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Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis [Paperback]

William J. Webb
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 15 2001
In William J. Webb tackles some of the most complex and controversial issues that have challenged the Christian church--and still do.

He leads you through the maze of interpretation that has historically surrounded understanding of slaves, women and homosexuals, and he evaluates various approaches to these and other biblical-ethical teachings. Throughout, Webb attempts to "work out the hermeneutics involved in distinguishing that which is merely cultural in Scripture from that which is timeless" (Craig A. Evans).

By the conclusion, Webb has introduced and developed a "redemptive hermeneutic" that can be applied to many issues that cause similar dilemmas.

Darrel L. Bock writes in the foreword to Webb's work, "His goal is not only to discuss how these groups are to be seen in light of Scriptures but to make a case for a specific hermeneutical approach to reading these texts. . . . This book not only advances a discussion of the topics, but it also takes a markedly new direction toward establishing common ground where possible, potentially breaking down certain walls of hostility within the evangelical community."

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Customer Reviews

3.7 out of 5 stars
3.7 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
I Believe that Webb has done Christians a great service in writing this book. All of us have struggled with the knowledge that some Biblical passages are culturally dependent while others are Trans cultural. Prior to the publishing of this book, we did not have a good set of tools to resolve our questions. Webb helps solves that problem in this book. by giving us 18 criterion by which to analyze a Biblical passage to determine its cultural and Trans cultural components.
The book is remarkable in the thoroughness of its approach. Every verse dealing with the question of the role of women, slaves and homosexuals has been analyzed. I have taught New Testament at the college level for many years and learned a great deal from his approach. He showed great sensitivity to the question of the homosexual, yet, does not compromise the Biblical position.
I currently have a group of people from my church using this set of criterion on the topic of the death penalty. All are impressed with Webb?s high view of scripture and the usefulness of his approach.
Was this review helpful to you?
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hermeneutics Means...Reading Carefully Jan. 9 2002
Format:Paperback
Unlike the previous reviewer I find much to commend in this thoughtful book. He says the author departs from a grammatical-historical hermeneutic. That is an oxymoron... Grammatical and Historical are modes of exegesis, they give us some of the building blocks for understanding the text, but they are not a hermeneutic. The author provides a hermeneutic...which is a means of understanding and appropriating these texts. He argues, rightly I believe, that the New Testament leans in the way of renewal...this is its elan vital. Some of the material in the New Testament (and Old Testament)...is cultural. It won't do to say flippantly, if some is...what isn't cultural. In fact, the entire New Testament are cultural productions of their times...but some of the nitty gritty specifics cannot be read with a hermeneutic that remains static, as if we could transpose ourselves to the first century and live exactly as they did, because very quickly one is riddled with impossibilities and contradictions. In a flat reading, women are subjected, slavery is endorsed, and we get caught up in such questions as "head-coverings" and "foot washing" etc... With a reading that seeks to discern the direction, trajectory if you will, you can see why at times headcoverings were encouraged and women silenced and other times women encouraged to prophesy in the churches...by examining the overall direction of thought. Then, one uses a hermeneutic or mode of understanding, informed by this deeper level ... that allows us not to get caught up in the peripherals. Do we literally need to shake dust off our feet when someone rejects christian preaching? Do we literally need to great each other with a holy kiss? Do we literally castrate those who approach things legalistically (in Paul...read Galatians)...if so, the gentleman whose review appeared before mine is in big trouble.
All in all, a good read!!!
Was this review helpful to you?
3 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
Webb, Professor of New Testament at Heritage Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada, had published a work, long in the making. It will make waves in the evangelical community as it has been endorsed by good scholars like Darrell Bock, Craig Evans and Craig Keener.
Webb's book begins by setting out his rationale. He hopes to bring the evangelical community back together by his "redemptive-movement" hermeneutics. His basic premise is that the more "static" approach of Grudem, Piper and others is lacking in its cultural application. Unfortunately, Webb misses the mark by departing from a grammtical-historical hermeneutic.
Webb divides the book into three sections. Slavery, which is his control group, homosexuals, and women. He eventually comes to the conclusion that slavery was a cultural convention of the ANE. Homosexuality, on the other hand is transcultural. The commands against it, go for all time. And finally, women in leadership, he feels was a cultural convention as well. That the arguments against women leadership in the Bible, was a cultural issue.
Unfortunately Webb's book does not answer the age old question, that if somethings are cultural, then what isn't cultural? He critizes the patriarchalists because they see slavery as cultural but not the women issue. Webb's basic premise that because life was better in Israel than in the ANE, and that life was better in the Church than it was in ancient Israel, and that life is better now than it was then, shouldn't we now move forward and bring women into the picture as leaders? His point is, why would we perpetuate the curse?
Unfortunately, Webb doesn't follow a generally held view of hermeneutics, and this will cause some to shy away from his book right away. A well-trained pastor or teacher could read this book with some profit, but I would not recommend it to anyone else than that.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  32 reviews
60 of 64 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating Contribution to Women and Homosexuals in the Church Feb. 26 2007
By Keen Incite - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The goal of most who study the Bible is to dig out those timeless concepts that provide the truth and wisdom necessary to live a holy, joyful and obedient life in the eyes of God. Most of these concepts are easy to discern, however, there are some "borderline" concepts that have been the basis of disagreement among theologians. These disagreements usually center around whether a particular issue described in Scripture is culturally based, (meaning it applied to the culture in which it was written exclusively and therefore, no longer applicable to today's Christian,) or transcultural (meaning it applies at all times in all locations in any culture.) Christians have separated and established new denominations based on these disagreements - such as the Seventh-Day Adventist's insistence on Saturday worship and the Brethren Church's elevation of foot-washing to a sacrament. How can the typical Christian determine what aspects of Scripture are cultural and which are timeless?

William J. Webb's "Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermenuetics of Cultural Analysis" attempts to answer this very question. In this systematic and logically-tight text, Webb presents his argument for what he describes as a "redemptive hermeneutic" using 18 different criteria to determine the directional "redemptive flow" of Scripture on any given topic, thereby being able to determine what aspects are culturally-based and which are transcultural.

For each criterion, Webb uses what he describes as "neutral" issues (issues that have been settled in the Church, such as slavery,) as examples of how the criterion works. He then applies it to two issues still in contention today - women's place in the Church and the legitimacy of homosexuality. He divides these 18 criteria into four groups - persuasive, moderately persuasive, inconclusive and persuasive extrascriptural.

I have never been a seminary student, but I was still able to understand Webb's argument based on the criteria he used. It was convincing to me (though I always get nervous when anyone attempts to use extrabiblical sources, since I believe the Bible is contextually self-sufficient.) I did, however, approach this text already agreeing with his conclusions on women and homosexuals.

This is a fascinating text for those who want to take the time and the mental energy to learn more about the arguments surrounding the two controversies addressed in this book. Whatever your stance, you are bound to have your mind expanded by tackling the criteria used in Webb's argument.
106 of 125 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This book answers qustions every Christian has asked March 5 2002
By Fred Jappe - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I Believe that Webb has done Christians a great service in writing this book. All of us have struggled with the knowledge that some Biblical passages are culturally dependent while others are Trans cultural. Prior to the publishing of this book, we did not have a good set of tools to resolve our questions. Webb helps solves that problem in this book. by giving us 18 criterion by which to analyze a Biblical passage to determine its cultural and Trans cultural components.
The book is remarkable in the thoroughness of its approach. Every verse dealing with the question of the role of women, slaves and homosexuals has been analyzed. I have taught New Testament at the college level for many years and learned a great deal from his approach. He showed great sensitivity to the question of the homosexual, yet, does not compromise the Biblical position.
I currently have a group of people from my church using this set of criterion on the topic of the death penalty. All are impressed with Webb?s high view of scripture and the usefulness of his approach.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Helpful, but vague at key points (3.5 stars) Aug. 21 2012
By A. Omelianchuk - Published on Amazon.com
Perhaps the most interesting and most controversial book on biblical interpretation published in the last ten years is William J. Webb's Slaves, Women & Homosexuals. The austere title signals to the reader three subjects that have been the most debated in the last 200 years. And for good reason: all who make up those people groups have been marginalized and oppressed under those who supposedly hold the authority of scripture.

Webb takes seriously the intuitions of the modern reader who is rightly appalled after reading a text like Exodus 21:20-21:

"If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property."

What to make of such a barbaric practice, which appears to be sanctioned by the Bible? Webb's answer: read it from the slave's point of view. At the time it was written, this was seen as having a softening effect on the institution of slavery; under the Mosaic Law, slaveholders could not go beyond certain limits, specifically causing the death of their slave. Unlike the surrounding culture, which put no limits on slaveholders, this text has a `redemptive component' that moves the culture towards a better ethic, one that ultimately vindicates the abolition of slavery. Thus, to read the `words on the page' in isolation from their redemptive spirit and ethical movement is to misunderstand the text.

This raises the question of cultural analysis: how to go about it? By what criteria do we discern the cultural components of a text from the transcultural ones? Webb proposes 18 different criteria meant to discriminate texts that address passing cultural conditions from those that are applicable in all times and places. As a result, he concludes that a "redemptive-movement" hermeneutic leads to the abolition of slavery and either egalitarian gender roles or what he calls "ultra-soft patriarchy" (symbolic male headship that is functionally egalitarian); but, he concludes, it does not lead to the blessing of covenantal same-sex relationships.

I leave it to the reader to explore the soundness of Webb's criteria, but I am less sanguine about his project than I used to be. While there is much I agree with regarding how his hermeneutic determines what the text is saying, why it says it, and where it is taking those who apply it, I think the categories of "cultural" and "transcultural" are too vague to be helpful. For example, when discussing how scientific evidence determines whether a text is "cultural" or "transcultural" he brings up the texts that appear to presume a geocentric view of the cosmos, and says, "the geocentric component of biblical cosmology is cultural..." This is an odd way of putting it. Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that the geocentric component of biblical cosmology is false?

I think so, and therein lies the problem. There are certain questions that are not best served by appeals to cultural relativity. Here a few that are relevant to the issues of slavery and female subordination:

[1] Is it ever morally permissible to own another human being?
[2] Is the following proposition coherent: `x is equal with y and x is designed to be subordinate to y?'
[3] Is a hierarchy that stipulates that person P is subordinate to person Q by virtue of P's being P a morally acceptable form of hierarchy?

Each answer demands a 'yes' or 'no' answer. Making a judgment either way is not determined by whether a text is culturally relative; rather, our judgments about these questions determine whether the texts in question are morally flawed or accommodating a morally flawed situation. Texts that address the topic of divorce are a good example. Begin by asking whether the Bible allows for the permissibility of divorce. If we say 'yes,' then we have to decide whether the text is morally flawed or accommodating morally flawed situations. If it is morally flawed, then we are judging it by a prior 'no-divorce' ethic. If it is accommodating morally flawed situations, we have to determine what those situations are and apply the text accordingly. If we say 'no, it doesn't permit divorce', then we have to explain why certain texts seem to allow for divorce (and how do you do that?).

As for slavery, either the Bible says it is morally permissible (under certain circumstances), or not; but we should recognize that much of its instructions address circumstances when slavery is a fact of life, and that we should act in such-and-such way if we are in those circumstances. Categories of truth or falsity, and moral permissibility or impermissibility are the relevant issues at stake--not whether things are "cultural" or "transcultural." (If it were, I would have expected a longer treatment of head coverings, but alas they went unaddressed.)

This is precisely what made the argument for abolition so difficult. The pro-slavery side could always say, "Look, if the circumstances are such that slavery is part of the economy, then these are the principles we have to abide by (submitting without complaint, not being harsh, ect)." This is the same problem that faces egalitarians: if women are uneducated or become utterly dependent on the physical labor of males, then the acceptability of female subordination in the home and church seems to follow. Yet Webb (rightly, I think) would advocate for abolition and egalitarian gender roles. But why? I assume it is because he thinks a more thoroughgoing biblical theology of the "ultimate ethic" he appeals to can be established. Unfortunately, he spends little time developing it. Of course, it isn't fair to expect this from a book devoted to developing criteria for cultural analysis, but his conclusions largely rest on some weighty background assumptions.

All this is not to say that Webb's hermeneutic and his 18 criteria are not useful and informative. There is a lot worth considering, and those who disagree with him have their work cut out for them in defending a "static" hermeneutic.
100 of 124 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hermeneutics Means...Reading Carefully Jan. 9 2002
By Michael N. Thomson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Unlike the previous reviewer I find much to commend in this thoughtful book. He says the author departs from a grammatical-historical hermeneutic. That is an oxymoron... Grammatical and Historical are modes of exegesis, they give us some of the building blocks for understanding the text, but they are not a hermeneutic. The author provides a hermeneutic...which is a means of understanding and appropriating these texts. He argues, rightly I believe, that the New Testament leans in the way of renewal...this is its elan vital. Some of the material in the New Testament (and Old Testament)...is cultural. It won't do to say flippantly, if some is...what isn't cultural. In fact, the entire New Testament are cultural productions of their times...but some of the nitty gritty specifics cannot be read with a hermeneutic that remains static, as if we could transpose ourselves to the first century and live exactly as they did, because very quickly one is riddled with impossibilities and contradictions. In a flat reading, women are subjected, slavery is endorsed, and we get caught up in such questions as "head-coverings" and "foot washing" etc... With a reading that seeks to discern the direction, trajectory if you will, you can see why at times headcoverings were encouraged and women silenced and other times women encouraged to prophesy in the churches...by examining the overall direction of thought. Then, one uses a hermeneutic or mode of understanding, informed by this deeper level ... that allows us not to get caught up in the peripherals. Do we literally need to shake dust off our feet when someone rejects christian preaching? Do we literally need to great each other with a holy kiss? Do we literally castrate those who approach things legalistically (in Paul...read Galatians)...if so, the gentleman whose review appeared before mine is in big trouble.
All in all, a good read!!!
29 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars excellent thought provoking book Nov. 10 2006
By Joshua D. Rumsey - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
wow, I have a masters degree in Bible Exegesis and I had never encountered the thought patterns in this book. I do not agree with the extent to which they are taken but I was certianly forced to more throughly evaluate my own positions. Books like this, that force me to examine my positions, are more valuable than any publishers list price and I highly reccomend it to you if you want to learn to think more effectively for yourself. I wouldn't reccomend it if you are new to theological reading.
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