Of the Gospel writers, Luke gives the most attention to women in the story of Jesus. Luke tells the birth narrative from Mary’s point of view. He often delivers stories in pairs that focus on both men and women (Luke 4:31–37/38–39; 7:1–10/11–17; 15:3–7/8–10). Luke places women at key points of the narrative, like Joanna and Susanna, “who provided for them out of their means” (8:1–3), and the women at his crucifixion (23:28, 49). Both Mary and Elizabeth are illustrations of faithful living in comparison to Zechariah, who is silenced for his lack of faith (1:5–66). However, a number of feminists remain suspicious of Luke’s intentions. Despite the attention that Luke gives to women in the story, they have a small part in the story. Spencer evaluates the questions that feminists raise by situating them within his reading of Luke. As a result, Salty Wives provides a nice point of departure for feminist studies and a helpful study of how women function in the Gospel.
The volume treats the parables and episodes that feature women: the woman who lost the coin (15:8–10); the virgin Mary (1:26–56; 2:1–51); Joanna, the wife of Chuza (8:1–3; 24:10); Martha and Mary (10:38–42); the widow at Zarephath (4:25–26); the queen of the South (11:31); Lot’s wife (17:32); and the widow before the judge (18:2–5). Spencer uses these stories to challenge the feminist hermeneutic that raises suspicion of ancient texts, and he opts for a hermeneutic of trust. In this way, Spencer’s reading is generous. According to him, Luke accepts that many in antiquity viewed women in an inferior position, but in Luke’s narrative world women are successful despite being at a disadvantage. He concludes: “For the most part, the women in Luke we have studied display all their other considerable capabilities within an established patriarchal-kyirarchal structure. They in fact operate as cogs in traditional domestic (Elizabeth, Mary, Martha/Mary, widow at Zarephath, Lot’s wife) and forensic (widow who pleads her case before an unjust judge) systems, though with amazing effectiveness therein” (p. 332). In short, Luke’s treatment of women exposes the plight of women in the first century and shows how one without power might navigate these various power structures and even have success. The narrative accepts the reality of the first-century social situation, but challenges it.
Table fellowship brings this to the fore. Feminists criticize ancient texts in which women, not men, provide table service. These scenes insinuate that men do important work, while women take more subordinating roles. Within Luke’s narrative world, table service is valued. The one who serves is called greatest in the community (12:37; 22:26–27). In Acts, the disciples served tables until the number became too burdensome, at which point they gave the task to men “of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (6:1–7). Luke’s presentation of Mary and Martha gives this theme a twist: rather than honor Martha for her service, which the reader might expect, Jesus exalts Mary for taking the position of a disciple (10:42). Spencer’s sensitivity to the text places women in a much better frame than does a hermeneutic of suspicion.
It is rare to see such a thorough treatment of the women in Luke’s Gospel. The theme is usually coupled with other underprivileged groups, such as the poor. Yet Salty Wives gives exegetical insight to every passage that speaks of a woman. By the end of the Gospel, Luke has shown how these strong women find success in a difficult world.
Spencer’s engagement with feminist readings is generous. Often, the questions that feminists raise are sidelined, but Spencer’s tone invites a discussion. He challenges the hermeneutic of suspicion, which is normally associated with feminist criticism, but he accepts the questions that feminists raise about the Gospel. And by applying a hermeneutic of trust he provides a well-rounded picture of femininity in the Gospel. Luke accepts the social role that women find themselves in, but he also challenges it by describing women with persistence.
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