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Were Paul’s Views of Women Oppressive?

In my post yesterday I discussed the first debate topic assigned to my undergraduate class on the New Testament, on the relationship of Paul and Jesus, and the question of whether they represented fundamentally the same religion or not.   Of all the debate topics that I assign, I think that one is the most central to the understanding of the New Testament and the history of Christianity, as it deals with the root of the very problem of Christianity itself as it developed into a new religion, separate from Judaism.

But the other debate topics are really important too – extremely important – and a bit more, well, controversial.  The students enjoy that first one well enough – but not perhaps as much as they could, since they don’t really yet see what an enormous issue it is. (And because since it is the first debate, students tend not to prepare for it as much; once the rest of the class sees what a big deal these debates are, they tend to prepare a lot more for them).   But they understand the importance of the other two.  Here is the second one:

RESOLVED:  Paul’s Views of Women Were Oppressive.

Give our contemporary world and the atmosphere in which students have grown up, they have a good sense of why this one really matters.   I don’t need to tell most members of the blog about the sexism that still goes on in our world today.  Do I need to mention the current political climate and the implicit and at times, quite remarkably, highly explicit gender biases at play in it?  Or the broader political and cultural issues involved with equality?  Or, even more striking, in many religious circles of our immediate world, the role the Bible plays in the discourse?   Students don’t always have a sophisticated understanding of the history, or even the current situation, of both explicit and implicit sexism.  But they do, as a whole understand that it is and has been a big issue.

Again this debate resolution is intentionally constructed in such a way that …

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 15, 2016

    It is a hot topic and your summary really makes one “think.”

  2. Avatar
    RapidRiver  March 15, 2016

    How well regarded amongst evangelical christians today that 1 Timothy was not written by Paul? If not, than the debate must first begin with that. Here in WNC there are many Baptists, if not most, who quote 1 Timothy 2:11-15 at the mention of women preachers.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 15, 2016

      No, most evangelical scholars think Paul *did* write 1 Tim. 2:11-15. But most critical scholars think not.

      • TWood
        TWood  October 21, 2016

        If you had to give a terse answer someone who has never thought in terms of evangelical scholars vs. critical scholars (which I think is most Christians), how would you define the distinction? I basically say evangelical scholars have a presupposed worldview that they must support, while critical scholars have no such presupposition (in this narrow sense; everyone has some kind of presupposition it seems).

        Also, really quick, is it the majority view among critical scholars that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is an interpolation?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 21, 2016

          When it comes to the Bible, the difference would be that evangelical scholars typically refuse to admit the same levels of evidence and approaches to reading that they apply to every other book; critical scholars treat the Bible like every other book (when it comes to looking for discrepancies, contradictions, historical mistakes, conceptual errors, and so on)

  3. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 15, 2016

    Can’t resist passing this on – a tidbit that says something about how women were viewed in Paul’s era – because I only learned it from Steven Saylor’s novels, so there may be some here who don’t know it.

    “Junia’s” being named that was *not* comparable to Paul’s being named “Paul”!

    Here’s how Roman names were given. Take Caesar. His full name was Gaius Julius Caesar. His actual “first name” was “Gaius.” “Julius” was the name of an extended *family*, the *Julii*. “Caesar” was the name of one *branch* of that family. He could have given sons any “first names” he wanted. But *all* daughters born to him would be simply “Julia” – the feminine form of the extended-family name. (If there were two, they’d be referred to as the elder Julia and the younger Julia; I don’t know how families managed if there were more than two daughters!)

    And after a woman married, her husband could call her, privately, by the feminine form of…*his* first name! Caesar, for example, could call his wife “Gaia.”

    So, getting back to Junia, her name meant merely that she was a female member of the *Junii*. Her father was named (Something) Junius (Something).

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2016

      Yes, the reason I mention the passage is not to indicate something about her name, but about the fact that Paul calls her an apostle.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  March 18, 2016

        But the point I was trying to make – relevant to the overall topic – was that women were held in such low esteem that they weren’t even given *names*, in the sense that we name our children, and the Romans themselves named males.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 19, 2016

          No, that’s not right. Women did have names.

          • Avatar
            Wilusa  March 20, 2016

            Ah – so I must have either misunderstood or misremembered what I read in one of Saylor’s novels. That “memory” thing – it’ll get ya!

  4. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 15, 2016

    If there are any out there who think that this woman’s issue is not still alive and kicking I might say that I “used” to attend a North Carolina church where the congregation recently “literally” fought for almost two decades over whether or not a woman can preach a sermon. Finally, they decided that women can pass the communion and the collection, but not preach or be elders. This resulted in about one-third of the congregation leaving because they did not think that women should be allowed to pass the collection and the communion. Then, after another 10 years, the congregation decided that a woman could occasionally preach if the minister were absent for some reason or other. Still, more members left. Of course, the loaded issue beneath the divisive argument about women is whether or not the Bible is inerrant and, hence, should be interpreted literally? Believe it or not this women’s issue was the most important issue discussed in the church for years and years.

  5. Avatar
    godspell  March 15, 2016

    We should remember (and you have reminded us) that Paul, like Jesus, believed that God would transform the world in a very short time. He must have absorbed something of Jesus’ notion that past social distinctions, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, man and woman, slave and free, would largely cease to be meaningful in that brave new world.

    But he was raised a Jew–a Pharisee, we’re told. The group of Jews Jesus seems to have had the least in common with (and who are perhaps not portrayed with complete fairness or accuracy in the gospels, but that’s not our topic here). They stood for The Establishment (hearing that term a lot these days). Jesus was clearly anti-Establishment. Paul? He may have been more torn. It’s hard to leave everything you knew behind. Even as he waited for The Kingdom to come, for social distinctions to vanish–even as he insisted that the old Jewish laws should not be imposed on gentile converts (which when you think about it, is in its own way an oddly conservative notion–they can’t become Jews simply by getting circumcised and changing their diets, so why pretend?)–he still wanted something of the world he’d grown up in to survive, to perpetuate itself. It’s what he was comfortable with. (You can take the boy out of the Pharisees, but you can’t take the Pharisee out of the boy).

    But if he met female spiritual leaders in various Christian communities he visited, who impressed him with their devotion and steadfastness, his overriding need to communicate with fellow believers would outweigh his attitudes towards women–we see this all the time. Modern conservatives have prominent female leaders, even as they legislate to restrict the rights of ordinary women (you betcha). The Ayatollah Khomeini, who instituted a strict fundamentalist regime on Iran, was still known for his warm respectful relations with female co-religionists, his willingness to listen to their ideas and concerns (and this was by no means inconsistent with The Koran). But they still had to wear their head coverings. Still very much a man’s world.

    Jesus, I’ve read, was opposed to divorce, widely accepted in Jewish society at that time, because he felt that men of property were using it to put aside the wives who had helped them build their farms or businesses, in favor of younger women. Divorce was theoretically an equal option for Jewish women, but in practice it was leading to them being abandoned to a life of poverty. There are indications he viewed his male and female followers as equals (though you don’t see the two groups mingling to any great extent in the gospels).

    Reading about St. Teresa of Avila, I saw accounts that her two fellow future Spanish saints of that era, Pedro de Alcantara and Juan de la Cruz, never treated her or other women as inferiors–because they saw the body only as a casing for the soul, and all souls are equally precious in God’s eyes. Most Spanish clerics of that time didn’t see it that way, sadly. Most people never do escape their cultural programming, and shape their religious beliefs to fit it.

    Jesus had cultural programming as well–must have had. We see it sometimes, in the way he addresses women (including his own mother) as “Woman”–not intending disrespect, but assuming an inherent subordinate status. When he tells the Canaanite woman who comes begging him to heal her daughter (the one who talks about how even dogs can have the scraps from the master’s table), “Woman, great is your faith”–he’s surprised. She’s a woman and she’s not a Jew. And yet she has shown the qualities he prizes above all others. She’s taught him something. He won’t forget it. He’s open to new ideas, new information. God isn’t finished with him yet.

    And I’m tempted to say “Go thou, and do the same.”

    😉

  6. Avatar
    dgdelta  March 15, 2016

    I see a pattern in the history of religious movements following the death of the leader. The deaths of Jesus, Mohammed and Joseph Smith were followed by splits in their movements when family members tried to continue on, but other followers sort of took the ball and ran with it in another direction and came to be the dominant factions, fomenting disputes over legitimacy.
    Would you care to comment?
    Was any one of the second century Christianities a direct descendant of James and the Jerusalem church?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2016

      Interesting. Never thought of that. Yes, htere were several groups that claimed connections directly with James (including the Ebionites, but also the proto-orthodox church, who were at odds with the Ebionites!)

  7. talmoore
    talmoore  March 15, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, whether or not Paul actually wrote those passages is, I think, irrelevent to the main issue. The view they put forth is perfectly in line with not only contemporary Judaism but with the Mediterranean world in general. Moreover, it’s important to distinguish between women of differing classes, because upper class women, indeed, possessed far more authority than lower class ones. And we shouldn’t forget that the early christian church was primarily funded by wealthy upper class women — starting with (probably) Mary of Magdala all the way up to Jerome’s wealthy patronesses in the 4th century! So I think it’s important to separate out the rich women of influence who certainly held important positions in the early church from the poor, second-class baker’s wife who was expected to defer to her husband on all matters.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2016

      It depends what one understands the “main issue” to be. For the debate, the main issue is the teaching of the historical man Paul.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  March 16, 2016

        My point is even if we could isolate Paul’s specific beliefs, it would still be difficult to determine how generalized his beliefs about women were. Would Paul have had the cojones to tell a wealthy patroness to sit down and shut up?

  8. Avatar
    screwtape  March 15, 2016

    This is one of the many things you just don’t see when you are a fundamentalist believer taking every thing in the Bible at face value. Not until I learned from your books that Paul didn’t write the pastoral letters and that the verses in I Corinthians probably weren’t written by him either did it start to become clear. Take those out of the way and I think you start to get a much clearer picture of Paul’s thinking about women and it would appear to me that he was quite a champion of equality.

  9. Avatar
    Stephen  March 15, 2016

    Couldn’t we say that Paul’s view is best expressed in Galatians 3:28? And that there was at least some context (undoubtedly apocalyptic) in which the distinctions made between men and women were meaningless?

    Of course the damage has been done. As soon as the Pastoral Epistles became authoritative the doors to the prison house banged shut. But that’s hardly Paul’s fault.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2016

      Yes, that’s definitely what one side wants to argue. But if there is no male and female in Christ, why do females, but not males, have to wear head coverings? (!)

      • Avatar
        Stephen  March 16, 2016

        Well I’m not arguing that Paul was a feminist by any stretch. But I think he definitely had a more egalitarian view than what came later. But isn’t it probable that Paul wasn’t much interested in social reform anyway because he thought it was soon all going to be swept away?

      • Avatar
        LWE  March 16, 2016

        The best reply to this is that Paul contradicts himself here – people can have contradictory views, and Paul was no systematic theologian. Don’t know where this view stands in relation to the debate resolution.

  10. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  March 16, 2016

    Do you think Paul was saying that a woman should keep her head covered or her hair uncut? Or something else?

  11. Avatar
    evanball  March 16, 2016

    I imagine Paul was a progressive for his day, but wouldn’t be today.

    A little off topic, but Leviticus declares that a woman is unclean for twice as long if she gives birth to a baby girl. This is horrible! Or is there a non-sexist reason for this?

    Thanks!

  12. Avatar
    theophilus  March 16, 2016

    I’m curious as to where these young scholars landed. Did they settle the meaning of “were” for the purpose of their debate? Did any particular argument concerning the meaning of “were” carry the day?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2016

      Different ones land in different places, as one would expect I suppose!

  13. Avatar
    silvertime  March 16, 2016

    In my “previous” life, I was a decon in the Souther Baptist Church. After I had served for a few years, a woman(who had been nominated before) was renominated as a potential decon(this lady was also a trustee at a nearby Southern Baptist college). The body of deacons said: What are we going to do? My response was: She has been nominated, therefore, we have to submit her name on the ballot for election to the deacon board. There response was: But she’s a woman, we can’t do that. Subquently, we voted on the issue, and the vote was 14-1( with me as the one allowing a vote on the woman). I was surprised since I had privately talked with several of the board before the vote. I then, as a joke said: If thats the way you feel why don’t you change the church constitution( at that time it said that any “person” could be considered and voted as a deacon). So, they took me seriously, and submitted the matter to the church business meeting. At a typical business, 60% of the attendees are women, and it takes a 2/3 vote to change the church constitution. The resulting vote was to change the constitution to allow only men to become deacons. I decided then that they did not need me. Later on, I began to read other books, and then I diccovered your writings, and I have been a student and researcher of “religious history and developent” since

  14. Avatar
    VEndris  March 16, 2016

    As a future project, I wish you would consider writing a book where you argue both sides of these and many more issues. I know that even scholars have their biases. However, seeing how you are not religiously committed to anything Paul, or any of the bible, says, It would be interesting to here your evidences for both side of these debates.

  15. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  March 16, 2016

    Yes, Paul’s views of women *were* and still *are* oppressive today.

    Upon first glance, Paul almost comes across as a sort of champion for gender equality, but I really don’t think that’s the case. Paul made it clear that there’s an order to things: God—Christ—man—woman (1 Cor. 11:3); the woman is last—what a surprise!
    there was an order to worship when it came to instruction, revelation, or tongues and interpretation (I Cor. 14: 26-33);
    women should remain silent in the church according to the Law (I Cor. 14:34-35);
    women should cover their heads (I Cor. 11);
    Paul believed in strict self-discipline (I Cor. 9:27, Rom. 8:5-15);

    Paul was a stickler for doing things the *right* way.

    Paul may have used women as deacons and apostles, but he was still the final authority. The nature of his letters are all about him giving instruction, or better yet, dictating what will and should be done concerning the issues with the churches. I don’t see any letters written by Priscilla or Phoebe. How much authority could they have had? Women may have been leaders, but there are leaders in today’s world that don’t really have authority either. It’s more or less a title given.

    The one scriptural reference that stands out to me the most that shows Paul oppressed women is I Cor. 11—the head covering. The fact that Paul felt he had the right to instruct a woman on her outward appearance was oppression. That same type oppression still exists today in Christianity as well as other religions.

    • Avatar
      godspell  March 19, 2016

      It exists among atheists as well. The late Christopher Hitchens wrote an article for Vanity Fair in which he argued that women were not capable of being funny. He believed that men had evolved to be funny as a way of impressing women. He found many other occasions to look for excuses for his own misogyny and homphobia.

      Paul did not see himself as oppressing women, obviously. Please remember, all religions viewed women pretty much the same way then–as subordinate to men. You did not have to be particularly religious to feel this way then, and you don’t now either. You think Trump is religious? He only worships himself.

      Early Christianity was, in many ways, a liberating force for women, which is why so many women flocked to it, seeking an end to being controlled as property of their families, their fathers. Eventually, the social norms were reimposed as the Church became a wealthy and powerful institution, yes. But the underlying ideas of equality before God that Jesus had taught remained powerful, and do to this day.

      Misogyny and oppression were not inventions of the Christian religion. They would exist if no religion had ever been created, because of the innate problems of human reproduction. Females are not treated as full equals among our primate cousins, either, are they?

      When we became religious, we used religion to justify behaviors we wanted to engage in anyway. Our challenge, as human beings, is to overcome and reshape the elements in our nature we inherited from the evolutionary process that created us, and religion is one of many ways we do that. It’s a flawed tool, but since we’re going to have collective belief systems, theist or otherwise, and any belief system can become oppressive, we can’t get rid of our problems by getting rid of religion. Or by blaming some guy who lived thousands of years ago for the fact that we don’t always treat each other like brothers and sisters, which in all fairness to Paul of Tarsus, he certainly would have wished us to do.

      He’d mainly just be surprised the Kingdom of God still hasn’t come, but looking around me, I’m not the least bit surprised.

      • Pattycake1974
        Pattycake1974  March 20, 2016

        Trump isn’t religious? But he quoted *Two* Corinthians! lol! And, yes, I do see that early Christianity was liberating to women in many ways. When reading Paul’s writings, I think–control freak! Part of that controlling nature was liberating women to an extent–as he saw fit of course.

        The idea of women needing a head covering (hijab for Muslim women) or uncut hair is extremely oppressive and bothers me to no end (I used to never cut my hair back in the day), but there’s thousands of women who follow this custom because they believe God wants them to. They need “authority and power because of the angels”–I don’t know what that means or where it originated from, but it sounds wacky.

        Now, I know some men can be particular about women’s hair. Some men love longer hair on women, and they want their girlfriends’/wives’ hair to be a certain color or hair length…to that, I say is a personal choice between the couple.

        Then we have someone like a certain Christian college professor who wore hijab to work as an act of solidarity–well, I could just shake her for that one.

        • Avatar
          godspell  March 23, 2016

          Responding a bit late, I don’t like the head covering being required–I don’t like anything being required. But should we require Muslim women who don’t feel comfortable going around in public with their heads uncovered to live up to our ideas of how they should look?

          I admire that college professor more than I can say. She understands what it means to be a Christian–to identify personally with the most downtrodden and disliked people in the society you inhabit. To imagine each one of them is Jesus in disguise. Maybe it was a doomed gesture, but it was a gallant one. She took up the cross and carried it. She didn’t just think “I’m a Non-Muslim woman, so I’m going to focus only on what’s good for Non-Muslim women.” She put herself in the place of women born as Muslims here in America, who want to remain true to the traditions of their ancestors, to remain a functioning part of their large close families, while still making a life for themselves here, walking that difficult tightrope that makes them a target for so much anger and hate.

          If we all thought like that professor, we wouldn’t have to worry about the next life, because this one would be pretty darn sweet. That was very much Jesus’ point, I think. I guess the counter-point is that it may never be possible for all of us to behave like that. It may be a bridge too far. There is that. But can’t we at least dream about it?

          I can’t claim the kind of courage she showed, but I can at least say this much–I was raised Irish Catholic in New York and New Jersey. Many years ago, I opted to march in New York’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, with a small group of Irish gays and lesbians–the last time they were allowed to march as an identifiable group until very recently. I am not gay. Not even a tiny bit.

          Probably some people would have wanted to shake me about that. Get my point?

          • Pattycake1974
            Pattycake1974  March 24, 2016

            No, I don’t think a woman should be required to keep her head uncovered anymore than she should be required to cover it. The root of the issue is why a woman feels uncomfortable in the first place to uncover her head. She has learned shame and feels herself to be displeasing to “God”.
            Marjane Satrapi, who is originally from Iran, wrote the comic book series, Persepolis, that discusses issues involving the head covering during the Islamic revolution. It’s very enlightening.
            As far as the professor goes, I can’t admire her for putting a covering on her head. I didn’t cut my hair for years because of the scriptural reference to the head covering. It was a burden. It made me feel *less than* especially to a man, but I did it because I didn’t want to be disobedient or be viewed as rebellious. My exit from the apostolic church was over me trimming my bangs. I was made to feel ashamed and damned to hell. Women have worked hard to get people out of that kind of mindset. It doesn’t help our cause by wearing hijab.

        • Avatar
          godspell  March 29, 2016

          I can understand your personal feelings (while feeling they’re not really an argument relating to how other people with different feelings should behave), but there are actually some pretty sound practical reasons for covering your head when you live in a desert climate. Or a cold one. I rarely go out without a hat at any time of the year these days. It has nothing to do with shame.

          Voltaire once asked a Muslim of his acquaintance why they made women cover their faces–the man responded “Perhaps you can look upon them with equanimity, but I can not–the very FACE of a woman!” There is a Sufi saying–“He who has gazed on the face of a beautiful woman has seen God.”

          Not saying this makes compulsion any better, but I really don’t think it was originally about shame. And why not say the same thing about Orthodox Jewish women, or traditional Mormon women, or many other religious cults where women have to dress more conservatively? I’m sure you don’t like that either, but are those groups suffering from anywhere near the same level of discrimination and fear?

          That’s why I admire the professor, for sticking up for people when doing so was a serious professional risk.

          • Pattycake1974
            Pattycake1974  March 30, 2016

            Godspell, you’re frustrating me. lol Let’s agree to disagree!

  16. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  March 16, 2016

    One more thing about the “to be” conjugation in Genesis. When God created the earth, *was* it formless and empty or did it *become* formless and empty? I’d really like to know!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2016

      My sense is that it was initially created formless and void until God put chaos into order.

  17. Avatar
    Kbmahe  March 19, 2016

    Dear Bart,
    I would like to know if there’s a scholarly chretaria outlined to determine which epistles are actually written buy Paul and what are the reasons not to assume Paul might have written them?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 19, 2016

      Yes, that is the topic of my book Forged (and the more scholarly treatment in Forgery and Counterforgery)

  18. Avatar
    Applesauce  March 24, 2016

    I think that Paul was a man of his time, and reflected the attitudes toward women prevalent in both Jewish and Roman culture. That is, women were inherently inferior to men by nature and inferior in social status and the law. Nonetheless, his attitude seems to have been softened by his spiritual orientation as the apostle to the Gentiles and his apocalyptic expectations. I must say, I find Paul to be an absolutely fascinating character, and if given the choice of meeting either Jesus or Paul, it would be hard choice.
    I speculate sometimes as to the role of prominent Roman women in the emergence of the early church. I can imagine a Roman woman with wealth and status, compared to a slave or a non-Roman, managing a household where the Roman husband or lord had the power of life and death over the slaves, and his wife and children. Presumably, he routinely had sexual relations with slaves that also cohabited with his wife, and fathered children with both his slaves and also his wife. And yet the wife had to manage the household and try to maintain some kind of peace and order in the family compound, that is, if she had a compassionate temperament. I can imagine a scenario where Christianity might have played a role in adding an element of hope to an otherwise oppressive and brutal hierarchy, if the Roman matron converted, and treated the other household members in a better, Christian way.
    Unfortunately the historical influence of Paul and Christianity has largely been oppressive of women, though perhaps liberating in the early years before it became the official religion of Rome.

  19. Avatar
    JR  April 20, 2016

    Hi,
    Is it only conservative christian scholars who think that Paul wrote the pastoral epistles? Can you think of a critical scholar who thinks they are written by Paul?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 20, 2016

      Luke Timothy Johnson thinks they are written by Paul. He’s a committed (Catholic) Christian, but he’s a fine scholar, one of the best.

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