Was Paul the Eternal Enemy of Women?

George Bernard Shaw, who had far more time for Jesus than the apostle Paul, said the apostle Paul came off as the “eternal enemy of Woman.” Before we test this proud claim of interpretation, let it be noted that GB Shaw was and is not alone. Many think Paul comes up short when it comes to women and many today would claim the church’s problems with women as equals to men derive from Paul, not Jesus. Todd Still, NT professor at Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor, subjects Shaw and the claim that Jesus were at odds on women to a test in Priscilla Papers (27/3, summer 2013, pp. 16-19).

Still opens with one text from Judaism, a disparaging-of-women text from Sirach 42:14 (“Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good”) and then to balance the religions budget grabs some horrendous expressions from Tertullian (“the devil’s gateway” and “vipers”). Then we get to Jesus. Still is soft shoeing here but the approach makes me a tad nervous, and it something you’ve seen on this blog before: to compare Jesus to Judaism (or to earliest Christianity) we are obliged to take in the bigger picture so as not to distort the comparison. Judaism, bad; Tertullian and early Christians, bad; Jesus, good; Jesus wins! Paul wins! We win!

OK, we can find disparaging texts all over the place, including Judaism and earliest Christianity. But there are also plenty of texts in which women are held in high esteem, and they deserve a place in this discussion right up front. Here’s the more dramatic conclusion many of us have drawn: nowhere is Jesus or Paul criticized for their approaches to women. That is, Jesus’ openness to women and Paul’s openness to women do not draw fire from their contemporaries. Why? Probably because their behaviors did not stand out as unusual. In other words, the Roman empire and Judaism had space for women to do the things they did with Jesus and with Paul. They may stand out over against some in the Jewish world and some in the Christian world, but those are perhaps minority voices and not majority voices. The fact remains: neither Jesus nor Paul are criticized for what they permitted women to do (at least in the evidence that survives).

Still points to Jesus regular inclusion of women in his circle, and nothing more substantive than the Mary and Martha text of Luke 10:38-42 or of women being primary witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus.

Paul, whom GB Shaw thought nothing more than a crank, shows up in Still’s sketch as providing some evidence of restrictions but plenty of evidence for unrestricted ministry opportunities. There’s some submission stuff and there’s the keep-silent stuff and Eve was deceived and it seems only men were elders.

Something quite important here that is rarely brought into the discussion: (1) Paul does not say only men can be elders; he speaks to elders assuming they are males. (2) He says the elders must be one-woman-men which implies males married to one woman. But, (3) the same could be said of “deacons” because there the assumption is males, too. But (4) we know Phoebe was a “deacon.” Therefore, (5) maybe we should soften the male-ness of elders under the clear exception of females being deacons alongside male deacons. Anyway, something to think about.

Still focuses on the women in ministry stuff: Phoebe, Priscilla, Junia, women praying and prophesying. He concludes by arguing the restrictions of Paul are probably exceptions for specific circumstances. They are “occasional exceptions to this general rule” (19). They are “contextual, not continual” or a “chapter in a book, but not the entire story.”

For Still, Paul was with Jesus and neither was the enemy of women; both are friends of women.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Jean Bergen

    Thanks for the post. I appreciate the ongoing conversation of women in the early church. I will add that my perspective of Paul being an enemy of women changed from a closer look at his ministry to the Gentiles. He is called, compelled even, to preach a message of Oneness to people who once far away, excluded and separate. Telling them that Jesus has broken down the wall of hostility, ending the system of Jewish Law that excluded them (Eph 2, 3, 4.) For me, the image of breaking down the walls of separation in the Temple for those who came to worship God goes beyond the Jew and the Gentile. In Paul’s Good News to the Gentiles I hear a message of oneness for men and women as well. The wall that separated the genders in the Temple has been broken down as well.

  • Anthony Le Donne

    Something to consider:

    From Origen’s Against Celsus book 3, chapter 10 “…such was the charm of Jesus’ words, that not only were men willing to follow him to the wilderness, but women also, forgetting the weakness of their sex and a regard for outward propriety in thus following their Teacher into desert places.”

    -anthony

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    The critics of Christianity who state that fail to consider that the apostle was also the product of a particular culture at a particular time.

    When it is accounted for, his theology proved to be quite progressive.

    I give here one reason why we can conclude he was a man with an incredibly high moral character:

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/the-greatness-of-the-apostle-paul-die-grose-des-apostels-paulus/

    Lovely greetings from continental Europe.
    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

  • Anthony Le Donne

    apologies, I should have clarified that Celsus is being quoted here.

    -anthony

  • Andrew Dowling

    While I concur way too much theology posits the simplified dichotomy of “old Jewish world repressive and restrictive; Christians are free and liberated,” I’m rather shocked at the statement “nowhere is Jesus critiqued for his approach to women.” Huh? He’s critiqued when he heals women (not directly because they are female but IMO its implied that was part of the issue), the women is rebuked who cleans Jesus’s feet with her hair, he’s constantly rebuked for allowing (female) prostitutes in his group, who would have been the lowest of the low for being female and without family/husband. While 1st Century Judea wasn’t Kabul circa 2005, it also certainly wasn’t some bastion of liberty for women. By many accounts women were regarded as very low on the totem pole and treated as such.

    Also, I know you disagree but Paul’s feelings on women are made clearer if you join the ranks of people who view Ephesians and the Pastorals as deutero-Pauline.


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