Thursday, October 08, 2009

Reconciliation with Paul

The Apostle Paul.

There has existed within me a love-hate relationship with Paul. As a fairly intelligent woman, reading his restrictions on women is vexing to me:

1 Corinthians 14:34-35
As in all the congregations of the saints, 34. women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. 35. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.


1 Timothy 2:11-15
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. 13. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

It's a puzzling thing to read after Paul's freeing declarations in other Epistles--

27. for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Even considering that the contexts are different--the first two statements relating to an order of worship and practical roles, the third being a refutation of being bound by the Mosaic Law--it still seems a contradictory attitude. If there is no male or female in Christ, in Paul's mind, why does he still lay Eve's sin at the feet of women and restrict their roles and participation in Christian life?

The picture becomes more confusing when one considers the fact that Paul often worked with women and seemed to appreciate their contributions in contending for the faith. He takes the time to acknowledge them in various writings and owes much to the support of women like Lydia and Priscilla working with her husband Aquilla.

However, this is not Paul's only idiosyncrasy. Depending on Paul's mood, he can be abrasive and harsh, referencing castration as a wish towards Judaizers of Christianity, or weepy and emotional as he describes his desire for the Jewish people to come to salvation. He can urge the church in Corinth to cast out an unrepentant member without mercy, and then implore them to have mercy and let him back into the fold. An iron fist in a velvet glove.

Perhaps more than any other writer of Scripture, we get a clear picture of his personality which seems inseparable from his epistles and teachings. He is emotive and self-reflective in a way other New Testament authors are not. He speaks of his own experiences and feelings, using them to further his arguments and convince his audience of the trustworthiness of his beliefs.

We have a picture of a whole, complete person in what he has left behind.

It is only through thinking of Paul and his writings in this particular way that I can reconcile myself to him, making sense of his varied attitudes which seem contradictory or complicated. He reminds me of the uncle at Thanksgiving who everybody loves and respects, but who can also be slightly obnoxious and overbearing. People put up with the bad traits because they are heavily outweighed by the good traits.

I actually have a warm spot in my heart for Paul, now.

Reading through the many debates about the Historical Jesus, the possibly late dating of the gospels and the contention that most of what Christianity is today was somehow invented/accumulated much later than the events the gospels record, I am always struck by the stalwart arguments we have in Paul. The gospels can be debated and re-dated. Compelling arguments can be made about the development of Christology coming much later, placing the Gospel of John in a category of highly developed treatise instead of a simple retelling of Jesus' life. Points can be made about dubious insertions into the other, non-Pauline epistles.

In many ways Paul stands at the crux of Christianity and its self-understanding. He answers the questions with which we are left about Jesus. He makes the interpretive leaps that give Christianity forward momentum and direction. Without his work we would be left with little guidance about the meaning and purpose of Jesus' story.

It is precisely this point which some people use as a contrast to the Jesus of the gospels, making distinctions between how Paul engages Jesus and how the synoptic gospels engage him. matter how sketchy and perilous the academic study of an Historical Jesus becomes, teetering on the edge of obliterating any spiritual frame of reference for Christianity, there is always Paul standing in the way.

This powerful figure, this indefatigable creature, warts and all, has left a record not only of what he believed, but clues as to what those around him believed. It is a priceless snapshot of the conversation and movement surrounding Jesus and how it was playing out in the first century.

I can forgive Paul for his wavering on women. I can forgive Paul for his sometimes harsh way. I can look past that and see a man trying his utmost to spread a message that he truly believed, letting nothing stand in his way.

This is the way that I am beginning to rebuild with the lumber of the tree which I have hacked down. I reconcile myself to Scripture, not because it is inerrant, or scientific, or unchangeable, but because I am reconciling myself to a community, to people, and to the figures who have, through their own lives, attempted to birth God's kingdom into this world.


Anonymous said...

Don't assume someone named Paul wrote all those contradictory things.

As many have pointed out, the admonition for women to keep quiet in Corinthians comes not far after paul laid down rules for women speaking in the assembly. Almost certainly it was added by a later editor. Bart Ehrman's 'misquoting jesus' book has a good passage on this.

Few scholars believe Paul wrote the epistle to Timothy. The book describes conditions and ideas that certainly did not exist in the time of the real Paul.

I have no idea the opinions of the real Paul, but it is very likely that later editors and authors were much more anti-woman then he was, considering that he worked alongside them.


terri said...

Well that would certainly make me feel even warmer towards Paul! :-)

On the other hand....I don't think that simply because it seems out of character for Paul that is evidence that he didn't write it. I know many people who are very contradictory in their attitudes about all kinds of things.

I have been surprised more than once when I think I have someone pegged...and they respond in a completely opposite way than I would have predicted.

Paul generally has a "whatever it takes" approach to I could see him caving in to what certain communities felt about women.

MInTheGap said...

Interesting discussion on Paul. I've wrestled with the whole head covering thing time and again. It seems to me that if we don't keep in mind that these were letters written to individual groups of people-- or people in particular-- that we'll not understand the reasoning for using the language being used and the statements made.

We've all written letters to a specific person being at times harsh and other times loving. Now, we assume that he knew that some would get passed along to other churches (some even state as much), but I think that the churches in the area would read the harshness in correct context, whereas when we read them we take them more internally than they would.

Is it possible that the prohibitions on women speaking in church had something to do with certain things going on in the individual church? How about the fact that the women of the day were less educated than their husbands, so they could clog up a service asking questions about "simple" things. (I, for one, prefer the question asked in case there are more people that don't agree, but can understand this policy when coming into questions of order.)

I find the idea of a editor adding things later a little amusing considering the abundance of copies of Paul's works, but can understand why people would like to suggest this.