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The feminism of St Paul

The subject of the role of women in St Paul’s Letters has aroused great interest in recent years, with a bibliography that at the least documents its complexity. Moreover, some cases have been addressed with masterful skill in this newspaper by dozens of authors who have followed one another and whom I shall mention below.

I now wish to recall here the principal facts concerning Paul’s “femininism”, documented in his authentic Letters, independently of those of the later Pauline tradition where, to tell the truth, the tone on this subject changes (as in 1 Timothy 2:9-15). It is probably on the basis of these other texts that a few years ago someone described Paul as “the most chauvinist man of all time”. And yet, already in the fourth century, a major representative of the Church Fathers such as St John Chrysostom, commenting on the passage from the Letter to the Romans where it is said of a certain Mary that she “has worked hard among you” (Rom 16:6), writes without mincing his words: “How is this? A woman again is honoured and proclaimed victorious! Again are we men put to shame. Or rather, we are not put to shame only, but have even an honour conferred upon us. For an honour we have, in that there are such women amongst us, but we are put to shame in that we men are left so far behind them”.

In fact, polemic declarations such as that recorded not only fail to hit the target but also inspire a sense of regret for the misunderstanding that lies behind them. And one has the desire to act like Diogenes the Cynic who, seeing an archer incapable of hitting the bull’s eye, “sat down beside the target with the words ‘I’m doing it in order not to get hit’”. Leaving metaphor aside, it is truly better to put oneself on Paul’s side in order not to be aimed at by those who seek to hit him, given that Paul makes them shoot in vain and miss their target! The fact is that a series of passages in the Letters reveal a truly interesting feminism as we shall now see.

Relativization of gender. At its root is the extremely eloquent and surprising statement which Paul makes in his Letter to the Galatians in which he exhibits a fundamental principal: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:27-28). Thus all the differences or rather contrasts are nullified: cultural, social and even sexual. In this latter case the Apostle certainly does not intend to affirm that there is among Christians an overcoming of the creatural distinction between the genders (clearly established in Genesis 1:27). With regard to this distinction, a claimed superiority of men over women had been established in Israel, as may be read in Flavius Josephus: “As the law says, a woman is inferior to a man in all respects”, (Against Apione 2, 201), while the Babylonian Talmud decrees that in the synagogue “a woman must not read the Torah out of respect for the congregation” (Megillah 23a), even if other statements seem to tone down the judgement, as we read in a midrash: “If a poor man speaks he is paid scant attention; but if a rich man speaks he is instantly listened to; yet before God all are equal: women, slaves, poor and rich” (Exodus Rabbah 21, 4).

Yet the fact remains that in Paul the perspective is not only that of mere equality before God, but rather and above all that of a parity of functions at the community level. He “does not declare that in Christ there are no longer men and women, but that patriarchal matrimony and sexual relations between the male and the female are no longer constitutive of the new community in Christ. Without taking into account their procreative capacity and the social roles connected with it, people will be members of the Christian movement with full rights in and through Baptism (as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza rightly notes). Not for nothing is the whole Pauline sentence found in the context of a reflection on Baptism, and this rite, unlike that of circumcision practised in Israel, highlights precisely the equality between men and women.

Andrej Rublëv “Icon of St Paul” (1407)

An uncertain veil. In 1 Corinthians11:2-16 Paul talks notoriously about a veil or head-covering that women must wear at liturgical gatherings. There may be more than one reason for this stipulation, apart from the custom requiring that their heads be covered in ritual moments (it could have been with the edge of the toga or of the peplos: it should be remembered that according to the usual Roman practice men themselves could participate in the rite capite velato [with their heads covered]), the reasons may be of two types. One such reason lies in the fact that, given the mention of angels in 11:10 (“That is why a woman ought to have a veil on her head, because of the angels”), the Jewish idea of respect for their presence during prayers (as at Qumran) re-echoes here. Besides, it is possible that Paul was concerned by a certain female emancipation deemed prejudicial with their adoption of a hairstyle hardly fitting for women; indeed, in 1 Cor 11:15, he even identifies the veil (peribolaion) with the long tresses of women (kome). However this measure concerns women only at the moment when they intervene to speak openly at the liturgical assembly, which was deemed an indisputable practice.

Silence. A well-known text is 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, which would seem to contradict every pronouncement of egalitarianism: “women should keep silence in the churches....for it is shameful for a woman to speak in church”. This sentence is frequently a hobby- horse both within and outside the Church to demonstrate Paul’s antifeminism, whether to share it or to condemn it. In fact, contemporary exegesis avoids these opposing hermeneutics and includes the Apostle’s declaration in positive terms, if also with differentiated stances. Indeed there are even some who consider that these words do not belong to the Letter’s original text but were inserted later as an annotation in the course of the manuscript tradition, on the basis of a Deutero-Pauline passage (cf. 1 Tim 2:11: “Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness, I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent”). Yet, although this text is unequivocal, it must be recognized that it manifests a subsequent and deteriorated attitude to women in the Church. The historical Paul, indeed, documents a quite different way of seeing things. What causes the problem if anything is the open contrast with the fact that the Apostle takes absolutely for granted that women may speak freely in public, without in any way muzzling them, as the use of the verb profeteuein indicates, used in their regard exactly as it is used for men (cf. 1 Cor 11:4-5).

Moreover, what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, if taken in a restrictive sense, can have notable parallels in the surrounding world. For example in Aeschylus we read that “…for the things without / A man must care; let women keep within – / Even then is mischief all too probable! / Hear ye? Or speak I to unheeding ears?”. (The Seven against Thebes, 200-201 and 232); Plutarch for his part writes: “Not only the arm of the virtuous woman, but her speech as well ought to be not for the public, and she ought to be modest and guarded about saying anything in the hearing of outsiders, since it is an exposure of herself” (Coniugalia Praecepta 31). Paul’s words might, however, be taken as a simple and banal warning to Corinthian women not to talk during the liturgical assembly. Alternatively, given that a little earlier, with regard to those who speak in tongues, that is, without making themselves understood, Paul established that they should have an interpreter (14:28: “But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silence in church”), one might think that the Apostle was only forbidding women to speak in tongues, since in 11:5 he took it for granted that they might speak openly as prophetesses, namely, in such a way as to make themselves understood for the edification of the community.

Various responsibilities recognized. In other Letters the active participation of women is amply documented. They are even mentioned individually by name, in the exercise of a duty which concerns both the foundation of Churches and the ministries within them. Above all, the last chapter of the Letter to the Romans, especially 15:1-16), has in store for us a surprising documentation in this regard. To know how many people are praised here by Paul for their evangelical commitment to the community, let us skim through the long list of those to whom he addresses his greetings: We have seven women’s names (Prisca, Mary, Junias, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, Julia); one could add the name of Phoebe who is described in verse 1 as “sister” and above all as a diakonos (deaconess) of the Church of Cenchreae, but since she herself is the bearer of the Letter Paul addresses no greetings to her (cf. the articles by Rosalba Manes and Andrea Taschl-Erber), to which are added two unnamed women (in v. 13 the mother of Rufus and in v. 15 the sister of Nereus). Then there are 17 men’s names (Aquila, Epaenetus, Andronicus, Ampliatus, Urbanus, Stachys, Apelles, Herodion, Rufus, Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, Philologus, Nereus, Olympas). Thus at the level of statistics it should be noted that the number of women working for the Gospel (Prisca, Mary, Junias, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, the mother of Rufus) exceeds the number of men (Aquila, Andronicus, Urbanus, Stachys, Rufus) by seven to five. As well as Phoebe, we note the name of Prisca (even placed before the name of her husband Aquila; cf. the article by Chantal Reynier), who offers Christians hospitality in her own house, both of them being described by Paul as his “fellow workers”; then come the names of Mary, “who has worked hard among you”, of Junias linked with Andronicus, both “of note among the Apostles” and hence herself an apostle (cf. the article by Carmen Bernabé), then Tryphaena and Tryphosa, “workers in the Lord” (cf. the article by Dominika Kurek Chomycz), and lastly Persis, described as “beloved” and of whom it is repeated that she has worked hard in the Lord. This dry epistolary passage ought to be enough to belie all those who have written about a presumed antifeminism in Paul.

Catacombs of Domitilla (Rome)

Further mentions. In other Letters other names emerge of women who are committed in their respective communities. Thus the Letter to Philemon, usually known only by the name of the man to whom it is addressed, is in reality addressed “to Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier” (1-2). The reference to the woman – probably the wife of the former – between two men, signifies that she merits as much importance in the community as them: moreover in ancient papyrus letters it is very rare for one of the recipients to be a woman.

In all likelihood the names of Euodia and Syntyche too, who are urged to agree in the Lord (Phil 4:2), are those of two women with special roles in the community of Philippi (cf. the article by Marta García Fernández).

We have not moreover mentioned the names of Lydia (Acts 16:14-16); cf. the article by Maria Pascuzzi), of Chloe (1 Cor 1:11), or of Thecla (in the Apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla). In all these cases Paul pays homage to a whole series of women for their commitment of active responsibility, shown in the lives of the Churches. The right he could advance to have with him, not a woman believer (as the Bible of the Italian Bishops’ Conference translates adelfen gynaika in 1 Cor 9:5), but a believer as wife (a Christian wife according to the Catholic New American Bible) should be recalled separately.

To conclude, we may hold it to be true that women in the Pauline Churches exercised functions which they did not even have in Jesus’ time, apart from their significant presence at the Cross and at the empty tomb. Indeed, we may speak of their having ecclesial responsibility only in the period following Easter and specifically in the Pauline Churches, given that we have no information on women active in the Judaeo-Christian Churches (unless we consider as such those in the Pastoral Letters, where however the group of widows in 1 Tim 5:3-16 is recognized as playing a special role; see the article by Nuria Calduch-Benages).

In any case it is not out of place to recognize that from all this comes an important lesson for today’s Church too.

Romano Penna

The author

Romano Penna is an emeritus professor of New Testament Studies at the Pontifical Lateran University and Guest Professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University, at the Theological Faculty of Florence and at the University of Urbino, as well as at the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in Jerusalem. His interests focus on Paul of Tarsus, on the Christologies of the New Testament and on the inculturation of early Christianity.




St. Peter’s Square

Nov. 20, 2019