To many modern readers Paul the Apostle seems anti-woman. If we leave out the Pastoral Epistles, which the historical Paul almost certainly did not write, we still have passages (1 Corinthians chapters 11 and 14) that seem to place women lower on a hierarchy than men and even seem to forbid women to speak in church.
These passages have seemed prominent to us partly because people who oppose modern changes in the status of women have used them to promote male rule in the church and home.
However, reading all Paul’s genuine letters shows undeniable signs that women did have leadership roles in Rome, Philippi and Corinth.
So how can we understand what Paul says?
I have blogged about several of the articles in Paul Within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle, an anthology representing several scholars with a perspective of Paul as fully Jewish which they set over against both traditional interpretations and the so-called New Perspective.
Kathy Ehrensperger has an article called “The Question (s) of Gender: Relocating Paul in Relation to Judaism”. The question about Paul’s views becomes sharper when we also ask about how much of his thinking about women comes from Judaism.
She points out that the discussion in 1 Corinthians was needed because both men and women participated in the assembly at Corinth. This is why Paul gave rules for the behavior of both men and women. She raises the idea that the reason the Corinthians had questions for Paul about this is because they were unfamiliar with mixed assemblies in their Gentile setting.
She gives evidence from Josephus and Philo that in late Second Temple Judaism synagogues were often mixed groups of men and women. Women participated in prayer and singing. The Pharisees had rules similar to Paul’s about how men and women must comport themselves in such assemblies.
Yes, there was an assumed male-over-female hierarchy. This was common to all eastern Mediterranean cultures and not a specific feature of Judaism. The Pharisees seem to have allowed full participation by women in singing, praying and maybe even prophesying. But the reading and interpretation of the Torah was set apart for males with special knowledge. When these men taught the whole assembly was supposed to listen in silence. This may shed some light on Paul’s charge to the women to keep silent (1 Cor. 14:34).
. . . a passage like 1 Corinthians 11:12-14 demonstrates that Paul was wavering between presupposing the unquestioned participation and active role of women in the gatherings of the ekklesia, but at the same time, that he adheres in principle to a subordination paradigm that governs the relation between men and women.
There is also tension between Paul’s rules for orderly assemblies and Paul’s use of women in prominent leadership roles. However the tendency of recent interpretation to use Paul’s dictum from Galatians 3:28 that in Christ male and female as well as Jew and Gentile cease to exist is a simplistic over interpretation. Interpreters have claimed based on this that for women to be truly human they must become men and for Jews to be truly the people of God they must become Gentile. This is clearly not what Paul meant.
Paul insisted on the diversity of people within the movement. The distinctions between men and women and Jews and Gentiles did not go away. He did not think particularity was a problem that needed to be overcome. Ehrensperger points to some gender studies scholars who also see the attempt to put everybody in one category or to overcome all distinctions as essentialist and oppressive.
Paul’s condemnation of “boasting” shows that he opposed the claim that Jews or Gentiles were superior. The same would apply to men and women. Not boasting of anything except the Lord (1 Corinthians 1:31) is a kind of egalitarianism that does not remove distinctions and particularities but rejects human pride. Equality, for Paul, does not do away with difference.
She speaks of equality with a difference. This cuts against both the kind of feminism that downplays the difference between the sexes and against ideas of male dominance that deny equality. She does not draw out the specific implications of this for modern living, but says that recognizing the roots of Paul’s position in Judaism is conducive to a “gender-sensitive” approach.