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Women in Paul: Opening Remarks

June 16, 2014

It has been quite a while since I have written my last article on Women in the Bible. Part of this is that my attention drifted to other matters. However, part of this is that women in Paul (the next topic in the series) is a tough slog. Relatively few people write about women in the Old Testament. More write about women in the gospels. However, the greatest controversies are over women in the Pauline corpus. In the Old Testament women and men have different commands given to them but few Christians consider that binding. In the gospels there are effectively no gendered commands (except, being extremely technical, the commands against divorce which are phrased about men divorcing their wives). In Paul there is advice and there are commands aimed specifically at women with different advice and commands aimed at men. This is the heart of the storm with books written on single passages. Inevitably, I am writing this section more for completeness than in hope I can offer much new. In fact, if I were only to write these articles to be read in isolation I would not even bother – I cannot spend a year pouring through every interpretation of every passage and every obscure text that might provide useful context. However, I think that the sweep of Scripture is often ignored and that it is worth tracing the work I have done all the way to the end, to illustrate how I think Paul’s work fits into what comes before it.

The other reason that the Pauline corpus is tough is that it contains a variety of information. In the materials usually attributed to Paul (which is what I will treat) there are references to women that say nothing new about women (for instance, they may state that men are attracted to women), commands about how women should dress, commands about how women should act in church, commands relevant to marriage, greetings to individual women that may or may not shed light on what those women are doing in the life of the church, and discussions about how women should be treated by men and by children. In some of these references it is possible to talk about women without further distinction. In other cases women are divided up by age, marital status, and the presence or absence of children (for instance, when discussing who should go on the church’s list of widows). However, this mass of information begs the question: what does it mean to discuss “women in the Bible” anyway?

One possibility is that we are simply going to discuss every single female in the Bible. I sometimes veer in this direction because of my love for data but if this were my only goal I would be unfocused at best. In this case what I really wish to investigate is the idea of a gendered Christianity – that the practice of Christianity looks different for men and women. This is not a simple binary thing: religions exist on a scale from those that see maleness and femaleness as a passing byproduct of a physical body that makes no difference at all to those that actually separate out gods and assign men to worship some set of deities and women to worship another. Christianity has never gone all that far down the highly-gendered end but questions about whether the practice of Christianity grants certain rights to (or demands certain responsibilities of) one gender persist. So, in some odd way our investigation of women in the Bible is actually an investigation of women in relation to men[1].

The other issue to be addressed (and I have addressed it elsewhere as well) is that we have a tendency to bundle claims about women into familiar categories. Does Paul affirm a 1950s model of womanhood or a modern feminist one? Perhaps neither – perhaps Paul says one thing about women’s role in the church, another about roles in marriage, and maybe another thing again about women interacting with men who are not their husbands in society at large. Perhaps Paul’s categories are simply different than ours. In fact, this is quite probable. This is especially likely if Paul is paying any head to cultural trends around him. Does he hold out a vision for X but only ask for Y from some congregants because the world is not ready to allow X? (For instance, I suspect that Paul would view our world where women can live on their own safely as a wonderful step forward but even if he imagined such a world in the first century it would have been pointless to give advice as if it already existed.) Paul may also divide other aspects of the world up very differently than we do. Paul’s world had far fewer people who held jobs outside the home and far more families where all members old enough to work would help farm the family’s land. Paul’s world didn’t have a prolonged childhood – young boys would be out learning trades at an age when more socially-conservatives Americans expect children to be under their mother’s care. Paul’s world also had issues that have dropped off our radar almost entirely. While we still deal with domestic violence our society has agreed that it is an evil and criminal thing. Paul’s world hadn’t. We assume that marriages come about by the consent of both parties. In Paul’s world most marriages would have been arranged and it is quite possible that neither party really consented. Indeed, even powerful men might end up arranging marriages for themselves for economic or political reasons and not love. Simultaneously, monogamy in our modern form was not widely expected in Paul’s world. While Romans officially practiced monogamy it was only official marriage that was mono. A married Roman man who visited prostitutes or raped his female slaves would have been acting well within cultural norms (touching someone else’s wife was a different issues – although Roman histories suggest that upper class Roman women behaved as badly as their husbands in a lot of cases).

All of this should give us pause before approaching Paul. We may come in with a set of answers wanting to know only which set is right but find that Paul isn’t dealing with either our questions or our answers. Perhaps he’s laying the groundwork for something that we think is obvious now (like “don’t beat your wife”) or perhaps he’s addressing a question in a way that doesn’t fit into our categories. In either case we may find Paul more rewarding when he does the unexpected.

[1] Does the Bible pass the Bedchel test?

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