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St. Paul's Attitude Toward Women by John L. Mckenzie from 'Women Priests'

St. Paul's Attitude Toward Women

by John L. Mckenzie

from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 212-215.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

John L. McKenzie received his S.T.D. from Weston College in Massachusetts. He was at the time Professor of Old Testament Studies at De Paul University. A former president of both the Catholic Biblical Association and the Society for Biblical Literature, he was the author of such books as The Two-Edged Sword and The Power and the Wisdom.

I am asked to comment on the brief passage of the Declaration dealing with Paul’s attitude toward women. The comment must certainly bear upon Galatians 3:28 and upon some apparent inconsistencies in Paul’s attitude towards women.

The revolutionary force of Paul’s language in Galatians 3:28 can hardly be appreciated without some knowledge of the background of the writer. Paul was reared as a Jew and professed Judaism until his adult life. One wonders sometimes how many modern Jews realize the degree of machismo there is in their religious heritage. Until Conservative Synagogues of the United States began to change their discipline in 1972 (not changed in Orthodox Synagogues, though Reform Synagogues eliminated the problem over a hundred years ago), the minyan, the minimum number of ten required for a synagogue service, meant ten male Jews; women do not count. One becomes a Jew by circumcision, and only by circumcision. Women are not obliged to the full Torah.(1) Jewish literature provides a generous measure of quotations expressing disrespect and contempt for women. (2) Josephus, whom not all Jews would admit as a witness, said flatly that woman is inferior to the male in every way. An ancient Jewish prayer preserved in modern Jewish prayer books expresses the Jew’s thanks that God has not made him a goy or a slave or a woman.(3) It is of interest, although I am sure it is merely coincidental, that these three classes are precisely the three classes whose differential is annihilated in the unity of Christ Jesus.

In the world of Paul the difference between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, and male and female represented the deepest class divisions of society. I have spoken of the third class with reference to the Jewish world; in Hellenistic-Roman Society the social position of woman was higher than it was in Jewish society. A close examination of the social position of women makes one aware that the adjective “higher” is used in a qualified sense. The greater freedom of the Roman lady was the freedom to be promiscuous. Paul was not concerned with this. In a society in which women were not fully Jews he did say that in Christ the difference is unimportant.

In our ecumenical age perhaps it is not nice to resurrect the contempt of Gentiles, and especially of Christian Gentiles, exhibited in the sayings of Talmudic and medieval rabbis. If women were not fully human, Gentiles were brute beasts. If women were morally weak, Gentiles did not even know the difference between right and wrong. Gentiles in the Roman world were aware of Jewish contempt and they resented it.

Slavery none of us knows except by reading. In Roman law the slave was not a human person. You could kill a slave; you could not murder him. Humanity did emerge, for the emancipation of slaves was common; unlike the domestic animal, the slave could save money to purchase his freedom. But as long as he was a slave, he was a chattel in law. This difference also was annihilated in Christ. Yet slaves could become officers of the church; Gentiles could become officers of the church. But the unity of Christ which embraced Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, did not quite encompass men and women. If Paul had meant this, it would have been easy for him to say so. One cannot adduce any New Testament text in support of the ordination of women. One cannot adduce any New Testament text in support of the ordination of men. Officers named hiereus, priest, are not mentioned in the New Testament. The apostles were all men; the office expired with the first generation of the church. Episkopoi, overseers, and diakonoi, ministers, are mentioned. Both of these are obviously groups within the local church. We do not know their duties or powers. The number of offices, or what could be offices, in the apostolic church of the New Testament is so large it seems that almost every believer had an office. Very probably they did; for office was the working of the Spirit in the believer, and if the Spirit did not work in the believer something was seriously wrong. The office of priest (hiereus or sacerdos or kohen) was known in Greek and Roman religion and in Judaism; its absence in the apostolic church cannot be merely coincidental. I once suggested that the apostolic church rejected the whole category of the sacred as known in its predecessors and contemporaries—sacred places, persons, objects—and that the reintroduction of the sacred was an intrusion of a pagan element into Roman Catholicism.(4) Possibly I am arguing that women are not ordained and men should not be. Paul did fairly well with no consciousness of ordination but a great sense of mission.

We know little about the ministry of women in the apostolic church; and in a masculine-clerical tradition we have not tried to find out more. Phoebe is called a diakonos of the church of Cenchreae (Romans 16:1). This is surely an ecclesiastical office, however vague the definition of its responsibilities, I do not know why it is not an office in this passage except that Phoebe was a woman, and that begs the question. I doubt seriously that Phoebe was the only woman in the apostolic church who was a deacon. It is certainly unwarranted to assume that her service was limited to such things as the collection and distribution of old clothing. A saying of Jesus (Mark 10:43) exhorts whoever would be great among you to become your diakonos: that is, to be in the group of disciples what Phoebe was at Cenchreae. If one likes the kind of word games which are so highly regarded by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, one could project that the office of diakonos put Phoebe within reach of becoming great among the disciples.

Aquila and his wife Priscilla are always mentioned together. Paul counts them among his fellow workers, and they had a church in their house (Romans 16:3-5). They were obviously a husband-wife evangelical team, and the one thing we can be sure they did was to teach. The word “fellow worker” (synergos) is applied in the Pauline correspondence to Urbanus (Romans 16:9), Timothy (Romans 16:21; Philippians 3:2), Epaphroditus (Epaphras; Philippians 2:25; Philemon 24), Clement (Philippians 4:3), Philemon (Philemon1), Demas and Luke (Philemon 24). These are men who were or could have been bearers of sacramental powers and jurisdiction, and no difference is made between them and Priscilla.(5)

Romans 16 is thought to be a list of Ephesian Christians. Besides Priscilla and Aquila, there are 24 personal names. Of these five are feminine, and two unnamed women appear also. Paul does not distinguish between services rendered by men and services rendered by women. The quarrel of Evodia and Syntyche (Philippians 4:2) must have been ecclesiastical; it is doubtful that anything less would have deserved mention in a letter to the whole church. Paul also says that they have struggled with him “in the gospel” (NAB “in promoting the gospel”). Clearly they were more than officers of the Altar Society; indeed, this mention by name suggests an important role in evangelization which scholars have not attended to. The context suggests that their importance may be compared with that of Clement (4:3).

Paul was not entirely consistent in his dealings with women. Few men are. The breadth of his statement in Galatians 3:28 and his practice, dim as our view of the details may be, clash rather sharply with his imposition of silence upon women in the assembly of worship (1 Corinthians 14:33-36) and the same prohibition amplified by some unnecessary anti-feminist rabbinical exegesis (1 Timothy 2:9-15). Modern scholars generally think that 1 Timothy is not from Paul himself; this, of course, does not close the question of how faithful the author was to the traditions of the Pauline school. In 1 Corinthians, which is surely from Paul, we hear the echoes of Jewish practice, in which women, according to some rabbis, should not even learn the Torah, let alone teach it.(6) Nevertheless, could Paul have addressed this to Priscilla? or to Phoebe? or to Evodia and Syntyche? Obviously he could not and did not. He wrote this to the church of Corinth about participation in charismatic worship such as speaking in tongues and in prophecy; and he seems to have forgotten in 14:33-36 what he said in 11:5. He does speak as the rabbi, as he does in many other passages. After all, he had been trained in rabbinical patterns of thought and speeeh. It appears that where we do not enshrine his rabbinical utterances and style as apostolic constitutions, we neither understand nor forgive him for going to a rabbinical school—and for learning his lessons so well.

Let me add a personal note. The contributors to this commentary were asked not to show in their tone the anger which they may feel. I wish to assure readers that the objective and dispassionate tone of this note does not disclose my whole mind about the Declaration. The Church is never served well by bad scholarship. I cannot think of any pontifical document which departed so far from the methods of sound learning as this document.


1. Hermann Strack-Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch (Munich, 1928), 111, pp. 558 f.

2. A. Oepke in Kittel, Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament, I (Stuttgart, 1933), pp. 781-784.

3. Ibid, p. 777. The corresponding prayer to be said by a woman is “Blessed art thou, Eternal One, our God, Lord of the world, who hast made me according to thy will.”

4. Did l say That? (Chicago: Thomas More Press, 1973), 45-50.

5. This has some reference to the word game presented by the Congregation on “fellow workers,” par. 17 of the Declaration

6. Strack-Billerbeck, Kommentar, III, 468.

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