Not All Texts Are Created Equal

Scott Bartchy wrote an article in 1978 which we should all read in 2012.  The title is “Power, Submission, and Sexual Identity Among the Early Christians,”  found in Essays on New Testament Christianity, ed. C. Robert Wetzel (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 1978), pp.50-80. Because he is not simply a textual scholar, but someone who also comes to the text with a sensitivity to the cultural and communal issues involved, Bartchy helps us to step back and see the forest of which we have been seeing only trees.

He introduces his treatment by highlighting how each of us has a distorted viewpoint conditioned by our own context and experience, and assumptions we imbibed with our mother’s milk. Like fish living in water without realizing they do so, we live in cultural environments that distort what we see, without knowing this to be the case. As an example he mentions slavery in the Newer Testament, which we tend to conflate with our impressions of the American slavery experience. Because we bring to the subject such prior assumptions, we fail to even note how we miss the fact that Roman era slaves were not owned property, and in fact, some Roman slaves had slaves of their own.  Slaves in ancient Rome had freedom of assembly, knowing that their period of enslavement was finite with a planned ending point. Many Roman slaves were highly skilled, well-educated, and held positions of great authority and trust. Against such a background, we ought to more positively view Paul’s various references to slavery which fall short of blanket denunciation. Slaves in ancient Rome had more the connotation of being foreign workers than of being abused chattel, and a verdict that Paul failed to denounce the institution needs to be reconsidered.

Bartchy’s point is that we likewise misread Paul on gender issues. The biggest problem is that we think we know and understand, while we don’t. We tend to harbor assumptions of male dominance and female subservience, unaware of how our instincts about appropriate role differentiation for women and men have been shaped by our childhood experiences and societal patterning, for which we subconsciously seek confirmation, thus skewing our interpretations of Scripture.

Although not as widespread a phenomenon now as when he wrote it in 1978, Bartchy comments how in our society, and not ours alone, men tend to default to various levels of machismo, while women learn to feign subservience, being sometimes reduced to employing manipulations of various kinds to assert power.

Bartchy explores the key question:

“What is a normal human being, and therefore a normal male and normal female?” And more to his point, how have these understandings been modified through the coming, the teaching, and the impact of Yeshua the Messiah?  Treating this consideration as foundation for all else, Bartchy affirms that Yeshua questioned the conceits of male dominance, as demonstrated by his dismissing the assumptions of hierarchical (male) leadership (the “rulers of the gentiles” lording it over their subordinates, Mk 10:42-44), while substituting self-sacrificial servanthood (Mk 10:45). See also the Pauline admonition for husbands to love their wives in a self-sacrificing manner (Eph 5:25-33).

So how do we discern and winnow what Scripture says about gender norms in light of the coming of Yeshua? Bartchy suggests that the available texts fall into three categories which we do well to differentiate:

  1. Descriptive texts describe the way things were in the apostolic communities, the ways women behaved in the apostolic communities, without making any comment for or against these activit ies ;
  2. Normative texts declare “the way things are to be/ought to be” in this post-Yeshua context, without seeking to correct any particular problem or misunderstanding;
  3. Problem texts deal with/correct problems in the congregation of God’s people, caused by women misunderstanding the nature and limits of freedom among Yeshua’s people.

Let’s examine how this works out.

Descriptive Texts – The Way Things Were in Apostolic Communities

Example #1  – Women presented matter of factly presented as witnesses or as evangelists (See Matt 28:9-10; Mk 16:7, 9-11; Luke 24:10-11; John 20:14-18; John 4:39). While the societal standards of the surrounding cultures precluded this, women were matter of factly presente in these texts serving as witnesses, or evangelists.

Example #2 –  Women prophesy or pray in public meetings (See 1 Cor 11:4-5). Although Paul will address excesses that accompanied the practice, he treats the practice as normal.  See also Phillips seven daughters, all matter of factly identified as prophets (Acts 21:8-9). This is of course the outworking of the Joel text quoted on the Day of Pentecost (Joel 2:28-29) which specified both sons and daughters prophesying when God would pour out his Spirit on both male and female servants.

Example #4 –  Paul identifies Euodia and Syntyche as fellow workers with him (synergoi), women of stature who need to reconcile with one another (Phil 4:2-3). Again, their co-laboring status with Paul is treated as normal.

Example #5 –  As treated with some detail in a previous blog, in Romans 16:2-3, Paul introduces Phoebe as one who serves in the cause of the gospel, and as a prostatis.  The verbal form of this noun is used by Paul of an overseer who manages his family well (1 Tim 3:5), of elders who rule well (1 Tim 5:17), and of overseers (1 Thess 5:12). The noun form, while not used in the Newer Testament, is used in the Septuagint (LXX) to mean deputy, overseer, or officer (See 1 Chr 27:31; 29:6; 2 Chr 24:11).  In keeping with Greco-Roman culture, we may therefore take protatis to refer to a leader, a presiding officer, a ruler, a guardian, an administrator, someone who stands before or protects someone else.

Paul says that Phoebe “has been a prostatis of many and of myself as well” (Rom 16:2).  The English Standard Bible translates this term as “patron.”  How did she help many and Paul as well? Perhaps financially, or perhaps she stood before him and protected him with the Roman authorities or synagogue officials. Whatever the case, she is a formidable woman, even entrusted with transporting Paul’s letter from Corinth to Rome, where, as I noted elsewhere, she would have been expected to interpret his intent in the letter.  And all of this grand status is treated as a mere matter of narrative, without saying in any way that she was an exception to the rule. Paul seemed more comfortable with women in leadership than many of our contemporaries!

Example #6 – Priscilla and Aquila. As mentioned elsewhere, the names of this couple are four times listed in this order (Acts 18:18, 26; Rom 16:3; 2 Tim 4:19). The woman’s name coming first was highly unusual in the surrounding culture, but not a matter of comment for the Apostles. It is a subliminal testimony to her status. The names Priscilla and Aquila are Latinized names, likely indicating them to be well-educated. They were protegees of Paul, teachers of Apollos, good models of a couple serving in mutuality in the cause of Gospel.  The testimony of these passages concerning Priscilla’s role is all the more powerful due to its matter of fact character.  All should keep this powerful testimony in mind when interpreting problem passages like 1 Tim 2:8-15.

Example $ 7 – Junia, who is apparently a woman who with her husband is termed an “apostle ” by Paul. (See my earlier blog on Junia).

All these are matter of fact descriptive passages, with no special axe to grind. Yet what these passages have to say about women’s leadership roles is most significant. Apparently women holding general leadership roles was a fact of daily life in the apostolic communities. However, we tend to miss or minimize such passages due to our presuppositions.

Normative Texts –  The Way Things Ought to Be

Bartchy picks four texts, and my personal jury is out as to whether I buy all of his points, even though some are convincing.

Text #1 – Acts 2:17-18 (See Joel 2:28-29). We know that the Yeshua believers who were “all gathered in one place” awaiting the coming of the Spirit included women as well as me.  Keeping that in mind, we should realize that the “they (who were) all filled with the Holy Spirit and  began to speak in other tongues” included women.  Similarly, “these people (who) are not drunk as you suppose ” must also include women.Any other conclusion is prejudicial and not according to the evidence.  All of this is the way things ought to be because Peter’s sermon highlights the cross gender and cross class nature of the gift of the Spirit. This is one of the key characteristics of the “last days (in which) . . . God declares  . . . I will out out my Spirit on all flesh” (2:17).

Text $2 –  Galatians 3:28.  Bartchy views this to be a corrective response to prevailing patterns, including synagogue prayers which gave thanks to God who has not made one a Gentile, a slave or a woman.  All three of these categories are covered in the Galatians text. According to Bartchy, Paul rejects pride in maleness, in race, or in legal status, while affirming that neither ethnic, social, or legal status markers are valid. In keeping with an earlier posting about Michelle Eisenbaum, I disagree.  Paul continues to see a differentiation in these categories, seeing as different and not the same, yet as equal through the work of Christ.  Equality is not the same things as sameness. Males/females, Jewish/Gentles, free persons/slaves remain different while becoming equal in Messiah.

Text #3 –  1 Cor 7:1-7 ff. Bartchy sees in this text a Pauline emphasis on marital mutuality, with neither women nor men being sovereign over their own bodies so as to deprive their mate of sexual access.  However, such partners may agree to abstain for a time. In this, Bartchy sees a counter-cultural mutuality in decision-making. The term in Greek for this mutual agreement is symphonou, which comes down to us as the word symphony, highlighting the harmony and coordination of the endeavor.  In this context then, Paul rejects patriarchalism.

Text #4 –  Bartchy sees here another testimony to the mutuality of woman and man. “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.” In context, the people in Corinth imagined they had so spiritually “arrived” that normal strictures on sexuality and gender issues were transcended. Against this narcissistic fantasy, Paul again asserts a norm: mutuality and cooperation between the sexes.

For Paul, such norms are intrinsic to the Age of the Spirit.

Next posting we will pick up with the problem passages. But let’s not forget the foundation laid here. And above all, let’s learn to distinguish which passages are simply descriptive, which are norm-setting, and which are corrective of abuses. Paying heed to such distinctions is intrinsic to not becoming confused.

Be lucid out there!  See you soon.


About Stuart Dauermann

The blog of Rabbi Dr. Stuart Dauermann, teacher, mentor, radio talk show host, denizen of Los Angeles, and a visionary with a long career in Messianic Jewish activism. You can hear Rabbi Dauermann as he hosts Shalom Talk, a weekly radio show, and even listen online at Rabbi Dauermann spends time traveling nationally and internationally, and throughout the year is in Israel as a Scholar in Residence at the MJTI Jerusalem Center. He has plenty to say about Jewish-Christian relations, the need for shalom in the world, and the agenda of Messiah, the Son of David.
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3 Responses to Not All Texts Are Created Equal

  1. rey says:

    The numbers refer to the second list.

    # 1 – yes women were included.
    # 2 – the equality he intends is clearly only that both can be saved.
    # 3 – I don’t see how this is a rejection of “patriarchalism” — the command in the Torah to not approach a woman during her period could be viewed as only of ceremonial concern, but it makes more sense to me to see it as having the same import as what Paul says here, namely that the wife has the right to say no.

    I still think the passage needs to be explained where he says “Women are to learn in silence as the Law says” since the Law doesn’t say that.

    • rey says:

      (I assume in that situation they all would say no, but maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. Even so, I think without being stated by an explicit law, this is a Gentile norm as well, because it is based in a woman’s psychology and any man who actually cares for his wife would not dare.)

    • On the passage your reference on “women are to learn in silence” I will be posting a discussion of this soon. It is both mistranslated and misunderstood due to inattention to the context. Stay tuned.

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