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Book Launch of: Elaine M. Wainwright. Women Healing/Healing Women: The Genderization of Healing in Early Christianity. London: Equinox, 2006.

Book Launch of: Elaine M. Wainwright. Women Healing/Healing Women: The Genderization of Healing in Early Christianity. London: Equinox, 2006.

University of Auckland. 2 March 2007.


Tena koutou katoa. Nga mihi aroha ki a koutou katoa. Nga mihi arohanui ki a koe, Elaine.


For many reasons, I am delighted to speak at the launch of Professor Elaine Wainwright’s significant book, Women Healing/Healing Women: The Genderization of Healing in Early Christianity: as a friend and colleague in feminist New Testament studies; as a woman of Aotearoa New Zealand to acknowledge Elaine, a leader internationally in this field and to express delight that she works in this land; as one who has an Australian connection with Elaine through the Brisbane School of Theology and Griffith University; as one who has shared Elaine’s excitement as the discoveries contained in this book were tested in conference and seminar papers; and as one who approaches my task this evening with gratitude and not a little trepidation, for try as I may, I cannot overcome that awe and regard one holds for a fine scholar who was one’s doctoral supervisor!


I believe that this book will take its place as a ground breaking one as have previous books and publications of Elaine’s. Her 1991 de Gruyter publication Towards a Feminist Critical Reading of the Gospel according to Matthew was the first book length feminist reading of that gospel, emerging at a time when there were few, if any, such book length readings of any gospel. Likewise Elaine’s 1998 Shall We Look for Another? A Feminist Rereading of the Matthean Jesus was the first to attempt such a rereading of Jesus in any gospel. Here, my Brisbane link with Elaine comes into play as I was at that book launch and am delighted, Elaine, to bring to our gathering this evening links with your origins in Queensland.


And why do I consider this book groundbreaking? In the first place its subject, healing is one of the yearnings of our age and a life task in which many are engaged in many levels. The impetus for this book began with a question: Why were no women commissioned to heal in the gospels when healing was a characteristic of early Christianity and when in its context of origin women were the traditional healers? To address this question to the sacred Christian story, Elaine devised a multidimensional, interactive lens informed by some of the great concerns of our times and used Arthur Kleinman’s categories of medical anthropology to enable new readings of women healing/healing women to emerge.  Let me expand a little by looking at her lens and methodology.


The first is a feminist lens which focuses on positionality, silences in the texts, gender – which is not static but is constantly being negotiated – the agency and power of women, their subjectivity and resistance. However, such a contemporary feminist lens is incomplete unless it extends gender analyses to include attention to race, ethnicity, class, globalisation and other axes of difference.


This leads to a second lens, a postcolonial lens whereby the interpreter is aware of her location in a socio-cultural and political context shaped by colonialism. This, in turn, enables categories of analysis in which the multicultural aspects of women healing in the ancient world and early Christianity may emerge. Recognition is given to two aspects 1. the construction of the other especially by dualisms that serve not only our colonial consciousness but those of the ancient world: male/female, self/other, master/slave, civilised/primitive (native), public/private. 2. The category of hybridity’, whereby, new spaces, termed the “˜border’ or the “˜borderlands’, open up as spaces of creative resistance when something new develops for those who then speak – many voices, those of the colonised and the colonisers.


An example of a postcolonial lens is found in Elaine’s exploration of Syro-Phoenican woman from Tyre. She well may have been a member of the colonising Tyran upper class whose expansion into Jewish territory impacted on the wellbeing of Jewish hinterland peasants. This alerts the reader of Mark’s gospel to be aware of differences that surely existed in ancient societies and to consider biblical characters as persons with a context. The “˜beliefs, expectation, norms, behaviours and communicative transaction associated with sickness’ which comprise Kleinman’s fourth category of clinical reality intersect here (Wainwright, p.28). This, in turn, leads us today to raise questions not only about the individual but also of the ethnic, cultural, economic, political structures which cause many to suffer (Wainwright p.129).


Elaine’s third lens is an ecological lens which enables a re-reading of healing in antiquity by attentiveness to the Earth which supplies material resources for healing, as well as, stone, papyrus and materials through which we access the ancient world. Likewise, attentiveness to the body  recognises the materiality and embeddedness of embodiment not only with the socio-cultural system but also within ecosystems. This enriches the reading of women healing and seeks to change the consciousness of readers.


With this critical feminist postcolonial ecological lens in place, Elaine builds on a socio-rhetorical methodology which has characterised her careful, nuanced scholarship. Geared to literary sources, ancient texts and inscriptions, which function to construct the socio-cultural and material aspects of women’s healing in antiquity, a rhetorical approach asks the following questions: What is the effect of the text? What is the world which it constructed in the past? What world do contemporary readings of this text continue to construct and shape? Elaine states: “The reading of our past, therefore, is not a thing of our past. It does not shape the past but it shapes the present and the future. It constructs a consciousness, it provides genealogies, and its function rhetorically to shape meaning.” (Wainwright, p.1). In addition, Elaine draws on tools from Arthur Kleinman’s medical anthropology (institutional setting, characteristic of interpersonal interaction, idiom of communication; clinical reality, therapeutic changes and mechanisms. Wainwright, p.28).


In chapters 2 and 3, using the lens and methodology outlined above, and Kleinman’s threefold structuring of the health care system as popular, folk and professional, Elaine turns to women and men healing in the ancient world. The agency and resistance of the women like the physician Agnodike, the healer Mousa and midwife Secunda enable glimpses of professional women healers. The Hippocratic texts and the Asclepian narratives yield further information. In the folk sector, lack of information about women’s healing arts are contrasted with evidence of the negative portrayal of women’s knowledge of herbs, of charms and of magic. Let us now meet some of these women healers in Mark, Matthew and Luke – even if briefly and at the risk of simplifying detailed work.


But where does one begin? My favourite is a woman who having an alabaster jar of very expensive ointment muron (Greek) breaks the jar and pours its contents out over the head of Jesus (Mark 14:3-9). Elaine highlights how one of the most significant concentrations of the language of Mk 14:3 is in Athenaeus’ Deirnosophistae (The Sophists at Dinner, Book 15) certainly written after Mark but which represents the language, texts and practices, not only of Imperial Rome, but also, classical Greece. We learn that at banquets slaves passed around muron in alabaster bottles to males, even though muron was most probably regarded as a smell associated with women. Ancient accounts record that muron keeps the brain clear and can heal of various bodily ailments especially those associated with head or brain (Wainwright, p.133). Elaine argues that the woman, using the co-agency of earth from which the fragrant muron came, engages in healing Jesus, troubled by his coming death. By her pouring muron over his head, Jesus is healed in the very materiality of his body, to his very heart, the place of deep anxiety and pain. 


In Matthew women seem to be excluded as healers. However, in three stories of women healed in Matthew 8-9, Elaine makes a startling discovery for the writing on the healed bodies of the women is language characterising Jesus’ ministry – such language is not used of men who are healed. The mother-in-law of Peter (8:14-15) is “raised up” or “lifted up” and she does ongoing “service” (diakonia) – the same Greek word for “raised up” or “lifted up” and “served” are used of Jesus. Jesus touched the young girl, the daughter of the synagogue leader, took her by the hand (9:25), and likewise, she “is raised up”. Through her initiative and self-help, the woman with the haemorrhage, touched (Kleinman’s second category, characteristic of interpersonal interaction) the fringe of the cloak of Jesus who declared, “Your faith has saved you.” Once again the healed body of a woman is written with language associated with Jesus: he will save his people (1:21) – in other points of the narrative this verb is used of Jesus at least ten times to carry connotations of final transformation or restoration.


The women healed in Luke are portrayed as being healed of demon possession (Kleinman’s third category, idiom of communication). Elaine uncovers that ancient writings are very negative towards women healers and their healing powers. Their great knowledge and healing through herbs, oils and touch threatened the master paradigm. They were labelled as sorceresses. In the light of this, Elaine suggests there could have been a contestation in the Lukan community around the activity of “certain women” who were healers and were, thereby, given the cultural label of “demon-possessed.”  In reading from the underside, Elaine suggests that in healing their demon possession, Jesus is healing them from this cultural label and they are set free to heal.


I read this book while on holiday on the West Coast (of the South Island) – yes, there, we were enjoying hot sunny weather. We often remarked about the Earth surrounding us: “How healing.” – Unconsciously we were expressing what Elaine refers to so often in ancient healing as the co-agency of the other-than-human, the Earth. In native forest tracks, we walked among ancient healers.  Department of Conservation plaques reminded us of the miro tree – taonga (treasure) of Ngai Tahu (Maori tribe) for aromatic oils, for an antiseptic and other medicinal purposes; the particular healing qualities of the piupiu (crown fern) and the rimu … The township is Moana – meaning “inland sea”, the Maori name for the stunningly beautiful lake we overlooked is now officially called Lake Brunner after the settler explorer who “discovered” it. Our bach, a real Kiwi one, loved into existence by a family over many years is surrounded now by luxurious holiday homes and sections selling for a quarter of million dollars plus squeezing out a way of life once accessible for the healing of so many. The numerous coal trains passing below us spoke of the delicate balance between economic wellbeing and the wellbeing of the earth. For me, in that context, Elaine’s re-reading of the stories of women healing/healing women renewed and challenged my way of being and insight into healing.


So with immense skill and clarity, Professor Wainwright in this groundbreaking book, “re-member(s) Jesus as healer within a movement that has healing as a core characteristic, a healing movement … the women and men who constitute the movement … shar[e] … a common spirit of healing.” (Wainwright, p.100). The reader is invited into this healing movement, into the borderland where we can hear critically and anew the embodied voices of women healing/healing women and the co-agency of Earth healing.


Doctor Kathleen Rushton rsm

2 March 2007