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.