Messianic Jewish Feminism: Reading Paul (Part 2)

"Paul Writing His Epistles", painting attributed to Valentin de Boulogne, 17th century (Wikimedia Commons)

In our last post we discussed the important and influential roles that women held in the early church. We also shared that many scholars are agreed that the most problematic verses regarding women and their roles cannot actually be ascribed to Paul and they were likely penned by another author. Be that as it may, Pauline or not, the verses below are ascribed to him. Yet, there is no reason to read them in an oppressive context, and there are many ways to interpret them.

Here we list some of the controversial verses and alternative ways of reading them. It’s important to remember that all reading is interpretation, and traditional readings are just as much interpretations as these below. Take a look and recognize the complexity.

Verses and Interpretations

  • 1 Corinthians 14:33-35: Women should be silent in church, learn from their husbands
    • This author points out that this silence is applicable to a particular situation, and not to all speech in general; some have noted that the Greek indicates that this means “useless chatter.”
    • This author discusses the various approaches surrounding whether this passage is actually legitimately Pauline, and notes that some very conservative scholars also think these verses were not in Paul’s original letter.
  • 1 Timothy 2:9-15: Women should be quiet, not teach or have authority over men, dress modestly and are saved through childbearing
    • This author argues very thoroughly that we must understand the context in which this was written and that the author was addressing a particular problem and not a general one (as there were many strong women in leadership the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and in the early Church). For more on women’s roles in the early church, click here and here.
    • This author looks at the verses in 1 Timothy and the original Greek terms. The term for “having authority over,” for instance, indicates an abuse of authority and is also used in reference to the heretical activities of the day, some of which were affecting women in that context.
  • Ephesians 5: 22-24: Headship, and wives instructed to submit
    • In parts 1, 2 and 3, this author questions if marriage is really an illustration of Jesus’ relationship with the body of Messiah in a relationship of authority-submission, but rather about unity and love. She asks, “the real question is, should we turn back to a first-century worldly understanding, or move forward into the New Creation kingdom of God?”
    • Here another blogger argues against a gender hierarchy based on the chiastic nature of the verses in Ephesians 5, also arguing against critiques on mutual submission.
  • Colossians 3:18-19: Wives instructed to submit
    • This author emphasizes that this passage, as well as many of the other injunctions in New Testament letters regarding women, reflect the household codes of the Greco-Roman world. While the Christian views were more progressive than society at the time, the blogger writes “Complementarians often accuse egalitarians of allowing cultural norms to shape their views of gender roles. But in this case, it is the complementarians who have given culture–that of the Greco-Roman familial structure–the final word.”
    • This source addresses this passage along with several others, and questions our selective reading. Those who choose to follow this apostolic principle should consider following the other principles that we often ignore.
  • 1 Corinthians 11: 3-9: Women to cover heads as symbol of headship; men have authority over women
    • This author argues that the intent of the passage was never hierarchy but mutuality, and here he notes that the arguments to veil women were situated in a particular context, one that might very well have been to minimize class and race distinctions between women.

These articles clearly indicate that “reading the Bible at face value” does not mean there is one interpretation of things, as all of these sources carefully and thoughtfully discuss the meaning of the text. In closing, it’s important to always bear in mind that Paul was a product of his time. While many of the verses above are interpreted in patriarchal or complementarian ways in conservative circles, including the Messianic Jewish community, it’s important to remember that Paul wrote many years ago to many different people. He did not write to us here and now.

If we truly wish to live out our faith in the spirit of Paul, we would do so not by imitating him in a way that was relevant and radical for the culture 2000 years ago. Doing so now would be culturally irrelevant. Instead, we would champion Jesus’ call to love God and love others, embrace Paul’s proclamation of Jesus’ kingship over the powers that be, and challenge our current context in new and innovative ways that include women in every level of community and religious life.