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Women in Paul: A Plan of Study

June 23, 2014
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Paul’s views on women are obviously quite contentious. Part of this is that any issue of Biblical interpretation that will restrict some large group of people from doing something will be contentious. However, the other obvious reason is that Paul is not nearly as clear as we would like him to be. This can sometimes be obscured by carefully reading only a few choice passages but Paul himself does not treat the issue of women’s roles in society and the church in any sort of sustained manner and he does not appear to be particularly concerned about placing passages that might be interpreted to be in opposition quite close to one another. So, for instance, in 1 Corinthians 14 Paul says that women should stay silent in the churches. This command is frequently interpreted to mean that women should not speak publicly in churches but in 1 Corinthians 11 Paul has laid down rules for dress for women who speak publicly in a church service. Presumably Paul expects the reader of 1 Corinthians 14 to have shortly before read 1 Corinthians 11 (I doubt he anticipates Bible Studies that take a week to cover a chapter) and to understand the advice in 1 Corinthians 14 to be understood in light of what he has already established in the same letter. This is actually one of the clearer instances of Paul’s lack of clarity. In other areas he establishes rules that he then appears to ignore when he greets individuals and describes their role in the early Christian community. For a modern reader this can be confusing but the odds are pretty good that for Paul’s original audience it wasn’t. There are two possible reasons for this.

The first reason that Paul may have been clearer to a first-century audience is that they shared his cultural context. We have to piece together the world Paul lived in a little but at a time but for Paul’s first-century audience the role of women in Jewish and pagan societies would have been much easier to deduce even for, say, a pagan who knew no Jews personally. If Paul is referencing ideas present in his own society these passages may be very obscure to us but clear to his orginal audience.

The second reason Paul might have been more understandable to his original audience is that Paul was known to them. We must piece together Paul’s own actions from his letters (and Acts) but for a church that had been started by Paul Paul’s actions would have been well-known and would have been part of the context for interpreting his letters.

What this means is that while we argue about things like what Phoebe was actually doing as a διακονος in Cenchrea the Romans who read this letter were probably pretty clear on this. When Paul wrote that women should be silent in the churches it is probable that his Corinthian audience understood that phrase by referencing it to how Paul had actually conducted his services.

This gets us to a gameplan for studying women in Paul. Most of the time we approach this issue by handling a few key texts that address women in general first. These verses certainly match how we would like Paul to write: a few rules (preferably clear), on a given topic. In fact, many of us would like Paul to sort his material by category not by recipient. In part because this is what has been done before I plan on doing the opposite. Instead, I would like to build towards this material. If we lacked half-a-dozen verses in the New Testament (the “key” verses in this debate) what would we have about women in the Bible? If you were a first-century reader of Paul who had also met Paul what might you assume he thought about the roles of women given how he behaved? It will only be after this that I will treat the general rules.

In addition, I will attempt to treat sections that are in the same book together. While I assume that most of Paul’s original audience knew more about him than the contents of a single letter it seems beyond question that material in a single letter should be used to interpret other material in that letter.

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