This summer I went to the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery in London for the first time. I know, as many times as I have been to London, it is shameful that this is the first time I went. I went to see Shakespeare, of course, and all the wives of Henry VIII in the National Portrait Gallery. But before wandering down the aisle of Tudor faces, I stopped first into the National Gallery and visited a Rembrandt exhibit. I stayed there for almost 30 minutes, looking mostly at one painting: An Elderly Man as Saint Paul.
It really struck me. As a young woman growing up in a conservative Southern Baptist church, I always had mixed feelings about Paul. I loved his bold statements; I loved how he explained who Jesus was and why we need Christ; I loved how he explained the transformation of Christians–the new life we have in Christ. My favorite scripture has always been Philippians 4:6-8. I learned about the peace of God from Paul, a peace that passes all understanding and persists even during difficult times. That peace has carried me through so much of my life. I am grateful to Paul.
But I always stumbled over Paul in Ephesians, Corinthians, etc. It was hard to recognize the calling I felt in my own life with the limitations he seemed to place on women. Was I wrong? Was God not calling me to teach, because women couldn’t be called in that way? Whenever I tried to reconcile what I thought were Paul’s teachings about women with the rest of his writings, I became frustrated and confused. Was Paul schizophrenic? The way Paul had been taught to me did not jive with the man I read.
Which is why I think Rembrandt’s 1659 painting gave me such pause. It made me think about this man who has been so controversial yet still so beloved.
Today, at the age of 42, Paul no longer frustrates me. I have realized, as one of my very astute students once said, that when we are confused about God, it is never God who is wrong. The fault always lies in our own understanding.
This reading list is two parts. Today, I am drawing attention to just two texts. These are the smallest texts I will suggest to you. These are texts I use regularly within my own classroom with students. My goal is to show you that there really are other ways to understand the Pauline texts about women. They are not as cut and dry as often presented. Historical context really does matter. Women and men can still identify as evangelical, conservative even. We can believe that the Bible is fully trustworthy without accepting complementarianism. Complementarianism is a theory constructed during a particular historical moment. It–unlike the letters of Paul–is not the word of God.
- Charles H. Talbert, “Biblical Criticism’s Role: The Pauline View of Women As a Case in Point,” The Unfettered Word: Southern Baptists Confront the Authority-Inerrancy Question. Foreward by Mark Noll and edited by Robison B. James. Waco, Word Book: 1987, pp. 62-71.
This essay has sentimental value to me. I consider Dr. Talbert one of my early mentors at Baylor. He is a giant in the field of New Testament scholarship. Randall O’Brien once described him as “one of the world’s best published and most cited authorities in the field.” He is also a person of faith. His writing style is clear and easy. This is a perfect starting place for those who are unfamiliar with how scholars study the bible to discern its meaning. It is also the perfect starting point for this reading list, as it clearly shows the importance of historical context to understanding the Pauline texts.
Perhaps in the most striking part of the essay, Talbert suggests a different approach to 1 Corinthians 14:34-36. The verses read (NIV):
“34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 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. 36 Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. 38 But if anyone ignore this, they will themselves be ignored. 39 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.”
Hopefully you already notice an awkward transition from vs. 35-36. Here is what Talbert argues about it: “verse 36 begins with a particle (e in Greek) which is translated “What!” in the RSV. The force of that particle indicates that what has come before is rejected or refuted by what follows [which is the same as the particle functions in 1 Cor. 11:22]…if verses 34-36 are read together, then verse 36 is a refutation of verses 34 and 35, not a conclusion drawn from them. This leads naturally to a reading of this passage as an instance of the diatribe: verses 34 and 35 are Corinthian assertions, reflecting cultural values like those of pagan and Jews; and verse 36 is Paul’s response, rejecting the Corinthian stance about women. Paul’s position here would then be in harmony with that taken in Gal. 3:27, 28 and 1 Cor. 11:2-16. Whereas some Corinthians rejected the participation of women in the leadership of worship, Paul responded with horror.”
Talbert, in other words, suggests this reading:
“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. What?! Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.”
Instead of a command for women to be silent in the churches, Paul is instead rebuking those who are silencing women.
Don’t you want to read more?
This book also has sentimental value to me. I used it for the first time in perhaps my favorite section of Women’s History ever (sorry–I know I shouldn’t have favorites–but this class knows who they are). One of my students used it for a paper that she wrote on Junia, and later published in a student journal. One of my colleagues at Baylor also pointed out to me the usefulness of showing to students the “Junia” tables compiled by Epp (p. 62-63). The tables survey how Greek New Testaments from Erasmus (1516) through the twentieth century translated Junia (either masculine or feminine). As Epp writes about the tables: “The two tables together show the dramatic change that took place between the Greek New Testaments, on the one hand from the sixteenth century through the first quarter of the twentieth century, which were one short of unanimity in reading ‘Junia’, and, on the other hand, the Greek Testaments of the last seventy-five years, which almost without exception contained the clearly masculine ‘Junius’.”
This book is about how the translation of “Junia” in Romans 16:7 changed after the 20th century. As the verse reads (NIV), “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” Epp unequivocally shows that until the twentieth century, almost no translations nor scholars questioned that she was a woman. They had no problem with Paul addressing a woman as “outstanding among the apostles.” It wasn’t until the 20th century that a female apostle became problematic. Then scholarship became divided, and more conservative scholars began working out creative translations to try and force Junia as male or minimize the significance of her title. For example, the NASB translates “Junias” (masculine), while the Holman Bible keeps the feminine, “Junia,” but minimizes her as an apostle: “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow countrymen and fellow prisoners. They are noteworthy in the eyes of the apostles, and they were also in Christ before me.”
I think Beverly Roberts Gaventa sums up the story of Junia in scholarship quite well (as she states in the foreword): “Since the case of the name Junia is so strong, how did a male replacement slip into her spot in Romans 16?…Epp makes it painfully, maddeningly clear that a major factor in twentieth-century treatments of Romans 16:7 was the assumption that a woman could not have been an apostle.”
Junia became male only when cultural attitudes assumed that a woman could not be an apostle.
Ideas about women matter. They affect how we read biblical text.
Happy Reading! And stay tuned for my longer reading list next time.