Faith of Our Foremothers

Lynn Japinga, Ph.D. | Professor of Religion

The Rev. Dr. Lynn Japinga has spent years telling the stories of the women of the Bible and, in many cases, doing her level best to redeem the reputations with which she feels they’ve been unfairly saddled over the centuries.

“I joke that stories about women are always about either sex, violence, or sex and violence, but I think there’s a lot of substance and significance in these stories,” Japinga says. “People need to hear these stories, because reading about women and their struggles can make the Bible come to life in ways that it doesn’t if all you hear about is the men — even the heroic men.”

She retells more than two dozen stories in her new book, From Daughters to Disciples: Women’s Stories from the New Testament. It’s to be released this month by Westminster John Knox Press.

Japinga’s focus on biblical women has been part of her teaching at Hope for many years, and she says her publishing on the topic grew organically out of her course on Christian feminism. “I would do two or three weeks on women in the Bible, and I was always interested in the way that commentators would write about the women, often in very derogatory terms.”

In addition to her Christian Feminism course, Japinga, who’s affiliated with the college’s Women’s and Gender Studies program, has taught that program’s keystone course and a 100-level religion course called Fierce and Faithful: Women in the Bible. The Fierce and Faithful course aims to expand students’ understanding of biblical women beyond the sometimes oversimplified and one-dimensional caricatures of “bad girls” like Eve, Delilah and Jezebel or of women whose driving motivation is to have children, like Sarah, Rachel and Leah.

But Japinga emphasizes that the women of the Bible are more than straw women for the patriarchy. To hear her tell it with more nuance and with more accuracy, these women are fierce, faithful and complex — and their stories deserve to be heard.

From Daughters to Disciples features the stories of women such as Jesus’s mother, Mary, and her cousin Elizabeth; sisters Mary and Martha; the Samaritan woman at the well; and many of the leaders in the early Christian community, like Lydia, Dorcas, Junia, Phoebe and Priscilla.

“This is just another way to include women, to tell their stories, to show the breadth of the Christian tradition,” Japinga says. “It’s helpful to see these people as human rather than as superstars — or, in some cases, as harlots.”

Take Mary Magdalene, for example. “Mary Magdalene is commonly thought of as a prostitute, but there’s no evidence for it,” Japinga asserts. Sure, she shows up only a few short verses after the passage in Luke 7 in which a sinful woman washes Jesus’s feet, but there’s no indication that the foot-washer and Mary Magdalene were the same woman. “She’s been labeled that way for centuries now, so I try to unpack why that’s not true.”

The Samaritan woman is another New Testament character who Japinga thinks is unfairly maligned. “She, too, is often labeled as ‘that sleazy woman who had five husbands,’ and she takes a lot of critical attention in the commentaries for being sinful, when really there’s no reason to think that she was immoral.”

Some of the women mentioned in the New Testament are those whose stories were told in the Old Testament. Think of Sarah and Rahab, both commended for their faithfulness in Hebrews 11, and of Tamar, who shows up first in Genesis and is mentioned again in the Gospel of Matthew, just three verses into the New Testament.

“The commentaries talk about Tamar as being a slut and a whore and a cheat and a conniving prostitute and a seductress and other kinds of nasty things,” Japinga says. “But she just wanted the opportunity to have a child, and when she was repeatedly denied, she put her own plan into motion. She then appears as one of the ancestors of Jesus in Matthew 1, along with Bathsheba and Rahab and Ruth. It’s interesting that this woman who is labeled as bad is actually the righteous person in the story. It’s a good example of how morality in the Bible does not always fit with our definitions of morality. It’s not just, ‘You did this sexual thing, you’re bad’ — it’s, ‘You did this in the service of something else, and we can see the righteousness in that.’”

Japinga doesn’t tell Tamar’s story in From Daughters to Disciples, but she does relate it — and the stories of other Old Testament women — in the companion book, From Widows to Warriors: Women’s Stories from the Old Testament, which the same publisher brought out in August 2020.

From Widows to Warriors is a revised, retitled edition of Japinga’s 2017 Preaching the Women of the Old Testament: Who They Were and Why They Matter. In part, the republication was to coincide with the release of the second book, but it was also in response to what the publisher learned about how Preaching the Women of the Old Testament was being used. Japinga wrote it as a tool to encourage and assist ministers with sermons about women of the Bible, but the publisher found that people were using it for Bible studies, too. In 2018, Westminster John Knox approached Japinga about revising her book for a broader audience, trimming some of the material specific to preaching and adding discussion questions for personal or group study.

At the same time, the publisher asked Japinga to write the book on the New Testament.

She admits that she was initially skeptical about the idea of writing a book-length treatment of New Testament women.

“Often the women in the New Testament are there as foils for Jesus. They’re there so Jesus can make a point about healing, or including Gentiles, or talking to the Samaritan woman — so you don’t get as much character development of the women themselves as you do in the Old Testament,” Japinga explains. “But I ended up being able to tell the stories about them. It’s different, but still worth it. The women came alive.”

Together, the two books help readers better understand the stories and the significance of women throughout the entire scope of the Bible. Japinga says she would love to see these books used in Bible studies on college campuses. And without wanting to pigeonhole the books specifically for female readers — men can certainly benefit from learning about their foremothers in the faith — there can be something especially redemptive for female readers.

“For centuries, women have heard these stories about men in the Bible. Well, where do women fit?” Japinga says. “These are ways to help women see that they’re part of the story, too.”

Author: Josh Bishop

Josh Bishop manages web content at Hope College and writes for various publications.

Photography: Steven Herppich