After Patriarchy, Part 2: The Story of a Model

If I had a flair for the dramatic, I would say patriarchy died on November 23, 2013.

There is some truth in that claim, though it’s a truth having more to do with the world of scholarship than the everyday realities many people live with. Instead of going that route, then, I will suggest that November 23, 2013 is one of the most important dates in the convoluted story of patriarchy in the world of biblical scholarship. It is at least a date students of the topic should try to remember.

On that date, Carol L. Meyers, Mary Grace Wilson Professor of Religion at Duke University, delivered her presidential address to the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). Fernando F. Segovia, the SBL Vice-President, introduced Meyers with a truly impressive report of her accomplishments in scholarship over many years. Her address was titled, “Was Ancient Israel a Patriarchal Society?” (later published in the Journal of Biblical Literature 133, no. 1 [2014]:8-27; I will refer to the pages of the published article).  She has published on the question in several places, and those familiar with the literature will know Meyers has long been at the forefront of biblical scholarship on gender and the Old Testament. But her 2013 address focused her thinking on the subject in a new way, placing it helpfully against the backdrop of scholarly work in various related fields.

In his introduction, Segovia highlighted several noteworthy features of Meyers’ career in biblical studies. Meyers entered the world of biblical studies in the 1960s and 1970s, the tumultuous heyday of the sexual revolution and political unrest. She started teaching at Duke in 1976, where she has continued to this day, and her now more than forty years of work bear the imprint of the rapidly changing ideology of feminism. “To my mind,” says Segovia,

“she represents an ideal signifier of the times — a product of and an agent in such years of transformation. In terms of faces and voices, she belongs to the first generation of women who break into the patriarchal world of the academy and the field of studies. In terms of method and theory, she stands with that circle of scholars who begin to reach out to other fields of study, such as the social sciences and feminist studies, for grounding and inspiration of the study of biblical antiquity” (5).

Her often-awarded, critically acclaimed, interdisciplinary publications bear this out. Her very many scholarly articles and essays, and particularly her highly influential 1988 study of women’s roles and everyday activities in ancient Israel, Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (Oxford), and its later revision and expansion as Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (2013), remain important, even standard and representative examples of the best of feminist-oriented readings of the Old Testament. And they have proven valuable and insightful even for those scholars who work very far indeed from feminist ideology.

I introduce her at such length in order to make her credentials clear as a leading scholar shaped by, committed to, and fueling feminism in biblical studies. Arguably, then, as a representative and ground-breaking scholar identified with feminist hermeneutics, Meyers has as much interest as anyone could in the patriarchy reading of the Old Testament. After all, that critical, negative reading of Scripture’s allegedly patriarchal model of home and society is what gave feminist biblical studies its materials, its vision, its very raison d’etre.

And yet Meyers, the feminist scholar, argues that Israel and her sacred texts are not patriarchal, that examination of the texts themselves indicates “patriarchy” is misleading, and that therefore “patriarchy” in scholarly historical and biblical studies should be left behind.

In what follows I will outline Meyers’ reasons for reaching this conclusion, in which she is in fact far from alone, even among feminist scholars. But I will do so not because I believe Meyers represents the way forward for a more faithful understanding of the biblical text (she does propose an alternative which we will explore in our next post), but because such a highly qualified, scholarly voice against the idea of a biblical “patriarchy,” in the context of a programmatic, agenda-setting, state-of-the-question presidential address to SBL, should give us pause. And when we discover in the literature that hers is a conclusion long in the making, and has been voiced by a wide variety of scholars (both “conservative” and “liberal”), the “patriarchy” question becomes its own kind of educational window into biblical topics the wider literature has been exploring fruitfully for the last several decades.

Patriarchy as a Social Science Theory

Put most succinctly, “patriarchy” denotes the social-science concept of male dominance. In most dictionaries, patriarchy is a system of male power or authority in any form of social structure which, either as a matter of principle or only of practice, includes the relative or complete exclusion of women from that system of power. Meyers opens her lecture with a reference to its use as a descriptor in biblical studies for ancient Israel, a use which appears to date only to the late nineteenth century.

Incidentally, this timetable seems to hold true inasmuch as other scholars have noted how the impact of Darwin’s theories included the search for a biological grounding for traditional assumptions regarding the ontological superiority of males. Though Darwin himself never went the Social Darwinism direction, others quickly did, most notably Alfred Russel Wallace. As recently as 1973, Steven Goldberg, a sociologist at the City College of New York, published The Inevitability of Patriarchy, arguing along Social Darwinian lines for a biological interpretation of male dominance.

As Meyers notes, the term “patriarchy” does not appear in the Bible. It is a social science construct, not a biblical one. It derives, too, not from biblical studies at all but from other fields of study, and so its usefulness must be evaluated against the background of developments in those fields as well as growing knowledge of the ancient, and in our case especially biblical, societies to which the term is applied. Thus Meyers explores its use in the study of ancient Israel, and then notes challenges to the patriarchal model that arise from three areas: classical studies, research on women in ancient Israel, and feminist theory. I will summarize Meyers’ remarks along these same lines. Note that, for accuracy’s sake, I will follow her order and prose as closely as possible, and follow the survey with a few of my own remarks.

Patriarchy in the Study of Ancient Israel

Meyers notes that the use of “patriarchy” in the study of ancient Israel is rather recent and emerged within a clearly definable setting, namely nineteenth-century anthropology. The rise of historical criticism in biblical studies yielded a fresh interest in the social world of the biblical texts, but the challenges and apparent contradictions of the biblical materials proved so frustrating to scholars that they turned to the social sciences for help. This turn by nineteenth-century biblical scholars to the social sciences, says Meyers, “was the first of two ‘waves’ of biblical scholarship that turned to social-science disciplines” (10).

The anthropologists to whom the biblical scholars turned worked from an evolutionary perspective, assuming that human beings pass “through stages of development, from the primitive to the civilized.” Crucially, in the absence of direct evidence from ancient societies, they drew extensively from the then-available body of Greek and Latin sources to construct their theories about the development of family structures. Most scholars concluded from these Greek and Latin texts that the father must have dominated in the original form of the family, and they called this “patriarchy” (as, most essentially, father-rule), though they applied this term only to the family, not to society as a whole.

Meyers notes three figures who were especially important to this development. The first of these is the English classicist and law professor Henry Sumner Maine (1822-1888), who published on ancient (i.e., Greek and Roman) law. He examined and enlarged the classic notion of patria potestas (“the father’s power”) as an instance of “paternal despotism,” arguing that the father had vitae necisque potestas (“power of life and death”) over his servants, wife, and children.

The second figure Meyers mentions is the Frenchman Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges whose 1864 book on the family stresses that the word pater (father) means absolute authority, not just biological paternity, and is practically synonymous in meaning with “king.” As Meyers explains, De Coulanges claimed that the father held all judicial authority in the household and a woman was considered a “mineure” (a minor) with no household authority whatsoever.

The third figure Meyers notes is Lewis Henry Morgan, an early American anthropologist and lawyer whose 1877 book, Ancient Society, explicitly linked the presumed patriarchal family model of the Greeks and Romans to the family type of the “Hebrew tribes.”

Shortly after these scholars did their work, Bernhard Stade, a prominent German historian and theologian (and founder of the biblical studies journal ZAW), published in 1887-88 a two-volume history of Israel which is as much social and political history as anything else it purports to be. Meyers suggests this “is probably the first publication by a biblical scholar in which the terms ‘patriarchy’ and ‘patriarchal society’ are used for ancient Israel” (12). It is a work deeply influenced by the new social scientists and their assertions regarding the Roman patria potestas and paterfamilias. “Stade’s reconstruction of Israelite society and religion,” says Meyers, “had a significant impact on biblical scholarship, especially in Germany, where Julius Wellhausen was among those whom he influenced” (12).

After nearly half a century of strange silence on this front, a new wave of interest in social scientific models of ancient Israelite society emerged in the middle of the twentieth century, but now with a focus on prophecy and apocalyptic movements rather than the household. (Meyers refers to Robert R. Wilson, “Reflections on Social-Scientific Criticism,” in Method Matters: Essays on the Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Honor of David. L. Petersen [ed. Joel M. LeMon and Kent Harold Richards; SBLRBS 56; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009], 507–10 for discussion of why this is the case.) An exception to this shift is Roland de Vaux whose Ancient Israel (1958, 1960; in English, 1961, rep. 1997) became a classic. De Vaux repeated many of the older assumptions regarding Israel as patriarchal, including the notion that fathers held the “power of life and death” over their wives and children.

Major studies and reference works from this period (so formative for twentieth-century evangelical biblical studies and its new interest in ancient Near Eastern contextual topics) contain similar assertions drawn from the older social scientific model. Meyers points to the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (1976) and the entry for “father” in the first volume of the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (1974) as examples. In addition, Max Weber’s 1921-22 work, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (Economy and Society), which Meyers says “was arguably the most important sociological work of the twentieth century,” likely contributed to this growing consensus on Israel’s patriarchy (13). Weber influenced the great Old Testament scholar Martin Noth and, it appears, Norman Gottwald as well.

From here, the number of scholars repeating the patriarchy descriptor for Israel multiplied throughout the later twentieth century and into the twenty-first, including such recent examples as Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager (2001), the Pentateuch volume of the Dictionary of the Old Testament (2003), and the article on households in the New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (2006).

However, Meyers explains that “adherence to the patriarchal model did abate somewhat in the late twentieth century, perhaps because studies of women’s roles in ancient Israel had begun to contest aspects of the patriarchal paradigm” (14). She points to the entry on “family” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary (ABD) (1992), the Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin work Social World of Ancient Israel (1993), the chapter on the monarchic period in the 1997 book Families in Ancient Israel, and the essay on marriage and family in ancient Israel in the 2003 publication, Marriage and Family in the Biblical World (IVP).

As I will note again at the conclusion of this post, I suggest it is a shame that Meyers does not give more space and attention to this last essay, which is by the evangelical biblical scholar Daniel Block (we will return to Block’s work at some length in our next post). She notes correctly that Block

“takes to task interpreters who consider certain biblical narratives to be ‘normal expressions of patriarchy,’ asserts that ‘father’ does not mean ‘ruler,’ and proposes that the term ‘patriarchy’ be avoided altogether” (14).

Despite these dissenting voices, Meyers notes that feminist biblical scholars have persisted with the “patriarchy” reading, and points to several familiar names in feminist biblical studies such as Phyllis Bird (particularly her entry on women in ABD 6), Alice Bach, Esther Fuchs, Kathleen M. O’Connor, and Sharon H. Ringe. Importantly, though, these more recent feminist voices reflect a second wave of the patriarchal model in which the original application of the term to family structures only has been expanded to become a societal structure. In this second wave, patriarchy became a model pervading family as well as all social structures driven by ideologies “that have enabled men to dominate and exploit women throughout recorded history” (so stated by highly influential Harvard theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, cited by Meyers [15 n. 47]).

“In sum,” says Meyers,

“the concept of patriarchy taken up by Hebrew Bible scholars in the nineteenth century still influences the understanding of Israelite households. We still see references to patriarchy and the appearance of paterfamilias and pater potestas. And the all-inclusive concept of male dominance and concomitant female victimhood, as articulated by second-wave theorists, appears in the publications of many feminist biblical scholars” (16).

But Meyers believes this understanding is no longer justified. She argues that “developments in three areas… challenge its appropriateness as a descriptor of Israelite society.” Again, these three areas are studies of classical society, research on Israelite and biblical women, and third-wave feminist theory. I will summarize Meyers’ treatment of those developments more briefly than I have summarized her presentation so far.

Challenges to the Patriarchal Model in Classical Studies

In classical studies, where the concept of patriarchy originated, the challenges to the model have been monumental. As early as the 1960s, reports Meyers, scholars were noting that the idea of the Roman “all-powerful pater familias” doesn’t fit reality. “Perhaps most
important,” says Meyers, “was the realization that different areas of household life cannot be lumped together; that is, male control in one area does not necessarily mean control
in all areas,” and the idea of a father’s life-and-death power was also shown to be a conceptual abstraction rather than a fact of social history (16).

Most significantly, says Meyers, in the 1990s the growing guild of historians of classical societies, no longer made up of legal historians as in the heyday of patriarchy’s scholarly life, demonstrated clearly that the traditional view of patriarchy is not supported by the social and cultural realities evidenced in the texts. Instead of focusing only on legal texts, as the earlier generations of scholars had done, scholars were now examining a broad range of materials, including ones from daily life, and the result was a widely different picture of fathers and their power from the one that had become conventionally assumed to be true.

Meyers points especially to the 1994 work of Richard Saller, Patriarchy, Property and Death in the Roman Family (Cambridge). One important outcome of this scholarly development was the recognition that “the relationship between a man and his wife in Roman society did not involve the same absolute authority that a father may have had over his children,” and that “the term ‘patriarchy’ does not apply to the husband-wife relationship.” Instead, evidence examined by Saller and others, including Xenophon’s treatise on household management, points to the managerial authority or power wielded by Roman women in their households, “sometimes even ‘exercising authority over her marital partner'” (18).

Feminist archaeologists have themselves also challenged the patriarchy model. Meyers summarizes their findings (in words which remind us of recent historical scholarship on the roots and development of twentieth-century evangelical patriarchy). She says these archaeologists dismantled the older patriarchal reading of the Roman household and showed that

“capitalist Victorian household patterns, in which the workplace was outside the home and men had control over their wives and children dependent on their earnings, had been superimposed on premodern societies in which the household was the workplace for all family members.”

Though I won’t go into detail here, Meyers then documents the work of classicists who also challenge the more expansive view of patriarchy as applicable to society and its institutions. These scholars, working with texts, inscriptions, and iconography, have demonstrated that women were not in fact excluded or subjugated in the ways formerly thought.

Challenges to the Patriarchal Model in Scholarship on Israelite Women

Recall that the scholarly concept of patriarchy originated in a reading of ancient Greek and Roman households, a reading that has been found wanting. What, then, of the ways that concept was transposed into the biblical materials?

Meyers participates in the (in my view questionable) practice among biblical scholars of treating biblical materials as windows into ancient social realities. (While it is of course reliable and valuable for these purposes to an extent, I would argue that the Old Testament is redemptive revelation for God’s covenant community, not a history of Israel in a social-scientific or any other scholarly-conventional sense, and this unique ontology of Scripture means it cannot be treated the same way other texts are.) Nevertheless, Meyers accents features of biblical scholarship on the Old Testament that have dislodged the conventional patriarchal reading of the Israelite household.

Meyers also deploys the results of archaeological research, particularly gender archaeology — a discipline which, as Meyers notes, is concerned with people, their domestic and social lives as men and women, rather than only their artifacts and dwellings. Meyers provides an extensive report on findings regarding household remains, the contributions of women to household life, the forms of their activities, and their areas of responsibility. She concludes, with specialists in the field, that women had managerial roles in ancient Israel, supervising the personnel and resources of their own households and occasionally across households (21). They were not the oppressed and powerless women of patriarchal expectation, subjugated to males in all aspects of household life.

More significantly, of course, are the biblical materials themselves. These materials support the same conclusions reached in other disciplines. Meyers briskly points to the managerial agency of women in some legal stipulations of the Covenant Code, in narratives, and in Proverbs; notes the two legal stipulations (Ex. 21:15, 17) which mandate capital punishment for offspring who strike or curse mother or father; includes the narrative of Micah’s mother (Judges 17) wielding decision-making power of various kinds; mentions Abigail (1 Samuel 25) using resources on her own initiative without consulting her husband and exercising diplomatic skill in talking with David; and notes, too, the Shunammite narrative (2 Kings 4 and 8) and the Proverbs 31 woman.

I could wish she had pointed to other, arguably more pertinent examples, and had explained the relevance of these more fully, yet those who read the literature will recognize that her examples function more like indexes to available scholarship than arguments on their own. Reading her list one thinks immediately of specific examples in the literature where these passages are developed at length along these lines. And it should be granted that, against the backdrop of the real history of patriarchy as a concept and hermeneutical model, the mere mention of them does indeed go a long way toward putting at least some errant assumptions to rest.

Meyers’ conclusion is fairly straightforward, even predictable in light of this story of the most relevant scholarly developments over the last century:

“In sum, gender archaeology and biblical texts together provide compelling evidence for the managerial power of Israelite women in the household setting. In addition, the use of bet ’em (‘mother’s household’) as a counterpart to bet ‘av (‘father’s household’) in several women-centered passages also suggests women’s household authority. The term ‘patriarchy,’ as a designation of general male domination and the oppression of women, would thus be inappropriate and inaccurate. Identifying female agency challenges the idea, embedded in the patriarchy model, that women were helpless victims of a male-dominant system” (22-23).

Meyers goes on to note other familiar examples in the Old Testament of women’s community roles, both professional or leadership positions and “lay” ones, their contributions to politics, culture, and their religious activities.

Feminist Challenges to the Patriarchal Model

Further, Meyers also outlines ways that “third-wave” feminist theorists have sought to correct the mistaken assumptions of their earlier, “second-wave” forbears. Interestingly, this has included feminist criticism of patriarchy as a notion resting on a “naturalized” view of women’s inferiority, and according to Meyers and the scholars she cites, the residue of this same notion are present in earlier feminist readings of the evidence. Related to this is the mistaken assumption that if patriarchy, or something approximating it, can be found somewhere it can thus be found everywhere: the universalizing error. Recent feminist scholars have pushed back against this uncritical superimposition of patriarchy upon the ancient world. Just as there is a universalizing tendency, so there is also a tendency to flatten out differences: the assumption that household roles and dynamics are monolithic has also been challenged.

Finally, (though Meyers notes other arguments), and maybe most surprising to those who thought they knew what feminism was, some feminist scholars are pointing out that gender isn’t everything: what may appear in the biblical texts to be a difference in role or function along the lines of gender may not be gender-related at all, and it’s irresponsible to assume that it is. There may be other factors (racial, economic, social, family, health, etc.) which account for things we see in the evidence for particular cases.

Taking Meyers’ presentation into view, we can summarize that she argues that patriarchy should be discarded because, as a

  • scholarly convention rooted in the mistaken nineteenth-century reading of classical Greek and Roman texts,
  • itself limited in a myopic way only to select legal texts read with legal eyes,
  • absorbed from the nineteenth-century ascendance of the evolutionary social sciences, and
  • translated into the very different discipline of biblical studies as part of an effort to describe biblical and ancient Israelite realities (rather than being itself a directly biblical notion),

it has proven to be

  • incompatible with the wider evidence of the classical texts and artifacts of ancient Greece and Rome,
  • incompatible with the wider evidence of the artifacts of ancient Israel,
  • incompatible with the Bible’s own vocabulary and descriptions of male and female roles and activities,
  • and thus inaccurate, inadequate, and misleading.

Some Brief and Transitional Reflections

As a confessional presbyterian and a Reformed theologian, I differ with Professor Meyers on a wide range of matters, in this area and others. These include our views of Scripture, authority, evidence, gender, and ethics. Neither do I find her alternative to patriarchy sufficient, either to move past the problems inherent to the “patriarchy” model or to more faithfully describe the witness of Holy Scripture. I will come to this matter in the next post. Still, I suggest that her analysis is worth our very careful consideration, not least because her work as a highly regarded feminist scholar in biblical studies means her arguments push against the grain of her own scholarly world in a rather fundamental way.

I offer the following concluding remarks for consideration:

Firstly, Meyers’ definition of “patriarchy,” accurate as it is at the level of dictionary definition, is not as helpful as one would like. It is understandable that she begins its story in the nineteenth century, and that context is undoubtedly immensely important for understanding much of what has functioned as a conventional assumption in many religious circles. Still, as scholars of this development appreciate, the nineteenth-century change amounted to a shift from a “naturalized” notion of masculine superiority to a biological one afforded by Social Darwinianism and its disciples.

But what about that older, preceding, “naturalized” notion? And what about versions of patriarchy to be found in other ancient cultures, such as India and China? To understand the patriarchy topic fully, one must account, too, for the longstanding (though hardly universal) assumption of an ontological superiority of the male, an assumption which is inescapably present in many patristic, medieval, and early modern theological and philosophical texts. To be sure, this is very complicated topic, and it is important to note quickly that we must not confuse this older religious model with today’s very different evangelical patriarchies, but the difference is itself something requiring scholarly exploration. This background, however, is largely overlooked by Meyers and the majority of feminist scholars who treat the idea as though it were in fact birthed a little more than a hundred years ago.

Secondly, and only apparently in contradiction to what I’ve just said, patriarchy — as an assumption that this is what the Bible is teaching prescriptively in some way — is in fact very young, and the nineteenth-century episodes recounted by Meyers (not the older, pre-modern iterations of male superiority) are in fact the ones most proximate, in terms of pedigree, to patriarchal readings found among evangelicals today. The reference works produced in this period up to the mid- to late twentieth century were formative in their effects upon evangelical biblical scholarship, and those reference works were themselves (and sometimes still are) dependent upon an erroneous older scholarship which should be recognized as such.

Lastly, too much feminist scholarship confuses the topic of patriarchy with any notion of uniquely male responsibility or authority. This is worse than unhelpful, and ensures a growing distance between our vocabulary and the beauty of the biblical witness. The value of this scholarship is in exposing the roots, the originally limited but eventually expanding applications, and the liabilities of the “patriarchy” term and model. It serves well to alert us to ways we must rethink our assumptions.

But it does not point the way forward. If scholars working on biblical domestic materials (feminist or not) would consider more patiently the work of Daniel Block and others, perhaps more of the scholarship would appreciate another way of reading these biblical texts. Perhaps they, and we, would see how, biblically, the error of confusing the male role with a role of power is both anticipated in the biblical texts themselves, as well as fruitfully and beautifully overcome.

It is overcome, I will suggest, by a graciously reordered mode of domestic relations which does not in any way involve the displacement of the divinely-ordered unique responsibilities of the husband and father. And I suggest this alternative to the now defunct patriarchy model can be articulated most compellingly not only with a view to quality work in biblical studies but also within a confessional Reformed theological framework of gender and family relations.

We will note some of the important work done along these lines in the next post in this series.

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