Paul the Apostle and women

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Main article: Paul the Apostle

The relationship between Paul the Apostle and women is an important element in the theological debate about Christianity and women because Paul was the first writer to give ecclesiastical directives about the role of women in the Church. However, there are arguments that some of these writings are post-Pauline interpolations.[1]

Relationship with Jewish and Gentile women[edit]


By the time Paul began his missionary movement, women were important agents within the different cities. The letters of Paul, dated to the middle of the first century AD, and his casual greetings to acquaintances offer solid information about many Jewish and Gentile women who were prominent in the movement. His letters provide vivid clues about the kind of activities in which women engaged more generally.[2]

  • Priscilla or Prisca is expressly mentioned six times in the Bible, as the wife of Aquila, and as a missionary partner with the Apostle Paul. They were also partners in the craft of tentmaking. The order of their names alternates between Aquila first at first, third[3] and fifth mention, and Priscilla first the second, fourth and final mention as Prisca. (View all 6 verses) When Paul refers to Priscilla and Aquila, Priscilla is usually listed first, suggesting to some scholars that she was the head of the family unit.[4]
  • According to Bart Ehrman, Paul praises Junia as a prominent apostle[5] who had been imprisoned for her labor.[Rom 16:7] Junia is “the only female apostle named in the New Testament”.[6] Ian Elmer states that Junia and Andronicus are the only "apostles" associated with Rome that were greeted by Paul in his letter to the Romans.[7] [Rom 16:7] Steven Finlan says Paul greets this couple as "kinspersons and fellow prisoners" and says that "they are outstanding amongst the apostles."[8] According to Ian Elmer, the fact that Andronicus and Junia are named as apostles suggests a priori that they were evangelists and church-planters like Paul.[7]
  • Phebe or Phoebe. Paul attaches to her three titles: diakonos meaning a deacon (lit. "servant"), sister, and prostatis meaning "a woman in a supportive role, patron, benefactor".[9] There is no difference when the title of deacon is used for Phoebe and Timothy.[Rom. 16:1–2] Diakonos (Gk.) is grammatically a masculine word, the same word that Paul uses in regards to his own ministry. Phoebe is the only woman to be named "deacon".[10] 1 Timothy discusses the criteria for Deacons in the early Church which is explicitly directed to both male and females. Phoebe was especially influential in the early Church seen in Jerusalem from the 4th century inscription: "Here lies the slave and bride of Christ, Sophia, deacon, the second Phoebe, who fell asleep in Christ."[11] Women flourished in the deaconate between the 2nd and 6th centuries. The position required pastoral care to women, instructing female candidates and anoint them at Baptism. They were also required to be present whenever a female would address a bishop.[12] In Romans Phoebe is seen as acting as Paul's envoy. Phoebe is named as a Patron of Paul, meaning that she would have been financially contributing to Paul's mission.
  • Chloe, a prominent woman of Corinth, appears to be the head of a household of an extended family. She and her household told Paul of the divisions in the congregation of Corinth.[1 Cor. 1:11]

According to Karen King, these biblical reports seem to provide credible evidence of women apostles active in the earliest work of spreading the Christian gospel.[13]

Cooperation with female disciples[edit]

From the beginning of the Early Christian church, women were important members of the movement. As time went on, groups of Christians organized within the homes of believers. Those who could offer their home for meetings were considered important within the movement and assumed leadership roles.[14] The New Testament Gospels acknowledge that women were among Jesus' earliest followers.

Jewish women disciples, including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, had accompanied Jesus during his ministry and supported him out of their private means.[Lk. 8:1–3] Although the details of these gospel stories may be questioned, in general they reflect the prominent historical roles women played in Jesus' ministry as disciples.[15] There were women disciples at the foot of the cross. Women were reported to be the first witnesses to the resurrection, chief among them again Mary Magdalene. She was not only "witness," but also called a "messenger" of the risen Christ.[16] The apostles had little respect for her witness and that of the other women, saying they "seemed as idle tales."[Lk. 24:11]

Lastly, Paul wrote that there is "neither male nor female" because Jesus Christ unites us.[Gal. 3:28]

Ecclesiastical directives[edit]

Silence in the church[edit]

"Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church."[1 Cor. 14:34–35]

Instructions for Timothy[edit]

"I desire that the men pray everywhere lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting, and the women likewise [or 'in like manner']"[1 Tim. 2:8]
"A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet."[1 Tim. 2:11-12]
"[I desire women] to array themselves in a befitted catastola,[17] with reverence and restraint, not with braids, or gold, or pearls, or costly garments. But as becomes women proclaiming godliness, with good deeds."[1 Tim. 2:9–10]
"Let a woman learn, quietly, in all subjection [to God]."[1 Tim. 2:11]
"Now I permit a woman neither to teach nor exercise authority over a man, but let her be in quietness. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived [when he sinned]; but the woman, having [first] been thoroughly deceived, became [involved] in the transgression [of Adam], and she will be saved by the Child-bearing [i.e., the bearing of Jesus Christ], if they abide in faith, and love and sanctification with self-restraint."[1 Tim. 2:12–15]

Bishops and deacons[edit]

"Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach...."[1 Tim. 3:1–2]
"A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well...."[1 Tim. 3:12]
"The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you. An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient."[Titus 1:5–6]

Criteria for deacons[edit]

"Deacons likewise must be serious, not double tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money; they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them first be tested; then, if they prove themselves blameless, let them serves as deacons. Women likewise must be serious, not slanders, but temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be married only once, and let them manage their children and their households well; for those who serve well as deacons gain good standing for themselves and the great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus."[1 Tim. 3:8–13]


A New Testament passage that has long been interpreted to require a male priority in marriage are these verses: "Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord," and "the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church…."[Eph. 5:22–24] Both Christian Egalitarians and Complementarians agree that the Apostle Paul wrote that the "husband is head…" and "wives, submit…," and that he was divinely inspired to write what he wrote, but the two groups diverge in their interpretation of this passage.

"But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man."[1 Cor. 11:3–9]

Christian Egalitarians believe that full partnership in an equal marriage is the most biblical view. As persons, husband and wife are of equal value. There is no priority of one spouse over the other. In truth, they are one.[18] Bible scholar Frank Stagg and Classicist Evelyn Stagg write that husband-wife equality produces the most intimate, wholesome and mutually fulfilling marriages. They conclude that the Apostle Paul's statement recorded in Galatians 3:28, sometimes called the "Magna Carta of Humanity",[19] applies to all Christian relationships, including Christian marriage: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus."[20]

Christian egalitarian theologians also find it significant that the "two becoming one" concept, first cited in Gen. 2:24, was quoted by Jesus in his teachings on marriage.[Matt. 19:4–6] [Mk. 10:7–9] In those passages he reemphasized the concept by adding to the Genesis passage these words: "So, they are no longer two, but one" (NIV). The Apostle Paul cited the Genesis 2:24 passage.[Eph. 5:30–32][18]

Much has been written concerning the meaning of "head" in the New Testament. The word used for "head," transliterated from Greek, is kephalē—which means the anatomical head of a body. Today's English word "cephalic" (sə-făl'ĭk) means "Of or relating to the head; or located on, in, or near the head." In the New Testament, a thorough concordance search shows that the second most frequent use of "head" (kephalē), after "the structure that connects to our neck and sits atop our bodies," is the metaphorical sense of "source."[21][22]

The Complementarian (also known as Traditionalist or Hierarchical) view of marriage maintains that male leadership is biblically required in marriage. Complementarians generally believe that the husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God's image, but that husbands and wives have different functions and responsibilities in marriage.[23] According to this view, the husband has the God-given responsibility to provide for, protect, and lead his family. Wives are expected to respect their husbands' authority and submit to it.[24] However, some Complementarian authors caution that a wife's submission should never cause her to "follow her husband into sin."[25]

Further reading: Paul Fiddes, "'Woman's head is man': a doctrinal reflection upon a Pauline text", Baptist Quarterly 31.8 (1986), pp. 370–83

Submission to one's husband[edit]

"Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, people have never hated their own bodies, but they feed and care for them, just as Christ does the church— or we are members of his body."[Eph. 5:22–30]
"Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them."[Col. 3:18–19]

Egalitarian views[edit]

In Galatians 3:28, Paul maintains that "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." Given the amount of greetings to women in Romans 16 and the commissioning of Phoebe—the only person identified in the New Testament as having been commissioned by Paul, there is considerable evidence supporting Paul's being relatively egalitarian for his time.

In the first century when Paul was writing passages that now appear in the New Testament, people in Roman society were judged by two sets of criteria:

  • The first consisted of education, skill, power, intelligence and wealth.
  • These factors could be outweighed by the social categories such as origin, birth, language, legal rank, social desirability, occupation, age and gender.[26]

When these categories collided, it created status inconsistency/dissonance when one's achieved status was greater than the status attributed to the person by culture and by law. The earliest Christian movement, most notably Paul’s movement was very attractive for wealthy women and widows. They often opened their houses for worship by particular religious movements.[27] According to Schüssler, in the 1st century a woman's place was in the home and the otherwise private areas of life. Turning the private domestic setting into the public religious setting opened up opportunities for religious leadership. Pauline Christianity did not honour its rich patron, instead it worked within a "motif of reciprocity"[27] by offering leadership roles, dignity and status in return for patronage. Through building up their own house church, women could experience relative authority, social status and political power and renewed dignity within Paul's movement. This concept is reflected in Paul's relationship with Phoebe, Chloe and Rufus's mother.

Post-Pauline interpolations[edit]

Father Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, O.P., in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, agrees that the verses not favorable to women were "post-Pauline interpolations":

1 Corinthians 14:34–35 are not a Corinthian slogan, as some have argued…, but a post-Pauline interpolation…. Not only is the appeal to the law (possibly Genesis 3:16) un-Pauline, but the verses contradict 1 Corinthians 11:5. The injunctions reflect the misogyny of 1 Timothy 2:11–14 and probably stem from the same circle. Some mss. place these verses after 40.

— Jerome Murphy-O'Connor[28]

Both man and woman are human beings to an equal degree, both are created in God’s image. However, he does not permit women to be ordained into the priesthood.[29]

Second century deference to society[edit]

Elaine Pagels maintains that the majority of the Christian churches in the second century went with the majority of the middle class in opposing the trend toward equality for women. By the year 200, the majority of Christian communities endorsed as canonical the "pseudo-Pauline" letter to Timothy. That letter, according to Pagels, stresses and exaggerates the antifeminist element in Paul's views: "Let a woman learn in silence in all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or have authority over men; she is to keep silent."[1 Tim. 2:11] She believes the letters to the Colossians and to the Ephesians, which order women to "be subject in everything to their husbands," do not express what she says were Paul's very favorable attitudes toward women, but also were "pseudo-Pauline" forgeries.[30]


  1. ^ Odell-Scott, D.W. "Editorial dilemma: the interpolation of 1 Cor 14:34–35 in the western manuscripts of D, G and 88." Web: 15 Jul 2010.
  2. ^ FRONTLINE: from jesus to christ - the first christians: paul's mission and letters. PBS. Retrieved on 2011-02-13.
  3. ^ Third in order is Acts 18:26. Some modern Bibles abandon the majority of Greek texts and reverse the order, putting Priscilla first, thereby destroying the perfect equality. See main article.
  4. ^ Achtenmeier, P.J. (1996). HarperCollins Bible Dictinary (revised ed.). HarperCollins. p. 882. ISBN 0-06-060037-3. 
  5. ^ Bart D. Ehrman (2006-05-01). Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-530013-0. 
  6. ^ Stephen Finlan (2008). The Apostle Paul and the Pauline Tradition. ISBN 978-0-8146-5271-8. 
  7. ^ a b Elmer, Ian. "Was Roman Christianity founded by a woman?" Catholica. Web: 9 Dec 2009.
  8. ^ Finlan, Steven. The Apostle Paul and the Pauline Tradition. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2008. pp. xiv + 229.
  9. ^ ‘προστάτις, ιδος, ἡ (προΐστημι, cp. προστάτης; Cornutus 20 p. 37, 20; Lucian, Bis Accus. 29 θεὰ προστάτις ἑαυτῶν; Cass. Dio 42, 39 al.; PGM 36, 338; also pap ref. New Docs 4, 243) a woman in a supportive role, patron, benefactor (the relationship suggested by the term πρ. is not to be confused w. the Rom. patron-client system, which was of a different order and alien to Gk. tradition [s. JTouloumakos, Her 116, ’88, 304–24]) προστάτις πολλῶν ἐγενήθη καὶ ἐμοῦ αὐτοῦ she has proved to be of great assistance to many, including myself Ro 16:2 (Ltzm., Hdb. ad loc. The masc. προστάτης took on a technical sense and is found w. this mng. in Israelite [Schürer III, 102] as well as in polyth. [OGI 209; SIG 1109, 13; CIG I, 126; GHeinrici, ZWT 19, 1876, 516ff.—EZiebarth, Das griech. Vereinswesen 1896, index s.v.; Poland, Gesch., index s.v.; WOtto, Priester u. Tempel im hellenist. Ägypten II 1908 p. 75, 1] religious circles).—S. preceding entry. On women as benefactors, s. RvanBremen, in Images of Women in Antiquity, ed. ACameron/AKuhrt ’83, 223–42; COsiek, Women in the Ancient Mediterranean World: BR 39, ’94, 57–61 (NT). New Docs 4, 242–44. M-M.’, Arndt, Danker, & Bauer, A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature, p. 885 (3rd ed. 2000).
  10. ^ T. Hammer, ‘Wealthy Widows and Female Apostles: The Economic and Social Status of Women in Early Roman Christianity,’ in G.D. Dunn, D. Luckensmeyer & L. Cross (ed.), Prayer and Spirituality in the Early Church: Poverty and Riches, 5 (Strathfield: Paulist Press, 2009), 65–74.
  11. ^ R. Saunders, Outrageous Women, Outrageous God: Women in the First Two Generations of Christianity (Alexandria: E.J. Dwyer, 1996), 117
  12. ^ J. Wijngaards. No Women in Holy Orders? The Women Deacons of the Early Church. (Norwich: Canterbury, 2002)
  13. ^ King, Karen L. "Women in Ancient Christianity: The New Discoveries."
  14. ^ Margaret MacDonald, "Reading Real Women Through Undisputed Letters of Paul" in Women and Christian Origins, ed. by Ross Sheppard Kraemer and Mary Rose D'Angelo (Oxford: University Press, 1999), p. 204
  15. ^ Blevins
  16. ^ Ingrid Maisch (1998). Mary Magdalene: the image of a woman through the centuries. Liturgical Press. ISBN 978-0-8146-2471-5. 
  17. ^ The catastola is mentioned in Scripture only here and in the Greek O.T. version at Isaiah 61:3. It was a loose garment that reached to the feet, and was worn with a girdle.
  18. ^ a b Stagg, Evelyn and Frank. Woman in the World of Jesus. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978. ISBN 0-664-24195-6
  19. ^ Paul King Jewett (1975). Man as male and female: a study in sexual relationships from a theological point of view. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p. 142. ISBN 978-0-8028-1597-2. 
  20. ^ See Christians for Biblical Equality for example
  21. ^ Kroeger, Catherine Clark. "Toward an Understanding of Ancient Conceptions of 'Head'." Priscilla Papers, Volume 20:3, Summer 2006.
  22. ^ Johnson, Alan F. "A Meta-Study of the Debate over the Meaning of 'Head' (Kephale) in Paul's Writings."] Priscilla Papers, Volume 20:4, Autumn 2006
  23. ^ Core Beliefs. CBMW. Retrieved on 2011-02-13.
  24. ^ The 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, Southern Baptist Convention, 2000 revision
  25. ^ Piper, John and Grudem, Wayne (eds.) Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991, p. 57
  26. ^ Wayne A. Meeks (2003). The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-09861-7. 
  27. ^ a b Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (1994). In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. The Crossroad Publishing Co. ISBN 978-0-8245-1357-3. 
  28. ^ New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J, and Roland E. Murphy, O.Carm., Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990, pp. 811–812
  29. ^ "Mary and Women: John Paul II's Thought on Women." Web: Aug. 21, 2009
  30. ^ Elaine H. Pagels (1992). The gnostic Paul: gnostic exegesis of the Pauline letters. Trinity Press Intl. ISBN 978-1-56338-039-6. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Paul Fiddes, '"Woman's head is man": a doctrinal reflection upon a Pauline text', Baptist Quarterly 31.8 (1986), pp. 370–83