Monday, July 19, 2010

Does the Bible put women down? Response to Ken Pulliam

I have been following a series of posts which started with The Persistence of Patriarchy by Anne Eggbroten. In this article she visits John MacArthur's church and finds, of course, that the submission of women is alive and well. But she asks,

    Here’s the question: Is God permanently committed to the kinds of social hierarchy that existed in the first and second millennium B.C.E. and continued until recently, when education and voting were opened to women? Or does the vision of Paul in Galatians 3:28—“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”—take precedence?
Al Mohler responds to this in his post,
    At this point the agenda becomes clear. Eggebroten argues that the church has simply perpetuated the patriarchal traditions of the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures that formed the social context for the early Christian church. Against these she contrasts the Apostle Paul’s beautiful declaration in Galations 3:28 — “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.”
Ken Pulliam, in turn, weighs in on this,
    Eggebroten would like to find a change in perspective on this subject from Paul but she is misguided. In addition to the passages that Mohler cites, Paul also told women to be silent in the church and learn from their husbands (I Cor. 14:34-35) as well as implying that women are more easily deceived than men and need to allow their husbands to make important decisions while they concentrate on motherhood (I Tim. 2:12-15). This was the role of women in ancient cultures (and today in fundamentalist churches) and so, one should not be surprised to find the Bible supporting it.
What I find astonishing here is the weight given to two passages from the epistles, 1 Cor. 14:34-35, and 1 Tim. 2;12. There are arguments which undermine the current interpretation of each of these passages. Mohler responds to this as well,
    To read Galatians 3:28 the way Eggebroten reads the verse, you would have to believe that the Apostle Paul was in direct contradiction with himself, when he restricts the teaching office to men in letters such as 1 Timothy and Titus.

    Or . . . you can try to deny that Paul actually wrote those latter letters. Eggebroten accuses conservative evangelicals of ignoring “evidence that the ‘pastoral epistles’ (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) were written in honor of Paul long after he died and reflect a second-century debate over women’s roles in the church–whether to conform to social customs for the sake of winning converts, or to advocate radical social equality (and even celibacy) in the last days before the Second Coming.”

    What this reveals, of course, is the argument of many evangelical feminists that we can discard the teachings of the Pastoral Epistles. We can keep the Apostle Paul we like (taking Galatians 3:28 out of context, for example) and disregard the Paul we do not like.

    Nor are the Pastoral Epistles the only biblical texts subverted by this line of argument. With reference to 1 Corinthians 14:35 (”Let a woman learn in silence with full submission”), Eggebroten suggests, among other options, that “verses 34-35 began as someone’s marginal comment, later copied right into the text.”

    With this approach to the Bible, you can simply discard any text you dislike. Just dismiss it as a marginal comment, or deny that Paul even authored the text. This is where the denial of biblical inerrancy inevitably leads — the text of the Bible is deconstructed right before our eyes.

Mohler is quite well informed on all the arguments against these two passages. Let's review them. First, there is an opinion among many scholars that the letters to Timothy, Titus and the Ephesians were not written by Paul. There is no current consensus on this, so one can only discuss this as a theory.

However, the fact remains that the writings attributed to Paul are often in contradiction. Is he promoting celibacy for single men and women, or is he counselling marriage? Is he advocating reciprocal and matching marital obligations, as in 1 Cor. 7, or asymmetrical ones, as in Ephesians 5. Whether we are reading letters from two different times in Paul's life, or the letters of two different people, there is a contradiction and we need to admit this.

Regarding the status of 1 Cor. 14:34-35 as a marginal note, I find it instructive that the NET Bible online considers this to be the most likely scenario. Most text critics agree that it was a marginal note at one time, but they vary with regard to when and by whom they believe this note was written, and then incorporated into the body of the epistle.

This is an unusual occurrence. There are no other passages of this length, which began their career as marginal notes, which are now incorporated into the text, without comment in our present Bibles. The Net Bible claims that although they were marginal notes, they were written by Paul.

I guess this begs the question. Is anything written by Paul to be considered canonical? If so, why were other letters, which we know Paul wrote and have been lost, not preserved by the Holy Spirit for posterity? For example, suppose verses 34-35 were written by Paul. How do we know that they were canonical? How do we know that they were inspired by the Holy Spirit and were not just a non-canonical after-thought which came to Paul's mind? Or perhaps Paul did not add this note himself after all.

We do know for a certainty that early manuscript copiers altered the text to reduce the status of women. For example, in the passage referring to the church in Nympha's house, Col. 4:15, the pronoun referring to Nympha was altered to the masculine by a scribe for the purpose of masking the leadership role of a woman.

It is a fifity-fifity choice, in my view, whether 1 Cor. 14:34-35, was added by a scribe who did not like women, or was added by Paul as an afterthought. But we still have to deal with the whether this would qualify as "inspired by the Holy Spirit" or simply Paul's private opinions.

Is it really biblical feminists who are deconstructing the Bible, or is it the reasoned scholarship of text critics in general, both conservative and liberal? Even the most conservative text critics realize that there was something irregular about these verses.

On 1 Tim. 2:12, we have the continued assumption that authentein really does say "to exercise authority" which Mohler knows very well is not the lexical meaning of the word. This word is unusual and can only be found 2 or 3 times elsewhere within a few centuries of the epistle. Although there are many cognate words which could enter our discussion, the only times the word authentein itself was used, it had a negative meaning when it dealt with one person's power over another. It cannot mean that women should not "function as church leaders" - this is not one of the possible meanings of the word - but rather that some particular woman, or women, should not continue in their assumption that women had the right to dominate over men.

Neither 1 Cor., 14:34-35 nor 1 Tim. 2:12 are clear examples of the scriptures forbidding women to participate in the leadership structures. Other scriptures do indicate that Paul was probably speaking to men only, but there is no use of the word "male" and the word for "husband" appears, only to indicate that if married, the person designated as husband must be faithful.

It appears to me that usually, in the letters, Paul was referring to male leadership, but I see no attempt on his part to ensure that leadership be restricted to men only. I do not believe that either 1 Cor. 14 or 1 Tim. 2 are clear enough to fill that function.

In contrast, we have many women who were in leadership position, as head of their house, deacon, apostle, leader of a group of Christians, and so on. These are Lydia, Phoebe, Priscilla, Nympha, Chloe, and the "elect" lady. I can see no other explanation except that Paul did accept women as leaders over a mixed group of people. There seems to be no other way to describe Chloe or Nympha.

While Ken Pulliam describes himself as an agnostic atheist, I would have to call myself an agnostic Christian. I am open to Ken's arguments and do not feel that I have to defend every passage in scripture. I honestly do not find scripture to be a cohesive and clear set of texts. I regret that anyone would try to pick out two or three passages to shape their life, or the life of all women. This is truly misguided. However, I am still sympathetic with the aims of women who engage with the text as biblical feminists.

Zachary has added a personal post on Christianity and Patriarchy in response to Ken Pulliam.

11 comments:

NicodemusLegend said...

It is hardly necessary to argue that "anti-feminist" passages otherwise attributed to Paul weren't really written by him to make the case that they don't actually mean the kind of subordination of women they are often taken as meaning. The argument that they are particular about qualification for church office, itself, is spurious.

That's not to say that the passages being discussed aren't questionable (in terms of whether or not Paul wrote them). It's just that the reasons for questioning them have nothing to do with what they say about women in ministry. If we don't question the authenticity of those passages at all, arguments that women may still be allowed the rights to church office remain more or less unimpacted.

Mohler's (and others) arguments that these disputes occur because of some kind of theological agenda are off-base, and I would argue do more to establish the agenda of Mohler and his ilk to oppose equality for women at practically any cost.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

I agree. That is what I meant when I wrote,

"Is it really biblical feminists who are deconstructing the Bible, or is it the reasoned scholarship of text critics in general, both conservative and liberal? Even the most conservative text critics realize that there was something irregular about these verses."

But perhaps I added that in an edit. Sorry bout that.

Kristen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kristen said...

With regards to this comment of Ken Pulliam's:

"The reality is, as Mohler says, Paul is not contradicting the overall teaching of the Bible on women. It does actually reflect the 'the kinds of social hierarchy that existed in the first and second millennium B.C.E. and continued until recently.'"

I made this comment on his blog:

Couldn't we just as easily say that Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" actually reflects the kind of racism that existed in the pre-Civil War American South, and from there insist that Twain was actually promoting racism? He does, after all, use the n-word, and he refers to slaves with demeaning appellations such that their identity lies in who owns them, and not in themselves.

However, the plot of Huckleberry Finn largely centers around how Huck helps a slave to run away, and how he learns to see Jim as a full human being. Can we make a point that Twain is trying to say something important that, as the original audience would have understood it, reflected a move away from slavery? Or is it all that matters, that Twain reflects the attitudes of his times in the use of the n-word?

A reading of the New Testament that insists on seeing only the social heirarchy that existed at the time, might very well be missing what the original audience might have understood Paul to actually be saying; that his words reflect new ideas about male-female relations, which the audience, hearing his message within the historical context of those times, would have understood entirely differently than it looks to us on a surface reading only.

It is somewhat interesting to find hyper-literal fundamentalist Christians and non-religious people in so much agreement about what the Bible is actually all about. Only perhaps those hyper-literal fundamentalists are working from an overly simplistic understanding of the text-- and the non-religious find no reason to look any deeper.

Kristen said...

I'm also not sure I necessarily see Paul as inconsistent. It's not inconsistent or self-contradictory in my mind to say, "It's good to be single, but it's also just fine to be married." Or to say, "In the privacy of their intimacy, a couple must relate with complete reciprocity, but when they are interacting with the community, there are social attitudes and conventions which must be taken into account."

Paul did say, "I become all things to all people, that I might by any means save some." With this as his professed mission, it's not surprising to me that he modified his message to fit individual audiences and diverse circumstances.

Anonymous said...

"It is a fifity-fifity choice, in my view, whether 1 Cor. 14:34-35, was added by a scribe who did not like women, or was added by Paul as an afterthought. But we still have to deal with the whether this would qualify as "inspired by the Holy Spirit" or simply Paul's private opinions."

Some think it was a quote Paul was responding to because it sounds like it was taken right out of the Oral Law. And because he answers questions they had throughout the letter.

And verse 36 confirms this as Paul basically says, What! Are you serious?


This is actually an affirming passage for egals. Cheryl Schatz does an excellent job on this passage.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

That is somewhat problematic because if these two verses were not in the original text in that position, but in the margin, then the following verse cannot be a response. I am firmly agnositic on these things. As I have said, I am not a biblicist, but I do support breaking down certainties that the text is against women.

Don said...

I do not know what a biblicist it, but I try to be a Scripturalist, which sounds similar and may mean the same thing.

I do not see contradictions in the Bible when it is understood in immediate context, Scriptural subject context and cultural context.

Kathleen said...

I agree with Anonymous that Paul was quoting something the Corinthians wrote to him about, and his response being in vs. 36. I can see this, as he's answering questions throughout the letter.

Paul also states in chap. 1 that he came to preach the gospel, and chp. 2 that he "decided to be concerned about nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified."

By chap. 5 he's confronting their sexual immorality and general selfish ways. The Corinthians weren't the most "devout", if you will, believers and had a lot of baggage. Why would Paul add to their load and confusion? I see him throughout his letters redirecting them back to devotion to God and preferring one another instead of their self-centered ways.

Again: why would we base male-female relationships inside and outside of the congregation of "church" on one of the most immature (in the faith and fruit of the Holy Spirit) churches in the New Testament? Philippians starts out with a great commendation from Paul, as he may have had an early start with the Philippians when he met with Lydia (Acts 16).

These have been my thoughts for a while on those passages, and I have God, Suzanne, and many other believers at women in ministry blog to thank as well.

Thank you for your work here, Suzanne.

Kristen said...

With regards to 1 Cor 14:34-35 (whether they were a marginal note by Paul or added by someone else), Suzanne says:

"That is somewhat problematic because if these two verses were not in the original text in that position, but in the margin, then the following verse cannot be a response. I am firmly agnositic on these things. As I have said, I am not a biblicist, but I do support breaking down certainties that the text is against women."

There is another possibility: that these two verses were in the text in the position they now appear, with Paul's words immediately following "What! Did the word of God begin with you?" as a refutation. And a scribe saw that Paul's words were a refutation of the "women be silent" position, and thought, "This must be a mistake. Surely Paul meant his words on women's silence to be taken seriously!" And so, not willing to actually add to or take away from Paul's words, he simply moved them a few verses down, where they could stand as Paul's actual instructions to silence women.

This kind of scribal interference is not unknown. I was reading about it in Daughters of the Church by Tucker & Liefield (Zondervan, page 68, quoting from Bruce M. Metzger, Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, United Bible Societies, pp. 453-54).

BradK said...

I'm not sure that the editors of the NET Bible think it most likely that 1 Co 14:34-35 is a marginal note. Their footnote ends with "There are apparently no mss that have an asterisk or obelisk in the margin. Yet in other places in the NT where scribes doubted the authenticity of the clauses before them, they often noted their protest with an asterisk or obelisk. We are thus compelled to regard the words as original, and as belonging where they are in the text above."

I happen to think they are wrong in this. I find Payne's textual arguments for interpolation quite convincing.