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St. Paul and the Women

15/03/2016 14:46 GMT | Updated 16/03/2017 09:12 GMT

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I was never fond of St. Paul. His teachings on on women were always a challenge and I always wondered how he got the ascendency over the disciples who actually knew Jesus and managed to kick-start Christianity virtually single-handed.

But when I wrote Leaves of the Tree, a novel about St. Paul and a female cousin of Jesus, I had to get to know him a little better. He was certainly a complex man, someone with great charisma for all his lack of the physical attributes you'd most likely be looking for in a leader -- he was bald, short and had what's believed to be epilepsy. Actually, come to think of it, Napoleon was short and had epilepsy so maybe it's not so surprising.

The women stuff takes a bit more sorting out and, given that I'm a female independent Catholic priest and therefore right in the firing line from several sides at once, I guess part of that is my job.

In my factual book about women in the Bible, A Woman's Worth, I looked at the value of the Divine Feminine reflected in the women of the Hebrew Testament (once they'd stopped behaving like a load of prima donnas or the cast of EastEnders, that is).

In Jesus' day, Jewish women didn't teach in synagogues but they could be presidents of synagogues and they had far more autonomy than their Roman or Greek sisters. Their presence was vital at the Sabbath Eve Service as only the feminine could draw down the Divine Flame to inaugurate the Sabbath. Men often do that nowadays but it is the feminine, receptive aspect, that is truly the Bride of the Sabbath, representing Shekhinah, the Presence of God.

But even though Jesus quite obviously had a healthy respect for women -- and they even supported him in his ministry (Luke 8:3) -- we seem to be told to sit down and shut up as soon as St. Paul comes along. It's his teaching that has been the lever that the anti-women brigade in the churches have used for centuries.

Here are the sections that cause the trouble:

The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. (1 Corinthians 14:33-35)

Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. (1 Timothy 2:11)

But (and it's a pretty big but) later in 1 Corinthians, Paul writes the following:

Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours his head, but every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head -- it is the same as if her head were shaven. (1 Corinthians 11:4-5)

So which is it? We can do it with our heads covered or we can never do it at all? According to Ambrosiaster Sedulius Scotus (trust me, he's a guy who should know -- you can Google him), it's highly likely that the first quotation that says we can't was been moved up from the end of the letter to a more prominent place further up. Also there are ancient directives that this same comment was not to be read out in churches. The combination of these has led many scholars, including Gordon Fee, Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Regent College, Vancouver, to conclude that they were not originally in the letter and are not authentically Pauline at all.

So score one for 'we can do it as long as we do it modestly.'

The quotation from 1 Timothy is equally as interesting as its authorship is strongly disputed. Here's what Kenton Sparks, professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University, PA, has to say:

1 We know from 2 Thess 2:2 and from numerous extant examples (3 Corinthians; Epistle to the Laodiceans; Letters to Seneca) that early Christians composed letters in Paul's name.

2 Furthermore, in the pastoral epistles, of which 1 Timothy is one, terms like "faith," "truth" and "savior" take on senses unattested in Paul's undisputed letters. In other words, the vocabulary is uncharacteristic of Paul.

3 P46, a collection of Paul's letters dating to ca. 200 CE, omits the Pastorals and Tatian (c. 120-180 CE) partially rejects them.

4 The Pastorals evince a hierarchical church structure unattested in Paul's undisputed epistles and more characteristic of second generation Christianity.

Back to the nutshell: All of the above (together with plenty of other evidence) suggests strongly that the Pastoral Epistles, including 1 Timothy, are pseudonymous letters composed several decades after Paul's death.

Score two for 'we can do it as long as we do it modestly.'

Why modestly? Well, that's simply how women did things back then. You do have to look at the social structure of the times to make any sense of the Bible at all -- and when you do, suddenly, it comes alive.

But while we're on the subject, let's go Devil's Advocate and say 'what if Paul did forbid women to preach?' Why would he have done so? Would it be because he was a misogynist? Or might there be another reason? Well, yes there might.

Paul was a Roman citizen and most of his followers lived in countries ruled by Rome. One of the Roman Goddesses was Cybele, also known as Magna Mater. She was the virgin mother of the God-man Attis who died and was resurrected. So far, so horribly similar to the new Christianity. Cybele had women worshippers who let their hair flow free and uncovered in public (a thing women simply did not do in the Roman, Greek or Jewish worlds).

But what was worse, Cybele had male priests too, called the galli. These were self-castrated men who grew their hair long and wore it free -- and wore women's clothing as well. There were many who believed that this was an abomination and the priests were frequently in danger of their life. (Dr. Deborah Sawyer, author of Women and Religion in the First Christian Centuries).

So a Christian woman who preached in public -- especially without her hair covered -- was very likely to get confused with the Magna Mater cult. She could easily be assaulted or even killed in mistake for one of the galli. You wouldn't want that to happen to one of your followers...

So maybe it's worth giving St. Paul the benefit of the doubt. He praised many of the women who helped him in his churches and the likelihood is that he'd be horrified that his words (or allegedly his words) had caused such prejudice and even heartbreak for 2000 years.