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Paul and the Status of Women

In this thread I’ve been talking about how scholars decide if a passage that is found in *some* New Testament manuscripts but missing from *others* was actually written by the author or not (such as the account of Jesus’ “sweating blood” in Luke 22:43-44:  was it really an original part of the Gospel or was it something a scribe added?)   It is a complicated process of decision, involving examining the surviving manuscripts (i.e. “external” evidence), figuring out if the passage fits well with the author’s writing style and perspective otherwise, and seeing if there is anything in the passage that would make a scribe want either to insert it or take it out (“internal” evidence).  Each of these arguments can get very tricky, once you get down into the weeds.

But the thread began with the question of how do we know if a passage that is in *all* of the manuscripts is possibly something that was not originally there.  The question started with the “Christ poem” of Phil 2:8-9, where Paul talks about Christ as a pre-existent divine being who became human before being exalted to a level of equality with God himself.  Is it possible Paul didn’t really write that?  That it was *inserted* into his letter later?  How would we know?

Such things do appear to have happened on (rare) occasion in the writings of the New Testament.  Scholars do not call this kind of change a “textual variant,” since none of our surviving texts (that is, manuscripts) have any variations — that is, they all have the passage.  It it instead labeled an “interpolation.”  Big difference.

But how does one decide if a passage has been interpolated?   Pretty much the same way as deciding if a passage has been added when manuscripts *do* differ from each other.  In this case, you cannot look at “eternal” evidence, since there isn’t any.  That is, all the manuscripts agree.  But maybe the insertion was made *before* any of our surviving manuscripts.  How would you know?

Through “internal” evidence. I Have decided to illustrate the point with a passage that I and a lot of other scholars think *is* an interpolation in Paul’s writings.  It is a very important one indeed: 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, where Paul (allegedly) tells women they are not allowed to speak in church.  Uh, really?  Yeah, it’s a big issue.   But I don’t think Paul wrote it.   To explain why will require several posts — otherwise the evidence won’t make any sense.

Once I show how the evidence works in this case, we can try applying the same evidence to the case of the Christ poem, to see if he probably wrote that one or not too.

To begin the discussion, I need to begin by setting out some of the basic background information, about Paul’s views of women in the church in general.  That’s this post.  I take the discussion from my introductory textbook on the NT.


Jesus nor, probably, any of his women followers. Moreover, many of the things that Paul proclaimed in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection varied from the original message heard by the disciples in Galilee. For one thing, Paul believed that the end had already commenced with the victory over the forces of evil that had been won at Jesus’ cross and sealed at his resurrection. Not that the victory was by any means yet complete, but it had at least begun. This victory brought newness of life, the beginning if not the fulfillment of the new age. For this reason, everyone who was baptized into Christ was “a new creation” (2 Cor 5:16). And a new creation at least *implied* a new social order: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27-28).

No male and female in Christ? This was a radical message in an age in which everyone “knew” that males and females were inherently different, as I will explain in a later post.

This is obviously a hot topic in Christian churches today.  And in society at large!  Want to read more?  it’s easily done.  Join the blog!  It is easy to do, inexpensive, and yields enormous benefits — insights into the most widely read and influential book in the history of our civilization!   And one other major upside: every penny of your fee goes to help those in need!

Like Jesus himself, however, Paul does not seem to have urged a social revolution in light of his theological conviction — ust as he did not urge the abolition of slavery even though he claimed that “in Christ” slave and free were “equal”; possibly I’ll post later on what’s really going on in the letter to Philemon where slavery is an issue.  But with respect to one’s standing before Christ, it made no difference whether one was a slave or a slave owner; slaves were therefore to be treated no differently from masters in the church.  For this reason, when believers came together to enjoy the Lord’s supper, it was not proper for some to have good food and drink and others to have scarcely enough.  In Christ there was to be equality, and failure to observe that equality could lead to disasterous results (1 Cor 11:27-30).  But this did not mean that Paul urged all Christian masters to free their slaves or Christian slaves to seek their release.  Quite the contrary, since “the time was short,” everyone was to be content with the roles they were presently in.  They were not to try to change them (1 Cor 7:17-24).

How did this attitude affect Paul’s view of women?  For one thing, whether consistent with his own views of equality in Christ or not, Paul maintained that there was still to be a difference between men and women in this world.  To eradicate that difference, in Paul’s view, was unnatural and wrong.  This is most evident in Paul’s insistence that women in Corinth should continue to wear headcoverings when they prayed and prophesied in the congregation (1 Cor 11:3-16).  A number of the details of Paul’s arguments here are difficult to understand and have been the source of endless wrangling among biblical scholars.  For example, when he says that women are to have “authority” on their heads (the literal wording of v. 10), does he mean a “veil” or “long hair”?  Is he urging a particular article of clothing or a particular hair style?  Why would having this “authority” on the head affect the angels (v. 10)?  Are these good angels or bad?  And so on.  Despite such ambiguities, several points are quite clear from Paul’s argument.  For one thing, in these activities women could and did participate openly in the church alongside men.  But — and this is his overarching point — they were to do so as *women*, not as *men*.  For “nature” taught that men should have short hair and women long (at least, that’s what nature taught *Paul*!  As someone who grew up in the 60s and 70s – and who used to have hair – I must say nature never taught that to *me*), and women who made themselves look like men were acting in ways contrary to nature and therefore contrary to the will of God.

For Paul, therefore, even though men and women were equal in Christ, this equality had not yet become a full social reality.  We might suppose that it was not to become so until Christ returned to bring in the new age.  That is to say, men and women had not yet been granted full social equality any more than masters and slaves had been or any more than the Christians’ bodies had already experienced their glorious resurrection unto immortality.  While living in this age, men and women were to continue to accept their “natural” social roles, with women subordinate to men just as men were subordinate to Christ and Christ was subordinate to God (1 Cor 11:3).

So does Paul really push for gender equality or not?  Sane and reasonable people have argued both sides of the question.  My personal view is that if he didn’t allow his theological beliefs translate into social realities, he was nowhere near where we are or at least ought to be in the 21st century.

Paul the Feminist? The Thecla Legends
Jesus “Sweating Blood”: Which Text Would *Scribes* Have Preferred?



  1. Avatar
    godspell  March 16, 2020

    I mainly agree with this, but I think you do have to be careful about assuming Jesus and Paul are on the same page–about anything. They were very different people, and they approached the same ideas differently. Jesus believed in living as if the Kingdom was already here, and had no interest in creating the foundations of a new religious institution. Paul probably did believe the Kingdom was coming, that these problems would be dealt with when it did,, but he was instinctively a rules-oriented person. It’s not enough for you to live right and let God sort it all out–you have to get everybody else on the same page as you. Hence the epistles.

    He was, in short, a control freak. And he was a control freak who was raised to see women as subordinate to men. He had to work with women who were powerful in this nascent religion he’s joined, he may even respect that they, like him, are working towards the same end. But he can’t shed the attitudes ingrained in him.

    I don’t believe Jesus had those attitudes. Not in the same way. Of course he had a comparable upbringing, but the behavior we see from him in the gospels suggests he rejected a great deal of what he was taught–and he certainly did not have the same exact upbringing as Paul. For whatever reason (Mary?), he had enormous respect for women–and at times, may have preferred their company. May have felt they were the ones who most fully understood his message. He still lived in a patriarchal society (as we still do, like it or not), but he didn’t accept it would always be that way. And he did believe in doing what little he could to change it, because that’s how you prove yourself worthy to live in the new world that is coming.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 17, 2020

      Oh boy do I never assume that. Quite the contrary!

      • Avatar
        godspell  March 17, 2020

        I didn’t think so, but wanted to make that clear. They were very different people.

        In some alternate reality, where Jesus had secretly survived being crucified, and gone into hiding–be interesting to think about what he would have had to say to Paul, once he resurfaced. And what Paul would have said to him. Perhaps something along the lines of “You don’t sound anything like the voice I heard in my head.”

        • epicurus
          epicurus  March 18, 2020

          You probably know this, but “The Last Temptation of Christ” has that scenario you describe.

        • Avatar
          meohanlon  March 19, 2020

          Yeah I´ve often wondered that too. There´s an interesting scene in the Last Temptation of Christ where a version of this scenario is imagined!

  2. Avatar
    Pegill7  March 16, 2020

    This is a comment for a previous question
    Tom Nichols examines this phenomenon in his book-The Death of Expertise. It’s like a man who has no military experience who .claims he knows more about war than the generals.

  3. Robert
    Robert  March 16, 2020

    “In this case, you cannot look at “eternal” evidence, since there isn’t any.”

    Is that a statement of your atheist worldview? Or perhaps you meant to say that there is, by definition, no external evidence for interpolations.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 17, 2020

      Yes, I’m talking about external evidence for the phenomenon I was talking about (“in this case”). Why would atheists claim there is not such thing as external evidence? Or maybe you’re joking??

      • Robert
        Robert  March 17, 2020

        Bart: “Yes, I’m talking about external evidence for the phenomenon I was talking about (“in this case”). Why would atheists claim there is not such thing as external evidence? Or maybe you’re joking??”

        Yes, I was joking about your typo (eternal instead of external):

        “In this case, you cannot look at “eternal” evidence, since there isn’t any.”

  4. Avatar
    RichardFellows  March 16, 2020

    NA28 Gal 3:28 reads γαρ υμεις εις εστε εν Χριστω (you are one in Christ), but P46, Sinaiticus, and Alexandrinus omit the word εις (one), and P46 omits γαρ (for). These manuscripts weaken Paul’s statement that men and women are one in Christ. Here I follow Ebojo “Sex, Scribes, and Scriptures” Journal of Biblical Text Research (2015).

    Bart, what are your thoughts on the dating of these variants. How early where they? Why do these omissions not appear in later manuscripts? Was it because scribes preferred longer readings when they had to chose between two exemplars? Were later scribes less sexist than earlier ones? Is there evidence that scribes made sexist corruptions at the time when the PE and 1 Cor 14:34-35 may have been forged?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 17, 2020

      It’s actually a bit more complicated than that, as I imagine Ebojo points out. The sentence, of course, doew not start with γαρ since it is always postpositive. But that doesn’t much matter. Sinaiticus itself reads παντες γαρ υμεις εν Χροιστου, and so omits both the verb and teh “one,” but turns “Christ” into a genitive, which makes no sense if εν is a preoposition, since it requires the dative; and so more likely it is the neuter singular for “one” as is found in three other mss; the corrector of Sinaiticus is the one who gets rid of it. P46 is therefore the early outliner (picked up by Alexandrinus). That’s certainly interesting, since it is our earlier ms, ca. 200 CE. One has to be very careful, though; it is very hard to know how to explain it other than an accidental omission. The bigger issue, though, is that men and women, slave and free, etc. does not depend on *this* use of the word “one” but the three earlier ones inthe verse, which are not omitted in P46.

      • Avatar
        AstaKask  March 17, 2020

        That does not sound less complicated or technical than the hard sciences.

      • Avatar
        RichardFellows  March 18, 2020

        Thanks. That makes sense. Ebojo does not mention it, but the original omission of εις could have been by homoioteleuton because of the preceding υμεις. I’m looking forward to your remaining posts on Paul and the status of women.

  5. tompicard
    tompicard  March 16, 2020

    Dr Ehrman thanks for this post
    I am thinking a lot recently about the “apocalyptic worldview”.
    [I know this isn’t your current topic]]
    I view the apocalyptic worldview as very natural but I believe you see it as more supernatural – like bodies rising from graves, and no marriage because there is no (anatomical?) differences between men and women, etc..
    When i say I view it naturally, I mean I think Jesus and Paul viewed it also very natural, ie it DID not include those things.

    so when you wrote
    For this reason, everyone who was baptized into Christ was “a new creation” (2 Cor 5:16). And a new creation at least *implied* a new social order: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27-28).

    so doesn’t that imply the christians NOW are new creations, NOW there are no male and female?

    but clearly the baptized christians’ bodies were not NOW glorified pneumatic immortal bodies, and the baptized christians’ bodies still retained their male and female distinction.
    Doesn’t that convince you, if you believe Paul to be an apocalypticist, that Paul and probably other contemporary apocalypticist did not see strange things like supernatural never dying unsexed bodies being the inhabitants of the NEW Kingdom of Heaven?

    • tompicard
      tompicard  March 16, 2020

      sorry I posted before reading last paragraph where you wrote

      > We might suppose that it was not to become so
      > until Christ returned to bring in the new age.
      >That is to say, men and women had not yet been
      >granted full social equality any more than masters
      >and slaves had been or any more than the
      > Christians’ bodies had already experienced
      >their glorious resurrection unto immortality.

      but that is a stretch, in my opinion I would say just the opposite
      THERE IS NO REASON WE SHOULD SUPPOSE that it was [only] . . to become so when Christ returned. . .etc etc

    • Bart
      Bart  March 17, 2020

      Paul certainly thought that at baptism a person was made a “new creature.” But he was quite emphatic: that did NOT mean they already had their glorified pneumatic bodies yet. That comes only at the resurrection. He argues teh point with some vehemence in 1 Corinthians 15. And yes, Paul thought that “in Christ” there is no distinction between male and female *now*. But he still thought women and men should dress and behave differently. That’s the problem: is he being consistent or not?

      • tompicard
        tompicard  March 17, 2020

        I am sorry to tell you this, but when apocalypticist use the word “new” for world, for creature for man for person or anything else, what is meant is that there zero distance between that new entity and GOD.

        The current world is very distant from God,
        current people are very distant from God.
        all creatures are now very distant from God .
        The NEW person is “sinless” and totally one with God in mind and heart, as is the world and all creatures. [I mean that is what the apocalypticist believes]

        men/women, slave/free, Greek/Jew all are one with God’s mind and feelings, so no difference between these pairs. It is of absolutely no consequence nor no bearing whether their physical bodies have sex organs or are immortal.

        In my opinion, you project more into what you read than is proper

  6. stevedemarco
    stevedemarco  March 16, 2020

    In your opinion do you believe that there was a historic figure named Thecia who traveled with Paul or is it pure legend?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 17, 2020

      Pure legend, in my opinion. See today’s post though.

      • stevedemarco
        stevedemarco  March 18, 2020

        I’m just seeing this now. Thank you.

  7. Avatar
    Jeff  March 17, 2020

    This may not be the correct subject area but it’s the newest so may I share something I ran across today that may or may not be old news?It appears National Geographic has uncovered more forgeries than first anticipated in the Green family (Hobby Lobby) collection. Can you verify this? I know you spoke about the subject before but is this article new or updated? Thanks.

  8. Avatar
    Kmbwhitmore  March 17, 2020

    As none of Paul’s churches listed in Revelations survived with the exception of the Church of Philadelphia it suggests that a lot of what Paul taught was not right including this statement about women. It seems that Jesus took the candlestick away from these churches that he found in error.
    I wonder if you could talk about Isaiah 53 which I think is also a later insert by the scribes trying to justify what they had done to Jesus. It is written in the third person plural and past tense which doesn’t fit with what one would expect from one prophet talking about the future.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2020

      You may be thinking of a different Philadelphia!

      I’ve talked about Isaiah 53 before — it’s actually not referring to a future messiah. I’ll put it on my list of things to return to.

  9. Avatar
    clerrance2005  March 19, 2020

    Prof Ehrman,
    I was wondering how the verse in 1Cor 11:3 contrasts with the later Tertullian concept of Trinity. It seems to contradict the theory of three co-equal and co-powerful God persons. It rather seems to appeals to a Unitarian view.

    Which Nature of God concept do you think Paul subscribed to.

    Your thought please.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 20, 2020

      You would need to quote the verse and explain why you think it contradicts the idea of Trinity — so other readers on the blog will understand the issue before I address it.

      • Avatar
        clerrance2005  March 20, 2020

        1 Cor 11:3 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.

        This in my view puts the Father above the Son as opposed the Trinity that recognizes the three Divine persons who are co-equal, co-substantial and co-eternal. (Note – Have not yet come across any verse in the NT that explicitly expresses the Trinity though).

        So viewing this verse in light of what later Christians developed as Trinity – it appears quite contradictory and makes it quite plausible for one to deduce that the writer of verse may have not held the Trinitarian concept. Again the contest of the verse clearly shows a hierarchy which the concept of the Trinity sort of dismisses.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 22, 2020

          Yes, as you can imagine, the verse was important in later trinitarian controversies, and was used to support the view that Christ was subordinate to the father.

  10. Avatar
    ftbond  May 29, 2020

    Dr Ehrman –

    This is a tad off-thread, but here goes. In Mark 15:41 and Matt 27:55, we see there were “many women” who accompanied Jesus to Jerusalem from Galilee.

    And, it was only women that showed up at the empty tomb; apparently, all the male disciples hightailed it out of Jerusalem at some point after Jesus’ arrest.

    So – is this, then, supposed to mean that all those male disciples just basically abandoned those women in Jerusalem, leaving them to make the week-long trek on foot back to Galilee without male accompaniment? And, if so, is it even “believable” that not a single male out of the whole bunch would have stopped the other men and said “guys, we can’t just leave the women back there, can we?”

    Or… are Matt and Mark both trying to say that none of the male disciples gave a rip about the women?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 31, 2020

      The disciples do not leave Jerusalem until *after* the women have discovered the tomb to be empty and reported it to them.

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