I’m very pleased to post this second contribution by Jill Hicks-Keeton, professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma, and an author who does not appreciate “experts” who try to explain away the problems of the Bible (e.g., with respect to women) and sees no need to pull her punches!  This is an unusually effective and interesting instance; here she reveals the the flaws of a recent attempt by a  New Testament scholar to make Paul patriarchally palatable.  She names names.

The post is an adaptation from her recently published Good Book: How White Evangelicals Save the Bible to Save Themselves


In my last post, I introduced the concept of Bible benevolence, which is the rhetorical and intellectual work that people do to make ancient texts in the Bible square with modern moral sensibilities. The Bible is not good by itself. People have to make it so. My recent book, Good Book: How White Evangelicals Save the Bible to Save Themselves, uses white evangelical Protestants in the U.S. as a case study to illustrate and analyze how Bible benevolence works among a vocal and politically influential subset of U.S. Christians.

Many white evangelicals with egalitarian aspirations rebrand the apostle Paul, whose archive is inconvenient for those who see the Bible as fundamentally liberative for everyone and empowering to women. It is demanding work to make the Bible into “the Good Book” on these counts. Paul’s letters silence women on two occasions, regulate how women dress, and tell married women to submit to (or be subject to) their husbands. Bible benevolence projects purport to offer explanations for how 1 Corinthians 14:34–35, 1 Timothy 2:11-15, and the Household Codes in Ephesians and Colossians are not irredeemably patriarchal, not out of step with today’s general gender parity values. Those seeking to exculpate Paul from charges of misogyny or to limit the modern impact of his ancient words about women must develop creative strategies to present the apostle’s letters as liberative.

One of those creative strategies is to get creative about ancient history. Let me illustrate with an example: the argument of Scot McKnight, a professional biblical scholar whose popular work also reaches beyond the academy. Author of numerous Bible commentaries and other books about the Bible, McKnight is the Julius R. Mantey Chair of New Testament at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lisle, Illinois. In his book entitled The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (Zondervan), McKnight creates an ancient context for Paul that helps him argue a case that Paul does not, in fact, silence women. But what McKnight actually does can be redescribed as a Bible benevolence project that engages in both historical and sexual fantasy and that, whether he intends to or not, defines for readers what kind of woman deserves to be silenced, and for whose benefit.

In order to “contextualize” Paul’s words in the letters to Timothy, McKnight develops a global claim about the sort of women on the scene in Roman antiquity. He writes that there was an “aggressive, confrontational public presence on the part of women during the very time Paul was writing [his] letters.”[1] McKnight goes on to list a series of characteristics of these women and to illustrate the traits with literary or archaeological evidence from outside the Bible. One way this problematic “public presence” manifested was, McKnight suggests, in sexy dress tied to sexual behavior. McKnight summons evidence to illustrate the “fact” that such women were present in ancient Ephesus. He points to an ancient novel by Xenophon called “An Ephesian Tale” and pulls from it a femme fatale. Her name is Anthia, and he pictures her doing a striptease in church.

McKnight writes that this woman Anthia was “baring her body to a man in a worship service.” He goes on: “Seduction in the middle of a worship service…That’s what Xenophon described in this novel and that is why Paul says what he says about women in the church services at Ephesus.”[2] Anthia becomes for McKnight a shocking, extreme example of what women should not do, of what Paul wants women not to do.

This reading requires creative logic. Anthia is a character from a work of fiction (written, not incidentally, by a man). To use a moment from Xenophon’s novel as evidence for what real women were doing in antiquity would be analogous to a modern movie-goer watching the 2001 film The Wedding Planner, starring Jennifer Lopez and Matthew McConaughey, and concluding that it was widespread practice two decades ago for women to plan weddings for a living only to ensnare and wed the betrothed man out from under the original bride. I venture to say that no reasonable viewer would leave a screening of this film in a panic over wedding planners becoming man-stealers in the real world.

McKnight’s reading also requires selective quotation. McKnight’s reading of Anthia does not capture how Anthia the character is portrayed in the whole of Xenophon’s novel. Important details of the novel’s plot that do not appear in the passage McKnight excerpts militate against interpreting Anthia as a femme fatale. McKnight not only condemns her sluttiness; he invents it in the first place. A full reading of Xenophon’s novel reveals that what McKnight calls a “love affair, a glorious one” between the two protagonists is in fact a courtship and marriage. The moment in the novel that McKnight represents as a seduction scene at a worship service is better described as a meet-cute at a public town festival, a fated encounter that will lead to a wedding. This scene is a stock part of the ancient romance genre in which a man and a woman fall madly in love at first sight—only to be separated and eventually find their way to be together. After they meet at the festival, at the bidding of the god Eros, Anthia and Habrocomes part from one another lovestruck. Their parents eventually arrange for their marriage, and only then do they ravish each other, despite experiencing deep desire beforehand. They remain sexually faith to one another for the rest of the novel even in the face of numerous temptations sent their way. At the end of the story, readers are assured, the pair “lived happily ever after.”

McKnight’s portrayal of the setting of the couple’s initial meeting as “a worship service” makes the moment feel more scandalizing to modern readers than it likely would if readers were given more of the novel. What is depicted in the story is not a worship service but a public festival. The townspeople and visitors alike have gathered in Ephesus for a mile-long procession to the temple of Artemis. As are the other female participants, Anthia is dressed as Artemis, a virginal huntress. McKnight cites only one line about Anthia’s hair to represent her as immodestly dressed. But the full text describes Anthia this way:


Her hair was golden—a little of it plaited, but most hanging loose and blowing in the  wind. Her eyes were quick; she had the bright glance of a young girl, and yet the austere look of a virgin. She wore a purple tunic down to the knee, fastened with a girdle and falling loose over her arms, with a fawnskin over it, a quiver attached, and arrows for weapons; she carried javelins and was followed by dogs.[3]


McKnight’s word “seduction” to describe Anthia’s behavior conjures images of a sexually experienced woman baring her breasts in order to ensnare an unsuspecting sexual partner. But Anthia is a fourteen-year-old girl wearing a lot of clothing in a public setting.

When read in the context of the whole of Xenophon’s novel, Anthia is more virgin than vixen, flirty without being fast—and only that with the man she will later marry, to whom she will stay faithful forever. McKnight’s reading of Anthia turns a lovesick fourteen-year-old girl who flirts across a crowded festival with her future husband into a femme fatale. When put next to 1 Timothy, this depiction of Anthia is supposed to provide a rationale for Paul’s words, to explain the apostle’s motivations as a way of defending what he said, not only about modest dress but also about speech. Oh, that’s the type of woman Paul was silencing. That makes sense. She really should not have been doing that. It is acceptable to silence certain kinds of women, the argument implies. In the fleshing out of the kind of woman whose behavior needs policing, this inventive reading of Xenophon generates a “bad woman” who needs correcting. McKnight makes her up so Paul can shut her up. And then everyone can feel good about it.

McKnight’s use of Anthia illustrates a standard feature of the contexts that Paul-reputation-managers often manufacture: They are pornographic— fantastically and productively so. Fantastically in the sense that they indulge in fantasy, both sexual and historical. Sex, sexiness, and sexuality are introduced in places where they are not originally in view, as historical “facts” are invented entirely through creative (and, some might say, inaccurate) uses of ancient literature. The pornographic renderings are productive because they function to communicate what behavior on the part of women is acceptable and what behavior warrants their silencing. McKnight’s depictions of women sift women into categories of good and bad. The striking irony is that interpretations presented as anti-misogynist are actually policing women in accordance with patriarchal norms.

If the women were bad by contrast to other women in Roman antiquity, according to white evangelical Bible benevolence, Paul was good in contrast to other men at the time. Indeed, another way that white evangelicals make the Bible benevolent for women is to render Paul a feminist-by-contrast. More on that in my third and final post!


[1] Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible, 2nd ed. (Zondervan, 2018), 250. He draws on Bruce Winter’s book Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

[2] McKnight, The Blue Parakeet, 251.

[3] Translation by Graham Anderson in Collected Ancient Greek Novels, 2nd ed., ed. B. P. Reardon (University of California Press, 2008), 125–69.