Raised from Obscurity, A Narratival and Theological Study of Characterization of Women in Luke-Acts by Forbes and Harrower. Pickwick Publications, 2015.

I hinted at this book review in my last post – Did you see the meme? We can fail to truly “see” what women were doing in the Bible. Unfortunately, patriarchal lenses cloud our vision. Raised from Obscurity carefully looks at every mention of women in Luke and Acts, and attempts to objectively let the text speak for itself. How is the text portraying women? While total objectivity is impossible, the authors really try to avoid any predetermined agenda. This is an academic book, but it is definitely readable for your interested lay person – such as myself.

Chapters 1 and 2 are introductory, and the authors explain their approach/methodology, do a brief literature review, and then do a survey of women in the Jewish and Greco-Roman world. Chapters 3-6 focus on Luke, and chapters 7-10 focus on Acts. The final chapter (11) offers a summary and conclusion. It is not until the final 2 pages that any mention is made of complementarian vs egalitarian issues. They state “We did not set out to make final claims in any complementarian, egalitarian, or other theological direction to do with women…Our hope is that all sides of the debate include the insights from Luke-Acts into their respective theologies.” (page 218)

On page 218, I really liked an illustration they use. They compare the debate over the role of women in the church to a card game, but many of the players in the game appear to be playing with a limited set of cards. Some play Galatians 3:28 as their sole card, while others play it as their trump card. Others play 1 Timothy 2:11-15 as their trump card, while others play it in tandem with 1 Corinthians 11:3. Others play with an “all star deck” of significant women in the Old and New Testaments, while others play a deck of gender cards (the 12 apostles were men). The authors emphasize that the debate should proceed using a full deck of cards, and they hope that their book will contribute to the deck by adding crucial data about women in Luke-Acts. I think they succeeded in their endeavor, and I recommend this book. 

Throughout the book, I gained fresh insight about women in the narrative. I was surprised by how much I had previously failed to observe in familiar stories.

For example, Mary’s Magnificat or song. Mary’s role is not limited to being a model of humble piety (although she definitely is that), but she also plays the role of the first authoritative interpreter of Scripture in light of God’s new work! She handles Scripture capably, and her song references portions or themes from the Torah, Psalms, and the Prophets. Mary is theologically reflective, and links Israel’s salvation history with God’s actions in her own time. She is a valid communicator of Scripture and interpreter of salvation history. Have you ever heard a sermon during Christmas time (or whenever) emphasizing Mary in this way? – Probably not! See what I mean?!

So much can be noted in Luke-Acts. Women were keenly insightful into people/situations, noting their significance. Women made theological or Christological affirmations. Female disciples of Jesus were given a proclamatory role, along with the male disciples. Women are God’s prophetic mouthpiece, witnesses to the resurrection, and proclaimers of the gospel. Furthermore, women on the margins of society are also portrayed in these ways – such as sinful women, foreign women, and slave/servant women.

Women often function as positive examples, sometimes in contrast to men who do not. For example, Elizabeth is unlike her husband who doubted, the response of a sinful woman to Jesus surpasses that of a male Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50), and unlike the male disciples, the women were faithful to Jesus all the way to the end of his life.

This is not to say that Luke paints an idealized picture of women, overlooking flaws, but the overall portrayal of women is that they are reliable and insightful, fully participatory in God’s mission.

While it is not mentioned in the book, I can not help but think of some Christians who portray women as more easily deceived than men, forever tainted by Eve, and thus forbidden from certain roles or positions.

It almost seems that a book like this should not have to be written. I mean, read Luke and Acts. It is right there. Look at the women! However, it truly is easy to overlook the role women played. Luke-Acts is primarily narrative. Luke does not out-rightly make interpretative statements or point out the implications of a woman’s role in the story. The authors, Forbes and Harrower, note that Luke’s theology of women is communicated subtly through story. The subtlety is driven by apologetic concerns:

“Luke wrote in such a way that his readers would understand that Christian mission would not directly undermine the Roman Empire. By avoiding the charge of being a direct threat to the empire, the Christian message and apologetic itself would not be undermined (in the eyes of the empire) by the practices of those who embraced it.” – page 217

If we have eyes to see, it is there. Women need to be Raised from Obscurity!