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Women in the Church

Women in the Church: Summary and Conclusion

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Having examined the most relevant passages in the Scriptures—Old and New Testaments—as well as the evidence from early Christianity taken overall, through the notes and articles of this series, it remains to offer a summary of this evidence, so as to frame a useful concluding assessment of the issues at hand. During this series, I began with the specific passages in the Pauline Letters (Parts 1-5), moving back to examine the New Testament and (earlier) Old Testament as a whole (Parts 6-8). Here, in summary, I will reverse the process.

The Old Testament

When considering the Old Testament passages, it is most important to recognize the ancient Near Eastern cultural context. From the later Bronze and Iron Ages (c. 2000-500 B.C.), down through the Greek and Roman periods, society was predominantly patriarchal and patrilineal—that is, male-oriented, with emphasis given to the position of father, husband, and (eldest) son. The laws, government, and social conventions of Israel naturally reflect this, and we must be careful not to assume that such historical-cultural circumstances, as they are reflected in the Old Testament Law (Torah), are binding on later Jews and Christians. As a similar example, the acceptance of the institution of slavery in Israelite society certainly does not mean that it ought to be accepted by Christians today.

When we turn specifically to the religious side of things, there are three key points which, I believe, can be established with reasonably certainty (cf. the discussion in Part 8):

  1. With but few exceptions, in the Law and the practice of Israelite religion, men and women had more or less equal status. Apart from the priesthood, women were able to participate in the rituals and feasts alongside men, with little or no restriction. Similarly, access to the Tabernacle does not seem to have been limited; only in later Jewish tradition were portions of the Temple reserved for men. Perhaps more importantly, the sacrificial ritual—in terms of sin, cleansing, and redemption, etc—applied to men and women with little apparent distinction.
  2. The Priesthood was reserved for men—that is, for Aaron and his descendents, as well as the males from the tribe of Levi (the Levites).
  3. Men and women could serve equally as inspired/authoritative Prophets.

The New Testament

When we turn to the New Testament (Part 7), the evidence is similarly mixed. On the one hand, Jesus’ circle of close disciples, those specifically chosen by him to serve as his representatives (apostles), were all men. At the same time, there were women who followed him, and traveled/stayed together with him (alongside the men). The evidence for this is relatively slight (cf. Lk 8:1-3; Mk 15:40-41 par), but established well enough to be completely reliable (on objective grounds). Moreover, Jesus’ dealing with women (also well-established in Gospel tradition) were frequent and distinctive enough to cause comment and objection among observers (Lk 7:36-39; Jn 4:7-30, etc), indicating that he may have challenged the accepted social conventions, in certain respects, regarding the interaction of men and women. Martha and Mary, sisters of Lazarus, should be counted among Jesus’ close friends and followers (Lk 10:38-42; Jn 11:5, 19-27 ff; 12:1-3ff). Perhaps the most important Gospel tradition regarding women is the appearance of Mary Magdalene (along with other women) at the tomb; they were the first to see the empty tomb, encounter the resurrected Jesus, and to proclaim the good news of the Gospel (i.e., the resurrection). Mention should also be made of the role of Mary, mother of Jesus, especially within the Lukan narrative (Lk 1:26-56; 2:5-7, 16-38ff; 8:19-21; Acts 1:14).

In the book of Acts, there is a strong egalitarian character to the early Christian community, in which men and women are mentioned together as believers without any apparent distinction (1:14ff, etc). The Spirit comes upon them all as they are gathered together in one place (2:1-4ff), the gift and manifestation of the Spirit coming to men and women both, in fulfillment of the key prophecy in Joel 2:28-32 (Acts 2:17-21). Admittedly, those mentioned as apostles (a)po/stoloi) in Acts are all men, as well as the seven chosen as “servants/ministers” (“to serve”, diakone/w) in Acts 6. Indeed, throughout the entire New Testament, there is only one (possible) instance where a woman is referred to as an apostle (Junia in Rom 16:7, discussed in Part 4), but the interpretation of this reference is by no means certain. However, women do feature prominently throughout the book of Acts, and are mentioned among the notable early converts to the faith. Perhaps most significant is Priscilla who, with her husband Aquila, served as Christian leaders (ministers) in three different cities—Corinth, Ephesus and Rome. Priscilla (or Prisca) was a close companion and fellow-minister of Paul (Acts 18:3, 18; Rom 16:3; 1 Cor 16:19; 2 Tim 4:19), who appears in Acts 18. The role she plays (with her husband) in instructing Apollos (v. 26) is a key New Testament reference for our subject, though its import should not be exaggerated.

The Pauline Letters

Five primary passages in the letters—1 Cor 11:2-16; 14:33-36; Gal 3:28; Rom 16:1-2ff, and 1 Tim 2:11-15—were discussed in detail in Parts 15 (cf. also the overview study in Part 6). Here I will summarize the overall evidence, distilling it into a number of central points. I begin with the letters where Pauline authorship is more or less undisputed (esp. Corinthians, Romans, and Philippians):

  • When Paul refers to women who are his companions and fellow-workers, he does so without any special distinction to suggest that they serve a lesser or subordinate role. As I discussed in Part 4 (on Rom 16:1-2ff), he uses the terms dia/konoi (“servant/minister”) and sunergoi/ (“co-workers”), etc, equally of men and women, without any apparent qualification; and may even use a)po/stolo$ (apostle) of a women (Junia) in Rom 16:7.
  • Based on the references in 1 Corinthians and Romans, it would seem also that men and women receive the various spiritual “gifts” (charismata) equally, with little or no restriction (with the possible exception of the ‘highest’ gift, apostleship). As such, women would have been expected to exercise their gift (i.e. ministry) within the life of the Community.
  • Women could serve as “prophets” (the second ‘highest’) gift within the Community. This included speaking—delivering prophetic messages—within the congregational meeting (1 Cor 11:2-16). The only restriction Paul lays upon them is that they prophesy with their head covered (wearing a covering over their head/hair). Cf. the extensive discussion in Part 1, along with the notes on 1 Cor 11:10.
  • Paul does seem to accept some (hierarchical) distinction between men and women in the congregation which does effect their ministerial role and position in certain ways (cf. the discussion in Parts 1 and 2). The extent to which he restricts the role of women in this regard is based on two main factors: (1) observing accepted social custom, and (2) an interpretation of the Creation account in Genesis 1-3. The latter factor is most problematic from our standpoint today, and yet it cannot be ignored.
  • At the same time, we have the fundamental statement in Galatians 3:28c—”in (Christ) there is no male and female”—which would seem to abolish gender distinctions among believers, just as it does for religious-cultural (Jew/Gentile) and socio-economic (slave/free) distinctions (v. 28ab). While this is certainly true in terms of basic Christian identity (note the baptism context), Paul does not seem (or was not willing) to apply the principle absolutely in practice. I discuss the subject in Part 3, and in a set of supplemental notes on Gal 3:28. Interestingly, this statement (with the specific expression “male and female”) almost certainly ties back to the Creation narrative as well.

Mention should also be made of the Pauline tradition recorded in Acts 14:23 and again in 20:17ff, whereby Paul (and, presumably, other Apostles) appointed elders (presbu/teroi) to lead and guide the congregations established in the various cities. There may be an echo of this in Phil 1:1, but it becomes far more prominent in the Pastoral letters, which present a stronger and more distinctive picture of church organization and government than we see in the undisputed Pauline letters. I discuss this at length in Parts 5 (on 1 Tim 2:11-15) and 6. If the Pastoral letters are genuinely by Paul, and relatively early (c. 60-63 A.D.), then it is necessary to study them closely in comparison with the relevant passages in 1 Corinthians, etc. However, if they (esp. 1 Timothy) are pseudonymous, and a later product (c. 80-100?), then we must consider the traditions and instruction contained in them in a somewhat different light—as part of the subsequent ecclesiastical development in the early Church (cf. below). Folding the Pastorals into the overall evidence from the Pauline letters, we should distinguish several key terms which play an important part in understanding the roles of men and women in ministry in the New Testament period:

  • Apostle (a)po/stolo$)—as mentioned above, with one possible exception, this title is only applied to men. Traditionally, it goes back to the idea of those disciples (the Twelve, etc) whom Jesus appointed and “sent forth” as his representatives, to proclaim the Gospel, work miracles, and, ultimately, to establish congregations (churches) of believers around the world. Paul uses the term frequently (25 times in the undisputed letters), often in reference to himself and the ministry to which God has called him.
  • Servant/Minister (dia/konoi)—With one possible exception (Phil 1:1), Paul always uses the term in a general sense—applying it to himself and his co-workers (men and women alike)—as a minister (lit. “servant”) of Christ and the Gospel. In the Pastoral letters (1 Tim 3:8-13), the word seems to refer to a more distinct role or “office” in the Church, as it certainly came to be in later tradition (but note the general sense of the word still in 4:6). The context of 3:8ff seems to assume that these ministers are men, though, because of the ambiguity surrounding verse 11, we cannot be certain of this.
  • Elder (presbu/tero$)—According to the tradition(s) in Acts 14:23; 20:17ff, Paul established “elders” (presumably gender-specific, i.e. men) to “oversee” and guide/lead the congregations. Interestingly, however, Paul never once uses this term in any of the undisputed letters, which is indeed surprising. By contrast, it is used a number of times in the Pastoral letters (Titus 1:5; 1 Tim 5:17, 19, cf. also 4:14), where almost certainly it refers to men. In this context (5:9-16), widows functioned as a type of “female elder”.
  • Overseer (e)pi/skopo$)—This term is used in Phil 1:1, as parallel to, but distinct from, that of “minister” (dia/kono$). According to Acts 20:28, it would have referred to the elders appointed to guide and oversee the congregation(s) in a particular city or region. In early Christian parlance, it was essentially synonymous with the term “shepherd” (poimh/n), which was probably the older traditional term (cf. 1 Pet 2:25). As such, it corresponds generally with the English word “pastor”. The Pastoral letters (1 Tim 3:1-7; Tit 1:7-9) provide instruction regarding overseers, who, according to the context, should be understood as elders who function in a leading role, though the distinction between overseer and elder was not as pronounced as it would subsequently become in the early Church, and the translation “bishop” should be avoided. Based on the example of the narrative setting of the Pastorals, Titus and Timothy functioned as overseers of all the churches in a particular region (Crete and the area around Ephesus, respectively).
  • Prophet (profh/th$)—This is the distinctive role in the earliest Christian congregations for which there is the best support for women serving. Going all the way back to the ancient (Old Testament) tradition of female prophets, the foundational use and interpretation of Joel 2:28-32 among early Christians established the acceptance of women functioning as prophets in the Churches, though the direct evidence for this is relatively slight (Acts 21:9; 1 Cor 11:2-16). Presumably, the majority of Christian prophets were men, but there would seem to be no restriction on women in this role, except for the cultural observance required by Paul in 1 Cor 11.
  • Teacher (dida/skalo$)—This may understood in terms of one who exercises the distinct (spiritual) gift of teaching, or as the specific role of the elder/overseer. The latter sense is emphasized in the Pastoral letters, in the context of transmitting and preserving the correct (Apostolic) tradition, passed down from men like Paul. Originally, it would have related more directly to the proclamation of the Gospel. In the charismatic context of the Pauline churches (e.g. in Corinth), it likely refers to special inspired instruction, under the guidance of the Spirit, closely related to the gifts of prophecy and the imparting of spiritual knowledge (revelation). Of considerable importance are the passages (1 Cor 14:33-35; 1 Tim 2:11-15) which seem to restrict women in functioning as teachers in the congregation; on this, cf. Parts 2 and 5, and the separate note on “teach/teaching” in the Pauline letters.

Early Christianity

The principles and points of Church organization contained in the Pastoral letters are continued and developed in the early Church, as can be seen by a survey of the evidence from the so-called Apostolic Fathers (writings c. 90-160 A.D., cf. Part 9). Over time, a distinct hierarchical structure with official positions (“offices”) developed, centered on the principle of episcopal (from e)pi/skopo$, cf. above) authority. Women came to be increasingly excluded from leading ministerial roles; at the same time, certain positions—Widows and Virgins—tied to the (ascetic) ideal of ministerial celibacy and virginity, gained in prominence. However, by the 5th century, women had been officially barred from any kind of priestly activity (i.e. approaching the altar, administering baptism, etc), from teaching doctrine, serving as deacons, and so forth. It is hard to say whether the Gnostic Christian groups were more accepting of the participation of women in leading roles, as might be assumed from the language and female characters/images featured in many of their texts. For more on this, cf. the article “Women in Gnosticism“.

It was in the Monastic movements, begun in the mid/late-3rd century, that women would find their place (and empowerment) as ministers within the Church. Female solitaries and communities (i.e. monasteries) spread alongside the male monks and houses, all throughout the ancient Near East (beginning in Egypt), then the entire Greco-Roman world, and, eventually, into Europe. The monastic community (monastery) functioned as a sub-culture, a separate society within the larger Christian community. As such, while women were still under the authority of (male) bishops and priests, they had the ability to govern themselves. At first, the majority of monks and nuns (the traditional title for female monks) came primarily from the upper classes, but, as the tradition expanded, women from lower segments of society had opportunity to join and participate in the communities.

The Medieval and Reformation Periods

For centuries, while there was relatively little change in the official position(s) of women, either in the Church or society at large, the opportunities for participation and expression within Monasticism were considerable indeed. A rich Monastic culture developed, for both men an women, maintaining centers of learning and art throughout the so-called “Dark Ages”. By the time of the high Middle Ages (12-14th centuries), a good number of women in the monasteries were highly educated and skilled in many areas (including art, music, medicine, and other sciences). Many beautiful and erudite examples of writings from female authors have survived, such as those of the “Rhineland Mystics” in Germany. Of the many notable names from the period, one could mention Elisabeth of Schönau, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Gertrude of Helfta, Hadewijch, Bridget of Sweden, Catherine of Siena and Julian of Norwich. The great abbess Hildegard of Bingen, at the peak of her career (c. 1150), was, along with Bernard of Clairvaux, perhaps the most influential Christian leader in all of Europe. Hildegard’s legacy, her writings, and the evidence of her vast learning and creativity, have made her an inspirational figure for many women today.

In the era of the Renaissance in western Europe (14th-15th centuries), humanist trends prompted a marked increase in the status (and education) of women, at least among the upper classes and members of the aristocracy. In England, Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, was an important patron of learning and played a role in the growth of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Women such as Christine de Pizan, Cecilia Gonzaga, Isabella d’Este, Cassandra Fedele, Margaret of Navarre, and Margaret Roper (daughter of Sir Thomas More) could be counted among the most gifted and educated persons in Europe.

Sadly, the legacy of the Protestant Reformation with regard to the role and status of women is rather mixed. On the one hand, the closure of monasteries in the Protestant territories cut off those opportunities for women, effectively forcing them into the more traditional family roles of wife and mother. With very rare exceptions, women did not serve in any sort of leading ministerial position in the Protestant churches. This was true even among the Anabaptists, who were somewhat more tolerant and liberal-minded in certain respects. Only in the Spiritualist traditions, such as the Quakers of the 17th century, were women allowed more freedom to function as ministers in the congregation. At the same time, there can be little doubt that the Reformation, in the long run, was influential in helping to shape democratic and egalitarian ideals, emphasizing personal freedom and basic human rights, in Western society over the centuries to come.

The Situation Today

In more recent times, of course, ideals of liberty, equality and human rights have gained more prominence in society, aided both by religious and secular (humanistic) philosophical principles. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there have been strong and widespread movements championing civil rights for (ethnic) minorities and for women. There has been much success in terms of women’s rights—i.e. to vote, pursue higher education, function in professional occupations previously reserved for men, and so on. To be sure, even today many of the ancient biases, prejudice and mistreatment of women remain, but the fundamental principle of the equality of men and women (including the ideal of equal opportunity) is emphasized today, in the United States and other nations, as never before. The Church can, and ought, to be at the forefront of the struggle for equality and empowerment. Yet it is just at this point that many Christians find themselves at a crossroads between two different viewpoints—the modern mindset stressing gender equality, and the ancient (male-dominated) worldview reflected in the Scriptures. In early Christianity this ancient outlook has been re-interpreted and modified by leaders such as Paul, but it is not quite the same the modern view. There remains considerable tension as to how, and to what extent, we may combine the perspectives and hold them in balance—respecting and remaining faithful to the teachings in the Scriptures without ignoring important areas of social progress.

Concluding Note

For those who wish to better understand the Scriptural evidence (and teaching) regarding the role of Women in the Church, I hope that this series as been helpful and inspiring. I have tried to be as faithful and objective as possible, without reading modern concerns into the various passages. However, if one wishes to apply the New Testament evidence overall to the situation of churches today, this perhaps could be done best by focusing on the two leading roles in early Christianity—that of apostle and prophet.

1. Apostle—According to the New Testament witness, the apostles (a)po/stoloi), the ones “sent out”, i.e. by Jesus, were, it would seem, all men. While this may simply reflect the patriarchal, male-oriented character of the society, it has to be admitted that it was fundamental to early church organization. The apostles and their own representatives (also “apostles”, in a sense), as missionaries throughout the Near Eastern and Greco-Roman world, in the establishment of churches, appointed elders to govern and oversee (i.e. the role of “overseer”) the congregation(s). As far as we can tell, these elders—persons mature and responsible in the faith—were all men, though there may have been corresponding female “elders” to oversee the younger women in the congregation. The role of elder/overseer more or less corresponds with the traditional figure of pastor in Protestant churches. This emphasis on male authority, according to the early Christian way of thinking, represents the vertical dimension of Church structure—i.e., a hierarchy of authority.

2. Prophet—As is clear from the foundational use of Joel 2:28-32 in Peter’s Pentecost speech in the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit comes upon men and women equally, and they all are to prophesy. The existence and acceptance of female prophets is reasonably well-established in early Christianity (cf. above). It is only in the second century, following the New Testament (Apostolic) period, that the role disappears, kept alive at the fringes by heterodox/charismatic movements such as Montanism (cf. the discussion in Part 9). This raises the question as to whether the role and function of prophet in the New Testament reflects a temporary gifting, limited to the New Testament period, or whether it relates to believers today. I discuss this question in the note on 1 Cor 13:8. On the whole, I find no evidence in the New Testament to suggest that this role of prophet/prophecy was not expected to last until the return of Christ. In traditional terms, the prophet was a spokesperson or representative (of God), who communicated the word and will of God to the people at large (i.e. the believers of the Community). As such, it corresponds generally to the role of preacher (and/or teacher) today. Using the same model as above, it also could be said to represent the horizontal dimension of the Church—believers sharing their (spiritual) gifts and instructing one another. According to this view, women could (and should) function as preachers and ministers as they have been gifted by God.

Whether, or to what extent, these two dimensions—hierarchical and egalitarian, vertical and horizontal—can be combined effectively in Church life and the organized Community today is a question that each believer, or group of believers, must address. There are no simple solutions. However, as a closing exhortation, and word of advice, I would return to the sentiment expressed by F. F. Bruce (commenting on Gal 3:28), which I have previously mentioned and with which I entirely agree, that the passages which seem to restrict the role of women (e.g., in the Pauline letters) “are to be read in relation to Gal 3:28, and not vice versa(Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians, New International Greek Testament Commentary [NIGTC], Paternoster Press / Eerdmans: 1982, p. 190).

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

Women in the Church: Part 9 – Early Christianity

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

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

The Apostolic Fathers

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

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

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

Apostolic traditions (from the 2nd century)

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

Women in “Gnostic” writings and tradition

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

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

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

Montanism

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

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

Proto-Orthodoxy and early Catholic Tradition

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

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

Female Saints and Martyrs

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

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

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

Asceticism and the rise of Monastic Tradition

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

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

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

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

Women in the Church: Part 8 – The Old Testament

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

The Creation Account (Genesis 1-3)

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

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

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

The Law and Israelite Religion

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

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

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

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

Miriam

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

Exodus 15:20-21

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

Numbers 12:1-16

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

Deborah

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

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

Female Prophets and Joel 2:28-32

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

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

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

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

Women in the Prophets and Wisdom Literature

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

Concluding Note on Female imagery and Sexuality

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

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

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

Women in the Law (Torah)

By | Exegetical/Study Series, Supplemental Study | No Comments

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).