Monday, May 10, 2010

Women in the Bible

Shielded by a music stand in front of me, a wall on my left, and the other musicians on my right and behind me, I managed to read my book again during the sermon.  But I still maintain that I got more out of the sermon than most parishioners who appeared to give their undivided attention to the sermon.  The sermon was about women in the early church and the usual names were mentioned: Mary Magdalene, Dorcas, Lydia and Priscilla.  I was reminded of a book I've read on the same subject and it described how some scribes altered the Bible to ensure that the women in the early church appeared to hold no position of importance.

I'm too lazy to write the points raised in the book but it so happened that I took down notes as I read the book.  But since this is Mother's Day, I'll just repeat my notes here as a sort of tribute to all women and mothers too:

The book is Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus


Jesus's closest followers were men as is to be expected of a Jewish teacher but he was accompanied by many women in his travels, some of whom provided for him and his disciples financially, serving as patrons for his itinerant preaching ministry.  See Mark 15:40-51; Luke 8:1-3.  Jesus engaged in public dialogue with women and ministered to them in public (Mark 7:24-30; John 4:1-42).  Women accompanied Jesus in his final trip to Jerusalem where they were present at his crucifixion and remained faithful to the end while the male disciples had fled (Matt 27:55; Mark 15:40-41).  It was Mary Magdalene alone or with other female companions who discovered his empty tomb and were the first to know about and testify to Jesus's resurrection (Matt 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 23:55- 24:10; John 20:1-2).

Why were women attracted to Jesus's message?  Many scholars are convinced that Jesus proclaimed a Kingdom of God which had no injustice and all people, rich, poor, slave, free, men and women would be on an equal footing.  This appealed to the poor, the sick, the outcast and the women.

Celsus levelled a charge against Christianity that largely children, slaves and women were attracted to the religion and Origen did not deny it.

Even earlier than that, in Paul's time, Paul mentions Phoebe who is a deacon or minister in the church of Cenchreae and Paul's own patron whom he entrusts with the task of carrying his letter to Rome (vv 1-2).
- Prisca and her husband Aquila (missionary work among Gentiles and have a congregation in their home (vv 3-4;  notice Prisca is mentioned first).
- Mary, Paul's colleague (v 6)
- Tryphaena, Tryphosa and Persis whom Paul calls his "co-workers" in the gospel (vv 6, 12)
- Julia and the mother of Rufus and the sister of Nereus all had high profile in the community (vv 13, 15)
- Most impressive: Junia whom Paul calls "foremost among the apostles" (v 7).  The apostolic band was evidently much larger than the 12 men we are familiar with.

All this is unusual in the Greco-Roman world.

Paul's message of equality is seen in Gal 3:27-28.

But women had to cover their heads, etc (1 Cor 11:3-16, esp v 10). Paul did not urge a social revolution in the relationship of men and women just as he did not urge the abolition of slavery even though in Christ there is "neither slave nor free". Instead, he insisted that since "the time is short" (until the coming of the Kingdom), everyone should be content with their roles - whether slave, free, married, single, male or female (1 Cor 7:17-24).

Ambivalent attitude of the role of women (Paul acknowledges their important roles but he still says they needed an authority over their heads) led to differences of views after his day -equality in Christ emphasized or the need for women's subservience to men.  Documents after Paul's death shows dispute as to the role of women in his churches.  Eventually, there was an effort to suppress the role of women in the church altogether.

Scholars today are by and large convinced that 1 Timothy was not written by Paul but one of his later second-generation followers. (See Ehrman, The New Testament, Chap 23).  1 Tim 2:11-15 seems a long way from Paul's view that "in Christ there is ... not male and female".  As we move into the second century, the battle lines appear clearly drawn.

The scribes were clearly embroiled in these debates.  In every instance when a text is changed,  it is done to limit the role of women and to minimise their importance.  We will consider just a few examples.


1 Cor 14:34-35.  Most scholars are convinced that 1 Tim is not written by Paul. No one doubts that Paul wrote 1 Cor.  But there are doubts about vv 34-35 which are shuffled around in some of our important textual witnesses.  In 3 Greek manuscripts and a couple of Latin witnesses, they are found not here but after verse 40.  Some scribe could have written the verses in the margin, influenced by 1 Tim and they later got copied into the text.

Good reasons why these verses were not written by Paul.
They do not fit well into their immediate context. Paul is dealing with the issue of prophecy in church and giving instructions on how to behave during worship.  This is the theme of verses 26 to 33 and 36 to 40.  Without the disputed verses, the passage would have flowed smoothly.

Next, these verses are anomalous with what Paul says elsewhere in 1 Cor.  In chap 11, he says that when women pray or prophesy (activities that were always done aloud in Christian worship), they are to wear veils on their heads (11:2-16).   Paul would not have contradicted himself within the space of 3 chapters.

Rom 16:7 Junia who was called a foremost apostle by Paul was changed to Junias, a male name.  But Junia is a common female name, there is no evidence in the ancient world for Junias as a man's name.

Some scribes changed the verse to read "Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives and also greet my fellow prisoners who are foremost among the apostles."

Acts 17:4 "large number of prominent women" was changed by some scribes to "large number of wives of prominent men".

Some scribes even changed the order of appearance of the names to read "Aquila and Priscilla" as in Acts and also in Rom 16:3.

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