Brooten graduated from University of Portland with a B.A., and Harvard University with a Ph.D. in 1982. She studied theology at the University of Tübingen and at Hebrew University. She taught at the Claremont Graduate School, the University of Tübingen, Harvard Divinity School, and the University of Oslo with a 1998 Fulbright Fellowship. She served on the Advisory Committee for the Women's Studies in Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School from 1997 to 2008.
Brooten is the founder and director of the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis. The project aims to create Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sexual ethics rooted in freedom, mutuality, meaningful consent, responsibility, and female (as well as male) pleasure, untainted by slave-holding values. These religions' sacred texts and traditions have all tolerated slavery, which has frequently involved the sexual exploitation of women and girls. Brooten heads a team of scholars, activists, artists, and policy analysts who are disentangling the nexus of slavery, religion, women, and sexuality. They aim to help religious and other people complete the abolition of slavery and move beyond harmful racial and sexual stereotypes.
Her work is located primarily within the New Testament, post-biblical Judaism, early literature and history, women and religion, and feminist sexual ethics (with a particular focus on law and sexuality). Her books have won numerous awards and she has been recognized for her service to the field of Biblical Literature.
She is currently writing a book on early Christian women who were enslaved or who owned enslaved laborers.
- "The modern face of slavery", The Boston Globe, November 19, 2006
- Beyond Slavery: Overcoming Its Religious and Sexual Legacies, Palgrave-MacMillan, 2010, ISBN 978-0-230-10017-6
- Women Leaders in The Ancient Synagogue: Inscriptional Evidence and Background Issues, Scholars Press, 1982, ISBN 978-0-89130-587-3
- Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism, University of Chicago Press, 1996, ISBN 978-0-226-07592-1
- "Female Homoeroticism", Immaculate & powerful: the female in sacred image and social reality, Editors Clarissa W. Atkinson, Constance H. Buchanan, Margaret Ruth Miles, Beacon Press, 1985, ISBN 978-0-8070-1004-4
- "Acts of the Apostles", Women priests: a Catholic commentary on the Vatican declaration, Editors Leonard J. Swidler, Arlene Swidler, Paulist Press, 1977, ISBN 978-0-8091-2062-8
- Frauen in der Männerkirche, Editors Bernadette Brooten, Norbert Greinacher, Kaiser, 1982, ISBN 978-3-459-01424-8
- "Hot Potato: An Interview with Bernadette J. Brooten", International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies, Springer Netherlands, ISSN 1566-1768, Volume 3, Number 4, October, 1998