Sometimes we read the New Testament and are surprised by a few of the things that are said to and about women. Paul in particular has the effect of raising a few modern eyebrows, groomed and plucked and enlightened as they may be. What we don’t consider are the Jewish eyebrows that would have struggled to stay put if they had encountered some of the same texts that rub us the wrong way.
An Alexandrian Jew whose lifetime overlapped with Paul’s, Philo read the Genesis account of Adam and Eve in the fashion typical of his era: Adam, good; Eve, bad. Duh. Anyone could see that women are the root of everything bad and men the source of everything good.
It was the more imperfect and ignoble element, the female, that made a beginning of transgression and lawlessness, while the male made the beginning of reverence and modesty and everything good, since he was better and more perfect.
The author of Ecclesiasticus (c. 180 BC), one of the Jewish apocryphal writings, agreed.
From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die.
Paul never said anything along those lines. In fact, he broke with the thinking of his day when he blamed not only Eve, but also Adam, for our sinful lot.
Just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin… (Rom. 5:12)
It was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. (1 Tim. 2:14)
Paul did note that it was Eve who was deceived, something Eve herself pointed out (Gen 3:13). And Paul may very well have thought women are more easily deceived than men. But in his day they probably were, since education was much less available to them than it is to women today. Research indicates that gullibility is associated not with gender, but with a lack of familiarity with the issue at hand, which education would serve to provide.
The Jewish historian Josephus agreed with Philo and Ecclesiasticus about the source of Adam’s woes, explaining that “the woman is inferior to the man in every way.” If only Adam hadn’t sinned by listening to his tricky girlfriend, life in the garden would have been a smooth ride.
Thereupon God imposed punishment on Adam for yielding to a woman’s counsel….
For yielding to a woman’s counsel. Most first century Jewish men were going to make very sure they didn’t repeat Adam’s mistake. Listening to a woman could get you into a heap of trouble so, as far as women were concerned, silence was golden.
Which is why it’s so weird that the apostle Paul assumed women had something to say, something to contribute, even if he thought they should keep their hair under control when they did. Apparently bad hair days are not a recent invention.
Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head. (1 Cor. 11:5)
Not that Paul wasn’t a product of his times; of course he was. We see that in some of the things he wrote. I will come to those later, in future posts. But none of us ever fully disengages from our milieu, ever fully succeeds in being completely neutral, as though we could process reality from somewhere outside history. That simply is not possible. What’s interesting to me is how different Paul was from most Jewish writers of his time.
According to those writers, men had to deal with a lot of shame and disgrace, all because of the little woman. The only solution was to take charge. So these players reinterpreted Genesis 1 in light of Genesis 2, the real story, as any man worth his Middle Eastern socks could see. Dominion was given to Adam alone; Eve did not possess that part of God’s image.
And after all of this, he made man – male and female he made them – and he gave him [Adam] dominion over everything.
Let her accordingly be obedient, not for her humiliation but that she may be directed; for authority has been given by God to man!
Since dominion was closely tied to the image of God, as I explained in my post The Importance of Being Human, later writings appear to doubt whether Eve possessed the image at all, reserving the phrase “image of God” for Adam and his male heirs.
You are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man.
Then there’s Paul, who believed God’s image applied to male and female alike (Rom. 8:29 and 1 Cor. 3:18), and who never claimed the Genesis 1 dominion mandate was granted only to males. Nor did he treat women as though it were, neither Priscilla nor Phoebe nor Lydia. Nor any woman who happened to have needy relatives.
Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever…If any woman who is a believer has widows in her care, she should continue to help them and not let the church be burdened with them. (1 Tim. 5:8, 16)
Women, like men, need to take responsibility and do what’s right. Paul never gave females a pass to passivity. Yes, Paul taught that women should be all-in with their marriages, respecting and submitting to their husbands rather than dissing and fighting them. But he reworked that whole relationship in some surprising ways, directing men to be all-in too. I’ll talk more about that next week.
Sure, Paul wrote as a man of his times. If he hadn’t, if he had somehow dispassionately assessed human reality like Spock from the starship, we might doubt the historicity of it all.
Unlike so many of his contemporaries, however, Paul never blamed women for all the world’s ills, all the anguish that poor, suffering male souls who never did anything wrong had to endure.
I, for one, am grateful.
 Philo Questiones et Solutiones in Genesin 1.43.
 Ecclesiasticus 25:24.
 See William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals, 269-73.
 Josephus Contra Apionem ii. 201.
 Josephus Jewish Antiquities 1.40-51.
 Jubilees 2.14.
 Josephus Contra Apionem ii. 201.
 Including the Life of Adam and Eve and the Sybilline Oracles Books 1-11.
 Tertullian, in Bernard B. Prusak, “Woman: Seductive Siren and Source of Sin?” in Religion and Sexism, ed. Rosemary Radford Ruether.