A topic that frequently comes up when I discuss the apostle Paul with members of the LDS Church is the perception that Paul was a misogynist. It seems to be a commonly held belief that he was hostile to women and, at the very least, encouraged misogynistic practices by virtue of his teachings regarding the role of women in the church. I suppose I can understand why such a perspective is held given that there are several comments within Paul’s epistles that do seem hostile to women. However, recent scholarship has cast doubt on the accuracy of attributing those teachings to Paul, and there is quite a bit of evidence that Paul was pretty progressive regarding the role of women within the church. I’m going to cover some of that evidence, trying to make the case that Paul, in all probability, wasn’t a misogynist like he is made out to be. Before I do so, I want to cover a couple of topics that will be germane to my discussion: the fact that there are several texts traditionally attributed to Paul for which there is dispute regarding authorship, and that early Christians were quite progressive regarding women.
Also, please keep in mind that I am not at all a scholar. I’m simply an interested party who has read a lot of books on early Christianity and the apostle Paul, so there is a high probability that I am wrong on this stuff.
Disputed Letters of Paul
Traditionally, there are several epistles within the New Testament to which Paul was the attributed author. I have listed those epistles below in the order in which they appear in the New Testament:
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- 1 Thessalonians
- 2 Thessalonians
- 1 Timothy
- 2 Timothy
Over the years, scholars have come to dispute Paul’s authorship of several of those epistles. Hebrews was disputed from a very early date, but others have also come to be regarded as having been written by someone other than Paul. The epistles I highlighted in bold are the undisputed epistles, meaning there is scholarly consensus that Paul did author them – that they’re authentic. For the rest of the epistles, scholarly opinion ranges from “almost certainly not” to “possibly used a ghost writer”.
The practice of writing a text in another’s name was a pretty common occurrence in the first century CE. It was sometimes used by an author to smear another’s reputation by writing something offensive, though more frequently it was used to lend credibility to an otherwise unknown author’s ideas.
It is important to remember that Paul’s epistles were likely written somewhere between 40 and 60 CE, while the New Testament canon wasn’t finalized until approximately 400 CE. When the canon was finalized, the ostensible authors were not around to identify which of their reputed writings were authentic, so councils had to rely upon textual analysis and general opinion to determine the fraudulent from legitimate texts. Modern textual analysis is far more sophisticated, more complex, and is aided by computers, which can identify patterns that may be very difficult for humans to perceive. What does this mean for our discussion of Paul’s misogyny? The comments appearing in the authentic, undisputed texts carry more weight when assessing what Paul has written. Teachings appearing in both sets of texts will be discussed below, but it is important to be aware of the status of a text upon which one is basing one’s opinion.
Women in the Jesus Movement
I’m not going to spend much time discussing the role of women in the early “Jesus movement” (I like that term because early followers of Jesus were Jewish and viewed their experience as an extension of Judaism rather than a separate religion). There is a lot of scholarship on the topic and it’s only indirectly important to this discussion, but there was, quite early, a progressive perspective regarding the role of women in the religious community of the Jesus movement. For example:
- Some of the earliest disciples of Jesus were women and even helped support him from their means (Luke 8:1-3).
- Some of the most frequently cited disciples of Jesus were women.
- The first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection were women, despite the fact that women were not considered reliable witnesses within the culture.
- Some women, such as Lydia, opened their homes for preaching.
- Women served in leadership roles within the early movement, some specifically mentioned as missionaries, apostles, deacons, or having “labor[ed] for the Lord’s work.”
Discussing Specific Examples
Okay, let’s get to discussing some examples of what are traditionally seen as patriarchal or even misogynistic teachings of Paul, as well as some evidences of Paul’s (relative) progressiveness on this issue.
1 Timothy 2:9-15 (NRSV)
also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. 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.
The epistles to Timothy are among what are referred to as “pastoral epistles” because they are not directed to a specific church but rather to someone in charge of caring for believers. This quote is usually the first example brought forth as evidence of Paul’s misogyny. However, over the past 150-200 years the attribution of Paul as the author of the pastoral epistles has been increasingly questioned. While there is not complete agreement on whether Paul wrote or influenced the composition of these letters, most scholars do not believe Paul to be the author, and consensus among scholars is nearly universal that 1 Timothy was not written by Paul. As noted earlier, there are significant differences between 1 Timothy and the rest of Paul’s letters. Bart Ehrman states:
As I have already pointed out, most critical scholars think that 1 Timothy is pseudonymous: its vocabulary, writing style, theological modes of expression, and presupposed historical situation all differ significantly from what can be found in Paul’s authentic letters.
In a footnote to that paragraph, Ehrman also points out the distinction within 1 Timothy’s emphasis on churches run by ordained ministers rather than by the Spirit, as was emphasized in Paul’s communities, using 1 Corinthians 12 as an example.
It seems that it is a dubious proposition to stick this one on Paul.
1 Corinthians 14:34-35 (NRSV)
women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.
Like the previous example, this is an infamous example of Paul’s misogyny, but unlike the passage from 1 Timothy, this one is from one of Paul’s authentic letters.
However, this passage appears to contradict a passage in chapter 11, verse 5, which states:
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.
Due partly to this discrepancy, there are several scholars who hypothesize that this passage is a likely forgery, added to 1 Corinthians by someone at a later date, possibly by the person or community responsible for the ideas in 1 Timothy. Again, Ehrman states it pretty well:
Even so, there are good reasons for thinking Paul did not write the passage about women being silent in chapter 14. For one thing, just three chapters earlier Paul condoned the practice of women speaking in church. They are to have their heads covered, he insists, when they pray and prophesy – activities done out loud in antiquity. How could Paul condone a practice (women speaking in church) in chapter 11 that he condemns in chapter 14?
It has often been noted that the passage in chapter 14 also appears intrusive in its own literary context: Both before and after his instructions for women to keep silent, Paul is speaking not about women in church but about prophets in church. When the verses on women are removed, the passage flows neatly without a break. This too suggests that these verses were inserted into the passage later. Moreover, it is striking that the verses in question appear in different locations in some of our surviving manuscripts of Paul’s letter as if they had originally appeared as a marginal note (drawn from the teaching of the forged letter of 1 Timothy?) and inserted as judged appropriate in different parts of the chapter. On these grounds, a number of scholars have concluded that Paul’s instructions for women to be silent in 1 Corinthians may not be from Paul, just as the letter to Timothy is not from Paul.
As Ehrman notes, he is not alone among scholars in proposing that the direction for women to be silent in 1 Corinthians is a possible forgery. Several other scholars have made a similar argument, pointing out that “women such as Prisca, Phoebe, and Junia could not have functioned as Church leaders and apostles if they were not allowed to speak in public.”
1 Corinthians 11:3-9 (NRSV)
But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ. Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, 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. 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. For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man.
This one is a bit tricky. In my view, rather than portraying misogynistic ideas, it seems to be describing a patriarchal structure with varying degrees of status, with God as the head of Jesus, Jesus the head of man, and man the head of woman. Remember, Paul was a Jew, a self-described zealot, and a Pharisee who studied under the famous Gamaliel. He no doubt had patriarchal ideas, but an interesting reading of this passage can be derived by looking at the Greek word translated here as “head”. That word, κεφαλὴ, is typically translated as the head of a body. However, after consulting the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, it also can mean a “being of high status” or “the uppermost part, extremity, end, point” (e.g., head of a pin).
I believe an evidence that supports my view is the common understanding among people of that era that women were humans who were not fully developed. Instead of thinking of males and females as two types of humans, they were instead viewed as two degrees of being human, with women being the lesser degree. It is possible to see this in contemporary writings of non-Christians such as Philo or in the Gospel of Thomas, where Mary’s salvation hinges upon her becoming a man (see Saying 114). So, from the perspective of that worldview it would seem logical that a woman, if she is to pray to God, needs to look like or be in the image of man (hair cut or shaved). If she is not, then she needs to veil herself because she is not yet reflecting her full potential as a human (I know that sounds terrible).
Admittedly, it doesn’t sound the best to modern ears, and there are definitely patriarchal overtones here, but I don’t detect misogyny in the passage. In fact, I think we gain some additional insight into Paul’s meaning by reading what he states in verses 11-12:
Nevertheless, 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.
I know that the LDS Church interprets those verses as an allusion to celestial marriage, but I don’t see that reading in the text; however, that is an argument for a different day. I think Paul is ultimately trying to make a theological point that men and women have more in common than not, for woman was “born” out of man (i.e., the Eden myth), and man is literally born through a woman (i.e., his mother), so ultimately neither can lord it over the other, especially since they both come from God. He is pressing the idea that we are all one in Christ, who is one with God.
While certainly a flawed understanding of gender, I don’t think Paul’s use of the concept here constitutes a hatred or disdain of women. He is pressing for unity in Christ and his argument needs to be seen from the perspective of 1st century ideas of gender.
Ephesians 5:22-30 (NRSV)
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. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.
First off, there is some dispute as to whether Ephesians is an authentic letter from Paul. It is a pretty generic letter and makes no mention of his visit there, but I believe the letter to be authentic. The earliest manuscripts we have do not have the letter addressed to Ephesus but rather to a general audience, which would explain why it is pretty generic. I will treat it as authentic for this discussion.
Once again you can see the topic of husbands, or men, being the “heads” of their wives. What’s interesting here, though, is the additional context brought by the verses surrounding this passage. For example, in verse 21, it reads:
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Paul then goes on to talk about wives being subject to husbands as husbands are subject to Christ, and husbands treating their wives as Christ treated the church. He also then goes on in verses 1-4 of the next chapter (6) to address children subjecting themselves to their parents and parents treating their children with respect. Finally, in verses 5-9 of chapter 6 Paul tells slaves to obey their earthly masters and to treat them with respect (similar to how they treat Christ, to whom they are also slaves), and for masters to treat their slaves with respect, especially considering that both slave and master ultimately have the same Master.
What Paul seems to be implying here is that, regardless of one’s station in life, we are to be subject to one another. If everybody is subject to each other, then all are equal and of one body. Paul seems to be arguing for unity in the faith and community, regardless of what role one has in that community. I also wouldn’t categorize this passage as misogynistic.
Colossians 3:18-19 (NRSV)
Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.
Colossians is another disputed letter of Paul. I am persuaded, however, that it is authentic, primarily due to its similarities to Philemon. Either way, the argument here is similar to the one in Ephesians. If one reads the subsequent verses, Paul is again arguing for unity in the family, which is part of the larger request for unity in the faith. Perhaps there are some hints of patriarchy here, but I don’t detect misogyny, and I’m willing to forgive a bit of patriarchy due to the culture in which Paul lived. We all have our cultural blind spots, but I don’t see this passage as indicating misogyny on Paul’s part.
Paul’s References to Women in Prominent Roles
Finally, I’d like to turn our attention to some of the numerous references Paul makes to women functioning in prominent roles.
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 Paul’s letter to the Romans he mentions several women who worked with him as missionaries or who were deacons and, most interestingly, apostles:
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae
Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus
Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you.
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 those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord.
I see these examples as additional evidence that Paul was not a misogynist. Why would Paul, if he were a misogynist, make mention of these women and their important roles, specifically sending them greeting or commending them to his readers? Add to these examples my arguments above, and I think there is a good case to be made that Paul, while perhaps having some patriarchal tendencies, was not a misogynist, and even was pretty progressive for his time in encouraging women to play prominent roles in the religious community of the time.
What do you think? Are you convinced?
: Ehrman, Bart, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, p. 37
: Ibid, p. 38
: “1 Corinthians 14”, note 10, NAB, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2003