Today women biblical scholars can easily get lost in a crowd of male colleagues. How much more so in 1959 when Elizabeth Rice Achtemeier graduated with a Ph.D. in Old Testament from Columbia University? In her memoir Not Till I Have Done, she writes: “In one sense, the life of a woman in academia is a lonely calling. There are not many other women who share my theological journey and work” (116). But follow that calling she did, successfully teaching for thirty-seven years and publishing twenty books.
Achtemeier was fortunate to grow up in a household where her gender was not deemed a limitation. She grew up the only girl in a neighborhood of more than twenty boys and gladly participated in all their sports and games. From her father she learned she could accomplish anything she desired. From her mother she inherited an inquisitive mind. When Achtemeier attended seminary her mother borrowed and read all the textbooks. Not only did Achtemeier have an upbringing that supported her academic pursuits, but she also felt accepted in the male dominated world of the academy–for the most part:
In my forty-seven years of active work in the life of the church, I have rarely met with discrimination. To be sure, there have been a few patronizing clergy . . . When I first joined the faculty of Union Seminary in Virginia as a visiting professor in Bible and homiletics, a noted Old Testament scholar introduced me to a colleague, who was startled that a female had been employed, with the sarcastic comment, “They get better all the time.” Some time later, after the Old Testament scholar read some of my work, he became a friend and freely praised me (17).
Achtemeier started college in 1944. She first attended Stephens College before transferring to Stanford University. She majored in psychology. At Stanford, the campus chaplain became a mentor and encouraged her to attend Union Theological Seminary in New York. She studied under Reinhold Niebuhr, John Bennett, Paul Tillich, Cyril Richardson, John T. McNeill, Paul Sherer, George Buttrick, James Muilenburg, Samuel Terrien, Frederick Grant, John Knox, and David Roberts. It was a great time to be at Union. The campus was alive and buzzing with intense theological discussions. Niebuhr had monthly discussion groups in his living room and Muilenburg invited his Old Testament students for group study sessions at his apartment each week. Achtemeier was particularly influenced by Muilenburg and this determined her choice of Old Testament for Ph.D. work. She graduated from Union summa cum laude. The New York Times printed an article entitled, “Girl Leads Union Seminary Class.”
At Union, Achtemeier met her husband Bud who was studying New Testament. Both of them won Traveling Fellowships to continue their studies toward doctoral degrees. Thus, as newlyweds they set off for Europe to study at Heidelberg University. It was a cold October in 1952 when they arrived. The classroom thermostat was set at 50 degrees, and everyone bundled up to learn. Achtemeier studied with Gerhard von Rad. After the year was up they had the opportunity to travel to Switzerland to learn from Karl Barth at the University of Basel. Achtemeier was shocked to discover that Switzerland still did not allow women to vote and men sometimes did not speak to her directly, instead addressing questions to her husband. Nevertheless she found herself in good company with other American students, including Brevard Childs, Shirley Guthrie, Paul van Buren, James Wharton, John Deschner, and British student David Torrance. The students found Barth to be pastoral and attentive. Achtemeier writes:
We learned at the time that Barth not only had a consuming interest in the American Civil War, but that he also liked to read detective stories and accounts of UFOs. We asked him if it would change his theology if life were discovered on another planet, to which he replied “Und wie!” (“And how!”) . . . . Barth also had a twinkling sense of humor . . . . yet this was the man who changed the shape and content of theological knowledge throughout the world; he was the “Luther” of our time who undermined nineteenth century theology and set theological disciplines on a new course. . . . We took several courses with Barth, as well as courses with Eichrodt and Cullmann. All of us sat in on Barth’s general lectures in which he simply read to us from the next volume of the Church Dogmatics, putting in the commas and making corrections as he proceeded . . . . My field was Old Testament, of course, and what Barth did for me was to confirm and deepen what I had learned thus far in biblical study, because Barth’s theology emerged from the scriptures and had the scriptures always as its base.
Eventually, Achtemeier and her husband made their way back to the States where they finished up their degrees. While a TA, she graded the papers of Phyllis Trible and Frederick Buechner. She was seven months pregnant with her first child when she took her comprehensive exams and eight months pregnant with her second when she defended her dissertation. In 1959, Achtemeier graduated from Columbia University with her Ph.D. Over the years she taught at Lancaster Theological Seminary (1959-1973) and Union Theological Seminary in Virginia (1973-1996), as well as, in a visiting capacity, at Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and Duke Divinity School. Regarding the family/career balance, Achtemeier comments:
Many women these days struggle with the question of whether or not it is possible to combine an academic career with their roles as mothers and wives. Speaking from my experience, I can affirm that it is. We were blessed by the fact that we lived close to the seminary and could schedule our classes in such a way that one of us was always home with the children, so that we did not need to turn their upbringing over to babysitters or nursery schools. To be sure, Mark still maintains that while I was finishing my Ph.D. dissertation he took the longest naps of any kid in the neighborhood . . . . I have always held that my call to the Christian ministry includes my call to be a wife and a mother, and I cannot neglect one part of that call for the other . . . . If one has a call to marriage and motherhood as well as to an academic pursuit, one also has to make choices, sometimes hard choices, that will honor both sides of the call. I have been a visiting or adjunct professor all of my life, which position carries with it very little money and not much status in the eyes of outsiders, although to my mind my life couldn’t be better (68-70).
Achtemeier’s husband Bud offered to move so that she could take a position at Duke, but she decided against it. She believed continuing her adjunct work (often a full course-load) to support Bud in his tenure at Union was the best decision for their family. Staying at Union meant Achtemeier was in a “bastion of male dominance.” All the faculty were male and wives of faculty were prohibited from taking jobs at the seminary (to avoid conflict of interest). The seminary eventually changed its policy not to hire couples, but at the time they got around the rule by hiring Achtemeier as an adjunct. She taught a variety of courses in Old Testament and homiletics. Her many books include:
- Preaching from the Minor Prophets. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1998.
- Preaching Hard Texts of the Old Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998.
- Minor Prophets I. NIBC. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995.
- Preaching from the Old Testament. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1989.
- Nahum-Malachi. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1988.
- Jeremiah. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1987.
- The Old Testament and the Proclamation of the Gospel. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1973.
- (with Paul J. Achtemeier). The Old Testament Roots of Our Faith. Nashville: Abingdon, 1962.
Achtemeier ends her memoir by saying, “I have no illusions about leaving any lasting mark, other than my children’s lives, on the world. As the psalmist acknowledges, our days are like grass; we flourish like a flower of the field, but then the wind sweeps over us and we are gone, and no knows our places anymore (Ps. 103:15-16) . . . . The glad news of the Christian gospel, however, is that God remembers . . . . And our futures, even beyond our death, are bound up with his eternity” (125-26). Achtemeier died on October 25, 2002 at the age of 76.
For rare (online) video footage of Achtemeier preaching at Duke Chapel click here. She begins speaking at the 11:20 mark.