“It is hardly an exaggeration” writes Brendan Byrne “to say that Paul’s letters have formed the battleground upon which women’s role in the church has been so bitterly contested.” Indeed Paul’s view of women is one of the most controversial subject among Christians of different hues with some arguing that Paul was a great egalitarian who asserted the independence and equality of women and other that, on the contrary, he was a terrible misogynist, “the eternal enemy of women” according to George Bernard Shaw, who despised women and advocated a subservient role for them, both in society and in the church.
What makes the discussion difficult and never really resolved is that passages and statements can be found throughout Paul’s letters that points to each of these opposite positions. Let’s have a look then at the textual evidence and consider whether we can find a satisfactory explanation for these troubling contradictions.
First, Paul the egalitarian: The first piece of evidence is of course the justly famous statement of Galatians 3: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. It is highly probable that this passage was not Paul’s own composition but rather a quotation from a pre-Pauline baptismal formula. By quoting it in his letter however, Paul clearly indicates his own conviction that “in Christ” all former distinctions of ethnicity, socio-economic status and gender have been abolished and that “a new creation”, a new order has dawned.
This is made more obvious by a second element: Paul’s many mentions of women co-workers that he often described as “apostles” ( for Paul, a divinely appointed and officially authorized representative of the church) who have “laboured side by side” with him, the same formula he uses to describe his male companions: Phoebe, “a minister of the church at Cenchreae”, Junia who with her husband Andronides are “prominent among the apostles”, Prisca, Julia, Tryphena, Chloe, Tryphosa, Syntyche, Euodia and others. This implies not only that many women had the same pastoral and evangelistic activities as men within the early Christian communities but also that Paul does NOT suggest in any way that men and women should play different roles, perform different functions or that women should be subservient to men. On the contrary, he speaks of women as respected and equal partners and leaders.
A third line of evidence concerns Paul views on sex, marriage and divorce. Until recently, chapter 7 of I Corinthians had almost universally been understood as an argument against marriage and, at least by implication, as a denigration of women. Increasingly however scholars and commentators are reading the chapter as an affirmation of complete equality within the marriage relation and the right of both women and men to refrain from marriage if they so choose. The principal concern of the chapter is whether sexual relationships have any place in the Christian life. Apparently, some sections of the Corinthian church regarded the body and all bodily functions and activities as inherently evil or at least “unspiritual” and for this reason, opposed sexual activity both within and outside the marriage relation. This is what Paul reflects when he quotes their slogan “It is well for a man not to touch a woman” (1Cor.7:1b) but it does NOT mean that he endorses or condones it. Indeed in his response, he rather carefully advise the Corinthians in three different ways: 1) most Christians should marry and consider sexual relations as a vital part of the marriage relations, 2) husbands and wives have the same rights and responsibilities within a relation of mutuality and equality and most significantly, 3) he encourages those men and women who so desire to remain unmarried (1 Cor.7:8) not because marriage and sex are sinful but because of the nearness of the end-times (as Paul believed) and for the sake of their “undivided devotion to the Lord.”
This last point (choosing not to marry) was truly revolutionary for it represented a radical break from the most basic of all patriarchal expectations whereby women’s fate was to marry, have children and stay at home. Paul on the contrary insists that both men and women may legitimately choose to remain single. This however quickly became a bone of contention in the early church where the increasingly exclusively-male leadership viewed the unmarried state of women as an occasion for instability and disorder within the church and of criticism from outsiders.
All this is in stark contrast to how women are described elsewhere and points towards the misogynistic Paul. The main “negative” texts are chapters 11&14 of 1 Cor., Colossians 3, Ephesians 5 and, more than any other texts, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. There, women are described as “silly”, “overwhelmed by their sins”, “idle”, “gadding about from house to house”, “unable to arrive at a knowledge of the truth”… even when instructed! To these descriptions are added many injunctions: to cover their heads, to dress modestly, to
concentrate on childbearing, to submit to their husbands and to be silent in the Assembly.
According to these texts, this subordination of women is justified by the “natural” hierarchy in which “the husband is the head of his wife just as Christ is the head of every man and God is the head of Christ” (1Cor. 11:3). Moreover, this hierarchy is rooted in creation itself as “woman is the reflection of man as man was not created for the sake of woman but woman for the sake of man” (1Cor.11: 4-9). To be sure, within the passages just quoted, there are a few qualifications that appear to somewhat “soften” their impact: husbands are to love their wives and “not to treat them harshly” (Col 3:19)… phew!!! Nevertheless, the controlling presuppositions of even these qualifications are characteristic of a patriarchal society where women are to be obedient and silent and play no leadership role in religious and public affairs.
How then to reconcile such extremely contrasting positions? You may remember that last month, I said that there is now an almost unanimous scholarly consensus that some letters attributed to Paul are certainly not by him and that some others are probably not by him.
This explains the contradictions: the passages depicting women in a negative light do not come from Paul himself but were written in the beginning of the second century when members of the expanding church who were striving for some measure of peace, stability and acceptance within the prevalent Hellenistic-Roman patriarchal society, felt that it was necessary to tone down and “domesticate the radical egalitarianism of the apostle” as William Walker Jr. explains. It is also certain that some passages were “added” (what is called in technical terms “interpolation,” an extremely common practice in ancient texts) and this, even to some genuine, original Pauline letters such as 1 and 2 Corinthians and Philippians.
So, it was not Paul who imposed the yoke of inequality and subservience on the women of the emerging Christian movement but rather later “paulinist” disciples who wrote letters in his name and/or added materials to his own letters. As history shows, it was their views and not those of Paul himself that triumphed, at least until recently. So, the real Paul, the “First Paul” as the biblical scholars, M. Borg and D. Crossan call him, is therefore better understood in light of the Galatian affirmation: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”