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Special Note on 1 Corinthians 13:8

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In discussing the role of Prophets in the early Church, I have mentioned the difficulty in relating it to the modern Age, and thus in applying passages such as 1 Cor 11:2-16 to the Church today. If Paul accepts the idea of women functioning as prophets, delivering messages in the congregational meeting, then this would certainly seem to support the idea that women may also do so (i.e. preach) today. However, according to one line of interpretation, the spiritual gifts (xarisma/ta, charismata) documented and described in 1 Corinthians (and elsewhere in the New Testament) are part of a unique set of phenomena, limited in time (more or less) to the age of the Apostles and the initial spread of Christianity. According to this view, Paul is essentially describing a situation which no longer applies today, contrary, of course, to the core belief of Pentecostal, Charismatic and Spiritualist traditions. But if, for example, 1 Cor 11:2-16 is taken as referring specifically to women exercising a (prophetic) gift which is no longer in effect, then it would not necessarily support the general idea of women preaching or delivering messages in the church meeting today. It is thus worth examining the main verse (also in 1 Corinthians) which refers to the gift of prophecy coming to an end.

1 Corinthians 13:8

This is part of the famous Love-chapter in 1 Corinthians, 12:31b-14:1a. I have explored the setting and structure of this section in an earlier note. Here is the outline again:

  • 12:31b: Introduction to the way of love
    • 13:1-3: The superiority of love—contrast with other spiritual gifts (Current time)
      —Such gifts without (being guided by) love are of little value

      • 13:4-7: The characteristics of Love
    • 13:8-13: The superiority of love—contrast with other gifts (Eschatological/teleological–in the End)
      —All such gifts will pass away, love is one of the only things which remain
  • 14:1a: Exhortation to the way of love

Love is contrasted with the spiritual “gifts”, in the parallel statements of vv. 1-3 and 8-13—the first referring to the current time (for believers in the Church), while the second refers to the end time. Verse 8 introduced this second section:

“Love does not ever fall; but if (there are thing)s foretold [i.e. prophecies], they will cease working; if (thing)s (spoken in other) tongues, they will stop; and if (there is) knowledge, it will cease working”

Paul does not refer here to knowledge generally, but to a special kind of spiritual knowledge or revelation, granted to believers by the Spirit. This idea of knowledge (gnw=si$) is given considerable emphasis in 1 Corinthians (cf. 1:5, 21ff; 8:1-3ff; 12:8; 14:6, etc), and especially here in chapter 13. The close connection between knowledge and prophecy is important (cf. 14:6), and is indicated by the parallel structure of the verse:

  • Prophecies will cease working [katarghqh/sontai] —Speaking with (other) tongues will stop
  • Knowledge will cease working [katarghqh/setai]

It is interesting that the phenomenon of speaking in other tongues occurs in between the references to prophecy and knowledge, since ‘speaking in tongues’ (glossolalia) was the central phenomenon marking the coming of the Spirit upon believers (in Acts 2). At the same time, prophecy and knowledge reflect two (higher) aspects of the Spirit’s work among believers as they participate in the Community. Though they can be separated as distinct “gifts”, they are really two sides of the same coin. In chapter 14, prophecy and messages in tongues are mentioned as specific ways that believers (men and women) may speak and minister within the meeting; Paul clearly gives priority to prophecy—delivering a message expressing the word and will of God in the ordinary language of the people—rather than similar messages in unknown languages (tongues) which require special interpretation. The close connection between prophecy and knowledge is reiterated in verse 9:

“For we know (only) out of a part [i.e. in part], and we foretell [i.e. prophesy] out of a part…”

The phrase e)k me/rou$ (“out of a part”) means that, even through the presence and work of the Spirit, believers only have a portion—that is, the knowledge and revelation we have of God, and from Him, is partial and limited. And it is this partial understanding, made available through the gifts of the Spirit, which will “cease working”:

“…but when the (thing which is) complete should come, (then) the (thing which is only) out of a part will cease working.” (verse 10)

It is the same verb (katarge/w), used twice in v. 8, and frequently elsewhere by Paul—of the 27 occurrences in the NT, all but two are found in the Pauline letters, including 9 times in 1 Corinthians. The basic meaning of the verb is to make something stop working, have no effect, etc. Paul uses it in a variety of contexts, but the essential idea is related to something new (e.g., the new covenant in Christ) replacing that which was in effect before (the old covenant). With the presence of the new, the old “ceases working”—i.e. is no longer valid or has no effect. In the current context of 1 Cor 13, the idea is that the old way (the spiritual gifts) is no longer needed or of any use. What is it that makes the prior working of the Spirit in believers obsolete? This is stated in v. 10a, and is the interpretive crux of the passage:

“when the (thing which is) complete should come”

Because of the importance of this clause, it will be helpful to look at each word in detail.

o%tan (“when[ever]”)—this is a combination of the temporal particle o%te (“when”) and the conditional a&n, indicating possibility or uncertainty, etc (“if, perhaps”). The simple o%te is used twice in verse 11 as part of the illustration of human development, marking two points in time—”when I was an infant” and “when I became a man”. This should be understood parallel to the use of the related to/te (“then”, i.e. at that time) in verse 12. The conditional o%tan here in verse 10 indicates some degree of uncertainty—i.e. whenever this should take place.

de/ (“but”)—a simple joining particle (conjunction), “and”, but which sometimes is used in a contrastive or adversative sense (“but”). Here Paul uses it to contrast v. 10a with the earlier statement in v. 9, as well as what follows in 10b. The point of contrast is between e)k me/rou$ (“[out] of a part”) and te/leio$ (“complete”).

e&lqh| (“[it] should come”)—this is an aorist subjunctive form of the verb e&rxomai (“come, go”), and is used here to indicate a specific point (in time) when something should take place, that is, when it will come. The subjunctive is related to the particle a&n embedded in the temporal o%tan (“when[ever]”, cf. above). Paul has no doubt this will occur, there is only some uncertainty just when it will take place.

to\ te/leion (“the [thing which is] complete”)—this adjective (te/leio$) is related to the noun te/lo$ and refers fundamentally to something being (or becoming) complete. It can be used in three different basic senses: (a) for the end of something, (b) for something which is full, perfect, whole, etc, and (c) for coming to fullness, maturity, etc. Paul uses the term in all three senses at various points in his letters. When applied to human beings (believers) it is often the third aspect (c) which is meant, as in 1 Cor 2:6 and 14:20 (the only other occurrences of the adjective in 1 Corinthians). The illustration of human growth and development in 13:11 might suggest that this is also the meaning of te/leio$ here—i.e. as believers come to greater maturity and understanding, there will increasingly be less need to rely upon the various spiritual gifts. There is no doubt that a number of the Corinthian believers were unduly enamored by the gifts of (spiritual) knowledge, prophecy, speaking in tongues, and so forth, which is the very reason why Paul was inspired to pen 12:31b-14:1a, to emphasize the priority (and superiority) of Christian love over all other manifestations (gifts) of the Spirit.

However, I do not believe that the adjective te/leio$ can be limited to only this sense. While it may relate to the idea of believers coming to completeness in Christ, it is primarily used in the more general (temporal) sense of something which is to come (in the future). This is the only occurrence in the New Testament of the neuter form te/leion, used as a substantive with the definite article—to\ te/leion, “the (thing which is) complete”. This should be compared with the plural substantive in 1 Cor 2:16: toi=$ telei/oi$, “[in] the (one)s (who are) complete”. In 13:11, Paul does not refer to “the (one)” [i.e. the believer], but to “the (thing)”—something which is going to happen or will appear. What is this “thing” which will come at some point in the future? The only answer Paul gives in the immediate context is found in verse 12, as he describes the transforming moment when we (believers) “will see face to(ward) face”. There can be little doubt that Paul’s orientation here is eschatological—that he has the end time (te/lo$) in mind, the completion of all things, which will follow upon the return of Christ, the resurrection, and the final Judgment. It is God himself we will see, face to face, far more perfectly than Moses did, through our union with Christ (2 Cor 3:7-18). We will know Him fully and intimately, even as we are known by Him. This is already experienced by believers through the course of our lives (2 Cor 3:18), as we grow in faith, wisdom and knowledge, but will only be realized completely at the end.

Given this basic outlook by Paul, it is unlikely that he envisioned a time, prior to the end, when the spiritual gifts would cease—least of all prophecy, which he regarded as one of the highest gifts. The situation is complicated by the fact that Paul, like most (if not all) believers of the time, more or less had an imminent expectation of the end-time—that the return of Christ and the final Judgement would soon take place, presumably in his/their own lifetime. In approaching Paul’s letters from our standpoint today, we are forced to factor in an intervening 2,000 or more years between his teaching and the end (which is yet to come). Still, if we are to give an accurate portrayal of what Paul said and wrote, we must recognize what his perspective was on the matter. It seems reasonably clear that he felt that the current working of the Spirit (the charismata, etc), and his instruction to believers regarding its manifestation, would be valid until the coming of the end, when we would experience and know God (and Christ), as well as each other, in new and perfect way.

Note of the Day (Galatians 3:28, part 3)

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Galatians 3:28, continued

This is the last of three daily notes on Galatians 3:28 and the declaration that “in (Christ) there is no male and female” (v. 28c).

  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

See the earlier notes on the first and second topics.

3. Comparison with the Pauline teaching in 1 Cor 11:3ff; 14:34-35, etc

There is an apparent contradiction between the ideal expressed in Gal 3:28c and the view(s) on gender distinction elsewhere in the Pauline letters (such as 1 Cor 11:2-16; 14:34-35; 1 Tim 2:11-15, and Eph 5:22-24). On the one hand, it is stated outright that there is no gender distinction (“no male and female”) for believers in Christ; on the other hand, 1 Cor 11:2ff etc teaches that essential distinctions (including a subordinate role/position for women) are to be preserved. Is Paul being inconsistent? My discussion on this topic will proceed by way of exploring several possibilities that could explain these differences and diverging points of emphasis. The order of presentation does not indicate any preference on my part, but generally moves from critical to tradition-conservative in approach.

a. Paul is inconsistent. In other words, he accepts the declaration of Gal 3:28 without reservation in the case of socio-religious distinction (Jew/Gentile), but really does not for gender distinction (male/female). His position regarding socio-economic distinction (slave/free) is perhaps more ambiguous. Yet there is no indication of any restriction on roles in the Church based on Jew/Gentile or slave/free, such as we find for male/female.

b. Paul changed his mind. This could be indicated by the fact that, in the passages parallel to Gal 3:27-28—namely, 1 Cor 12:13 and Col 3:9-11—there is no mention of “male and female”. According to at least one version of this view, Paul realized the implications and difficulties of Gal 3:28c and avoided including sexual/gender distinction as part of the old order that is eliminated for believers in Christ. However, all of this is based on the premise that Galatians was written well prior to 1 Corinthians, etc., enough so that it would allow Paul time to change his mind or qualify his teaching, and this is highly questionable. There is good reason to think that 1 Cor 11-14 may have been written before Galatians, and that the latter is only slightly earlier than 2 Corinthians and Romans.

A more traditional-conservative version of this overall view would allow Paul to have modified/clarified his position (or the way he expressed it) in the context of progressive revelation.

c. Gal 3:28c does not reflect Paul’s fundamental thinking on the subject. This is based on the theory that Gal 3:27-28 (and 1 Cor 12:13 / Col 3:9-11) reflects an earlier (baptismal) formula which Paul is citing and/or adapting. While the declaration regarding “Jew and Greek” generally corresponds with Paul’s theology and practical instruction, that involving “male and female” does not. There does seem to be a fundamental difference, especially in the way that Gal 3:28c echoes the creation narrative—compare this with 1 Cor 11:7-9 and 1 Tim 2:13-15, where the Genesis account (Gen 1-3) is interpreted and used to make almost the opposite point.

d. The declaration in Gal 3:28c is rhetorical and/or limited in scope. Similar in part to (b) and (c). Again, on the view that Paul is drawing upon an earlier baptismal formula, he does so for rhetorical or dramatic effect, to support his overall argument and teaching in the letter; however, the specific declaration is not meant as a fundamental doctrine.

e. Paul accepts the declaration in theory, but not in practical application. This would indicate a kind of inconsistency, perhaps, as with (a) above. Clearly Paul did not go as far as certain Gnostics and other early Christians in the ideal of eliminating sexuality and gender-based distinction from Christian identity and experience. On this, see the discussion in yesterday’s note. It is fine to speak of us all being one in Christ, but this does not remove the practical reality of differences among individual believers (cf. 1 Cor 12:12-26). The main problem is that Paul seems much more willing to declare that ethnic and religious differences (Jew/Gentile, Gal 3:28a) do not apply to roles and positions in the Church—so why not for gender differences as well (Gal 3:28c)?

f. Gal 3:28c is meant as a declaration for all believers, while the other instruction is not. This is based on the interpretive principle which subordinates instruction, related to specific issues in the local congregations of the time, to doctrines and statements which clearly apply for all believers. While this may be acceptable as a general method for us today, there is little indication that Paul drew such a distinction in his actual letters. Even if we were to theorize, for example, that he allowed customs and practices (e.g. women speaking/preaching in the congregation) which he did not personally endorse (cp. 1 Cor 11:2-16 with 1 Tim 2:11ff), he always is careful to connect his teaching with basic Gospel/Christian principles and traditions. Paul had a much narrower geographical and chronological frame of reference—the establishment and (relatively brief) life-span of congregations, between the resurrection and (imminent) return of Christ—and could readily connect the local with the universal. It is exceedingly more difficult for us to do this today, with the wide gulf in time and culture between, say, mid-1st century Corinth and early 21st century America.

g. Paul sees a distinction between essential identity and practical application. In other words, Gal 3:28 relates to the spiritual identity of believers in Christ (as a theological doctrine), while the other instruction in the letters (1 Cor 11:2-16, et al) applies to the way our Christian life is acted out in practice within an organized community. Such a conceptual division is popular among commentators and theologians, but is altogether too neat and artificial. Why should being male or female have no significance for coming to faith in Christ, but then suddenly be of great importance for our daily life and relationships in Christ? Admittedly, Paul himself, as a minister and founder of churches, had a strong practical side—his vision of the Church involved functioning local communities embedded within the society at large; yet he rarely offers practical instruction which is not closely wedded to the Gospel message and the essential identity of the believer in Christ. This is part of what makes 1 Cor 11:2-16, for example, so problematic for Christians today.

h. The apparent restrictions only apply to role and do not affect essential unity/equality. This is an especially popular view for traditional-conservative commentators today, since it allows one to affirm both (i) equality of men and women in Christ, and (ii) distinct/subordinate roles and positions in the Church. Many today (women especially) consider the logic and terminology (“complementarian”, etc) employed to be rather disingenuous—how can men and women be both (truly) equal and yet (at the same time) in a subordinate position one to the other? Some traditional-conservative interpreters would downplay the idea of subordination—especially in the sense of being secondary or inferior—yet it is hard to deny that Paul has something of this is in mind in 1 Cor 11:3-10 (cf. also 14:34-35; 1 Tim 2:11-15 and Eph 5:22-24ff), especially the manner in which he ties it to the order and hierarchy of creation (vv. 3, 7-9). One very much wishes that Paul had expounded further upon what he presents in 1 Cor 11:2-16, as I suspect it would clarify considerably his actual view of the matter—i.e. how the old order of creation has been transformed for believers in Christ.

i. The apparent restrictions represent a compromise for the sake of peace and order. This takes a simpler, pragmatic view—while Paul accepts essential equality (and unity) for male and female believers in Christ, he also wishes to maintain a certain (customary) order for the Church within the larger society, both from a social and religious point of view. Along the same lines, on the basis of Christian unity itself, believers ought to subordinate their individual rights and privileges, etc, for the good of the community. In 1 Cor 7:2-4ff he describes this in egalitarian, reciprocal terms, for men and women (husbands and wives), while in other passages (cf. above) he uses a more traditional hierarchical relationship (man/husband as head of the wife/woman).

Summary

Arguments can be offered for and against each of the nine interpretative viewpoints presented above. I will comment on them only indirectly, by looking at four key points which much be considered and addressed if one hopes to find and accurate (and satisfactory) interpretation to the overall question.

Point #1—Paul, in his other letters and instruction, retains the gender distinction with regard to ministry roles, etc, in the congregation, but does not do the same for religious-cultural (Jew/Gentile) or socio-economic (slave/free) distinctions. It is easy to charge Paul with inconsistency here, but that is a rather superficial way of looking at the matter. I believe a better, and more thoughtful, explanation lies in a consideration of several important factors:

  • At the time Paul wrote Galatians (as well as 1-2 Corinthians and Romans), only the Jew-Gentile distinction was at issue with regard to Christian identity. This was natural enough, since the distinction is fundamentally religious, and defined the community in religious terms. It was for this reason that Paul fought so hard to eliminate the distinction among believers. Our identity in Christ was not to be defined by religious and cultural factors (such as ethnicity, the observance of the Torah, participation in festivals and holy days, etc), but by our faith and (spiritual) union with Christ. On the other hand, going all the way back to the time of Jesus, men and women were accepted as believers together, with little or no distinction (cf. the discussion in Part 7). Similarly, believers from the beginning were drawn from various social classes, and, while there were doubtless questions of status and prejudice which had to be addressed in the congregations, they do not seem to have been serious or widespread enough to affect one’s basic Christian identity within the community. Thus, these social and gender distinctions could be accepted or maintained without seriously affecting a correct understanding of the believer’s religious identity.
  • Paul’s letter to Philemon is instructive, as it expresses Paul’s understanding of the socio-economic distinction (slave/free) in the Church. Onesimus was a slave, with Philemon his master, and yet both men were Christians. Thus, they were brothers and equals in Christ, while at the same time, on the wider social level, they were in the hierarchical relationship of master and slave. While this situation is foreign to us today, and rather difficult to appreciate, it allows us a window into the thought of many early Christians, such as Paul. The social distinction could be maintained right alongside of the ideal of equality among believers.
  • It was the biological-gender (male/female) distinction which was most fundamental to Christian society, centered as it was on the family unit and marriage bond. Paul’s model for the Church seems to be as a community existing within the larger society. He may have encouraged believers to remain single and unmarried (1 Cor 7), but he recognized that husbands and wives (with their children) made up, and would make up, a large segment of the congregation. Thus, there was greater reason to maintain the man/woman and husband/wife distinction.

Point #2—In the places where Paul (or the Pauline tradition) mentions the male/female distinction, it is often connected with the Creation narrative of Genesis, as I have discussed extensively in earlier notes and articles in this series. Even in Gal 3:28, the phrase “male and female” almost certainly derives from the Genesis account. While Christians today may not always appreciate (or agree with) Paul’s interpretation and use of the Creation account to establish male-female relations and roles in the Church, this dependence on the Scriptural tradition must be recognized. It also means that his view of gender relations is not merely practical or customary, but reflects an essential aspect of the human condition as established by God.

Point #3—Gender distinction and roles in the Church are not simply based on the original created order, but, rather, I believe, in Paul’s mind are supposed to reflect the new creation among believers. Admittedly, he does not discuss this in detail, and the point must be inferred from the relevant passages in his letters, but I think it is reasonably clear, especially when one examines 1 Cor 11:2-16 (cf. Part 1 and the related notes). According to Paul’s thinking (and his theology), the new creation in Christ does not abolish the old order, but transforms it. The old order is eliminated only in terms of the fallen human condition—i.e. our bondage to sin (and the Law).

Point #4—When considering the portions of the undisputed letters (i.e. 1 Cor 11:2-16 and 14:33-36) which seem to contradict Gal 3:28c, one must keep in mind the two fundamental (and interrelated) themes Paul emphasizes in 1 Corinthians:

  • That believers should fulfill in practice (that is, in the life of the Community) the ideal of unity—i.e. of our union in Christ, as the body of Christ. To this end, believers are to subordinate their individual concerns and interests to the (greater) good of the Community.
  • While the principal bond of unity is spiritual (that is, in and by the Spirit), it should be manifest in practice, and in daily life, according to a particular arrangement or order established by God. Paul makes this particular point numerous times, especially within the instruction regarding congregational life and worship in chapters 11-14. This arranged “order” is expressed and realized two ways:
    (i) horizontal—the reciprocal relation between believers, i.e. we are to subordinate ourselves to each other, as brothers and sisters, equally.
    (ii) vertical—a hierarchical chain of relation: God–Christ–Believers. Paul extends this by way of the Genesis account: God–Christ–Man–Woman.

Contrary to some the view of some commentators, Paul does not only emphasize the latter (vertical) aspect of the established order; rather, he has both aspects in view. Admittedly, Christians today often find it difficult to accept both aspects, and it is in the specific division of believers into male and female (based on the Genesis account) which is most problematic, as I have already discussed extensively in relation to 1 Tim 2:11-15 (cf. Part 5 and the notes on v. 12 and Gen 3:16). However, if we wish to be faithful students and interpreters of the Scriptures, we must grapple with the language and imagery which Paul (and the Pauline tradition) uses.

Note of the Day (Galatians 3:28, part 2)

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Galatians 3:28, continued

This is the second of three daily notes on Galatians 3:28 and the declaration that “in (Christ) 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

For the first topic, cf. yesterday’s note.

2. The consequences and possible interpretation/application

In the previous discussion of the declaration in Gal 3:28 (cf. the prior note, along with Part 3 of the series “Women in the Church”), I pointed out the connection with the creation narrative in Genesis, and that the believer’s new identity in Christ essentially represents a “new creation”. This means that the old created order has been transcended and/or transformed, including the social and biological distinction of “male and female”. Any proper interpretation of Gal 3:28 is made more difficult by the fact that, of the three distinctions—Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female—Paul really only discusses the first extensively in his letters. He says relatively little about the elimination of socio-economic (slave/free) distinctions, and even less about the socio-biological (gender-based) distinction. His instruction in 1 Cor 11:2-16; 14:34-35 (not to mention 1 Tim 2:11-15) suggests that he was not inclined to pursue the declaration of Gal 3:28c to what might seem its natural fulfillment—the elimination of sexual/gender distinction in Christian life and worship. Some commentators consider Paul to be inconsistent in this regard, and I will discuss this point in the next day’s note. It is perhaps significant that, in the passages parallel to Gal 3:27-281 Cor 12:13 and Col 3:9-11—there is no mention of the male/female distinction.

There were, however, other early Christians who did apply Gal 3:28c (and/or its underlying thought) more thoroughly from a religious standpoint. We find this, especially, among the Gnostic groups and writings from the 2nd and 3rd centuries (cf. my articles on “Gnosticism” and “Women in Gnosticism“). For example, in the so-called “Tripartite (Three-Part) Tractate” from Nag Hammadi [NH I.5], there is a similar declaration, blending (it would seem) Gal 3:28 and Col 3:11, but with a decidedly Gnostic interpretation:

“For when we confessed the kingdom which is in Christ, we escaped from the whole multiplicity of forms and from inequality and change. For the end will receive a unitary existence just as the beginning, where there is no male nor female, nor slave and free, nor circumcision and uncircumcision, neither angel nor man, but Christ is all in all.” [132, lines 16-28] (transl. by Harold W. Attridge and Dieter Mueller, NHL p. 95 [italics mine])

This particular interpretation, very much of a piece with Gnostic thought of the period, seems to recognize a tradition, well-known from ancient myth and religion, that humankind originally—and in its ideal/pristine state—was essentially sexless or androgynous (i.e. male-female). In the Greco-Roman world, this tradition is most famous from the myth narrated by Plato in his Symposium 189D-193D. That it was known by Greek-speaking Jews at the time of the New Testament, is attested by Philo of Alexandria (On the Contemplative Life §63; On the Creation §§134ff, 151-2); a similar idea is preserved in Rabbinic tradition as well (Genesis Rabbah 8:1). We should not, however, confuse the myth with the way that myth was used by Gnostics and other early Christians. Its primary purpose was to affirm an ascetic (and mystic) ideal—human beings (that is, believers or gnostics) must transcend the bounds of the material world, as defined largely in terms of sexuality and (physical/biological) generation. This is perhaps best expressed in the Gnostic (Valentinian?) writing, the so-called Gospel of Philip, which makes heavy use of sexual (nuptial) motifs to describe salvation (and Christian/Gnostic identity) in terms of a re-union of male/female back into an original unity (cf. my earlier survey of this work).

One might be inclined to dismiss such apparently heterodox emphases out of hand, were it not for two important facts: (1) there is an extra-canonical saying of Jesus along these lines, and (2) there were strong ascetic and mystical tendencies in Christianity even in the early period of the New Testament. With regard to the first point, a saying ascribed to Jesus (i.e. a Jesus tradition), dating from at least the early 2nd century, has been preserved in two (or three) separate sources (note the common elements [italics mine]):

2 Clement 12:2 Gospel of Thomas log. §22 “Gospel of the Egyptians”
Clem. Alex. Miscellanies [Stromateis] 3.92-93
For when the Lord himself was asked by someone when his kingdom would come, he said: “When the two shall be one, and the outside as the inside, and the male with the female neither male nor female.” (transl. Kirsopp Lake, LOEB edition) 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 be not male nor the female female…then you will enter [the Kingdom].” (transl. Thomas O. Lambdin, NHL p. 121) …when Salome asked when the things she had asked about would become known, the Lord replied: “When you trample on the shameful garment and when the two become one and the male with the female is neither male nor female.” (transl. Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Scriptures [Oxford: 2003], p. 16)

The form of the saying in 2 Clement 12 is more likely to be authentic (the others showing more obvious “Gnostic” coloring); the author gives a relatively straightforward interpretation in vv. 3-5:

  • “the two are one” = “when we speak with one another in truth, and there is but one soul in two bodies…”
  • “the outside like the inside” = “i.e., just as your body is visible, so let your soul be apparent in your good works”
  • “the male with the female neither male nor female” = “when a brother sees a sister he should have no thought of her as female, nor she of him as male”

This interpretation reflects a fairly conventional (and orthodox) ethical approach. The last point brings out something of the ascetic emphasis shared by Gnostics, as well as other early Christians—believers (men and women) should interact without any sexuality (esp. sexual desire) being present and active. Paul generally shared this ascetic outlook, though he did not go nearly so far as most Gnostic groups. Especially instructive is his guidance regarding marriage and sexuality in 1 Corinthians 7 (cf. below). Regardless of whether the saying in 2 Clement 12, etc (or anything like it) actually comes from Jesus, it raises some interesting questions in light of Galatians 3:28. How should believers—men and women—interact as believers in Christ? How far should believers continue to identify or think of themselves specifically as “male” or “female”? Paul offers relatively little instruction in this regard; however, there are three areas which effectively counterbalance the approach taken by other early Christians (and Gnostics):

1. Marriage and the family unit—In the undisputed letters of Paul, his teaching regarding the place and importance of marriage is surprisingly slight. Apart from the use of marital imagery for the purpose of illustration (Rom 7:2ff; 2 Cor 11:2; Gal 4:27, etc), his direct instruction is virtually limited to the discussion in 1 Corinthians 7, which may be summarized as follows:

  • Some believers in Corinth were of the mind that sexual contact should be avoided (v. 1ff), even for those who are currently married
  • Paul argues that husbands and wives should not deny each other (vv. 2-4), except on a temporary basis, for the purpose of prayer (vv. 5-6)
  • Those who were married when they came to faith should remain so (general prohibition of divorce), even if one is currently married to a non-believer (vv. 10-16)
  • Similarly, those who are engaged, or for whom there are plans for marriage, they may fulfill the obligation now that they are believers, without fear of sin (i.e. marriage itself is acceptable and not sinful) (vv. 28, 36-39)
  • However, Paul makes clear his preference that believers remain single and unmarried (vv. 6-9, 26-27, 28b-35, 38, 40); this is often glossed over or mitigated by commentators today who wish to emphasize marriage as the accepted norm for Christians

The situation (or, at least the emphasis) is somewhat different in the letters where Pauline authorship is questioned; there we find sections which affirm specific and traditional (gender) roles in the family and marriage bond—Col 3:18-19ff; Eph 5:22-33; 1 Tim 2:11-15; (3:11); Tit 2:4-5. Compare these passages with the seemingly more egalitarian (reciprocal) language used in 1 Cor 7:2-4ff. Even so, regardless of the authorship of Ephesians (and/or Colossians), that Eph 5:22ff reflects genuine Pauline teaching would seem to be confirmed by 1 Cor 11:3-10; and similarly 1 Cor 14:34-35 in the case of 1 Tim 2:11ff.

2. Respect for social custom and convention—It was a point of considerable importance for Paul that the newly-founded Christian communities do nothing which might cause offense or bring scandal (unnecessarily) in the eyes of outside observers. This emphasis runs through much of the ethical and practical instruction in 1 Corinthians and Romans, and can be glimpsed variously in the other letters as well. Though he does not specifically state it, I believe this has a significant impact on his concern for preserving gender roles and distinctions in the Church (in spite of Gal 3:28c). If we had more information regarding the situation he addresses in 1 Cor 11:2-16 (the use of headcovering for women who speak/preach publicly in the meeting), we might have a clearer example of this principle at work. Similar concern for social (and religious) custom may also underlie the controversial instruction in 1 Cor 14:34-35.

3. Roles in the (organized) congregation and public worship—This has been the subject of various articles and notes in the current series Women in the Church. The key passages which indicate restrictions on the participation of women in the congregation, or which define specific (and/or subordinate) roles, are:

These references, however, should also be compared with passages where Paul refers to women as ministers, co-workers, or otherwise as leading figures in the churches, without any apparent distinction—Rom 16:1-7ff; 1 Cor 16:19 (also 2 Tim 4:19); Phil 4:2-3; Col 4:15; and, with regard to the congregation and worship meeting, note the overall context of 1 Cor 11-14.

A strong argument could be made that the Pauline concern to preserve socio-religious custom and order in the congregation, which includes the preservation of traditional gender-distinction, in many ways violates the very substance of the declaration in Gal 3:28c. Paul has, in fact, been charged with inconsistency in this regard, that his practical instruction and ministry methods are at odds with the ideal expressed in Gal 3:27-28. This will be explored in the next daily note.

Women in Gnosticism

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This supplemental article deals more directly with the question of women and female imagery in the Gnostic writings and teachings from the early centuries A.D. Due to the complexity and sensitivity of this subject (cf. the discussion in Part 9, and also my article on Gnosticism), I felt it worth devoting a separate short article to explore it further. While it is not possible to say whether, or to what extent, women had greater freedom of participation among the supposed Gnostic groups (described by Irenaeus, et al), when reading the actual writings which survive—primarily in the collection of texts from Nag Hammadi [NH]—one is struck by certain language and imagery that is often quite different from what we find in the New Testament and early Church Fathers, and which makes significant use of female symbolism. I would isolate four main aspects or components to Gnostic thought in this regard, which may also be grouped together in related pairs:

  • (1) Inclusion of female disciples alongside the male
    (2) The goal for the disciple to “transcend” the duality/multiplicity of the created order (male-female), reuniting that which has been separated
  • (1) The process of creation/fall, described in the mythological (and sexual) language of birth/generation/propagation, involving the interaction of male and female powers
    (2) Birth and sexual imagery is also applied to the believer (gnostic), at the intellectual and spiritual level, who ultimately seeks to transcend these powers and return to the Eternal Father

I begin the discussion with reference to the the role of female disciples of Jesus in the Gnostic traditions, and two in particular—Mary Magdalene and Salome.

We know from Mark 15:40-41 par and Luke 8:1-3 that a number of women followed along with Jesus and the other disciples; they served and ministered in their own way, though there is no indication that they were ever sent out to preach and work miracles (Mark 6:6b-13 par; Luke 10:1-12). Some of these women made the last journey to Jerusalem with Jesus and were standing by watching at his death; Mary Magdalene and Salome are mentioned prominently among them in Mark 15:40 par. All four Gospels attest to the core tradition that women were the first to see the empty tomb, hear the Angelic announcement of the resurrection, and see/meet the risen Jesus (Mark 16:1-8, [9-11]; Matt 28:1-10; Luke 24:1-11, 22-24; John 20:1-2, 11-18). Though the names and combinations of women differ slightly, Mary Magdalene appears in all the accounts; this is rather remarkable (and absolutely reliable), considering the fact that she otherwise scarcely appears at all in Gospel tradition, nor in the New Testament (apart from Luke 8:2-3). She does, however, play a larger role in Gnostic traditions; her position, along with Salome, is due to several factors:

  • She experienced the reality of the resurrection before any other (male) disciples
  • According to Gospel tradition, the men were unwilling to accept her witness (i.e., revelation through the women)
  • She received direct communication (revelation) from Jesus which other disciples were (or may not have been) privy to
  • Her intimate relationship to Jesus, suggested by John 20:11-18 (and/or underlying traditions)

In several Gnostic texts, Mary (and/or Salome) is counted among the closest disciples of Jesus, to whom he gives special teaching and insight. There are three illustrative passages from the so-called Gospel of Thomas—a collection of more than 100 sayings by Jesus (many similar to those in the canonical Gospels), probably dating from the early 2nd century, preserved in Coptic (from Nag Hammadi, NH II.2) as well in several Greek fragments. Here are the passages, listed by logion (saying) number and NHL reference:

Log. §§21-22 [37]—Two partially related sayings are joined together. The first (21) begins with a question by Mary: “Whom are Your disciples like?” Jesus responds with an agricultural illustration similar to a number in the Synoptic Gospels: “They are like children who have settled in a field which is not theirs…” (italics mine). There is a definite gnostic (and Gnostic) sense to this saying—the field is the fallen (material) world in which the disciple (the Soul) is trapped. There is danger and testing until the time of the harvest, which is probably to be understood in negative terms, as a warning—i.e., do not let yourselves be caught up in the way of the world, lest you be plucked away by those (powers) which belong to it. The second saying (22) is again similar to several in the Synoptics, in Jesus’ use of children to illustrate entrance into the Kingdom of God (Mark 10:14-15 par; Matt 18:3-4). Jesus states that infants being suckled “are like those who enter the Kingdom”. When the disciples ask if they will, or should, enter the Kingdom as children, Jesus responds:

“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… then you will enter [the Kingdom].”

There are two main points to Jesus’ instruction here, which again has a very gnostic sound to it: (1) the need to transcend the dualistic character of the created order (which includes gender distinction and sexuality), and (2) the importance of interpreting the material, conventional aspects of the world in an intellectual and spiritual sense. A similar saying by Jesus is attested in at least two other early sources (early/mid-2nd century)—2 Clement 12 and the so-called “Gospel of the Egyptians” (for more detail, cf. my note on Galatians 3:28).

Log. §61 [43]—A curious (and provocative) episode involving Salome is narrated here, a kind of mini-dialogue with Jesus, which seems to build upon an earlier (authentic?) saying:

(Saying): “Two will rest on a bed: the one will die, and the other will live” (cf. Matt 24:40-41 par)
Salome: “Who are You, man, that You {…} have come up on my couch and eaten from my table?”
Jesus: “I am He who exists from the Undivided. I was given some of the things of My father.”
Salome: “I am Your disciple.”
(Saying): “Therefore I say, if he is <undivided>, he will be filled with light, but if he is divided, he will be filled with darkness.”

The concluding saying, perhaps also inspired from Synoptic tradition (cf. Matt 6:22-23 par), is more decidedly Gnostic (cf. below), and probably is intended here as a kind of commentary or interpretation on the first saying. In between is the mini-scene with Salome, which might suggest the conversion of a sinful woman (a prostitute?), along the lines associated with Mary Magdalene in later tradition (blending Lk 7:36-50 and 8:2). However, in the immediate context, it more likely symbolizes Jesus’ rescue of the disciple from the divided material world, back to the undivided Eternal light.

Log. §114 [50]—This saying concludes the Gospel and well reflects the uniquely Gnostic use of women (and Mary Magdalene) in their traditions. It begins with a very ‘orthodox’ (in the worst sense) and sexist-sounding declaration by Simon Peter: “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life”. To which Jesus responds:

“I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

This gender-based language is strange (and repellent) from our standpoint today, and can be easily misunderstood. The statement really is another way of approaching the same issue addressed in §22 (cf. above)—that the disciple must transcend the fallen material condition of the world, which is bound by dualistic categories, including male-female (i.e. gender distinction and sexuality). Gnostics, like many other Christians of the 2nd century, espoused a strong ascetic ideal, which involved celibacy and the renunciation of sexuality, marriage and childbearing. All such gender-based distinctions are to be reinterpreted spiritually. For women, to become “like a man” is different terminology for bridging the same gulf, based on the male-dominated mindset of the period (cf. below).

To see how some of these themes play out in other Gnostic writings, I offer here a brief survey of three specific texts, followed by a concluding note.

The Dialogue of the Savior [NH III.5]

Mary (Mariam) is among the disciples (along with Matthew and Judas) who ask questions of Jesus [126, 131-2, 134-5, 137, 139, 140ff], and, at one point, is marked as having special insight—”(she) spoke this word as a woman who knew the All” [139.10]. However, it is important to realize that the three disciples in the dialogue, even more so than in the Gospel of Thomas (cf. above), essentially symbolize the Soul of the believer (gnostic), who is brought to saving knowledge of his/her true (spiritual and religious) identity by the Redeemer Jesus. Several passages are worth citing:

  • It is said that the disciple(s)—i.e. the divine Soul—will rule over the powers/archons of the world, transcending the material condition, described in evocative symbolic language: “when you remove envy from you, then you will clothe yourselves with the light and enter into the bridal chamber” [138.15ff]
  • This imagery of “clothing oneself” draws upon early Christian metaphor, especially connected with the ritual of Baptism (Gal 3:27; cf. also Rom 13:12-14; 1 Cor 15:53-54; 2 Cor 5:2ff; Col 3:10ff; Eph 4:24). Similarly here—disciples (gnostics, the Soul) are to strip themselves of the earthly/material and “clothe themselves” with garments of light (i.e. reveal the divine light) [143.20]
  • The recognition of one’s true identity (the light) frees one from bondage to the fallen material world and eliminates the distinctions associated with it, often described in gender-specific terms (male-female)—”Pray in the place where there is no woman”, “Destroy the works of womanhood”, “The works of womanhood will dissolve” [144-146] (cf. above on Gosp. Thom. §114).
The (First) Apocalypse of James [NH V.3]

This text offers a relatively clear presentation of Gnostic symbolism, describing the return of the Soul to the pre-existent Father. “Femaleness” is specifically tied to the generation/propagation of the powers and the universe (the created world) [24.25]. Twelve hebdomads (sevens)—that is, the archons or powers—are parallel to the Twelve disciples. James is instructed on how to transcend the powers and return to Him (the Father). We also read of women (seven or four?) who have been Jesus’ disciples [38-41], especially Salome and Mary (Mariam)—on these two, cf. above. Here, again, the inclusion of women is necessary to symbolize the transcending of the material condition, marked by gender-distinction—i.e. the ascent of the Soul: “the perishable has gone up to the imperishable, and the female element has attained to this male element” [41.15].

The Gospel of Philip [NH II.3]

The Gospel of Philip is one of the best known texts from Nag Hammadi, often attributed to Valentinian Gnostics and dated to mid-3rd century. The work abounds with male-female and sexual imagery, which is interpreted and applied spiritually, according to Gnostic principles. The basic principle involves the resolution of duality back to the original unity [53.15ff]. Much use is made of the Genesis Creation account to illustrate this. The (apparent) multiplicity in creation is marked by names (Gen 2:19-20), which are necessary in order to teach the Truth. The envious Powers took the names and bound Man (to the worldly order of things). Jesus came to undo this, bringing saving knowledge out of this condition, as described pictorially in the episode of Jesus at the dye-works of Levi: the 72 colors come out all white by Jesus [63.25]. Or, stated another way, “The children of the bridal chamber have just one name” [72.20]. A distinctly Gnostic view of this process of salvation is detailed in 56-58: the Soul is a precious thing which came to be in a contemptible body [56.25]—the light/spirit in the flesh (invisible in the visible) was rescued by Christ and will ‘rise’. This essentially involves a docetic view of Christ [57-58]. For the purposes of our discussion here, the following images should be noted:

  • Believers are begotten spiritually, symbolized by the kiss [58-59]
  • Three women walked with Jesus, all named Mary—his mother, her sister, and Mary Magdalene (his companion/lover) [59.5-10]
  • The true Mother is Wisdom (Sophia) [59.25-30; 63.20]
  • Mary was Jesus’ companion, whom he loved [63-64], parallel to Mary the mother (Wisdom)—Jesus’ relationship with Mary symbolizes the wisdom/understanding which the other disciples still lack

Especially significant is the nuptial imagery—marriage and the “bridal chamber”—used prominently in the second half of the text. For believers (gnostics), it is all to be realized spiritually, connected with the symbolism of the baptism rite and chrism (anointing)—light/fire (soul/spirit) come into being in the water [67]. This bridal chamber belongs to the “free men and virgins”. The ritual (baptism/bridal-chamber) symbolizes the spiritual (re)union of that which was divided (just as Eve was separated from Adam). The Divine joined with the man Jesus to effect this reunion [68-71]. True marriage (and sexual intercourse) is not fleshly—but “husband and wife” symbolize Spirit uniting with Spirit [82]. The bridal chamber remains hidden in the current order of creation [84.15-20]. “If anyone becomes a son of the bridal chamber, he will receive the light” [86.5].

Conclusion

Whatever oddities and/or errors one may find in these Gnostic writings, there is a certain appeal (for many modern readers at least) in their extensive use of female types and symbols. The use of the figure of Mary Magdalene, in particular, has caught the fancy of the popular imagination, and well demonstrates, I think, how little the ancient Gnostic way of thinking relates to the modern. I believe the examples cited above show clearly enough two main points: (1) how and why characters such as Mary and Salome functioned, as disciples receiving special insight (revelation) from Jesus, and (2) that the inclusion of female disciples was essential to Gnostic symbolism and interpretation. It is not a matter of merely recording historical traditions about Mary and Jesus (cf. Lk 8:2; Jn 20:11-18); rather, any core traditions have undergone an elaborate (and often radical) re-interpretation. The outlines of this process can be glimpsed in the surviving pieces of the writing known as the Gospel of Mary (Coptic version in the Berlin Gnostic codex, along with another Greek fragment), dated perhaps as early as the latter part of the 2nd century. A Gnostic revelation regarding salvation, i.e. of the Soul from the powers of the world, is couched in the context of Mary’s post-resurrection announcement to the disciples (Peter, Levi, etc)—cf. Lk 24:10ff; [Mark 16:10f]; John 20:18. As in the Synoptic narrative, many of the disciples are unwilling to accept Mary’s word (“I at least do not believe that the Savior said this… Did he really speak with a woman without our knowledge… Did he prefer her to us?”). Peter, at first wants to hear Mary (“Sister, we know that the Savior loved you… tell us the words… which you remember, which you know but we do not…”), but, upon listening to her, doubts that she brings genuine revelation. It is the disciple Levi who offers (the pro-Gnostic) support for Mary’s words:

“…I see you [i.e. Peter] contending against the woman like the adversaries (do). But if the Savior has made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. This is why he loved her more than us. Rather let us be ashamed and put on the perfect man and acquire him for ourselves as he commanded us, and preach the gospel…”

How far did these Gnostic groups go in the inclusion of women as equals, such as the text itself suggests? This is difficult to say, as we have very little direct evidence on the matter, one way or the other. There is at least one Gnostic writing which was addressed to a female believer—Ptolemy’s letter to Flora, surviving only in fragments, preserved in book 33 of the Panarion by Epiphanius. It deals primarily with a specific (Gnostic) approach to the Old Testament Scriptures. What is particularly worth noting, however, is the nuanced, relatively sophisticated (and semi-critical) treatment of the material. Flora must have been an educated and religiously astute person, who, one may assume, wished to know more about such questions, from the “Gnostic” point of view. It is to be regretted that more such writings—whether Orthodox or Gnostic—from this period have not come down to us.

The quotations and short extracts of Gnostic writings, included above, are taken from The Nag Hammadi Library [NHL], ed. James M. Robinson (Brill: 1978), translating from the Coptic:
“The Gospel of Thomas”, transl. by Thomas O. Lambdin, pp. 117-30
“The Gospel of Philip”, transl. by Wesley W. Isenberg, pp. 131-51
“The Dialogue of the Savior”, transl. by Harold W. Attridge, pp. 229-38
“The First Apocalypse of James”, transl. by Douglas M. Parrott, pp. 242-8
“The Gospel of Mary”, transl. by Douglas M. Parrott, pp. 471-4

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 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).

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.