The Apostle Paul and Women

The Apostle Paul and Women April 1, 2014

“If you polled people in public at random, you would likely find that Paul has made his overall worst impressions on modern thinkers with his statements on women.” So Sarah Ruden in Paul among the People (p. 72). It is not uncommon to pull out rabbinical statements about women, then trot out Jesus and Jesus wins, we win, Christianity wins. What then of Paul? Well, he doesn’t fare so well because of the two famous passages about silencing women in 1 Cor 14 and 1 Tim 2. Sarah Ruden, however, aims to make good on putting Paul in his place, and you just might be surprised at her results. So read on. (For earlier posts of mine on Jesus and Women, see here and here and here and here and here.)

Roman women, she observes with nuance and precision, weren’t all alike. What you were called — woman, woman slave, matron — depended on your status, not your sex. Women slaves got to raise their own children because it produced better children. So when Paul speaks of “women” one must ask “what kind of woman?” [This is a very good point; though I’m not always sure we can read the status of the women in view in Paul’s comments.]

Sarah Ruden joins many in discussing if 1 Cor 14:33b-35 is authentic. I include text.

As in all the congregations of the Lord’s people… 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.

The evidence is not entirely clear, hence some debate, but there are some oddities here that should make the reader aware that this text may not have been penned by Paul. First, some ms have the verses at the end of the chp (a dislocation like this means the reader needs to be alert to early tampering). Second, “silent” is odd since Paul does not enjoin silence in the churches — not least 1 Cor where he speaks of women prophesying and praying in public. So, like 1 Tim 2, “silence” requires serious restriction. Third, and for me this is decisive, “as the law says” makes no sense. What law? Where are women taught to be silent in the law? And “As in all the churches…” not sure what that can mean.

The word “churches” is discussed at length: the public assembly and how women coveted the opportunity to give their opinions in the ecclesia. The Greeks did not let women have public power. Among the Romans, where the views were mostly the same, women did get their chances for public expression a bit more often.

So she comes to this: what’s remarkable is that in Paul’s churches the women were present and participating. Not speaking would have been the norm. That they were told not to speak may indicate they were speaking — in other words, we are seeing something quite more liberal than the norm in the Roman empire.

She turns to 1 Cor 11:2-16. She says here Paul is “up to his usual rough art” (85). Veils is her focus. They signaled marriage and widowhood. The verb in Latin for getting married is to get veiled. It was the “flag of female virtue” (85). Prostitutes were unveiled, of course. Maybe in that world some women wanted a veil who hadn’t earned one traditionally. The word “woman” here may not mean “wife” but woman more generally. Now the big point: Paul dignified all Christian women by asking them to be veiled, and hence they all had status in the Roman world in the assembly. She sees in Paul “outrageous equality” (87).

And Paul is hereby protecting women.

Now 1 Corinthians 7. Paul teaches equality between males and females in bed and this is radically offensive to a Roman world where there was the “tyranny of traditional arranged unions” and “sexual exploitation” of women! Paul, she thinks, anticipated a more modern view of sexual expression in marriage. Faithfulness, for Paul but not in Rome, was for both women and men in marriage. Paul, in other words, brought happiness into the marriage equation.

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