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Paul of Tarsus and women

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The relationship between Paul of Tarsus and women is an important element in the theological debate about Christianity and women due to the fact that Paul was the first writer to give strict ecclesiastical directives about the role of women in the Church. However, Christian egalitarians have also argued that some of these writings are post-Pauline interpolations and that Paul was actually friendly with women.

Relationship with Jewish and Gentile women

Evidence in Paul's letters

By the time Paul began his missionary movement, women were important agents within the different cities. The letters of Paul, dated to the middle of the first century CE, and his casual greetings to acquaintances offer fascinating and solid information about many Jewish and Gentile women who were prominent in the movement. His letters provide vivid clues about the kind of activities in which women engaged more generally.[1]

  • He greets Prisca, Junia, Julia, and Nereus' sister, who worked and traveled as missionaries in pairs with their husbands or brothers (Rom. 16:3,7,15)
  • Priscilla is mentioned seven times in the Bible, as a missionary partner with the Apostle Paul and the wife of Aquila. Of the seven times Priscilla and Aquila are mentioned as a couple, her name appears before Aquila's five times.
  • He praises Junia as a prominent apostle[2] who had been imprisoned for her labor.[Rom. 16:7] Junia is “the only female apostle named in the New Testament”.[3] Junia and Andronicus are the only "apostles" associated with Rome that were greeted by Paul in his letter to the Romans.[4] [Rom 16:7] Paul greets this couple as "kinspersons and fellow prisoners" and says that "they are outstanding amongst the apostles."[5] Given that Andronicus and Junia are named as apostles suggests a priori that they were evangelists and church-planters like Paul.[4]
  • Phebe / Phoebe. Paul attaches to her three titles: diakonos meaning a deacon (lit. "servant"), sister, and prostasis meaning leader and president. There is no difference when the title of deacon is used for Phoebe and Timothy.[Rom. 16:1-2]
  • Mary and Persis are commended for their hard work.[Rom. 16:6,12]
  • Chloe, a prominent woman of Corinth, appears to be the head of a household of an extended family. She and her household told Paul of the divisions in the congregation of Corinth.[1 Cor. 1:11]
  • Euodia and Syntyche are called his fellow-workers in the gospel.[Phil. 4:2-3]

These biblical reports seem to provide credible evidence of women apostles active in the earliest work of spreading the Christian message.[6]

Cooperation with female disciples

From the beginning of the Early Christian church, women were important members of the movement. As time went on, groups of Christians organized within the homes of believers. Those who could offer their home for meetings were considered important within the movement and assumed leadership roles.[7] The New Testament Gospels acknowledge that women were among Jesus' earliest followers.

Jewish women disciples, including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, had accompanied Jesus during his ministry and supported him out of their private means.[Lk. 8:1-3] Although the details of these gospel stories may be questioned, in general they reflect the prominent historical roles women played in Jesus' ministry as disciples.[8] There were women disciples at the foot of the cross. Women were reported to be the first witnesses to the resurrection, chief among them again Mary Magdalene. She was not only "witness," but also called a "messenger" of the risen Christ.[9] The apostles had little respect for her witness and that of the other women, saying they "seemed as idle tales."[Lk. 24:11]

Lastly, Paul wrote that there is "neither male nor female" because Jesus Christ unites us.[Galatians 3:28]

Ecclesiastical directives

Forbidden to teach or speak in the church

"Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church."[1 Cor. 14:34-35]

Paul's words to Timothy

"I desire that the men pray everywhere lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting, and the women likewise [or “in like manner”]"[1 Tim. 2:12]
"A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet."[1 Tim. 2:8]
"[I desire women] to array themselves in a befitted catastola,[10] with reverence and restraint, not with braids, or gold, or pearls, or costly garments. But as becomes women proclaiming godliness, with good deeds."[1 Tim. 2:9-10]
"Let a woman learn, quietly, in all subjection [to God]."[1 Tim. 2:11]
"Now I permit a woman neither to teach nor exercise authority over a man, but let her be in quietness. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived [when he sinned]; but the woman, having [first] been thoroughly deceived, became [involved] in the transgression [of Adam], and she will be saved by the Child-bearing [i.e., the bearing of Jesus Christ], if they abide in faith, and love and sanctification with self-restraint."[1 Tim. 2:12-15]

Paul’s advice about women, in a personal letter to Timothy, Bishop of Ephesus, written about A.D. 67 (see 1 Timothy 2:8-15), assumes importance to women mainly because its import has been greatly exaggerated. Paul merely states his own practice and gives his reasons, as a matter of advice. He does not command or exhort Timothy, or anyone else, to do the same. Here there is no “as also saith the law,’ as in 1 Corinthians 14:34, to be made use of as opposing the ministry of women; nor does he express an “ought” on the subject, as in 1 Corinthians 11:10. Yet this, the third and last of the familiar utterances by Paul on the “woman question,” has probably been more used than the others as a pretext for subordinating woman, ecclesiastically. But to exaggerate advice of this nature in a personal letter, into a law for the governance of all women throughout all time, means to destroy the naturalness of this personal epistle.

Because Paul says to Timothy, in this same letter, “Use a little wine for the stomach’s sake,” no one is so foolish as to believe that all Christians for all time are expected to drink wine. Paul writes to Timothy,[2 Tim. 4:13] “The cloak that I left at Troas with Carpus..., bring with thee,” yet expositors do not teach that we must all follow Paul’s directions to Timothy, and fetch a cloak from Troas.[11]

When Paul merely says: “I suffer not a woman to teach or to control a man”[1 Tim. 2:11-15] (as it should be read), certain expositors declare that all women must for all time be discounted as teachers of the Word and must not, on any account, have any place of importance in managing church affairs. With what ardour they contend that Paul’s mere example must be obeyed here! Do they thus ardently obey Paul’s example themselves, in all matters? —God's Word to Women

Bishops and Deacons must be men

"Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach...."[1 Tim. 3:1-2]
"A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well...."[1 Tim. 3:12]
"The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you. An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient."[Titus 1:5-6]

The head of woman is man

"But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man."[1 Cor. 11:3-9]
Further reading: Paul Fiddes, "'Woman's head is man': a doctrinal reflection upon a Pauline text", Baptist Quarterly 31.8 (1986), pp. 370-83

Submission to one's husband

"Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, people have never hated their own bodies, but they feed and care for them, just as Christ does the church— or we are members of his body."[Eph. 5:22-30]
"Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them." [Col. 3:18-19]

Theory of an egalitarian Paul

Post-Pauline interpolations

Father Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, O.P., in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, agrees that the verses not favorable to women were "post-Pauline interpolations":

1 Corinthians 14:34-35 are not a Corinthian slogan, as some have argued…, but a post-Pauline interpolation…. Not only is the appeal to the law (possibly Genesis 3:16) un-Pauline, but the verses contradict 1 Corinthians 11:5. The injunctions reflect the misogyny of 1 Timothy 2:11-14 and probably stem from the same circle. Some mss. place these verses after 40.

Jerome Murphy-O'Connor[12]

Departing from centuries-long tradition, John Paul II teaches that women and men are equal as persons before God. Both man and woman are human beings to an equal degree, both are created in God’s image. However, he does not permit women to be ordained into the priesthood.[13]

Belated marginalization of women

Theologian Robert Cramer agrees that the "pseudo-Pauline" epistles were written to marginalize women, especially in the church and in marriage:

Since it is now widely concluded that the Pastoral Epistles were written around AD 115, these words were written most likely about 50 years after Paul's martyrdom. Considering the similarity between 1 Corinthians 14:35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12, conclusions that I and others continue to draw are:

  1. That Paul wrote the bulk of what was in 1  Corinthians but that he did not write 1 Timothy, and
  2. That around AD 115, the writer of 1 Timothy or a group associated with him added the 1 Corinthians 14:33-36 pericope to the body of letters that later became 1 Corinthians.
In this scenario this would have been done in part to lend further authority to a later (or more culturally acceptable) teaching that marginalized women.

Robert Cramer

Second century deference to society

Elaine Pagels maintains that the majority of the Christian churches in the second century went with the majority of the middle class in opposing the trend toward equality for women. By the year 200, the majority of Christian communities endorsed as canonical the "pseudo-Pauline" letter to Timothy. That letter, according to Pagels, stresses and exaggerates the antifeminist element in Paul's views: "Let a woman learn in silence in all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or have authority over men; she is to keep silent."[1 Tim. 2:11] She believes the letters to the Colossians and to the Ephesians, which order women to "be subject in everything to their husbands," do not express what she says were Paul's very favorable attitudes toward women, but also were "pseudo-Pauline" forgeries.

Endnotes

  1. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/first/missions.html#letters letters of Paul
  2. Ehrman, Bart. Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend. Oxford University Press, USA. 2006. ISBN 0-19-530013-0
  3. Finlan, Stephen. The Apostle Paul and the Pauline Tradition. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0814652718.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Elmer, Ian. "Was Roman Christianity founded by a woman?" Catholica. Web: 9 Dec 2009. <http://www.catholica.com.au/gc0/ie2/128_ie_121109.php>
  5. Finlan, Steven. The Apostle Paul and the Pauline Tradition. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2008. Pp. xiv + 229.
  6. King, Karen L. "Women in Ancient Christianity: The New Discoveries." http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/first/women.html
  7. Margaret MacDonald, "Reading Real Women Through Undisputed Letters of Paul" in Women and Christian Origins, ed. by Ross Sheppard Kraemer and Mary Rose D'Angelo (Oxford: University Press, 1999), 204
  8. Blevins
  9. Ingrid Maisch, tr. by Linda M. Maloney. Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 1998. ISBN 0814624715
  10. The catastola is mentioned in Scripture only here and in the Greek O.T. version at Isaiah 61:3. It was a loose garment that reached to the feet, and was worn with a girdle.
  11. Lesson 40. "Paul’s Words to Timothy about Women." God's Word to Women. Web: 10 Dec 2009 <http://www.godswordtowomen.org/lesson_40.htm>
  12. New Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J, and Roland E. Murphy, O.Carm., Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990, pages 811-812)
  13. "Mary and Women: John Paul II's Thought on Women." Aug. 21, 2009:

Additional bibliography

  • Paul Fiddes, '"Woman's head is man": a doctrinal reflection upon a Pauline text', Baptist Quarterly 31.8 (1986), pp. 370-83

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