Paul Blowers Shovels More Nonsense at the Feet of a Straw Man Christopher Rollston


Dr. Paul Blowers has now posted a response to some of his critics over his public criticisms of and institutional maneuvers against Dr. Christopher Rollston. In the comment thread, Dr. Bob Cargill has identified Dr. Blowers’ post as a distraction from the real questions involving the purported disciplinary action taken against Dr. Rollston for publishing an article some people didn’t like in public (of all places). Nevertheless, for the sake of those inclined to be distracted, I’ll offer some responses (in addition to my original piece) to push this conversation back where it belongs. Dr. Blowers writes:

As those who have been following things are aware, the major controversy has surrounded one of my colleagues, Dr. Christopher Rollston, an eminent scholar of Near Eastern studies with special expertise in epigraphy, and with additional international acclaim as an expert in the identification of archaeological and epigraphic forgeries. He is the author of a marvelous recent book, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel (SBL, 2011), which has been widely praised. Dr. Rollston wrote a blog in late August on the Huffington Post concerning the marginalization of women as a “biblical value.” I went public with my criticism of the essay, and still believe that it is not a responsible presentation of the full biblical evidence on the treatment of women, as it barely skims the “push back” texts in OT or NT and has no mention whatsoever of Jesus’s interactions with women in the Gospels.


The truth is, it also “barely skims” the patriarchy texts in both the Old and New Testaments. Dr. Blowers has called it “unconscionable” that Dr. Rollston failed to mention “push backs” against patriarchy found in the Gospels and Acts (never mind Dr. Rollston’s mention of Priscilla in his article). Of course, the door swings both ways on Jesus’ treatment of women in the Gospels. While he afforded dignity to some, he treated others rather abruptly. He rebuked his mother, referring to her as “woman,” and eventually disowned her. He called one woman a “dog,” until she proved otherwise to him. But the real issue here is not how many “push backs” Rollston left out of his short essay, but how many patriarchal and misogynistic texts he left out. He failed to list dozens of patriarchal and misogynistic laws from the legal corpora; he failed to list countless other patriarchal and misogynistic narratives and comments to which the biblical texts ascribe divine sanction. He could have mentioned the case of Miriam’s leprosy, in which only she was punished for a “sin” committed by both Miriam and her brother Aaron.

And Moses cried to Yahweh, ‘O God, please heal her.’ But Yahweh said to Moses, ‘If her father had but spat in her face, would she not bear her shame for seven days? Let her be shut out of the camp for seven days, and after that she may be brought in again.’ (Num 12:13-14)

I find it unconscionable that this clearly misogynistic text was left out of Rollston’s article. Here the text claims Yahweh maintains that a father’s spitting in his own daughter’s face is a shame on the daughter, rather than the father. No justification is given whatsoever for the unequal punishment—the woman is given leprosy, the man nothing.

Dr. Rollston didn’t mention that women were unclean twice as long when they gave birth to a girl than they were when they gave birth to a boy. He doesn’t mention that the laws of Moses assign less monetary value to women than they do to men. He doesn’t mention that the punishment for a woman who attacked a man’s groin if the man was attacking her husband was dismemberment. He doesn’t mention that a betrothed or married rape victim was subject to execution if she failed to scream during the rape. He doesn’t mention that a woman found not to be virgin on her wedding night was to be executed, while a non-virgin male was nothing of any consequence whatsoever. He doesn’t mention that Yahweh ordered Moses to execute tens of thousands of non-virgin Midianite women and to force tens of thousands of virgin Midinate girls to marry the men who slaughtered their families. He doesn’t mention that non-Canaanite women were considered by Yahweh the spoils of war, to be taken forcibly as wives by the men who slaughtered their families. He doesn’t mention that the prophets, in Yahweh’s name, denigrated the armies of their enemies by referring to them as “women.” He doesn’t mention the countless examples in which “woman” or female characteristics are used as insults. We could go on and on and on. There is so much patriarchy and misogyny left out of Dr. Rollston’s article, it might seem to some like a conspiracy of kindness. Dr. Rollston mentioned 16 examples of patriarchy, and 11 of liberative “push backs.” If we were to examine the whole Bible, text by text, what we’d of course discover is that the ratio found in Dr. Rollston’s article is scandalously too generous. In terms of sheer numbers, the Bible is obviously heavily weighted toward patriarchy.

My criticism has focused not only on the imbalanced nature of this essay, which enjoys a huge public audience, but the lack of circumspection in putting something so un-nuanced into the public domain with no consideration of its reflection back on the integrity of the institution which Dr. Rollston serves.

This is utter nonsense, as Dr. Blowers knows. Before publishing his article, Dr. Rollston sought the counsel of at least one other faculty member from among Emmanuel’s small faculty. The fact that he did this puts the lie to Dr. Blowers’ repeated claim that Dr. Rollston published his article with no consideration for Emmanuel. What’s more, nowhere does Emmanuel Christian Seminary’s name appear on the article or in association with Dr. Rollston there. The vast majority of readers only learned of Dr. Rollston’s association with Emmanuel as a result of the controversy that has ensued since Dr. Blowers and three of his former students began a public assault on Dr. Rollston.

The title of the essay is “The Marginalization of Women: A Biblical Value We Don’t Like to Talk About.” This editorial “we” is very problematic, as it blurs the line between the “we” of the church, the “we” of Emmanuel, and the “we” of secular public opinion.

Dr. Blowers is stretching his case beyond credulity. As he really knows, if he’s honest with himself and with us, Dr. Rollston’s editorial “we” is just a standard rhetorical device and it means no more than “we who are currently engaged in this discussion.” To claim, as Dr. Blowers is now doing, that the “we” includes Emmanuel, is again belied by the fact that Dr. Rollston did not include his institutional affiliation in the article. It is thanks to Dr. Blowers that Emmanuel as an institution is now at the center of this “controversy.”

This is even more serious than it appears. Presuming this “we” includes Emmanuel and his faculty colleagues, the very context in which Dr. Rollston spends most of his time, and where he is most likely to have knowledge of a lack of awareness of the issue of difficult texts of the Bible dealing with the status of women in ancient societies, his article insults those of his colleagues who have indeed proactively engaged not only the biblical evidence of the marginalization of women but the church’s responsibility to deal with it.

Are you reading this? Dr. Rollston’s rhetorical “we” is now an “insult” to Emmanuel. What Dr. Rollston really meant was that his own institution, dedicated to wrestling with the biblical texts, does not like to talk about the content of those texts. Dr. Blowers’ attack is now becoming a caricature of itself.

One could easily draw the conclusion, as have some of my Emmanuel colleagues, that Dr. Rollston hasn’t been listening at all to our conversations on women in the Bible and women in ministry (an issue we’re passionate about in an ecclesial tradition often resistant to opening doors to women in ministry).

This is of course nonsense as well. As a student at Emmanuel, I was certainly a part of that conservation, and I took instruction from numerous professors who are in essential agreement with the mild analysis provided in Dr. Rollston’s article. One of them, at least, found Dr. Rollston’s article to be too generous in one of its negative descriptions of the status of women in the Bible. Perhaps Dr. Blowers isn’t as finely tuned in to the broad conversation at Emmanuel as he thinks.

Meanwhile, I’m not interested here in developing a personal apologia, as my own publications indicate how seriously I take critical study of the Bible and church history, and Mr. Verenna’s attempt to profile me as anti-critical or anti-intellectual is a sheer farce.

It seems to me that one who takes critical study of the Bible “seriously” wouldn’t find it so difficult to acknowledge that the biblical texts do, in fact, weigh heavily on the side of patriarchy. Even many of the so-called liberative texts maintain and sustain crucial elements of patriarchy (e.g., Ruth is “acquired” as an item of property along with the acquisition of an estate).

For us, historical-critical scholarship (and the biblical languages that we still require of most of our students) serve the church first, the academy second. Take it or leave it, that’s our stated understanding of things, and we expect students not only to “manage” their new-found learning in an ecclesial context, but to find constructive ways to use it for edifying purposes. Simply put, most of them will not be devoting large amounts of time to guiding their parishioners through form criticism or biblical-critical Forschungsgeschichte, but will have to help them pastorally with making sense of Job’s outcries or the outrageous death of Jephthah’s daughter. Our assumption at Emmanuel, certainly, is that students will need the engagement of historical criticism to help perform pastoral tasks, but this is only one component, of course, in their formation for ministry in churches, chaplaincies, campus ministries, overseas mission, teaching, non-profit organizations, or wherever they serve.

Of course, Dr. Rollston is in full agreement with this agenda, and there is nothing in his HuffPo article that runs counter to it.

Always our faculty at Emmanuel are “checking themselves” over how to put all of the pieces together, especially as we deal with students who have all sorts of reactions to historical-critical scholarship (e.g. facile appropriation; rejection; compartmentalization; suspended judgment, etc.)

Emphasis on the “etc.”

and different levels of spiritual maturity. I suspect most seminary faculties struggle to do the same, at least those schools that bear the kind of onus that we do. It’s an unrelenting process that requires patience, mercy, accommodation to the specific needs of individual students, but also still, at least for Emmanuel students, some “Gospel” in the final accumulation of critical “data” only some of which will have been fully digested in the short time we have them with us. We want them to retain as much knowledge as they can, but more importantly to be wise in its use. Certainly we do not desire them to obsess over mimicking the “expertise” of their professors, which could set them up to fall flat in the “real world” of ministry.

What I’m hearing in the subtext here is a veiled attack on Dr. Rollston, who of course always brought “some ‘Gospel’” into the final accumulation of critical data. Dr. Rollston always suggested different ways for students to manage the critical data. For instance, when he taught about the development in the texts from a polytheistic to a monotheistic ontology, he offered progressive revelation as one possible way to manage the data in terms of one’s faith. Of course, there will always be students who react violently to the presentation of critical data, no matter who is serving it up to them. I’ve seen students react this way to stuff taught in Hebrew language class, Intro to Doctrine, Doctrine of God, OT Intro, and so on. In my experience, some of these students came to Emmanuel from Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, but no matter. Some students will always have problems with certain professors, and some students will always feel slighted by certain professors, regardless of reality. Dr. Rollston has always found time to talk with students about the issues, so long as the student was able to maintain a level head and argue rationally and respectfully. In my experience, other professors who experience less of these kinds of violent reactions do so at least in part because they tend to skirt many of the issues. In a few classes which were supposed to be critical, I and some other students often had to raise our hands in order for some of the more salient issues even to be addressed. To my mind, this is more problematic for an educational institution committed to preparing students for ministry than confronting the issues and getting negative reactions from some of the less mature members of the student body.

Sadly, over and beyond this Huffington Post controversy, while still very much within the public domain (so that I am betraying nothing private here), Dr. Rollston, in his 2006 installation address for the Nakarai Chair in OT at Emmanuel, reflected on his own journey from a very conservative upbringing to an elite university education in Semitic studies. In the address, he declared to a broad audience that Emmanuel’s real purpose in educating students for ministry should be precisely to cultivate “religious elites” and “public intellectuals” (his phrases). I think not—especially if being a “public intellectual” means cavalierly undertaking commentary on sacred revelation in the secular blogosphere just to take shots at the fundamentalists and biblicists (the “biblical values” folks) whom Dr. Rollston already left behind long ago.

Oh, so Dr. Blowers brings more “evidence” to the table. Of course, Dr. Blowers distorts even this. Dr. Rollston did not say that Emmanuel’s “real purpose” was to cultivate elites and intellectuals as if this meant that cultivating ministers was not its real purpose, but by using the words, “real purpose,” that’s what Dr. Blowers is implying. But let’s examine this new attack on Dr. Rollston from the man who has nothing personal against Dr. Rollston.

First, “religious elites.” Dr. Rollston says this in class too. It sounds so elitist, doesn’t it! What he means, of course, is that Emmanuel, an institution that issues Masters and Doctoral degrees, is committed to training students who know the texts and know the issues at a level that most people in the churches to which they minister will not have been trained. For Dr. Rollston, this means that students have a huge responsibility. They are trained in ways and at a level that others aren’t, and thus they have an obligation not only to properly understand the material but to disseminate it in their ministries in a way that aids in the goals of ministry. This is what we heard from Dr. Rollston in class. “Elite” is a matter-of-fact description, not a statement of some kind of moral or class superiority. It reflects Dr. Rollston’s high estimation of the quality of education students receive at Emmanuel across the board. If Dr. Blowers does not think that it’s Emmanuel’s mission to train students to have a better handle on the texts (critically and theologically) than their parishioners and to own the responsibility commensurate with that training, he ought to say so.

Second, “public intellectuals.” First of all, I’m sure “public intellectual” means to Dr. Rollston a great deal more than simply publishing short articles on HuffPo, as his C.V. would indicate. I’m sure Dr. Rollston means that students trained at Emmanuel should take what they learn into the public sphere and enrich dialogue. Second, I’m not sure what’s “cavalier” about Dr. Rollston’s article, in which he presents non-controversial conclusions with which even Dr. Blowers would agree if he were being honest. If arguing that the biblical material is more complex than is assumed by fundamentalist appeals to “biblical values” is “taking shots” at fundamentalists, I’m not sure what the problem with taking shots at them is. And if I’m not mistaken, fundamentalism and biblicism are two things Dr. Blowers has also “left behind long ago.” In one of my private discussions with Dr. Blowers while at Emmanuel, he displayed what I thought was an appropriately dismissive attitude toward fundamentalists, concluding that their claims about how the Bible was viewed throughout church history were simply belied by “the evidence.” Actually, though I agreed with his conclusion, I was a bit taken aback by how easily he dismissed the work of some fundamentalists. I didn’t see this as a problem, of course, because the facts were on his side. Hmm… At any rate, would Dr. Blowers have been less dismissive of fundamentalists on HuffPo than he was in the privacy of his office? Less forthcoming to the public than to his students? I really don’t know. At any rate, I wonder how Emmanuel’s more conservative financiers would feel about that.

Like many of our fellow seminaries, Emmanuel’s stated purpose has been, and I presume will remain, to prepare humble servants of the Church who interpret, proclaim, and most importantly love the Word of God in Scripture as a textual embodiment of God’s transforming grace for all people—and most certainly for the marginalized and the oppressed.

This is of course a purpose to which Dr. Rollston is also wholly committed.

What can we conclude from Dr. Blowers’ response? Apart from the fact that it ignores the salient questions that have been put to him, it continues to make tortured arguments, to twist reality in an attempt to paint Dr. Rollston in a negative light, and to try to justify his own (and his institution’s?) scandalous behavior by providing shallow, desperate, and false evidence that Dr. Rollston is out of step with the institution’s goals. The real question is, for what expressed reasons has Dr. Rollston come under “disciplinary action” from the academic institution that gave him tenure and an endowed chair?

When this question is answered, will it vindicate Dr. Blowers and Emmanuel? Or will it have the opposite effect? Dr. Blowers seems confident it’s the former. If so, put the answers out there and let the public decide. Until then, the court of public opinion at which Dr. Blowers looks down his nose is not going to be persuaded by these antics. And until then, in my humble judgment, Dr. Blowers would do well to stop providing the “secular blogosphere” with “ammunition” against the institution whose reputation he’s so concerned to defend.

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