Well it is pretty obvious Paul hated women, with all those Bible verses telling women to sit down and shut up. And telling us how men are all “I’m the leader. Na na boo boo.”
Of course, Christians have answers to such charges of misogyny: His words were for that culture not us. Or he was explaining how God sees relationships between husband and wife. And there are a host of other justifications you have probably heard.
A Different Perspective on Paul
You may not have heard the explanations Sarah Ruden offers. This is because she is one of the only scholars who has read Paul in the Greek and specializes in ancient Greco-Roman literature. Ruden has a Ph.D. in Classical Philology from Harvard University and has translated such works as the The Aeneid and the play Lysistrata (Hackett Classics) by the Greek playwright Aristophanes. She is also a practicing Quaker.
Ruden realized that no one had ever compared Paul’s writings with the literature that was prevalent in Paul’s time to understand his meaning. She says that the classics students and the theology students never interact and have completely different course work, even in language study. When she was a classics student the curriculum never introduced a single piece of Christian literature written in Greek. And so likewise the theology students were unfamiliar with the Greek and Roman literature contemporary with the New Testament.
She wrote a book called Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time to bring her classics-trained mind to a study of Paul’s writings. She wants to rescue Paul from the unfair judgments modern readers make about his words and his intentions.
The mistake modern readers make is to judge historic people by the standards of our time. We demand that our historic heroes have all the moral outrage we do over the issues we find pressing us now: What? Thomas Jefferson wrote The Declaration of Independence using whale oil in his lamps! Didn’t he know whales were being hunted to extinction? And he owned slaves. What a monster!
So when a fellow Bible study participant complains that Paul unfairly maligns sorcery because it is “just the ability to project my power and essence,” Ruden recalls a scene from the Roman poet Horace who describes how a sorcerer buries a little boy up to his neck so he can see food but not eat it. This will enrich his liver with his desire so it can be used as a love charm. Sorcerers were not so much into self-actualization back then.
Another topic Ruden explores in depth is the male-on-male sexual domination that was rampant in the Greco-Roman world. Ruden states, “The Greeks and Romans even held homosexual rape to be divinely sanctioned.”
And this is where the pedagogue comes in to play. You have probably heard of this role when studying Galatians and Paul’s reference to the law as a “tutor.” Some have translated this word as “custodian,” but Ruden says the pedagogue was hired specifically to protect young boys on their way to school from sexual predators. If you wonder at the idea of powerful men kidnapping boys and making them sex slaves, you only have to read about what some Afghan police have been doing or look up the practice of bacha bazi to know that this still goes on in the world.
Paul and Women
Ruden then addresses some of the passages that trouble modern women. She talks about the role of women in that culture and how they were never allowed to participate in government or ritual except in performing strictly defined duties. So their opinions were never heard. She says that the passage in 1 Cor: 14:33-36 that discusses how a woman should behave in church is approached by modern readers from the “wrong angle.”
“It would not have been remarkable that women were forbidden to speak among Christians. It’s remarkable that they were speaking in the first place. It’s remarkable that they were even there, in an ekkelsia, perhaps for all kinds of worship and deliberation, and that their questions needed answers, if not on the spot.”
Her discussion of the Pauline edict to come to church veiled (1 Cor: 11:2-16) is eye-opening. A woman was entitled to wear the veil when she married, and it symbolized that she was a woman of honor and respect. Prostitutes and those found in adultery were not allowed to wear the veil. But Paul was conveying a great equality on all the women in the church by having all women wear the veil, so no one was humiliated. Apparently some women who were entitled to wear the veil were choosing instead to show off their hair, putting other women not so entitled in an embarrassing situation. So Paul tells all women to wear the veil, thus welcoming all women in the church. Paul’s intentions are a far cry from the demeaning connotations many modern women have ascribed to the verses.
Ruden tackles other issues including husband-wife relations, Paul’s view of slavery, and the meaning of love. She quotes from a panoply of ancient sources: Sophocles, Sallust, Theocritus, Plutarch, Petronius, Martial, Plato, Livy, Juvenal, and more. Reading these brief excerpts helps you to understand the ancient mindset and how Paul’s message of freedom in Christ was so attractive to his Gentile listeners.
If you are interested in the writings of Paul, this is a book you should read—if you can stand the graphic nature of the prose of these ancient writers. You will see how little regard the elites had for the lower classes, women, and even other peers. They are vulgar and sex obsessed—perhaps even more so than artists in our own culture. But you will no doubt learn things you have never heard before, and you will gain a newfound respect for Paul and his message of love.