Review of Icons of Christ: Errors of Protology and Eschatology

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Colvin: Review of "Icons..." by Witt


In the first part of this series, we examined the plausibility structures on which Witt’s book relies for its persuasiveness. We saw that Witt teaches a novel modern anthropology: he sees human beings not as fundamentally sexed creatures in a pervasively gendered cosmos, but as individuals who take on sex-roles in accordance with the limits of their (accidental) physiology and the merely conventional (not natural) construction of their societies. Witt, following the Jewish feminist scholar Tikva Frymer-Kensky, believes that “women are like men” in their essence and symbolism. This raises the question of why so much of human history has flouted this similarity by dividing everything—tools, space, activities, legal rights, power, office—in an asymmetrical manner. Answering this question requires Witt to present a theory of history. He does this with both protology and eschatology.

Errors of Protology

Because Witt does not perceive a connection between egalitarianism and the evils that beset the sexes in the individualistic consumer-capitalism of modernity, he does not consider that feminizing the pastorate might be another such evil. Rather, he thinks this elimination of sexual differences is a good thing, a partial return to the prelapsarian condition of the human race in Eden:

No longer confined by both biology and economics to the domestic sphere, many women have now taken on ‘roles’ once reserved to men, including the practice of ordained ministry. How should those in the Christian churches respond to this? In light of a more careful reading of the first chapter of Genesis, it is clear that this is entirely in accord with what it means for both men and women to have been created “in the image of God.” (72-73, emphasis mine)

Witt’s reading of Genesis 1 is anything but “more careful.” He misses many indications that the sexual hierarchy imposed after the fall is actually a reinstatement of the order that had existed before the fall, a correcting of the subversion and inversion of that order. He does not accurately understand what “the image of God” means in Genesis, instead using the phrase in a loose manner typical of philosophical theologians.[1] Witt thinks that the woman’s “desire for (not against)”(64) her husband is a neutral or beneficial thing, and claims that the words “he shall rule over you” (Gen. 3:16) are a new, postlapsarian imposition of hierarchy where there had been none before the fall.

Witt treats the text of Genesis 1-2 as something that can be interpreted without reference to its original audience and created realities. The original audience: No ancient Israelite woman lived in a society in which the sexes had become attenuated by technology, modern feminist and egalitarian ideologies, and changes of law. In the premodern world, the survival of any given society depended upon the physical strength and leadership of men. This was so not only in warfare, but also in agriculture, the construction of shelter, and protection from predators and other natural threats. Israel’s God calls his people again and again to protect widows and orphans and defend their rights. In ancient Israel, women and children needed men. This is the society that was the original audience of Genesis 1-2. They did not read the creation account as a story of primeval egalitarianism.

Second, created realities: If we ask why men had greater agency and power in ancient Israel, it is not because they had formed a conspiracy to usurp power from women by overthrowing the alleged primeval egalitarianism. Rather, it is because God had created men this way. Men have 66% more upper-body muscle than women, and 50% more lower-body muscle. They are taller, have stronger hearts, and bigger, less fragile bones. At age 35, the strongest 10% of women can only beat the bottom 10% of men in hand-grip tests, while 90% of women produce less hand-grip force than 95% of males.[2] This is but to scratch the surface of the physiological differences between the sexes. (I pass over the psychological differences entirely. Although they are more controversial, they are no less relevant.[3]) Add to this that women have dramatically less foot-speed, and are made more vulnerable by pregnancy, parturition, nursing of children, and menstruation. These are created differences. God intended them. What sort of organization would naturally arise from them in pre-technological society? What path of development can Witt envision for pre-technological society that would not produce some sort of patriarchy?

The closest Witt comes to considering these things is in an endnote:

Certainly there are clear differences between men and women…Obvious physical differences between men and women mean that there are some tasks for which some men would be more suitable than some women; for example, most men are physically stronger than most women. However, there is nothing intrinsic to the differences between men and women that imply that men and women are not equally suited for most tasks. The specific tasks that would be excluded would obviously be those that are biologically determined. (410, n. 4)

Again, we see his faith in modernity’s abolition of most sex differences. Although he grants the greater physical strength of men, he takes care to hedge and qualify it as much as he can (speaking only of “some men…some women”…, “most men…most women”; and conceding only that these physical differences affect “specific tasks” rather than constituting male and female as two different ways of being in the world). And Witt does not apply these considerations to the interpretation of Genesis 1-2 or to the question of what sort of power structures the created bodies of men and women would produce in pretechnological society.

That the original order of creation was not egalitarian can be seen also from a careful reading of Genesis 3. The sentences which God imposes in that chapter all involve a restoration and reiteration of the original created order, with complications: Adam’s task of working the ground is what he was originally created to do; it is not a new thing with the fall. What is new is the difficulty of the task. Likewise, the serpent is one of the “beasts of the field,” and should have been under the dominion of humans, but instead usurped authority and led Adam and Eve into disobedience. In God’s judgment on the serpent, it is put back into subjection, but now the subjection is made more severe (“in the dust”) and painful (“he shall crush your head”). The pattern, thus, is not the imposition of a new order that is contrary to the created order, but the restoration of the old order with painful complications. To the man: “in the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread” and “thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you” – a restoration of the man to the task of working the earth, but now attended with painful toil and made miserable by weeds. To the woman: “in pain shall you bring forth children” – a restoration and reiteration of the woman’s original task of childbearing, which is by no means a consequence of the fall, but which is now made painful. Accordingly, God’s sentence on Eve that ”your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” is to be understood according to this same pattern: a restoration of the original order of husband and wife, but now made painful and difficult by the introduction of a desire for insubordination, which is the sense of the Hebrew “your desire shall be for” (tišûqatēk). As we can see by comparing the identical wording in case of Cain, to whom God says, “and [sin’s] desire is for you” (we’ēleykā tišûqāthô, Gen. 4:7), the “desire” here is not a romantic attraction or affection, but a desire that goes against the man’s rule and direction, which are nonetheless asserted by God: God’s words to Cain about the need for him to rule over sin (we’attāh timšal-bô) express the normative and intended state of affairs. So, with Eve, the words “and [your husband] shall rule over you” (wehû’ yimšāl-bak) express the normative and intended state of affairs. A more careful reading of Genesis 3 shows that Witt is mistaken about the sexual hierarchy imposed after the Fall being a change from a prelapsarian egalitarianism.[4]

Errors of Eschatology

Since Witt sees modern egalitarianism as a partial return to the original and intended relation of men and women before the Fall, he also sees it as part of the eschatological intention of God for men and women that breaks into history with Christ. He argues at length that the normative structure of authority in the family has been “Christologically transcended” and that Jesus deliberately but subtly undermined the patriarchal social order of Israel in his day. In support of this idea of “Christological subversion,” Witt repeats the claims of Ben Witherington and N.T. Wright[5] that Mary of Bethany’s “sitting at Jesus’ feet” (Lk. 10:38-42) was an act of social transgression upon male prerogatives, and that Jesus’ approval of Mary’s act was “subversive of the understandings of the permissible roles for women at that time.” (91) But the earliest instance of the phrase “to sit at X’s feet” in the context of teaching is from the Mishnah, in a saying ascribed to the Maccabaean-era rabbi Yose ben Yoezer (fl. 170-140 BC): “Let thy house be a house of meeting for the Sages and sit in the very dust of their feet, and drink in their words with thirst.” (m.Avot 1.4) The addition of “let thy house be a house of meeting” and “sit in the very dust” in this instance makes clear that that the expression describes the actions, not of those climbing the ladder of rabbinic ordination, but of lay Israelites who ought to hold their exalted teachers in reverence and place their homes at their disposal. There is nothing here that conflicts with the patriarchal norms of Jewish society; subversion of those norms is neither implied nor intended by Jesus’ commendation of Mary. She is not in training to be either a rabbi or a teacher in the church.

What are Witt’s other evidences for this “Christological subversion”? He claims that “Jesus even challenged the ultimacy of the order of the family” (81) by saying “whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Mk. 3:31-35) and saying that he has “come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, etc.” (Mt. 10:34-37) Is Witt right to see Jesus here undermining the created order of the family? Hardly. He is appealing to familial relationships as some of the strongest principles of Jewish life, precisely in order to mount an a fortiori argument. Nor is the logic of his argument new. The Torah already required that:

If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers…Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him. (Deut. 13:6,8)

The absolute priority of loyalty to YHWH over loyalty to family was already an established principle of the Old Testament. And when we examine the structure of Jesus’ movement both during and after his earthly ministry, we find that, far from subverting family relationships, it worked with them. Jesus’ coming was heralded by his maternal cousin, John the Baptist. Of his twelve disciples, eight were pairs of brothers. His brother James became the leader of the Jerusalem church.[6] The same pattern continues in the later generations of the Christian movement: Paul commends Timothy for holding the faith of his mother Eunice and grandmother Lois (2 Tim. 1:5). There is no “subversion” here, but an underscoring and perhaps a deepening of what God had always required of his people.

We may wonder why Witt’s alleged “Christological subversion” was so slow-acting that its intended changes did not kick in until nearly two thousand years after Christ, when the penny finally dropped and modern technology rendered sexual egalitarianism plausible for the first time. In fact, we may suspect that such slow-burn subversion is a way of avoiding having to face the full force of the historical conundrum confronting Christian egalitarians: that even if Jesus intended to make women and men of equal authority in the church and society, his apostles Paul and Peter did not get the memo, so that they continued to write things like “let women keep silent in the churches” and “let wives submit to their husbands” and “I will that the younger women marry, bear children, and guide the house.” They evidently did not see Christ’s coming as something that “subverted” the natural order of men and women. Ancient Israel and the early church, no less than Adam and Eve, were still living in a pre-technological world charged with natural sex distinctions.


  1. The phrase means “God’s vice-regent.” See Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 113-115 and Hans Wildberger, “Das Abbild Gottes, Gen 1.26–30,” TZ 21 (1965): 259. See also my comments on the difference between philologists’ and theologians’ approach to this phrase:
  2. On the physical differences between the sexes, see the study by D Leyk et al, “Hand-grip strength of young men, women and highly trained female athletes” in European Journal of Applied Physiology 99(4) (March 2007): 415-421, available online at
    Also Richard M. Dodds et al, “Grip Strength Across the Life Course: Normative Data from Twelve British Studies” in PLOS ONE, available online at:
  3. For a succinct survey of these differences, see the wealth of cited literature in Alastair Roberts, “Natural Complementarians: Men, Women, and the Way Things Are” in The Calvinist International, September 13, 2016, available online here:
  4. Pace N. Sarna, The JPS Commentary on Genesis, 17, which is perhaps the earliest modern instance of the idea that “the new state of male dominance is regarded as an aspect of the deterioration in the human condition that resulted from defiance of divine will.”
  5. N.T. Wright, “Women’s Service in the Church: The Biblical Basis.” Sept. 4, 2004.
  6. Cf. Richard Bauckham, Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church (London: T&T Clark, 2004).


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Matthew Colvin

Matthew Colvin holds a PhD in Classics (Cornell, 2004) and is a minister in the Reformed Episcopal Church. He is the author of The Lost Supper (Fortress Academic, 2019). He lives on Vancouver Island.

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