By Lenore Lindsey Mullican

The interpretation and understanding of Paul's views on women in church leadership has had a profound effect on the expression of God-given gifts by women in the Christian community.  Women have been restricted from exercising their spiritual gifts because some of Paul's sayings have been taken out of context and applied to the church as universal instructions.1  This article attempts to examine Paul's views of women in church leadership from a Hebraic perspective of the Jewish culture and thought as reflected in the Bible, the Talmud, and the archaeological record.

The centrality of Paul's view on women must come from a foundational theology expressed in Galatians, one of his earliest writings.2  Paul writes, "…there is neither Jew nor Greek slave nor free, male, and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28).  It was not the intention of Paul to set any of the above against one another, but rather to show an equality.  In Paul's own ministry, this equality included that of both men and women in leadership roles.

Paul was a Jew who remained strong in his Jewish faith and believed that Jesus was the Messiah.  Paul's Damascus Road experience was perceived as a special calling to a specific task, that of being a witness to the Gentiles (Acts 22:2).  According to Drister Stendahl,3 as well as Pinchas Lapide,4 this was not a conversion.  Paul studied under Rabbi Gamliel, and his writings reflect rabbinic thought form.  Therefore, we will begin this study with a review of women leaders in biblical (Old Testament) and rabbinic writings.

Paul's use of "neither male and female" probably alludes, in a typical rabbinic method of interpretation, to Genesis 1:27, which reads: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him, male and female created he them."  Alluding to Scripture was a method of rabbinic Midrash, which was characteristic of Paul as it was also of Jesus.  In the Genesis passage, man and woman are given equal authority over the rest of God's earthly creation as a result of bearing the image of God.  Both man and woman "…share equally the God-assigned task of creation rulership without any intimation of role distinctions."5  In the Old Testament Scriptures are such examples as freedom of choice in marriage partners (Genesis 24:58); rights of inheritance (Numbers 27:7,8); and the Proverbs 31 woman, who was an independent businesswoman, as well as being in the position of supervision in her own household, even owning land.  There are numerous other examples of women who understood their rights and position as equal to that of men under God.  For example, in the Decalogue, both father and mother are to be honored, and striking of father or mother is punishable by death (Exodus 21:15).

Women took an active role in the religious life, certainly in the home, but also in the community.  Miriam, Moses' sister, was a prophetess (Exodus 15:20).  She was co-leader along with Moses and Aaron (Micah 6:4).  The rabbis, in commenting on Numbers 12:15, acknowledged that the Israelites delayed their journey on her account.6  Other prophetesses were Deborah (Judges 4:4), who was also a judge and leader in Israel, and Huldah (2 Kings 22:14, 2 Chronicles 34), through whom the Lord spoke.  Six men were sent from King Josiah to receive God's words from Huldah, and this resulted in national revival.  The Wycliffe Bible Commentary makes this comment concerning the passage: "…discrimination on the ground of sex was foreign to the spirit of the Old Testament."7

In her study of the role of women in the Old Testament period, Rachel D. Levine writes that woman "…was respected, her personhood was equivalent to that of a man, and she was considered to be a co-worker with the Lord in the creation of new life."8  Gretchen Hull concludes that the variety of women's functions included a single woman leader (Miriam), a resistance leader (Rahab), a good soldier (Jael), and a spiritual, as well as judicial, leader (Deborah), who was also a wife and mother.9

Although the primary role of the Jewish woman in the first century was that of wife and mother, this was considered a position of prestige and honor and "…in no way was she looked upon as being inferior to man."10  In studying rabbinics, it is necessary to realize that the Talmud was written over a wide span of time and reflected varying culture and social situations; therefore, the opinions therein differ.11  There are numerous examples both in literature and in archaeological findings, however, of women in positions of leadership during the first century BCE and the first two centuries CE.

There was a high regard for education, and the mother had the responsibility for the education of both boys and girls in the primary years.  Several women were considered scholars, including Ima Shalom (wife of Rabbi Eliezer Ben Hyrcanus, the sister of Rabbi Gamaliel II); and Beruria (wife of Rabbi Meir and daughter of Rabbi Haninah Ben Teradyon), who even contributed important halachic decisions.12  The Talmud says concerning her that she "…studied three hundred laws from three hundred teachers in [one] day."13  Talmud translator Rabbi H. Freedman states:

This is undoubtedly an exaggeration, but it is interesting to note that a woman is cited as an illustration of wide scholarship, thus showing that the Rabbis were by no means averse to women studying as has been commonly supposed.14

Due to her responsibilities, the woman was exempt from positive commands, the observances of which "…depend upon definite point of time."15  The demands of motherhood took precedence over religious observances outside the home; therefore, while permitted religious observances, she was not required to do them, as was the man.  This is the context of the benediction recited daily by men: "…a man is obliged to offer three benedictions daily: that He has made me an Israelite, that He has not made me a woman, that He has not made me a boor."16  The underlying motive is that of gratefulness for the privilege of "…having the duty of carrying out the precepts of the law."17  This in no way implied a "degradation of women."18

NOTES on part I.
1 William David Spencer, "The Chaining of the Church," Christian History VII, no. 1 (1988): p. 25. Return
2 Randy Petersen, "What About Paul?"  Christian History VII, no. 1 (1988): p. 27. Return
3 Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), p. 7. Return
4 Pinchas Lapide and Peter Stuhlmacher, Paul: Rabbi and Apostle (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984), p. 47. Return
5 G. Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles (Grand Rapids Book House, 1985), p. 26. Return
6 m. Sotah 1:9. Return
7 The Wycliffe Bible Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1962), p. 418. Return
8 Rachel Levine, "The Woman's Role: Part I," Yavo Digest vol. 5, no. 1 (1991): p. 18. Return
9 Gretchen Gaebelein Hull, Equal to Serve (New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell, 1987), p. 113. Return
10 A. Cohen, Everyman's Talmud (New York: Schocken Books, 1975), p. 159. Return
11 "Woman," Encyclopedia Judaica, Corrected Edition. (Jerusalem: Keter, 1972). Return
12 Rachel D. Levine, "The Woman's Role: Part II," Yavo Digest vol. 5, no. 2 (1991): p. 4. Return
13 b. Pesahim 62b. Return
14 H. Freedman, trans., I. Epstein, ed., b. Pesahim 62b. (note). Return
15 m. Kiddushin 1:7. Return
16 b. Menahoth 43b. Return
17 Cohen, p. 159. Return
18 C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe, A rabbinic Anthology (New York: Schocken Books, 1974), p. 658. Return



Concerning the role of women in the temple, Shmuel Safrai states:1
According to Jewish religious law, women were allowed in every area of the Temple precincts in which men were.  The Mishnah specifies areas within the Temple which nonpriests were allowed to enter, but it does not differentiate between men and women.

Women had the privilege of participating in activities of the Temple.  They were present for the three benedictions recited with the people following the daily preparation of the morning, תמיד, "Tamid."2  Also, women of priestly lineage had certain obligations, just as the men did, of bringing sacrifices and offerings to the Temple.3

The role of women in the synagogue has been reevaluated recently with the discovery that in the excavations of first-century synagogues no evidence has been found for a separate women's gallery.4  In fact, "…all archaeological evidence points to just the opposite—a common meeting room for both men and women."5  No longer can we conclude that women were spectators, but rather that they were actively involved in all aspects of the worship.

The context of some rabbinic sources presupposes the presence of women in synagogue services.  The Mishnah even "…provided that a woman could be one of the seven called each Sabbath to publicly read from the Torah scroll."6  Women were obligated to pray, as well.  According to the Mishnah, "…they are not exempt from saying the Tefillah, from the law of the Mezuzah or from saying the Benediction after meals."7  Although the issue was related to the distance walked to attend synagogue, the following quote demonstrates the presupposition that women attended synagogue to pray:

A certain widow had a synagogue in her neighborhood; yet she used to come daily to the school of R. Johanan and pray there.  He said to her, "My daughter, is there not a synagogue in your neighborhood?"  She answered him, "Rabbi, but have I not the reward for the steps!"8

Archaeological studies have shown that women served in many capacities in the synagogue.  There are numerous inscriptional evidences of women donors to the synagogue and the honor they were given.9  That Jewish women served in leadership positions is evident from inscriptions denoting these functions.  Bernadette Brooten10 has made an extensive study of archaeological inscription and has noted evidence for such leadership roles among women as:
1.  Heads of synagogue: archisynagogos, whose function was in administration and exhortation.
2.  Leaders: archegissa, derived from archegos.
3.  Elders: presbytera, with indication that they were the wives of elders; may have been involved in financial oversight of the synagogue and/or have been scholars.
4.  Mothers of the Synagogue: meter synagogues, from second century CE and later; their function may have had to do with administration.
5.  Members of Priestly Class: Hiereia/hierissa, perhaps equivalent to the rabbinic cohenet.

Women had prominent roles in the ministry of Jesus.  In Luke 2:36-38 we read of Anna, a prophetess who first proclaimed Jesus as Messiah.  Mary, the sister of Lazarus, sat at Jesus' feet (Luke 10:39).  The Hebrew idiom of sitting at someone's feet means being a student, a disciple, תּלמיד, Talmid.  This idiom is used in rabbinic literature.  We read in Avoth, for example, "…let thy house be a meeting-house for the Sages and sit amid the dust of their feet and drink in their words with thirst."11  The idiom also is used in Acts 22:3, where Rabbi Gamliel was the teacher at whose feet Paul studied.  Many women are mentioned in the Gospels as traveling with Jesus and helping support Him and His disciples from their own means (Luke 8:1-3).  These women and many others can clearly be considered disciples; this parallels the accounts of Jewish traditions in which women studied with scholars and teachers.12

Women were in the group at Pentecost and included in the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel that "I will pour out of my Spirit…and they shall prophesy" (Acts 2:17).  Indeed, in Acts 21:9, we are told that Philip the evangelist had four daughters, "which did prophesy."

The Bible offers ample evidence of women who were associated with Paul serving in the whole spectrum of Church leadership roles.  The church at Philippi began with a nucleus of women, in which Lydia, an influential business-woman, took an active role (Acts 16:12-15).  Other women who were leaders in house churches include Apphia, a leader alongside Philemon and Archippus at Colossae (Philemon 2); Nympha of Laodicea (Colossians 4:15); Chloe (I Cor. 1:11); and Priscilla, along with her husband Aquila (I Cor. 16:19).

In Athens several converts joined Paul.  Of the two mentioned by name, one was a woman, Damaris (Acts 17:34).  Women were considered co-workers with Paul.  In Philippians 4:2-3, we read of Euodias and Syntyche, who had labored with Paul.  Priscilla along with Aquila were also co-workers (Rom. 16:3).  The term co-worker is the English rendering of the Greek συνεργος, sunergos, which means "working together with, helping, fellow laborers with God,13 taking part with, in cooperation with."14  In Acts 18:24-26, we read that when Priscilla and Aquilla met Apollos in Ephesus, they "…expounded to him the way of God more perfectly."  It is interesting to note that the King James translation lists the couple as Aquilla and Priscilla, in spite of the fact that the Greek text lists Priscilla first.  "If the order of the names implies what it seems to, it was not Aquilla who took the lead, as might be expected, but his wife."15

Some of Paul's co-workers were also called apostles.  Andronicus and Junia, "notable among the apostles" (Rom. 16:7), may have been a husband and wife team.  This passage suggests either that they were apostles or that they were honored by the apostles.16  There is no evidence contrary to the understanding that Paul is referring to a woman, however.  In fact, this person is referred to as a woman by John Chrysostom and Jerome.17  Catherine Kroeger has concluded that, in fact, early tradition considered Junia an apostle, and it was not until the Middle Ages that this identity was questioned.  In the Middle Ages a male-oriented Church hierarchy could not conceive of a female apostle.  The name Junia was changed to the masculine, Junias, by translators and appears as such in manuscripts from that time on.  This is in spite of the fact that the masculine form is "…unknown in antiquity; and there is absolutely no literary, epigraphical or papyrological evidence for it."18  The term αποστολος, apostolos, means delegate, envoy, messenger, one sent out.19  This corresponds to the Hebrew שליח, shaliach, one sent by someone to accomplish a specific task.20

Paul described Phoebe as a "servant of the church" (Rom. 16:1).  The Greek word is διακονος, diakonos, the same as the masculine, which is usually translated "deacon."  In his letter to Timothy, directions are given as to women deacons as well as male deacons (I Timothy 3:8-13).  In the Pauline epistles, it usually has the meaning of ministry.  Phoebe is also described as προστατις, prostatis: the meaning given by Liddell and Scott is exercising authority, to be a leader, to hold office, a leader, chief, a protector.21  It would appear that the translation "helper" is too weak.  Phoebe was a person with authority who was a leader and teacher in the community of Cenchreae.22

It is clear that Paul allowed and encouraged women in all aspects of ministry, including leadership roles.  How, then, do we explain such statements as, "Women should keep quiet in the churches" (I Cor. 14:34), and "I allow no woman to teach or to have authority over men" (I Tim. 2:12)?

In order to correctly interpret these passages, it is imperative to understand the religious, cultural, and sociological context in which the statements are made.  Much of the misunderstanding relating to Paul's teaching may be attributed to a lack of comprehension of Paul's Jewishness and an attempt to alienate him from his Jewish roots.  Also imperative to a correct interpretation of these passages is an accurate understanding of Jewish and pagan religious teaching, and the vast differences between Judeo-Christian and pagan religious practices.  Paul was dealing with specific problems in specific situations.  It is important to note, for example, that in the Corinthian Church, which was composed largely of Gentiles that had come out of pagan religion, there were those who had brought in practices that had been part of their pagan religions.

Religious activities in Greco-Roman paganism included cult prostitution and shriek cries, described as wild outcries.  The Corinthian female dominated religious thought and practice.  From the mother goddess Artemis to the women serving their time as sacred temple prostitutes and speaking messages from the gods, the male of Corinth was deeply dependent upon the female.23  It was specifically this female religious domination that the converts from paganism were bringing into the church that Paul was dealing with.  Unfortunately, the universal application of Paul's specific discipline has resulted in a church that is dominated by men.  How much richer would our interpersonal relationships be if we could rediscover God's original intent of equality of the sexes without domination by either!

An in-depth discussion of these particular passages is beyond the scope of this article.  However, numerous examples have been offered from the biblical, rabbinic, and archaeological records to support the contention that women occupied positions of leadership before, during, and after the time of Paul.  When both Paul and these troublesome passages are viewed within their proper cultural and historical context, there is no longer a valid basis for restricting the role of women in the Church.
NOTES on Part II
1 Shmuel Safrai, "The Role of Women in the Temple" Jerusalem Perspective 2, no. 9 (1989): p. 5. Return
2 m. Tamid 5:1. Return
3 Safrai, p. G. Return
4 Bernadette J. Brooten, Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue (Chico, CA: Scholars' Press, 1982), p. 104. Return
5 Rachel D. Levine, Women in First Century Judaism," Yavo Digest vol. 1, no. 4 (1987): p. 7. Return
6 Levine p. 7. Return
7 m. Berahot 3:3. Return
8 b. Sotah 22a. Return
9 Brooten, p. 142. Return
10 Brooten, pp. 5-99. Return
11 m. Avoth 1:4. Return
12 Rachel D. Levine, "Women Disciples," Yavo Digest vol. 1, no. 5 (1987): p. 4. Return
13 William Arndt and Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1979), p. 787. Return
14 Henry G. Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Claredon, 1985), p. 1711. Return
15 Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), p. 69. Return
16 Arndt and Gingrich, p. 99. Return
17 Tucker and Liefeld, p. 73. Return
18 Catherine Kroeger, "The Neglected History of Women in the Early Church," Christian History VII, no. 1 (1988): p. 7. Return
19 Arndt and Gingrich, p. 99. Return
20 Abraham Even-Shoshan, המילון החדש, Hamilon Hechadash (Jerusalem: Kiryath Sepher, 1975), p. 2706. Return
21 Liddell and Scott, p. 1526. Return
22 Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, "Word, Spirit and Poser: Women in Early Christian Communities," Women of Spirit, ed. Rosemary Ruether and Eleanor McLaughlin (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), p. 36. Return
23 Catherine Kroeger, "The Apostle Paul and the Greco-Roman Cults of Women," Journal of Evangelical Theological Society, March, 1987), p. 25. Return

Yavo Digest Vol 6, Num. 3-4, 1992


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