Kwok Pui-lan (bio)

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has made distinguished contributions to the fields of feminist biblical hermeneutics and feminist theological and religious studies. The influence of her work is worldwide. On this occasion to celebrate her seventieth birthday, I want to focus on how her work provides insights for postcolonial studies of Christianity. If we compare her earlier classic In Memory of Her (1983) with some of her later publications, we can discern her growing interest in global feminist scholarship. Over the years, her discussants have expanded to include many scholars from the third world.

As Schüssler Fiorenza has noted, her critical feminist interpretation for liberation shows affinities to postcolonial criticism because both emphasize the decolonizing task of biblical hermeneutics and the process of conscientization.1 In 1996, at a lecture given at the twenty-fifth meeting of the Korean Association of Christian Studies, which I had the privilege of attending, she discussed the meaning of postcolonialism and the ways the Bible and biblical studies have been associated with Western colonialism.2 Following Françoise Lionnet, she defined postcoloniality as "a condition that exists within, and thus contests and resists the colonial moment itself with its ideology of domination."3 In a later [End Page 191] article, she used the term postcolonial to characterize one of the paradigms of biblical interpretation: the doctrinal literalist paradigm, the "scientific" positivist paradigm, the hermeneutical (post)modern paradigm, and the emancipatory "postcolonial" paradigm.4 In this last paradigm, she said the colonized and subordinated others need to "engage in a political and theoretical process of constituting ourselves as subjects of knowledge and history."5 She engages postcolonial theory in a much more sustained manner in her latest work, The Power of the Word: Scripture and the Rhetoric of Empire.6

Schüssler Fiorenza's exemplary work in the historical reconstruction of women in early Christianity offers methodological clues and insights to postcolonial historiography and subaltern studies. Similar to postcolonial historians like Dipesh Chakrabarty, Schüssler Fiorenza challenges the alleged objectivity of positivism and insists that history is best figured not as an accurate record of the past but as a "perspectival discourse that seeks to articulate a living memory for the present and the future."7 Since male historians tend to leave women out of their historical accounts, Schüssler Fiorenza urges us to look for alternative clues and data, and describes the reconstructive process as much like "quilt-making." For her, the "quilt-maker carefully stitches material fragments and pieces into an overall design that gives meaning to the individual scraps of material."8

By placing women and other marginalized people at the center of her inquiry, Schüssler Fiorenza insists that history is variegated and multilayered, and never monolithic or linear. Her work helps us reimagine early Christianity as radically heterogeneous, shaped by women and men, Jews and Gentiles, and people of diverse classes. She retraces the footsteps of Christian women living under Roman imperial rule, highlights their leadership roles in the household churches, and describes the increasing patriarchalization of the Christian community. Using a critical hermeneutics of suspicion, she challenges established theories and widely accepted assumptions that support or rationalize women's subordination. For example, she criticizes the assumption that Mediterranean society was characterized by a gender-based honor and shame system and points [End Page 192] to how such a theory is based on sociological and anthropological studies that have colluded with colonialism.9

From early on, Schüssler Fiorenza has argued that gender oppression must be placed within the overall matrix of other forms of oppression. She coined the term kyriarchy to name the interlocking and multiplicative systems of domination and submission.10 In doing so, she has remained sensitive to racial minority women and the cries of third-world women that by focusing on gender alone, feminists (predominantly white and Western) have failed to acknowledge their privileged status in other areas. In The Power of the Word, Schüssler Fiorenza differentiates her approach from that of feminist postcolonial critics and criticizes the latter for constructing a dual system of patriarchy and imperialism without attending to the intersectional analysis...


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pp. 191-197
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