It’s amazing how committed New Testament scholars often try to tame the Bible, making it upbeat and relevant for today when, on the surface, it affirms views that most of us, when we’re honest about it, simply can’t abide.  And not just the Old Testament celebration of slaughter (those damn Canaanites) and execution (for, say, disobeying parents) but also the New Testament (and not just the grotesque torture and annihilations of Revelation).  Jill Hicks-Keeton, professor of Religious Studies at Oklahoma, deals with how evangelical Christians (one could pick other groups!) try to whitewash the Bible in her book Good Book: How White Evangelicals Save the Bible to Save Themselves.   This now is Jill’s third and final guest post for us on the topic.

Once again, she names names.

Any comments?  Bring ’em on!


The ancient people who wrote the texts that would become “the Bible” lived in patriarchal societies. Modern Bible readers who see these texts as scriptural and who also deem patriarchy an undesirable way to order society have a problem to solve: how to understand “the Good Book” as good now when society’s concept of what is good has changed since antiquity. Can the Bible be made good for modern women?

Baylor University professor Beth Allison Barr’s headline-making book The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women became Gospel Truth (Brazos, 2021) attempts to do so. This immensely popular book landed Barr on NPR Morning Edition, in the pages of The New Yorker, and in hot water with the most conservative wing of her Baptist tradition. Barr describes herself as a Baptist “pastor’s wife” in addition to her role as professor of medieval history. Attuned to the prevalence of sexual harassment and abuse of women in Christian institutions and beyond, Barr seeks to disentangle the Good Book from the harms of patriarchy. Barr’s book is a useful case study for illustrating what I call Bible benevolence labor—the evolving strategies that people use to make the Bible ever the Good Book.

Defending the Bible from criticism is not Barr’s primary stated goal, but the grand thesis of her book cannot be accurate if the Bible can be held to account for the ills she is fighting against. Barr has created a history project in the service of advocacy that hinges on Bible benevolence. For Barr Christianity is by definition anti-patriarchal. Therefore, she must figure out how to present Paul’s patriarchal mandates as anti-patriarchal, as only apparently patriarchally normative. “What if Biblical Womanhood Doesn’t Come from Paul?,” she asks her readers to consider in one chapter title.

Barr develops what I call a “Bible benevolence loop” into which any piece of evidence or potential objection can be inserted to reach the same conclusion. Barr argues that when Paul, and therefore the Bible, sounds patriarchal, that is because Paul was writing in a context where patriarchy was normative. But such patriarchy is always, in Barr’s paradigm, introduced from the outside. Barr protects the Bible from patriarchy, and therefore critique, by alternating between the assertions that, on the one hand, Paul was reflecting Roman patriarchy and, on the other, Paul was fighting Roman patriarchy. In either case, Roman patriarchy can be counted as ever-external to Paul and therefore the Bible. In this rhetorical project, extrabiblical evidence from antiquity is claimed either as context or contrast, depending on which is more beneficial to the Bible benevolence work. Paul is exceptional—except when he is not. The Bible is exceptional—except when it is not.

Strategic comparison is integral to the task. Following a popular trend in Bible benevolence projects, Barr manufactures Paul’s goodness by contrasting his words with those of other ancient figures to make Paul look good in comparison. Paul might initially seem bad, but the Romans were really bad. If Paul is good by contrast, then he is good enough. To work for Bible redemption, such comparisons must rely both on selective data collection along with strategic presentation and interpretation of that data. Ultimately, Barr’s argument only works when she exercises the interpretive controls of Christian exceptionalism and biblical exceptionalism.

Let’s see how this works. Barr asks suggestively: “Rather than New Testament ‘texts of terror’ for women, what if the household codes [in Ephesians and Colossians] can be read as resistance narratives to Roman patriarchy?” These codes tell wives to be subject to their husbands and instruct husbands to love their wives. They say for children to obey their parents and for fathers not to provoke their children. They tell enslaved persons to obey their masters. The biblical codes command masters to treat their slaves justly and fairly since they too “have a Master in heaven.” Enslaved persons are told to do enslaved labor eagerly, like they are doing it for the deity rather than the householders who benefit from their enslaved labor.Book cover of Good Book

The paradigmatic ancient comparandum that Barr presents as a standard by which to judge Paul and find him progressive is Aristotle. Drawing on others,[1] she argues that comparing Paul’s household codes in Colossians and Ephesians to the comments of Aristotle on household management reveals that Paul’s aim was not to normalize Roman patriarchal hierarchies but to challenge them. In particular, she capitalizes on what she perceives as a significant grammatical difference. Paul addressed the underlings, and Aristotle did not. The Pauline household codes, she says, “address all the people in the house church—men, women, children, and slaves.”[2]

“Everyone,” Barr writes approvingly, “is included in the conversation.” This “Paul-included-everyone” argument does not consider the content of speech or its effects. Barr writes affirmingly that the biblical households codes “offer each member of the shared community—knit together by their faith in Christ—the right to hear and act for themselves.” Testing this claim out on the master-slave addressees shows its impossibility. Few would argue that a powerful, free man speaking to an enslaved person empowers the slave, particularly when the content of the free man’s speech is telling the enslaved person to obey their master as if he were God.

The Bible benevolence argument that sees Paul’s direct address as empowering depends on a fantasy that one of the power differentials in the codes—that of gender—can be successfully extricated from the others. This fantasy is one that is likely imaginable only to women in the modern U.S. with economic status and racial privileges accorded by whiteness. The Aristotle-Paul comparison in Barr’s argument depends on ignoring and normalizing the real plight of enslaved persons in the household.

The choice of Aristotle as historical comparandum for Paul, further, requires a strategic collapsing of centuries. Aristotle is a Greek philosopher from the fourth-century BCE. He is an uneasy, if not entirely inaccurate, representative of Roman patriarchy during the first century CE, the time of Paul. Aristotle lived and wrote over 300 years before Paul and over 400 years before some New Testament texts were composed—about the same amount of time that passed between Mozart and the Beatles. Comparing Paul to Aristotle and finding that Paul was resisting patriarchy is not unlike comparing the Beatles’ tunes to Mozart’s as a way of arguing that the Beatles were resisting rather than participating in music.

Without biblical exceptionalism driving the selection and interpretation of ancient texts, Paul’s words map out differently on the ancient landscape than in Barr’s accounting. Without biblical exceptionalism, Paul is another privileged man in antiquity promoting patriarchy. One reason enforcement measures were likely necessary in the first place is that some subordinates did not—and do not—comply. In support of her case that Paul was not patriarchal, Barr writes about an ancient Roman known as Pliny the Younger, who complained about Christians for subverting Roman norms of masculinity. She states: “One more piece of evidence that convinces me that the household codes should be read as resistance narratives to Roman patriarchy is how early Christians were perceived by the Roman world: as ‘gender deviants.’”[3] This mobilization of evidence rests on two fanciful historical assumptions: first, that all ancient Christians were obediently following the biblical household codes and, second, that following the biblical household codes would make Christians look deviant.

If Christians were flouting Roman standards of patriarchy, it is much more likely from a historical standpoint devoid of biblical exceptionalism that the New Testament household codes were written to contain such flouting rather than to instigate it. The codes were likely directed precisely at the sort of Christians that Pliny complains about. To make the Bible benevolent within the constraints of white evangelical biblicism, Barr asserts that the existence of non-compliance provides evidence for what the biblical author meant. Yet what (other) Christians were actually doing in antiquity is irrelevant for determining what the author of the Pauline household codes meant. Here is a modern analogy that demonstrates the creative thinking embedded in Barr’s argument: The CDC recommended that Americans get vaccinated against Covid-19, but many Americans did not get vaccinated against Covid-19; therefore, the CDC actually meant “don’t get vaccinated.” What people do in response to guidance or rules does not change the intention of the guidance.

Barr needs to change Paul’s intention, which in turn flattens the reality that there existed diversity in ancient Christianity regarding gender norms and constructions. She needs to do so because her biblicism demands that she bring Paul’s intention in line with her desired application of the biblical text. She cannot understand the resistors to Roman patriarchal norms simultaneously as resistors of Paul or the codes ascribed to him, because Paul and his codes are in the Bible. Barr’s Bible benevolence project, then, makes the prescriptive words of a powerful man cohere with bits of evidence that some people, who did not write the Bible, did not follow that authority. Interpreters who see the biblical Household Codes as anti-patriarchal, as Barr does, mobilize non-compliant women to support their case, transforming Paul-resistors into evidence that Paul is good. And if Paul is good, the logic goes, the Bible can be too.




[1] This includes, for example, Rachel Held Evans; Carolyn Osiek and Margaret Y. MacDonald; Lucy Peppiatt.

[2] Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood, 81.

[3] Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood, 88.

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  1. TomTerrific January 30, 2024 at 7:43 am

    A very interesting and well-written series, Dr. Hicks-Keeton.

  2. fishician January 30, 2024 at 10:18 am

    Excellent points. It seems similar to me to how some Christians justify what the Bible says about slavery by comparing it to even worse slavery. Even if Pliny was complaining about Christians being too liberal about gender roles it seems to me that certain passages like 1 Corinthians 14:34, 35 and the Pastoral Epistles were written precisely to counteract such trends and put women back in their quiet submissive place. But people will continue to put lipstick on a pig, as the saying goes.

    • Squadronbay January 31, 2024 at 1:28 pm

      Indeed, Dr Josh Bowen (Megan Lewis’s husband) has unpacked the question of slavery fully and unsparingly (ref Misquoting Jesus podcast of 18 July 2023).

  3. RichardFellows January 30, 2024 at 12:16 pm

    Could you address the question of where “white evangelicals” and American society in general, got their ideas about what is “good”. On this blog, Bart has argued that much of it has come from the teachings of Jesus in the bible. See also “The Air We Breath: How We All Came to Believe in Freedom, Kindness, Progress, and Equality” by Scrivener, who argues along similar lines.

    Inferring Barr’s motives is surely an exercise in mind reading. She might be trying to sell books, or trying to increase her fame, or trying to reconcile the bible to itself, or just trying to do honest research. How can we know? My complaint against Barr is that she sensors the comments on her web site to an extent that is, I think, dishonest.

    Many (most?) of your readers are interested in what Paul thought. So, when discussing the author of Colossians, and Ephesians, for example, I suggest that you use “Paul” with the quotation marks.

    Yes, attempts to limit the misogyny of Col and Eph can only go so far. However, I find it puzzling that Colossians probably gives the leadership of a church to a woman (Nympha). Any thoughts on why?

  4. kt January 31, 2024 at 4:44 am

    I really love the topic you’ve raised and I really think it is highly relevant,,,,,,for me at least!

    To be honest to myself, I am not able to defend the narratives, including the various plots and characters, when they are interpreted literally. As a modern person, the portrayal(s) of a patriarchal society, its depictions of terrible violence and warfare sometimes even sanctioned by God, the regulation of slavery, stoning, and other harsh punishments, along with the notion of exclusivity and intolerance found particularly in the Old Testament but also (at least partly) in the New Testament, are troubling.
    I really don’t think these texts should be read literally. I suspect they try to convey a broader spiritual message, utilizing the contemporary imaginations/cultural structures/values of the time they were written. I believe they might have even incorporated contemporary life, historical events, and myths from, for example, several Sumerian stories as “vessels.” If so, another question is the origin of these “messages” came from, whether they came from visions, inspirations, dreams, meditations, transcendental journeys (like suggested by biblical scholars took place in for example Sethian Gnosticism rituals (5 seals)), or merely from philosophical speculations, like those found in (at least I guess) Pythagoreanism/Neo-Pythagoreanism, and perhaps combined with Platonic ideas—or a combination of these. With this in mind, narratives such as the creation story (Genesis 1), the Exodus story from Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the visions of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, even the Song of Songs, David and Goliath, etc, etc ., and not to forget, and definitely the Revelation (the last I think has a more eastern pattern in its attempt to convey/ demonstrate the spiritual journey of the “Self” , fundamentally similar from the old concept of slavery to freedom/or, exodus from Egypt to Israel, can symbolize the soul’s ascent.)
    However, from a literal perspective, the Bible is written as it is and cannot, and in my opinion, should not be defended within the framework of modern values.

  5. nicolausaldanha January 31, 2024 at 5:29 am

    Thank you for your excellent post.

    You probably clarify this in your writings, but I would like to know where you stand in the authorship of the “Pauline” letters. Also, to what an extent do you think the views of the actual Paul are different from the views of the actual author of the relevant letters.

  6. improv58 January 31, 2024 at 7:06 am

    Spectacularly written series of blog posts. Thank you. I will say this about poor Paul. He had it all. He was a Roman citizen and a Pharisee. He got to chase Christians around then all went south. He was stricken blind then forced (I would say forced. Remain blind or become an apostle of Christ!) to confront his fellow Jews and Romans with a 180-degree view. What happened as a result? He got beaten and thrown in jail and needed to negotiate his new belief systems with the men who walked with the physical Jesus, his former Jewish friends, and Roman authorities. Plus, he had to deal with mystical voices in his head. Next, he had to quell unrest in the new churches by writing a series of letters saying, “Wait, that’s not what I meant. I meant this, or that, and a little bit of something else!” And if he could communicate with us today, he’d say the same.

    “And them downtown boys they sure talk gritty
    It’s so hard to be a saint in the city.”
    Bruce Springsteen

  7. Tomaha January 31, 2024 at 10:25 am

    If a human being is raised in a social and intellectual environment that believes their mortality/immortality hinges on their faithfulness to a creed that states that a certain document is “Truth” and “Inspired” by an entity that will ultimately judge their faithfulness to that document, it literally can be a life-or-death situation in their deepest psychological makeup. Add on a professional and marital relationship that hinges on the same creed, and it even more so exacerbates the basic root motivation of all life forms: SURVIVAL. If doubt is cast on the legitimacy of that document, it threatens to undermine their whole existence and once again – the root instinct activates. Some of us defend our existence with weapons of war, others with weapons of words.

  8. Squadronbay January 31, 2024 at 1:18 pm

    Terrific post. I love the skewering of the argument by using analogy (Aristotle is as far from Paul as Mozart from the Beatles, etc). Stimulating and thought-provoking. I wonder what would happen to my internal gymnastics if I exposed them to such scrutiny.

  9. Upozi February 3, 2024 at 1:29 pm

    Thank you for your post.

    It reminds me of a piece by Peter Jones, a British classicist, arguing that women were not as subordinate in classical Athens as we might think.

    He quoted a speech by a prosecutor against a hetaira, I forget who but presumably the speech is “Against Neaera”, where the prosecutor tells the jury that if they do not convict her they will “get it in the neck” from their wives and daughters when they get home.

    It is worth quoting, but the weight that is put on it as regards the position of women at the time is up to the reader. In my case, I give it hardly any weight at all especially given the subject matter of the case which is about the travails of a prostitute, born a slave, prosecuted to advance a personal and political grievance.

    As in all scholarship, taking single quotes out of context is dangerous, especially if comparable literature is lacking. The Bible is only one example of this.

  10. Foreigner February 4, 2024 at 3:51 am

    But the theology in Colossians and Ephesians is clearly NOT that of Paul.
    Both argue for a spiritual resurrection in the present and Ephesians goes as far as claiming the risen church already ‘teaches’ the powers in heaven the mysteries of Christ .
    Something Paul would have never written, because any form of resurrection (from physical to heavenly just before Christ’s return) is a future event in Paul’s theology.

    Furthermore in Galatians Paul says in Galatians 3
    “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”
    This makes all patriarchal claims about men vs women, master vs slave extremely suspicious as if they were written by Paul, because they contradict this statement in Galatians in the biggest possible way.

  11. Upozi February 4, 2024 at 1:32 pm

    In fact I think I can do rather better, using “Against Neaera”, than your Evangelical in “Gooding up” the Bible. It’s arguable that early Christian ceremonies were derived from the Jewish Seder (especially the Last Supper) and that this was itself derived from the Hellenistic symposium (Stein: The Journal of Jewish Studies, 1957). Symposia were gatherings of men often involving hetaira who usually contributed intellectual stimulation but sometimes, as in Neaera’s case lewd performance and actual public sexual activity. Perhaps it is this that Paul wants to confront? (let’s forget that Stein uses examples stretching over 800 years and Neaera’s case is pre-Aristotle).

    Now let me defend Barr. Doesn’t the testimony of Pliny the Younger show that slaves were not only accepted as Christians but could attain rank as Deaconesses?

  12. ClayMitchell February 4, 2024 at 5:24 pm

    An interesting post and an interesting topic. As Peter said, Paul is often difficult to figure out, to apply to different times.
    The analogy involving the Beatles and Mozart thought-provoking. Actually, I can kind of see how you could compare and use that prove musical resistance, although it might be reversed. Wouldn’t Mozart be the resistor?

  13. markdeckard February 7, 2024 at 8:26 am

    It could be Paul was just too couched in the norms of his day and still rooted in certain traditions to even imagine radical reforms in gender equality and slavery. One might even say he was a bit dense. I mean hello? Jesus constantly used terms of redemption and ransom that were very much about people being purchased and freed from slavery. But what did Paul really know about what Jesus said? We can’t be sure. He didn’t quote him much at all. Maybe if He had hung out with John a bit more he would have heard the one about the Samaritan woman Jesus met at a well. What about the woman caught in adultery who was clearly being treated differently than her secret man who was conveniently allowed to walk away from the street tribunal? Of course those stone throwing men are getting thier come uppance 2000 years later as now the entire story is being deemed non authentic. Or so say them men in charge.

  14. quadell February 7, 2024 at 12:43 pm

    Most Americans are invested in the idea that the Bible is an impeccable source for moral behavior. Also, most American are surprisingly ignorant regarding the content of the Bible. Given these two facts, do you think the work of Biblical benevolence — bending the text so that it is seen to support positive behaviors and attitudes — is a valid endeavor? Can this be seen as an effective way to make the world a better place, using the imperfect tool of an ambiguous document?

  15. normative February 7, 2024 at 3:55 pm

    I’d think the stronger version of this argument would be to note that the probably-forged Colossians, Ephesians, and Pastoral epistles were not reacting to (let alone against) Roman patriarchy, but to what appears to have been the relatively far less patriarchal structure of the early Christian church, where women were afforded an unusual (for the time) degree of prominence and authority. Surely the relevant point of comparison is not Aristotle but the modestly progressive practice of the communities to whom they were addressed, whose egalitarian tendencies they aimed to nip in the bud.

  16. Seeker1952 February 10, 2024 at 11:42 am

    I would have been inclined to say that understanding and interpreting the Bible within its social context would be an enlightened and – usually – humane thing to do.

    I haven’t read your posts carefully and thoughtfully enough to say that you always disagree. I’m guessing you don’t.

    But my conclusion is that, insofar as people look to the Bible for authoritative moral guidance, they should pretty much just judge it on what it plainly says. All but the most obviously called for interpretations just tie people up in knots.

    We should rely primarily on our own moral judgments (using our own reason among other things) rather than on what the Bible says or can be interpreted to say. At best the Bible can provide some insight, things to consider, and reassurance to those who need or want it

    Perhaps social context can and should play a bigger role than this in general understanding of the Bible. And we can probably learn things about morality from the Bible. But in the end we have no choice but to make up our own minds about morality. We can’t rely on any purported moral authority emanating from the Bible.

  17. apmorgan February 10, 2024 at 10:32 pm

    Good points! I’m reminded of Amy-Jill Levine’s talk at last year’s conference, which focused on the Jewish, rather than Greek, side of the same coin. (Both authors have Jill in their names, it’s a conspiracy!)

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