August 24, 2010 | Myrna Anderson

Professor Kristin Kobes Du Mez delves into the history of a turn-of-the-century woman's translation of the Bible.

Around the turn of the century, Katherine Bushnell, an American doctor working as a medical missionary in China, noticed what she thought were mistranslated passages in the Chinese version of the Bible she was reading. A fellow missionary confirmed Bushnell’s suspicion that the passages in question had been mistranslated to avoid offending Chinese traditions toward women.

"She was outraged. To her the scripture was inspired and inerrant," said Calvin history professor Kristin Kobes Du Mez of Bushnell, whose experience with the Chinese Bible inspired her to create a translation of her own. In 1908, she published; God’s Word to Women: One Hundred Bible Studies on Women’s Place in the Divine Economy, a translation of and commentary on biblical passages relevant to women.

Male bias

"It’s a book that claims that for centuries, the scriptures . . . were translated by men and they had a male bias—and it was time for women to start reading and translating," said Kobes Du Mez, who recently landed a $40,000 Sabbatical Grant for Researchers from the Louisville Institute to write a book about Bushnell’s life and work. (Kobes Du Mez also focused her dissertation on Bushnell.)

"People who write about her theology rarely situate her historically, and there are people who write about her reform work who know nothing about her theology," she said of Bushnell. "My job is to piece together the story of who she is."

Bushnell was born in 1855.  She studied classics at Northwestern University and medicine at Chicago Woman’s Medical College. She exposed "white slavery" (forced prostitution) first in Wisconsin lumber camps and then in India, where the British government set up brothels where Indian women were forced to service the soldiers.  

"Her whole life was amazing," Kobes Du Mez said. "Her ideas, which are stunning, disturbing in some cases, fascinating, cannot be ripped outside the context of her life."

Bushnell published some of those ideas in God’s Word to Women. The book is her translation from the original Hebrew and Greek of passages about women—passages that, because they had been translated by men, enforced the subjugation of women, she believed.

Change vowels, change meaning

In chapters such as "The Early Dignity of Woman" and "The Sophistry of the Veil," Bushnell argued against women’s status as second-class persons in both the Bible and in Victorian life.

The key to Bushnell’s argument was her approach to biblical translation. The original Hebrew text of the Old Testament was written without vowels. "Translators have made sense of that by inserting vowel sounds and punctuation," said Kobes Du Mez. "If you insert different vowel sounds and punctuation, the meaning could be dramatically altered."

Bushnell used different vowels and her translation includes, among other things, a radically altered narrative of the Fall. In God’s Word to Women, only Adam is expelled from the garden; Eve chooses to follow him, which is her fall from grace.

Though she hasn’t wholly adopted Bushnell’s theology, Kobes Du Mez does enjoy exploring her work. "She really thought that if she could re-write the Bible and really get it right, it would be a new day," she said. "She would change people’s lives." (Kobes Du Mez calls her project the Forgotten Woman’s Bible to compare it to The Woman’s Bible, a heretical 1895 work by Elizabeth Cady Stanton.)

Able assistant

Kobes Du Mez had an assistant in her research, Calvin junior French and history major Jared Warren. The duo worked together through the 2010 McGregor Summer Research Fellowships in Humanities and Social Sciences program.

"Other than my trips to steal coffee from the history department lounge, my summer consisted of familiarizing myself with the work of Katharine Bushnell and (Bushnell contemporary) Lee Anna Starr . . . and in attempting to track seemingly nonexistent primary sources on the two women," Warren explained. "Both Bushnell and Starr traveled quite a bit and never married which means they never had direct descendants to retain their papers and letters and also that those materials could—potentially—be nearly anywhere in the world," he said.

Offered Du Mez: "He's an excellent researcher."

The project was an eye-opener, said Warren: "The challenges of the project came not so much from the fact that I was doing women’s studies as a man but that I had honestly never before been introduced to any sort of gender studies or feminist scholarship. It was a baptism by fire," he said. "For the first few weeks, I would leave my office in a tizzy—the information was revelatory. I’d never experienced anything of the sort before. It wasn’t that I was unreceptive to the work or that I had difficulty relating, but merely that I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into, and the scholarship blew my mind."

The McGregor project completed, Warren is currently finishing up his own article about Starr. "I think I’m fortunate to have had such a wonderful introduction to gender studies. Professor Du Mez was amazing to work with, and let me proceed at my own pace, explore the areas that intriguing me most, and encouraged me all along the way . . .," he said. "I would do the project again in a heartbeat."

Bushnell’s work is undergoing a contemporary renaissance, according to Kobes Du Mez. "Bushnell has been sort of handed down from woman to woman. Now it’s gone global," she said. "Women in Africa, Pakistan and India are reading her work. It has found a new audience among women and men who hold conservative views of biblical authority but are searching for more liberating views on women’s roles in church and society."

Bushnell's work reinterprets the Fall

Recent stories