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An Interview with Carol Meyers

Feminist biblical scholar Carol L. Meyers is the Mary Grace Wilson Professor Emerita of Religious Studies at Duke University. In addition to numerous articles, biblical commentaries, and edited collections, Meyers is the author of Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (Oxford University Press, 2012), Households of Holiness: The Religious Culture of Israelite Women (Fortress, 2005), and The Tabernacle Menorah: A Synthetic Study of a Symbol from the Biblical Cult (Gorgias, 2003). In 2010, Meyers served as part of the revision team for the New American Bible, and in 2013, she was president of the Society of Biblical Literature; she is married to fellow biblical scholar and Duke professor Eric M. Meyers. Here, she talks with Marc Zvi Brettler about her training in biblical studies, archaeology, and the problem of patriarchy in ancient Israel and the Hebrew Bible.

Marc Brettler: At what point did you develop an interest in biblical studies?

Carol Meyers: I would say that I'm an accidental biblical scholar as well as an accidental archaeologist and even an accidental feminist biblical scholar. So I'll take them one at a time, but the first two are kind of connected. I went to Wellesley College, and I don't know if I knew this when I applied or when I decided to go there, but among the four required courses were two Bible courses: a semester of Introduction to Old Testament, a semester of Introduction to New Testament. We called it "Sophomore Bible" and everyone was required to take it. I'm 100% sure I never would have taken it if I hadn't been required to—I wanted to graduate. So I took it, very reluctantly, and it turned out that there were many sections because everyone had to take it. I think I had the section with the worst teacher, and despite that, it turned out that I really liked the course. That is, I liked the interdisciplinary aspect of biblical study. It wasn't just studying literature, it wasn't just religion: there was also history, art history, even some archaeology. Not much in those days, but even some of that. So I was really engaged by it and I have to confess, it also helped me put in perspective some of the stuff that had been force-fed to me in Sunday School that I thought couldn't possibly be true. I was able to contextualize it and see that these are literary ways of expressing certain things. So it saved a lot of that for me, from my early childhood experience.

Not only did I end up majoring in it—at Wellesley in those days, it was actually a department called Biblical History, Literature, and Interpretation—it wasn't even a religion department! It was a Bible department, which kind of freaked out my parents when they heard what I was majoring in. But I was very engaged, and then after my sophomore year I was looking for something to do in the summer, and my parents said, even though I would usually get a paying job, that it was okay if I didn't get a job as long as it didn't cost them anything. So through a friend, I learned about an adventure: an archaeological project from Harvard, the Peabody Museum [of Archaeology and Ethnography]. They were doing a dig in Wyoming! And I said that sounded fantastic. I had been in Colorado once and the West sounded very exciting, and I did have enough money for bus fare from Northeastern Pennsylvania to Wyoming—it's a long trip. And I loved it! I loved the digging, I loved the way people worked together, the teamwork aspect of it, and a little bit of adventure. I loved the way that interpretation of discoveries engaged other kinds of disciplines, social sciences and things. But I really wasn't interested in North American prehistory. By then I was already interested in the Bible, so I figured that biblical archaeology would be the next move, and in the summer between my junior and senior years, I worked on two different excavations in Israel: Tel Ashdod on the coast, a Philistine site, and Khirbet Kerak—I worked in the early Bronze part of it with the University of Chicago team. So that’s how I accidentally got into biblical studies and archaeology.

Now, all my scholarship is not on women in ancient Israel, but a good chunk of it has been and that is also kind of accidental. When I started teaching at Duke in the mid-1970s, feminism was beginning to make its voice heard in the academy and departments here and there were being politically correct, I guess, introducing courses like Women in American Literature, or British Women Writers, Women in Southern American History—we had a course like that. I was the only woman in the religion department. It was quite large then, more than twenty people, and the chair of the department called me in. I was teaching mainly the introductory Hebrew Bible course. He called me in and said that in addition to that introductory course, which I taught once or twice every semester, I ought to teach a course of my own design. And before I had a chance to open my mouth he said, "why don't you teach something on women and the Bible?" He wanted our department to be politically correct too. And being an untenured beginning professor, I didn't dare say no! I said yes, but I had never had a course in that field.

MB: There were no courses!

CM: Because there were no courses when I went to college or graduate school! But I talked to some people and figured I could do it. The students in my classes the first couple of years that I taught it were extremely lucky because there was very little secondary literature to assign! So we mainly read here and there biblical text. Anyway, that was kind of an accident too—I didn't set out to do that. I never made a decision independently of anything, just by examining my own intellectual propensities to go in any of these directions, but events and circumstances, one after another, led me in a direction, and I'm profoundly grateful for all of those things because I love where I ended up.

MB: Can you talk a little bit more about your graduate training and who the major influences were on you?

CM: Well, I want to go back to my undergraduate training, because it began then. Again, I was pretty lucky, even though this was not a professor whom I had in the introductory course, there was an Assyriologist on the faculty at Wellesley at the time. As I took beginning biblical Hebrew and I became more interested in my major, I saw that there were other ancient cultures out there—Semitic cultures—and I decided that I ought to look into Assyriology. There was certainly no introductory Akkadian course for undergraduates—I don't know if there is anywhere in this country, although undergraduates can under certain circumstances do that. He agreed to give me and another classmate of mine who was also interested a "reading course" in Akkadian literature and I did two semesters of that. Now, the reason that was so important is because he also supported my work in biblical studies.

MB: Who was this by the way?

CM: It was Ernest Lacheman, who was a specialist in Nuzi literature, and I think he had also worked on the dig, or been at Nuzi during the excavations (I'm a little blurry on that).

In those days, when I started to look at graduate programs, you really couldn't get into a Ph.D. program unless you had an M.A. in biblical studies or a divinity degree or some kind of theology degree. They didn't take people straight out of a B.A., but since my B.A. included a couple of years of biblical Hebrew, a number of courses in biblical studies, and also Akkadian, I became competitive! I got into graduate school without having had the kind of background that any of my classmates had. [Lacheman] must have written letters of recommendation for me, I just don't even remember anymore—oh, I'm sure he did. He was instrumental, and he had connections at Harvard, I know, because he had worked with [Robert Henry] Pfeiffer on something, and knew [Ephraim Avigdor] Speiser at the University of Pennsylvania—those are two schools to which I applied and was accepted, and I ended up not going there. That was a very important teacher relationship. At Brandeis—

MB: That's where you ended up?

CM: Yes, I ended up going to Brandeis. I would have probably preferred to go to either Penn or Harvard, but my personal life got mixed up into all this. My senior year in college, I met the person whom I married right after graduation, Eric Meyers.

I had decided to go to Penn, but when I met him, he had already decided to spend the next year in Jerusalem. We didn't want to be separated for a whole year. No internet, no Skype, no Facetime—we just couldn't bear the idea of being really separated for a year. So I gave up my University of Pennsylvania fellowship (I had a very nice three year fellowship there) and went to Jerusalem, where I finally started learning some modern Hebrew and took more courses in archaeology and historical geography and had more excavation experience. Meanwhile, Eric had decided to move from Brandeis to Harvard because he had been working with Erwin Goodenough at Brandeis, who went there when he retired from Yale, but Goodenough sent him a letter while we were in Israel saying that he was dying of cancer and that Eric should look for something else. We had both been taking courses at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem where [G. Ernest] Wright and [Frank Moore] Cross had sequential years as fellow-in-residence or visiting scholar or something, and in talking to both of them he decided that Harvard would be the place to go. At which point, we decided that it was not a good idea for us to be in the same department, so I applied to Brandeis, which was the program he had just left. So that's what happened: we left Israel and came back to begin Ph.D. work. He already had an M.A., but he went to Harvard and I went to Brandeis, and I guess the two most influential scholars there in terms of my work were Baruch Levine and Nahum Sarna, but I don't think either one of them was particularly helpful in my overall goals. I still think [they thought] that having women doing this was nice, but they didn't really see this as a career path. They never said that, but the chairman of the department, I'll never forget this—Nahum Glatzer, at the time—after the first year, I was given an M.A. because I took whatever exams you took for that at the time, and he encouraged me to stop there and go out and get a job to support my husband. I mean, I don't think he saw that a Ph.D. was something that women necessarily needed to do, and I was the only female person in my program at the time. So I wouldn't pick either one of them as particularly supportive mentors, but I will pick a mentor for when I was in college and graduate school, another person who was never my formal teacher. That was David Noel Freedman.

I became acquainted with him after my junior year of college, when I went to Israel to work at Tel Ashdod, because he was the director. I guess that was his title: Moshe Dothan was the archaeological director and Freedman was the project director. This already sent a message to me, because I already knew that Freedman was a biblical scholar and that the Bible and archaeology could go together just by his being there, and for reasons that I will never really understand, he took me under his wing. He even met me at the airport when I came. He arranged for me to work on the excavation, not just hollowing dirt in a square, which I did for a little bit to get a sense for it. He brought me into the dig house and had me work with the registrar. I knew enough Hebrew to read the registrar cards and to be able to fill them out properly when these objects were being brought in, and I could sit in on staff meetings, so I really had a very good experience there. In addition, on weekends I often went to Jerusalem; he always went to Jerusalem on weekends, and he often took me too. I remember once he was invited to Hayim Tadmor's house and I got to sit in on discussions he had with Tadmor and other biblical scholars. As an undergraduate, through his mentorship, I became acquainted with methodologies and personalities that I probably never would have encountered at that tender age, at that part of my career. Then, certainly he must have written recommendations for me for graduate school; even though he had never actually had me in class, he still supervised me.

Many years later, I was still in his orbit. We corresponded regularly. I don't know if you ever had the opportunity to correspond with him, but he answered letters immediately, with very long letters! This was amazing to me: that somebody who was a full professor and very important was taking time to write this kind of letters to a student! So we had him early in our time at Duke as a visiting lecturer or something like that. He had met Eric, and he had already started the Anchor Bible. He sent us a wedding present, the first two volumes of the Anchor Bible: Speiser's Genesis [1964] and [John] Bright's Jeremiah [1965]. I still have them on my shelf, inscribed.

When he was here, I guess he was already having trouble with many people who had signed on for the Anchor Bible. They weren't delivering, and he was looking for second choices. So he looked at us and said, "Why don’t you do Haggai and Zechariah and Malachi? We need someone to do that." He didn't say, "so-and-so didn't do it," and we had no idea—this was so far away from what I felt I was capable of doing, I was stunned. But I guess he figured if I got a Ph.D. from Brandeis I must know enough to be able to do something like this, and of course he felt that Eric having a Ph.D. from Harvard with Cross and Wright certainly could do this. So we thought this was an amazing opportunity!

MB: Approximately what year was this?

CM: It was the early 1980s, because we were in England and we worked on it there in 1982‒83, something like that, so it must have been as early as 1980, or even the late 1970s. Speaking of his support and guidance still working, we sent him the first chapter of Haggai 1, and we got back, relatively soon, his comments on what we had done, which were longer than what we had originally sent him. We caught on after a while and didn't make so many egregious errors, and we started giving more of the kind of information he clearly wanted, but we learned from him until the very last chapter of Zechariah was finished: in addition to his copyediting, which was also spot-on, his comments on what we were doing, and references. These were never bibliographical suggestions because he didn't really believe that much in reading what everybody else did—he wanted you to take a look at the text itself and maybe some of the versions, but the Masoretic Text itself was the most important thing. I would say that he was a guiding force in my academic life virtually until he died.

When we were members of American Schools of Oriental Research [ASOR], he had me on a vice presidential-level committee soon after I finished my Ph.D. He helped me get positions that I think, in many ways, allowed me progress in the field: contacts and experience with different kinds of work that I never would have had otherwise. A blessed memory.

MB: So he was your real teacher?

CM: He was, even though I never had a class with him.

MB: Moving way ahead from when you were a student to when you were the President of SBL, your presidential address was on the problems with the term "patriarchy" in biblical studies. Can you just summarize briefly why you find that term so problematic? Do you think biblical scholarship has heeded your caution about using that word?

CM: Well, without telling the readers of this interview to go read my article [laughs], when I started, the first part was to look at how the term began to be used in biblical studies. I mean, it's not a biblical word and it's not that old of a word in English. It was used to refer to the Greek patriárkhēs or the Latin patriarchia. It was used in terms of church hierarchy, but as a designation of a social unit is relatively recent. As I found out, and nobody has tried to correct my research on this since, it's a nineteenth-century development. When anthropologists were starting (anthropology was a brand new subject in the early to mid-nineteenth century), they were interested in the family and its origins, and if the origins are the same everywhere in the world. In doing that, they looked at only the ancient societies that they knew they had literature from, and they did not include the Hebrew Bible. These people were all looking at classical sources, and in looking at classical sources, they were looking almost entirely at legal sources: what did the law say about family life? There are a number of very important figures in nineteenth-century social science studies (anthropology) who came to the conclusion that the family in the Greco-Roman world was a patriarchy with the father, the senior male, having absolute domination over everyone in the household. Not only the wife, but the children, even the power of life and death, servants, slaves, and so on.

By the turn of the century, this concept expanded to a consideration of society as a whole—not just the family, but what was society as a whole like? The work of people like Max Weber was very influential, and they said that society as a whole can be considered patriarchal because males rule, and Weber himself felt that females were inferior and couldn't have done it anyway. This is what biblical scholars inherit, and they first bring it in as a concept of the Hebrew family as being patriarchal, just like the family in ancient Greece or Rome, and then the society as a whole. Weber is very influential in biblical studies. He wrote Ancient Judaism [1917-21], and he did it himself. He brought those concepts into biblical studies and they were never examined after that. In the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century, classical scholars began to say "wait a minute." Maybe they were prodded a little bit by feminist classical scholars, but they began to see that looking only at legal documents gave a biased view. It gave the biases of these laws, which are addressed mainly to landholding elites and apply only to certain circumstances of household life. If you start to look at other materials that were available from the classical world like all of the other literature that there is—and there's a vast amount of literature beside legal documents—and archaeology and art history, you saw a very different picture.

They modified [Weber's position] and said that men were not necessarily dominant in all aspects of household life or in all aspects of society, and a couple of books were written on women in Greek religion or women in Roman religion, where there were aspects of those parts of society which woman dominated. And they weren't just female-only cults. That was a big challenge to the concept of patriarchy.

In the world of feminism, and this is not my strong suit, but there are very important feminist scholars, not just feminist biblical scholars, but people who deal in feminist theory—who began to see that this kind of terminology was problematic for any society for a number of different reasons. I think I list about ten of them in that article in the Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL]. For ancient Israel, for example, it takes away from our ability to see other forms of social asymmetry in the society. It takes away from looking at the problems of servitude, or slavery, or ageism, or the foreigners in your midst—other kinds of social inequality that may have existed. It also assumes that what you have in the biblical text, which is the product of centuries of formation and redaction and whatever else happens to it, we really find it difficult to trace all that back, but what we have in the text, which takes its shape sometime in the late-monarchic, exilic, and early post-exilic periods—I kind of stay agnostic about all of that—but not in the Iron I period for sure. There's a disconnect between social reality and what formal texts say, and so for biblical scholars, including most feminist biblical scholars, to say that ancient Israel was patriarchal, basing their work on biblical text, I think, is very misleading at best.

MB: So do you think it's fair to say that the Bible is patriarchal and ancient Israel was not?

CM: No, I wouldn't even go that far. I would say that the Bible is certainly androcentric.

MB: Okay.

CM: It's certainly focused on men. I don't remember the exact statistics, but only somewhere between ten and twenty percent of the named people in the Bible are women. It just focuses on the male world. But to say that it shows male dominance in every sphere of life—it doesn't! Not even there. You have stories like the Shunammite woman or Abigail, where these women are making decisions without consulting their husbands. They seem to have that kind of authority in household management, which is what Xenophon says about certain elite Greek women, who in the household itself had a sphere of activity that they controlled, and it was aside from whatever the men in the household controlled. These are side-by-side, complementary spheres. Obviously, there are legal materials which are very asymmetrical, and which favor men in the Hebrew Bible. I would never say that there was equality, but I don't like to use the word "patriarchy" even for the Bible itself. I think "androcentric" is fine. Male dominance in many spheres of life—you can talk about the Bible showing that, but to say that it's universal is very misleading and does a disservice to the way many women lived their lives in the average household, not the elite household.

MB: Clearly this work on patriarchy, or against patriarchy, has been very important for you. What other parts of your work are you most proud of? Or do you think are most significant?

CM: Well, I think this is probably the most significant because I'm virtually the only one who does it. [laughs] If I don't do it, who will? But seriously, it involves being able to deal with biblical materials with certain other ancient Near Eastern materials. It involves using archaeological materials and it involves using social science materials. You can't interpret archaeology with respect to peoples' lives if you don't use ethnography—if you don't see how this plays out. Now, archaeology gives the impression that we have all of these archaeologists who work in the land of Israel. Most of them are interested in things other than reconstructing household life. They're just in chronology, and they don't need social science for that. So there are an awful lot of different disciplines which come to play, and it's really hard to know enough about all of them to be able to use them. I don't claim to know enough about all of them, but I try really hard and I'm an autodidact in social science. I didn't even take anthropology in college—retrospectively, to my great regret.

The first sabbatical when we were working on the Anchor Bible, I knew that I had to learn something about anthropology and the anthropology of women. I went to a colleague in the anthropology department here who was teaching a course on gender archaeology and I said, "give me your syllabus." She not only gave me her syllabus—this was before the internet, and you had to use printouts of materials—she gave me three course books full of all the readings that she'd had her students read that semester. When I wasn't working on the Anchor Bible, I was reading anthropology. Also, this was in Oxford, so I went to a couple of social anthropology seminars. Without that, I don't think I could have had the temerity to bring in that kind of research in trying to understand what I was trying to put together between the biblical text and the archaeological materials.

MB: What's next for you?

CM: Not working so hard!

MB: Not working so hard on what?

CM: We just returned first proofs of our last big archaeological report to the publisher with close to two thousand corrections. This is a one-thousand-page manuscript.

MB: This is on Sepphoris? That you did with Eric?

CM: Right. I would venture to say that we will have to see third proofs of this. We have no more archaeological materials to publish. I am working now with a couple people on a T&T Clark Handbook of food in ancient Israel and the Hebrew Bible, where I hope to bring together my archaeological and social science and biblical skills. And maybe another handbook for Cambridge [University Press] on the family in the ancient world—it's kind of stalled right now with one of our other editors. I don't know if that will happen—that's kind of where I am now. I'm really trying not take on any more scholarship assignments. I'm doing a lot for ASOR and SBL that takes up a lot of time, and I want to read novels [laughs].

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