Sexual differences and biblical roles


Didn’t Paul mention women leaders?

In fact, Paul’s patron was a women. Romans 16:1-2. Make sure to know what patronage in ancient Rome is to make sure you know what this means. What do you guys think about those verses in Timothy?

(Jay Johnson) #22

You are right to mention patronage as part of the historical context of the first century. Before considering Paul, though, I’d like to look at the historical context of the status of women in first-century Judaism. Preserved in the Babylonian Talmud (ca. 300) is a traditional morning prayer that certainly reflects the outlook of the typical Jewish man of that time:

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has not made me a Gentile.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has not made me a slave.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has not made me a woman.

Notice the descent – from Gentile to slave to woman. The first-century rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus exemplified the patriarchal attitude of his time in two sayings recorded in the Mishnah, the later written record of the oral tradition: “The words of Torah should be burned rather than taught to women,” and “Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah teaches her tiflut,” a rare Hebrew word originally translated “lewdness” or “lechery,” but which later rabbis softened to “nonsense,” reflecting the medieval opinion that women were not intellectually serious enough to study Torah. In Jewish legal proceedings, women were considered unreliable witnesses, and their word was admitted only if no man could be found to testify.

Against this backdrop, Jesus walks onto the stage. Women not only financially support his ministry, which was allowed, they also traveled with him, which was unprecedented (Lk. 8.1-3). He violates Jewish custom by speaking to women he doesn’t know (Jn. 4.9). He doesn’t just teach women from afar, but accepts Mary as a disciple (sitting at his feet!) and rejects Martha’s complaint that Mary is not fulfilling her accepted cultural role (Lk. 10.38-42). The women showed courage and witnessed Jesus’ execution, while all of the men with the exception of John fled from the scene and hid inside a locked room. I could go on, but the obvious kicker is that God chose the women – “unreliable” as they are – as the first witnesses of the resurrected Lord.

What Jesus showed through his actions, Paul expressed in words. “You are all one in Christ Jesus.” We may even owe the very existence of Romans, Paul’s theological opus, to Phoebe, a female deacon (1 Tim 3.8) of the church in Cenchreae who likely carried Paul’s letter to Rome (Rom. 16.1).

If I seem to be advocating that certain of Paul’s instructions in the “household codes” for the first-century churches were accommodations to that time and place, I am. And if anyone wants to whine about that fact, let me know when the women in your congregation start covering their heads during prayer.


I’ll have to dispute a few details there, my friend. For one, the Babylonian Talmud was written in 500 AD, not 300. Jewish doctrines in the lifetime of Paul cannot even imagined to be compared to those from the time of the Babylonian Talmud, the contexts were so dissimilar that attempting to apply beliefs of the Talmud to Paul’s time is a sheer impossibility. Let me give a bit of context;

In Paul’s time, Israel existed and more or less functioned as a Jewish society. Soon after Paul died, the Roman-Jewish War of 66-73 AD took place and the Temple was flattened, ending the Second Temple Period of Judaism.
Then, in the 130’s AD, the Bar Kokhba Revolt occurred and the emperor Hadrian flattened Jerusalem, and expelled the Jews out of it into exile once again.
The Babylonian Talmud is essentially commentary on the Mishnah, which is in turn commentary on the Torah. However, the Mishnah itself was composed in 200 AD, and so virtually all the Babylonian Talmudic commentary in the first place is about events that took place over a century after Paul and the other major events that took place since Paul’s lifetime.

Thus, I agree with your claims on how Christianity supported women in an age still against women, though I don’t know if it was as bad during Paul’s lifetime for women as during the later rabbinic period (though women indeed were unable to testify in a court).

(Jay Johnson) #24

Never trust an old guy’s memory. haha. I’ll take your word on the dates, and I agree that one cannot necessarily equate Jewish doctrine of the first century with latter rabbinic commentary. I wasn’t talking about doctrine, however. I was talking about cultural attitudes toward women, and these things are notoriously slow to change. For example, the prayer that I cited is still recited each morning (in slightly modified form) by many orthodox Jewish men. A couple of things to keep in mind, as well, are that Eliezer ben Hyrcanus was a first-century contemporary of Paul, Gamaliel, and Gamaliel II, and the fact that the Mishnah and Babylonian Talmud began as oral traditions, which were passed down for who knows how long before beginning to be written down in the third and fourth centuries.

I take your point on the Talmud and don’t dispute it, but the low status of women in first-century Jewish society is undeniable.


Not denying the low status at all, so much as I’m just making a note on what you can and cannot extend from the sources.

(Christy Hemphill) #26

The word translated “hold authority over” in many English versions is the subject of thousands of pages of scholarship. The fact of the matter is that word occurs once in the NT and something like only three other times in all other extant contemporary Greek lit. We really don’t know exactly what it means.

But what I really don’t understand is how people insist the verse about women not teaching or having authority over a man is a universal biblical mandate that applies to all people in all times, but the rest of the passage (the lifting up hands in prayer or the prohibition against braids, pearls and expensive clothes) are clearly “just cultural.” Why wouldn’t the instructions about women teaching be “just cultural” too? Especially when you flip a few pages over and you have women teaching and probably holding authority over men with Paul’s clear blessing. (Priscilla, Junia, Phoebe and others called "gospel workers” along with Paul like Tryphena, and Tryphosa. The work of the gospel was preaching and teaching, not making brownies and running the nursery.) It’s important to keep in mind that the NT letters ended up in a variety of cultural settings with a variety of competing religious influences, and there was not one New Testament church culture that Paul or the other NT writers were advising. All of the letters need to be contextualized.

The Commonweal article linked in the blog post below is a really good summary of the role of women in the early church based on the women named in Romans.

And this looks like a book I will need to read about the ministry of women in the Patristic period.

Needless to say, we project a lot of our own cultural sexism back on Paul. Women throughout church history were not as restricted in their roles as they are in some Evangelical denominations today. And Evangelical denominations were far less sexist and restrictive earlier in their history. Look at the role women played in the Salvation Army and early Evangelical missionary and social justice work.

The current situation with CBMW, SBC et al is a repressive knee-jerk reaction to second wave feminism, not some kind of recovery of real church tradition and history. Plus, whenever “going into ministry” provides economically competitive job opportunities and social prestige, you find men deciding women shouldn’t be eligible. In persecuted, marginalized churches all over the world, where pastoring often means facing economic hardship, imprisonment, or martyrdom, men have a lot less of a problem with women preaching and teaching. Hmmmm.

And it always strikes me as ironic that many denominations that will not allow women to hold “offices” of pastor or elder have no problem sending out women missionaries to do the exact same things these men do in official capacity at home (preach, teach, disciple, exegete the Bible). Only they don’t get nice comfy lives out of the deal and they don’t take any jobs away from male seminary grads. 80-85% of unmarried Evangelical missionaries are women. I am convinced that part of that is because women with certain giftings and callings in many denominations are not given a place to serve in their home churches. And that is not only sexist, it’s racist because it means that Western male pastors who have a problem with women teaching men in their own congregations, just don’t think it’s that important to protect the non-Western church from whatever it is they are afraid female leadership will do to it.