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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 53, 2005

FRANCES TAYLOR GENCH, Back to the Well: Women’s Encounters with Jesus in the Gospels (Louisville: WJK Press, 2004). Pp. xvi+192. $US19.95.

Several books have been written on the theme of women in Gospel stories. This book by Francis Taylor Gench is another in this category. It is not, however, rendered superfluous by those books that have preceded it. Indeed, Gench’s distinctive approach and her critical analysis make this work a worthy and important addition to the study of Gospel women.

The introductory chapter clearly outlines Gench’s hermeneutical stance, as well as the approach she adopts with each story. Gench identifies her social location and the feminist consciousness that she brings to her reading of the text. She also emphasises the importance of social location in influencing interpretation. Assuming that the texts are multivalent, Gench states her intention to “explore a variety of interpretive perspectives on each text” (p. xv).

Gench then explores six Gospel texts that depict interaction between Jesus and women. A chapter is devoted to each of these texts, examining Jesus’ encounters with the following-the Canaanite woman (Matt 15:21–28); the haemorrhaging woman and Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:21–43); Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38–42); the bent woman (Luke 13:10–17); the Samaritan woman (John 4:1–42); and the woman accused of adultery (John 7:53–8:11). Acknowledging that these are not the only Gospel women who encounter Jesus, Gench explains that she has focused on a limited number of texts so that she can explore each in depth (p. xv).

Within each of these six chapters, Gench includes the following sections-Encountering the Text; Angles of Vision; Group Study Suggestions; Questions for Discussion or Reflection; Resources for Further Study. While the final three of these sections increase the book’s usefulness and appeal to a range of readers, the main part of the work consists of the information and approaches in the first two sections of each chapter. In the Encountering the Text section, Gench presents a close reading of the text, emphasising its literary and socio-historical contexts. At times she highlights and challenges interpretations that marginalise the significance of the women characters (for example, p. 35) or that promote anti-Jewish sentiments (for example, p. 59). In the Angles of Vision section, Gench presents insights from recent scholarship that provide different lenses through which to view the text. In this way, Gench empowers the reader to look at the stories with fresh eyes. One angle of vision provided for the story of the woman with a haemorrhage, for instance, explores purity regulations. Gench presents differing interpretations of this issue, including those that propose that Jewish purity laws may have been misconstrued by some Christian interpreters. Gench cautions against fostering inaccurate stereotypes of Judaism (pp. 38–45).

The strength of Gench’s work lies in her thorough analysis of the text and in the varied perspectives to which she draws attention. Gench skilfully uses a range of scholarly literature to inform her explorations, and presents significant aspects of the history of interpretation of the text as well as insights from recent scholarship. Feminist scholarship is highlighted and presented in dialogue with other interpretations. Importantly, Gench recognises that feminist interpretation incorporates a range of perspectives and methodologies (p. 16). This is perhaps best demonstrated in the variety of feminist (and other) views represented in the discussion of the Martha and Mary story (Chapter 3). Though she also presents her own interpretation of the Martha and Mary story, Gench recognises that no interpretation resolves all the points of tension within the narrative (pp. 78–81). Post-colonial insights also inform Gench’s work (see, for example, pp. 131–32).

With this book, Gench makes a valuable contribution, not only to feminist biblical interpretation, but also to biblical studies in general. She summarises important perspectives and scholarship on each text, and raises the reader’s consciousness on feminist and postcolonial issues, as well as alerting against tendencies towards anti-Jewish readings. Since the study is limited to six Gospel narratives, the stories of several Gospel women characters are not explored, as Gench herself notes. The six stories that are included, however, are comprehensively analysed.

Gench writes in an easily accessible style, making the book suitable to a wide audience. At the same time, detailed notes support her writing, allowing readers to explore issues further should they so wish. With resources listed for further study and suggestions for discussion provided, the book is clearly user-friendly. Gench thus succeeds in her aim of producing a resource that would be useful for teachers, students, and preachers, as well as groups and individuals who are interested in the study of biblical narratives (p. xiv).

Review by
Elizabeth Dowling
Australian Catholic University
Aquinas Campus
PO Box 650
Ballarat VIC 3353, Australia