The Double-Edged Sword of Being a Female Bible Scholar
This month Zondervan launches its brand-new The Story of God Bible Commentary, directed by Scot McKnight and Tremper Longman. One of the first volumes in the series is by Lynn Cohick, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College.
Cohick has previously published several books and articles, including Ephesians in the New Covenant Commentary series, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians, and The New Testament in Antiquity. I spoke with her about her latest project, as well as her experience as a woman in the field of biblical studies.
Before we talk specifically about your writing on the book of Philippians, what can you tell us about this new The Story of God Bible Commentary?
I would say that this commentary, even its name—The Story of God Bible Commentary—really stresses how the individual reader is part of God's story. I know there's a phrase, "Let God into your life," or "What is God doing in your life?" and while I understand what they're saying in that, sometimes I want to push back and say, "What do you mean your life?" This series is trying to stress how the biblical text is God's invitation to us to participate in his story as we are servants of Christ.
Is the commentary designed in a way that a small group Bible study could read together?
Yes I think so, because it doesn't presuppose that you have a background in Scripture. I think it really can take you step by step through Scripture. So someone who's not very familiar with the Bible could benefit, but also someone who has a lot of experience with the Biblical text will find this to be a very practical commentary. I would hope that the very format invites people to share their own stories, and invites them to begin thinking about their own Christian lives, relative to the story of God.
Are there any contemporary cultural issues for which Philippians lends a fresh, relevant perspective?
Paul doesn't hold grudges. I am very impressed in chapter 1, when Paul says there are people out there with envious attitudes, knowing that he's in chains and making a jab at him. The text doesn't tell us why they're envious or how they're exhibiting it, but Paul is very clear. He says, "I don't care, as long as Christ is preached." Now, I think God cares about someone's envious spirit and will certainly deal with them, but Paul doesn't feel like he needs to.
In the blog world today, and other venues where people can be anonymous, I find people can be so cutting of others, and also impute motives. They have no idea why a person did what they did, but they're very quick to impute negative motives. Paul is a wonderful testimony to ignore people who do that, to not react in spite. But I also think it should warn us to be a little more careful, so that we don't end up being like those who were enemies of Paul.
When I was a seminary student I didn't come across many commentaries written by women, so your contribution to this series is especially meaningful for women like me. Although women still face challenges as a minority in evangelical scholarship, are there any benefits of being a female in your field?
I would say it's almost a double-edged sword. I get invited to speak or to write a chapter in an edited volume, and oftentimes there is a presumption, or it's even directly stated: "We need a woman." We need a woman on this panel, or we need a woman speaker because the last three years we've had men.
So you become the token female voice.
Exactly. So while it gives me a chance to work, I also wonder if my efforts are judged differently. I wonder if people think, "Lynn has been asked because she's a woman, so I'm going to presume that her work is not that good, that she wasn't given this based on her merit or her argument, but just because she's a woman.
There are still tremendous challenges for women in evangelical scholarship, and I'm just not sure how to go forward because of the tokenism mindset. I want to encourage female scholars, but I would want a young, male New Testament scholar to look up to me as much as a female New Testament scholar would. I want to move beyond thinking that I should just mentor women. I should also mentor men, and I think that would be the next frontier.
Do you feel that, as a woman, you are bringing a voice to the table that would not have otherwise been there?
Yes, I do. I have been a mother, I've been pregnant twice, have two children, and nursed them. Those sorts of images are in the biblical text, and I relate to them in a very tangible way. The woman's complex hormonal and reproductive system can make—and I'm speaking really broadly here—a woman very aware of her physical-ness, her embodied-ness, in a way that, for example, I don't always see in my husband. [Men] are just not as tied to the rhythm of their bodies, or their body has a different rhythm than women, and that rhythm of embodiment might help us to appreciate certain aspects of the biblical text.
So yes, I do think that there could be distinctive ways, but…there are a lot of other aspects about who I am that play a greater role in my engagement with a particular biblical text than the fact that I'm a woman. I'm also an American, I'm also fairly wealthy, I'm white.
If you're going to say, "Does my femaleness play a role in writing a commentary?" I would say [gender] plays as much of a role for me as it does my colleague Scot McKnight in what he's writing. What I would encourage, then, is if someone is going to ask, "How does your femaleness impact your writing?" I would say so long as you ask my male colleagues, "How does your maleness affect your writing?" then I think we're good. Sometimes the question is leveled as though there is this standard, normative way of reading, and nobody says it's the "male way," but they kind of mean it that way. It's the rational way, the objective way, but every once in awhile for "seasoning" we'll get the woman to write something, because that will give us a different viewpoint.
But there's no standard viewpoint. As a man you're writing as a man.
There's a benefit, yes, in terms of being a model, because at this point there aren't as many women in the Academy. But I would hope at this point I am a model of academic scholarship and not simply, "Here's a woman doing something that really is a man's work."
What advice would you give to women who are interested in the field of biblical studies?
Follow your passion. But I would say that to a man as well, though there are different challenges.
Yes you are female, but you're also human…If you're interested in it, charge ahead. Don't let another person box you in as though you're the female voice. If you're really interested in Septuagint studies or Isaiah studies or in Historical Jesus studies, then just charge ahead with that and don't let somebody box you in with "Well you really should be talking about feminist issues or this or that." Think theologically, think hermeneutically, and take it one step at a time.
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