My Man Paul: Friend or Enemy of Women?

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A preserved ancient scroll, written in Greek

Since my last post, My Man Paul: Part One, I’ve gone on reading, and have added to my Pauline Studies bibliography a couple of websites ( and and three books.. In 2012 the (wonderfully-named) Pheme Perkins wrote commentary on “First Corinthians” for a (also wonderfully-named) series Paidiea on the New Testament. While prowling around the basement stacks of the library at St Peter’s Benedictine Abbey in Muenster, Saskatchewan, I found Karen Jo Torjesen’s When Women Were Priests:Women’s Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of Their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity. (1995). Finally, a friend’s Comment on my post led me to French author Emmanuel Carrère‘s The Kingdom, a truly genre-defying  recapitulation of Paul through his Letters and Luke’s Acts of the Apostles.

Thus fortified, I began reading Paul, focussing on two of the authentic Letters – Galatians and First Corinthians – whose chapters and verses were most often cited by the authors I was consulting. But across so many of the Letters it is already obvious that, in spite of strict, not to say harsh, demarcation of men’s and women’s social roles in Greco-Roman society, in the budding, proto-Christian communities that Paul co-founded, visited and corresponded with, a remarkable number of women were prominent.

Roman matron

Really, this is not to be wondered at, given the status of the materfamilias who exercised authority in the very households, “house churches,” where Paul addressed their members. Except for the cloistered girls and women of the upper classes, women – free persons as well as slaves – were also trades- and sales people who laboured alongside men. Pheme Perkins cites contemporary texts in which women are mentioned in trades having to do with textiles and food or as lessees of pottery shops and vineyards (often inherited). For instance, this delightful tombstone inscription: “I worked with my hands. I was a thrifty woman, I, Nicarete, who lie here.”

Paul, Aquila and Priscilla at work

And here is Paul (Acts 16) who, in Philippi, northeastern Greece, on his way to Thessalonica, sits down outside the city gates on a Sabbath day (there is no synagogue in Philippi) and speaks to the women who have gathered there for that very purpose. He names Lydia, “a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God,” whom he baptized along with her household and whose hospitality he accepts. In The Kingdom, Emmanuel Carrère imagines Lydia “as the kind of hostess who’s both generous and tyrannical, who always wants to do everything herself” and always cooks too much for the agape (communal) feast. And who can forget, once having met her in Acts 18:3, Priscilla, who along with her husband Aquila and apostle Paul, set up shop as tent-maker and leather-worker in Corinth?

St Phoebe the Deaconess

Across the Letters (those authentic as well as disputed),  the women step out in front of the crowd. I had gone in search for “women named in Paul’s Epistles” on the internet and found what I was looking for in the post, “Women in the Pauline Mission.” Chloe, Mary, Junia, “outstanding among the apostles,” Tryphena and Tryphosa, “women who work hard in the Lord,” Persis, Lucilla, Euodia, Syntyche, “co-workers,” Nympha and her “church house,” Apphia, Claudia, Livia, Priscilla, and Phoebe: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon [or minister] 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.” (Rom 16:1-2)

Before I get too carried away, in the same article I read that of all the persons mentioned in the Letters in relation to the Pauline mission, 82% are men and 18% women. The article (author unnamed) is posted by the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, so I feel I know where this is going:

“As in Old and New Testament times, what is to determine women’s roles is not the dictates of contemporary culture but the designs of God. God’s plan is consistent from the time of creation to the age of the church, and from his pattern for the family to that of God’s ‘household.'”

But my “mission” is simpler: is there something in Paul to give me spiritual, ethical and creative sustenance as a woman in the 21st century?

The women in Paul’s letters – inside their communities – had already crossed boundaries when, sometimes independently of their husbands or fathers, they had been baptized “into Christ” and then assumed leadership roles, some more modest than others (from co-workers to outstanding among the apostles). These roles may have required of them to bear the same apostolic burden as Paul himself, “in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food,”  [2Cor 11:27] in cold and nakedness, wrapped in a meagre cloak. These hardships brought their own reward however: such women manifested “male virtues of courage, justice and self-mastery,” according to Karen Jo Torjesen. From his Letters, we know that Paul simply assumed that such bold women could speak authoritatively in worship services, lead local churches and travel as evangelists. [

In its earliest formations, Torjesen understands the church as a social movement – she means its informality, “often counter-cultural in tone” and its flexibility in bringing women, slaves and artisans into its leadership. This strikes me as too idealized and categorical as assertion. But something had happened to these women, Phoebe and Priscilla, Junia and Lydia and the rest of them –  to embolden them, to bring them out from under the feminine virtues of the patriarchy,  chastity, silence and obedience, and into gender-bending adventure in the new communities of the followers of Paul’s Risen Lord.

I find this something in the second earliest of the Letters, to the Galatians (1Thessalonians is the earliest), written sometime between the late 40s and early 50s. (By comparison, most scholars date Mark, the earliest of the Gospels, at AD 65-75.) I find it in the baptismal formula, which has never stopped humbling me with its profound implications for human freedom. Yes, I know, I have been cautioned against reading Paul through the lens of “contemporary culture” (read: feminism) but, instructed as I may be in the realities of Paul’s historical context, I am the heir of twentieth-century Ukrainian Orthodoxy in western Canada in whose churches no female is allowed to contaminate the Sanctuary.

27 For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. [KJV]

Vats of ink have been used up in commentary about these two verses from Galatians chapter three. David Boyarin, author of A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity, reads all of the (authenticated) Letters as the “spiritual autobiography of a first-century Jew” and as a “cultural critic” whose writings are “an extremely precious document for Jewish Studies. As Christians, the biblical scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan and authors of The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon, read him as evoking a radical equality among the baptized whose transfigured life commits them to “the life principle that when you come into the Christian community you are equal to one another in that community.” (My italics. As we shall see, that limitation on the writ of radical equality had profound implications for later generations.)

Early Christian martyrdom

An aside: When I was writing Prodigal Daughter: A Journey to Byzantium, in which I follow the fortunes of St Demetrius Great Martyr of Thessalonica, I had come up against a conundrum: how to write about a martyr as the Church teaches his life (hagiography) or as scholars have documented him, an obscure Deacon in the Roman outpost of Sirmium (now in Serbia)? When I read that Paul had preached to Thessalonians, I took a creative decision that made Demetrius a slave in a pagan household in Thessalonica who had been secretly baptized “in Christ” and who then resolved to live according to Paul’s teachings to the Thessalonians 300 years earlier: “Live in peace with one another….encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone. See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people. Rejoice always.” [1 Thessalonians 5:12-25] My Demetrius is martyred, but namelessly, and thrown outside the city gates, his body unclaimed.

I see the “Jewish cultural critic” in this vision of transformative identity (“neither Jew nor Greek”) and social status (“neither slave nor free”). But what is promised for me, what “justice of equality” (Borg and Crossan) accrues to me in a new identity – the new creature that I am “in Christ” – neither male nor female?

The gyneceum

I am being promised a new human nature beyond or outside the hierarchy of gender, beyond difference in fact (ethnic, social, gendered), a dissolved femaleness (wife, mother) and an emerged, well, celibacy. There is a logic here: Daniel Boyarin argues that it is heterosexuality (penetration, conception, parturition) that produces the gendered female body and the only real equality between men and women is in the realm of “spiritual experience” beyond the body. (For me this poses the question: is a celibate woman female?) This is the realm of women’s freedom, unsubordinated to reproductive (hetero)sexuality and the gynaeceum, and free to be co-workers with Paul.    

Paul and Thecla

Take Thecla in the noncanonical, possibly Gnostic, Acts of Paul and Thecla “which celebrates the story of a woman converted by Paul who rejects her fiancé, adopts men’s clothing, and travels as an evangelist. Persecuted by the agents of family and state, she is vindicated by God through miraculous protection from harm. Paul reappears at the end of the story to affirm her role and commission her to preach in her hometown.” []

Saint Catherine of Siena

(Or, from the western Christian tradition, Catherine of Siena, (1347 – 1380), saint, mystic, Doctor of the Church, whose biography I followed briefly when on retreat at St. Peter’s Abbey. At lunch we remained silent (except for the slurping of soup) while Br. Kurt, in dramatic, stentorian tones, read from a biography. “Caterina Benincasa was born in Siena, the last of 25 children of the wealthy wool-dyer Jacopo Benincasa and Lapa di Puccio dé Piacenti. At the age of six, Catherine received her first vision, near the Church of San Domenico. From this moment onwards the child began to follow a path of devotion, taking the oath of chastity only a year later. After initial resistance from her family, eventually her father gave in and left Catherine to follow her inclinations. In 1363, at just 15 years of age, Catherine donned the black cloak of the Dominican Tertiary sisters.”

Dear Reader, she never married. 


Coming next: Part Three (final installment of My Man Paul posts): The Vexatious Veil




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Alice Major

Interesting, Myrna! I wonder if there was something about early Christianity that particularly attracted the strong and capable women that have always been (generally unofficial) leaders in human societies.

George Melnyk
George Melnyk

I wonder where this is going. This middle essay is open to various directions. Maybe they will all be embraced in the last installment–the Pauline Trilogy!