Paul and Gender: Traditional Interpretations Exposed

Screen Shot 2016-11-26 at 10.57.55 AMCynthia Westfall, in her new book Paul and Gender, knows the traditional interpretation and contends it must be re-examined. Hers is not a book shaped by a new method or hermeneutic but instead by a historical and contextual and coherency method, and here are some of her big ideas:

Traditional views are more in line with Greco-Roman social practices and ideologies than biblical ones.

Biblical scholars often assume that Paul’s theology about gender directly corresponds with Greek philosophical thought (Aristotelian) and GrecoRoman social practices. There is no question that this is the assumption lying behind the traditional interpretations of the Pauline passages on gender. However, this study will suggest that the traditional readings on gender reflect Greek thought and categories that were not accepted by either Paul or Jesus. Rather, the presuppositions of Greek philosophical thought were imposed on the texts quite early in the history of the church and reinforced throughout the history of interpretation. Therefore, the traditional interpretation primary dialogue partner for this study. 2

Traditional readings of Paul and gender need to extricate missional adaptation from Paul’s theology.

This study suggests that traditional readings confuse Paul’s theology with his missional adaptation to the cultural gender practices; those strategies allowed the church to reach the Greco-Roman culture and to survive within that culture and even to thrive. 3

Traditional readings are in bed with power, and that power is not the theology of Jesus or Paul about power.

… traditional readings of the texts have been used and are being used overtly in a social construction of a theology of power and control that privileges one group over another (males over females), and those readings are controlled by the privileged group (males). Many representatives of the traditional readings are transparently invested in maintaining the power and control of men over the church, academy, and home. Students of linguistics have been sensitized about the use of language and interpretation to create and maintain power. Using power language and justifying it in the history of interpretation typically has gone beyond the Pauline texts while claiming that the traditional interpretation is what the text says, and anyone who rejects that interpretation is accused of rejecting Paul’s teaching. However, the traditional interpretation of Paul’s gender passages flies directly in the face of Paul’s and Jesus’s teachings on power and authority within the Christian community. 4

Traditional readings, and the exegesis connected to those readings, assume female ontological inferiority and it is more than difficult to remove that inferiority from the exegesis itself.

… until very recently (ca. 1980s), traditional readings have assumed the ontological inferiority of women through the entire history of interpretation, and it is implausible to think that an interpreter can effectively shed the foundational assumptions of the traditional view and still coherently maintain the remainder of interpretations and applications virtually intact. Unless a scholar or interpreter assumes the superiority of men and inferiority of women as a presupposition for understanding the texts on gender, they cannot legitimately claim that his or her interpretation is in line with the traditions of Christianity. Conversely, those who promote traditional practices concerning gender must recognize the trajectory that they occupy in church tradition. 4

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