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Paul’s Views of Women

In this week’s mailbag I take up a very interesting question about whether there are other passages in the New Testament that are found in all of our manuscripts but that appear not to have been originally written by the author.  That is, they were (possibly) passages inserted by a later editor, before any of our surviving manuscripts were made, so that they are universally attested, but probably not original.  That is what I argued for 2 Corinthians 6:14 (it’s a standard scholarly view).  And that prompted the following question:



I hadn’t noticed the oddness of the 2 Corinthians 6:14 passage before, but it does seem out of place. Kind of like the woman-caught-in-adultery story in John 8, where the narrative flows smoother without that insert. Are there any other major examples of significant insertions into the NT books?



It is important to note the difference between 2 Cor. 6:14 and the passage in John 8.  The latter is missing in our oldest and best manuscripts; the former is found in all manuscripts.  But the question is: are there other passages like that, found in all the witnesses but probably interpolated?

It is a much debated question among New Testament scholars.  One key and famous instance involves Paul’s instructions that women NOT speak in church but be completely silent: if they have any questions they are to ask their husbands at home (1 Cor. 14:34-35).  Were those verses something Paul himself wrote?

I was going to give a quick answer to the question, but I realized I need to provide some background for my comments to make sense.  The general context has to do with Paul’s view of the role of women in the church.  Here is what I about that in my textbook on the New Testament.  (In the next post I’ll talk directly about 1 Cor 14)



The apostle Paul did not know the man Jesus or, 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. The victory was not 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 …

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Paul and His Female Disciple Thecla
Were Cut and Paste Jobs Common in Antiquity? Guest Post by Brent Nongbri



  1. Avatar
    Nichrob  January 16, 2018

    I have read an argument that because Paul based his ethics on an immediate or soon to return Christ, “his” ethics, when analyzed over the long haul, are unethical and immoral. Adding to a conversation with someone that “not only do I believe Paul was wrong (which will cause the dropping of forks at a lot of tables), but I believe his teachings were immoral and unethical” (which will cause chairs to move back and people to leave the table).

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    godspell  January 16, 2018

    A very fine essay response, that makes sense, based on what we know of Paul.

    My own feeling is that Jesus believed you had to behave as if the Kingdom had already come, or it never would. This is why he felt he had to sacrifice himself, in an attempt to bring it about.

    Paul was confident in the revelation he believed he had received from the divine spirit he believed Jesus to be (the man Jesus was much less interesting to him–it seems likely to me that he believed on some level he was the only one who had seen the true Jesus–without even the semblance of flesh and blood, as in the visions of those who had known him, after the crucifixion–just a bright light and a voice–pure spirit). It would come when the time was right, and in the meantime, gather as many souls as possible into the fold.

    Paul believed in some transcendent reality, in which the physical world we live in would be replaced by something where there would be no such thing as sex–did he even believe we’d still have bodies?–who knows? So to talk with him about the roles of women would, to him, be a waste of time. Women, like men, should be content to wait for their time of confinement to end.

    At the same time, he is starting to create the basis for an earthly religious institution. This is the contradiction of Paul. It’s in his nature to want to organize things. That’s what the epistles are about. He can’t just let people find their own way. He has to show them. He’s a systematizer, as Jesus never was. As was Augustine, who once wrote “Oh God, make me virtuous–but not yet!” Paul may not always have been so eager for the Kingdom to come, and make all his work irrelevant. He wanted more time to build a church. That’s how I see it, anyway.

    It is interesting how he doesn’t want to change anything–Jews should go on being Jews, following their normal practices. Gentiles who convert should go on as gentiles in all other ways. I suppose this might simply be to encourage more converts, but why does he care? God will know who is worthy of the Kingdom or not. He wants as large an audience as possible for his ideas. And his ideas are not about diet or circumcision or other bodily things. He only cares about the spirit.

    Paul has always fascinated and repelled me, at the same time. He was a genius. No one can question this. He had a gift. But he is one of those people whose legacy is very mixed. I feel the same way about Plato.

    Not about Jesus. I suppose it’s easier to believe the best of someone when you only know him indirectly, through what others wrote about him. But he was–different. From everyone.

    He must have been unimaginably lonely.

    PS: It should be mentioned, nuns usually cut their hair when they took holy orders–this is much later in the development of Christianity–and of course, Joan of Arc. And there was controversy about that too.

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    RonaldTaska  January 16, 2018

    Yesterday, I was reminded about your extensive scholarly work with “Memory” which resulted in your writing the excellent “Jesus Before the Gospels.” What happened is that I heard the historian Jon Meacham, in a television interview, during which he stated that “Historical memory is selective.” That, of course, is the theme of your book. I particularly like the term “historical memory” since that term quickly distinguishes this concept from ordinary, individual memory.

  4. Avatar
    ddorner  January 16, 2018

    If Paul permitted women to have a role in the early Church then where did the sexist ideas of the author of 1 Timothy come from and why? It seems a dramatic shift socially, and theologically and It makes one wonder if the author had a particular axe to grind.

    (I assume women had previously been teaching and exercising authority, otherwise the author of 1 Timothy wouldn’t have addressed it.)

    • Bart
      Bart  January 17, 2018

      Ah, long answer to that one. Maybe I’ll devote some posts to it.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  January 18, 2018

      I think the simple answer is “from a different author with different views.” The context of the pastoral epistles is Christian assemblies which had leadership structures, unlike Paul’s assemblies. And leadership structures were still typically male-dominant. Perhaps the authors were writing in Paul’s name to try to invent some credibility and authenticity for their ideas. Do this because Paul said so. Since Paul was already dead, he couldn’t refute.

      Compare to the priesthood of early Israel, who said to do this [pay us your sacrifices] because God said so. God told Moses who told Aaron who told the people who passed it down orally to someone who eventually wrote it.

  5. Avatar
    Candlestickone  January 16, 2018

    What did paul mean” I wish all could be as I am ? Is that celibacy ?

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    Seeker1952  January 16, 2018

    I’m not entirely clear whether you’re saying that Paul thought women should be more or less fully equal in church activities but not in the broader society? Or are you saying that, even though women had an unusually high degree of freedom and equality in the church, as a general rule they were to be subordinate to men in church activities. Clearly there were female church leaders but maybe they’d been marked out by the Holy Spirit with special gifts. The general rule was still that men should be church leaders.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 17, 2018

      I was trying to say that Paul could be read both ways — women are equal in church but not in society.

  7. NidalRabadi
    NidalRabadi  January 16, 2018

    Hello Dr. Ehrman,

    Is the text where Paul orders female members of the church to cover their heads when they pray or prophecize original or a later editing by a disciple or scribe?


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    Seeker1952  January 16, 2018

    Hasn’t Paul often been labeled a misogynist, though maybe mistakenly? And I may be wrong but my impression is that he wasn’t and hadn’t been married. And wasn’t there normally quite a bit of separation between men and women in ancient society, and perhaps for Jews even more so than for other cultures. If so, it’s difficult to understand how he could have approved of as much freedom and equality for women as he did. And it’s also difficult to imagine what kinds of actual relationships he had with women if it’s correct that for most of his life he had less interaction with women than most men along with his culture and religion being stacked against freedom and equality for women.

    Can you shed any light on this?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 17, 2018

      Yup, those are among the points I’m trying to make. I’ll be saying more anon.

  9. Avatar
    Wilusa  January 16, 2018

    Was Thecla a real person?

  10. Avatar
    Franz Liszt  January 16, 2018

    Hey Bart, I was hoping to ask you a quick unrelated question concerning some Greek. In your opinion, is the author of the Pastorals claiming that Jesus is God in Titus 2:13? Don’t need more than a one-sentence answer. Thanks.

    “προσδεχόμενοι τὴν μακαρίαν ἐλπίδα καὶ ἐπιφάνειαν τῆς δόξης τοῦ μεγάλου Θεοῦ καὶ Σωτῆρος ἡμῶν Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ,”

  11. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  January 16, 2018

    Very interesting. It seems this demonstrates how they thought during those times. For people of the day they may have believed all were equal in Christ but that equality didn’t translate into changing society or a concept of social justice. Knowing that many societies functioned on a social class system (even to this day) is there any evidence that the early Church, within the first 300 years, ever worked toward societal changes and social issues? If not, do you know when such beliefs about the Church working toward social change began to occur? Is it strictly “modern?”

    • Bart
      Bart  January 17, 2018

      The kinds of social changes we might think about — roles of women in society — are modern. But others — the insistence on giving charity to help the poor and needy — are ancient.

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    ardeare  January 16, 2018

    I notice absolutely nothing strange about 2 Cor. 6:14. It fits in perfectly with the entire chapter where Paul urges the church not to treat him as an imposter (verse 8) while encouraging them not to be misled by unbelievers (verse 16). As for 1 Cor. 14:34-35 the key seems to be found in (verse 33) “God is a God not of disorder but of peace.” A simple rendering of these passages might be more like “Nobody needs ‘Cathy Chatterbox’ interjecting every 10 seconds during the services.”

    I’m reminded of Matthew 16:23 “But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” If this had been uttered to Mary Magdalene, it would replace 1 Cor. 14:34-35 and John 3:16 as the most over sensationalized verse in scripture. Just a thought!

  13. Avatar
    Tony  January 16, 2018

    Notwithstanding some afterlife promises, Paul’s churches were male clubs. It was the SON of God, and not a daughter, who needed to be sacrificed as in Rom 8:3: “…. God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh…”. Part of the culture – no doubt. Note that the Son was only in the LIKENESS of sinful flesh.

    The big afterlife price was limited to men. According to Paul, the male followers would be adopted as Son’s – by God.

    Rom 8:15-17: “….the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ…”. And in Rom 8: 29 he makes the point again: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers”.

    Here we have the origin of “the brothers of the Lord” (Gal 1:19), (1Cor 9:5). Obviously, not biological brothers.

  14. Avatar
    jmmarine1  January 17, 2018

    In the first Christian century, which society was more oppressive to and/or for women; pagan or Jewish? Was the elevation of women by Jesus and Paul more of a blow to Jewish or pagan patriarchy?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 17, 2018

      It’s a little hard to generalize: some Jewish people were highly patriarchal, some pagan people were, etc. It’s kind of like asking what “Americans” think or do as a rule. Depends which ones you mean!

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  January 22, 2018

        Being patriarchal and being oppressive are not necessarily identical. A society can be patriarchal and nevertheless generous and respectful towards women.

        • Avatar
          HistoricalChristianity  January 23, 2018

          True, in theory. Torah shows that in ancient Israel, women had limited roles and few rights. I’m sure that had changed somewhat in Second Temple Judaism. You could research that. The synoptic gospels portray Jesus as someone who interacted with women. The undisputed Pauline writings show Paul as generally inclusive and respectful of women. But as you know, there are societies today in that region who afford women infamously poor treatment.

    • Avatar
      godspell  January 18, 2018

      Non-Patriarchal societies have been pretty rare throughout world history.

      And matriarchies haven’t necessarily been perfect either.

      Aren’t we technically a patriarchy now?

      Judge not lest ye be judged.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  January 22, 2018

        No, technically we are not patriarchal.

        • Avatar
          godspell  January 29, 2018

          Depends on how you define it.

          How would you define the present-day White House?

          Aspiring patriarchy, most certainly.

          And let’s remember, there has never been a society where women had no power at all. Nor has there ever been any large influential society where they were dominant, even if a woman was the head of state.

          But women have been powerful and effective heads of state in many patriarchal societies.

          Not this one. So far.

  15. Avatar
    anthonygale  January 17, 2018

    When you say “apparent,” are you disagreeing that Paul is inconsistent or ambivalent? I suppose a view that “men and women are equal, but they are still different, so that doesn’t mean they should act the same, and there’s no sense in causing too much a ruckus with the end being around the corner” is a coherent view. But if you do think Paul is inconsistent or ambivalent, what do you make of that?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 18, 2018

      I”m saying that he is ambivalent and I’m not completely convinced that he either is or is not consistent.

  16. Avatar
    anthonygale  January 18, 2018

    What do you think is behind the ambivalence? I doubt there is any way to know for sure, but any educated guess you think might be true? Might he be reluctant to accept something he thinks is true, along the lines of thinking you should forgive someone you dont want to? Or watering down a teaching he doesnt think people are ready to accept, as a sort of compromise? Something else?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2018

      I think that Paul was caught between the ages: the age to break in imminently where there will be no sexual distinctions and the present age where society places certain demands on people. Hence the ambivalence.

  17. Avatar
    Jana  January 18, 2018

    I am sorry that I have nothing to add to the discussion as this is NEW information and WOW! Intriguing. Thank you.

  18. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  January 22, 2018

    About “because of the angels:” does Paul ever use *aggelos* in the sense John does in the letters to the 7 churches in Revelation? There it seems to refer to bishops, not divine messengers – why write a letter to Gabriel?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 22, 2018

      Actually we have other indications of letters being written to angels — including one by Jesus himself to the archangels that he wrote from the cross (in one of the later CHristian apocrlypha). The problem, of course, is that aggelos can mean simply “messenger.” If it’s a messenger of *God*, though, that’s what we mean by the term angel.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  January 24, 2018

        Hm. I wonder if the Romans had a post office for Letters to the Divine Beings like the USPS allegedly has for letters to Santa.

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