Graduate Theological Union

A Commitment to Justice

Joanna Dewey Reflects on a Quarter Century as Scholar, Teacher, and Seminary Dean

Joanna Dewey“Do not use the Bible to oppress.” Joanna Dewey’s primary message expresses the deep commitment to justice and liberation that has marked her 25-year-long career as a biblical scholar, teacher, and administrator.

Since 1999, Dewey has served as academic dean at Episcopal Divinity School (EDS), where she is also the Harvey H. Guthrie, Jr. Professor of Biblical Studies. She joined the faculty in 1988. Both as dean and as a faculty member, Dewey has played a key role in integrating anti-racist and multicultural perspectives into the curriculum at EDS.

Well-known as a feminist biblical scholar, Dewey’s areas of expertise include the Gospel of Mark; feminist, literary, and oral approaches to the gospels; and the critique of sacrificial interpretations of Jesus’ death.

“Do you admit women?”
Dewey grew up in New York City, but set her sights westward from a young age. “No one knows how I, as a six-year-old, knew I wanted to go to California!” she laughs. She came west initially to earn an M.A. in European history from the University of California, Berkeley.

After working for several years, she decided to pursue her longstanding interest in religion. She read the catalog from Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP), then called them up and asked, “Do you admit women?” “Of course,” they replied. “No one would know it from your catalog,” Dewey said. “Every picture is a man, every pronoun is ‘he’!”

After earning her M.Div. from CDSP, she entered the GTU doctoral program. Dewey remembers the “sheer richness” of New Testament studies at the GTU in the 1970s, with Presbyterian, Lutheran, Jesuit and other approaches contributing diverse understandings. There is, she says, “real breadth in working with a lot of different people as a graduate student.” She earned her Ph.D. in Biblical Studies with an emphasis on New Testament in 1977. Dewey then taught at two schools in Oklahoma and briefly in New York State before joining the faculty at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA.

“I love teaching—that’s my passion. And new ideas.” Despite her satisfaction with her career, Dewey is clear-eyed and realistic in her advice to theology students planning teaching careers, saying that “it is probably not something you should do unless you can’t help it! There are few financial rewards, and little choice of where to live. It is a calling, and takes a lot of devotion and perseverance. Yet I’m very glad I did pursue it.”

Episcopal Divinity School
One of the most progressive Episcopal seminaries, EDS is a member of the Boston Theological Institute, a loose consortium of nine theological schools, seminaries, and departments of religion. Formed in 1974 with the merger of two existing schools, EDS quickly became recognized for its progressive orientation as it hired to its faculty two of the “Philadelphia 11”—the newly and “irregularly” ordained Episcopal women priests.

Multiculturalism, anti-racism, and feminism have been key commitments for the EDS community. As dean, Dewey has deepened the integration of these ideas into the curriculum.

EDS has more diversity in their faculty than most seminaries: half the faculty are women, one third are people of color, and faculty specialties range from feminism to overseas mission as well as the standard theological disciplines. Bishop Steven Charleston, president of EDS, points to Dewey’s work with the faculty as one of her main achievements as dean. In order to create greater collegiality, Dewey initiated a series of informal gatherings among the faculty, as well as a visionary group charged with brainstorming ideas for the school’s growth. The work of this group led to a project on pastoral excellence which was awarded a million dollar grant by the Lilly Foundation.

Accessible New Testament Scholarship
“I am convinced that the world doesn’t need one more scholarly article on Mark,” Dewey comments. “There is no need for abstruse language.” In keeping with this view, her scholarship has been directed towards both popular and more specialized audiences.

Her publications include Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel (with David Rhoads and Donald Michie) and Orality and Textuality in Early Christianity, Semeia 65, as well as numerous articles and reviews. In her GTU dissertation, she examined the literary structure of Mark 2:1-3:6. She has turned to a study of the oral nature of the gospels and now has a manuscript under contract with a publisher on The New Testament in its Oral/Aural Media World.

GTU doctoral student Paul Fullmer, whose work focuses on the Gospel of Mark, comments on the perspectives opened up by work like Dewey’s on oral stories versus written texts. “The orality of the Gospel of Mark means that even though you can pick up the book and it seems tangible and solid, it’s actually very fluid—more of a web of various voices and traditions, than a cohesive unit. This view makes it possible to see the Gospel with new eyes, particularly in terms of the role of women.”

PSR Professor Mary Ann Tolbert, who served with Dewey on a group which introduced literary analysis to the Society of Biblical Literature, remarks that Dewey “has always had a deep commitment to liberation issues and to excellence in scholarship. She is one of those rare scholars who brings both together, in her publications and in her creative way of working with curriculum and institutional structures.”

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