Feminist biblical scholar and theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (born 1938) provided models, methods, and metaphors for biblical interpretations and a reconstruction of early Christianity in which women shared the center and were restored to human subjectivity.
One of the foundational maxims of the feminist movement—the personal is political—provided a significant lens through which to view the life of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. Born in Romania in 1938 and fleeing to what would become West Germany with her family during World War II, she desired, as a young German woman, to become a professional theologian in the Roman Catholic Church, which defined her role and mission as a "lay" woman within the world rather than within the church. Her 1963 licentiate thesis from the University of Würzburg, where she was the first woman to enroll in the theological course required of students for priesthood, was therefore her first public and political articulation of her work toward a redefinition of the Catholic Church so that it included women in their full personhood, able to exercise their gifts and power. This thesis was published in 1964 as her first book, The Forgotten Partner: Foundations, Facts and Possibilities of the Professional Ministry of Women in the Church.
As a professional theologian Schüssler Fiorenza's specialty, demonstrated in her doctoral thesis, "Priest for God: A Study of the Motif of the Kingdom and Priesthood in the Apocalypse," for the Catholic Theological Faculty, Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, was biblical studies and the history of early Christianity. Through the publication of significant books, articles, and coedited projects as well as participation in numerous conferences and workshops both in the United States and internationally, she contributed to the feminist redefinition of theological and biblical interpretation both within the academy and the churches. Her academic career took her from Germany to the United States, where she held positions at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana; the Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge; and as Krister Stendahl Professor of Divinity at the Harvard Divinity School.
A collection of essays, Discipleship of Equals: A Critical Feminist Ekklesia-logy of Liberation (1993), provided a brief glimpse of her wide contribution to women in the churches as well as to a theoretical articulation of critical feminist theology of liberation. A reading of the summary that precedes each article highlighted Schüssler Fiorenza's courage within the struggle against patriarchal structures in both church and academy. This characterized her life and her writing, as did the mutual support, encouragement, and shared creative path-finding that came from the community or ekklesia of women similarly committed.
The publication of In Memory of Her: A Feminist Reconstruction of Christian Origins in English in 1983, and subsequently in a number of other languages, brought Schüssler Fiorenza's feminist framework for biblical interpretation and historical/theological reconstruction to international attention. She provided the first comprehensive articulation of a feminist critical model of historical-theological interpretation. It incorporated a hermeneutics (an interpretation) of suspicion that questioned the way in which women had been represented in the androcentric (male centered) documents of early Christianity. A hermeneutics of remembrance enabled a new reconstruction of the history of early Christianity so that it included the hints, the traces of women's agency within that history. In the following year the collection of essays Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Interpretation further developed her hermeneutical framework, incorporating a focus on rhetorics and providing a comprehensive model of biblical interpretation.
As a teacher, Schüssler Fiorenza involved her students and workshop participants in the theological interpretive process. In this she not only taught but demonstrated the necessity of what she called "liberative vision and imagination" in order to retell the biblical stories in a variety of media and in a variety of settings so that women's suffering, struggles, agency, and dreams take their place at the center of the retold biblical story. One can experience this creativity in her 1992 book But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation. She opened each chapter with a poem capturing an aspect of women's experience or vision as it shapes the interpretive process of that chapter. Most chapters closed with a creative re-telling or recontextualizing of the story under consideration written by her students as they explored the gospel stories of women.
The personal and the political intersect in the pathfinding or path-creating dimensions of Schüssler Fiorenza's life and work. She was actively involved in a number of women's organizations that found their voice in the closing decades of the 20th century. With Judith Plaskow she founded and coedited the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, a forum for feminist inter-religious studies that more traditional journals failed to offer. She was likewise founding co-director of the section of Feminist Theology in Concilium, an international theological review within the Roman Catholic tradition. She was the editor of a three-volume work, Searching the Scriptures, the first volume of which was published November 1993. It entailed collaborative work with a wide range of authors and resulted in a collection that represented the multidimensional nature of feminist biblical interpretation. Being the first woman scholar to be elected president of the Society of Biblical Literature, she forged another path along which women could walk.
Schüssler Fiorenza's dream to become a professional biblical scholar and theologian would seem to have been realized far beyond even her own creative imagining. She stood within a host of feminist theologians and biblical scholars as co-worker, envisioning and enacting new possibilities for women in the academy, in church, and in society. She was model and mentor for those who followed in her footsteps or who opened up new paths in feminist biblical interpretation and in the redefinition of church and world. For her, however, the theological task would not be complete until all women were free, free from all patriarchal oppression. Her creative work helped shape her own life as well as that of many other women and men in the academies and in the churches.
In Jesus: Miriam's Child, Sophia's Prophet: Critical Issues in Feminist Christology (1994), Schüssler Fiorenza deconstructed Christian doctrine to allow new interpretations likely to prove more fruitful for women and all oppressed groups. She saw these doctrines not as truths but as rhetorical strategies that retarded liberation. She viewed her approach as more radically inclusive than Marxism on questions of gender, sexual orientation, and race, and as more positively disposed toward the roles of religion and ideology. While strongly supportive of a diversity of feminist groups with different experiences and voices, she warned against the balkanization of the movement and its fragmentation into racial, religious, sexual orientation, and age-determined special interest groups. Her work was regularly cited for its creativity and forcefulness of analysis. She was, however, criticized by some for being pedantic, jargonistic, and accessible only to a closed circle of theologians and academicians.
She was married to Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, a theologian who shared with his wife a professorship at the Harvard Divinity School. They had a daughter, Kristina.
Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza's best known work was In Memory of Her: A Feminist Reconstruction of Christian Origins (1983). Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Interpretation (1984) supplemented this earlier volume and her hermeneutical model. She published numerous articles in both German and English for scholarly journals and for more generally accessible publications. She coedited five volumes of Conciliumon feminist theology, one volume of Semeiaon interpretation for liberation, and other collections of essays. Revelation: Vision of a Just World (1991) continued her work on the Book of Revelation begun in her doctoral studies. A later book, But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation (1992), supplemented her hermeneutical model with rhetorical reading strategies, while Discipleship of Equals: A Critical Feminist Ekklesia-logy of Liberation (1993) provided a "cartography of struggle" of this feminist theologian. As mentioned in the text, she edited Searching The Scriptures—Volume 1: Feminist Introduction (1993), and Volume 2: A Feminist Commentary (1995). Her Jesus: Miriam's Child, Sophia's Prophet: Critical Issues in Feminist Christology (1994), provides social and political contexts for the Christological issues in the light her position as a "biblical scholar working within the discourses of feminist liberation theology."