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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 51, 2003

M. M. Beirne, Women and Men in the Fourth Gospel: a Genuine Discipleship of Equals. (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2003). Pp. Xiii+254. £60.00.

Since Raymond Brown in 1975, a number of studies have focused on the role of women in the Fourth Gospel (4G), pointing out that in that gospel women play significant roles in the development of the evangelist’s literary and theological concerns. While applauding those writings, Margaret Beirne has sought to redress what she perceives as an imbalance in the studies, namely, the lack of a critical study of the roles of both women and men in the 4G. In some cases, that imbalance has been driven by a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’, arising from the belief that the text is essentially androcentric and patriarchal. Beirne’s study leads her to a different conclusion: “It seems to me more accurate to say that the fourth evangelist presents women disciples as of equal standing with men” (p. 9), and he does this by means of contrived literary partnerships of women and men—gender pairs. These gender pairs enable the reader to see that, in the eyes of the evangelist, women and men share an equality of discipleship in all respects, and together they serve to further the evangelist’s purposes of revealing the person of Christ.

In a methodologically controlled study, Beirne adopts the criteria for identifying gender pairs established by T. K. Seim in her work on Luke-Acts. In order for two characters to be seen as a literary gender pair, they must share a common theme. As well, where they are not part of the same event/pericope, “there must be clear evidence of at least one form of literary parallelism: structure, imagery or verbal formulae” (p. 221). By applying these criteria, Beirne identifies six gender pairs in the 4G. Three of them share a narrative unity: Mary of Bethany and Judas (12:1–8), Mary and the Beloved Disciple (19:25–27), and Mary Magdalene and Thomas (20:11–18 and 20:24–29). The other three, though separately presented, are bound together by structural association and by literary and theological motifs in common: the mother of Jesus and the royal official (2:1–12 and 4:46–54), Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman (3:1–12 and 4:1–15), and the blind man and Martha (9:1–44 and 11:1–54).

It is a pleasure to read this work (presented as a thesis to the Melbourne College of Divinity). The English is graceful and easy, the argument is at all times clear, and the author writes with obvious love for the text of Scripture. Typographical errors are few: apart from the occasional error of accent, I noted incorrect Greek spelling at pages 114, 147, 148, 177, 207, 208 and 211 (bis).

In my judgement, Beirne has established the main burden of her thesis: that in the 4G there is an absolute equality of discipleship among women and men. Moreover, the evangelist presents women not as models for women and men for men, but each as models for all. It is for the reader to identify with particular characters presented, not according to gender, but according to one’s stage in the “faith journey”. For example, Beirne well points out that it is a woman, Martha, who makes the true confession of the person of Jesus (11:27), a role reserved in the synoptic tradition for Peter at Caesarea Philippi. At the same time, she notes that it is a male, Thomas, who has the last word and who makes a confession which brings the reader back to the beginning of the Prologue—the glorified Logos who is God (1:1) is so confessed by a “post-Easter” disciple (point overlooked by Beirne).

There are many minor areas where I would respectfully take issue with Beirne— mainly points of exegesis which do not affect the argument of the book. More importantly, I remain unconvinced that the blind man in John 9 and Martha in John 11 are a literary pair, unpersuaded as I am by the case for seeing the Lazarus story as structurally or thematically linked to chapter 10. Rather, I believe the case is stronger for seeing 11:1–44 as moving on into 11:45–57 and as having thematic and structural links with the events that follow. I would also like to explore further with Beirne her case for considering the other two sets of characters separated by distance (2:1–12/4:46–54; 3:1–12/4:1–15) either as pairs or as gender pairs.

There is no doubt that Beirne has uncovered something of importance in the literary technique of the fourth evangelist, viz the existence of discrete pairs of characters who share something in common and who together reveal something of the person of Jesus Christ. But are they gender pairs? On that question, I believe more work still needs to be done. Surely, in order for us to demonstrate that gender pairing (as opposed to pairing) is a deliberate Johannine device, ought we not also to look for examples of single gender pairing (possibilities exist in chapter 1 and elsewhere) — If single gender pairs do exist, then the issue of gender may not (always) be the primary focus of the evangelist, but simply the literary device of pairing.

In conclusion, a notable work on women and men in the 4G that has advanced our studies in this area one step further.

Review by
Dr. John W Pryor
Benalla, Victoria