Monday, September 27, 2010

What did Paul really think of Women?

I have posted quite a bit about women in the Bible and ministry. Today's post is a review of Karen Elliott's book Women in Ministry and the Writings of Paul (Anselm Academic, 2010). The book is Elliott's attempt to respond to issues of women in ministry in the modern Christian community with a particular focus on the writings of Paul (p. 2). The book is broken into five chapters.

Chapter one is a broad overview of the ministry of women in the New Testament with a particular focus on the Gospels. Elliott highlights the named and unnamed female disciples of Jesus. She makes the interesting point that the case of the Samaritan women in John 4 is the only instance in all four Gospels where anyone, male or female, who brings many people to Jesus as a result of believing her testimony (p. 9). Elliott also looks at the figure of Mary Magdalene who on the one hand is called the Apostle to the Apostles, but is also commonly and erroneously called a prostitute. Elliott counters this interpretation and points out that Mary, a woman, was one of the first to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus rather than a man.

Chapter two is an examination of Paul and his times. Here readers are treated to a summary of Paul's life, along with his historical and religious context. Elliott does not cast Paul as an ancient feminist. Paul lived in the Greco-Roman world and never seems to have imagined that a home could be organized any way other than the prevailing household structure with its paterfamilias. Husbands were the head of the home. Yet at the same time she sees him as challenging the praxis and hierarchy of his world. She suggests that he was countercultural in some of his views which would have been perceived as a threat by most Roman citizens (p. 23) Nonetheless, Paul should not be seen as a radical. Elliott concludes that Paul's belief that Christ would soon return took first priority. This means that issues like the treatment of woman and slaves became secondary in light of Christ's imminent return (28).

Chapter three is a consideration of Paul's theology of Baptism. Elliott sees Paul's statements in 1 Cor 12:13 and Gal 3:28 as key to understanding him. Paul's new creation theology means that believers "become a new creation in Christ and the old divisions of race, class and sex have been eradicates" (p. 34). Elliott gives consideration to other motifs in Pauline theology such as freedom in Christ and being one in Christ. She spends some time looking at the issue of slavery as an example of Paul's new creation theology.

In chapter four she gives an overview of the scriptural evidence for Paul's views of women. Elliott demonstrates how Paul draws from a rich tradition of female imagery found in the Old Testament and lists some feminine imagery in his letters like being in labor (Gal 4:19) or gentile as a nursing mother (1 Thess 2:7). She also demonstrates that Paul supports equality in marriage (1 Cor 7:10-16) and how a woman's right to prophecy is evidence of their equality in ministry (1 Cor 12:7). Along with this is a list of the named women in the New Testament and what we can learn about their ministry roles. The chapter closes with a consideration of some of the more difficult passages about women including 1 Cor 14:33-36 and 1 Tim 2:8-15. Elliott sides with those who view the former as a later insertion and the latter as non-Pauline.

Chapter five is a very quick overview of women in ministry up to the modern period. Elliott spends most of her time looking at women and their ministry roles in the first five centuries.

In addition to the information she outlines, Elliott provides a series of discussion questions at the end of each chapter. There is also a helpful glossary of terms and a quality bibliography that will help launch anyone interested in reading further.

Elliott has done a fine job. She is to be commended since she accomplishes all of this in only 103 pages! I am assuming that the length of the volume was limited by the publisher and not Elliott. It is clear that there is much more that she could and probably wanted to say about this important topic. I have two points to which I would like to draw attention.

First, since this appears to be intended as a textbook a short chapter on the life of women in the first century would be helpful. Elliott does touch on this here and there, but a dedicated section would help readers to enter the world of Paul better. Her section on Paul's life is interesting, but I am not sure that it accomplishes much. Her material on his religious and historical context is good, but more information specifically on women would improve it.

Second, I wish that Elliott had dealt more with 1 Tim 2:8-15. While I agree with her that this was probably not written by Paul, it is still part of scripture. Many of the students reading Elliott are going to wonder how to deal with this passage. I am not sure that simply dismissing it as non-Pauline helps them. People serving in a ministry setting do not always have the luxury of dismissing passages. I imagine this would be even more difficult for a woman trying to explain the contradiction between her position as a minister and the words of 1 Tim 2:8-15.

In spite of my critiques this is a well-written, concise treatment of the topic. Students encountering it for the first time will be well-served and those who may have already formed their opinions will be challenged to think again. The book should be on the syllabus of any class about Paul or the general New Testament. Those already in ministry should have this on their shelf to either consult or handout to those who may have questions. I will recommend it to my colleagues at Ashland and beyond.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review John. Look forward to reading it. I must say, I've found the idea that Mary is "Apostle to the Apostles" a little wanting in previous treatments.

    Stay real dude,