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November 2018

Note of the Day (Galatians 3:28)

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Galatians 3:28

The next three daily notes serve as a supplement to the recent article on Galatians 3:28 in the series Women in the Church, as well as to the study on the subject as it relates to the Pauline letters as a whole, and to the role of women from the standpoint of early Christianity and Gnosticism. Here I will be looking in more detail at three specific aspects of this verse—particularly, the declaration “there is no male and female”:

  1. The background and significance of the statement
  2. The logical consequences and possible interpretation(s), and
  3. Comparison with the Pauline teaching in 1 Cor 11:3ff; 14:34-35, etc

Today’s note treats the first of these topics.

1. Background and Significance

As previously discussed (cf. Part 3 of this series), the three-fold declaration in Gal 3:28 is clearly connected with the rite of baptism: “For as (many of) you as have been dunked [i.e. baptized] into (the) Anointed (One) {Christ}, you have sunk in(to) (the) Anointed [i.e. put him on as a garment]” (v. 27). There are parallels to Gal 3:27-28 in 1 Cor 12:13 and Col 3:11, also associated with baptism. Many commentators believe that this reflects an (earlier) baptismal formula; if so, it is probably not a specific formulation original to Paul, but rather something he cites to support his argument (and for dramatic effect), something which would be familiar (and dear) to recent converts. Let us compare these three passages (note the central statement in bold):

Galatians 3:27-28 1 Corinthians 12:13 Colossians 3:9-11
“For as (many of) you as have been dunked [i.e. baptized] in the Anointed {Christ}, have sunk in(to) [i.e. put on] the Anointed;
in (Christ) there is no Yehudean {Jew} and no Greek, there is no slave and no free (person), there is no male and female
for you all are one in (the) Anointed Yeshua {Jesus Christ}.”
“For in one Spirit we all were dunked [i.e. baptized] into one Body—
(even) if Yehudeans {Jews} and if Greeks, if slaves and if free (person)s
and we all were given to drink of (the) one Spirit.”
“…having sunk out from the old man…and sinking in(to) [i.e. putting on] the new…
where in (Christ) there is no Greek and Yehudean {Jew}, circumcision and foreskin…, slave, free (person)
but the Anointed {Christ} is all (thing)s and in all (things).”

The basic setting is baptism as an initiation rite, similar to many other such religious rituals worldwide. The closest parallels would be from the Greco-Roman (pagan) mystery cults, though one can also cite similarities in a Jewish setting (such as the Qumran community of the Dead Sea Scrolls). We actually know relatively little about the specific ceremonies practiced by the mystery religions; however, note the reference in Apuleius, Metamorphoses 11:24, which involves an initiate in the mysteries of Isis, who has put on robes following the sacred ceremony (cf. also Plutarch, Isis and Osiris 352b; Firmicius Maternus, Error of the Profane Religions §§19, 22). For a (Hellenistic) Jewish use of the same kind of symbolism, cf. Philo, On Flight and Finding §§109-12; Joseph and Aseneth §§14-17. It is likely that early Christian tradition made use of (white) robes to symbolize the “putting on” of Christ.

In such religious initiation, the ritual signifies the establishment of a new identity, and all the more so in the case of Christian baptism—the believer enters the water, dying to the old, and being born (again, spiritually) to the new. Paul clearly connected baptism with the believer’s participation in the death (and resurrection) of Christ (Rom 6:3-11; 8:9-11; Col 2:12ff; cf. also Gal 2:19-20), and this must also inform the baptismal formula used in Gal 3:27-28, etc. Note the parallel between “putting on” (lit. “sinking in[to]”, vb. e)ndu/w) in Gal 3:27 and “putting off” (lit. “sinking out [from]”, vb. [a)p]ekdu/w) in Col 3:9—the believer “puts off” the ‘old man’, the old nature (like a snake shedding its skin), and “puts on” the new nature (Christ). It is this fundamental sense of a new religious (spiritual) identity which provides the context for the three-fold declaration in Gal 3:28 with its repeated use of e&ni (“there is in…”). The reference is to the preposition e)n (“in Christ”, e)n Xristw=|) at the end of the verse, but also to the earlier use of the verb e)ndu/w in v. 27. That verb is usually translated “put on”, “clothe [yourself]”, but, in order to preserve the wordplay (among other reasons), it is better to render it literally, “sink in(to)”. Note how this frames the central declaration:

  • “You have sunk in(to) [e)ndu/sasqe] Christ”—i.e., you are now in Christ (v. 27)
    “In (Christ) there is… [e&ni]”
  • “You are all one in Christ [e)n Xristw=|] (v. 28d)

Baptism symbolizes (ritually) the believer’s union in Christ, which is also to be understood as becoming part of a unity—that is, of all believers, as a single body. This is the point emphasized by the formula in 1 Cor 12:13:

  • “For we all were dunked [baptized] in one Spirit
    —”into one Body”
  • “…we all were given to drink of (the) one Spirit

A comparison between 1 Cor 12:13 and Gal 3:27-28 (perhaps written only a few years apart), indicates that the three-fold declaration in Gal 3:28 ought to be understood in terms of believers being part of the one body of Christ. In other words, the declaration is governed by the overriding idea of our union (together) in Christ; here is the formula:

  • V. 28a: “in (Christ) there is no Jew and no Greek”—religious/ethnic distinction
  • V. 28b: “in (Christ) there is no slave and no free (person)”—socio-economic distinction
  • V. 28c: “in (Christ) there is no male and female”—social (and biological) distinction

This makes for a powerful statement and strongly suggests that our new identity in Christ somehow transcends, or renders invalid, the normal distinctions and characteristics of our (previous) way of life. The problem is that Paul, in his letters, really only discusses the first of these—the religious (and ethnic/cultural) distinction between Jews and non-Jews (“Greeks”, i.e. Gentiles). This is a central theme, especially in Galatians and Romans, and Paul argues forcefully that the “new covenant” in Christ effectively abolishes the old. Perhaps the most direct declaration along these lines is in 2 Cor 3:1-18 (esp. verses 6-11, 12-16); while Ephesians 2:11-22 neatly sums up the Pauline teaching, with the idea that Jewish and Gentile believers have become “one new man” in Christ (vv. 15-16). Thus, while Jewish and Gentile believers, respectively, might (voluntarily) continue to observe certain customs, these cannot—and must not—create division or separation within the body of Christ (cf. Gal 2:11-14; Rom 14, etc). In every way that matters, there is no difference whatever between believers, from an ethno-religious or cultural point of view.

The same would certainly apply to socio-economic distinctions, such as slave vs. free, rich vs. poor, etc., though Paul says relatively little about this. According to the narratives in Acts, many of the earliest converts in Paul’s missionary work were from the upper levels of society (16:13-14; 17:4, 12, 34, etc), but certainly from the middle/lower classes as well (cf. 1 Cor 1:26ff, etc). In dealing with the social situation of slavery in the Greco-Roman world, Paul tends to downplay any possible revolutionary aspect to the Christian message (1 Cor 7:21-23; Col 3:22-4:1; cf. also Eph 6:5-9; 1 Tim 6:1-2; Tit 2:9-10); social change would occur naturally, through conversion to the Gospel, rather than by active efforts to change the laws and structure of society. More commonly, Paul uses slavery/freedom as a motif for the Gospel itself—human beings are in bondage under sin (and the Law), and only through trust in Christ and the work of the Spirit do we find freedom (cf. Rom 6:15-23; 8:1-17; Gal 2:4; 3:21-26; 4:1-7, 8ff, 21-31; 5:1). In the letter to Philemon, there is a moving account of a runaway slave (Onesimus) who has become a believer, and is now returning to his (Christian) master. This illustrates the dual (and somewhat paradoxical nature) of the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus—on the one hand (at the social level), they remain master and slave, but on the other (in Christ) they are brothers and equals.

This brings us to the thornier question regarding the social (and biological) distinction of male and female—do these no longer apply to believers in Christ, as the declaration in Gal 3:28c suggests? I have already addressed this in Part 3 of the series (“Women in the Church”), but it will be useful to supplement that discussion with a few points here.

  • The expression “male and female” (a&rsen kai\ qh=lu) refers not only to the conventional, social difference(s) between men and women, but also to the essential physical/biological differences.
  • Almost certainly it alludes to the creation account in Genesis (1:27; 5:2); the significance of this will be dealt with in the next note. It is interesting that in 1 Cor 11:2-16 (also 1 Tim 2:11-15) the creation narrative is used to make virtually the opposite point—that gender distinction is to be preserved in the Church, with women (it would seem) in a subordinate role.
  • The context in Galatians is important—Paul is arguing that believers are the true heirs of Abraham (to the promise of God), which means, according to the cultural background of the illustration, that believers are sons. But clearly, this is not to be taken literally; believers—men and women both—are “sons” in this sense. It is not a question of gender (in spite of the traditional gender-based language).
  • Beyond this, Paul is definitely speaking of a new situation for believers. Again, this is especially clear from the surrounding context:
    —Believers are no longer (ou)ke/ti) bound under the old way of things (3:25; 4:7)
    —This old condition is described as being under (u(po/) the authority (i.e., bound, enslaved) of the old order—the Law, sin, death, etc. (3:10, 22-23, 25; 4:2-5, etc)
    —The old order of things involves “the (arranged) elements [stoixei=a] of the world” (4:3, 9; cf. Col 2:8, 20), which certainly includes the (fallen, corrupt) order of creation
    —But believers are freed from the old order (3:21-26; 4:1-11, 21-31; 5:1ff, 13); this freedom is in relation to the presence and work of the Spirit (3:2ff, 14; 4:6, 29; 5:5, 16-18ff), which is not tied to the created order (cf. John 3:3-10)
    —This new condition (and identity) in Christ, and through the Spirit, is defined as a new creation (6:15; 2 Cor 5:17; Col 3:10, also Eph 2:15; 4:24)—which suggests that the old (created order) has passed away or been completely transformed (cf. also Rom 7:6; 8:19ff; 1 Cor 5:7)

All of this sounds impressive, but what does it actually mean for believers? What are the consequences of this new condition or new identity? This must be addressed in two parts: (a) how extensively should Gal 3:28 be applied at the religious (and spiritual) level, and (b) what are the practical implications for Christian life and community? These questions will be dealt with, in turn, in the next two daily notes.

Women in the Church: Part 9 – Early Christianity

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It now remains to examine, however briefly, the extra-biblical evidence for the role and position of women in the Church during the early Christian period—the period spanning roughly from 90 to the mid-3rd century A.D. Before proceeding, it will be good to point out several New Testament passages which have not yet been mentioned in this series:

  • 1 Peter 3:1-7—Instructions for husbands and wives, generally similar to that found in Col 3:18-19; Eph 5:21-33; Tit 2:4-5.
  • Hebrews 11—The famous chapter on faith, in which examples from Israelite history and tradition are cited; women play a small but significant part in the list, cf. verses 11-12, 31, 35.
  • 2 John—If the “chosen Lady” (v. 1) is a particular person rather than a symbol for the Church/congregation as a whole, then she would presumably be a woman of some prominence, such as Chloe, Phoebe, Prisca, etc., in Paul’s letters (cf. Part 4).
  • Revelation 2:20-25—There was apparently an influential female prophet(ess) among the believers in Thyatira who is here regarded (by the author/oracle) as a false prophet and teacher (“Jezebel”). On the tradition of female prophets, both in the Old and New Testaments, cf. Parts 7 and 8.
  • Revelation 12 and 17—In these two chapters we find contrasting female figures—one women is virtuous (representing righteous Israel and believers) and attacked by the evil beast (chap. 12), the other a sinful prostitute seated on the evil beast and representing Babylon/Rome and the wicked (nations) of the world (chap. 17). On the Old Testament basis for these two contrasting types, cf. the discussion in Part 8.

The Apostolic Fathers

The so-called “Apostolic Fathers” represent many of the earliest surviving Christian writings (outside of the New Testament), from the period c. 90-150 A.D. The view and role of women is similar to that expressed in the New Testament letters, and especially the Pauline Pastorals (1 Timothy & Titus). 1 Clement 1:3; 21:6ff, and the Letter of Polycarp 4-5 draw upon traditional language and ethics, emphasizing the role in the family and marriage bond (cf. also 1 Clement 6:3; Ignatius to Polycarp 5). Scriptural examples of women are cited, such as Rahab (1 Clement 12 [cf. James 2:25]), Esther and Judith (1 Clement 55:3-6)—these last two present women in leading/heroic roles (“like men”, cf. below). As in the Pauline letters, Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110) mentions women who may have had some measure of prominence in the churches—Tavia and Alce (Smyrneans 13:1; Polycarp 8:3, cf. also the Martyrdom of Polycarp 17). The Pseudo-Ignatian writings include letters to and from Mary “of Cassobele” (cf. Ps-Ignatius to Hero 9), and one addressed to the Virgin Mary. Hermas also mentions a female leader named Grapte (Vision 2.4.3), who apparently oversaw instruction of women (widows) and children.

As in 1 Timothy 5:2-16, these writings give evidence of a distinct role (and position) for widows in the Church, beyond simply the need to care for them—e.g., Ignatius Smyrneans 13:1; Polycarp 4:1; 8:2; Letter of Polycarp 4:3 (cf. Justin Martyr, First Apology 67). In Smyrneans 13:1, Ignatius mentions virgins together with widows as two special groups—i.e. the unmarried women, young and old(er) respectively; cf. also the Letter of Polycarp 5:3. Virgins are referenced more frequently in the (later) Pseudo-Ignatian letters (Philadelphians [long text] 4; Antiochians 8, 12; Philippians 15; Tarsians 9; Hero 5), as, indeed, virginity becomes more prominent as a Christian ideal in the 2nd and 3rd centuries (cf. below). In the Letter to Diognetus 12:8, the Virgin Mary especially reflects this ideal for women, a theme which will be repeated frequently (along with a developing veneration of Mary) in writings of the period (Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 100; Irenaeus Against Heresies III.22.4; V.19.1; Tertullian On the Flesh of Christ 17, etc).

Interestingly, the Didache (“Teaching [of the Twelve Apostles]”), which provides the most detail on organized Church life and worship, says virtually nothing about the role of women. The instruction regarding traveling teachers and prophets in chapters 11-13 uses language that may (or may not) be gender-specific—i.e., “the one coming”, “the one teaching” (the grammatical gender is masculine throughout). The references to the roles/offices of “overseer” (e)pi/skopo$) and “servant/minister” (dia/kono$, ‘deacon’) in chap. 15 almost certainly assume they will be men, as in the (earlier?) Pastoral Letters.

Apostolic traditions (from the 2nd century)

Women feature in a number of apostolic traditions (i.e. stories and teachings of the Apostles) from the second century, occasionally preserved in later writings and Christian tales (“romances”). The most notable tradition is that of Thecla, best known from the developed legendary account in the early medieval (5th-6th century?) “Acts of Thecla”, derived from an earlier collection of Pauline traditions (so-called “Acts of Paul”). According to the later tale, Thecla was the wife (fiancée) of a prominent citizen of Iconium (in Asia Minor), who was converted by the preaching of Paul (cf. Acts 16:13-14; 17:4, 12; 18:34). Central to the narrative is the renunciation of her marriage obligation (for the sake of following Christ), which leads to her arrest and (miraculous) deliverance from death. Sexual temptation and persecution continue as a main theme in the story, during the time in which she accompanies Paul on his missionary journeys. She is separated from him, but then eventually reunited (ch. 40); Thecla ultimately decides to return to Iconium to preach the word of God there, and Paul commissions her to do so (“Go and teach the word of God”, ch. 41). Thecla may indeed have been an actual disciple and ministry companion of Paul, as were a number of other women mentioned in his letters (Prisca, Phoebe, etc., cf. Part 4 of this series). The core tradition dates back at least to the mid-late 2nd century, since Tertullian refers to it (c. 200) in his work On Baptism §17. This reference is significant, as Tertullian argues forcefully (against the Montanists [cf. below]) that women are not permitted to teach and baptize; he regards the Thecla tradition as spurious or falsely attributed to Paul.

Women in “Gnostic” writings and tradition

Women and female imagery played an important part in the so-called Gnostic sects and writings known (or presumed to exist) in the second century (cf. my article on Gnosticism). Our evidence for Gnostic beliefs is two-fold: (1) the (Proto-)Orthodox authors in the 2nd-4th centuries (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Hippolytus, Eusebius, Epiphanius) who wrote in opposition to their teachings, and (2) surviving texts written (presumably) by the “Gnostics” themselves, especially those recovered from Nag Hammadi in Egypt (4th century copies). Based on the “heterodox” views of the Gnostic groups, as well as the prominent feminine/female elements in some of the texts and teachings, it is often thought that they may have been more open to women participating in leadership/ministry roles; however, this is extremely speculative, and the actual evidence on the matter (either way) is extremely slight. I will summarize here several of the more important aspects of Gnostic thought in relation to women:

  • An emphasis on female disciples of Jesus—especially Mary Magdalene and Salome—in a number of texts
  • Frequent use of sexual imagery, with two key points of emphasis:
    (1) The fallen (material) world described in terms of sexual intercourse, marriage and propagation (childbirth)
    (2) All of this is spiritualized for believers (gnostics)—i.e. all such language and terminology relates to the union of the divine Soul/Spirit with the Spirit (i.e. of the Pre-existent Father)
  • Nuptial imagery is specifically made use of (i.e. the Bridal Chamber), and may involve certain rituals (Baptism, Chrism [Anointing], the “holy kiss”) which have been given a new interpretation.
  • Ancient Jewish (and/or Greek) Wisdom traditions have been blended together with Christian ideas and various mythological traditions. Wisdom is typically personified as a woman, and so prominently in Gnostic thought.
  • A core principle in Gnostic thought is the (re-)union of that which has been separated/divided within the current material world. Primarily, this refers a union of the divine light in the human Soul (i.e. of the gnostic believer) with the Eternal Light (of the true God). But this is often described in terms of transcending the dualism/duality (and multiplicity) of the created world, and is expressed, with regard to sexual or gender-based language, two ways:
    (a) Elimination of the distinction between “male” and “female”, or
    (b) The “female” becoming like the “male”

Due to the complexity of this subject, and for those who are interested, it is discussed further in a supplemental article.

Montanism

Montanism was a prophetic (charismatic) movement that developed in the late 2nd century A.D. in the territory of Phrygia (Asia Minor). It was named after Montanus, the putative founder, who claimed to speak under the direct influence of the Paraclete (Holy Spirit). Women prophets, such as Prisc(ill)a, Maximilla, and Quintilla, were prominent, leading figures in the movement—in some ways, it would seem, better known than Montanus himself. It is perhaps best described as a reforming movement, which sought to realize (and recapture) the charismatic vitality of the early (apostolic) churches, as described in the book of Acts and 1 Corinthians 11-14. The daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9) seem to have served as a Scriptural pattern for Montanist female prophets; Tertullian also mentions an unnamed woman who received prophetic revelations from the Spirit (On the Soul §9). The movement was characterized by a strong ascetic orientation, emphasizing strict fasting and celibacy.

A number of (proto-)orthodox Christians in the 2nd-4th centuries wrote against the Montanists. Clement of Alexandria mentions them (“Phrygians”, in Stromateis [Miscellanies] 4:13, cf. also 1:17), and may have written more about their “false prophecy”, as Melito also may have done. Eusebius of Caesarea in his Church History, cites several anti-Montanist works, including writings by Caius (against Proclus, 2:25; 3:28, 31), Asterius Urbanus, Miltiades, Apollonius, and another anonymous writer (cf. 5:16-18). Tertullian opposed the Montanists at first (cf. On Baptism), but later (c. 200) aligned himself with the movement (as did several Popes and leaders in the Roman church of the period). Several of his ethical, ascetic writings clearly show this affiliation (On Fasting, On Monogamy, Exhortation to Chastity), as well as numerous references in other works (e.g., Against Praxeas §§1, 13; Against Marcion 1:29; 4:22; On the Resurrection of the Flesh §§11, 63; De Corona §§1, 11; On the Soul §§9, 58). Montanism was treated as a regular “heresy” among most orthodox writers and Church leaders, continuing to be condemned in various synods and councils; however, by the mid-4th century the movement had more or less died out.

Proto-Orthodoxy and early Catholic Tradition

Tertullian represents the developing (orthodox) Church Tradition of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, in his view of the role and position of women. His work On the Dress of Women draws heavily upon the contrast (well-established in the Old Testament and Wisdom traditions) between the modest, virtuous woman and the sinful (pagan) one. The introduction of sin into the world, through Eve (Gen 3; 1 Tim 2:13ff), is closely connected with sexuality. Virginity and celibacy (cf. below) take on much greater emphasis (On the Veiling of Virgins, Exhortation to Chastity, On Modesty, On Monogamy, etc), with virgins and widows holding prominent positions in the Church. At least three official (canonical) positions would seem to be established—deaconess (i.e. female deacon), widow (female elder [“eldress”]) and virgin. Tertullian forcefully argues that women should not teach doctrine or baptize (On Baptism 17), though in siding with Montanism (cf. above), he fully accepted the idea of inspired female prophets. Within certain limitations, women could engage in a relatively active ministry and service within the congregation. In the writing To His Wife, largely an exhortation to celibacy (and women as celibate widows), Tertullian mentions some of these ministerial duties (cf. 2:4). Though not allowed to administer baptism, it would seem that a key role of widows and other female ministers (deaconesses) was to assist women who were preparing for baptism (e.g., canon 12 related to the 3rd/4th Council of Carthage).

This basic outlook gradually gained official expression in the Canons (Rules) and Church Orders composed during the 3rd and 4th centuries, such the Teaching of the Apostles (Didascalia Apostolorum, cf. chap. 3, 14-16), the Apostolic Church-Order (§§20-22, 25-28), the “Apostolic Tradition” and Canons of Hippolytus (16-18, 32, 35), the Apostolic Constitutions (I.8-9; bk III; VI.17; VIII.16-28, etc) and Canons, and the so-called Testament of the Lord (Testamentum Domini, cf. I.23, 29ff, 35, 40-43, 46; II.19). However, in the imperial period (mid-4th century and following), more precise restrictions on the roles for women were established in the various Church Councils, which eventually became fixed as part of Catholic “Canon Law”. Women were barred from being appointed as presiding “elders” [presbytides] (Council of Laodicea, canon 11), and were not to approach the altar (Laodicea, canon 44); in the canons associated with the 3rd/4th Council of Carthage (397/398 A.D.), it is officially stated that women are not to baptize nor teach among men (canons 99-100). With regard to the position of deaconess, the 19th canon from the Council of Nicea indicates they were not (to be) ordained in the same manner as bishops, deacons and other male clergy (cf. also Chalcedon, canon 15). Eventually, female deacons were barred altogether—in the first and second Councils of Orange (441 A.D., canon 26; 529 A.D., canons 17-18), confirmed by subsequent synods.

Female Saints and Martyrs

Women feature prominently among the stories and traditions of saints and martyrs from the early centuries, including the extra-canonical “Acts” of the Apostles, and other tales of the period, which often stressed the ideal of virginity and celibacy (cf. below, and above on Thecla). Believers who suffered during the periods of persecution, as witnesses (i.e. martyrs, Grk ma/rtu$) for the Faith held a special place—either as “confessors” (those tortured) or “martyrs” (those put to death). For women, persecution in the martyrdom narratives often involve some form of sexual temptation or molestation. Prior to the imperial adoption of Christianity, there were various periods of anti-Christian persecution in the Roman empire, usually being of limited extent and tied to specific regions; the most notable (outside of that by Nero, c. 64 A.D.) occurred during the reigns of Marcus Aurelius (esp. in Gaul, 177-180), briefly under Septimus Severus (c. 202), the major outbreaks under Decius (249-251) and Valerian (257-260), and finally the great persecution in the reign of Diocletian (303-305). Of the known female saints and martyrs, most are presumably historical figures, though the narratives which came to surround them in the Medieval period have certainly been filled out with various legendary (and often fabulous) details. I list here some of the notable names:

  • Flavia Domitilla—niece of the emperor Domitian, and married to the emperor’s cousin (Flavius Clemens); according to Roman writers such as Cassius Dio, Domitian eventually put Clemens to death and exiled Domitilla. There is no certain evidence that either Clemens or Domitilla were believers, but this came to be accepted in Christian tradition; to add to the confusion, some sources refer to Flavia Domitilla as the niece of Flavius Clemens, and it is possible that two different women are involved.
  • Petronilla—the daughter of Peter, according to tradition, and so indicated by a tomb inscription in the Christian cemetery (catacombs) associated with Domitilla; she is the subject of a number of (later) legends which do not seem particularly reliable.
  • Blandina—a woman named prominently among the martyrs of Lyons (177), cf. Eusebius’ Church History V.1.
  • Perpetua and Felicitas—women named among the martyrs of Carthage (c. 202); a vivid (and popular) account of their martyrdom survives from the early period, and they are mentioned by both Tertullian (On the Soul §55) and Augustine (Sermons 280-82).
  • Agatha, of Sicily—suffered martyrdom either during the Decian (251) or Diocletian persecution.
  • Cecilia of Rome, whose martyrdom is dated variously during the second and third centuries (c. 230?).
  • Agnes of Rome—martyred at Rome under Diocletian (cf. Ambrose On the Duties of the Clergy 1:41 [213]; Jerome Letter 130.5, etc).
  • Catherine of Alexandria—one of the best-known and revered of the female martyrs, though there is little reliable information regarding her life or death (cf. Eusebius’ Church History VIII.14); her martyrdom is dated in the early 4th century under Maximin.

In discussing the most famous women from early Christian tradition, one may also mention the Veronica-legend, which blends together at least two different strands of tradition—(1) a woman (Berenice) who offered her veil (or cloth) to Jesus on the way to the cross, and (2) a miraculous (and miracle-working) image of Jesus on a cloth (“true icon”, vera icon), best known from the Abgar legend in the Syrian Church (Edessa).

Asceticism and the rise of Monastic Tradition

The word monasticism ultimately derives from the Greek mo/no$ (mónos, “single, alone”). A “monk” is a monachós (monaxo/$)—that is, a person who keeps himself (or herself) alone, single, solitary, etc. The general religious phenomenon is more properly called monachism, whereby persons withdraw from ordinary society (including family, professional occupation, etc) and live apart, following a special religious lifestyle. Such a way of life is almost always associated with a strict, and rather rigorous, asceticism (from Greek a&skhsi$)—an intense practice or training (such as for an athlete), which, from an ethical and religious standpoint, involves renunciation of worldly things, self-denial, and, most notably here, sexual abstinence (celibacy). From the beginning, early Christianity had an ascetic emphasis, found in the teaching and practice of Jesus (Mark 1:12-13, 35, 45; 6:8-9; 8:34ff; 9:42-50; 10:21-31 & pars [but note the contrast with John the Baptist, Mk 1:4-6; 2:18]; and cf. Lk 6:20-26; 9:57-62; 16:19-31; 20:34-36 pars; Matt 19:10-12, etc), but also shared by certain Jewish and Greek philosophical traditions of the period. By all accounts, Jesus never married, and Paul also, at least at the time of his missionary journeys and letters, was single (and thus celibate). In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul clearly expresses his wish that all believers would follow his example, as long as they were equipped by God (i.e. with the maturity and mindset for it) to do so faithfully. There is certainly an ascetic streak in Paul, though he is quick to rebuke or condemn any sort of exaggerated asceticism which distorts the Gospel or disrupts Christian unity—cf. 1 Cor 7:1-5ff; Rom 14:1-4ff; Col 2:21-23; and note, in the Pastoral letters, especially 1 Tim 4:3 (also the earlier article and notes on 1 Tim 2:11-15).

As discussed above, by the middle of the second century, asceticism—especially in the form of sexual abstinence (celibacy)—came to have far greater emphasis in the Church as a whole. The ideal of virginity was widespread and highly praised. In the Syrian Churches, a distinct tradition of celibate marriage (cf. 1 Cor 7:5) developed, known by the term encratism, from a Greek word (e)gkrate/w) meaning “to have power/control” over, e.g. one’s fleshly (sexual) impulses.

Monasticism (monachism) as a specific religious (and ascetic) movement began to develop by the end of the third century, primarily in Egypt, where it took root in a number of locations, spreading rapidly. Of the pioneering figures, Anthony was by far the most famous, due in no small measure to the early biography written by Athanasius of Alexandria. It is hard for Christians today to appreciate the tremendous influence and appeal of the monastic and anchorite (hermit/solitary) way of life on believers of the period. It offered a way for Christians, disillusioned with the world and the traditional (institutional) Church structure, to live out a more intense, creative, and dedicated form of Christianity—a life of prayer and devotion, engaged in spiritual warfare, apart from, and on behalf of, the world at large. While some monks chose to remain solitary, others banded together to form communities (i.e. monasteries) which often developed into religious organizations (orders), a kind of separate Church structure within the wider Church. Throughout Church history, the monastic and religious orders were at the forefront of reform and renewal movements; Luther, along with many other leaders of the Reformation, came out of the monastic traditions.

From a very early period, women participated in the monastic movement, living a solitaries or in separate communities, similar to that of male believers. Female monks are typically referred by the word “nun” (Latin nonna), an honorific title indicating age and respect. Prominent theologians and leaders such as Augustine and Jerome (in the West) and Basil (in the East) were enthusiastic champions of monasticism—for men and women both. Jerome counted among his close friends a number of noteworthy Roman women—such as Melania the elder, Melania the younger, and Paula—who were important figures and founders of monastic houses. Since, by the fourth and fifth centuries, women had been increasingly excluded and restricted from any sort of official (ministerial) position in the Church, the monastic movement functioned as a kind of early “liberation”, providing women with opportunities for participation and expression of their faith which was otherwise unavailable (outside the traditional setting of the family), giving them a distinct and empowering religious identity of their own. By the time of the high Middle Ages, a complex and rich religious culture had developed, in which women contributed variously as authors and poets, prophets and doctors, even political leaders and consultants, leaving their mark unmistakably on both the Church and society at large for generations to come. I will touch on this a bit further in the concluding article of this series.

Women in the Church: Part 8 – The Old Testament

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Having examined most of the relevant passages in the New Testament, it is now time to look at some of the Old Testament references which can be said to be related, in some way, to our subject. I offer here only a brief survey, to which doubtless numerous other passages and comments might be added. Emphasis is given especially to those sections or examples which were influential on Jewish and early Christian thought, and which may inform the view of women in the New Testament.

The Creation Account (Genesis 1-3)

The Creation narratives in Genesis are, as one might expect, fundamental to Jewish and early Christian views on the role of women and gender relations. There are three steps, or stages, in the overall Creation account, corresponding to each of the first three chapters:

  • 1:1-2:4a—The summary of Creation, the relevant portion being the declaration in vv. 26-27:
    “Let us make (hu)mankind [<d*a*] in our image [<l#x#], according to our likeness [tWmD=]…
    And God created the (hu)man (being) in His image, in the image of God He created him—male and female He created them.”
  • 2:4b-25—The Creation of Man and Woman:
    (i) Creation of the man [<d*a*] (vv. 5-17)
    (ii) Creation of the woman (vv. 18-22)
    (iii) Relationship between man [vya!] and woman [hV*a!] (vv. 23-25)
  • Chap. 3—The rise of the current Human Condition:
    (i) Deception of the woman and man by the serpent (vv. 1-13)
    (ii) God’s curse/punishment on Creation: (a) the serpent (vv. 14-15), (b) the woman (v. 16), (c) the man (vv. 17-19)
    (iii) Establishment of the human condition: (a) names (v. 20), (b) clothing (v. 21), (c) death/mortality, i.e. life-span (v. 22), (d) work and toil (v. 23), (e) separation from divine/eternal life (v. 24)

In the symbolism and language of this narrative, humankind (“Man” [<d*a*]) is first “the man” [<d*a*h*], then is separate into “male and female”, indicated two ways: (a) the narrative image of the joining “rib” (vv. 21-23), and (b) the wordplay of “man” [vya! °îš] and “woman” [hV*a! °iššâ]. This sequence and relational imagery is important for an understanding of subsequent Jewish and Christian thought. Jesus draws upon the Creation narrative (citing 1:27; 2:24) in his teaching on divorce in the Gospel tradition (Mark 10:2-12 par; Matt 5:31-32; Luke 16:18; cf. also 1 Cor 7:10-11). The emphasis is on the fact that humankind is man and woman, male and female, together, as symbolized in society by the marriage bond. Paul’s use (and interpretation) of the Genesis account in relation to gender distinction and the role of women in the Church is more complex, and problematic (from our standpoint today). I have discussed this already with regard to 1 Cor 11:3-9 and 1 Tim 2:11-15 in Parts 1 and 5 of this series. See also the supplemental note on Gen 3:16.

The Law and Israelite Religion

The commandments and legal passages of the Torah as recorded in the Pentateuch (Exodus–Numbers, and Deuteronomy) are instructive for establishing the position and role of women in ancient Israelite society. Many of the underlying ideas and precepts continued on in Judaism through the New Testament and subsequent periods. Due to the complex nature and sensitivity of some of this material, I have decided to address it in a separate supplemental article.

With regard to Israelite religion in particular, the following points may be noted here:

  • The priesthood was reserved for men. Though this is never stated specifically in principle, it is always assumed. The high-priestly office was designated for “Aaron and his sons” (Lev 1:5, 7-8, etc; 8:2 et al; Num 3:1-4ff). Similarly for the Levites—according to the Torah, the males of the tribe of Levi took the place of the firstborn males in Israel, as priests in the service of God (Num 3:5-13, 41-51; 8:5-26).
  • Otherwise, there is no indication that participation in public ritual and worship, including access to the Tabernacle/Temple, was restricted for women. The later Temple design did designate a limitation (partition) for access by women (the “Court of Women”, cf. Josephus Antiquities 15.417-19; Wars 5.192-200; Against Apion 2.103-5; Mishnah Midd. 2.2-5; Sukk. 5.2-4, etc), but this is not specified anywhere in the Torah and represents a subsequent development.
  • Men and women shared in the tasks of building and decorating the original tent-shrine (Tabernacle), according to Exod 35:20-29; 36:2-7.
  • While all of Israel was expected to participate in the sacred festivals (or “Feasts”), there was a specific directive for men—that all adult males would appear at the central sanctuary (i.e. the Temple in Jerusalem) for the three major (harvest) festivals (Exod 23:17; 34:23; Deut 16:16).

Women may have taken part in various religious rituals in an official capacity, as musicians, or in other attendant roles, such as indicated by Exod 38:8; 1 Sam 2:22; 2 Sam 19:35; 2 Chron 35:25; Ezra 2:65 (and Neh 7:67), but the precise details are not entirely clear.

Miriam

Miriam [<y`r=m!] was the sister of Moses and Aaron according to Exod 15:20; Num 26:59 and 1 Chron 6:3. She is presumably the sister mentioned in the infancy narrative (Exod 2:1-10, vv. 4, 7-8). Miriam appears in two important narrative episodes in the Pentateuch:

Exodus 15:20-21

Following the miraculous crossing of the “Reed Sea” (chapter 14), two poetic hymns are recorded in chapter 15—one composed and/or sung by Moses and the people as a whole (vv. 1-18, the “Song of Moses”, “Song of the Sea”), and the other by Miriam (v. 21, the “Song of Miriam”); likely only a small portion of this latter song has been preserved. In verse 20, Miriam is referred to as ha*yb!N+h^, “the (female) prophet” or “the prophetess“, the noun ayb!n` essentially signifying one who functions as a representative and spokesperson for God, who communicates his word and will to the people. Here the context implies that the song she sings is an inspired poem.

Numbers 12:1-16

This wilderness episode is introduced with the statement that “Miriam and Aaron spoke with Moses on account of the Kushite woman he had taken (as his wife)” (v. 1). Their attitude in approaching him on the subject is indicated in verse 2, which summarizes their thought: “Has YHWH spoken only with Moses? Has he not also spoken with us?”. This may indicate that Miriam and Aaron were prophets in their own right, as it is said of Miriam in Ex 15:20; her name comes before Aaron’s here, which may mean that she was a more prominent figure, or simply that she was the older of the two. A kind of sibling rivalry may be reflected, not wishing to be accorded a lower standing of leadership and influence than Moses (note how the three are grouped together as leaders in Mic 6:4). In verses 4-9 God addresses the three together in the ‘Tent of Meeting’ where He confirms that Moses’ stature is greater even than prophets such as Miriam, since he receives revelation from God directly (face to face). The punishment Miriam receives, the whitening of her skin (i.e., ‘leprosy’), is probably related symbolically to the darker skin of Moses’ “Kushite” wife, who had been the reason for the dispute.

Deborah

Deborah (hr*obD=, lit. [The] Bee) was one of the <yf!p=v) of Israel in the early period. The verb fp^v* refers to the act of rendering a decision, or judgment, i.e. one who presides in an authoritative governing position (judge, ruler, law-giver, etc). Prior to the establishment of monarchy in Israel, persons were chosen to rule over the tribal league only on a temporary basis, usually in the face of a national emergency. Such persons were called fp@v) (usually translated as “Judge”), and their exploits are recorded in the book of Judges. As far as we know, Deborah is the only woman who filled this role in Israel (Judg 4-5). Unlike other <yf!p=v), she did not personally lead the armies into battle (this was done by the general Barak), but it is clear that she served as ruler (or Judge) during the period when Israel was being threatened by the Canaanite king of Hazor (4:1-6ff). It is also said of Deborah that she was a prophetess (ha*yb!n+), like Miriam before her (Exod 15:20); the ancient poem in Judg 5 is attributed to her (together with Barak), presumably as an inspired song. Following the great victory over Jabin of Hazor, the land “was at rest for forty years”. In association with this battle, we may note in passing the role played by another women (Jael) in killing the Canaanite general Sisera (Judg 4:17-22; 5:6, 24-27); according to the cultural sensibilities of the time, this would have been an extremely humiliating way for a military commander to die.

Occasionally (male) commentators have expressed unease at the idea of a woman in such a ruling position, and have sought to explain it in various ways. Often this reflects sexist thinking and prejudice as much as any kind of serious study of Scripture. One is reminded of John Knox’s regrettable “Trumpet-blast” against the “rule of women” in the Reformation period; that he (and others like him) were misguided in their views is confirmed by evidence from history and from Scripture itself. Indeed, women have proven to be able rulers alongside (or in place of) men, as may be documented throughout history, in spite of the added social/cultural pressures they often face. Perhaps the most famous example of the ancient Near East is the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut of Egypt (18th Dynasty, 1498-1483 B.C.). For every wicked Jezebel or Athaliah there is a virtuous Esther, much as we find in the case of men who rule. The idea sometimes floated, that God only chose Deborah because there were no qualified men available, is as fatuous as it is unwarranted.

Female Prophets and Joel 2:28-32

In addition to Miriam (Exod 15:20) and Deborah (Judg 4:4), several other female prophets are mentioned in the Old Testament: Huldah (2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chron 34:22), Noadiah (Neh 6:14), and the woman mentioned in Isa 8:3 who is otherwise unidentified. Such instances are relatively rare, perhaps, but they clearly indicate that women could serve (and be chosen by God) as prophet (ayb!n`)—that is, as a spokesperson who represents God before the people, and who communicates his word and will. Female prophets are known throughout the ancient world, the most famous certainly being the oracle of Delphi and the Roman Sibyls. While the priesthood in Israel was reserved for men (cf. above), women could function equally as prophets.

This egalitarian principle is confirmed in the (eschatological) prophecy of Joel 2:28-32 [Hebrew 3:1-5]:

“And it will (come to) be after this
(that) I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh
and your sons and daughters will speak (on my) behalf [WaB=n] i.e. prophesy]…
And also/even upon the (male) slaves and the (female) house-servants
will I pour out my Spirit.”

In the ‘end times’ (or the Age to Come, etc), God’s Spirit will come upon all people (“all flesh”)—men and women alike, even for the lowest of society (slaves and servants). This basic idea is reflected elsewhere in the Old Testament, as in the declaration (by Moses) in Numbers 11:29: “And who (would not) give that all the people of YHWH (should be his) spokespersons [<ya!yb!n+ i.e. prophets], and that God (would) give his Spirit upon them!” The prophecy in Joel 2:28ff came to have enormous influence on early Christian thought, being cited in the great Pentecost sermon-speech of Peter (Acts 2:14-36 [vv. 17-21]), following the coming of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4ff). Admittedly, specific evidence for female prophets even in the New Testament is relatively slight (Acts 21:8-9; 1 Cor 11:2-16; and cf. chaps 12-14), but this may be due (in part) to historical circumstances. Other women function as prophets in the Gospel tradition, including Anna (Luke 2:36), Elizabeth and Mary (1:41-45, 46-55, cf. also v. 25); the latter oracle (the Magnificat) in particular is similar to the (inspired) poetic utterance attributed to Hannah in 1 Sam 2:1-10.

Women in the Prophets and Wisdom Literature

Female imagery and character-types appear frequently in the Old Testament Prophets and Wisdom Literature, the most common type being that of the virtuous woman, which has its practical ideal in the wise, faithful, and dutiful wifePsalm 128:3; Prov 5:18; 12:4; 18:22; 19:14; 21:9 (25:24); 27:15; Eccl 9:9; and, especially, Prov 31:10-31 (cf. also Sirach 26). This same basic type also serves to personify virtue (righteousness) and wisdom itself. This was altogether natural, since the Hebrew word hm*k=j*, like the corresponding Greek sofi/a, is feminine in its (grammatical) gender. Similarly, and by contrast, folly and wickedness are often portrayed as a prostitute or “loose” woman. For the use of these two types, cf. Prov 1:20-2:22; chap. 5; 6:23-29; 7:1-8:21; 9:1-6, 13-18; Eccl 7:26. True wisdom is also divine—it is a manifestation of the character and power of God, cf. Prov 3:19-20; 8:22-31, etc. For similar passages in the important deutero-canonical books of Wisdom and Sirach, cf. Wis 6:12-25; 7:22-8:21; chaps. 10-11; Sir 1:14-20; 4:11-19; 6:18-31; 15:1-10; 24:1-22. We can see how this basic type relates to some of the other female imagery found in the writings of the Prophets:

Concluding Note on Female imagery and Sexuality

It is interesting how rarely the actual relationship between man and woman (husband & wife) is emphasized, especially in terms of sexuality. Obviously, marital/sexual relations are a key element in many of the historical-traditional narratives in Genesis, etc., and often in such accounts the woman makes for a highly sympathetic figure in her own right (cf. the examples of Sarah, Hagar, Dinah, Tamar, etc). But throughout most of the Old Testament—especially in the Prophetic and Wisdom literature—sexuality is largely presented from a negative standpoint, as symbolizing sin and false worship (idolatry), under the euphemistic images of prostitution and adultery (cf. above). And, somewhat unfortunately perhaps (from our vantage point today), in this imagery the woman is typically seen as the source of error and deception (i.e. seduction). This is already evidenced in the Creation account (cf. above), and vividly depicted in the famous (though highly complex) narrative in Numbers 25. On the other hand, this negative type is counterbalanced by the contrasting image of the faithful and virtuous woman (wife), as discussed above.

Sexuality on its own is really only dealt with in the Song of Songs, a collection of poems written in the manner and style of ancient Near Eastern love poetry (numerous examples survive from Egypt and Sumer). The specific language and metaphor used is foreign enough to our culture today that the erotic nature of the Song is not always apparent on a casual reading (in translation). It has, of course, been interpreted various ways, but the underlying traditions which inform the material are purely those of Near Eastern love poetry. There would seem to be at least one main female protagonist in the Song, as well as a number of subsidiary characters.

Perhaps the most complete and well-rounded female character in Old Testament narrative is that of Ruth (tWr), central figure of the book which bears her name. It remains one of the most appealing and attractive of the Old Testament stories (for modern readers), with positive ‘role-model’ characters in Ruth and Naomi, as well as the central male figures; the scenes between Ruth and Boaz and tenderly depicted. Ultimately, of course, the primary purpose of the tale was to introduce the lineage of David (4:13-22), but we can be grateful that the rich and detailed narrative was included for men and women of all ages to enjoy.

Women in the Law (Torah)

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Reading the Old Testament Law (Torah) for Christians today is a difficult matter, as I have discussed at length in my series on The Law and the New Testament. Without a proper understanding of the religious and cultural context of the time, many passages will doubtless seem strange indeed. With regard to the position and role of women, one may be disappointed that there is so much that runs contrary to modern ideals of women’s rights and gender equality. Even in terms of the surrounding societies of the ancient Near East, the legislation in the Torah presents no marked progress (from our modern perspective) in these areas; in fact, in certain respects, it reflects an even more restrictive position for women (on this, cf. below). The traditional-conservative approach, which takes the text at face value—i.e., the commands are God’s revealed word to Israel—introduces an especially acute theological difficulty: how can God have established laws for Israel which seem to contradict, at times and in various ways, the finest ideals both of the New Testament and of an ‘enlightened’ modern society? It is not possible to address this question here in any detail, and I will limit my brief study in this article to an honest and straightforward examination of the passages in the Torah which relate to the role of women.

Male Orientation of the Law

To begin with, it is clear from the very beginning of the tradition—i.e., in the Decalogue (Ten Commandments)—that the Law is being addressed primarily to men (cf. the wording in Exod 20:17). This reflects the patriarchal and patrilineal character of Israelite society, as, indeed, of most societies in the ancient Near East. Men serve as the heads of the household, and of the larger clan, tribe, etc., and similarly function in the leading religious roles (the priesthood), and as ruling elders, judges, etc., of the Israelite tribal union (Exod 24:9-11; Num 11:16ff). This male orientation is evident in various aspects of the Torah commands and regulations; I note the following:

The importance of the (male) firstborn—This is emphasized in Exod 34:19-20, 23; Num 3:11-13, 40-51; 8:5-26; 18:1ff. The Torah draws upon ancient religious beliefs and traditions regarding the sacred position of the firstborn—the firstborn males are consecrated as an offering to God (Deut 15:19-23). This is taken literally in the case of animals; for human beings, the firstborn son is to function in a priestly role. In ancient Near Eastern culture and religion, the eldest son held a (semi-)official position, especially with regard to the care of the ancestral spirits. For the religious cultus in Israel, the ritual duties are assumed by a specialized priestly group—the males from the tribe of Levi take the place of the firstborn sons of Israel as a whole, who are purchased back (redeemed) to their families in a special symbolic rite (Num 3:44-51; cf. Luke 2:22ff).

Circumcision—All Israelite males were to have the foreskin of their genitals “cut around” (circumcised). Normally this would occur on the eighth day after birth (Lev 12:3), but might be done for adult converts as well (Gen 34:15-24; Exod 12:44, 48). It is hardly unique to Israel, as various forms of circumcision were common and widespread throughout the ancient world, and even today in traditional/tribal societies. However, in Israel it was specifically established as a rite symbolizing the covenant between God and his people (Gen 17:10-27). As such, it always held a special significance within Israelite/Jewish society with regard to a person’s religious identity (cf. Acts 10:45; 11:2ff; 15:1ff; 21:21; Rom 2:25-29; 3:1; Gal 2:1-10ff, etc).

The rights of husbands and fathers (i.e. over their wives and daughters)—Several of the regulations in the Torah make clear that men (husbands and fathers) have specific rights over women, in terms of their conduct, crimes committed against them, and so forth (cf. Exod 21:22ff; 22:16-17; Num 30:3-16). In such matters, women do not hold the rights themselves, as would be the ideal in modern society. Note especially the regulation regarding divorce, which was the prerogative of the husband (Deut 24:1-4), and the notorious ritual (ordeal) for a woman suspected of unfaithfulness/adultery (Num 5:11-31, cf. below).

Sexual regulations—Generally the commands/regulations regarding sexual conduct (Lev 18:6-23; 19:20-22; 20:10-21, etc) are oriented toward the male: it is he who is commanded against “uncovering the nakedness” of women, in instances where sexual relations are prohibited.

The “Holy War”—The rules laid down for the “consecration” (<r#j#), i.e. holy warfare, allow for Israelite men to take women (and children) as booty/spoils of war (i.e. slaves), and to make such a woman his wife (Deut 20:10-14; 21:10-14). The entire matter of the <r#j# is exceedingly difficult (and troubling) for many Christians and concerned readers of the Old Testament today, and cannot be dealt with here.

Equality of Men and Women

In certain respects, men and women were treated more or less equally under the Law. This is particularly so with regard to their own (physical) bodies and persons. Note especially:

Sin—The regulations regarding sin and its ritual (sacrificial) atonement apply equally to men and women, without any apparent distinction (Num 5:6ff; Deut 17:2ff)

Impurity/Uncleanness—For the most part, the purity laws (Lev 11-15) apply to men and women equally. The only exception involves the special case of the impurity of a woman following menstruation/childbirth (cf. below).

Religious participation—Apart from the priesthood, which was reserved for men, there do not seem to have been any notable restrictions as to the participation of women in the religious ritual—i.e. involvement in the feasts/festivals, access to the sacred space of the Tabernacle, etc. Special religious vows, including that of the Nazirite, were open to women as well as men (Num 6:2ff; 30:2-16).

Slaves—Again, for the most part, male and female slaves were treated equally (Exod 20:10; 21:20-21, 26-27, 32; Lev 25:6, 44; Deut 5:14ff; 12:12, 18; 15:17, etc). Only in Lev 27:1-8 do we see a difference, in terms of monetary valuation, which presumably reflects the ability to do certain kinds of physical work.

Special Cases and Concern for Women

There are several passages dealing with the treatment of women which are worthy of note:

  • Special regulations for the treatment of female slaves—Lev 21:7-11
  • Concern for widows and orphans—Exod 22:22-24; Deut 10:18; 14:29; 16:11, 14, etc. This is also the basis for the provision of “levirate marriage” (Deut 25:5-10)
  • Women (daughters) are allowed to inherit property, when there are no sons, as long as they marry within the same clan—Num 27:1-11; 36:1-12 (the case of the daughters of Zelophehad). This regulation is actually more restrictive for women than in other ancient Near Eastern societies, as indicated by surviving laws from Sumer and Mesopotamia (including the Code of Hammurabi §§171-181), the cities of Nuzi and Ugarit, etc., where daughters were apparently allowed to inherit (alongside or in place of sons) with fewer restrictions (cf. Milgrom, pp. 482-4).

Two special cases, which reflect a particular ancient cultural worldview, now quite foreign to us today, need to be examined briefly:

Purification ritual for menstruation and childbirth
  • Leviticus 15 records purity laws related to the bodily emissions of men and women—semen and menstrual fluid/blood. Both result in impurity which must be cleansed through a (ritual) process which involves both seclusion and sacrificial offering. For a man, he is unclean until the next evening, while a woman, following menstruation, is in a state of impurity for seven days. This difference is almost certainly due to the fact that the woman’s discharge involves “blood”, for which, in the ancient mind, there was an association with death, and with it, various taboos intended to safeguard society from any possible threat. It was especially important to keep impurity away from the religious sanctuary.
  • There are similar purity regulations for the woman who gives birth, in Lev 12:2-8. However, one also finds a curious detail regarding the length of her required seclusion—seven days if it is a male child, fourteen days (twice the time) if a female child. It is not easy to come up with an adequate or meaningful reason for this difference. Perhaps the best explanation relates again to the sacred character of the blood: the female child, who will grow up to be child-bearing woman, carries this same blood as her mother, and so the situation requires special protection, symbolized by the doubling of the time of seclusion. This is not a valid reason from the standpoint of modern health and hygiene, but it may accurately reflect the ancient way of thinking. Cf. the discussion in Levine, pp. 249-50.
The ritual/ordeal in Num 5:11-31

Even more difficult to understand is the ritual provided in the case of woman who is suspected (or accused) by her husband of infidelity. The ritual serves as a means of testing the accused (i.e. trial by ordeal), involving:

(a) Presentation of the woman and preparation of the offering and (sacred) water (vv. 15-18)
(b) An oath taken by the woman, in penalty of God’s curse—the curse being written down and mixed into the water (vv. 19-24)
(c) The twin ritual act of the woman’s sacrificial offering and drinking the test-water (vv. 25-28)

This is similar in certain respects to other water/river ordeals known from the ancient Near East (cf. Milgrom, pp. 346-7), and its apparently superstitious character is unquestionably problematic for us today. However, there is no need for Jews and Christians to rationalize or explain away this aspect of the ritual, which, to a large extent, simply reflects the religious-cultural context of the time. Indeed, this is essential to a proper interpretation of the passage. The situation must be considered closely. As the text points out, the woman is only suspected/accused of adultery, but she has not been caught in the act, nor is there any definite proof. In a strict patriarchal society, such as in ancient Israel (and the Near East), the tendency might be for the husband (and/or his relatives) to rush to judgment and mete out punishment—which, in the case of adultery, was death (cf. John 8:1-11). An ordeal ritual, while quite foreign to us today, was relatively common and accepted practice in the ancient world, and actually served as a valuable protection for the woman, as it placed a determination of guilt and punishment out of the hands of suspicious/vengeful men and into the hands of God. It is not known to what extent this particular ritual was ever implemented; Rabbinic sources express some unease about the matter, but indicate that the Temple apparatus was equipped to carry out the rite (cf. Milgrom, p. 348). Interestingly, according to the Torah, even if the woman failed the test and was thus deemed guilty, she was not sentenced to death (the typical punishment for adultery), but was instead rendered sterile through the ritual itself.

References marked “Levine” and “Milgrom” above are to the JPS [Jewish Publication Society] Torah Commentary, volumes by Baruch A. Levine (Leviticus, 1989) and Jacob Milgrom (Numbers, 1990).

Women in the Church: Part 7 – The Gospels and Acts

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Having explored the subject of Women in the Church in the Pauline Letters, it is now time to turn and examine the relevant information from the Gospel Tradition, and in the book of Acts. I will be dividing this article according to the following outline:

  1. Sayings and Teachings of Jesus
  2. Jesus’ Interaction with Women (in the Gospel Narratives)
  3. Followers of Jesus in Gospel Tradition
  4. The Role of Mary
  5. Women in Luke-Acts

1. Sayings and Teachings of Jesus

There are actually very few sayings by Jesus involving women recorded in the canonical Gospels, and most of these are simply proverbial and tell us relatively little about his views on the position of women and gender relations. Women are featured in a couple of parables (Matt 13:33 par; Luke 15:8; 18:2-5) as stock characters. Two groups of sayings are perhaps a bit more significant:

(a) Traditional references to a woman’s pains in giving birth, symbolic of the suffering of the human condition—especially in association with the coming Judgment at the end-time (Mark 13:8, 17 par), which, in the Gospel narrative is set generally in the context of Jesus’ own suffering and death (cf. Luke 23:28-29; John 16:21).
(b) The illustrative image of the widow, again as a typical figure symbolizing human suffering and injustice—Mark 12:40-43 par; Luke 4:25-26; 18:2-5; cf. also Lk 7:12.

In several passages, Jesus addresses the topic of marriage, most notably in: (1) the sayings/discourse regarding divorce (Mark 10:2ff, par Matt 19:3ff; Matt 5:31-32; Luke 16:18); and (2) the case involving marriage and the resurrection (Mark 12:18-27 par). The latter passage seems to downplay the importance of marriage, to some extent; and, indeed, one detects an ascetic tinge in a number of Jesus’ sayings, such as Mark 10:29ff par; Matt 19:12. By all accounts, Jesus himself never married; and, according to the narrative context of Mk 10:29f, a number of his disciples had apparently left their families in order to follow Jesus (v. 28). In this regard, it is interesting to note an extra-canonical saying of Jesus which goes a step further in denying the significance of sexuality and gender distinction among believers. It is preserved in at least three sources—the (Coptic) Gospel of Thomas saying 22; 2 Clement 12; and in Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 3.13.[92] (attributed to the “Gospel of the Egyptians”). Gosp. Thom. 22 is presumably the earliest occurrence (late-1st/early-2nd century):

Jesus saw infants being suckled. He said to His disciples, “These infants being suckled are like those who enter the Kingdom.” They said to Him, “Shall we then, as children, enter the Kingdom?” Jesus said to them,

“When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female; and when you fashion eyes in the place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, and a likeness in place of a likeness; then will you enter [the Kingdom].” (Translation by Thomas O. Lambdin)

This (purported) saying has similarities with mystic-ascetic and “Gnostic” thought, as attested, e.g., in the Gospel of Philip §73, 78, and Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 5.7.15 (citing teachings of the Naassene sect). In 2 Clement 12:5 the saying of Jesus is explained to the effect that a male believer should not look upon a female believer as a woman, that is, according to her sexuality or physical/biological gender (cf. Gal 3:28).

2. Jesus’ Interaction with Women

The Gospels record a number of episodes in which Jesus interacts with women. In some of these narratives he is depicted as disregarding or challenging certain social (and religious) conventions regarding the proper interaction of men and women—at least, the narratives may be read this way. Note, for example, the reaction of Jesus’ (male) disciples in Jn 4:27. Most significant, perhaps, is his friendship with Martha and Mary (the sisters of Lazarus, acc. to Jn 11:1-3); the authenticity of this relationship is confirmed by the fact that it is attested (independently) in at least two separate strands of tradition—Luke 10:38-42 and John 11:1-44; 12:1-11. The declaration by Martha in Jn 11:27 regarding Jesus’ identity (as Anointed One [Messiah] and Son of God) holds a place in the Fourth Gospel similar to that of Peter’s confession in the Synoptics (Mk 8:29 / Lk 9:20 / Matt 16:16). At the very least, this indicates that Martha (and Mary) were believers and followers of Jesus (cf. below).

Many of the episodes show Jesus responding with compassion to the poor and outcast elements of society—a familiar and popular theme in the Gospel tradition. This produced some degree of negative reaction, even scandal, from onlookers and opponents, much as his willingness to associate with “sinners” (Mk 2:15-17 par; Lk 7:39; 19:7, etc). These are the episodes of note (“par” indicates parallel narratives in the other Synoptic Gospels; negative reactions are indicated by the verses in square brackets):

  • Healing of the women with a discharge of blood (hemorrhage)—Mark 5:25-34 par
  • Healing (exorcism) of the daughter of a Syrophoenician woman—Mark 7:24-30 par [note the exchange in vv. 27-28]
  • Healing (resurrection) of a widow’s son—Luke 7:11-17
  • Healing of a crippled woman—Luke 13:10-17 [v. 14]
  • Discussion with the Samaritan woman—John 4:1-42 [v. 27, a woman and a Samaritan no less!]
  • Response to the “adulterous” woman—John 7:53-8:11 [vv. 3-5] (an authentic tradition, if not part of the original Gospel)
  • Response to the “sinful” woman who anointed him—Luke 7:36-50 [vv. 39ff]
  • Response to the woman who anointed him at Bethany—Mark 14:3-9 par in Matt [vv. 4-5]; in John 12:1-8 the woman is identified as Mary, sister of Lazarus (the precise relationship between the two version, as well as Lk 7:36-50, remains much debated). Later tradition conflated the two figures—Mary and the “sinful” woman—with Mary Magdalene (also healed by Jesus according to Lk 8:2, and cf. below).

3. Followers of Jesus

By all accounts, the first followers of Jesus (those called by him) were all men. This is certainly true with regard to his closest disciples, the circle of Twelve in early Gospel tradition (Mark 3:13-19 par; Acts 1:13, 16ff). These were the men whom Jesus sent out, on at least one occasion, to preach and work miracles in his name (Mk 6:7-12 / Matt 10:5-15 / Lk 9:1-6; 22:35ff). This is the fundamental meaning of the word apostle, from a)poste/llw (“set/send forth”); and the Twelve were closely identified with this title in early Tradition (Mk 3:14; 6:30 par; Lk 22:14; Acts 1:2, 25-26, etc). Luke records a separate tradition (or version) where Jesus sends out a group of 70 (or 72) disciples on a similar mission (10:1-12); most likely these also were men, though this has to be inferred from the context. This limitation of discipleship and missionary work to men may simply be a product of historical circumstance, since the idea of itinerant female preachers and healers traveling about would have been shocking indeed to the cultural sensibilities of the time. And yet, we do have at least one notice that there were women followers of Jesus, in Luke 8:1-3, where it is stated that Jesus passed through the cities and villages “proclaiming the good message of the kingdom of God…”

“…and the Twelve (together) with him, and (also) some women th(at) had been healed from evil spirits and infirmities… who served/ministered to them [i.e. Jesus and the Twelve] out of the (thing)s under their (control) [i.e. their goods/possessions]”

These women are identified as: (1) Maryam {Mary} called Magdalene, (2) Ioanna {Joanna} wife of Chuzas, (3) Susanna, as well as “many others”. It would seem that their service was more or less limited to material aid and support. This same tradition is confirmed by (and may actually derive from) the notice in Mark 15:40-41. Indeed, the women followers of Jesus play an important role in the Passion and Resurrection narratives, part of the earliest Gospel narrative, and attested variously in all four Gospels (the Synoptics and John):

  • There were women standing a distance away, watching the crucifixion of Jesus (Mark 15:40-41, par Matt 27:55-56; Luke 23:49; also John 19:25). It is said that they had come with Jesus from Galilee, where they had helped in the work of ministry (Mk 15:41, cf. above). Mark and Matthew single out three who will take part in the next episode—Mary Magalene, Mary mother of James (and Joses), and Salome. Luke likewise mentions the first two (Lk 24:10), while John records a different set of four (or three) women who stand nearby: Mary (Jesus’ mother), Mary’s sister and/or Mary wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.
  • At least some of these women continued watching as Jesus was taken down from the cross, to see where he would be buried. Each of the Synoptics narrates this somewhat differently:
    Mark 15:47: Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of (James and) Joses saw where Jesus was buried
    Matt 27:61: Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting opposite the tomb
    Lk 23:55-56: The women followed and saw where/how he was buried, then returned to prepare spices and ointment
  • According to Synoptic tradition, Mary Magdalene and Mary mother of James/Joses came early the next morning to see the tomb (Matt 28:1) and anoint the body (Mark 16:1-2; Lk 24:1). Mark mentions a third woman (Salome), while Luke may indicate the presence of others as well (Lk 24:10). The tradition(s) recorded in John differ in that Nicodemus brings the spices, etc to anoint Jesus before his burial (Jn 19:39-40) and Mary Magdalene is the only woman said to come to the tomb that morning (Jn 20:1ff).
  • The women (as variously mentioned): (a) see the empty tomb, (b) are greeted by angel(s) announcing the resurrection, and (c) encounter the resurrected Jesus. This common outline is old and reliable, but the specific details in the narrative (Mk 16:1-8, [9-11]; Matt 28:10; Luke 24:1-10; John 20:1-2, 11-18) vary to an astonishing degree, and are actually extremely difficult to harmonize intelligibly (for those who wish to do so).
  • The women (or certain of them) report the empty tomb and the resurrection to the other disciples, including the Twelve (Matt 28:10, 11, 16; Luke 24:9-12, 22-24; John 20:2ff, 17-18; [Mark 16:9-11]).

It can be said that Mary Magdalene (and other of the women) were the first to see the resurrected Jesus, and the first to preach the Gospel (i.e. announce the resurrection). Understandably, this has been a popular point to make by modern-day preachers, in relation to the question of the role of women in the Church. The point is dramatized even further by the tradition of the disbelief of the disciples (including the Twelve) at hearing the news ([Mark 16:11, 14]; Luke 24:11). This detail is likely to be authentic (on objective grounds), since the later tendency was to downplay anything which cast the apostles in a negative light (but see how it also enhances Peter’s role, Lk 24:12 cf. Jn 20:3ff).

According to Acts 1:14, women were together (along with Jesus’ mother Mary) with the Twelve in the ‘upper room’ following Jesus’ ascension, and may have been present (at the historical level) in the post-resurrection scenes in which Jesus addresses and commissions his followers (Matt 28:16-20; Luke 24:33-49, 50-53; John 20:19-29). Acts 1:4-11 seems to assume only the Twelve (Eleven), as also in Mark [16:14-20]. In 1 Cor 15:6, Paul mentions an appearance by Jesus to more than 500 disciples, which certainly would have included a good number of women (cf. below). Somewhat surprisingly, Mary Magdalene does not seem to be part of early Christian tradition (outside of the resurrection accounts) and is not mentioned in the book of Acts.

4. The Role of Mary, Jesus’ Mother

Of all the women in Christian Tradition, (the Virgin) Mary, mother of Jesus is by far the most prominent. And yet, it is quite surprising how little she appears in the earliest strands of tradition. In the core Synoptic tradition, she hardly appears at all, briefly in one episode (Mark 3:31ff par); otherwise, she is only mentioned in Mk 6:3 / Matt 13:55. She has a somewhat larger role in two scenes in the Gospel of John—the wedding at Cana (Jn 2:3-5) and with the women and the ‘Beloved’ disciple at the cross (Jn 19:25-27). The latter episode presumably has greater symbolic meaning, perhaps suggesting that Mary is now the “mother” of the disciples (i.e. the Church). Of course, she is central to the Infancy narratives in Matt 1-2 and Luke 1-2 (as well as in later extra-canonical Gospels), and this would be the primary basis for the subsequent Catholic/Orthodox veneration of Mary, already evidenced in the so-called Proto-Gospel (Protevangelium) of James (early-mid 2nd century).

It is the Lukan narrative in which Mary plays the most prominent role, in several significant scenes:

  • Lk 1:26-38—The Angelic announcement of Jesus’ coming conception (and birth), indicating how she has been favored by God (v. 30), and will be touched by the presence and power of God (vv. 35-37)
  • Lk 1:39-56—The visit to Elizabeth, who utters the inspired blessing (vv. 42-45), and which is the occasion/setting for the oracle by Mary (in a few MSS it is by Elizabeth), the so-called Magnificat (vv. 46-55)
  • Lk 2:1-20—The birth and visit of the Shepherds; most significant is the statement in verse 19 that Mary “kept all these utterances [i.e. by the shepherds, etc] (close) together, throwing (them) together in her heart”. This shows her in the process of considering the meaning and significance of Jesus’ birth and the wondrous events associated with it.
  • Lk 2:22-35ff—The encounter with Simeon set in the Temple precincts, in the context of fulfilling the purification ritual (following childbirth), etc (vv. 22-24). Such details are brought out, in part, to show the faithfulness/devotion of Joseph and Mary in religious matters (vv. 21, 39, 41ff, 51). A portion of Simeon’s oracle is directed to Mary (v. 35, cf. my earlier note for more detail).

We may also mention her role in 2:41-51, which contains at least one important point of emphasis—that Jesus’ natural (family) relations are subordinate to his relationship to God (the Father), cf. the juxtaposition in vv. 44, 46, 48, and Jesus’ famous statement in v. 49.

According to some commentators, Luke’s version of the episode in Mark 3:31-35 par has been (re)interpreted to show that Mary, along with Jesus’ natural family (brothers, etc), are among those who believe and follow him (cf. the separate note on Lk 8:19-21). Whether or not this view is correct, Mary is clearly depicted as a believer in Acts 1:14, where she appears together with the Twelve (Eleven) apostles, other women followers, and (notably) Jesus’ brothers (at least some of them). Interestingly, Mary is not mentioned by name elsewhere in the New Testament, being referenced only indirectly in Gal 4:4 (cf. also Rom 1:3), and possibly the scene in Revelation 12 (vv. 4b-6).

5. Women in Luke-Acts

Many scholars and commentators have noted that, generally, the Gospel of Luke gives more attention to women. In addition to the expanded role of Mary in the Infancy narratives, etc (cf. above), we may point out the following episodes or details unique to Luke:

  • The role of Elizabeth (Lk 1:5-7, 13, 18, 24-25, 36, 39-56, 57-60ff), set parallel to Mary (part of the wider John/Jesus parallel in the narrative); she, like her husband Zechariah (vv. 67-79) is “filled with the Holy Spirit” and utters a prophetic announcement (vv. 42-45). In a few manuscripts, she is also the one who delivers the Magnificat (vv. 46-55).
  • The mention and description of Anna (2:36-38), a (female) prophet, just as Simeon was inspired to utter a prophetic oracle. They both are aged figures, frequenting the Temple precincts, representative of the righteous/pious ones of Israel (i.e., the Old Covenant) who are looking forward to the coming redemption (vv. 25, 38).
  • Sayings, parables and healing miracles involving women (cf. above)—Lk 4:25-26; 7:11-17; 13:10-17; 15:8-10; 18:2-5. As indicated above (section 1), such episodes in the Gospel tradition tend to relate to human suffering and injustice, which often afflicts women who are in an especially vulnerable position (widows, etc). Luke gives greater emphasis to matters involving the poor/outcast and what today we would call social justice. To these we can add the scene of Jesus being anointed by a “sinful” woman (7:36-50), seemingly a parallel version or ‘doublet’ of Mark 14:3-9 par; John 12:1-8, but with many important differences. Note also the scene on the way to the cross in Lk 23:28-29.
  • References to Mary Magdalene and the other women who followed Jesus—Lk 8:1-3; 23:49, 55-56; 24:1-12, 22-24—which, for the most part, Luke inherited as part of the wider Gospel (and Synoptic) Tradition (cf. above).

When we turn to the book of Acts, right away we see women, including Jesus’ mother Mary, among the close followers of Jesus waiting together in Jerusalem, in the ‘upper room’ (Acts 1:13-14). Women are certainly to be counted among the 120 who are likewise gathered together (1:15ff), and present when the Spirit comes upon them all on the day of Pentecost (2:1-4ff). This interpretation of the scenario is confirmed by the use of Joel 2:28-32 in the great Pentecost sermon-speech by Peter which follows (2:14-36, vv. 17-21). In that Scripture God declares that (in the last days)

“…I will pour out from my Spirit upon all flesh and your sons and daughters will prophesy…”
“(yes,) even upon my (male) slaves and my (female) slaves will I pour out from my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy…”

The implication is clear: God gives out his Spirit upon all believers equally, male and female alike, regardless of socio-economic position (i.e., even upon slaves). The implications of this equality are not really followed through in the narrative of Acts, but they are dealt with, to some extent, by Paul in his letters (cf. the earlier articles in this series, esp. Parts 1 and 3 on 1 Cor 11:2-16 and Gal 3:28). The only female prophets specifically mentioned in the book of Acts are the daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9). There are also several passages where believers are distinctly referenced as “men and women” (5:14; 8:3, 12; 9:2; 22:4; cf. also 17:4, 12). These references should not be limited to men and their wives—they are unquestionably to be read in the more general sense of male and female believers. Several of the verses refer to men and women sharing together in the persecution faced by believers (8:3; 9:2; 22:4). Elsewhere in the narratives, there are a number of episodes where specific women are involved; in at least some of these, we can infer that they likely played a significant role in the spread of Christianity and the establishment of churches:

  • 9:36-42—The disciple Tabitha/Dorcas, who was healed from a serious illness by Peter
  • 12:12ff—Mary the mother of John Mark, whose house apparently was used as a meeting-place for believers (a house-church? cf. Rom 16:3; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15)
  • 16:11-15—Lydia, who along with other (prominent) women of Philippi, became believers during the missionary work of Paul and Silas (and Timothy, etc); she apparently hosted Paul and his companions in her house for a time (v. 15)
  • 17:34—Damaris, a woman specifically mentioned, apparently one of the few converts during Paul’s brief (and turbulent) stay in Athens
  • 18:2ff, 18, 26—Priscilla (or Prisca), with her husband Aquila, was a leader/minister in the churches of Corinth (1 Cor 16:19), Ephesus (cf. 2 Tim 4:19), and then (apparently) back in Rome (Rom 16:3). They hosted congregations in their house, and were close companions of Paul. Priscilla was a capable enough teacher in the faith to instruct Apollos “more accurately… (about) the Way [of God]” (Acts 18:26); the extent to which she may have done this in consort with her husband would seem to be of relatively little importance. However, it appears to have been troubling enough for the author/editor(s) of the “Western” version of Acts (D gig syr copsah arm al), that her name was either omitted from the text or placed after her husband’s (cf. the UBS/Metzger Textual Commentary [2nd edition], pp. 413-14). Some traditional-conservative commentators today might sense the same difficulty.

Note of the Day (Luke 8:19-21)

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Luke 8:19-21

Today’s note is supplemental to the discussion on the role of Mary in the Gospel and early Christian tradition (in Part 7 of the current series on Women in the Church). As I noted previously, Mary is mentioned only twice in the core Synoptic Tradition, appearing briefly in just one episode: Mark 3:31-35 (with parallels in Matthew and Luke). The Markan narrative sequence (essentially followed by Matthew) can be outlined as follows:

  • 3:19b-20—Narrative introduction; and cf. the context of Jesus’ healing (exorcism) miracles in vv. 10-12
  • 3:21—Notice regarding the (negative) reaction by Jesus’ companions/relatives (lit. “the ones alongside”), declaring “he stands out of (himself)”, i.e. is beside himself, out of his mind, etc
  • 3:22-30—Jesus/Beelzebul episode:
    (i) The reaction by Scribes from Jerusalem to Jesus: “He holds Baal-zebul!”, “In (the power of) the chief of the daimons he casts out the daimons!” (v. 22)
    (ii) Two sayings/illustrations by Jesus, the second of which refers to the blasphemy (lit. “insult”) against the Holy Spirit (vv. 23-29)
    (iii) Comment/explanation by the Gospel writer (v. 30)
  • 3:31-35—Jesus’ true family: (a) narrative setting (vv. 31-32), (b) reaction and illustrative statement by Jesus (vv. 33-35)

Note how this sequence draws upon two important themes from earlier in the narrative:

  • Miracles of healing by Jesus (vv. 1-5ff), which includes exorcism of evil spirits (or daimons [“demons”]) (vv. 10-12)
  • Opposition and hostile reaction to Jesus by the religious authorities (vv. 1-6)
  • Jesus together with his disciples (vv. 7ff, 13-19a)

In 3:20-35, the central episode combines the first two of these themes—(a) Jesus’ power over the daimons and (evil) spirits responsible for disease, etc, and (b) hostile reaction by the religious authorities. Framing or bracketing this episode are two shorter episodes involving the reaction to Jesus by his (natural) relatives and companions, identified as:

  • “the ones alongside of him” (oi( par’ au)tou=)—v. 20, and
  • “his mother and his brothers”—v. 31

In the first instance, “the ones alongside” Jesus may refer to his relatives and neighbors. Upon hearing the things he was saying and doing (the healing/exorcism miracles?), they “came out [e)ch=lqon] to grab/seize him”, thinking that he was ‘out of his mind’. At the very least, this indicates that Jesus’ relatives (or companions) did not understand who he was or the nature of his ministry. The second scene is less negative: Jesus’ family (his mother [Mary] and brothers) came [e&rxetai] and stood outside of the house (or room) where Jesus was staying and teaching, etc., and sent (a messenger) to call for him. Matthew’s version adds the detail that they were “wishing to speak to him” (v. 46), and narrates the words of the messenger (v. 47, missing in some manuscripts): “See, your mother and your brothers have (been) stand(ing) outside, looking to speak with you”; in Mark, the crowd around Jesus gives this information to him (3:32). Jesus response is:

“‘Who is my mother and [my] brothers?’ And looking around at the circle (of people) sitting around him, he said: ‘See!—(here is) my mother and my brothers! [For] whoever would do this will of God, this (one) is my brother and sister and mother.'” (vv. 33-35)

Jesus clearly is contrasting his natural family with those (his followers, etc) who do God’s will—i.e., his religious or spiritual family. Matthew’s version makes this even more clear: instead of “looking around” at the people, Jesus stretches out his hand over his disciples (12:49) before making the declaration.

Luke (8:19-21), it would seem, has changed the emphasis of this scene, in several ways:

  • It no longer occurs in the context of the Beelzebul episode (narrated in 11:14-23), thus removing it from the theme of hostile/negative reaction and opposition to Jesus. It also is no longer set parallel with the reaction of Jesus’ companions in Mk 3:20 (Luke and Matthew both omit or do not include this scene).
  • In the Lukan narrative context, the episode follows two Synoptic parables (8:4-18) which effectively emphasize faithful discipleship and response to the Gospel, in which the true disciples are contrasted with those who fall away or are not faithful. Moreover, the chapter begins with a notice (8:1-3) of Jesus’ close disciples who are sharing in his ministry work—this includes a number of women (vv. 2-3; cf. Mk 15:41).
  • In the episode itself, there is no contrast between Jesus’ natural family and his disciples; almost certainly Luke has omitted this detail on purpose.

Here is how the episode reads in Luke’s version:

“And his mother and his brothers came to be alongside [parege/neto] near [pro$, lit. “toward”] him, but were unable to hit [i.e. meet] together with him through the throng (of people); and the message was (sent) to him: ‘Your mother and your brothers have (been) stand(ing) outside wishing to see you’. And answering Jesus said to them, ‘My mother and my brothers—these are the (one) hearing and doing the word of God!'”

We find less of a contrast or division—his family outside, Jesus and his disciples inside—in this version. Moreover, his mother [Mary] and brothers have come near to Jesus and wish to see him, but are unable to reach him through the crowd. In the Lukan context, this suggests that Mary and his brothers wish to be together with Jesus, as disciples, like the Twelve and the women mentioned in 8:1-3. Luke would count them as followers of Jesus—that is, as believers—but they are separated from him by circumstances related to his ministry work (i.e. the crowds). Earlier in the Infancy narrative, we find a similar image of Mary responding in faith and obedience (Lk 1:38, 46ff; 2:21-24, 39, 41), wishing to understand the nature of the miraculous events surrounding Jesus’ birth (2:19); but true belief/understanding would not result without difficulty and struggle (and division) along the way (2:35, 44-50). That there was some degree of misunderstanding and opposition toward Jesus by his family and relatives is indicated, not only in Mark 3:20, but by the narrative detail in John 7:1-10 (cf. also Mk 6:1-6 par; Lk 4:22-30). Ultimately, the Lukan interpretation of the scene in chapter 8, suggested above, is confirmed by the notice in Acts 1:14, where Mary and Jesus’ brothers are there, as believers, together with the Twelve and the faithful women—all in the same room, with no separation.

On Church Organization in the Pauline letters

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In order to understand the information in the Pastoral Letters regarding the organization and administration of churches (cf. Part 6), a survey of the evidence from the Pauline corpus as a whole will be useful. Here it is important to distinguish the letters where there is little or no question of authorship by Paul, and those which many critical commentators regard as pseudonymous. The undisputed Pauline letters are (roughly in chronological order):

  • 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, Romans, 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon; to which I add 2 Thessalonians and Colossians

All of these would have been written in the period c. 48-60 A.D. The letters most often thought to be pseudonymous are:

  • Ephesians and the Pastorals (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus)

If these are authentically Pauline, then they probably would have been written c. 60-63 A.D.; if pseudonymous, then they would be later productions, the Pastorals often dated to the end of the 1st century (c. 80-100) or even the beginning of the 2nd. I discussed the situation regarding the Pastoral letters briefly in Part 5, mentioning that, in my view, the evidence for pseudonymity is a bit stronger for 1 Timothy. Personally, I am inclined to the view (on objective grounds) that 2 Timothy is genuinely Paul’s work, and probably so for Titus as well. I leave open the (reasonably strong) possibility that 1 Timothy is a later work, written in imitation of 2 Timothy (and possibly Titus), and will use this as a working hypothesis for the short study below.

The Earliest Letters

Of the 7/9 ‘undisputed’ letters of Paul (cf. above), it is interesting to note that church organization and administration does not play a major role, at least in terms of providing specific detail as to how congregations are (or ought to be) governed. Paul writes a good deal about his own ministry work, along with that of his fellow missionaries, including his (and their) role as apostle (a)po/stolo$)—1 Thess 1:2-10; Gal 1, etc. This derives from the very early Christian idea of one who was sent forth (to preach the Gospel, etc) as a representative of Christ. Early tradition centers this idea with the Twelve (Mark 3:13-19 par; Acts 1:13, 16-26), and those first believers (in Jerusalem) who witnessed the resurrected Jesus and participated in the initial wave of missionary activity (Acts 1-2ff; 1 Cor 15:5-11; on Rom 16:7 cf. Part 4). These missionaries and preachers played a leading role in the founding of the first congregations all throughout Syria-Palestine and the wider Greco-Roman world. When addressing the congregations, in the earliest surviving correspondence (1 [and 2] Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians), Paul gives little indication of a well-defined church structure, tending to emphasize the ideal that all believers have a place (and important roles to play) in the body of Christ—1 Thess 1:3ff; 4:9; 2 Thess 1:3-4, 15; 3:6ff; Gal 3:26-29; 6:15-16; 1 Cor 1:2, 10ff, 26-31; 2:14-16; 3:1-4, 21-23; chaps. 11-14, etc. The only passage which suggests definite leadership roles within the congregation is 1 Thess 5:12f:

“And I ask of you, brothers, to have seen [i.e. to recognize] the (one)s laboring [kopiw=nta$] among you and standing before [proi+stame/nou$] you in (the) Lord and putting (things) in mind [nouqetou=nta$] for you, and to give them the lead [i.e. judge/esteem/consider them] over and above [i.e. abundantly] in love through [i.e. because of] their work.”

The three verbs (participles) indicated here are not titles or official positions, but rather describe roles and regular activity (“work/labor”) within the congregation. The second verb (proi+/sthmi) implies a leading role—one who provides guidance, help (and protection) for the congregation (cf. Rom 12:8; 16:2, also 1 Tim 3:4-5 etc). The third (nouqete/w) indicates teaching and instruction (cf. 2 Thess 3:15; Rom 15:14; 1 Cor 4:14 etc). Such persons are to be accorded positions of honor and respect within the congregation. In Galatians, the rhetorical thrust of the letter prompts Paul to downplay positions of (supposed) authority in the Church—even that of apostle—subordinating all human authority to the truth of the Gospel (Gal 1:6-9, 11-23; 2:1-10ff; 6:11-16).

1 Corinthians

The Corinthian correspondence (esp. 1 Corinthians) provides by far the greatest detail as to how congregations (are to) function. While the leading position of Paul and his fellow missionaries (Apollos, et al) as apostles and “servants” (cf. below on dia/kono$) remains prominent (cf. all through chaps. 1-4, 9; 16:10ff), the congregation is described in rather egalitarian and “democratic” terms; note the following:

  • The theme of unity which is set in contrast to divisions/groupings based on the authority, etc. of prominent individuals (1:10-17; 3:1-9, etc), including Apollos, Cephas (“Peter”) and Paul himself. The argument running through chapters 1-4 also functions as a warning toward those who might seek to control/influence believers on the basis of their gifts and talents.
  • In chapters 5-6 the emphasis is on the ability (and expectation) of believers to govern their own affairs, in a prudent and common-sense fashion. No mention is made of appeal to the authority of official positions in the churches, other than that of Paul (the apostle). Indeed, 5:3-5 suggests a straightforward division of authority: (a) the apostle, and (b) the assembled congregation (as a whole).
  • The lengthy and complex line of argument in chapters 8-10 has, at its core, that the “strong” in the churches should subordinate their own (personal) authority and interests to the good of the congregation (especially of the “weaker” members).
  • The discussion of corporate/community life and worship in chapters 1114 presents a model of many roles and functions, operating more or less equally—and in unity—within the congregation (the ‘body’ of Christ). Note the many different “gifts” of ministry mentioned in 12:4-11 (and the roughly contemporary list in Rom 12:4-8). Similarly, it is expected that many different people could (and should) participate actively in the worship-meeting (chap. 14, esp. verses 26-33). There is no suggestion that any of these roles were reserved for specific “offices”. Moreover, it is clear that men and women both could take active speaking/preaching roles in the meeting, as long as certain customs were properly observed (11:2-16). The two ‘highest’ gifts or roles were that of: (1) apostle, i.e. the missionaries who were involved in the founding of the churches and their oversight; and (2) prophet, i.e. one who communicates the (revealed) word and will of God to the congregation. Cf. 1 Cor 12:28-31; 14:1ff, 24, 29-33, 37-39; Rom 12:6; Eph 4:11.

dia/kono$

The Greek word dia/kono$ (diákonos, “servant”) can range in meaning from a waiter of tables (cf. Acts 6:1-6) to a person who holds public office (including a religious office). It is used 21 times in the Pauline corpus, including 12 (or 16) times in the undisputed letters. In most instances, Paul clearly understands it, not as the title of an official position (i.e. deacon), but in the general sense of “minister”—that is, of Christ and the Gospel. He likely views it as partly synonymous with dou=lo$ (“slave”)—i.e. slave/servant of Christ, which Paul applies to himself (and others) frequently in his letters (Rom 1:1; Gal 1:10, et al). The word certainly has this general (Christian) meaning in Rom 16:1 (cf. the discussion in Part 4); 1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6; 6:4; 11:15, 23; Col 1:7, 23, 25; 4:7; and cf. Eph 3:7; 6:21; 1 Tim 4:6. It is also used in a general sense of Christ (Gal 2:17; Rom 15:8), and human (civil) authorities (Rom 13:4). Only in 1 Tim 3:8-12 does dia/kono$ likely refer to a distinct office (or official position) in the Church; on Phil 1:1, cf. below.

Philippians 1:1

Paul’s greeting in Phil 1:1 includes the somewhat unusual phrase (in italics):

“…to all the holy ones [i.e. “saints”] in (the) Anointed Yeshua {Christ Jesus}…(together) with (the) overseers and servants/ministers“.

Here Paul seems to distinguish two groups (or positions) that are set apart from the congregation as a whole. The second of these (dia/kono$, “servant”, i.e. ‘minister’) has been discussed above. The first word requires special comment.

e)pi/skopo$ (epískopos)—This word fundamentally means “one who looks (carefully) over something”. It occurs only five times in the New Testament (Acts 20:28; Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:2; Tit 1:7; 1 Pet 2:25), but cf. also the related verb e)piskope/w (Heb 12:15; 1 Pet 5:2). This careful examination (“looking over”) is usually understood as being done by an authority or person appointed (as a representative) for such a task. The related noun e)piskoph/ sometimes has the specific meaning of the actual visit (or time of the visit) made for examination/inspection—in Jewish tradition, for the time God visits the earth for Judgment (Lk 19:44; 1 Pet 2:12). Acts 1:20 (citing Psalm 109:8) uses e)piskoph/ in the sense of a position (that of apostle), and so also in 1 Tim 3:1. The best translation for e)pi/skopo$ is “overseer”; it really should not be rendered in the New Testament as “bishop”, not even in the Pastoral letters.

The word is used only once in the undisputed letters of Paul (Phil 1:1), but also occurs in the context of early Christian (and Pauline) tradition in Acts 20:28. In that narrative setting, Paul is addressing the “elders” (presbu/teroi) of the churches of Ephesus, who have come to visit him, at his request, in Miletus (v. 17-18). Here is the instruction he gives them in verse 28:

“Hold (attention) toward yourselves and to(ward) all the herd [i.e. flock {of sheep}], in which the holy Spirit has set/placed you (as) overseers [e)pisko/pou$] to (shep)herd the congregation [e)kklhsi/a] of God, which he made (to be) round about (himself) [i.e. he acquired] through (his) own blood.”

Assuming that this reflects authentic historical tradition, it would correspond roughly to the time of Phil 1:1 (c. 60 A.D.). All that is really indicated here is that elders (certain of them at least) are to oversee the welfare and protection of the congregations, especially against false teaching. Their roles are described only generally in this regard. They are to continue and preserve/maintain the work done by the founding missionaries (Paul and the other apostles), and so act with some measure of (apostolic) authority, if only by example. One or more elders would fulfill this role for each congregation (usually a house-church) in each city or location. What of the situation implied by Paul in Phil 1:1? The fact that these two roles/positions—e)pi/skopo$ and dia/kono$—are not discussed anywhere else in the letter (nor really in any of the other [undisputed] Pauline letters) strongly suggests that we are still dealing with a very generalized distinction, which I would summarize as follows:

  • e)pi/skopo$ refers to the elder (or elders) who has come to exercise the leading role(s) in overseeing the congregation; these persons may have been appointed by Paul (or other apostles) and confirmed (presumably) through a ritual process involving the laying on of hands.
  • dia/kono$ refers to any/all persons exercising (leading) ministry roles in the congregation, presumably according to the spiritual “gifts” and abilities recognized in 1 Cor 12ff; Rom 12:6-8, etc.

Ephesians 4:11

Eph 4:11-12 contains a list of “gifts” similar to those in 1 Cor 12:4-11 and Rom 12:4-8, only the emphasis is not so much on the Spirit—rather they are said to have been given by Christ. Also, the various gifts in the earlier letters have been ‘replaced’, it would seem, by more clearly defined roles in the Church—five are listed:

(1) Apostles, (2) Prophets, (3) Preachers, i.e., those proclaiming the Gospel, (4) ‘Shepherds’, and (5) Teachers

The first two match the two ‘highest’ gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians, while preaching/proclamation of the Gospel and teaching are natural functions for any Christian minister. In early tradition, it seems clear that “shepherd” (poimh/n) is generally synonymous with e)pi/skopo$ (“overseer”), as attested both in Acts 20:28 (above) and in 1 Pet 2:25. Most likely, poimh/n was the older, and more widely used term, going back to Jesus’ own words and the Gospel tradition (regarding Peter, etc)—cf. Mark 6:34; 14:27 par; John 10:2-16; 21:15-17; 1 Cor 9:17; 1 Pet 5:2. The corresponding (traditional) word in English is “pastor”. It should be noted that many commentators believe that Ephesians is pseudonymous, serving as a kind of compendium of Pauline teaching, much as it is assumed for the Pastoral letters. Whether or not this view is valid, it does seem that this passage reflects some degree of development—i.e. a five-fold ministry instead of the more diverse ministerial roles indicated within 1 Corinthians. On the other hand, assuming Pauline authorship, it is possible that these five roles effectively summarize what Paul has in mind when he uses the term dia/kono$ (“servant”) to refer to the (leading) ministers in the Church.

2 Timothy and Titus

There is actually very little information regarding the structure and organization of the churches in these letters, which, perhaps, could be seen as an (additional) argument in favor of their authenticity (in contrast with 1 Timothy). In 2 Timothy, the focus is almost entirely on Paul’s (personal) instruction to Timothy. According to the (assumed) historical situation, Timothy would be serving as Paul’s (apostolic) representative, exercising authority and care over all the congregations in a particular region (trad. the area around Ephesus, cf. 1 Tim 1:3). He is exhorted to follow Paul’s example, and to preserve correct teaching and tradition (as it has been passed down to him). Very little detail is given with regard to ministerial roles in the churches, apart from a reference (in passing) to the practice of the laying on of hands (1:6). In Titus, the apostolic role is set out more precisely (Tit 1:5ff; 2:1ff), and several of the points of instruction are treated much more extensively in 1 Timothy; note especially:

  • The reference to the establishment of elders (presbu/teroi) in each town/congregation (1:5-6ff); such elders are called “overseer” (e)pi/skopo$), as in Acts 20:28 (cf. above). Cf. 1 Tim 3:1-13.
  • The guidelines on how to give instruction, and on the roles of men and women, etc., in the churches (2:1-10, cf. 1 Tim 2:1-10ff; 5:1-6:2).

In my view, it is incorrect to read a later, developed view of bishop into the reference to “overseers” in Tit 1:7ff. Here in Titus (and 1 Timothy), it is clear that the “elders” are understood as men (i.e. gender-specific), and perhaps also in Acts 20:17, etc. Interestingly, presbu/tero$ (whether singular or plural) is not used in any of the undisputed letters of Paul, only in the Pastorals (1 Tim 5:1-2, 17, 19; Tit 1:7).

1 Timothy

Here, in all of the New Testament writings, we find the clearest (and most extensive) information about specific ministry roles or positions in the Church. They are:

  • “Overseer” (e)pi/skopo$)—3:1-7
  • “Servant/Minister” (dia/kono$)—3:8-12
  • “Widow” (xh/ra)—5:2-16, i.e. female “elders”, ideally widows over the age of sixty, with a specific position and duties in the congregation
  • “Elders” (presbu/teroi)—5:17-20

Commentators continue to debate the precise meaning of e)pi/skopo$ (“overseer”) here. Much depends on one’s view of the authorship (and dating) of the letter. If it is authentically Paul’s work (and written before c. 64 A.D.), then it is likely that he is simply referring to the elder (or elders) appointed to oversee the congregation. On the other hand, a later (c. 80-110) pseudonymous writing may assume something closer to the bishop of subsequent ecclesiastical tradition—i.e., one who exercises authority over all the churches in a particular city or region, entailing a more direct hierarchical chain of government. According to the (presumed) historical setting of the Pastorals, only Timothy and Titus themselves, as Paul’s (apostolic) representatives, function in anything like this wider role. It is, I think, unwise to read the developed meaning of e)pi/skopo$ too readily into 1 Tim 3:1-7. Similarly, it is unclear whether, or to what extent, dia/kono$ (“servant/minister”) here fits the (later) office of deacon. The pairing of dia/kono$ with e)pi/skopo$ may simply be building upon the (earlier) terminology used in Phil 1:1 (cf. above). The “overseers” and “ministers” seem to be understood as gender-specific roles (1 Tim 3:2-5, 12); however, the reference to “women” in 3:11 could conceivably refer to female ministers (cf. Rom 16:1-2 and the separate note on v. 11). The widows (5:2-16) are generally the female counterpart to the (male) elders in 5:17-20.

Women in the Church: Part 6 – The Pauline Letters

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Having already examined five primary passages in the Pauline letters—1 Cor 11:2-16; 14:33b-36; Gal 3:28; Rom 16:1-2ff, and 1 Tim 2:11-15—in some detail, it remains to survey other portions of the Pauline corpus which relate in some way to role of women in the Church. As a way of organizing and presenting the evidence, I have decided to divide them roughly between:

(a) Passages which emphasize the equality and/or reciprocity of the genders, and
(b) Those which indicate that women are in some sense subordinate to men, or may be restricted from fulfilling certain roles

The situation, of course, is considerably more complex than this simple division suggests; however, I believe that it genuinely reflects two aspects of Paul’s thought and teaching regarding gender roles, etc. It also happens to follow the two basic views or approaches to the subject by Christians today. A serious error of modern commentators and church leaders, etc, is that they tend (or wish) to focus on just one side of the question, to the exclusion of the other.

1. Passages which emphasize the equality and/or reciprocity of the genders

1 Thess 2:7, 11—Paul uses mother/father (female/male) imagery, applying them equally, in turn, to the role and function of apostles. Cf. also Gal 4:19, etc.

1 Corinthians 7—According to the language and (reciprocal) style Paul uses throughout this chapter, men and women (husbands and wives) have equal status—i.e. in the context of marriage, especially with regard to sexual relations. There is no emphasis whatsoever on headship/submission here.

1 Corinthians 12-13 & 14:1ff—Spiritual “gifts” (charismata) relate to all believers—note the use of pa=$ (“all”) repeatedly in 12:6, 11-13, 19, 26, 29-30; 13:2-3, 7; 14:5, 18, 23-26, 31. There is really no indication that any of the gifts or roles mentioned in these sections (with the possible exception of “apostle”, cf. below) apply only to men or are restricted for women. According to 11:2-16 (cf. Part 1) women may function as prophets, which is the second ‘highest’ gift/role after in the church after apostles (12:28ff). This means they may exercise a role that involves preaching/teaching, and 14:3 would suggest that women who prophesy also instruct/edify men in the assembly. Only 14:34-35 refers to any restriction on the participation of women in the worship meeting, but the context of this reference needs to be examined closely (cf. the discussion in Part 2). The emphasis on unity among believers (in the corporate setting) also means that all gifts/roles in the church ultimately are subordinated to the love-principle (chap. 13, cf. Gal 5:14ff).

2 Cor 11:2-3Female imagery is applied to believers as a whole, without qualification or comment. Note above on 1 Thess 2:7, and cf. Rom 7:2-3; 9:25.

Rom 12:4-8—Cf. 1 Cor 12-14, and also Eph 4:11-13. It is possible that the language “the one teaching [o( dida/skwn]”, etc., in vv. 7-8 is gender-specific, but Paul does not make a point of it. He frequently uses masculine terms and (grammatical) gender when referring to believers (men and women) generally or collectively.

Along with these passages, one should note instances where Paul makes special mention of certain women, indicating they are fellow ministers/missionaries or otherwise hold prominent/leading roles in the churches. In addition to Phoebe and the others mentioned in Romans 16 (cf. Part 4), we have:

  • Prisca and her husband Aquila (1 Cor 16:19, also Rom 16:3; 2 Tim 4:19, and cf. Acts 18:2, 18, 26).
  • Chloe (1 Cor 1:11)—a prominent (and wealthy) person in Corinth, who may have been important in the church.
  • Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2-3).
  • Apphia (Philemon 2), specifically called “sister” in context with the “brothers” of v. 1.
  • Nympha (Col 4:15)—like Prisca, she hosts a congregation in her house, and presumably has a prominent position in the church.

When Paul refers to such women in relation to himself and other (male) ministers, he generally does so without any distinction. See especially in Rom 16:1ff and Phil 4:2-3, where terms such as “servant/minister” (dia/kono$), “co-worker” (sunergo/$), and perhaps even “apostle” (a)po/stolo$, cf. Rom 16:7), are used equally of women.

2. Passages which emphasize subordination or restriction of roles for women

Gal 1:1ff; 1 Cor 3:5ff, etc—In the vast majority of instances where Paul uses the terms dia/kono$ (“servant/minister”) or a)po/stolo$ (apostle), he applies them to men—most often himself, but also Apollos, etc. Only once is dia/kono$ used specifically of a woman (Rom 16:1-2, cf. above). Similarly, in the New Testament, the term a)po/stolo$ is only used of men, with the possible exception of the reference to Junia in Rom 16:7. This relative imbalance may simply reflect circumstances of culture and social convention at the time, rather than a rule regarding the role of women in ministry. Admittedly, the evidence for women in these leading roles is fairly slight (cf. above), but it is significant enough (especially in light of Rom 16:1-2, 7) that it should, at the very least, give one pause before denying the positions to women outright.

Gal 6:6; 1 Cor 2:15-16, etc—It is possible that masculine gender expressions such as “the one instructing”, “the one (who is) spiritual”, “he judges”, “him”, etc, in certain passages assume a gender-specific context, indicating that men are (to be) in leadership roles (cf. on Rom 12:4-8 above)

2 Cor 8:17-18ff; 9:3ff—Here the representatives sent to the congregations appear to be men, i.e. “brothers” in the stricter (gender-specific) sense. This, however, does not necessarily mean that women were forbidden from such roles. Note again Rom 16:1-2, where Phoebe, a leading figure (minister) in the churches of Cenchreae/Corinth, likely is the one carrying the letter on Paul’s behalf, and he introduces/recommends her formally to the churches of Rome.

Phil 1:1, 14—It is possible that here in v. 1 dia/kono$ (“servant/minister”), along with e)pi/skopo$ (“overseer”) refer specifically to men, though this depends somewhat on the relationship with 1 Tim 3:1-13; Tit 1:5-9 (cf. below). If “brothers” in verse 14 is taken in a stricter, gender-specific sense, it may assume that certain speaking/preaching roles are (to be) filled by men.

Col 3:18-19 (and Eph 5:22-24ff)—Here Paul (or the author) is referring to the marriage relationship—husband and wife—within the Christian community. The verb u(pota/ssw literally refers to being under (an arranged) order, but the passive/reflexive form often indicates obedience or even being (made) subject to a higher (ruling) authority. The wife/woman is to be “under order” (i.e. subordinate) to her husband (i.e. to his position/authority), but the same is not said of the husband/man (contrast this with the reciprocal language in 1 Cor 7); instead, it is said that he must love (and be gentle/caring toward) his wife. Much the same is stated in Eph 5:22-24ff, but the instruction has been expanded with the illustration of the relationship between Christ and the Church (his Bride) in vv. 23-24, which is worth quoting:

“…(in) that the man/husband is head [kefalh/] of the woman/wife, even as the Anointed (One) {Christ} is head of the congregation [e)kklhsi/a], he (being) savior of the Body—but (then) as the congregation is set in order under [u(pota/ssetai] the Anointed (One) {Christ}, so also the women/wives to the men/husbands in all (thing)s.”

Ephesians is considered by many (critical) commentators to be pseudonymous, but, even if this were granted, the statement here would still seem to reflect genuine Pauline teaching (cf. 1 Cor 11:3ff).

The Pastoral Letters—For the difficult critical questions related to these letters—in terms of authorship, date of composition, historical background and interpretation—along with a discussion of 1 Tim 2:11-15 in particular, cf. Part 5. Of all the letters in the Pauline corpus, these (esp. 1 Timothy) provide the clearest evidence for a restriction of leading/ministerial roles in the churches. In addition to 1 Tim 2:11-15, note the following passages in particular:

  • 1 Tim 3:1-13—The context makes fairly clear that “overseers [e)pi/skopoi]” (certainly) and “servants/ministers [dia/konoi]” (probably) are to be men. The only uncertainly is in the reference to “women” in v. 11 (cf. the note on this verse).
  • 1 Tim 5:2-16, 17ff—The widows in the congregation (vv. 2-16) have a role (as female “elders”) comparable to the (male) “elders” (vv. 17-20). This also suggests a definite division/distinction, especially if it is assumes that the elders (presbu/teroi) are men, as in Tit 1:5-9. According to v. 17, preaching and teaching are generally reserved as roles for the elders.
  • 2 Tim 2:2; 3:17—Similarly, teaching is to be done by “trustworthy men” (2:2), where a)nqrwpoi (“men”) is almost certainly used in a gender-specific sense; this is likely true for the expression “man of God” in 3:17 as well.
  • Titus 1:5-9—The context makes it clear that the “elders” (presbu/teroi), especially those appointed as “overseer” (e)pi/skopo$), are understood to be men.
  • Titus 2:3-5—The role of older women (i.e. female “elders”) would seem to be limited to instruction of the younger women. Here also we have the directive, stated briefly, that wives are to be “in (proper) order under” their husbands (using the verb u)pota/ssw as in Col 3:18-19; Eph 5:22-24, cf. above).

Conclusion

The passages which most clearly (and directly) emphasize restriction of roles for women, and/or their subordination under the men of the Community, are in those letters which are commonly regarded as pseudonymous—the Pastoral letters (esp. 1 Timothy), Ephesians (and Colossians). This means that there are likely to be significant differences of opinion as to what Paul himself actually believed and taught, depending on one’s view of authorship of these letters. Similarities and parallels can be found, to some extent, in the undisputed letters (e.g., 1 Cor 11:3-9ff; 14:33b-36; Phil 1:1), but it is methodologically unsound (and unwise) to read the teaching of the Pastoral letters, for example, back into 1 Corinthians, etc, without further ado. Each passage must be examined in the context of the letter and the situation which is being addressed. Overall, the evidence from the undisputed letters would indicate that women could serve in leading roles, as ministers in the churches, with few restrictions. A somewhat different picture is presented in 1 Timothy (and perhaps in Titus). The only role which seems to be reserved for men, without question, is that of the elder (presbu/tero$) who is to function as overseer (e)pi/skopo$) of the congregation. Unfortunately, these positions are scarcely mentioned at all in the undisputed letters—presbu/tero$ (“elder”) is never used, and e)pi/skopo$ (“overseer”) only once (Phil 1:1), briefly and without further comment (but cf. Acts 14:23; 20:28). Otherwise, while the evidence is relative slight (and occasionally ambiguous), women in the ‘Pauline churches’ seem to be recognized and allowed to function as ministers in various ways, including certain roles involving preaching and teaching. However, there continue to be differing views on the subject, and so it should remain open for dispute and discussion, without prejudice.

For additional background on this subject, see the separate article on “Church Organization in the Pauline Letters“.