Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Gender Equality in early Jesus Gatherings

Not a great deal of specific information is known about gender relationships in the earliest Jesus gatherings,1 during the period following the death of Jesus (around 30CE+/-) until about 50 CE. The little that is known comes at the end of that period primarily from the letters of one man (Paul) and what he inadvertently reveals in his letters about these social gatherings. One would assume that in part the earliest gatherings would generally reflect the culture of the cities in which the gatherings took place. In part that appears generally to be true,2 but the New Testament reflects a mixed record when it comes to gender relationships. Among the writers of New Testament texts one finds attitudes reflective of a hostile misogyny, while in others one encounters attitudes suggesting a liberal, gender equality.

            Let's begin with the lower road. The lowest point in the New Testament with respect to gender equality is reached by a later disciple of Paul. The passage in which this is found is First Timothy 2:8-15 (RSV). Some of the more recent translations may deliberately soften the harshness of the text.3 1 Tim 2:11-12 (RSV): "Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent." This disciple of Paul (many scholars call him the "pastor" because of his interest in church governance issues) justifies his statement by referring to Scripture: 1 Tim 2:13-15 (RSV): "For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor [see Genesis 2:15-23; 3:1-7]. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness with modesty." In other words, women are subordinate to males in all respects. Even their personal salvation requires that they bear children, yet they will be saved but only if they continue in faith and holiness with modesty (compare 1 Tim 2:8-10). First Timothy 2:8-15 deserves the charge of being misogynistic (hatred of women)!

            The highest point in gender relationships in the Bible is achieved in the letters of Paul; nevertheless Paul is not without his blind spots. Galatians 3:28 (RSV) signals the high water mark in gender relationships: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." In other words all ethnic, social, and gender distinctions are obliterated in the gatherings of Jesus followers—for "you are all one in Christ Jesus." Hence neither gender has a claim to priority in the ekklesia, for Paul believed God selected leaders through the Spirit (1 Cor12:4-11, 28). Paul uses one part of this slogan in his argument in Romans 10:12 and two parts of the slogan in 1 Cor 12:13. A sense of gender equality corresponding to Gal 3:28 emerges in First Corinthians chapter seven. To cite two: both partners in the marriage relationship have equal conjugal rights (1 Cor 7:1-5); and the wife has the right to separate from her husband (1 Cor 10-11), but apparently not the right to divorce him. Paul's view is that in view of the immediate ending of the world (1 Cor 7:29) everyone should stay in the state they were currently in when they became followers of Christ (1 Cor 7:20), but Paul was realistic and quite willing to break his own rules (1 Cor 7:20-24).

            Perhaps it was this willingness to adjust his values in view of the situation that led him to argue for the subordination of women to men in 1 Cor 11:2-16, thus violating the idea of gender equality he stated in Gal 3:28. And he violates it again in 1 Cor 14:33b-35.

            Paul's equivocation was not necessarily shared by other Jesus gatherings, however. In a letter written to the gathering at Rome Paul takes note of and commends a number of women who had achieved outstanding success in leadership roles in the Jesus gatherings. He commends to the gathering at Rome "our sister Phoebe" who was a deacon in the gathering at Cenchrea,4 and asks that she be received by the gathering as "befits the saints." Paul commends her for her work in helping himself as well as others.5

He asks that they greet Prisca and Aquila, a husband and wife team leading with the wife's name first. They were "fellow workers" of Paul and had risked their necks for Paul's life. He notes that all the gentile gatherings gave thanks for the ministry of this husband and wife team. He calls upon the Roman community to send his greetings to the gathering in their house—Prisca apparently had a major leadership role in the gathering (1 Cor 16:3-5).6

He asks the Jesus gathering at Rome to greet Mary for him for she had worked hard among the followers of Jesus at Rome—personally, I doubt that she just baked cookies.

He mentions a certain Junia (a feminine name); she was a kinswoman of Paul as well as having served prison time along with him. But the most notable thing about her and Andronicus was that they both were "outstanding among the apostles"—apparently they were both "apostles" (Rom 16:7).7 A woman apostle! Think of that.

            He asks to be remembered to two particular women, whom he refers to as those "workers in the Lord," Tryphanea and Tryphosa (Rom 16:12).

            That is essentially the gender situation among the earliest followers of Jesus. The sad truth is that the Bible as a whole does not encourage gender equality, but that does not appear to have been completely true of all the early Jesus gatherings. Unfortunately, however, women today should not expect to be treated with equality in the church if they are members of conservative religious institutions, which have chosen the lower way in gender equality.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Translating ekklesia as "church" is anachronistic. The word church is derived from late Greek kyriakon (of the Lord) and is short for kyriakon dōma (house of the Lord); it describes a modern organization. The Scottish kirk is still in use. These assemblies should be thought of as loose social gatherings of like minded people.
2See Hedrick, Wisdom of Jesus, 42-43 (household codes).
3See the note to 1 Tim 2:15 in the New Living Translation, for example.
4The name Phoebe is feminine while the word deacon is masculine, suggesting that Phoebe was not a deaconess, but worked among the male deacons.
5Note that one of the spirit-endowed positions that "God appointed" in the gatherings was that of "helper," 1 Cor 14:28.
6This husband-wife team is mentioned several other times in the New Testament: Acts 18:2, 18, 26; 1 Cor 16:19; 2 Tim 4:19.
7See Eldon Epp, Junia the First Woman Apostle (Augsburg/Fortress, 2005).


Unknown said...

Dr. Hedrick, In the "Jesus and the Parables Tradition" course I took with you some several years ago a woman in our class gave a presentation arguing--on slim evidence of course simply because of the nature of it--that Prisca was the author of Luke/Acts. In the intervening 25 years or so has anymore specific data come to light to reinforce or refute this hypothesis? I ask not just because I am curious but also because I think Luke is one of the greatest literary achievements ever. Thank you! Good to see you're still writing....and thank you even more for that. Martel

Charles Hedrick said...

Great to hear from you Martel! I hope that you and your family are doing well.
In answer to your question: so far as I know there has been no advance in identifying the anonymous author of Luke's Gospel.

Anonymous said...

How did Jesus, or the earliest followers view women? I don’t think it is possible to reconstruct that aspect of those who followed Jesus or of Jesus because there just isn’t much there. I was impressed some years ago by Kathleen E. Corley’s book “Women & the Historical Jesus,” which concluded that, based on Greco-Roman practices of the day, “his critique did not extend to unequal gender distinctions.” A few years ago I looked at some similar, but not the same sources she looked at and found a couple of them that might speak to Jewish and Stoic thought regarding women.

Here is one Stoic view from the first century that is, for the time, somewhat enlightening. Musonius Rufus thought women should be able to study philosophy because they, as well as men, had the gift of reason, but he did think they “...ought to be sitting at home spinning” (Fragment Three). The Stoics, while maintaining the patriarchal “status quo,” weren’t as “vigorous” as the two below in their attitudes.

Here are two first century Jewish views, one from Alexandria and one from Palestine: Philo’s view of Leah and Josephus “Against Apion” might be stereotypical of the first century . “On the Migration of Abraham” 95 shows his patriarchic worldview when he states about Leah, “For she sees plainly that she will have a favorable reputation, thinking that she deserves to be praised not only by those reasonings which are really masculine and manly, which have a nature free from all spot and stain, and which honor that which is really honest and incorrupt, but those more feminine reasonings which are in every respect which are visible, and which are unable to comprehend any object of contemplation which is beyond them.” In other words, reason is the provenance of the man. Looking at Josephus, one purported quote from the Hebrew scriptures from “Against Apion” 201 (which Whiston footnoted not being in the “Old Testament”) might be telling of his view: “... for, says the Scripture, ‘A woman is inferior to her husband in all things.’” (One should note, however, that the canon in the late first century would have probably been different, and Josephus uses as authoritative several books that didn’t make the canon. I presume too that “Old Testament” was a Whiston gloss.)

Sadly, this worldview hasn’t changed perceivably in the world of the largest Christian groups in America. That happens when people use the Bible as a battering ram and a rule book for all time.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Elizabeth said...

Good Evening Charlie,

When it comes to gender equality- what do you make of the elevation and saintly status bestowed upon the "Virgin Mary?" It seems her status with Catholics exceeds gender equality, doesn't it? She's almost a fourth member of the Trinity, so to speak. Do you think the gospel writers elevated her status deliberately or was that a later embellishment? In other words, how did she come to be worshipped almost to the level of God and Jesus? Or does that saintly elevation have nothing whatsoever to do with gender equality?

You mentioned that women should not expect to be treated with equality within the church... Do you see improvement in that area over the years? For what it's worth, my observation is that any woman with an expectation of equal treatment would rarely seek a position of authority in any church... I know my own mother was rejected from being a Bible study teacher just because she was divorced. However, when the new pastor took over- he changed that rule and allowed her to teach.

This brings me to a comment made by Dennis regarding the Bible as a battering ram and a rule book for all time... I couldn't agree more with that characterization. And I can personally tell you that that is the biggest reason I haven't set foot in a church for many, many years now. But it sounds like you are not bothered by that practice, at least not to the point that it would keep you from attending church. In some ways, that is somewhat surprising. Thank you as always for your excellent writing and profound insights. Elizabeth

PS: I've always enjoyed the use of the term "Cordially" as a close to your comments... I'd never heard that expression before. But I just saw a book inscribed my my favorite nature writer, Hal Borland, and he is the only other person who's used that term... I thought of you immediately!

Charles Hedrick said...

Hi Dennis,
Thanks for weighing in. Your last sentence speaks volumes!

Charles Hedrick said...

Good Friday Morning Elizabeth,
Only Luke of all the canonical gospels gives Mary any space at all. And I do not see that the elevation of Mary in Catholic theology has done anything at all for the women in that community of faith, which must be described as a "Good Old Boys" institution.
What I said was: women who belong to conservative religious institutions should not expect gender equality. Some communities of faith do a little better with practicing gender equality, but in general most all churches are lacking in that quality. But that should not be surprising since gender equality is true of American culture in general.
I do not attend church on a regular basis (one of by blogs was on why I did not), but I am a regular attender of a men's Bible class in a Southern Baptist church--they let me talk and tolerate my views (although I generally only ask questions, unless I forget myself, like I did last Sunday).
Cordially: a friendly way to end a communication!

Charles Hedrick said...

Whoops--I meant to say that gender inequality is true of American culture in general!
Sorry about!

Anonymous said...

Mary, in the Roman Catholic catechisms, is “Theodokos” or “Mother of God.” Since in a Trinitarian belief four is a crowd, she can’t join the pantheon, so her elevation is (Catechism 511) “the new Eve, mother of the living.” She is held as the unobtainable standard of purity, free from sin, this relegates all women as “less” than her. This, some have argued, has helped to promulgate misogyny, through the “sexual stereotype” of the “Virgin Mary” as the model for all women . (See Spong’s “Born of a Woman for more.”)
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Elizabeth said...

"This relegates all women as 'less' than her...." That is a good point, I didn't think of it like that. Very true... I will look up Spong's Born of a Woman... I like Bishop Spong very much, Charlie and I were just talking about him. (I should say emailing about him) He used to have a wonderful website called "Radical Faith," but it's not around anymore, sadly. It was a great resource for me. I wish I had printed out those articles.
Many thanks, Elizabeth