Book Review: A Feminist Introduction to Paul

July 5, 2005 | 19 comments
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Here’s a sentence I wouldn’t have expected to find in a Deseret Book:

If Emerson was right that a stubborn insistence on consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, then Paul’s place among the larger intellects of Western thought must be reckoned as secure.

While I might have stated the case more charitably (if less wittily) than Keith Norman did in his Women’s Conference talk “The Writings of Paul about Women,” he does tell the truth: it seems impossible to reconcile Paul’s teachings about women.

In A Feminist Introduction to Paul, Sandra Hack Polaski does a competent job exploring these teachings from a variety of feminist perspectives without falling victim to the desire to ‘solve’ Paul and twist texts until they agree. When a prohibition on women speaking in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-36) comes precisely three chapters after Paul delineates the circumstances under which a woman might pray or prophecy in church (1 Corinthians 11), agreement is probably not a reasonable goal. Incidentally, her exploration of this conundrum is one of the high points of the book as she sketches out the theories of many different scholars. She doesn’t force herself to be consistent on the subject of Paul, either: she admits “a bias in favor of the Pauline texts” while on the very next page she confesses that “he still makes me angry on a regular basis.”

She’s a contrarian, and the best kind. She works with some texts that initially seem liberating and finds bias (sure, Paul’s dismissal of circumcision seems to invite women to full fellowship, but why is he writing about circumcision instead of dietary laws in the first place?) and she questions that classic feminist text, Galatians 3:28:

On first reading this context [that is, verses 26-29] does not look promising for a liberative reading of “no male and female.” Indeed, the believers are called “sons” and “seed,” incorporated into a “one” that is grammatically masculine. They hear that they are “heirs” in a legal system of male inheritance. “No male and female” is beginning to sound like “no female–only male.”

But she’s not finished. And her exploration of the way in which this text invites “daughters” to become “sons” shows that they are being invited to inherit, which is liberative. If this seems complicated, convoluted, and counterintuitive, well, welcome to Paul’s letters.

One of the most difficult tasks of a biblical scholar is to navigate between clarifying and defending one’s hermeneutical approach while still having space and energy left to actually interpret the text. Polaski carefully navigates theory and practice and presents her ideas in clear language that will intrigue, if not necessarily convince, an LDS reader. One such hermeneutical choice is a penchant for reading Paul for what she calls his trajectory instead of his location. For example, she sees in Colossians 3:19 an “unexpected claim that the superior too has theologically justified responsibilities” (in contrast to other ancient household codes, where only the duties of the inferior are enumerated). She argues:

A more promising way of reading these texts, though, reads them for where they point. This way follows their trajectories. Clearly these texts neither reflect nor prescribe a nonhierarchical society. However, given the context in which they would have first been read, and particularly the rhetorical effect of the “unexpected” directives to superiors, I argue that they point toward a way of understanding society that challenges all hierarchical structures (including the ones these same texts reinscribe).

I am, if not convinced by this, at least pleased with her effort to reclaim a problematic text. Her justification for wrestling with difficult texts (“It is, in a sense, because these texts have been (and continue to be) used abusively that I refuse to let them go without a fight. To give up, to admit that these texts are irretrievably gender-biased and patriarchal, would be to give bigotry the last word.”) is food for thought for Saints who would skim or skip over that which they do not like.

While she does touch on each of the main passages involving women in Paul’s letters, more depth would have been useful. For example, in her discussion of Romans 16:7, she writes that Junia (almost certainly a woman) and Andronicus are both “identified as ‘apostles'” but the interpretation of the passage is very difficult. It is unclear whether they are apostles (and, if they are, what that term would have meant) or are not ‘apostles’ but ‘of note among the apostles.’ As much as feminists might like Junia to be an apostle, it is hard to imagine that she is of note among the apostles–but not mentioned anywhere else in scripture! It seems more likely that she is noted by the apostles. It’s a complicated passage, and dismissing it in one declarative sentence, as Polaski does, does no one any favors.

One complicated issue that she handles well is the disputed authorship of many of the epistles traditionally attributed to Paul. (Very few scholars think that Hebrews, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus were written by Paul and many do not consider 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians to have been written by him, either.) She uses the uncertainty productively: she considers the disputed texts as legitimate interpretations of Paul. That is, these texts were considered similar enough to Paul’s thought that many people were comfortable attributing them to him. Hence, in these letters, we see trajectories of his thought. This provides her an opening through which to bring the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla into the conversation on equal footing (that is, as a text that resonated with Paul’s teachings to the extent that some were comfortable enough affiliating him with it). It’s not a move without problems, but it is an intriguing and potentially fruitful approach.

The main weakness in this book is the chapter on Paul’s theology. Not only do I see the effort to construct something that can be labeled “Paul’s theology” as a fool’s errand, but her result–a focus on the New Creation–seems tepid. The chapter drags, and I wish that she had used those pages to work on specific texts. She also wanders out of focus in her chapter on the world of Paul’s readers. In a volume this slim, there simply isn’t room for contemplating the role of women in the worship of Isis when that isn’t immediately relevant to Paul’s letters. (While the topic is interesting, the reader would be better served by Wayne Meeks’ classic The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul.) But on balance, this is a compelling choice for anyone wanting an entry point into thinking about Paul’s writings from a feminist perspective.

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19 Responses to Book Review: A Feminist Introduction to Paul

  1. Kevin Barney on July 5, 2005 at 5:56 pm

    You faked me out, Julie; I thought from your opening that this book was published by Deseret. With “feminist” in the title no less! I guess I realized deep down that such a thing would be impossible.

  2. Tom Johnson on July 5, 2005 at 10:01 pm

    Julie,

    I wish I were more convinced about Polaski’s reading, about her opinion that Paul gives us “a way of understanding society that challenges all hierarchical structures.” It seems like quite a battle to reclaim Paul from hopeless gender-bias. Whenever my wife and I read the scriptures, the gender-bias is an overwhelming obstacle for her. The continual exclusion and omission of women seems to suggest, implicitly, that women are not as important as men. While culture surely plays a role in fostering the bias, it’s hard to understand why pure revelation cannot penetrate through even the most righteous prophets, such as Nephi, and inspire him to name one of his sisters when he describes his family. When the scriptures tell stories of women — and it is rare that they do — these stories really speak to my wife. How have you overcome the saturated gender-bias of the scriptures to see the God who loves, values, and places great importance on women? If you can do that with Paul, I want to know how you do it.

  3. Julie in Austin on July 5, 2005 at 10:37 pm

    Tom–

    Wow, that’s a question. Here’s my (not Polaski’s) take on Paul:

    (1) First, Paul is not Jesus Christ. He isn’t the President of the Church and may not even have been a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. We have a handful of letters that he wrote that may be corrupted in ways we cannot imagine. Consequently, I don’t take anything he says too seriously, especially if it appears to contradict repeated statements by modern Church leaders that, as you say, “God . . . loves, values, and places great importance on women.”

    (2) I side with the majority of scholars in thinking that the most troubling “Pauline” passages (especially 1 Timothy 2:15 but also Colossians 3:18 and others) weren’t even written by him. I have no problem considering 1 Timothy 2:15 to be false doctrine, plain and simple.

    (3) We also need to balance what Paul *does* say: 1 Corinthians 7 is remarkably gender-neutral; 1 Corinthians 11 can be powerful if thought of in light of the endowment (sorry I cannot elaborate more, but if you can track down Morna D. Hooker, “Authority on Her Head: An Examination of I Cor. XI.10,” New Testament Studies 10 (1963/64), it will change how you read that chapter); and Romans 16 is an AMAZING (yes, I’m yelling) window into the reality of Paul’s world, where 1/3 of the people mentioned as prominent Christians are women.

    (4) Blame the translators for some things, not Paul. In Romans 16:1, Phebe is described with the same word (translated as ‘servant’) that is used to describe Jesus in Romans 15:7 (translated as ‘minister’). Either word would be appropriate, but it should be translated the same in both passages to underscore the point thta Phebe is doing the same thing that Jesus did.

    But to your main question, “How have you overcome the saturated gender-bias of the scriptures to see the God who loves, values, and places great importance on women?”

    Historical reality is that most women wore out their lives bearing and raising children. The fact that any of them managed to lead armies, visit kings, interpret scrolls, serve in the Temple, or follow Jesus around is amazing itself. But the stories that we do have are powerful, powerful, powerful. I guess I need to get back to my ‘And Many Other Women’ Series of posts.

    Bottom line for me, though, comes from focusing on Jesus’ interactions with and teachings about women. In his mortal ministry, I cannot find any occasion where he was less than fully supportive of the women around him. He didn’t allow them to be defined by biology (Luke 11:27-28), he engaged them in serious theological conversation (John 4), he didn’t confine them to domestic duties (Luke 10:38-42), and permitted one of them to announce her understanding of his messianic role at a time when his closest male disciples were completely unclear on the concept (Mark 14:3-9, cf. Mark 8:31-33).

    We have been trained not to realize how powerful the stories about women really are. These stories aren’t mentioned much (no one seems to have read Numbers 27:1-7, a revolutionary text), when they are shared, their true import is diminished (Mark 14:3-9), and in many cases translation issues or preconceived notions obscure what is happening (I don’t think most people realize how many female images of deity there are in the OT).

    “YEA, for thus saith the Lord: Have I put thee away, or have I cast thee off forever? For thus saith the Lord: Where is the bill of your mother’s divorcement? To whom have I put thee away, or to which of my creditors have I sold you? Yea, to whom have I sold you? Behold, for your iniquities have ye sold yourselves, and for your transgressions is your mother put away.”

  4. Taylor on July 5, 2005 at 11:39 pm

    Julie,
    Great post. I am not familiar with Polaski, but it doesn’t sound like she is contributing much to the feminist interpretation of Paul as much as she is summarizing it, which is a very useful project. As for Rom 16:7, I hadn’t previously considered the instrumental use of “en” to translate it as “notable by the apostles”. Grammatically, this reading is possible, though I my brief search I don’t find that construction to appear anywhere else. I still think that the best explanation is that Paul is using the term “apostle” here in the same way he uses it elsewhere, to refer to someone who is “sent” by the Lord, NOT an ecclesiastical office. Junia and Andronicus are well-known apostles, but they are not of the 12. Paul considers the 12 and the apostles to be two separate groups (1 Cor 15:1-7).

  5. Tom Johnson on July 6, 2005 at 12:27 am

    Thanks Julie. I appreciate your response, especially all the specific references. Keep it up!

  6. Mike on July 6, 2005 at 10:59 am

    I am way out of depth here, forgive my ignorance…

    I have always wondered about Paul and thought that perhaps the Apostasy began with him. The way his writings treat women is only one of a number of difficulties.

    Paul is a complex figure. He saved Christianity by converting many Gentiles and Greeks, so that when Jerusalem was destroyed, Christianity survived. According to my Jewish friends Paul actually invented Christianity, that historical Jesus was definitely Jewish not “Christian.” They jokingly tell me it should be called Paulianity (Polly Ann- ity?). Paul’s influence on Christianity is enormous, to the point that some very intelligent people can conclude that all of Christianity is an out growth of Pauline trajectories of thought. Like so many influential but humanly flawed people, the effects of both Paul’s positive and negative characteristics are magnified. We are left struggling with his faults.

    Thanks for the post, it added a couple more books to my must read list.

  7. Julie in Austin on July 6, 2005 at 11:09 am

    “I have always wondered about Paul and thought that perhaps the Apostasy began with him. ”

    I wonder if it might be more useful to see apostasy as the baseline condition that is only pushed back by ever-vigilant Church organization, leadership, and people. I think Paul did his darndest, but who was it who said that no one was ever brought to repentence by a letter? (Which I don’t think is entirely true, but you get the point.) I think that it is possible that the prominence of Paul’s (sometimes confusing, sometimes misinterpreted) letters in the Christian tradition (which wasn’t to his fault/credit, either) may have sent some people and groups into trajectories leading to apostasy, but I’m not comfortable ‘blaming’ him for the apostasy.

    One of my favorite lines belongs to Peter in one of the apocryphal documents: (paraphrasing) “If they take such liberties with my teachings now, we can only imagine what they will do after I have died.”

  8. Jim F. on July 6, 2005 at 12:47 pm

    Mike, If the apostasy began with Paul, then the Book of Mormon is very sympathetic to apostate doctrine. The major doctrines taught by Paul are repeated over and over again in the Book of Mormon.

    I’m no defender of Paul’s statements about women, but I think it is easier to make sense of them in historical context than it seems Julie and Polaski think. Are there contradictions in his letters? Sure, just as we ought to expect from someone who wrote many letters over a number of years, and just as we ought to expect of documents that were then sometimes edited by their owners for various reasons. Overall, however, I don’t think they are particularly marked by self-contradiction. Indeed, I would argue that they are a marvelous collection of documents from which we can learn a great deal about the Gospel (though I recommend that LDS readers find some other translation to use than the KJV).

  9. Mike on July 6, 2005 at 2:20 pm

    Reply:

    I didn’t say that everything Paul wrote was apostate, or even most of it. Just a few scattered ideas. This is an argument of black and white thinking. Either you accept everything Paul wrote or you reject everything because he is either a good guy or a bad guy. This is a form of mental laziness because it excuses us from actually thinking about and accepting each and every point. I try not to think in sweeping terms of black and white, but I am rather prone to it because of the way I was raised. I think Paul did an enormous amount of good and that he made a few mistakes. I only raise the question that could they have been elements in the apostasy as it gathered strength.

    The various doctrines more clearly explained in the Book of Mormon that were propagated by Paul in the spread of Chriatianity are not the ones that are problematic for me. Those I generally agree with. It is the teachings of Paul not covered in the Book of Mormon that are more difficult for me. The treatment of women is the one exception as both sacred sources ignore women to a great extent. An aside, some of our critics who think Joseph Smith cooked up the whole thing see Paul as the most obvious template for Alma. The road to Damascus experience in Acts is hauntingly familiar in comparison with the experience of the conversion of Alma the younger. Many of the sermons of Alma cover topics in a way favored by Paul, etc.

    The more I look along this line the more this seems plausible and I don’t like it. My only explanation is that great minds go along similar paths and history can repeat over and over again with amazing consistancy. If the high counsel recycles their talks, maybe the Holy Ghost does too! And since my mind is not one of the great ones it doesn’t go along these paths very easily.

  10. Anonymous on July 6, 2005 at 2:54 pm

    Julie,

    I was troubled by your #3. Not only does the Church teach that the Bible is God’s Word (as recorded often by Paul), but according to my edition, Joseph Smith revised 1 Tim. 2:15, which would mean that he certainly didn’t consider it false doctrine (unless you are refering to the unchanged verse).

    The Church is Restored, which means a restoration of the Gospel preached by Christ, including the teachings of Paul.

    I am curious if you have any basis for rejecting portions of the Bible when Church leaders have not felt the urge to do so.

  11. Jim F. on July 6, 2005 at 3:14 pm

    Mike: I didn’t say that everything Paul wrote was apostate, or even most of it. Just a few scattered ideas.

    Until post #9, you said nothing about referring to only a few scattered ideas, so you can perhaps see why others understood you to mean more than that. I suspect that I’m often mentally lazy, but I don’t think I was in this case.

    Other than the things that Paul says about women (which, as I said, I think are less problematic than they seem at first glance–though still not unproblematic), can you point to Paul’s teaching that are not also found in the Book of Mormon and that cause you difficulty?

    As for the supposed parallels between Alma the younger and Paul: other than the fact that both were converted by a dramatic visionary experience, there aren’t really very many parallels between the experiences of the two. If that is enough to be a suspicious parallel, then we should also suppose that St. Theresa of Avila and Moses before the burning bush were also templates for the Book of Mormon.

  12. Rosalynde Welch on July 6, 2005 at 3:28 pm

    Julie, thanks for the review. Very interesting approach to the authorship problems–though it raises more questions about canonicity. It’s not particularly problematic, for me, to entertain the possibility that some of the epistles weren’t penned by Paul, particularly if we take the view that the canon doesn’t claim its authority primarily from the priesthood (or ecclesiastical office) of the author), but from our agreement with priesthood authority to *accept* the canon as scripture. If we take this definition of canonicity, though, your move (and my customary move, too) simply to discount some elements of “false doctrine” (and assuming these are irreducible elements, not merely translational problems) seems like a really suspect way to reconcile Pauline feminism.

  13. Julie in Austin on July 6, 2005 at 4:30 pm

    Anonymous–

    Actually, the Church teaches that the Bible is God’s word inasfar as it is translated correctly, which is an entirely different thing.

    As for 1 Timothy, I am referring to the idea that women are saved by childbearing, which is false doctrine. The JST cleans up a mismatched singular-plural problem; it doesn’t address this issue. As I am sure you know, the JST was a work in progress and we should have a healthy distrust for the ‘if that verse were a problem, JS would have fixed it’ argument. Instances of later prophets, such as Pres. Kimball, offering corrections that JS didn’t (Gen 3:16) would support the idea that the JST wasn’t complete/perfect.

    You wrote, “The Church is Restored, which means a restoration of the Gospel preached by Christ, including the teachings of Paul.”

    This statement assumes that “the Gospel preached by Christ” equals “the teachings of Paul.” While I think that Paul did a good a job (and in some cases an exceptional job) of preaching the Gospel, given what we have of his (a few scattered letters), given a history of ‘corrupt and designing priests’, given our historical and linguistic and cultural distance from Paul, well, let’s just say that I’m extremely thankful for modern revelation as a guide by which to judge Paul’s writings.

    You wrote, “I am curious if you have any basis for rejecting portions of the Bible when Church leaders have not felt the urge to do so.”

    I’m not sure what I wrote that led you to believe that I ‘reject portions of the Bible,’ but I don’t. All I meant to suggest in comment #3 is that in cases where some have interpreted Paul to denigrate women, I choose not to get worked up over those passages but instead focus on the teachings of modern prophets that clarify the role of women in the gospel.

    RW–

    I was following you and agreeing with you until I got to “If we take this definition of canonicity, though, your move (and my customary move, too) simply to discount some elements of “false doctrine” (and assuming these are irreducible elements, not merely translational problems) seems like a really suspect way to reconcile Pauline feminism.” and then I lost you. I want to understand what you are saying here but I don’t.

  14. Anonymous on July 6, 2005 at 4:53 pm

    Julie,

    Thanks for your reply.

    I don’t see how believing that “the Bible is God’s word inasfar as it is translated correctly” leads one to believe that parts of Paul’s writings are wrong. It would seem that you have expanded “translated” to include additions, omissions, false doctrines, etc. You may be correct, but I have never read it that broadly.

    I’m not familiar with Pres. Kimballs’ comments’ on Gen 3:16. Did he teach that verse was in error? Or, perhaps you mean that he indicated it was simply incomplete without modern revelation?

    With respect to Paul’s teaching about women, I guess I never saw those to be in conflict with modern revelation (especially when read in conjunction with the rest of the Bible).

    You, obviously, have more experience and have spent more time studying this area, so I am perhaps wrong. It just bothers me when folks are o.k. with rejecting certain teachings, which have not been rejected by the church leaders or modern revelation, because those teachings are ones with which they disagree.

    After reading your biography, however, I recognize that you probably have quite a bit of basis for rejecting Paul’s teachings dealing with women and are probably not doing so based only on your personal feelings.

  15. Julie in Austin on July 6, 2005 at 5:10 pm

    “I don’t see how believing that “the Bible is God’s word inasfar as it is translated correctly” leads one to believe that parts of Paul’s writings are wrong. It would seem that you have expanded “translated” to include additions, omissions, false doctrines, etc. You may be correct, but I have never read it that broadly.”

    I’m not the first to read it this broadly. I think it is reasonable given JS’s statement about ‘corrupt and designing priests’ and the BoM on the loss of ‘plain and precious parts.’ If you (over)limit ‘translation’ to mean strictly ‘moving from one language to another’ then I don’t know how you explain the JS and BoM statements above.

    “I’m not familiar with Pres. Kimballs’ comments’ on Gen 3:16. Did he teach that verse was in error? Or, perhaps you mean that he indicated it was simply incomplete without modern revelation?”

    This is from: Spencer W. Kimball, “The Blessings and Responsibilities of Womanhood,” Ensign, Mar. 1976, 70

    “The Lord said to the woman: “… in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” I wonder if those who translated the Bible might have used the term distress instead of sorrow. It would mean much the same, except I think there is great gladness in most Latter-day Saint homes when there is to be a child there. As He concludes this statement he says, “and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” (Gen. 3:16.) I have a question about the word rule. It gives the wrong impression. I would prefer to use the word preside because that’s what he does. A righteous husband presides over his wife and family.”

    My point in citing it is that it isn’t reasonable to maintain that the JST was complete/perfect or future prophets wouldn’t make these kinds of comments.

    “With respect to Paul’s teaching about women, I guess I never saw those to be in conflict with modern revelation (especially when read in conjunction with the rest of the Bible).”

    Women aren’t silent in the LDS Church. We don’t wear headcoverings all the time, either. We don’t think single people are better at serving God than married people. etc. As far as reading in conjunction with the rest of the Bible, I have no beef with that.

    “You, obviously, have more experience and have spent more time studying this area, so I am perhaps wrong. It just bothers me when folks are o.k. with rejecting certain teachings, which have not been rejected by the church leaders or modern revelation, because those teachings are ones with which they disagree.”

    I think it is pretty clear that I am only rejecting things that have been already rejected by modern Church leaders. If there is anything else you think I am rejecting, please call it to my attention so I can clarify.

    After reading your biography, however, I recognize that you probably have quite a bit of basis for rejecting Paul’s “teachings dealing with women and are probably not doing so based only on your personal feelings.”

    I’m not entirely sure what you mean by this and I am somewhat afraid to ask ;)

    Why are you anonymous, anyway?

  16. Anonymous on July 6, 2005 at 5:30 pm

    Julie,

    “Women aren’t silent in the LDS Church. We don’t wear headcoverings all the time, either. We don’t think single people are better at serving God than married people. etc.”

    I think in many of these instances, the verses can be reconciled when considering the culture in which Paul lived. I agree with Kimball’s clarification of Gen 3:16, which is how I would also read the verse about women being silent in church. Although I’ve not studied it at depth, I’ve always assumed this had more to say about not holding the priesthood and the fact that, in my view, the husband is “responsible” for the family and thus it was the husband’s responsibility to answer any questions his wife might have before she asked the question in public. Maybe that is a strained reading. I need to spend a little more time on this.

    While single people might not be better at serving God than married people, I believe Paul was speaking about spreading the gospel. A single person has a lot more time than a married person, who is likely raising a family or newly married, to do missionary work.

    “I’m not entirely sure what you mean by this and I am somewhat afraid to ask”

    — nothing to worry about; I was just refering to your statement that in graduate school you studied women in the New Testament.

    Anonymous — don’t know. I’ve never posted on here before and only recently started reading this blog.

    My name is James and I’m in Austin as well. I’m a member of the church, although inactive.

  17. Julie in Austin on July 6, 2005 at 5:45 pm

    James, your comment about cultural differences is valid but then opens a huge can of worms: how do we determine which parts of Paul’s writings are simply cultural holdovers and which are the Word of God? I’m glad we have modern prophets to weigh in on these issues.

    Your reading of 1 Cor 14 seems very strained to me since you are relying on a ‘priesthood duty’ that I cannot find enumerated in any writings of any Church leaders. Further, why would Paul give directions for women for praying and prophecying in church three chapters previous if even so much as a woman asking a question is less than desireable? I think it makes much more sense to see this verse as an addition by a later writer.

    James, welcome to Times and Seasons and hello to a fellow Austinite. I’d like to invite you to the Wells Branch Ward. We meet at 1pm. I teach Gospel Doctrine. :)

  18. Anonymous on July 7, 2005 at 11:45 am

    Julie,

    Thanks for the replies to my various points. After re-reading your review (which was very good, by the way), I fear I am getting your post, if I haven’t already, off topic. I will save additional comments for another time.

    I appreciate your insight and look forward to participating in other discussions.

    James

  19. Steve Evans on July 7, 2005 at 11:52 am

    Anonymous, I hate to break it to you, but if you really want to remain anonymous you’d better not sign your comments.