I was a flaming young feminist and I hated St. Paul. I had never read him but no matter: the sisterhood excoriated him and his ilk – men of the Church who, from its beginnings, loathed women – and that was good enough for me to hold him in contempt. Feminists of long-standing and admirable scholarly accomplishment had written against such “Christians” and the institutions they dominated: who was I to argue, or even to read Paul for myself? It was enough to know he had preached women’s subordination to husbands and against women speaking in worship services, and required that we cover our hair to boot.
Tossed into this anti-Pauline polemic (although not necessarily a feminist issue) was the charge that Paul had deformed the message of the plain-spoken egalitarian Jew from Galilee by institutionalizing the early Christian communities as hierarchical, doctrinaire and, did I mention, misogynist centres of power.
I remember reading selected texts that “proved” the veracity of these charges and my spirit writhed under their abusive assault.
But I moved on, read feminist literature on other topics – wages for housework, Marx and feminism, rape and pornography, race and “difference,” the male gaze, the real meaning of Aeschylus’s Oresteia. And by not attending any longer any church of any denomination, I spared myself the particular torments of instruction in the Epistles of St Paul.
The decades passed. Then in 2001, as a result of my adventure with the Byzantine saint Demetrius (it would eventually produce my book, Prodigal Daughter) I was considering the value of my heritage in the Orthodox Church. I read, for example, The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason by the Classical historian Charles Freeman. Fellow Classicist Mary Beard summarized his argument in a review in the British paper, The Independent, as that “the authority of the church and its political supporters destroyed ‘the tradition of rational thought’ that was among the major achievements of the classical world.”
Normally, I would have nodded in full agreement with Freeman’s grievance about the anti-intellectualism of “irrational” religious faith, but this time, much to my surprise, I found myself upturned by it. Knowing something now of the Eastern Mind of Byzantium and Orthodoxy and being of some sympathy with it, I needed to be reassured that “faith” and “reason” were not necessarily mutually exclusive. As a writer of nonfiction in particular, I had a simple question to put to a priest/reverend/pastor: Why should I, a writer, whose stock in trade is my brain and a certain degree of impertinence, succumb to a religious faith that arguably despises my intelligence?
I took that, rather artless, question to a friend of a friend, an Anglican priest in Edmonton, who leaped from his chair to seize a Bible and read to me from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” (Or even better, as I would later read in David Bentley Hart’s translation, “And do not be configured to this age, but be transformed by renewal of the intellect.”) Paul wrote that? I was at once disbelieving and heartened. Later I would come ’round to consider the meaning of the rest of his sentence but at that moment in the chancery of an Anglican church I sat straight upright in the knowledge that the deplorable apostle Paul, in the first decades after the death of Jesus, had reassured me of the value of my “intellect” in the exercise of whatever modicum of Christian faith I might eventually acquire. (Mark 9:24 “I have faith; help my faithlessness.” Hart trans.)
And so began my tutorship in the meaning of the Epistles of St Paul, in the course of which I have nevertheless remained an unshakeable feminist.
I could be accused of having read very selectively about Paul but I plead the necessity of having to make choices among the myriad texts that have been written on the subject. I have bought books as I have come upon them, and some titles and subtitles have jumped out at me as revising my earlier feminist antipathy. Here are some titles in my library: A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity by Daniel Boyarin; First and Second Corinthians: An Orthodox Bible Study by Fr. Lawrence Farley; What Paul Meant by (Catholic and Classicist) Garry Wills; Meeting God in Paul by former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams; Paul: The Mind of the Apostle by English writer and ex-believer A.N. Wilson; The First Paul: Reclaiming the radical visionary behind the Church’s conservative icon by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan; and Paul: A Very Short Introduction by E.P. Sanders. It was of course important to me that I read women writers and scholars on the subject. A “leading historian of antiquity,” Paula Fredriksen, wrote Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle; St. Paul, the Misunderstood Apostle by English writer and historian of comparative religion Karen Armstrong; and Paul: A Short Introduction by professor of Divinity, Morna D. Hooker. I have a couple of whimsical texts that I keep: written in 1957 by a British writer, H.K. Luce, “St Paul,” as part of a series, Lives to Remember I retrieved from a box of discards ; and, found in a religious goods shop in Thessalonica, St Paul’s Journeys to Greece and Cyprus by a Greek academic, A.J. Delicostopoulos.
And, because she has a lot to say about the Epistles (and was influenced by the redoubtable feminist theologian, Mary Daly, who was dismissed for refusing to allow men to enroll in her classes at Boston College. ), Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins.
Was it Caravaggio’s monumental painting, Conversion of St. Paul, that was the first narrative that I “read” of the journey of Saul, persecutor of Christians, on the road to Damascus to become Paul? If so, it was a disappointment to learn, in Acts 9:3-4, that there was no horse on the road to Damascus but only a mighty flash of light that threw Saul off his feet to lie prostrate on the ground, and a voice from within the light: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He was not so much blinded by the light as simply unable to see anything within its dazzling blaze. Thus, in about the year 33CE, Saul became Paul whom God had”set apart from birth,” had chosen to reveal his Son to him and “through me in order that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles.” (Gal 1: 16) And so began his extraordinary travels around the Roman world of the eastern Mediterranean – Philippi, Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, Galatea – to establish or assist communities of fledgling Christians, to encourage, exhort, mediate, and above all to preach to them – and write letters – “the obedience of faith in Christ Jesus.” In his letter to the Galatians, he rang the changes on the gifts of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness and self-control.” (Gal 5:22) It would prove to be a winning formula in a world of Imperial brutishness and profligacy.
I soon recognized Paul in icons as the balding, brow-furrowed one among the Apostles, said to have been bow-legged and unprepossessing in looks. He was a Greek-speaking urbanite from Tarsus, in the Roman province of Cilicia with the rights of a Roman citizen, and it is in Rome that he disappears from the record, perhaps executed, that is martyred, in a Roman prison.
And so I began to read. Fortuitously, even before I had read the Epistles in the Orthodox Study Bible (King James Revised), I had picked up Borg’s and Crossan’s The First Paul and learned there are in fact three Pauls: the historical and radical Paul of letters by him; those by the conservative “Paul”, written by faithful followers after his death; and the reactionary, pseudo-Paul, the author(s) of letters issued a generation or two after Paul in a very different world where Christians were martyred in successive persecutions in the dying days of the pagan Empire. (They would finally cease when Emperor Constantine issued an edict of toleration in 313 CE.) And then there are the obvious-to-scholars interpolated fragments of text, including those notorious teachings that we feminists cited as “evidence” of Paul’s misogyny. According to David Bentley Hart in a note about his translation of the New Testament, “the best critical scholarship regards [these] as a later and rather maladroit interpolation…almost certainly spurious.”
Well, then: fortified by this rather sensational information (I already felt like a cat that had been set among the pigeons) I was ready to read the Letters/Epistles themselves. I knew that, although the authorized Bible made no distinction among the letters as to authorship (they are all “by Paul”), I was now informed that there was only one authentic Paul and this is the one I would spend most time with.