By Eryl W. Davies
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They were generally regarded with an element of disdain, and viewed as little more than a quixotic indulgence in a harmless, but ultimately irrelevant, hobby-horse. Such a view, however, changed dramatically during the latter half of the twentieth century. The resurgence of the women’s movement in the 1960s not only revived women’s struggle for political and civil rights but also gave rise to feminist biblical studies as a new and exciting intellectual discipline. Volumes such as Phyllis Trible’s God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (1978) and the anthology Religion and Sexism (1974) edited by the Roman Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, introduced many women to the new possibilities opened up by feminists for reading and understanding the Bible.
Interpretation is not completely mechanical, but nor is it completely arbitrary, for the interpretative community is always there to ensure that the Bible is read in agreed, controlled, non-arbitrary ways. There is thus a relocation of interpretative authority from the author/text to the community of readers who will exercise a kind of censoring activity, accepting certain readings as normative and rejecting others as untenable. Thus the fears raised by some biblical scholars that the application of reader-response criticism to the discipline will only result in an unbridled subjectivity or in an infi nite variety of unstable readings, although understandable, are unfounded, for the interpretative community will always serve as a safeguard against the dangers of excessive interpretative freedom.
In this way, fanciful or idiosyncratic interpretations will be ruled out of court, for the interpretative community will generally have little difficulty in deciding where the area of legitimate interpretation ends and where fanciful speculation begins. It is therefore in the interest of all interpreters of the Bible to produce readings that are plausible, for if there is no group or community that is persuaded by a given interpretation, that interpretation will simply not survive. indd 28 11/9/2012 4:50:00 AM READER-RESPONSE CRITICISM 29 perhaps, by such illustrious professional societies as the Society for Old Testament Study or the Society of Biblical Literature); if the readers are members of a church or synagogue, their interpretation will similarly fi nd acceptance or rejection within the religious community of which they are part.