There are more than enough blog posts in support of Christopher Rollston, so, in the interests of diversity, I propose to offer one against.

Christopher Rollston is an accomplished scholar who specializes in ancient inscriptions, is otherwise an expert in Semitic languages, and teaches at Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee, up in the Blue Ridge mountains.  The seminary is in the Stone-Campbell “restoration” tradition.

A few weeks ago he published an essay in the Huffington Post which argued that the culture of Bible is one that “marginalizes women”, that is, that is often misogynistic and generally aims to treat women, as much as possible, as of little or no account:

to embrace the dominant biblical view of women would be to embrace the marginalization of women. And sacralizing patriarchy is just wrong. Gender equality may not have been the norm two or three millennia ago, but it is essential. So, the next time someone refers to “biblical values,” it’s worth mentioning to them that the Bible often marginalized women and that’s not something anyone should value.

Given the venue of the essay (HuffPo), and given that it repeats many of the arguments which have been used by enemies of Christianity to discredit the Bible and ridicule Christians, whatever the intentions of Dr. Rollston as a person, the essay is easily interpreted as an attack on the authority of the Bible, and on the claim of historical Christianity to be revered.  Clearly the essay takes a viewpoint or ideology which has been held, with doubtful consistency, by a relatively small number of people in developed countries in the last fifty years (“gender equality”)–an ideology which actually has not yet been shown to be capable of serving as the foundation of any kind of lasting society– and judges “biblical values,” and presumably anyone who departs from pure “gender equality,” to be immoral, as departing from it.

I do not find the essay itself particularly impressive.  I mean, it is published in the Huffington Post after all, it hardly argues for a cutting edge progressive view (actually, its theme lags about 50 years behind progressive thought), and it is put before a readership which will cheerily greet it as an expert’s confirmation of what they already believe.  By journalistic standards it is perhaps average, beginning in a trite way with cheap shots at Augusta National and Todd Akin, and ending with the warning that the “impulse” to turn to the Bible for “timeless truths about social norms” is an impulse which “can be fraught [sic] with certain difficulties.”  (“Fraught” already contains the modality, possibly.)

As I said, dozens of scholars have now written in defense of Christopher Rollston, because of a rumor that his seminary is looking into some kind of disciplinary action against him.  I suspect if that rumor is true, then the seminary’s discontent is hardly attributable to that article alone.  But in any case that is not a controversy I wish to enter into.

Rather, I wish to write against Rollston on merely one point, that is, on the assessment of the worth of his essay, if that essay is taken as the product of a scholar, not a journalist.  I ask as one scholar viewing the work of another: Does Rollston’s essay represent a responsible application of a scholar’s knowledge to the realm of popular writing and discourse?  Does it edify and generally enlighten, or does it tend to darken, confuse and mislead?

Everyone says, in effect, that it edifies and enlightens, as for instance:

Dr. Rollston’s article is quite tame and very responsible. …It’s honest. It’s balanced. It has integrity. It doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not. It’s right

Thomas Stark

it simply beggars belief that a scholar of the stature of Prof. Rollston should be the subject to disciplinary proceedings for calmly and eloquently expressing his views on an issue that is important in both the academy and the church.  I think it is unacceptable that honest, erudite and carefully considered views like this should be regarded as damaging to the reputation of an academic institution like Emmanuel.

— Mark Goodacre

Dr. Rollston [was] doing his job – offering an interpretation of scripture based upon his expertise.

Bob Cargill

Another professor wrote that Rollston was only saying what he and everyone else he knew regularly taught in the classroom, so what was the fuss?

Look, I’ll make just a few points, and you can judge for yourself whether Rollston’s article is sweetness and light–and, if Rollston’s view reflects simply “how everyone thinks,” then judge at the same time what the current state of scripture scholarship is.

By the way, absolutely nothing in Rollston’s article depends on his specific scholarly expertise or even on any special knowledge of a scholar or researcher.

Consider this passage from near the opening of Rollston’s article:

Some 2,000 years ago, a Hebrew sage named Ben Sira wrote “the birth of a daughter is a loss” and “better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good.” Modern readers rightly label such words misogynistic. But they’re part of the historical record and Ben Sira wasn’t alone.

I claim that this is at best a misleading piece of writing.  A misogynist is someone who hates women.  Misogynistic words are words which express misogyny and must be written by someone who is a misogynist.  What Rollston is claiming is that Ben Sira, otherwise known as “Sirach,” or at least the teachings in the book by that name (received as canonical by the Catholic Church), is a misogynist.  (Yes, strictly, Rollston says only that the words are misogynist, and only these words, but I take it that someone who sometimes advocates misogyny counts simply as a misogynist — just as from one shockingly racist remark we may rightly label someone a racist.)

And misogyny is a very serious charge indeed. To be someone who does not merely admire men more, or prefer to be in their company — but actually hates women, and, maybe, wishes that they, or some of them, not exist–that is deeply twisted and monstrously evil.  And so, what Rollston is saying, is that the esteemed wise man, Sirach, and many others in his culture (for he wasn’t alone), if not deeply twisted and monstrously evil, were at least complicit in that sort of evil.

Indeed, the quotations seem to support this claim.  The first seems to say that everyone who has a daughter is less well off after her birth than before–that the existence of any female is bad and that it were better if had she not been born.  The second seems to say that no matter how upright and virtuous a woman is, the best she can be is worse than the most despicable and dishonorable man.

You’ll agree that Rollston wants his readers to interpret those texts in that way, right?  His comments about misogyny require that those texts take that sense, or something like it.

But then go to the context and see what those texts say, in context.  Do this yourself, do not rely on my say-so: Sirach 22:3, and Sirach 42:14. (You won’t easily be able to do so from Rollston’s article, as the average reader will have no idea who “Ben Sira” is, and Rollston does not give the verses.)

The interpretation of both verses is tricky, because Sirach is, after all, a sage, and sages write in paradoxes and can speak hyperbolically.   But a reasonable interpretation of the first is something like: “For a father, the birth of a daughter involves many worries and cares.”  Of the second: “A young man should be careful of spending time in the company of women, and, as regards remaining chaste, favors and blandishments from women may actually be more harmful to him than injuries suffered in the company of men.”  We may debate over the exact interpretation and wisdom, or current wisdom, of teachings like that–and certainly they are written within a “patriarchal” culture–but mysogynistic they are not.

Actually, they seem to be the reverse, as the presupposition of “the birth of a daughter is a loss,” under its sound interpretation, would seem to be that most others will suppose a daughter’s birth an unalloyed joy.  Obviously, if Sirach’s peers thought what Rollston imputes to them, then there would be no wisdom in the observation that “the birth of a daughter is a loss”, any more than in “blight in one’s crops is a loss,” or “the burning down of one’s house is a loss.”

Fine, but then consider Rollston’s very next sentence in the essay:

From Mesopotamia to Egypt, women in the ancient world were considered property — valuable property, but property nonetheless.

Do you see the problem here?  He has outright contradicted himself.  If women are valuable property, then the birth of a female cannot be “a loss” in the sense he imputed to that saying — that would be like saying “the birth of a BMW 3 Series Coupe is a loss.”

Fine, so he contradicts himself from the start.  Why expect something as simple as consistency in popular writing?

Rollston next claims that the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) evinces this view of women as mere property because of the commandment:

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male slave, his female slave, his ox, his donkey or anything which belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21).

But if women were mere property, in Rollston’s sense, then the commandment “Thou shall not commit adultery” would be useless, given that it is also commanded “Thou shall not steal.”

I say “property in Rollston’s sense” because his entire commentary about women as property is based on anachronism, that is, on the projection onto Biblical culture of a view of property that became widely accepted only after, roughly, John Locke and the early modern period.  Yes, it is correct to say that a wife was the husband’s “property” in the sense that she “belonged” to him;she was counted among the goods that constituted his life; and he had responsibility for her good.  Also, the reverse would not hold, and, for instance, the woman would regard herself as belonging to him (and maybe even delight in that), not in his belonging to her. –But I’ll say no more than to say that one will not understand this outlook through the misapplication of a notion of property which arose only much later.  Or let’s say that Rollston’s analysis is completely appropriate if, today, when a woman says that she is pleased to belong to a man — as does happen–then what she is saying, is that she is pleased that she has become a piece of property.  There are different ways of belonging, after all.

Next Rollston tells us that the book of Proverbs “marginalizes women” because “the book was written to men, not women.”   But you’d have to show more than that to get that sort of conclusion.  Of course, in a patriarchal culture, teaching will typically take the form of wisdom passed down from a father (or father-like figure) to a son (or son-like figure).  But what one needs to show, to establish that a patriarchal society “marginalized” women in the sense intended, is that women were never meant to learn this teaching, and indeed never learned it or cherished it.   Rollston gives no evidence for that.   On the contrary, there is the evidence of Mary apparently being so familiar with the scriptures that she could spontaneously compose her own hymn echoing scripture (the “Magnificat”, which echoes the Song of Hannah in 1 Sam 2). (Oh, but I forgot — scripture scholars generally hold that because the Magnificat resembles those verses from the Hebrew scripture, it was a cento composed not by Mary but by men in the early Church–not marginalizing women there, I guess!–  But they do allow, I think, that Hannah might have sung her own song.)

Rollston then writes the following:

The New Testament contains texts that marginalize women as well. Among the harshest of these texts is 1 Timothy 2. The author is discussing worship and begins by stating that “men should pray” and then says “women should dress themselves modestly and decently.” So men are to pray and women are to dress modestly. That’s quite a contrast. But there’s more: “Let a woman learn in silence and full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to be silent.” The author’s rationale: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve, and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1 Timothy 2:8-14). So, according to this text, women were to be silent in worship because they were created second and sinned first. And the final blow is this: a woman “will be saved through childbirth, if she remains in faith and love and sanctification with modesty” (1 Timothy 2:15). This text is not too different from a Saying in the Gospel of Thomas (114) that says women can be saved once they become males. In any case, for the author of 1 Timothy, eternal salvation comes obstetrically.

Obviously it is possible to portray 1 Timothy 2 in an unflattering light.  If someone has already made up his mind that its author and his culture “marginalized” women, then this text will be additional confirmation.  But I presume that a scholar, writing as a scholar–such as Rollston–will want to put forward a text as evidence for a conclusion, not to rubber-stamp a foregone conclusion, and in that case responsible scholarship requires that the case be made against that text’s counting in that way, or at least indicated.   (Or if he in effect wants his readers to think: “Oh, he’s an expert, so he must have already considered other interpretations of this text and dismissed them, and so those other interpretations must be of no account, and his interpretation must be the only reasonable interpretation”–then what he is doing making an appeal to his own authority, not offering reasons that are rationally compelling.)

I shall make a few observations about this passage and Rollston’s treatment of it.  Notice first how bizarre it is for him to claim that St. Paul’s statement that “she will be saved through childbirth” is nearly the same as the teaching that “she will be saved through becoming a man”!   What rank nonsense!–because men do not give birth.  (Actually, someone might say, on the contrary, that Rollston’s implicit view seems more like that of the gnostic gospel: it is Rollston’s “gender equality” which seems to say that women must do the same things as men and become exactly like them, before they can be equal and be “saved”.)  Jesus likens his own Passion to childbirth (Jn 16:21, and the birth  of a child to his Resurrection), and not a few Christian women have exulted in the sacrificial self-giving of motherhood, rightly recognizing that it is as great, or a greater, participation in Christ’s suffering and death than anything that men can do.   (Giving birth certainly seems a much more impressive service than praying or teaching in the synagogue.)  But Rollston derisively dismisses all this with his crass “eternal salvation comes obstetrically.”

Next, let’s look at how Rollston clips and edits the text to the advantage of the conclusion he wants to reach.  What St. Paul actually says in the passage about men is not “men should pray” but rather that “men should pray, hands uplifted, without anger or argument.”  Why is this important?  Because the phrase “hands uplifted, without anger or argument (dialogismos, perhaps ‘contentious argument’)” gives the manner in which he wishes men to act, and indeed it is immediately followed by the word “in the same manner” (Greek: hwsautws), after which St. Paul gives his instruction to women.  Here, I’ll give the full text, for your convenience:

It is my wish, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands, without anger or argument.
Similarly, (too,) women should adorn themselves with proper conduct, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hairstyles and gold ornaments, or pearls, or expensive clothes,
but rather, as befits women who profess reverence for God, with good deeds.

So Rollston says that St. Paul’s contrast is that men should pray and women should dress in a certain way.  But the text does not say that, as it is not proposing a contrast of action but rather a comparison of manner.  So it is not implied in the text that women should not pray.  Rather, St. Paul is warning against what he sees as the improper manner of acting which he thinks will be particular problems for men on the one hand and women on the other, and he is warning against a certain laziness (“hands uplifted”), ambition (“without anger”), and contentiousness (“without argument”) in men, and against a certain vanity, and wish to be admired for physical beauty, in women.  Read the passage in full, and you will see that, after commenting only about a man’s manner of praying and teaching in a worship service, he goes on to speak at some length about a woman’s good conduct, good deeds, reverence, love, good faith, and holiness.  That is, on its face the passage seems to “marginalize” men, not women — unless (rather contentiously,  I would say, and with “anger and argument”) someone were to take a Christian’s station in a worship service to be the be-all and end-all of Christian life.

Well, I could go on, but I won’t.  That’s more than enough.  I think I’ve already said enough to show that Rollston’s essay is at least suspect, if judged as the work of a scholar carrying out his responsibility to instruct and enlighten others.

But why have I bothered to post on this not very unusual essay in a news source (HuffPo) which I despise?  In part by serendipity– I recently subscribed to the blog RogueClassicism and saw the Rollston controversy highlighted there, and that post piqued my interest.

But when I actually read Rollston’s piece, to me it seemed that it deserved a critique–not because the ideology of “gender equality” needs to be attacked, because it does not.  But rather because I hate to see ideology, as it so often is, presented or defended as scholarly expertise.

(By the way, need I state the obvious?  To say and to agree that the sort of patriarchy exhibited in the Old Testament is not a universally binding cultural norm is not to say that “gender equality” is such a universal norm, or even that patriarchy “marginalizes” women in the sense meant.)

The entire incident reveals something too about the academy.  You see scholars rounding up the wagons to defend one of their own, when on the merits what they are defending should probably be criticized as an abuse of scholarship — but they fail to see this, it seems, because they share the same ideology which motivates Rollston.