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Masculinities

Becoming a Pauline Scholar

Today’s post in the Pushback series is from Grace Emmett (King’s College London). Grace recently defended her PhD thesis on the topic of the apostle Paul’s masculinity. You can find out more about her research on her Humanities Commons page, or by following her on Twitter.


I recently defended my PhD thesis on Paul and masculinity, entitled ‘Becoming a Man’, a nod to 1 Cor 13:11 wherein Paul claims to have ‘become a man’. Essentially, my thesis turns this claim into a series of questions: what sort of man does Paul become, and what’s the process by which he negotiates masculinity? Once the corrections are out the way I will, apparently, have become something myself: a Pauline scholar.

I say ‘apparently’ for two reasons. First, I am hardly expecting an ontological change to happen when I take on the title ‘Doctor’. I will not suddenly transform into a person who has expertise relating to Paul; rather, that knowledge has been curated over a number of years and will always be a work-in-progress. Second, despite finishing the thesis and passing my viva, I still struggle to view myself as a ‘proper’ Pauline scholar.

So why exactly is this a struggle? I am hardly the first person to have experienced imposter syndrome, after all. And yet the nature of my imposter syndrome does, I think, have some specific ties to the nature of my research. Researching masculinity has often felt like a peripheral pursuit within Pauline studies, an experience no doubt true for many others employing modes of analysis that go beyond a strict historical-critical approach. This happens in explicit ways—a comment left online, for example, mocking my research and signed off simply with ‘1 Timothy 2:12–14’. But this impression of being on the fringes asserts itself in more subtle ways too: either when others seem genuinely confused about what a study of Paul’s masculinity might entail, or, at the other end of the spectrum, when those who feel strongly about defending a particular version of Paul’s masculinity feel compelled to interrogate my methodology in a manner that amounts to ‘methodsplaining’.[1]

Serving as a counterpart to the term ‘mansplaining’, ‘methodsplaining’ functions as a form of gatekeeping, whereby proponents of traditional research methods (e.g. historical-critical) determine what is and is not a legitimate research approach. This is more than just something that happens on a one-to-one level; it is fundamental to the way that we cultivate knowledge within biblical studies. Method gatekeeping happens from the outset in terms of what we privilege teaching to students when they first embark on a biblical studies degree, through to the way we structure opportunities to present in academic spaces, like the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. It doesn’t take long to notice the units that have a ‘marked’ interpretive approach (e.g. ‘Feminist Hermeneutics of the Bible’), in contrast to those that are ‘unmarked’ (e.g. ‘Pauline Epistles’).

Even the means by which one accesses these types of academic spaces is already structured in such a way that it is easier for some rather than others to participate. In the course of the global struggle with the coronavirus pandemic, events offered in a virtual format have demonstrated that greater accessibility is possible when participation is not restricted to those who can only attend in person. As such, the cancellation of the international meeting of SBL (rather than migrating it online) has denied many researchers residing outside of the States a more accessible opportunity to participate in the Society this year—a fundamental reason why the international meeting exists in the first place.[2]

More commendable is SBL’s recent announcement that the annual meeting will be offered in a dual format, with some sessions offered virtually and others in-person.[3] Although not the hybrid format many of us had hoped and asked for, it is, understandably, going to take some time to work out what the ‘new normal’ is for large-scale conferences and how we can move forward in a way that prioritises inclusivity. In the long term, offering virtual participation will benefit a whole host of individuals: disabled scholars, pregnant scholars, scholars with caring responsibilities, unvaccinated scholars, and many others for whom international travel is restrictive—to say nothing of the environmental cost of requiring some members to fly thousands of miles to participate.

Failing to prioritise inclusivity limits the potential richness of biblical studies. Attending to who is able to participate in academic conversations about biblical texts is interwoven with how those texts are studied. Denise Buell explicates this relationship well when she writes:

It is thus of crucial importance to attend to what is habitual and routine in our methods and approaches and not only to the ‘body count’ of who gets PhDs, appointments, tenure, and promotion. That is, attention to who participates at the undergraduate, graduate, and faculty levels in New Testament and early Christian studies matters but always in the context of the very shapes and orientations of the spaces, physical and intellectual, in which this work unfolds. Reorienting the fields of biblical and early Christian studies is an undertaking that also requires deep engagement with the histories of our interpretive approaches and willingness to adopt new perspectives.

Buell is here primarily writing about the way whiteness is intertwined with New Testament and early Christian studies (and see Ekaputra Tupamahu’s recent essay for how whiteness informs particular research topics, such as the Synoptic ‘problem’). Buell’s helpful observation about the intertwining of the who and the how has also been a useful prism for me to reflect on gendered dynamics within Pauline studies.

The way that masculinities research has felt peripheral mirrors the way that I as a woman can feel peripheral in academic spaces. It is hardly necessary to repeat here that biblical studies remains a male-dominated guild (with 75% of its members identifying as men in the most recently available statistics). And so it is not a surprise that this manifests in ways such as being asked if I’m the wife of the male colleague I’m standing next to at a conference drinks reception. Or being told by a senior scholar early on in my PhD to be prepared for the fact that if I presented on Paul in a forum like SBL that some men might actually get up and leave, unwilling to accept that a woman might have something worthwhile to say about Paul. Simply being warned about the potential of such dynamics in an academic context made me wonder how welcome I and my research were in such spaces, ludicrous as such a warning seemed.

There are two scripts of normativity at work here: one sketches out the contours of what a biblical scholar should look like (which extends beyond gender of course), while the other gestures to how a biblical scholar (perhaps particularly a Pauline one) should conduct their research. While one might expect that these undercurrents of masculine- and method-normativity are most consistently embodied by men, women are by no means immune from enacting these scripts too. In some ways, it is as a result of the actions of other women that I have felt most undermined. There is one particular incident that sticks out in my mind that I would eventually come to label as misogynistic, and it was reading Hindy Najman’s essay ‘Community and Solidarity: Women in the Academy’, recommended by a friend, that helped me finally give that particular incident a name. It is this quote in particular that I’ve turned over in my mind many times since: ‘We need to watch the behaviour of women against women, even by those who write treatises against sexism. We are all vulnerable and we are all capable of acts of violence’.

It is for all these reasons, then, that I often do not feel like a ‘proper’ Pauline scholar. ‘Proper’ is, of course, doing a lot of unspoken work in that sentence, guided by the scripts of masculine- and method-normativity to dictate what a model Pauline scholar should look like and how they should behave. But perhaps I can embrace being an improper Pauline scholar instead, with the hope that what constitutes ‘proper’ Pauline scholarship might itself become a more exciting, expansive, and inclusive proposition. In this sense, I hope I add to the ‘body count’, as Buell puts it, when it comes to gender diversity. But more than that I hope that my work adds to the ‘manuscript count’, as it were, contributing to other longstanding efforts to interrogate how our field is constructed and imagine how it might be reconstructed.


[1] Thanks to Dr Chris Greenough for introducing me to this term, coined by sociologist Dr Jane Ward.

[2] It is wonderful news that STECA is planning to offer an alternative forum for those who had papers accepted at ISBL to present.

[3] The efforts of Professor Candida Moss and Dr Meghan Henning were instrumental in encouraging SBL to reconsider its original plans for a solely in-person meeting format.

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