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Modern day Turkey

Saul, better known today as St. Paul, came from Tarsus in modern day Turkey. Even though being a Diaspora Jew, he was a Roman citizen, an avid student under the tutelage of a learned Jewish scholar, Gamaliel and a tent maker by trade. However, St. Paul will always be remembered as one of the most important and controversial figures in early Christianity and even in modern times. It is difficult to understand the man or his activities without considering the social and religious settings of the places and times he lived in. In responding to the call of the divine while on the road to Damascus, he did not flinch from the directive given but threw himself into the fray of things; the conversion of Jews and mainly Gentiles to Christianity, en masse, throughout the Mediterranean region. On his travels he encountered various philosophical thoughts, different religious movements, conflicts with civil and political authorities. In his encounter with men and women from a variety of religious beliefs, racial and national backgrounds, different ideas and persuasions; he always tried to accommodate their viewpoints. In his own words, "I have become all things to all people that I might by all means save some"[1] he recognized the approaches of others and incorporated them into his own. However, when he was unable to do so he asserted his view vigorously to convince others of its validity. Therefore in order to correctly interpret what St. Paul is trying to convey to men and especially women through his speeches, letters and actions it must always be taken in context to the lifestyles of the community being addressed at that particular time and location in history. Far from being condemned a Male Chauvinist and labeled an Anti Feminist, St. Paul was a champion of Eschatological Egalitarianism and an Advocate of both Social and Sexual Equality by virtue of the relevant declarations he made and the proper actions he directed during his earthly ministry.

It is a widely accepted fact that "throughout most of church history, the apostle Paul has held the reputation of being what one might call the Great Christian Male Chauvinist toward women"[2] and a misogynist. True, he stated on various occasions and as documented in his letters (epistles) that women were not to speak in Church, husbands were to rule their wives and wives were to obey their husbands. He even went further to confirm that women were more prone to sin and temptation than men and that they could only be saved by bearing children. Paul also thought that women should not adorn themselves with jewelry and fine clothing but rather cover their heads especially during worship. Surprisingly, the same Paul in one of his greatest declarations and in defiance of those who degraded women said that "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,"[3] an eschatological egalitarian vision clearly indicating that he did not support the theory of women's inferiority and neither advocated any form of secondary role for women in the Church. These pronouncements by Paul seem to be a contradiction of sorts, leaving readers of his works to decipher for themselves what was directly meant rather than what he actually intended them to think. To give the 'man of his times' the benefit of the doubt and for a moment not considering him to be a misogynist or a woman hater, he was most certainly inconsistent in his views about women. However, most biblical scholars have confirmed that his letters to the Ephesians, Colossians, Titus, I and II Timothy were not his authentic work and it must also be remembered that his original works were translated from Greek to the vernacular by authors who themselves were well versed in Greek philosophy. They could have quoted Paul from a viewpoint of their own culture and customs which at that time did consider women to be of a lower status than men. In so doing, these authors established a view of Paul's statements from a perspective that was Greek rather than Jewish and pagan rather than Christian, imparting the viewpoint which Paul actually opposed. His words had been translated to debar women from preaching, leading in worship or serving the sacramental bread and wine even when such actions did not involve any word spoken on the part of Paul. Further, he lived in an era shaped by patriarchal attitudes of Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures towards women. It would not be expected of Paul to extricate himself from his surroundings, the attitudes and persuasions of the people of the regions at the time just to enable men and women today to find his message acceptable.

While the intended teachings of Paul recorded in his authentic works was lost in the translation and interpretation by authors and philosophers of the time, women in present times accuse him of being an anti feminist; not being given any major role to play in the Church today. Even though the missionary work of women was not initiated by Paul, he found it in operation and never failed to extend "fleeting salutations and commendations, but they are affectionate and respectful, recalling the dedicated and sacrificial participation of those women in the work of the gospel"[4] during the early Christian movement. At the end of his epistle to the Romans he listed a number of church leaders by name, persons worthy of praise, eight of whom were women. Paul commended Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Canchreae, who was not only a helper and protector of the fledgling Christian community in Corinth but also a great assistance for Paul in his ministry. He greeted Prisca along with her husband Aquila as his companions and fellow missionaries who risked their necks to protect his life and conducted prayer services in their house. He singles out Mary, Junia, Tryphaena and Tryphosa as workers in the Lord, Euodia and Syntyche as evangelists and Chloe a peacemaker while Lydia a hospitable leader. When St. Paul's works are read for some form of guidance in answering a variety of questions posed by women today, his views are definitely conflicting. In some texts Paul appears to campaign for equality among men and women yet in other writings he subordinates women and at times even insults them. If a neutral position was taken on this issue and keeping in mind that Paul was not a theologian nor was he in the process of setting up a theology of women, his letters can be considered to be pastoral in nature and addressed to the specific needs and inquiries of particular communities. It is not surprising then to note that the insubordination of women is not found in his authentic letters. Rather in them he points to the equality and mutuality by stating univocally that "woman is not independent of man or man not independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God"[5]. He went on further to state that "for the wife has no authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does."[6] On various occasions Paul used a maternal image to speak of his own apostolic mission. He likened the spiritual care he afforded for his followers to a nurse caring for her own children; he spoke of going through labor pains similar to that of a pregnant woman while preaching the message of Christ in his letters to the Thessalonians, Galatians and Romans. By doing so he validated the experiences of female believers, allowing himself to be influenced by women and through their experiences of God's expectation thereby providing a good model of his egalitarian nature.

In spite of the anti feminist view he seems to portray and the supposedly chauvinistic statements being taken out of context are used in the critique of the slandered apostle, he was in essence a true defender of both social and sexual equality. He began his apostolic mission of converting both Jews and Gentiles to the Christian faith, an onerous task as both these groups of people were most of the time in conflict with each other's religious and moral views. He did not dwell solely on this task for while building the church he also sought to establish sense of equality within the membership that was not found anywhere in the ancient world. His instructions in fact regarding women and marriage were in constant conflict with the teachings of Greek philosophers and Jewish rabbis; while Aristotle, the renowned Greek philosopher taught that "a female is a deformed male,"[7] St. Paul declared that "there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."[8] Women and men, according to Paul, were able to lead in worship much against the Jewish custom of gender separation in the synagogue. Being a teacher himself it was his desire that women follow in his footsteps saying, "Let a women learn in silence with full submission"[9] in contrast to the philosopher's argument that "women are inferior to men in their ability to reason."[10] Husbands and wives are to be responsive to the needs of each other for "the husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband"[11] advised Paul while Aristotle asserted "a man's courage is in commanding, a woman's in obeying."[12] Ever since Eve, the Jews were taught that women are morally weak and a source of temptation to man while St. Paul categorically said that a woman is the glory of man. Both Greeks and Jewish law agree that the authority over a woman belongs first to her father and then after marriage to her husband while St. Paul insists that, "a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head."[13] In comparison to the philosophic thinking of Aristotle which Greek society held steadfast to and the prevalent Jewish teachings at the time, Paul confronted the issue of sexual equality in both these societies head on. Even though his views on relations between spouses was limited for he himself remained celibate, Paul upheld marriage and defended its values, without surrendering the all-important duty for the Christian to 'wait upon the Lord' with undivided heart. His defense and preference for the unmarried state was as if following in his master's footsteps and in a way also liberated Christian women from the bondage of patriarchal dependence for the duty of childbearing was heavily enforced in both Roman and Greek law. Paul must have garnered tremendous support from Gentile women and likeminded men by elevating the status of women or liberating them from the confines of marriage merely by becoming members of their new found faith.

Having convinced these two societies that sexual equality should prevail he embarked on the resolution of yet another genuine problem of the times which was head coverings, hair lengths and dress codes for women; a social issue that would undermine his efforts in his conversion-to-Christianity mission. According to the Jewish customs, women were required cover their heads with a cloth and the hair to be bound up; for letting the hair down in public was seen as tempting men to sin. On the other hand Greek men would have found this Jewish insistence of head coverings for women as strange if not distasteful. Paul, true to his ideals and with his envision of unification wrote, "give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved,"[14] thereby using diplomacy to achieve his objective. Paul may have wanted women to continue wearing the head covering thinking that "the abandonment of the veil, then, while to some extent a statement of liberation, would at the same time have been an abandonment of the female as well."[15] Abandonment rather than liberation may have been a source of concern for Paul and by maintaining the custom he was ensuring the retention of the female. Moreover women's attire in the Jewish custom was much more modest than that of their Greek counterparts who were schooled in the fine art of cosmetics, fashion and adornment. Paul once again used his tact and admonished his female believers to "dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls or expensive clothes."[16] In doing so he wanted women to have control of their own lives, be true to themselves and 'be the glory of man'. Paul was able to set up a dress code basis for believers from both Jewish and Greek backgrounds which helped unite them socially under the mantle of Christianity.

From the very outset of his missionary life Paul was committed to the fundamental principle that all men and women are one in Jesus Christ, needless to say that this was the basis of his conviction that he held firmly. There is nothing in his teachings on matters pertaining to women that are contrary to this conviction and throughout his earthly life he provided ample evidence of the same. This principle was successful in achieving the evangelization of both Jews and Gentiles for even though "Paul's principle was unambiguous: 'There is neither male nor female.' Not only was his teaching compatible with this, but his own practice was a demonstration of it."[17] There is sufficient evidence of the important role women played in the spread of Christianity in the early years of its expansion. While women enjoyed greater social and sexual freedom, it also testified to Paul's flexibility of practice as "his approach resulted in the elevation of women to a place in religious work for which we have little contemporary parallel."[18] All this was achieved surprisingly without leading to any serious offence to any particular group of people or causing any social upheavals within a skeptical society in which women and religion were an easy prey to criticism. There were women among his closest associates and leaders within the church and their contributions were in no way distinguishable by virtue of being females. Having said this, the relationship of man and woman within the Christian church; the model that presently gains favor was definitely not the one voiced by the saint during his ministry on this earth, but by pagan philosophies that were instituted centuries before. These philosophies were to be defended within the sanctuaries, cathedrals and the hierarchy of Christian faiths by quoting the words of St. Paul and translating it out of context without reference to the ideal that the saint held dear to him. His model of egalitarianism and equality which were in conformance with the teachings of his master, Jesus Christ, was lost to Christian theology following his martyrdom. In light of changed cultural and religious affiliations in modern times, "the practical expression of his views on women is not always applicable today, the principle underlying them continue to attract attention of those actively, even desperately, seeking community."[19] This principle underlying St. Paul's idea of women in the Christian church will remain as revolutionary and challenging in this century as it did in his time. While male chauvinism and anti feminism is the modern day condemnation of St. Paul, the man responsible for pioneering the spread of Christianity against many odds from within and without; let it never be forgotten that this slandered apostle was a champion in the promotion of eschatological egalitarianism and a staunch advocate of social justice and sexual equality during his apostolic ministry on this earth.

Endnotes

  1. 1 Cor. 9:22 New Revised Standard Version
  2. John Bristow, What Paul Really Said About Women (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1988), 1.
  3. Gal. 3:28
  4. Andrew Perriman, Speaking of Women Interpreting Paul (Leicester: APOLLOS Inter-Varsity Press, 1998), 61.
  5. 1 Cor. 11:11-12
  6. 1 Cor. 7:4
  7. John Bristow, What Paul Really Said About Women (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1988), 111.
  8. Gal. 3:28
  9. 1 Tim. 2:11
  10. John Bristow, What Paul Really Said About Women (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1988), 111.
  11. 1Cor. 7:3
  12. John Bristow, What Paul Really Said About Women (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1988), 111
  13. 1 Cor. 11:10
  14. 1 Cor. 10:32-33
  15. Brendan Bryne, Paul and the Christian Woman (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1988), 51.
  16. 1 Tim. 2:9
  17. Victor Paul Furnish, The Moral Teaching of Paul (Nashville: Abingdon, 1979), 112.
  18. Robert Banks, Paul's Idea of Community (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), 160.
  19. Ibid. 191.
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