Baker Academic

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

#HeForShe, Sexism, and NT Scholarship—Chris Keith

Some while ago, I was one of many people who watched with admiration as Emma Watson introduced the #HeForShe campaign at the United Nations.  If you haven't seen the video, here it is.  After watching it, I couldn’t help but think about how some of these gender issues continue to play out in the small corner of the world that I inhabit.  My initial thought was that higher education generally and Biblical Studies specifically could pat themselves on their backs because they have come a very, very long way.  The back-patting didn’t last too long, however.  I couldn’t get out of my head three different experiences I’ve had.  All three involve my Doktormutter, Helen Bond at the University of Edinburgh, a brilliant scholar, fantastic PhD supervisor, and even better human being.  I’m honored that I get to continue to work with Helen as co-Chairs of the Jesus and Gospels Seminar of the British New Testament Conference.  I asked her permission to tell brief versions of these stories and she granted it.  I also asked if she’d write a Part Two to this post, where she could speak to her own experiences.  She granted that request, too, so consider this an appetizer to the main course that she’ll offer tomorrow.

The first experience occurred when I was a PhD student.  I was randomly having lunch with a senior scholar in the field who had been invited to lecture at Edinburgh.  In the course of the conversation, he stated explicitly that Helen had used her sexuality to advance her career.  I’m 100% that this person meant it as a compliment, that Helen had been shrewd and used everything she could to her advantage.  But it essentially came across as a statement that Helen wouldn’t have been where she was if she was ugly.  I was shocked not only at the statement but at the fact that he said it to her PhD student.

The second experience occurred at the tail end of my PhD studies in a research seminar that I can only describe as tragically majestic in every way possible.  I’ve written about it before here.  I mentioned in that post that Helen was presiding over this paper and that, at one point when trying to make the case for a sexualized reading of the woman at the well, Jesus, and the bucket of John 4, the presenter used hand motions to explain a bucket going in and out and looked at Helen like, “Right?”  Well, one thing I didn’t mention in that post was that—for some reason I honestly can’t now remember and I’m not sure it would matter if I could—in the midst of his case for his reading of John 4 and the sexual nature of the woman’s statement that Jesus had no bucket, the presenter said:   “Well, and we all know what women are like at cocktail parties, don’t we?”  When he asked “Don’t we?” he turned and looked right at Helen for affirmation, as if she was going to say, “Oh yes, that’s how I always am at cocktail parties, as is every woman I know.”

The third experience occurred several years ago in a meeting.  I was meeting with Helen and two other senior NT scholars.  One of the other two was addressing Helen in a manner that seemed overly-informal; it sure looked like flirting.  At one point in time, he leaned close to her and I instinctively thought he was going in for a kiss.  He wasn’t, but that’s how close he was.  Later on when I had a chance, I asked Helen what that was all about.  She told me that this person has always acted like that toward her, including calling her “my dear” and whatnot.  I couldn’t believe it . . .

. . . and I suppose that’s the problem that arose freshly for me after hearing Emma Watson’s speech and thinking about my professional world.  I had conveniently filed these away as isolated odd experiences.  But these types of things are quite clearly common for Helen.  I mention it, and write this post, however, because the real issue that I saw freshly was my response in each situation, which was simply and embarrassingly silence, a silence that permitted such things to continue unaddressed. 

I wrote to Helen and apologized for being part of the problem while thinking that I was not.  As mentioned before, I also asked if she’d be willing to address these issues here on the Jesus Blog.  Thankfully, she said yes, and that post is coming soon.



  1. Good piece, Chris. I’m looking forward to what Helen has to say.

  2. These would be examples of sexism among NT scholars, wouldn't they? Rather than sexism expressed in/as NT scholarship.

    1. I think it's entirely clear that what I mean is sexism in the field of New Testament scholarship.

  3. Important post. Painful to read, but needs to be said.

  4. Chris, wow! Thanks so much for sharing these anecdotes. I must admit that I am not only shocked, I am ashamed to be part of a guild that includes some who act and think this way. Helen is an outstanding scholar and I am sorry that female scholars like her and others continue to be looked at through these types of lenses.

    I look forward to Helen's response.

  5. Thanks for blogging about this!
    I think the first two stories would classify as "microaggression." I find this label helpful, because it covers unintentional marginalization. (

  6. Chris, the biggest change I've experienced in my roughly 60 year lifetime is in the social role and status of women. Granted, my slice of life is highly privileged and limited to the First World. But within this narrow slice of experience, the view of gender has been transformed beyond anything I could have imagined. An example: my Rabbi is Laura Geller. She is only a few years older than I am, and she was (I think) the third female Rabbi ordained in the United States. Today, most ordained Rabbis are women. Within Reform Judaism, I think something like 2/3 of all new Rabbis are women, and the percentage of women cantors is even higher. This is nothing short of a revolution.

    Granted, positive change can never come quickly enough. Granted, the progress we have made is much less than the progress we still need to make. But we honor people like Helen Bond and Rabbi Geller by acknowledging how remarkably far we've already come.

  7. Oh, yes. That's what happens, alright. And it is sooooo nice that we are now getting to the stage when men who behave reasonably will also name the problem, rather than women having to do it. And Peter, you're right that the specific examples that Chris cites are sexism by NT scholars, but the result has been that many women just decide that it's too hard and withdraw to places where they don't have to deal so much with the problematic treatment, which limits women's voices in the academy. We also experience situations where, for example, panels at SBL are all male, despite the fact that there are women working in the field with the same level of credibility, which also limits women's voices and limits their ability to get their work out there. And when a senior scholar treats women like amusing fluffballs or sex objects, it makes it that much harder to be taken seriously. Scripture speaks differently to women than to men because women experience the world differently to men (who do not have, for example, to deal with the kinds of things that Chris outlines above), so NT scholarship is impoverished.