"As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."
As I spend a lot of time calling attention to relevant passages which scholars believe are falsely attributed to Paul, I wish to offer two points of clarification. FIRST: PLEASE DO NOT lose sight of the things which Paul really DID say. They are marvelous, and they are the real point of this essay; Namely, that men and women are equal. SECOND: my goal is not to discredit the New Testament; far from it! I have a great deal of fondness and respect for the words of the New Testament, and I believe I have shown a high level of commitment to the goal of understanding it more accurately and completely. I know that many readers will recoil at the suggestion that one or more passages of the New Testamant are not authentic scripture. However, sometimes in life, less is more. Specifically, by losing a few inauthentic verses of scripture, we gain a New Testament that is more consistent and credible, not to mention more compassionate. By letting go of the doctrinal baggage that has been the legacy of these few verses, we gain a better Christianity - a community of believers which Jesus himself would be proud to call his own.*
The Role of Women in Paul's Churches
First, I want to call attention to the fact that it is perfectly clear from Paul's letters that the women in some of his Churches did, in fact, hold positions of authority and participate in various forms of worship much like the men. We catch a significant glimpse of this at the end of Paul's letter to the Romans where he calls out many prominent leaders and congregants by name. Here, we find a significant number of women praised as well as many men. For convenience, I will simply list the women and their credentials below (In a footnote, however, I've quote the passage in full).1
- Pheobe, "a deacon of the church at Cenchreae...she has been a benefactor of many and of myself"
- Prisca, along with her husband Aquila, were missionaries to the Gentiles and "work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life"
- Mary, "who has worked very hard among you"
- Tryphaena and Tryphosa, "workers in the Lord"
- Junia, "prominent among the apostles"
- Rufus's mother, "a mother to me also"
- Nereus's sister
Let this information really sink in! Paul speaks of women as coworkers and benefactors and deacons and, most impressively, as "foremost among the apostles." As New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman put it, "The apostolic band was evidently larger than the list of twelve men with whom most people are familiar."2
Ehrman points out that in some manuscripts, scribes who copied this text changed it so it would not cite a woman "among the apostolic band of men." Furthermore, some translators who were uncomfortable with the idea of a female apostle have changed the name from Junia (a woman's name) to Junias (a man's name). There are no ancient manuscripts which support this change. Ehrman explains further, "The problem with this translation is that whereas Junia was a common name for a women, there is no evidence in the ancient world for "Junias" as a man's name."3 So, basically, translators invented a new name in order to avoid what the text is really saying, because what it really says is inconvenient - Paul refers to a woman named Junia as an apostle!
In these verses, then, we find evidence of early Churches in which women were of apparently equal standing with men, and where they clearly played a prominent role in the life of the Church. Of these Churches, it seems we can truly say "there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." However, in other places, Paul comes across somewhat ambiguous on the subject of women in the Church. As Ehrman points out, one result of his apparent ambiguity is that some Churches lived up to the ideal of gender equality better than others.
In particular, I am speaking of 1 Corinthians 11: 2-16 where Paul apparently advocates a custom which required women to cover their heads while praying and prophesying in Church. I am almost reluctant to say anything about these verses, since nearly ALL modern Christians have chosen to completely disregard them. It seems like a non-issue. And to begin this discussion is really to open a can of worms (as you are about to find out if you keep reading). But this apparent ambiguity in Paul's teachings has had a significant impact on the roles of women in Christian history, and it may be linked to issues which remain to this day - like the debate over female ordination in the Catholic and Mormon Churches.3
In a statement which we might have expected from any other 1st century Palestinian man, Paul (?) says that man is the head of women (as Christ is the head of man, and God is the head of Christ). He then says that it is a disgrace for a woman to pray and prophecy without covering her head. Worse yet, in trying to provide an explanation for his counsel, Paul says, " For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head." This sounds pretty bad. This does not sound like a Church where "there is no longer male and female for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."
Curiously, from this point Paul begins to backtrack significantly. It is as if two people are represented in these verses (perhaps due to scribal additions?), or else Paul is wrestling with the issue in his own mind, jostling back and forth. At best, Paul seems conflicted. As if to argue explicitly against his earlier point, he says:
"In the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? ... if anyone is disposed to be contentious—we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God."
-1 Corinthians 11: 12-13, 16
I seriously wonder if Paul actually said the worst of these statements. As we will soon see, ALL other statements attributed to Paul which serve to limit the role of women turned out not to be the authentic words of Paul.4 More on this point a little later.
Ehrman speculates on why Paul might have sometimes expressed views that were not very progressive, as he probably did in counseling women to wear veils. Why is it that "Paul did not take his view of the relationship of men and women in Christ to what could be thought of as its logical conclusion?"5
"Paul did not urge a social revolution in the relationship of men and women -- just as he did not urge the abolition of slavery, even though he maintained that in Christ there "is neither slave nor free." Instead he insisted that since "the time is short" (until the coming of the Kingdom), everyone should be content with the roles they had been given, and that no one should seek to change their status -- whether slave, free, married, single, male, or female (1 Cor. 7: 17-24)."
Whatever Paul said, and whatever he meant, there is at least ONE VERY POSITIVE THING we can take away from these problematic verses. The argument in which Paul is engaged presupposes that woman can and do pray and prophesy in Church. Women are NOT expected to "learn in silence" as claimed in certain contested statements which have been attributed to Paul. We'll dive into those passages next.
As I alluded to earlier, the strongest statements in the Pauline epistles which limit the role of women all just happen to be written by someone other than Paul. In some cases, other people's words have been inserted into Paul's authentic letters. In other cases, entire letters were written by someone else, and then signed with Paul's name. Scholars refer to such letters as pseudopigrapha (greek: literally meaning "with false title"). Another word for it is simply, fraud, but that carries such a negative connotation. Scholars generally accept that it was common in the ancient world for people to write letters under the name of someone whose name was invested with more authority. They did so for the obvious reason that people are more likely to take your word seriously if it carries the name of a more highly respected person than yourself. New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan writes that out of the 13 letters attributed to Paul, seven of them are "certainly from the historical Paul (Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon)." Three others (Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians) are "probably not from him." And the last three (1-2 Timothy and Titus) are "certainly not from him."
The first of the Pseudopigrapha which I wish to discuss is the book of 1 Timothy. The passage most relevant to our current subject is as follows:
"Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty."
-1 Timothy 2: 11-15
The Oxford Study Bible notes in its introduction to 1-2 Timothy and Titus:
"The conclusion that these three were not written by Paul is based upon literary, historical, and theological criteria. First and Second Timothy and Titus share a common Greek vocabulary and style that diverges in many ways from the other Pauline epistles. Historically, the Pastoral Epistles [as 1-2 Timothy and Titus are often called] presume an institutionalized leadership in local communities and internal dissent over faith and practice, which better fits a period late in the first and early in the second century CE when Paul was no longer alive. ... Theologically these letters minimize or lack characteristic Pauline themes .... in favor of a new adherence to tradition and regulation as signs of Christian piety [which] they seek to inculcate in their readers." 6
Next up, Ephesians 5:23
"Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands."
-Ephesians 5: 22-24
"Marked differences in style, phrasing, and viewpoint between this Letter and the seven unquestionably authentic Pauline letters have cast significant doubt on Pauline authorship of Ephesians. It is more likely that a disciple of Paul wrote a letter in Paul's name, probably after the apostle's death."
The author of Ephesians was right about one thing, though. In verse 28 of the same chapter, he taught, "husbands should loves their wives as they do their own bodies," and in verse 33 he reiterates "Each of you... should love his wife as himself." What the author of Ephesians may not have realized is that the logical extension of such love is that, by definition, husbands would have to regard their wives as their equals.
The last example I want to share, where someone else's words - besides Paul's - appear in the Pauline epistles is 1 Corinthians chapter 14. As Bart Ehrman noted, "No-one doubts... that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. But there are doubts about this passage."
Another reason these passages are suspect, Ehrman argues, is that chapter 14 makes more sense without them. "If one removes verses 34-35 from their context, the passage seems to flow seemlessly as a discussion of the role of Christian prophets." Verses 34-35 are making a point that arguably has nothing to do with the surrounding verses. One final point - and this is perhaps the best supporting evidence that Paul didn't write these verses: As we already discussed, earlier in this same letter (in chapter 11), Paul's argument presupposes that woman can and do speak in Church. He just thinks that for some reason they should cover their heads while doing so.8 Why would Paul argue in chapter 14 that women can't do something at all, when in chapter 11 he took for granted that they are allowed to do so? It is much more likely that his text was corrupted through scribal error.
Scribal Additions in 1 Corinthians 11?
Now that we have good reason to believe that these infamous passages are NOT original to the Apostle Paul, I'd like to revisit 1 Corinthians 11. I think Paul probably did counsel women to keep the custom of wearing veils when they pray and prophesy in Church. But by now I hope my readers can see why I am suspicious of some of the reasons supplied in Corinthians 11 for this custom, particularly verses 3 and 7-9. These kinds of arguments are never found anywhere else in Paul's undisputed letters. Instead, parallels are found only in the inauthentic Pauline letters discussed above.
Specifically, the argument in verse 3 that men are the head of women (as Christ is the head of the Church) appears elsewhere only once - in Ephesians - which we have seen is probably not an authentic Pauline letter. The argument for women's inferiority in verses 7-9 based on the Adam and Eve story appears in only one other place - 1 Timothy - which broad scholarly consensus maintains that Paul did not write.
Admittedly, I am not aware of any scholars who share my opinion that 1 Corinthians 11: 3, 7-9 are scribal additions. Nor am I aware of any manuscript evidence to support my view. But we do have good evidence that scribes tampered with 1 Corinthians in chapter 14 - and in a way which limits the roles of women. So, it is at least plausible that the same could have happened in chapter 11.
My other reason for believing that scribes have inserted those verses in chapter 11 is theological. Paul believed that Christ had overcome the fall of Adam and Eve (see 1 Corinthians 15: 21-22). This aspect of Paul's theology helps explain why he would say that, in Christ "there is no longer male and female" and that "in the Lord woman is not independent of man and man is not independent of women." So, verse 3 and, particularly, verses 7-9 are inconsistent with Paul's theology - not just on the role of women - but on the very significance of Christ's resurrection.
As a side note, I would like to point out for my Mormon readers that the argument for women's subordination based on Eve's disobedience also runs afoul of unique Mormon doctrine which celebrates Eve's decision to partake of the fruit. According to Mormon theology, this is how Eve made it possible for the human race to exist and also endowed humankind with the gift of agency. One cannot remain credible who praises her wisdom for our very existence and then argues that such a wise choice proves she deserves a subordinate position. Additionally, this argument for women's subordination based on the Fall of Eve runs afoul of the spirit of the 2nd Article of Faith, "We believe that men will be punished for their own sins and not for Adam's transgression." If so, is it not also safe to say that "Women will be punished for their own sins and not for Eve's transgression." Or does the atonement not apply the same to women as it does to men? Candor compells me to admit, however, that as far as historians are concerned, discrepancies with Mormon theology are quite irrelevant to a discussion of the historical Paul. And I don't want my readers to confuse historical methods with theological debates.
Finally, (as we saw with the disputed verses in chapter 14) if verses 3 and 7-9 are removed from chapter 11, Paul's argument is much more fluid and coherent. It becomes simply a statement about the supposedly "natural" lengthiness of women's hair. In Paul's mind, it seems, women's long hair is a witness from nature that it is proper for women to keep their heads covered. It is still a very bizarre argument. But it is no longer so severely at odds with Paul's other teachings about women and about Christ reversing the effects of the Fall. Rather than perpetuating the notion of women's supposedly fixed and unchangable inferiority (beginning with the fall of Eve), it is now just an argument from nature (or the "common sense" of his day) that it is proper for women to cover their heads. Best of all, Paul is no longer arguing with himself when he makes the progressiveIn statement in verse 11-12 that "in the Lord" men and women are mutually dependent. In the footnote, I have quoted 1 Corinthians 11: 2-16 without the contested Ephesians and 1 Timothy parallels. I invite you to read it and judge for yourself whether Paul's letter makes more sense with or without them. If it makes more sense without them, that might be because they were nowhere to be found in Paul's original letter. 9
Just ask yourself, what is more likely? Did Paul make these arguments which contradict his own teachings elsewhere, and which are not paralleled anywhere else in his authentic letters (but instead these arguments just happened to find their way into ONLY the inauthentic letters)? OR did Paul in fact NEVER make such arguments, and later scribes with patriarchal leanings borrowed from the inauthentic letters (which, as far as they knew, were actually written by Paul) and inserted these lines into Paul's otherwise authentic letter to the Corinthians? To me, the latter is more probable, especially since we have good manuscript evidence which suggests this kind of scribal error occured elsewhere in 1 Corinthians.
Now, I've spent most of this post talking about things that Paul didn't, or probably didn't, actually say. As I said in the beginning, in order to get to know Paul, we have to unlearn the incorrect things we thought we knew about him. However, by talking so much about what he didn't say, we risk losing sight of the things he did say! And that would be a real shame, because Paul's authentic teachings on women are simple and profound (and even radical in his day).
So let's review:
- "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."
- "In the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God."
(1 Corinthians 11:12)
- Also in 1 Corinthians 11, his argument takes for granted that women both prophesy and pray in Church, and he doesn't take issue with that, not even a little bit!
- Finally, in Romans Paul closes his letter by recognizing many prominent Saints, INCLUDING women whom he specifically identifies as coworkers, benefactors, deacons, and most impressively, as "foremost among the apostles."
(Romans 16: 1-16)
The funny thing is, when Paul (or someone pretending to be Paul) does make statements that are anti-feminist, they go way too far--even for the most conservative readers among us! No one in the mainstream today is out there arguing that women must "keep silent" in church or cover their heads when praying. Apparently nobody thinks these kinds of statements were inspired by God (not that they would ever admit to cherry-picking from the Bible).
On the other hand, when Paul (or someone pretending to be Paul) isn't being completely chauvinistic, he is saying some very progressive things. These are the things that I find to be particularly inspired by God--that, in Christ "there is no longer Jew or Greek. there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female." If Christ does not make such distinctions, why would we? Or worse, why on earth would we think that Christ requires us to make such distinctions? But let's really get back to basics. If God is our loving heavenly parent, I ask, what kind of parent would regard his daughters as in any way inferior to his sons? If God has commanded us to love one another, and to treat others as we want to be treated, why would we think its okay to treat half of the population unequally? This is not consistent with the basic message of the Gospel, a message which Jesus said sums up the whole scriptural canon of his day. Things have to change. And let's NOT wait another two thousand years to make it happen.
Perhaps Joseph Smith knew something about Paul that most members still don't know, when he said at the organization of the Relief Society:
"that the Society should move according to the ancient Priesthood...
Said he was going to make of this Society a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day— as in Paul's day."
* The other way to handle these verses is to regard them (and the whole New Testament) as infallible - wholly without error and complete. As infallible, we have to twist and bend these words to fit our values, or we have to bend over backwards ourselves in a frenzy of mental gymnastics to try to accomodate them - when in fact we just don't agree with them. A more honest approach is to just admit it - they say something that we believe is wrong. I don't think we need to be shy about that. It's not something I take lightly, but conscientious objection to certain aspects of our religious tradition is a sign of mature faith. Even if Paul himself says something that I know is wrong, I ought to be bold enough to say so. However, the amazing thing is, there is good textual evidence that Paul didn't say the worst of these things about women. My hope is that this will make people feel even more at liberty to disregard a few key passages that have been used to perpetuate harmful dogma, and in turn an unjust social order.
- I have put the references to women in bold print:
"I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.
Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert in Asia for Christ. Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you. 7 Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives, who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys. Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus. Greet my relative Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus. Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord. Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; and greet his mother—a mother to me also. Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers and sisters who are with them. Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you."
- Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, p. 180
- The passage itself says nothing about female ordination. However, the sharply patriarchal views expressed therein may contribute to a cultural environment in which female ordination and female leadership is entirely unwelcome.
- As a side, even if Paul said such a thing, I simply do not regard these words as authentic scripture for another reason; I do not hear God's voice in such things, but man's. So, I do not believe them to be inspired (apparently, neither do most Christians). As a human, Paul is perfectly capable of human prejudice, and I am not obligated to share his prejudices - quite the opposite is true.
- Ibid, p. 185
- The New Oxford Annotated Bible: Fully Revised Fourth Edition, "Introduction to the Pastoral Epistles," Margaret M. Mitchell, p. 2084.
- The Harper Collins Study Bible: Fully Revised and Updated, p. 1982,1989.
- Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, p. 181
- With disputed verses:
"I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you. 3 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband[a] is the head of his wife,[b]and God is the head of Christ. 4 Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, 5 but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil.7 For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection[c] of God; but woman is the reflection[d] of man. 8 Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man. 10 For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of[e] authority on her head,[f]because of the angels.11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. 12 For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 But if anyone is disposed to be contentious—we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God."
WITHOUT the disputed verses:
"I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you. 4 Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, 5 but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil.10 For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of[e] authority on her head,[f]because of the angels.11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. 12 For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 But if anyone is disposed to be contentious—we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.