New Testament

CALL FOR PAPERS – Special Journal Issue: The Bible: Transgender and Genderqueer Perspectives


Call for papers: Special Edition of the Journal for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (JIBS)

The Bible: Transgender and Genderqueer Perspectives

Television shows, news articles, and social media sites are currently crammed with conflicting discourses about transgender (trans) and genderqueer identities. Some of these discourses affirm the authenticity of trans and genderqueer people, while many others attempt to undermine or deny this authenticity. Biblical scholars have begun to explore these conversations, asking how Bible traditions might be read and interpreted in light of trans and genderqueer lives. In this special issue of JIBS, we invite contributors to join this important conversation, focusing specifically on the Bible and biblical scholarship as potential sites of resistance against transphobia and genderqueer intolerance. Topics can include (but are not limited to):

Trans and/or genderqueer hermeneutics: interpreting the Bible through a transgender and/or genderqueer reading lens;

Transfeminism and biblical interpretation;

Biblical interpretation as a source of (or source of resistance against) transphobia and genderqueer intolerance;

Biblical interpretation at the intersection: how biblical traditions can speak to trans and genderqueer identities alongside class, race, ability, and sexuality.

Biblical engagements with indigenous trans and genderqueer identities, including takatāpui, fa’afafine, fakaleiti, fakafifine, akava’ine, vakasalewalewa, palopa, aikāne, faafatama, fakaleiti, māhū, palopa, tangata iratāne, whakawahine, hijra, and Two-Spirit.

Submissions should be between 4000 to 10,000 words.

All submissions will be subject to the usual blind peer review process.

Send proposals to Guest Editor Caroline Blyth ( by 28 February 2019. Deadline for completed submissions 30 June 2019.

We will not accept submissions that are complicit in any form of transphobia or genderqueer intolerance. The senior editorial team of JIBS strongly affirm the full authenticity and humanity of all trans and genderqueer people.

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UN 16 Days of Activism – Day 12: Jayme Reaves

Tell us about yourself. Who are you and what do you do? 

My name is Jayme Reaves ( and I am a public theologian, scholar, and activist working on the intersections between theology and public issues such as gender, race, peace/conflict, interfaith cooperation, and culture using the disciplines of feminist and liberation theologies.  I am also the newly appointed Coordinator for the Centre for Encountering the Bible and Short Course Programme at Sarum College, starting in December 2018.

In the earlier years of my professional career, I lived and worked in both the Former Yugoslavia and in Northern Ireland, seeking to ground my theology and commitment to peace and justice to practical application by working to support peacebuilding, conflict transformation, and reconciliation processes. In both the Northern Ireland and FRY contexts, I was struck by the interplay between hospitality and hostility, where both profound welcome and violent exclusion simultaneously co-exist, and where the project of a mixed society does not necessarily lead to living together well. That observation led to my PhD research which built a framework for understanding an interfaith theology and ethic of protective hospitality through providing sanctuary or refuge for the threatened other based on Hebrew Bible and Qur’anic textual studies as well as case studies based in Bosnia during the 1990s conflict.  That research was published in 2016 by Wipf & Stock and is titled Safeguarding the Stranger: An Abrahamic Theology and Ethic of Protective Hospitality. (

Because of my research around hospitality and activism towards more peaceful and just communities, I do regular workshops on hospitality as political practice, taking it from the realm of tea and biscuits and more in the realm of loving revolution where it belongs.  For me, hospitality is strong, brave, and fierce in its love and dedication to welcome; it is not weak and mousy, deferring and demure as it is so often portrayed.  I work with communities in both the US and UK on exploring the practice of providing sanctuary, equipping communities of privilege to understand their obligations to care for the stranger, to use their privilege to speak for and provide justice, and to understand that a ultimately a life of faith is a life of risk rather than comfort.  The Sanctuary Movement in the US – with those at risk of deportation taking refuge in religious and community buildings – is different than it is here in the UK at the moment, but the potential in the UK for direct, non-violent, life-saving action in resistance to state oppression towards immigrants is growing.  My activism, research, and experience calls me to support this movement in whatever way I can.

My work is driven by my activism, and I continue to be captivated and dedicated to the idea that a healthy, peaceful society is one that is proactive about the “other” (whoever that “other” is), caring about their needs, rights, suffering, and celebrations as our own and being willing to put ourselves and own wellbeing at risk for them.  My research, experiences, and faith has taught me the value of hospitality as a prevailing ethic for everything (or “ethic par excellance” in the words of Jacques Derrida), and I know communities who make that pro-activity towards hospitality for others a priority and see the difference it makes in their lives and in the world around them.  

In addition, my primary work with The Shiloh Project to date has centered around research being led by my colleague David Tombs at The University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand.  For years, his research has focused on the crucifixion and sexual violence, and in our project we are conducting workshops called “When Did We See You Naked?”( with churches and communities who wish to explore the Mark 15 text of Jesus’ trial, torture, and crucifixion in more detail, considering the ways in which Jesus is sexually abused by the multiple public strippings as well as understanding more fully the context of crucifixion practice within the context of Roman political oppression.  We know this work is important because it shifts the paradigm of the conversation in terms of victimization, blame, stigma, silencing, and guilt.  In this era of #MeToo, the time is ripe for interrogating our theology and liturgical practices to uncover the ways in which we have enabled and turned a blind eye to sexual abuse and sexualised violence in our religious traditions.

As part of my public theology work, I also co-host the Outlander Soul podcast (, which looks at reading the contemporary fiction Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon through the lenses of theology, religion and spirituality, and engages with its fans about the role it plays in their lives as a sacred text. Part of this work is driven by my own love and joy as a fan, but also by my dedication to making feminist and liberation theological methods more accessible.  In many ways, the podcast has served as “theology by the back door,” giving listeners a taste of particular approaches and perspectives that they don’t hear in their own religious communities, and the feedback we have received from some listeners saying how much it means to them that we are able to connect their love of Outlander to their spiritual/religious lives.

How do you think the Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to and enrich discussion and action on the topic of gender activism today? Is there more we can do? What else should we post?

I think the work of The Shiloh Project is invaluable as I don’t know of anyone else in the UK who has both the same level of scholarship, activism, dedication to public outreach, and independence from religious structures that Shiloh does.  The Shiloh Project is, in many ways, a sum of its parts and all of us who are involved with its work are doing great work, but it helps to have a larger body to amplify our voices as one calling for gender justice and more inclusive, responsible religious communities and readings of sacred texts.  

Lately in my own personal journey and in smaller writing/research projects, I have been working to identify and address whiteness in my own feminism and the ways in which my activism may have inadvertently perpetuated white supremacy or silencing of women of colour.  In light of that – and because of my own need – I’d love for The Shiloh Project to provide more attention and resources for addressing the blind spots and assumptions of white feminism, supporting difficult conversations that need to happen around the intersections between race and gender justice.

In the year ahead, how will you contribute to advancing the aims and goals of The Shiloh Project?  

In the year ahead, I have a few collaborative projects fueled by my own activism that I think will contribute to advancing the aims and goals of The Shiloh Project.  First, David Tombs, other colleagues, and I are planning to continue conducting “When Did We See You Naked” workshops in New Zealand, Australia, US, UK, Peru, and South Africa, and also expanding them to run in the Former Yugoslavia, where a context of systematized sexual abuse as an instrument of war was a reality for many.

Second, my colleague, Terry Menefee Gau, and I at the Outlander Soul podcast continue to be committed to using the Outlander series as a vehicle for teaching feminist theology and hermeneutics, while making dedicated efforts to name and discuss sexual violence, gender issues, and rape culture both in the series as well as in religious and secular culture.

Third, I have been in conversation with several feminist theologians, clergy, and activists recently about putting together a one-off or series of women’s events that speaks to their experiences and offers space for reflection around themes related to women’s bodies as well as the stories they read and tell.  I have no idea what shape that might take in the end – as it’s not just up to me – but it’s important for me to make sure that the work I’m doing is accessible and applicable to women’s lives both inside and outside of the academy and church.

Fourth, I am working in partnership with several organisations around training, equipping, and supporting networks dedicated to providing hospitality and working toward justice and reconciliation in their local areas.  My role as tutor and mentor is to ensure the needs and particular concerns of women and most vulnerable to abuse and exploitation are highlighted, as well as encouraging those networks to provide space for those same people to speak for themselves.

Lastly, in my role at Sarum College, I very much look forward to working with internal and external colleagues to expand its reputation for innovation and supporting theological development that works toward gender justice and the common good. And, let’s be honest, I don’t really know how to operate any other way!  It’s great to finally have a supportive home for my work and an institution that is also dedicated to ensuring that learning goes beyond the walls of the academy to impact lives and communities in real, life-sustaining ways.



Twitter: @jaymereaves


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UN 16 Days of Activism – Day 6: Rachel Starr


Tell us about yourself. Who are you and what do you do?

Hi, my name is Rachel Starr and I teach biblical studies, gender and theology at the Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education in Birmingham. Queen’s is ecumenical and we have students exploring theology, discipleship and ministry from Anglican, Methodist and Pentecostal churches.

 It would be hard to say what subject I enjoy teaching most, but I love the energy and creativity of the Masters module on global theologies and migration. Faced with the scale and complexity of migration today, we need more theological resources to help us respond to and receive from migrants. In addition, it is important to make visible the migration of traditions and communities of faith throughout history. The work of Argentine theologian Nancy Bedford has been invaluable in exploring the particular experience of Latin American women migrants and the violence they encounter along the way, as well as naming the multiple forms of resistance and strategies of survival they employ. A powerful example of communal resistance to the death-dealing structures and monstrous borders that confront many undocumented migrants is that of Las Patronas, a group of Mexican women who cook and carry food to the tracks where each day trains carrying hundreds of migrants pass by (watch here).

 I completed my doctorate at Instituto Superior Evangélico de Estudios Teológicos in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I learnt much from organizations such as Movimiento Ecuménico por los Derechos Humanos, spending time with local women’s groups that sought to resist and challenge both domestic, and more public forms of, violence. My book, Reimagining Theologies of Marriage in Contexts of Domestic Violence: When Salvation is Survival (Routledge, 2018) explores how Christian accounts of marriage are often static and idealized, failing to take account of violence and gender inequality within relationships.

 The work of Latin American women theologians and activists continues to inspire and challenge me. Doing theology in another language is a means of resisting dominant theological traditions and ensuring we don’t rely on familiar readings of texts and traditions. Last year, I spent a month in Central America, meeting with theologians and activists working on a range of interrelated issues: increasing access to reproductive health care, a life-or-death issue for women in Central America; facilitating debate around masculinity and violence; and challenging street harassment. The image of birds flying in front of the cathedral in the Nicaraguan city of León speaks to me of how even then most static religious structures are in constant and dynamic relationship with lived experience and movements for change.  

 How do you think the Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to and enrich discussion and action on the topic of gender activism today? Is there more we can do? What else should we post?

 The creativity, commitment and community generated by the Shiloh Project seem to me to be important resources for challenging gender-based violence. At the conference last summer, the creativity of the presentations and discussion reminded me of the gift of collaboration between academics and artists, and how creativity is often a source of resistance to violence and oppression. The passionate commitment around naming and shaming violence within the biblical texts and within our own lived contexts was energizing. In particular, I was struck bythe naming of Abraham as a rapist (see a blog post about this paper by Zanne Domoney-Lyttle here). Why is Abraham (and Sarah’s) abuse of Hagar not identified as sexual violence? It reminded me how fiercely faith communities seek to protect the male ‘heroes’ within the biblical text, and how difficult it can be to name what is clearly stated in the text. Finally, the conference enabled me to connect with other scholars and activists working to challenge gender-based violence. The welcoming and supportive atmosphere of the conference reminded me of how important I had found similar networks, such as the Catholic women theologians’ network, Teologanda, of which I had loved being part while living in Argentina.

 In the year ahead, how will you contribute to advancing the aims and goals of The Shiloh Project?  

 I’m currently working on a new edition of SCM Studyguide to Biblical Hermeneutics (2006), co-written with David Holgate. The revised edition will deepen and develop material on how we read the Bible attentive to multiple identities and contexts, as well as exploring resistant readings of the text, drawing on the work of scholars such as Phyllis Trible and Oral A. W. Thomas. Inspired by Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar’s presentation at the Shiloh Project’s Religion and Rape Conference (see a blog post on this presentation here), we ask what kinds of stories do we allow the Bible to tell? And making further use of the work of Gina Hens-Piazza, we suggest ways of seeing, denouncing and resisting violence present within biblical texts and their interpretation. Hens-Piazza’s commentary on Lamentations, part of the new Wisdom Commentary series, is a powerful testimony to the importance of resisting the violence of the text.

With Dulcie Dixon Mckenzie, Director of the Centre for Black Theology at Queen’s, I recently developed a new module for the Common Awards programme, entitled Intersectional Theologies (see here). While the notion of intersectionality has been part of academic discourse for some time, there has been less attention within theology to the complexities of identity and dynamics of power. A particular hope is that the module will generate theological resources appropriate to contemporary British contexts. This module has the potential to be used by any of the nineteen theological institutions working with Durham University as part of Common Awards. At Queen’s, this module will help students make deeper connections between earlier modules focused on Black Theology and on Theology and Gender.

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The Religion and Rape Culture Conference: A Summary


The first Religion and Rape Culture conference was a huge success. We welcomed over 50 delegates from 6 countries and were treated to 14 fantastic research papers from a range of academics, research students, practitioners, artists, activists, and members of religious groups. The aim of the day was to explore the many intersections between religion and rape culture, and how religion can both participate in and contest rape culture discourses and practices.

Click here to see videos of our research talks

The conference opened with a powerful keynote address entitled “Rape by any other name: Cross-examining biblical evidence“ from Professor Cheryl Exum (Emeritus Professor, University of Sheffield). Professor Exum presented delegates with a survey of rapes in the bible, and demonstrated in her talk the ways in which commentators often work overtime to elide this violence. Professor Exum ended her address with a challenge to biblical scholars to make rape a visible issue in the discipline. Professor Exum continues to be an inspiration to staff and students in Biblical Studies, and is responsible for carving out a space for Sheffield as a leading place for feminist biblical interpretation.

After a short break, our first panel convened who explored “Biblical Perspectives” of rape culture discourses. This panel, chaired by Dr Johanna Stiebert, was well received, with thought-provoking papers from a variety of disciplines:

Lily Clifford (Inclusive Arts MA, University of Brighton) & Emma Nagouse (PhD Candidate, University of Sheffield): How to make a ghost: A collaborative approach to finding Dinah

Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar (PhD Candidate, Drew University):  For such a time as this? #UsToo: Representations of sexual trafficking, collective trauma, and horror in the book of Esther

Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris (Principal, Leo Baeck College): This may not be a love story: Ruth, rape, and the limits of readings strategies

Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar discussing her research with a delegate.

As well as presenting on this panel, we were thrilled to welcome Lily Clifford from the University of Brighton as an artist in residence for the conference, who crafted creative responses to each of the presentations as they unfolded. We were delighted that this was received so warmly by delegates and our presenters – who were each able to keep their artwork.

Lily working during the conference

Our next panel,  “Theology and Thought” was chaired by Dr Valerie Hobbs and included papers which explored some of the ways in which Christian discourses and ideologies have engaged with rape culture, both historically and in contemporary contexts. These were fantastic papers, and while some of this content was challenging to listen to, they served to bring focus to how important and timely this research is.

Natalie Collins (Gender Justice Specialist, SPARK):  The Evil Sirens: Evangelical Christian culture, pornography and the perpetuation of rape culture

Claire Cunnington (PhD Candidate, University of Sheffield): “My prayers weren’t being answered”: The intersection of religion and recovery from childhood sexual abuse

Rhian Elinor Keyse (PhD Candidate, University of Exeter): “A man cannot in law be convicted of rape upon his own wife”: Custom, Christianity, colonialism, and sexual consent in forced marriage cases, British colonial Africa, 1932–1945

Rhian Elinor Keyse and Lily (conference artist) discussing Lily’s artistic response to Rhian’s research paper

After (a delicious) lunch, we picked things up again with our “Method, Critique and Discourse” panel chaired by Dr Meredith Warren. This was an interdisciplinary panel which explored the various ways rape culture is expressed politically by both oppressors, and those who seek to resist it. This was a fascinating session that inspired a lively panel discussion.

Kathryn Barber (PhD Candidate, University of Cardiff): “Rape is a liberal disease”: An analysis of alternative rape culture perpetuated by far-right extremists online

Dr Rachel Starr (Director of Studies: UG programmes, The Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Research): Research as resistance: Survival strategies for researching violence

Professor Daphne Hampson (Associate of the Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of Oxford): Religion as gender politics

Questions being taken by the Method, Critique and Discourse panel
A rapt audience listening to Dr Rachel Starr’s presentation on “Research as resistance: Survival strategies for researching violence”

Our final panel, “Media and Culture” was chaired by Dr Naomi Hetherington and included papers which explored how rape and rape culture discourses are presented in literature and artistic contexts. We couldn’t have hoped for more engaging talks to round off the day’s panel discussions.

Mary Going (PhD Candiate, University of Sheffield): Mother Zion, Daughter Zion, Witch Zion: An exploration of Scott’s Rebecca

Dr Miryam Sivan (Lecturer, University of Haifa): Negotiating the silence: Sexual violence in Israeli Holocaust fiction

Dr Zanne Domoney-Lyttle (Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Glasgow): The Handmaid’s Jail: Framing sexual assault and rape narratives in biblical comics

The Religion and Rape Culture Conference was closed by a fantastic keynote address from Associate Professor Rhiannon Graybill (Rhodes College) entitled “Fuzzy, messy, icky: The edges of consent in biblical rape narratives and rape culture”. Graybill’s research brought feminist literature problematising the notion of consent to bear on biblical stories of sexual violence and rape, as well as the ways in which we as feminists read and respond to those stories. Graybill asked what a serious critique of consent means to a feminist biblical hermeneutic of sexual violence, and in response,  explored how feminists might engage with these texts beyond the position of mourning or recovering. We were thrilled to host Professor Graybill, and her insightful research has continued to be a point of discussion since the conference. We’re so excited to continue to work with Professor Graybill through The Shiloh Project.

After a break, there was a drinks reception where everyone was invited to view our research posters. Authors who were in attendance were invited to speak for one minute about their poster. Topics included: Consenting Adults? Faith formation’s less-than-immaculate conception of consent (Catherine Kennedy, University of Sheffield); Preaching Texts of Horror: How Christian Pastors teach about Dinah, the Levite’s Concubine, Tamar, and Potiphar’s Wife (Dr Valerie Hobbs, University of Sheffield); A Climate of Taboo: Trauma and the graphic novel Blankets (Hugo Ljungbäck, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee); Veils and ventriloquists: How do creative interpretations depict narratives of trauma for those who remain voiceless? (Lily Clifford, University of Brighton); “Life made no sense without a beating”: Religion and rape culture in US Girls’ In a Poem Unlimited (Liam Ball, University of Sheffield), and The girl needs some monster in her man: Rape Culture, cis-male allyship and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Ashley Darrow, Manchester Metropolitan University and Emma Nagouse, University of Sheffield).

What kept coming up in discussion was pedagogical questions on how these challenging topics should be taught in educational settings such as universities and colleges, but also in religious settings. It became clear that academics, teachers, practitioners, and activists alike all craved more tools when it comes to how to teach, research, and facilitate discussions around these urgent and important issues. Perhaps a topic for a future conference…? You can see some of the online interaction from the conference by searching for #ShilohConf18 on Twitter.

It was a powerful, energising and galvanising day – and, on a personal note, I was thrilled with the huge amount of interest we received from a cross-section of people from a wide variety of sectors and community groups, and the level of extremely positive and encouraging feedback we received from participants.

We would like to take this opportunity to extend our warmest thanks to WRoCAH for funding this much-needed conference. We look forward to continuing this important work and making the most of the inspiration, networks, and new friends which were made at our first conference.

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Broken Bodies: Trauma, Ruptures, and Theology


It was once believed that [traumatic] events were uncommon. In 1980, when post-traumatic stress disorder was first included in the diagnostic manual, the American Psychiatric Association described traumatic events as “outside the range of usual human experience.” Sadly, this definition has proved to be inaccurate. Rape, battery, and other forms of sexual and domestic violence are so common a part of women’s lives that they can hardly be described as outside the range of ordinary experience. And in view of the number of people killed in war over the past century, military trauma, too, must be considered a common part of human experience; only the fortunate find it unusual (Herman, 1992: 33).

So opens Judith Herman’s chapter on Terror in her influential book Trauma and Recovery. Writing in 1992, she could hardly have known how prescient her words would be nearly 30 years later. Trauma, it seems, is now a common part of human experience.

As a theologian concerned with human experience, particularly the embodied, material experience, I am aware that we are only just beginning to understand the impact trauma has not only on individual lives, but also on theology. The field of trauma theology is nascent but growing and finding its place somewhere in the intersection of practical and constructive theology. That is to say, trauma theology is interested in the embodied experience of people and in shaping theology that takes account of such experience.

It is from this intersection that my own research into trauma theology began. I was interested in the way in which the experience of trauma causes a rupture. Taking the experience of trauma seriously in theology means contending with the rupture it causes. For the constructive theologian, such a rupture is an ideal place to begin constructing something new. I think of it in terms of an earthquake. Trauma shakes the foundations of our theology; the devasted landscape it leaves behind is the place where we can begin to build fresh theology. Theology that is better able to withstand such a rupture.

Trauma is intimately connected to bodies and memories. The traumatic experience is profoundly individual and yet, almost all traumatic experiences share three things in common:

  1. Trauma causes a rupture in bodily integrity. You do not feel safe.
  2. Trauma causes a rupture in time. This is often seen in the frequent intrusion of nightmares and flashbacks.
  3. Trauma causes a rupture in cognition. You cannot readily articulate what has happened to you.

I wondered what would happen if we read theology through the lens of trauma. The most obvious place where bodies and memories come together, in Christian doctrine, is in the Eucharist. Here we are given a body, we are told it is flesh and blood. We are told to consume it in memory of Jesus. Whilst this is a very familiar activity, it is a ritual full of ambiguity. We often make the connection to the cross and yet I find this odd! The Last Supper happens before the crucifixion so when Jesus says “This is my body” and “Do this in remembrance of me”, he isn’t referring to his dead body, but his living one! So, eschewing the easy answers, I went in search of a traumatic theology of the Eucharist that was not only focused on the cross.

The early church had a wide range of theological understandings of the Eucharist. One of the most common was to understand the Eucharist as a generative act. In fact, these early liturgies drew their reference points from the Incarnation as often as they did from the crucifixion. The transformation of bread and wine into flesh and blood was as likely to be paralleled with the experience of Mary at the Annunciation as anything else; something material and physical is transformed into something transcendent and divine.

Mary’s experience at the Annunciation is a traumatic one. Regardless of whether you consider her to agree to her impregnation or not, her body is ruptured to make way for someone else. That she is suddenly pregnant without the preface of intercourse, ruptures the usual timelines of reproduction – a radical discontinuity in the history of humanity. And the event escapes accessibility. Mary is perplexed and confused.

What happens when we read the Eucharist like this, when we understand the celebration of the Eucharist to be a non-identical repetition of the traumatic Annunciation-Incarnation event? It means we have to take human bodies seriously in theology. It means the Eucharist is as intimately associated with the broken female body as it is with a broken male body. We have to reassess what it means to be a priest, what sacrifice looks like, what Real Presence might mean. Trauma ruptures theology and leaves behind it a space for new theological constructions.

It is this theological construction that I undertake in my book Broken Bodies: The Eucharist, Mary, and the Body in Trauma Theology which will be published with SCM Press in November 2018.

I am currently working on an edited volume with Dr Katie Cross (University of Aberdeen) focused on feminist and trauma theologies. Trauma theology is a rare field of theology that is well-represented by women’s voices. Many of these theologians are clearly informed by feminist theology, if not overtly feminist, in their approach to the study of trauma. This isn’t surprising given that the issues of trauma are similar to, and intimately connected with, feminist issues—questions around power, control over the body, bodily integrity, activism, and narration of experience as liberative—to give just a few examples.

We are currently accepting proposals for contributing to the volume. Abstracts are due in 7th September 2018. For more information on how you can get involved, take a look at our website or get in touch with me at karen.o’


Karen O’Donnell is a Research Fellow at Durham University where she spends her time researching digital theology, trauma, and theological anthropology.



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Book Review: Rape Culture, Gender Violence, & Religion: Biblical Perspectives


There are perks to contributing to a book: hence, I recently received, hot off the press, my own copy of Rape Culture, Gender Violence, & Religion: Biblical Perspectives. I have since read eagerly through all chapters, with an ever-growing sense that this is a particularly timely and relevant publication.

The volume is one of three, all edited by the formidable triumvirate of Caroline Blyth, Emily Colgan and Katie B. Edwards and published by Palgrave Macmillan in the Religion and Radicalism series. The other two volumes carry the subtitles Christian Perspectives and Interdisciplinary Perspectives and I look forward to reading these next.

General Comments

The editors explain that the three volumes grew out of pressure to explore ‘the complex and multifaceted relationships between rape culture, gender violence, and religion’ in a context where such investigation was ‘well overdue and therefore urgent’ (p.v). Finding themselves inundated with responses to their general call for chapters, the one volume initially envisaged became three. It is only too clear that rape culture manifestations and gender-based violence have reached epidemic levels in many and diverse settings across the globe. Indeed, it was during the editing stages that #MeToo hit the headlines, making this visible, certainly in popular and social media of the USA and UK but also well beyond.

The three volumes, while substantial, make no pretense of being exhaustive in their analysis of either rape culture, or gender violence, or religion, or of the dynamics between all three. The Biblical Perspectives volume does not offer a definition of rape culture, or provide a thorough commentary on the rape texts of the Bible. There are other books to consult for that.[1]

While the texts that tend to spring to mind first when hearing ‘rape’ and ‘Bible’ – such as Genesis 34 (‘The Rape of Dinah’), Judges 19 (‘The Rape of the Levite’s Wife’), and 2 Samuel 13 (‘The Rape of Tamar’) – are all discussed, there is also focus on texts that are less likely to come to mind (such as Numbers 31), or that do not seem to be explicitly about rape (such as Lamentations 3, Numbers 25 and the passages on the Virgin Mary in the New Testament). The chapters in this book stimulate conversations about a complex and many-sided topic, both by informing and by calling out for social justice advocacy.


Advocacy runs as a thread throughout the volume. Lu Skerratt speaks of their reading lenses as ‘modes of activism’ (p.18) and ‘conduits of social justice’ (p.22); Jessica Keady states that ‘we surely have a responsibility to contest these [rape] discourses, both in the biblical texts and within our own cultural locations’ (p.79); David Tombs writes that ‘a contemporary reader is entitled, indeed obliged, to consider the events in [the biblical] tradition from these [raped] women’s perspective’ (p.126); Emma Nagouse validates Lamentations 3 as a portrayal of male rape and as the first step in redressing victim-blaming, arguing that ‘such an interpretive strategy is invaluable, if not necessary, given our location as biblical readers and interpreters within a global rape culture’ (p.154); James Harding’s investigation of ancient texts is motivated by resistance to collusion with rape culture and homophobia; Susanne Scholz calls for feminist interpreters to go beyond ‘a “cop-out” hermeneutics’ (p.181) and to embrace ‘exegetical resistance’ to the ‘marginalizing patterns of violence, including gendered violence, so pervasive in the world today’ (p.194); and Emily Colgan and Caroline Blyth insist on the ‘importance of persisting – and persisting and persisting – with … tough conversations’ (p.26). Reading this book is not a quiet or private experience – it tickles the conscience, seizes attention, inspires to activism.

I see why the book will not please everyone in biblical studies. (Unanimity of any kind would, indeed, be improbable in such a divided discipline.) First, as already stated, this is not and does not pretend to be a thorough or systematic exploration of biblical texts about rape. Instead, it is a collection centred around the Bible and gendered violence in which every chapter throws a surprise into the mix by interfacing biblical texts with things from contemporary worlds: such as films and television shows, empirical research from Indonesia, newspaper reports of a forced marriage in Wales, or Title IX. Secondly, while there is certainly close reading of biblical texts and some focus on Hebrew vocabulary, ancient translations and possible original contexts (notably, Harding’s contribution) many of the traditional preoccupations, such as with date of composition, identification of Sitz im Leben, or evidence of redaction, for instance, are played down, or absent. And thirdly, not all contributors are academics and some are academics choosing to channel creative interpretive expression (notably, Klangwisan). The result is a stimulating fizz that makes the Bible a shape-shifting text, both relevant in a complex and media-inundated now-ness and a means to illuminate disturbing realities of both past and present.

Reviewing the Chapters

The succinct introduction by the volume’s editors makes the case that the Bible, being both sacred and violent, needs to be held accountable. Undeniably, its ‘articulations of gender violence have accrued significant authority and power across space and time’ (p.2) and this authority and power apply not only to its canonical force in Jewish and Christian congregations but also to influence exerted on ‘contemporary social discourses that (implicitly or explicitly) draw upon the ideologies inherent within biblical texts to justify multiple forms of gender violence’ (p.2).

Not to probe and resist this authority, power and influence runs the risk of colluding in, perpetuating, justifying or legitimating gender-based violence. The charge that such an exercise is ‘anachronistic’ and therefore insufficient in terms of ‘epistemological rigour’ (p.4) is rejected – and I applaud this. Let me dwell briefly on the fact that the charge of ‘anachronism’ is quite common – especially when it comes to methods of biblical criticism that reveal and challenge ideologies. Such charges are made, for instance, by certain conservative theological commentators and are usually targeted at something they reject: feminism is a prominent contender. (The application of Christological interpretation to the Hebrew Bible, on the other hand, is not acknowledged as anachronism by these same commentators.) By labeling feminist interpretation of the Bible as ‘anachronistic’ and arguing that people of antiquity had no awareness of the preoccupations of modern feminism, feminism is dismissed as irrelevant and ‘unbiblical’ (and therefore as ‘not good’), while, conversely, non-feminist ideological values, including some responsible for keeping women oppressed, are promoted. This is one way of relegating domestic duties and childrearing to women (‘because that is what the Bible promotes’), and at the same time rejecting ‘feminist ideas’ about women joining the workforce and enjoying equal rights in terms of work conditions and pay. One example of very many making this this kind of argument is by husband and wife A. J. and M. E. Köstenberger[2] who characterize feminist critics as completely wrongheaded. Their publications promote the belief that the Bible advocates that men and women each have a ‘unique yet equally significant and indispensable set of roles in the family and the church’  – an example of the ‘different but equal’ fallacy. The perspective of biblical critics who resist such is that certain biblical texts provide cause for challenging gendered depictions or ideologies that are discriminatory – a challenge that feminist or gender criticism[3] is aptly equipped to make.

The contributions in this volume offer and defend engagements with biblical texts that are both critical and creative. Moreover, the contributions maintain a steady focus on the present, because there is (sadly) nothing outdated or anachronistic about gender-based violence.

Both Lu Skerratt and Emma Nagouse focus on the book of Lamentations. Lamentations is a short, poetic book of the Hebrew Bible, depicting in graphic terms the brutalities attending the Fall of Jerusalem. Nagouse’s focus is concentrated on the Man of Sorrows (Lamentations 3) whom she counter-points with Jamie Fraser of the television series Outlander, with particular focus on what she identifies as the shared theme of male-male rape. Skerratt focuses on the feminine metaphor of abused Daughter Zion and on ‘shared themes, characters and discourses’ (p.15) with the novel Push and its film adaptation Precious. Skerratt co-opts the masculine imagery of Lamentations 3 alongside the feminine imagery to make a case for the book’s brutal and divinely administered misogyny (p.21). Both chapters offer examples of how modern literature and filmic adaptations illuminate and reveal affinities with biblical texts. Both chapters are open, too, about a personal and subjective filter.

Skerratt argues that for all their separation in terms of space and time both Daughter Zion and Precious are females whose bodies are inscribed with ‘multiple inequalities’ (p.24). For Skerratt there exists between them ‘a deep connection to the nuances of human life in times of great despair and crisis’ (p.27). Skerratt also maintains that through watching Precious – an unrelenting and harrowing film about all of child abuse, incest, poverty, teenage pregnancy, disability, social marginalization, racism and HIV – compassion can be extended also to the nameless women of Lamentations and others of the past and present who suffer like them (p.23). This, in turn, Skerratt advocates, will provide a rallying call for bringing about change. That this is personal for them is clear throughout Skerratt’s paper. The chapter’s opening sentence identifies Lamentations as a biblical book that affects Skerratt profoundly and they wonder openly whether the book’s emphasis on ‘the marginalized, oppressed, violated, and othered’ (p.14) is what attracts them to it.

Nagouse describes watching the Outlander episode that depicts unflinchingly Captain Jack Randall’s rape of Jamie Fraser as ‘deeply thought-provoking’ and a catalyst for considering ‘the biblical tradition with fresh eyes’ (p.144). Nagouse, moreover, feels compelled to explore and understand connections between the two due to her location as reader and interpreter ‘within a global rape culture’ (p.154). Nagouse is careful to state that she cannot know the intention of the author of Lamentations 3, including whether the purpose of the pericope is to portray suffering in terms of the experience of rape. Her exploration yields a number of astute observations, including that what the Man of Sorrows witnesses (namely the rape of women) may provide insight into what he himself has experienced (p.152) and also that suffering brutality can generate not only revulsion and horror towards the perpetrator but also a sense of dependency, even attachment (p.154).

In different ways Skerratt and Nagouse both demonstrate that reading and interpreting biblical texts, including texts of sexual violence, do not happen in a vacuum but in a richly inter-textual context. Both, moreover, have been led by the vivid and brutal imagery of Lamentations, in conjunction with representations of violence from modern media, to appropriate, explore and empathize with those who have suffered trauma outside of their own experience. Hence, Skerratt is moved ‘to stand with BME women in the United States who are disproportionally affected and stigmatized for having an HIV-positive status’ (p.22) and Nagouse compels us to listen to and to believe male victims of rape so that the cycle of trauma and re-traumatization can begin to be dismantled (p.155).

David Tombs also uses popular culture media to attempt to gain insight into ancient texts of sexual violence. Tombs explores the popular youth television series 13 Reasons Why, as well the book by Jay Asher on which it is based. (For an earlier version of his chapter, see here). The plot of both book and series centres on the character Hannah Baker who has committed suicide – or, more accurately, on the tape recordings recounting the reasons for her suicide. The biblical text with which Tombs interfaces some of these reasons – namely, Hannah’s rape by Bryce Walker, the possible collusion of Hannah’s ‘friend’ Courtney Crimsen and the inadequate response of the school guidance counselor when Hannah tries to tell him what happened – is from the David story in 2 Samuel. The story element, which cursorily recounts the fate of David’s ten concubines who are raped by Absalom in a display of his power, is not well known. While 13 Reasons Why gives extensive insight into Hannah’s interior life, the concubines’ perspective receives no mention in the biblical text (p.126). Tombs’ reading strategy is particularly deft because his dialogic approach allows the biblical text and Hannah’s experience ‘to speak to and illuminate each other… reveal[ing] how they each attest to the devastating impact of gender violence on victims’ lives and identities’ (p.119). In doing so, Tombs makes revealing insights about both Courtney Crimsen’s and King David’s complicity in tacit acts of ‘sexual “offering” motivated by… self-interest’ (p.131). Tombs also points out how important it is to name not only Hannah’s but also the concubines’ experience as rape (p.134, n.8) and to make efforts to identify and understand the perspectives of the marginal and victimized (p.126). Without such efforts, Tombs warns, churches and other religious communities might reinforce ‘the stigmatization and discrimination felt by survivors of sexual violence’ (p.127).

Interestingly, all of Skerratt, Nagouse and Tombs practise a form of appropriation in that they each use biblical texts alongside (arguably) more accessible contemporary popular media to gain insight and empathy and to speak out for persons or groups very different to themselves. In Skerratt’s case, it is HIV-positive BME women in the USA; in Nagouse’s, it is victims of male-male rape, and in Tombs’, it is young and suicidal female victims of rape. The word ‘appropriation’ has – with justification – had some bad press: such as in the sense of cultural appropriation, for instance.  In all three cases here, however, what is going on is not some form of impersonation or voyeurism but a passionate effort to resist damaging political or cultural control and domination.[4]

I will not say much about my chapter in the volume – because it always feels weird to review one’s own writing. Suffice it to say that my chapter, too, interprets select biblical texts alongside portrayals from popular culture, with particular emphasis on eroticized brother-sister relations. The chapter grew out from research for my most recent monograph on first-degree incest and the Hebrew Bible (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016)

The chapter by James Harding examines a number of biblical texts – including Judges 19–21 and Numbers 31 – in order to probe contexts of both antiquity and modernity that make homophobia and rape culture possible. Harding is a scholar I particularly admire – both for his formidable breadth of knowledge and the thoroughness of his scholarship. This chapter amply demonstrates both. Harding, as ever, proceeds cautiously, ‘always alert to the manifold risks of anachronism and trans-cultural misprision’ (p.169), and illustrates how rape culture is ‘woven into the very identities’ of both the ‘narratives… canonised and scripturalised in the Hebrew Bible’ and the ‘literary heritage of the Graeco-Roman’ world. Both, he points out, have ‘played a complex and variegated role in shaping the cultures and intellectual history of Western Europe, and, by extension, those cultures that have fallen under their spell’ (p.160).

Harding’s examination is nuanced and carefully contextualized, paying close attention also to significant items of vocabulary. He illustrates that a narrative like Judges 21 ‘invests a particular sort of rape – of virgin girls in a war of sacral revenge – with the odour of sanctity and religious obedience, and this odour of sanctity and obedience is profoundly gendered’ (p.166). Alongside identifying masculine domination of women, Harding also demonstrates ‘the ingrained homophobia of the societies implied by the texts’ (p.167). He is careful to stress that such passages as Genesis 19:1-11 and Judges 19:22-30 (where male-male rape is threatened) have ‘nothing to do with “homosexuality” or “homosexual” rape, but everything to do with an ancient form of homophobia grounded in an implicit understanding of sex as a matter of the sexually mediated power of men over women, and over other men’ (p.167). Harding ends his chapter with a question: ‘If, as readers, we are prepared to collude in [projecting our own dark lies on to others], should we not at the same time ask ourselves with honesty how our own beliefs, thoughts, and acts enable all manner of gender-based violence to thrive?’ (p.169). Harding’s acute dissection of words, literary and social settings, values and projections is powerful in its demonstration of how deeply rooted and pervasive sexual violence is.

The chapter by Yael Klangwisan is strikingly original and, like Harding’s, haunting – though in a different way. Whereas Harding’s method is one of going deep down into the text, peeling back its layers and turning its words and depictions this way and that, Klangwisan uses the biblical text as her starting point to build up a new imagining. She begins by citing the short text of focus: Numbers 25:8, 14-15, describing how Phinehas the priest impales Zimri and Cozbi. This may not be the first text that springs to mind when picking up a book on ‘rape culture and the Bible’ but it is certainly a text about violence and sex. Klangwisan follows scholar Helena Zlotnick Sivan in interpreting Phinehas’s actions ‘as a rape that delegitimizes Cozbi’s relationship with Zimri “to a level of arbitrary passion”’ (p.113, n.3). She also describes the spear as ‘like an iron phallus’ (p.109). Klangwisan puts herself firmly into the chapter, following the quoted biblical text with a statement of immediacy: ‘I’ll be honest with you. I want to save them’ (p.103). In this way, the distance between biblical text, the chapter’s author and the reader is broken down. Next, Klangwisan vividly evokes the events of the text, weaving through, like a commentary, the voices of Roland Barthes and Hélène Cixous. The chapter makes the reader imagine the ‘miasma of horror’ (p.109) described in the text – something they may not have done at the outset when casting eyes across a short few biblical verses. Re-read with Klangwisan’s illumination, the text becomes ‘a violation of a kind of love that might have, had it lived, overcome cultural difference’ and the names of Zimri and Cozbi become ‘like a gift at the end of this text’ (p.109). Like Tombs but using a different strategy, Klangwisan insists on validating and not shrouding that a terrible and violent act has been committed. Also like Tombs, she insists on us imagining the scene and probing its multiple perspectives and its characters’ motivations. I am looking forward to using this chapter by Klangwisan in the classroom, as a way to make biblical texts – which can strike modern readers as remote and inaccessible – more immediate and more vivid.

The chapters by Julie Kelso and Susanne Scholz both offer surveys on topics pertinent to rape culture, sexual violence and the Bible. Kelso[5] focuses on the important work on the relationship between biblical texts and violence against women by Andrea Dworkin. As Kelso points out, Dworkin’s contribution has been unfairly sidelined, as well as misrepresented and maligned as ‘sex-negative’. In no small part, Kelso illustrates, this has been because she is an outspoken woman. Dworkin’s articulation that sexual intercourse plays a significant role in male-dominated and male-supremacist societies through its contribution to women’s ‘erosion of the self and the compliant acceptance of lower status’ (p.84) is not easy to hear. As Kelso makes clear, Dworkin has never said all intercourse is rape – for all the claims to the contrary in mainstream media and cyberspace (p.84). Moreover, a number of men (Kelso quotes Leo Tolstoy as one example) have also argued that intercourse ‘makes exploiters of men and slaves of women’ (p.91) – but they (tellingly) are not consequently labeled ‘sex-negative’. Kelso’s bleak conclusion is that Dworkin’s call to recognize certain biblical texts (such as Genesis 2:4-4:1 and the Leviticus sexuality laws) as a means to institutionalize and sacralize intercourse for the purpose of male domination remains relevant, even urgent (p.98). Kelso is absolutely right that Dworkin’s work on the interpretation of biblical texts has receded into the remote peripheries of biblical studies. Kelso’s case for redressing this situation and depicting accurately what Dworkin does and does not say is persuasive.

Scholz’s chapter begins with the statement issued by the US Office for Civil Rights in April 2011, which explains that under Title IX of the US Education Amendments it is an obligation to eliminate sexual harassment and sexual violence. This leads to her personal observation that academia demonstrates ‘general reticence’ in the face of sexual violence (p.181). Scholz next turns to biblical scholarship, which she criticizes for being ‘consistently in the position of catching up with socio-cultural, political, and intellectual developments’ (p.190). Scholz calls for going beyond a ‘“cop-out” hermeneutics’ (p.181), such as by better connecting ‘gender, race, and class to explain the pervasiveness of rape’ (p.184). Alongside this rallying call to action (and such calls are something of a hallmark of this volume), Scholz also provides a succinct summary of feminist theories on rape, beginning with Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will: Women, Men, and Rape (1975), before providing a survey of feminist scholarship on biblical rape texts. Confirming her statement about a ‘catch-up’ tendency, Scholz points out that the first feminist exegetical study on sexual violence in the Bible did not appear until 1984: namely, Phyllis Trible’s Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. From here, Scholz follows the trickle onwards to the work of J. Cheryl Exum (‘Raped by the Pen’, in Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)versions of Biblical Narratives, 1993) and Renita J. Weems (Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets, 1995), towards the flood of studies since 2000, which includes alongside Scholz’s own works, those of Gerlinde Baumann, Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan, Cheryl Anderson, Mary Anna Bader, Hilary B. Lipka, Joy A. Schroeder, Carleen Mandolfo, Frank M. Yamada and Caroline Blyth.

Scholz also calls out for more boldness, such as for greater emphasis on socially located readings of the Bible. Especially when it comes to a topic like sexual violence, what she characterizes as adherence to ‘principles of a scientific-empiricist epistemology’ (p.190) can have the effect of minimizing and obfuscating ‘the violent and coercive nature of rape’ (p.192). Scholz adds that such happens particularly prominently among white feminist interpreters (p.191). Coming back to the Title IX statement, Scholz also demands greater boldness on the meta-level – that is, for more in-depth attention to method and methodology in the discipline of feminist biblical studies, including in terms of understanding biblical rape texts ‘as sites of struggle over meaning-making, authorization, and power’ (p.193). Both Kelso and Scholz bring attention back to the process and to the responsibility of doing feminist interpretation of biblical rape texts. As such they complement well the volume’s chapters that engage in such processes.

Teguh Wijaya Mulya and Jessica M. Keady both respond to biblical texts in the light of direct encounters with contemporary expressions of sexual violence. Wijaya Mulya recounts how his queering reflections on the virgin/whore binary were set in motion during an interview with young Indonesian Christians to find out more about understandings of sexual violence. One 18-year-old male participant he quotes describes how as a young teenager he groped a young woman as a ‘prank’, which he self-designated as ‘naughty’. This act of harassment is not only mitigated but also justified by him, with the statement that the girl was a ‘cheap girl’ – that is, a girl presumed no longer to be a virgin (p.52). From here, Wijaya Mulya expounds how tenuous the binary of virgin/whore is, citing not only hybrid counter-examples such as Ezili, who is portrayed as both promiscuous/flamboyant, and as Black Madonna (p.58), merging whore and virgin imagery, but also the presence of Mary in a genealogy of sexualized women (Matthew 1). In a number of ways, as Wijaya Mulya illustrates, ‘virgin’ and ‘whore’ are not poles apart but have overlapping characteristics, including a shared focus on sexuality. Moreover, not only the whore or ‘cheap girl’ is vulnerable to sexual violence, but so is the virgin: hence, the source of Mary’s pregnancy ‘conveys nuances of attacking, overtaking, overshadowing, and enveloping’. Wijaya Mulyah expands on this as follows: ‘[Mary] is essentially told that something will do some thing to her, with the result that she will get pregnant. Most importantly, the angel does not ask for her consent’ (p.57). Like other authors in the volume, Wijaya Mulyah hopes his analysis will have positive ramifications in lived life. His wish is for resistance to ‘normalization of sexual violence in this context and elsewhere’, so that through demonstrating ‘that the notion of violence as a “logical consequence” for women located by others in the “whore” category becomes both unintelligible and unacceptable’ (p.62).

Lamentably, Wijaya Mulyah’s contribution is the only one in the volume focused on New Testament (rather than Hebrew Bible) texts. As Meredith Warren and others writing for the Shiloh Project blog have demonstrated, the New Testament is far from immune from the taint of rape culture.

Keady’s examination of biblical and contemporary conceptions of gendered violence and purity discourses uses Genesis 34 as its pivot. (For Keady’s earlier and shorter version, see here.) Keady defends the dominant feminist position that Genesis 34 recounts Shechem’s rape of Dinah, refuting the minority of scholars who argue that there is no evidence of either coercion or violence (p.75). Keady also maintains that some of the disturbing subtexts in both the biblical text itself (e.g. the notion that the rape defiles and cheapens Dinah, p.77) and in interpretations of Genesis 34 (e.g. that Shechem’s soul is drawn to Dinah and that he speaks tenderly to her suggests a romance and refutes that this is a narrative of rape, p.75–76) persist into the present.

For one example of evidence Keady refers to a recent case brought before the court in Cardiff (2015) concerning a man who raped a woman and then forced her to marry him. As Keady points out, not only the man’s method of coercion (he threatened to release camera footage of the rape victim naked in the shower with a view to destroying her prospects of marriage, because she was ‘damaged goods’) but also both the judge’s summing up and the journalist’s recounting of events demonstrate what Keady characterizes as a persistent form of ‘purity culture ideology’. This ideology includes the projection of an impression that the woman, no longer a virgin, ‘is reduced to something less valuable, an impure, damaged body that “no one would want”’ (p.70).

For Keady, to ignore or downplay problematic, such as misogynistic, discourses of the Bible risks re-encoding oppression in the present. Whereas Klangwisan, through imaginative enhancement, demonstrates this by not letting the sparseness of a violent biblical text get away with its violence, Keady, like Harding, makes clear that what is toxic and present in the ancient text has not gone away and must be fervently resisted.

The final chapter of the volume is by two of its editors, Emily Colgan and Caroline Blyth. I particularly like this chapter, on teaching in the context of Aotearoa New Zealand, because it reminds me that biblical gender violence is a topic of conversation for a diverse range of public spaces, including the classroom. The chapter is concise and manages to distil a great number of important points in very few pages. Colgan and Blyth point out that while there are shocking texts in the Bible and while this may surprise even students of faith who consider themselves well versed in Scripture, it is important to engage critically with these texts. While I, probably like Colgan and Blyth too, have been accused in student evaluations of dwelling too much on texts that are ‘controversial’, ‘overtly sexual’, or ‘graphic’ (as if I had put them there myself for some nefarious Christian-dissing purpose), discussing such texts is not about an ‘intention to shock or antagonize… or to provide… the classroom with the equivalent of clickbait’ (p.202). Instead, we teach these texts because they are in the Bible, part of a canonized whole.

As Colgan and Blyth point out, the Bible (or religion framed more widely) may not be the sole or greatest cause of gender violence in either Aotearoa New Zealand or elsewhere but it is a text that ‘both supports and perpetuates violence’ and to ignore this is ‘to contribute to the harm experienced by countless victims’ (p.203). Colgan and Blyth point not only to the problems in the texts, which ‘continue to have power in contemporary communities to sustain rape-supportive discourses’ but also to the difficulties of discussing such texts critically and with integrity in a classroom that may well include either or both persons ‘affected personally by gender violence’ (p.203) and persons ‘who participate in the social structures that sustain gender violence’ (p.204). They raise a set of complex questions: ‘How do we critique rape culture and gender violence, when these are recognized by some of our students as being so closely aligned with their own cultural identities? How do we challenge the unacceptable violence of patriarchy and misogyny while still being sensitive to our students’ investment in their cultural traditions? To what extent can we invite students to critique the traditional underpinnings of their own cultures, particularly when we ourselves do not belong to these cultures?’ (p.205).

By raising these matters Colgan and Blyth throw into relief both the enduring relevance and influence of biblical texts and the important and difficult task of interpreting them in the complex and diverse and globalized contemporary world. This volume provides impetus, motivation, tools and strategies for getting started on this endeavour. I hope this volume gets the big and diverse circulation, engaged readership and active responsiveness to the call for more ‘tough conversations’ (p.10) it so thoroughly deserves.


In numerous ways this volume shows that a Bible scholar’s interpretation is shaped by encounters and experiences in life. Who we are, what and whom we experience become enmeshed in reading, interacting, idea-shaping, researching. The films and television we watch (Skerratt, Stiebert, Tombs, Nagouse) infiltrate our interpretation, as do the people we interview (Wijaya Mulya), the students we teach (Colgan, Blyth), the newspaper articles on court cases or Title IX we scan (maybe on the bus to work) (Keady, Scholz), or the casual prejudices we encounter, such as when male-male rape is characterized as ‘homosexual’ (Harding). Our imagination, shaped by the various exchanges and transactions of life, flow into our reading of biblical texts (Klangwisan) and influence the way we reflect on interpretations, and interpretations of interpretations (!) of the past (Kelso, Scholz). As Scholz argues, especially with a topic such as sexual violence, any notion of critical distance is not only difficult but also potentially highly problematic – hence, the passionate and often explicitly personal level of engagement in this volume.

This past year I have been based in Bamberg, a University town in a part of Bavaria that prefers to distinguish itself as a distinct region called Franconia. It has been a joy to immerse myself in a new academic context and I was delighted to accept an invitation to present my most recent work in the form of an open lecture. The topic – Potiphar’s wife’s harassment of Joseph and her false allegation of rape – is relevant to the Shiloh Project and I have reported on it here. My talk took a close look at Genesis 39 and at how it has been interpreted, both in biblical scholarship and in film and visual art. It also examined how the stereotypes of oversexed ‘foreign’ women, of untrustworthy women crying rape, either for attention, or because they don’t get their way, and of the man as sexual object being ipso facto feminized, play out in the current climate of #MeToo.

While talking, I kept noticing a man sitting near the front who looked very disgruntled. He made some exasperated noises and leafed energetically in his Bible, so that I could not help but be aware of him. When it came to time for questions, the man spoke up. He didn’t really ask a question. Instead he stated that my approach was not responsible, because I was not reading the story in its historical setting. I countered by saying first, that the precise historical context is difficult to salvage, not least because the story has probably been edited over and modified throughout a considerable space of time and secondly, that while an ancient text, the story continues to be read and sought out in present time and that the contemporary interpretive context has bearing on how Genesis 39 is read.

Afterwards I learned that the disgruntled questioner was none other than Professor Doktor Klaus Bieberstein, the University’s Professor for Old Testament Studies whom I had not met before. (I have been working while here on the Bible in Africa Studies series, ‘BiAS’, which is led by Joachim Kügler, Chair of New Testament Studies.) I felt unhappy about the lack of an opportunity to talk a little further with the Professor – there was no opportunity after the lecture – so I sent him an email and we arranged to meet for coffee.

Professor Bieberstein was very happy to talk about his research and considerable range of expertise. He has worked on creation stories, on theodicy and on the impact of archaeology on interpretation of Joshua. What really lit up his somewhat stern face, however, was when he spoke of his research focused on Jerusalem and of the student trip he leads there most years. I began to warm to him a little as he spoke of his visits there and of the many sources he has consulted to get a sense of how Jerusalem was, is and has been remembered through time.

But then we turned to the topic of my work and my lecture. Professor Bieberstein made clear that he considers my work to be part of an undesirable tendency to interpret biblical texts without historical rootedness or awareness. I pointed out that I am trained in biblical languages and in the history of interpretation, that I consider such training valuable. I tried to express that I consider the study of the Bible a discipline with many rooms and approaches and that I respect his methods and scholarship. I also tried to convey that there is scope and value in approaches that emphasize the relevance and resonance of the Bible in the present. Professor Bieberstein did not express any openness to or accommodation of such approaches. So, the coffee meeting did not end on a particularly cheery note. I said goodbye – courteously enough, I hope, and walked away quite sure I would not hear back from the Professor. Indeed, I have not. I did find it a shame that in a smallish town with two Hebrew Bible academics in it we could not get along better. But my feeling was that respect did not flow in two directions: I was able to admire and see value in his work but he could not in mine. So be it.


The reason I mention this encounter is that it makes clear to me that there is quite likely to be not just among students (as Colgan and Blyth identify, p.205) but also among biblical scholars some resistance and even refusal to engage with this volume. Not everyone will consider all or any of the contributions serious and edifying scholarship. Their loss.



[1] For a clear discussion of rape culture, one good source is the first two chapters (‘Rape Culture: The Evolution of a Concept’ and ‘The Mainstreaming of Rape Culture’) in Nickie D. Phillips’ monograph Beyond Blurred Lines: Rape Culture in Popular Media (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). For a book-length examination of rape in the Hebrew Bible, see Susanne Scholz’s Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible (Fortress Press, 2010).

[2] Their book God’s Design for Man and Woman: A Biblical-Theological Survey (Crossway Books, 2014) offers plenty of evidence for this stance.

[3] Neither feminist nor gender criticism is univocal but both draw attention to and resist gender-based discrimination and prejudice. For a nuanced and full discussion on both and on the distinctions between them, as well as for an application of robust gender criticism to biblical texts, see Deryn Guest, Beyond Feminist Biblical Studies (Phoenix, 2012).

[4] For a succinct and subtle examination of appropriation I recommend Adriaan van Klinken, ‘Response: The Politics of Appropriation’, in J. Stiebert and M. W. Dube (eds), The Bible, Centres and Margins: Dialogues between Postcolonial African and British Biblical Scholars (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2018), pp.147–51.

[5] An earlier and longer version of Kelso’s chapter is ‘The Institution of Intercourse: Andrea Dworkin on the Biblical Foundations of Violence Against Women’, The Bible and Critical Theory 12/2 (2016): 24–40. This paper is available online here.

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#HimToo – why Jesus should be recognised as a victim of sexual violence

tenth station of the cross

Katie Edwards, University of Sheffield and David Tombs

The season of Lent is an invitation to the churches, and to anyone else who wishes to do so, to reflect on the disturbing story of the torture and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth as described in the New Testament. It is one of the most widely known and often retold stories in human history. Yet despite being read and remembered so often, there is a part of the story which typically receives little attention and minimal discussion – the stripping of Jesus.

The #MeToo movement has highlighted the prevalence of sexual assault, sexual harassment and other sexual abuses experienced by women and girls in many different forms. It has also exposed the common tendency to deny, dismiss, or minimise the significance and impact of these experiences.

The stripping of Jesus

With this in mind, during this present Lenten period, it seems especially appropriate to recall the stripping of Jesus – and to name it for what it was intended to be: a powerful display of humiliation and gender-based violence, which should be acknowledged as an act of sexual violence and abuse.

The idea that Jesus himself experienced sexual abuse may seem strange or shocking at first, but crucifixion was a “supreme punishment” and the stripping and exposure of victims was not an accidental or incidental element. It was a deliberate action that the Romans used to humiliate and degrade those they wished to punish. It meant that the crucifixion was more than just physical, it was also a devastating emotional and psychological punishment.

The convention in Christian art of covering Christ’s nakedness on the cross with a loincloth is perhaps an understandable response to the intended indignity of Roman crucifixion. But this should not prevent us from recognising that the historical reality would have been very different.

This is not just a matter of correcting the historical record. If Jesus is named as a victim of sexual abuse it could make a huge difference to how the churches engage with movements like #MeToo, and how they promote change in wider society. This could contribute significantly to positive change in many countries, and especially in societies where the majority of people identify as Christian.

Some sceptics might respond that stripping a prisoner might be a form of violence or abuse, but it is misleading to call this “sexual violence” or “sexual abuse”. Yet if the purpose was to humiliate the captive and expose him to mockery by others, and if the stripping is done against his will and as a way to shame him in public, then recognising it as a form of sexual violence or sexual abuse seems entirely justified. The way that the stripping of Vercingetorix, King of the Arverni, is depicted in the first episode of the first series of the HBO series Rome is an example of this.

The scene highlights the vulnerability of the naked prisoner who is stripped and exposed in front of the assembled ranks of hostile Roman soldiers. The power and control of Roman power is contrasted with the vulnerability and forced submission of the prisoner. The scene also hints at the possibility of even greater sexualised violence which might be in store.

Combating Stigma

Jesus’ gender is central to readers’ seeming unwillingness to recognise the sexual abuse to which he is subjected. Analysis of the gendering of nakedness by Margaret R. Miles demonstrates that we view male and female nakedness differently. In biblical art in the Christian West, Miles argues that the naked male body represents glorious athleticism representing spiritual as well as physical suffering.

Sexual abuse doesn’t form part of the narrative of masculinity inherent in representations of Jesus. Naked women, however, are immediately identified as sexual objects. Seeing a woman being forcibly stripped, then, might be more recognisable as sexual abuse than the stripping of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. If Christ was a female figure we wouldn’t hesitate to recognise her ordeal as sexual abuse.

Some present day Christians are still reluctant to accept that Jesus was a victim of sexual violence and seem to consider sexual abuse as an exclusively female experience.

We may not want to dwell on the disturbing indignity of crucifixion for the whole year, but it is not right to forget about it completely either. The sexual abuse of Jesus is a missing part of Passion and Easter story retellings. It’s appropriate to recognise Jesus as a victim of sexual violence to address the continuing stigma for those who’ve experienced sexual abuse, especially men.

Lent offers a period in which this stark reality of crucifixion might be recalled and connected to the important questions that movements like #MeToo are raising for the churches and for wider society. Once we acknowledge the sexual abuse of Jesus perhaps we’ll be more willing to acknowledge sexual abuse in our own contexts.

Katie Edwards, Director SIIBS, University of Sheffield and David Tombs, Howard Paterson Chair of Theology and Public Issues

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The Guardian Comment is Free: Jesus, Silence and the Rotherham Abuse Scandal


Shiloh co-lead Katie Edwards has a powerful opinion piece in The Guardian of 21 March 2018. A longer version features in her Lent Talk for BBC Radio 4 (8.45pm) on the same day. A shorter version was repeated in Radio’s 4 Pick of the Day on Sunday 25th March 2018.

This piece gets to the heart of some of the topics central to the Shiloh Project: namely, how biblical texts can be used, usually very selectively – in this case highlighting the silent Jesus of Matthew to the exclusion of the vocal Jesus of John – in modern contexts – in this example Rotherham, which was at this time one of many locations throughout the UK where girls and women were being groomed for sexual abuse and exploitation and silenced when they tried again and again to report their abusers – with toxic effect.

The role of religion and the Bible is complex and ambiguous, as this personal account makes painfully clear.

See the advance review from The Times for details:


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DEADLINE EXTENSION- call for papers

Shiloh Launch

Many of our members (including our conference organising team) have been on strike over the last month as part of the UCU (University and College Union) industrial action over USS pensions. Over 60 universities in the UK are involved. Members of UCU continue to be on action short of a strike.

We are extending the call for papers deadline for our Religion and Rape Culture conference to 5pm March 29th.

See updated call for papers:

We are thrilled to announce our keynote speakers will be Professor Cheryl Exum and
Professor Rhiannon Graybill.

The Shiloh Project is a joint initiative set up by staff from the Universities of Sheffield, Leeds and Auckland (NZ) researching religion and rape culture. We are proud to announce a one day interdisciplinary conference exploring and showcasing research into the phenomenon of rape culture, both throughout history and within contemporary societies across the globe. In particular, we aim to investigate the complex and at times contentious relationships that exist between rape culture and religion, considering the various ways religion can both participate in and contest rape culture discourses and practices.

We are also interested in the multiple social identities that invariably intersect with rape culture, including gender, disabilities, sexuality, race and class. The Shiloh Project specialises in the field of Biblical Studies, but we also strongly encourage proposals relating to rape culture alongside other religious traditions, and issues relating to rape culture more broadly.

This conference is open to researchers at any level of study, and from any discipline. We invite submissions of abstracts no more than 300 words long and a short bio no later than 5pm March 29th. Please indicate whether your submission is for a poster or a presentation. We particularly welcome abstracts on the following topics:

Gender violence and the Bible
Gender, class and rape culture
Visual representations of biblical gender violence
Representations of rape culture in the media and popular culture
Teaching traumatic texts
Methods of reading for resistance and/or liberation
Sexual violence in schools and Higher Education
Religion, rape culture and the gothic/horror genre
Spiritualities and transphobia
Familial relations and the Bible

For more information, or to submit an abstract, email


This event is supported by AHRC and WRoCAH.

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Booking and CFP for Religion and Rape Culture Conference, 6th July 2018


Booking is now open for our Religion and Rape Culture Conference. Places are limited so book your ticket fast!

Please note that we have small travel bursaries to contribute to travel costs for UK students who wish to attend the conference. These bursaries will be awarded on a needs basis, and speakers/those with poster submissions will also be prioritised.

The deadline for submission of proposals for our Religion and Rape Culture Conference is fast approaching! Get your proposals in by 19th March 2018. See the CFP below for more details.

Email for more information.

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