In orthodox tradition Paul is portrayed as taking a hard line against women. This ‘traditional’ perception of Paul has even influenced many outside of Christianity who identify Paul with the stereotype of the cold, hard, conservative Christian prude. Without a doubt there are certain passages in the New Testament which tend to reinforce this popular view.
1 Corinthians 14:34f.,
“Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the Law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”
1 Timothy 2:11-15,
“Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. Notwithstanding she shall be saved with childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity, and holiness with sobriety.”
These passages seem to make it clear that Paul had a problem with women. And most conservative Christian leaders prefer to believe that this is how Paul really was, historically. But is this really what Paul believed? Is it really that simple? And do the Pauline letters contain a consistent position regarding Paul’s attitude toward women? Does Paul say consistently in his letters that women are to keep silent? – or that women are to blame for the fall of mankind? At the very least, I hope to demonstrate for my readers that Paul’s writings contain no clear consensus on what his position actually was – and that the “orthodox” tradition of Paul was really based on the needs of the later Catholic Church, and had nothing to do with Paul or his immediate circumstances.
To begin to understand the nature of this issue, we must first understand that most of Paul’s letters are composite. The letters we know today as Romans, and 1 Corinthians, and 2 Corinthians, are in fact artificial creations; they are fictions. These letters are actually comprised of fragments from smaller letters. And then there are some fragments in these letters which are not from Paul at all. This can be demonstrated by simply comparing the various passages, and noticing the conflicting ideas which become apparent.
Let us look at some simple examples which show that Paul’s letters are composite in nature. A very simple example may be seen in a comparison of the opening and closing chapters from the supposed second letter to the Corinthian Church, i.e. 2 Corinthians. At the beginning of this letter Paul displays a very positive attitude toward the people he writes. Paul says to them “Grace be to you, and peace from God our father…” and also “For we write none other things unto you than what you read or acknowledge…that we are your rejoicing even as ye are ours…” (2 Cor. 1:2, 13-14) Yet by the end of this same “letter” Paul’s writing has taken a remarkably different mood. From chapter 10 onward Paul writes as if he is at odds with his readers: and he answers charges that he is a coward (10:10), and that he is a false apostle (11:5, 22). By the end of the letter Paul is reduced to making threats: “This is the third time I am coming to you…and being absent now I write to them which heretofore have sinned, and to all the rest, that, if I come again, I will not spare: since you seek proof of Christ speaking in me…” (2 Cor. 13:1-3)
Let us note this paradox! At the beginning of 2 Corinthians everything is bliss between Paul and his fellow Christians at Corinth. They rejoice in each other and accept each other (cf. 2 Cor. 3:1-3). But in the concluding chapters Paul is visibly angry, and he writes as if he is confronted with rebellion and betrayal. If 2 Corinthians is really just one original letter then we need to think seriously about the sanity of Paul: in this case it appears that he was suffering from some sort of psychotic, manic-depressive mood swing. Thus Paul’s “letter” opens with a happy greeting and affirmations of friendship, but at the end Paul is ready for a fight!
The most plausible explanation for this odd combination of themes is that 2 Cor. 1-3 and 10-13 are actually from different letters which address different occasions. Chapters 10-13 were evidently from a letter where Paul quarreled with the Corinthian church. The fact that no specific names are mentioned, nor specific events or confrontations, indicates that only part of this polemical letter has been preserved. (I suspect that the reason this information was omitted is because it directly involved the Apostles at Jerusalem and certain emissaries they sent to Corinth to oppose Paul. I cover this subject in my three-part series “St. Paul and the Apostolic Tradition”.)
Another example of composite elements in Paul’s letters may be seen in a comparison of 1 Corinthians chapters 8 and 10. In chapter 8 Paul tells his readers that pagan idols are nothing, and that eating meat from the temples is of no consequence (8:4). Paul only warns that such partaking should not be done in front of the weaker brethren who lack gnosis (8:7-11). But in chapter 10 Paul says that the idols in the temples are devils, and that one cannot eat from the Lord’s table and also from the table of devils (10:20-21). Obviously Paul has changed his position. Did he do this all in one letter that he mailed to the Corinthians? Or do chapters 8 and 10 represent two separate letters which address the same controversy? In my view 1 Cor. 10 represents a second letter written in response to another letter that was sent in reaction to Paul’s earlier letter as preserved in chapter 8. In the chapter 10 letter Paul backs away from his position regarding “gnosis” and idols: Paul admits instead that pagan idols are devils, and that one may not participate in pagan rites. (Personally I believe that Paul’s true position is stated in chapter 8, but others have forced him into a more conservative position which is reflected in chapter 10. In spite of all this, Paul maintains that the Israelites worship an “idol” and that “all things are lawful”; 1 Cor. 10:18-19, 23).
Scholar Walter Schmithals believed that 1 Corinthians was comprised of as many as 15 different letters, and that 2 Corinthians was comprised of six letters (Gnosticism at Corinth, pp. 87f., 90, 96). Albert Schweitzer took a more conservative position with his opinion that the two Corinthian letters were comprised of no less than four letters (Mysticism of Paul, pg. 48f.).
The letter to Romans also shows evidence of being composite. Most obvious is the final chapter, Romans 16, which is filled with greetings from Paul to various people. This chapter has been shown by scholars to have originated from another letter addressed to a church in Asia, not Italy. The main problem is that no one mentioned in this section can be connected to the church at Rome (e.g., cf. Rom. 16:3, Acts 18:1-2). Albert Schweitzer believed that Romans chapters 14-16 actually belonged to a different letter that was addressed to the church at Ephesus (A. Schweitzer, ibid., pg 49f.).
In my own opinion I think that these latter chapters were added to Romans in order to make things appear more cozy than they really were. The addition of chapter 16 to Romans makes it seem as if Paul is this popular character and that he has all these friends in Rome. Whereas, in reality, the true state of the picture is actually preserved in Galatians and 2 Corinthians: Paul had many enemies among the early Christians, and among the Apostles at Jerusalem. The historic reality may have been that the Roman Christians may not have welcomed Paul at all. Paul’s letter to the Romans appears to be nothing less than his own letter of commendation. Such letters seemed to be running in short supply for our friend Paul (cf. 2 Cor. 3:1-5). But I digress…
Albert Schweitzer made this astute observation regarding the overall composite nature of the Pauline Letters:
“We have therefore to reckon with the possibility that the copy of a collection of the Pauline Epistles, on which our knowledge of the Apostle’s letters rests, did not contain the Epistles to the Corinthians, Philippians and Romans in the original form, but in the versions which they had assumed in the copies prepared for the purpose of reading at public worship.” (A. Schweitzer, Mysticism of Paul., MacMillan Co., NY: 1960, pg. 50)
The point here is that the Pauline letters we know today are an artificial creation. These letters represent the corpus of Paul that we have received from the Catholic Fathers. They organized these letters into a format suitable for Catholic worship. Many important elements from these letters were obviously discarded; and this reality is reflected in the way these letters are so often garbled, fragmented, and lacking in context.
Next we must briefly take note of the fact that Paul’s letters are not comprised of purely Pauline elements. Some elements of the letters were evidently not from Paul, and this issue will inevitably reveal the fact that Paul’s views on women have been completely misunderstood and misrepresented in “orthodox” tradition. A related problem is that some of Paul’s letters are not really from the Apostle at all. We will address the latter issue first.
The general consensus among scholars is that there are seven genuine Pauline letters (i.e. as the texts now exist): these letters are Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon. The next category is those letters on which scholars generally disagree: 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians and Colossians. Some scholars insist that these letters are also from Paul; and others believe that these letters were written by Paul’s followers shortly after his death. The third category represents those letters which most scholars agree could not have been from Paul, and were written long after Paul’s death: 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus (the so-called “Pastoral Letters”).
A good example of the differences between these categories can be seen in a comparison of Philippians and 1 & 2 Timothy. These letters purport to have been written while Paul was imprisoned in Rome (Phil. 1:13, 4:22; 2 Timothy 1:17). But I think that anyone who sits down and reads these letters side by side must see that the writing styles are so different that they cannot come from the same author. This paradox is more than obvious even when the texts are read in English. The author of Philippians writes like the lively Paul of Galatians and Corinthians; but the author 1 & 2 Timothy writes like a tired old cleric who is concerned with the problems of a different age.
The letters of Timothy contain terminology and concepts which are unique to these letters in contrast with Philippians and the other letters. An example is where the writer to Timothy repeatedly uses the expression “sound doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:10, 2 Tim. 4:3). This term is never used in the other letters. The Timothy letters also refer to the “laying of hands” which is never mentioned in the other letters (1 Tim. 4:14, 2 Tim. 1:6). The letter to 1 Timothy also refers to the “office of bishop” whereas Paul knows no such office (1 Tim. 3:1). (In Philippians Paul refers to “bishops” and “deacons” but these terms are not used in the context of official offices as in Timothy. Aside from Phil. 1:1 these words appear nowhere else in Paul’s authentic letters.) The writer to “Timothy” uses a form of the name “Timothy” that Paul never used (timothee); whereas Paul always referred to him as “Timotheos” in the genuine letters.
A most striking example of the differences between these letters may be seen in a comparison 2 Timothy 3:16 and Philippians 4:8.
2 Timothy 3:16,
“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”
“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”
Note that in the Philippians passage Paul does not propose the “scriptures” as a standard for all that is true, honest, just, pure, or lovely, or of good report. Paul does not recommend the scriptures at all! And certainly we must notice that where the scriptures are mentioned, i.e. the Law, that Paul in fact refers to the both the Law (which is scripture) and the Jewish tradition as “rubbish” (Phil. 3:5-8; KJV: “dung” or in Greek: skubala).
It is an amazing paradox that in an open letter to the Philippian church Paul refers to the Law as “rubbish” whereas in a private letter to Timothy Paul says instead that “scripture” is the true standard for church doctrine. These passages cannot be from the same writer who was held prisoner in Rome.
The Philippians 3:5-8 passage is a relevant standard when it comes to testing other elements in the Pauline letters in general. An example can be seen in 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1, which many scholars believe is a non-Pauline fragment (e.g. R. Bultmann, Theology of the NT., vol. I, pg. 205, W. Kummel, Introduction to the NT., pg. 287). In verse 16 “Paul” literally quotes the Law from the mouth of “God.” Yet in Philippians 3:5-8 Paul places the Law under the category of “rubbish” or, in English “dung” or in contemporary vernacular: SHIT (Greek: skubala). It is amazing to think that Paul can refer to the Law as “rubbish” in one letter and at the same time place the Law in God’s mouth in another. Surely Paul is not the writer of the passage, or fragment, in 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1.
Briefly I should remind my readers that Paul’s pejorative statements about the Law reflect a consistent pattern that is found throughout his writings. In Galatians Paul wrote of the Law that it was a “curse”, and was “ordained by angels”, and is “bondage” is of the “elements of the world” (Gal. 3:13, 3:19, 4:3). Paul also warned those Christians who insisted on observing the Law that “whosoever of you are justified by the Law, ye are fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4). In 2 Corinthians 3:7 Paul referred to the Law as the “ministry of death.” I documented this pattern in my articles Was Jesus sent by the Lawgiver and On God and Justice.
The “dung” passage in Philippians 3:5-8 also casts a shadow on Paul’s supposed proscription against women in 1 Cor. 14:34, “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the Law.” But then again Paul referred to the Law as “rubbish.” Is Paul the real author of this passage, or fragment? Or are Paul’s writings in fact a mixture of Pauline and non-Pauline fragments?
Further evidence against the passage in 1 Cor. 14:34 can be seen in 1 Cor. 11. Here Paul states that women can speak, or “prophesy”, in the church (11:5). Paul’s only condition is that women have their heads covered – not because of the Law, but because of the “angels” (11:10). Nowhere in this passage does Paul denigrate women. It is true that Paul does have a patriarchal mindset, as most men did of his day. But Paul here never blames women for sin as is the case with the writer of 1 Timothy 2:11-15, as quoted at the beginning of this article. In 1 Corinthians 11:11 Paul affirms that men and women are integral to each other and that one does not bear greater guilt than the other: “Nevertheless, neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.”
1 Corinthians chapter 11 shows that 1 Cor. 14:34 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15 cannot be from Paul. Paul was not a misogynist. Furthermore, Paul ultimately believed that Christ signified an approaching spiritual order where both male and female, and marriage, and slavery, were soon to be abolished. Paul wrote accordingly in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Paul believed that the end of his world was approaching, and that the old social order as mandated by the Law was soon to pass away (cf. Mt. 22:30).
Many people have assumed that Paul was against women, and that he failed to oppose slavery. Paul was in fact against traditional gender structures and slavery. But he wrote as someone who expected that the end of the “aion” was coming soon. Paul did not instruct Christians to oppose both the Jewish and Roman conventions because he thought that Jesus was returning soon (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:24-28). Unfortunately this was part of Paul’s grand delusion about the times in which he lived.
These non-Pauline fragments that we have noticed were actually products of a later time where the early Catholics struggled to establish a stable church structure. When this historic background is taken into account, such passages as 1 Cor. 14:34 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15, and their non-Pauline nature, become comprehensible in the context of history.
Early Catholic records make clear that early Christianity was a deeply divided movement: and that women played active roles among the various sects. There is even evidence in Catholic records that women played a greater role in the Church than the later status quo would allow. The Catholic Father, Clement of Alexandria, cites a version of 1 Timothy, no longer extant, which affirms that Paul ordained women deacons! (Stromateis, 3.6.53) Of course there is much in Clement’s writings which could not pass the test of orthodoxy in the long run: and his writings show that the early Catholic Church at Alexandria was much more liberal and closer to Gnostic thought than the later Church would be. Irenaeus and Tertullian represent the later standard that would take over. Tertullian complained bitterly about the roles of women in the heretical clergies: while at the same time his fellow cleric Clement cited “Timothy” as evidence that Paul ordained women deacons! (cf. Tertullian, On Prescription Against Heretics, 41).
Of course Tertullian would himself defect over to the heretical camp. He joined the heresy named after “Montanus” and which was known as the “New Prophecy.” The Montanists were a major schismatic movement which rejected the increasingly secular and bureaucratic nature of the Catholic Church. The Catholic clergy was resigned to the fact that Jesus wasn’t coming back soon. In order to prevent disorders the Catholic clergy adopted a different doctrine of the end times (2 Peter 3:1-9) and they also maintained that the spirit of prophesy ceased with the Apostles. The Montanists wanted to preserve the active spirit of the early church and the end time enthusiasm as found in Paul’s letters. (See Adolph von Harnack, History of Dogma, vol. 2, pp. 94-106, Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities, pp. 150, 238).
The Montanist movement was known for its prominent women leaders and prophets. They were a threat to the emerging “orthodox” Catholic system. The Montanists shared the same basic theology, and were actually ahead of the Catholics in that respect (e.g. Tertullian, Against Praxeas). But the Montanists also insisted that the spirit of prophecy was alive and present among Christians, both men and women – just as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 11, 12 & 14. Thus these men and women were constantly coming forth with new revelations from the spirit. The Catholics rejected this approach out of concern that the constant introduction of new doctrines would result in the destabilization of the church. There is also the natural problem in that the second coming of Jesus is always expected – but it never does arrive.
The Catholic Church inevitably won this controversy with the Montanists; and the Montanist movement faded away by the end of the third century. To me it is obvious that the early Catholics reacted against the Montanists by curtailing the concept of the prophetic spirit, and by silencing the women. The Catholic clergy succeeded in preserving the stability of church culture and doctrine, while the Montanist enthusiasm eventually burned itself out. But even this isn’t the whole story. I believe that the Catholic Church over-reacted in its struggle against the Montanists and other sects. And this is the source of those fragments in Paul’s letters which demand the silence of women, even while in other passages Paul reports that women prophesy in the churches, and that men and women are “one” in Christ.
I also believe that the suppression of women, and the feminine, was an important cause of the homicidal nature of the later Catholic culture that emerged after Constantine – and would continue to be ever more monstrous and satanic in the Middle Ages. The Catholic Church went on to establish a social order where it was acceptable for local townspeople to stand in the town square and watch while accused “heretics” and “witches” were literally burned alive for not professing “orthodox” doctrine. I believe this was the fate that the Catholic Church experienced as the result of its own excesses and errors. When the Catholic clergy suppressed its women it ceased to be Human, and it ceased to be spiritual (even in the relative sense). The Church became this Frankenstein that held the Western world in darkness for a thousand years, and spread tyranny and death to millions of people through the offices of the Inquisition.
Of course since the 1870s the Catholic Church has moderated in its disposition; and women clearly have a much greater influence. Mother Teresa’s life of sacrifice has helped to put a positive face on the Church. But the all-male, celibate Catholic clergy still remains in a state of crisis, as everyone knows. If the Catholic Church ever hopes to turn the corner then it must open the priest-hood to married men and women! (But then again, I’m a Gnostic… What do I know?)
In any culture or sect women are a part of our Humanity. We cannot simply exclude one gender or another and expect to remain balanced. Whether we are men or women we must always remember that the other gender is an image of that which is hidden in ourselves, and which will make us perfect if we have gnosis of it. As men and women we cannot suppress each other and at the same time have a true understanding of ourselves. If we don’t understand ourselves then there is no hope of attaining a true gnosis of God. Let me make my point here with this important nugget of truth which is found in a place none other than the Old Testament:
“And God created man in his own image…male and female he created them.” (Gen. 1:27)
The writer of this passage in Genesis 1 understood what the nature of God was. The Gnostic understands that this is not the same God as the “Lord” who created the first man from the dust, and later created the first woman from one of his ribs (Gen. 2:7, 21-22). In truth there are two Gods, two principles, mentioned in Genesis. One of them is the unnamed “good” God (LXX: Theos) and the other is the creator of evil (i.e. the “Lord”, Isaiah 45:7, Gen. 2:4ff.). The Gnostic understands that Genesis 1:1-2:3 is an allegory of the Pleroma: and that the “beginning” and the seven days symbolize the Ogdoad. Genesis 2:4 and everything thereafter is a demonic shadow of the primal order. However this is a subject for a future article… My point here is that the Bible itself admits that the male and the female has its equal origin in God, and that everything that “God” created was “good” (Gen. 1:31). Indeed it is only with the “Lord” and his creation that we learn that some things are not good. The Lord Jehovah admitted this when he said “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18). Hence the Lord admitted that what he did was “not good.”
Paul himself alluded to this truth when he wrote that “neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:11). Paul of course referred to the spiritual dispensation in the Lord Jesus, where the male and the female will be reunited into one (Gal. 3:28). This is the salvation of the Human Spirit.
In the Gnostic Gospel of Philip it is taught that the separation between men and women is the origin of death (NHC: II, 3.68). In Gnostic doctrine that breach is restored when the elect shall enter in with Sophia and the Savior into the Bridal Chamber (ibid., 3.70). The meaning is that men and women are two halves of what was once joined, and which is joined in the spiritual realm. In this world of poverty and ignorance we struggle through our lives as “men” and “women” but in our deepest spiritual essence we still contain the image, or seed, of the order above. To know of this order is to discover our own connection with the Divine: This is the real and personal process of redemption for which the Cross is but an outer symbol (Hebrews 6:1). The Cross is a symbol of Faith. With Faith comes Knowledge (Gnosis) and with Knowledge comes Sophia.
Paul too knew of Sophia as did Jesus in the Gospels, where Sophia is translated as “Wisdom”, “Wisdom and her children” (1 Cor. 2:6-9, Gal. 4:26; Mt. 11:19, Lk. 7:35). These cryptic passages are references to a key teaching which has been discarded and lost in Christian orthodoxy. –jw
By James M. West. Copyright © 2007; edited June 2nd, 2018.
All Rights Reserved.