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.
The paradigmatic ancient comparandum that Barr presents as a standard by which to judge Paul and find him progressive is Aristotle. Drawing on others, 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.”
“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.’” 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.
 This includes, for example, Rachel Held Evans; Carolyn Osiek and Margaret Y. MacDonald; Lucy Peppiatt.
 Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood, 81.
 Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood, 88.
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