The Apostle Paul & the Roles of Women Within 1st Century Christianity

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Elizabeth Castelli analyses the Apostle Paul on his contributions to the roles of women in the early church. As Castelli observes, if one wishes to analyze the involvement of early Christian women we need to examine our primary sources. Paul is one such source given he provides us with early 1st century testimony.

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Castelli identifies that Paul, by virtue of his letters placed within the Bible, has occupied a privileged and authoritative space within the church on matters of Christian theology, doctrine, and practice (Castelli, 1999: 221). Thus, given his influence in the development of early Christian that would go on to shape much within western society, Paul has piqued the interests of feminist scholars while also providing exegetes with interpretive challenges on matters of gender roles. Castelli notes ethical concerns stemming from the theology drawn from his letters that have resulted in homophobia, slavery, and misogyny within the church, though Castelli does not interact with this in her essay. Moreover, where gender roles are concerned, Paul includes a number of references to how women ought to conduct themselves in churches and roles of leadership.

Nonetheless, Castelli provides clarity on Pauline texts that are particularly challenging for women. It is deemed inappropriate for a man to say that “women should be silent in the churches,” “not permitted to speak,” and “be subordinate” (1 Cor. 14:33-35). To her credit, Castelli asks several poignant questions: how are we to understand this? Are we confronted with an inconsistency in Paul’s letters? How are we to make sense of this when Paul himself had valuable women helpers and worked in close association with them (Castelli, 1999: 232)? Castelli encourages more theoretical interrogation of these texts (Castelli, 1999: 233).

Castelli further observes the limited nature of the Pauline corpus for historical reconstruction (Castelli, 1999: 223). These limitations are observable in a few ways. First, Paul’s letters do not provide a detailed biographical account of who he was although we can uncover the basics of his life and identity from them (that he was a Pharisee, taught in the Law, a persecutor of the early Christian movement, etc.). Second, one wishes to determine whether or not a generalization of the wider Christian movement (around 50-60 AD) from Paul’s writings alone is warranted given that his letters are perspectival and from the vantage point of his own views and beliefs (Castelli, 1999: 223). Were Paul’s views necessarily shared by other Christians of whom we do not have testimony? We likely will never fully know. Thirdly, pertaining to the roles of women within the church, Paul’s treatment of them is often sporadic and limited in detail (Castelli, 1999: 223). For example, seldom are Paul’s references to them found beyond the greetings within his letters. Nonetheless, Castelli says that from such references, we can determine that women had the roles of missionaries, deacons, apostles, and church leaders within the early Christian movement (Castelli, 1999: 227).

Frank Oesterheld seeks to respond to the common notion that Christianity should be associated with both female and sexual oppression as a product of a “male-dominated religion” (Oesterheld, 2018: 5). I agree with him that this in an important discussion that Christians need to have. He thus emphasizes the importance of engaging the Apostle Paul and the “doctrinal subordination of women” that has been believed by many historical (and contemporary) Christians to have “biblical warrant” (Oesterheld, 2018: 1).

Oesterheld rightly observes that the problematic verses in question (see 1 Corinthians 14:33-35, 14:33-35) are few in number thus comprising a small space within Paul’s letters (Oesterheld, 2018: 1). These texts are, nonetheless, informative when comparing and viewing them in light of 1st century Greco-Roman and Jewish beliefs and practices. However, it was difficult not to view the obvious lack of engagement with these problematic texts in his essay as a problem. After all, one can agree that Paul elevates the status of women but it does nothing to offer cogent explanations for his some of allegedly sexist and misogynistic statements.

Moreover, to his credit Oesterheld cites two notable ancient writers who commented on the roles of women within Jewish society, Josephus Flavius (historian) and Philo Judaeus (philosopher) (Oesterheld, 2018: 1-3). It therefore clear that Oesterheld has engaged with the leading thinkers and chroniclers of the 1st century, thus suggestive of a thoughtful and deep engagement with his topic. Both Flavius and Philo, as brilliant of thinkers and writer that they were, were contemptuous towards the women within their societies. Oesterheld suggests that on such views women were valued as much as “oxen, slaves or other possessions” with little respect to their humanity. Philo saw women as irrational beings and a means for procreation and sexual satisfaction for men.

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It would seem that this background context strengthens Oesterheld’s case for the elevation of women as a result of Paul and Christianity. He bolsters his argument in a few ways (Oesterheld, 2018: 4-5). For example, we not only find women within significant roles in the early church (deacons, apostles, missionaries, and church leaders) but Paul would extort husbands to love their wives “just as Christ loved the church,” for husbands to “love his wife as himself,” and for husbands and wives to “submit to each other.” Such teachings were unique and unheard of by Paul’s contemporaries within a world in which women were the property of their husbands and possessed few legal rights (Oesterheld, 2018: 4). Where Paul’s references to women and the roles they had within church missionary are concerned, Oesterheld rightly argues that Paul elevated their status beyond the home. Women were also free to worship as well as pray and prophesy in public with men. Oesterheld concludes that in a culture and society where women would not be “taken seriously by the target Greco-Roman audience” there was a definite elevation of their status taking women away from the “radical subjugation” to a society of freedom and equality (Oesterheld, 2018: 5).

References.

Castelli, E. 1999. Paul on Women and Gender. In Kraemer, R. Eds. Women and Christian Origins. Cape Town: Oxford University Press. 221-235.

Oesterheld, F. 2018. Untangling a Myth: How the New Testament Elevated the Status of Women in the First Century. In Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History.

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