Paul and Gender: Three Jewish Perspectives
Daniel R. Langton
Conventional wisdom would have it that St Paul is a red rag to Jews and to feminists. The classic Jewish view of the Apostle to the Gentiles decries him as an abrogator of the Torah, an apostate, and an enemy of the Jewish people.1 For feminists, Paul’s attitude towards women has been regarded as less than equanimous, to the extent that he is not infrequently described as misogynistic.2 One might therefore be forgiven for harbouring the assumption that Jewish feminists would not suffer Paul gladly. In fact, as we shall see, this is by no means the case. The three writers featured here are prepared to reassess Paul and even to rescue him from such critiques. As such, their studies represent significant contributions to both Jewish-Christian dialogue and intra-Jewish identity politics.
Pamela Eisenbaum (1961-), a specialist in Christian origins and Hellenistic Judaism, belongs to a new wave of feminist Pauline scholars. Brought up in Conservative and Orthodox synagogues, she now regards herself as Reform in terms of Torah observance (‘which is to say that I am not an observant Jew’).3 As a New Testament specialist who works in a Christian theological college, she has repeatedly felt the need to defend her Jewish identity which she describes as founded upon her identification with Jewish history and tradition. She notes that her interest in Paul is ‘no coincidence’ in that she ‘care[s] deeply about modern Jewish-Christian relations in the wake of the Holocaust’ and argues that the way Christians think about Paul affects the way they think about Judaism.4 In her article ‘Is Paul the Father of Misogyny and Antisemitism?’ (2000)5 she sought to articulate a decidedly liberal, multicultural reading of the apostle.
Eisenbaum makes it clear that her scholarship is especially influenced by trends that include feminism and the new perspective on Paul which ‘makes it impossible to see Paul as completely alienated from his Judaism’.6 The apostle clearly regarded himself as Jewish throughout his life, she argues, which makes perfect sense since Christianity per se did not yet exist in the mid-first-century; no follower of Jesus would have regarded themselves as a member of a new religion at that time.7 Taking as her key text Galatians 3:28 (‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’), Eisenbaum suggests that the common feminist interpretation that sees Paul preaching here a radical egalitarianism, however much it might act as a corrective to conservative views of women as inferior to men, is still unsatisfactory. In her view, Paul’s message has less to do with the destruction of human categories of existence in order that people might come to see that they share the same human essence, and more to do with his construction of a new social relations, such that people who are different can regard themselves as meaningfully related to each other and part of a shared world.8
In constructing this argument Eisenbaum is aware that ideological bias plays an important role in determining the emphases given to various texts from Paul’s epistles. She suggests that the range of possible interpretations is partly the fault of the apostle himself, who appears at times ‘to speak out of both sides of his mouth; he has good as well as bad things to say about women and Jews.’9 She sympathizes with those of a liberal bent who see in Paul’s words an inclusive vision in which all distinguishing marks are erased.10 But while in the twenty-first-century there is no difficulty acknowledging the abolition of the categories ‘slave and free’, Eisenbaum asserts that it is ‘neither attainable nor desirable’ for the dissolution of the category-pairs of ‘Jew or Greek’ and ‘male and female’.11 Thus the common liberal interpretation is regarded as undermining the goal of liberation – insofar as this goal is understood to appreciate cultural and sexual difference,12 that is, insofar as it is predicated upon the beliefs of modern multicultural North America.13
In justifying her position, Eisenbaum is dependent upon texts such as Romans 3:1-2 (‘What advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way’), and concludes ‘Paul did not relegate Jewishness to a lower order of being; it is his interpreters who do that.’14 1 Corinthians 7:17-20 is particularly important in this regard:
Let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything. Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.
This text, she argues, mitigates against the reading of Galatians 3:28 that sees Paul propounding a programme to eradicate difference.15 As she interprets the apostle, ‘Human difference is an essential part of Paul’s worldview. As a Jew, Paul assumes some differences exist because that is the way God made the world.’16 The key thing is that he did not regard the differences as consequential to God or relevant for salvation. Furthermore, Eisenbaum finds it as implausible that Paul had a problem with the Law but, rather, was fiercely concerned for those to whom it had not been revealed, that is, the Gentiles.17 Thus when a text appears to denigrate circumcision (e.g. Galatians 1:16; 2:9), Paul’s first-century Jewish male identity should be kept firmly in mind. Such a worldview held circumcision to be a characteristic of the natural state of the Jew; while he believed passionately that the Gentiles should not try to become Jews by taking on the Law and circumcision, this did not mean that he had abandoned his belief in two (legitimate) species of people, whom he described simply as the circumcised and uncircumcised.18
In offering a new reading of Galatians 3:28, Eisenbaum suggests that it is the metaphor of the family that lies behind Paul’s utopian vision. Perfectly inline with liberal Jewish feminist sensibilities, she saw him attempting to show how different kinds of people can be brought together into a unity.
It is not two identical creatures who come together to create a family, but two different ones. ‘Male and female’ means difference is required at a fundamental level for the construction of family… [And] Paul, who is already a member of Abraham’s family, is attempting to make his Gentile followers members of Abraham’s family [but]… similarly, Jew and Gentile coming together in harmony while remaining distinct is the goal of Paul’s mission…19
A more overtly feminist agenda can be found in work of Tal Ilan (1956-), an Israeli-born professor of Jewish Studies at the Freie Universtät in Berlin. Ilan describes herself as a ‘positivist historian’ whose ideology ‘partly consists of reconstructing the past as an end in itself’20 and partly lies in recovering the place of Jewish women in antiquity, as reflected in the title of her Integrating Women into Second Temple History (2001).21 She explains that her historical reconstructions, while dependent on a careful analysis of reliable evidence, draw heavily upon feminist theoretical observations and methodologies. They are ‘based on the premise that women were always present in history but only became invisible in the historiography’ and are concerned to place women at the centre so as to unbalance the old andocentric theoretical-historical paradigm.22 In an essay entitled ‘Paul and Pharisee Women’ (2003),23 Ilan argues that her feminist reading of the sources for Pharisaic Judaism throws new light on Paul’s discussion of intermarriage in 1 Corinthians and confirms his Pharisaic background.
Ilan begins her enquiries with a re-reading of sources relating to first-century Pharisaism or perushim. Certain rabbinic texts speak of two constituents of Jewish society: haverim (companions) and amei-aratzot (people of the land), the former being distinguished from the latter in terms of their emphasis on purity and stricter interpretation of the food laws.24 While previous commentators have refrained from identifying the haverim with the Pharisees, Ilan makes a sustained argument that this was a name that they used for themselves25 and then goes on to demonstrate that women were included in the ‘pharisaic havura’.26 In particular, she focuses upon the discussions in tosefta Demai chapter 2 which deal with the problem of marriages between a haver and an am-haaretz. Here a key question was whether a woman required an initiation into the sectarian lifestyle so that she would not be an impediment to her Pharisee-haver husband, or whether she was already ‘trustworthy’ having been brought up or already initiated into this lifestyle. When the situation was reversed and a wife or daughter of a Pharisee-haver later married someone who did not belong to the sect, they are understood to ‘remain trustworthy, unless they become suspect’ (v.17), implying that such women held independent (equal) sectarian status until proven otherwise. Ilan’s point is that marriage between sectarian and non-sectarian members was regarded as viable, and that such a marriage did not automatically violate the integrity of the sect member. (The same chapter also considered the place of slaves and asserts the independence of their sectarian status, too). It is not entirely surprising, then, that she seeks to apply her new insight to 1 Corinthians, an epistle in which the apostle Paul recommends that married Christians should attempt to preserve their marriage to non-Christians (and should not dismiss their slaves). Ilan suggests that the Corinthians had assumed that Jesus’ opposition to divorce only referred to fellow-Christians. Paul’s advice in 7:12-14, with its egalitarian similarities to tosefta Demai 2:16-17, asserts that intermarriage does not disqualify the believer’s Christian status, whether male or female. In arguing that ‘If a Christian has a heathen wife and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her’ and vice versa, and in his assumption that Christians can own Christian and non-Christian slaves,27 he ‘imagines a situation very similar to that of Pharisee men and women married to members of the am-haaretz.’28
Ilan’s essay takes seriously Paul’s claim that he was a Pharisee and asks what aspects of the Pharisaic worldview he brought with him into his role as apostle to the Gentiles, especially regarding attitudes towards women.29 A short analysis of the attempts of ‘Christian and Diaspora Jewish feminists’ to answer this question leads her to suspect that ideological biases were responsible for the common conclusion that the positive Jewish influence upon Paul had been Diaspora or Hellenistic Judaism, and not Pharisaic Judaism, which was regarded as pregnant with chauvinist failings.30 As neither a Christian nor a Diaspora Jew, then, she claims to offer an alternative feminist perspective.
If the table fellowship of the Pharisee (Palestinian!) havura loomed large in Paul’s vision, some of his rhetoric, and particularly… his ‘rhetoric of equality’, is actually carried over from that environment. When in his First Letter to the Corinthians Paul discusses the situation of mixed couples – Christian men and non-Christian women, Christian women and non-Christian men – he envisions the haverim (and haverot) and their am-haaretz partners. His belief that they can stay together without compromising their allegiance to Christianity may be based on his previous experience as a Pharisee, where he had seen such mixed couples work out their disagreements and go on living together.31
For Ilan, the apostle Paul offered two opportunities to further her ideological agenda. Firstly, in her attempt to identify the Pharisees with the haverim, she sought to demonstrate the active participation of women within the pharisaic sect, thereby incorporating women into the male-dominated history of ancient Judaism. Paul’s claim to be a Pharisee, and his similar sensibilities to those of the haverim with regard to intermarriage, appears to offer support in this regard. Secondly, Ilan is happy to challenge both the Christian and Diaspora feminist critique of Pharisaic Judaism, by suggesting that the apparently egalitarian ethos of 1 Corinthians 7 can be put down to Paul’s close familiarity with the Palestinian haver-Pharisaic, rather than Hellenistic or Diaspora Jewish background.
Another feminist scholar with a penchant for criticising the anti-Jewish bias of some Christian feminist studies is Amy-Jill Levine (1956-), professor of New Testament Studies at the Protestant Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee, a location that has been described as ‘the buckle of the bible-belt’. The southern Jewish scholar, who attends an Orthodox synagogue, credits her commitment to interfaith dialogue at least partly as a result of having been brought up in a Roman Catholic neighbourhood.32 She is the general editor of a series of feminist commentaries on the New Testament. In one, A Feminist Companion to Paul (2004), she hints at the importance she places upon the pragmatic, pastoral dimension of scholarship, observing, ‘most feminists… find it insufficient to restrict analysis to first-century history. To respond to Paul is also to respond to all those who have been and continue to be influenced by him.’33
In The Misunderstood Jew (2006), a popular work that focuses primarily on the implications of modern scholarship, Levine has a chapter entitled ‘From a Jewish Sect to a Gentile Church’ in which Paul, described as ‘the church’s first great evangelist’,34 plays the prominent role. After his encounter with the risen Christ, ‘the Pharisee from Tarsus’35 went to Arabia and to Damascus where, along with other followers of Jesus, he ‘started the process of articulating a theology that would translate the Jewish Jesus into a gentile saviour.’36 Any idea that he invented Christianity in the sense of repackaging Judaism for the non-Jews, however, is wrong, according to Levine. It ignores, for example, the prophet Zechariah’s vision of the Gentiles streaming to Zion as Gentiles.37 She makes little or no reference to Hellenistic influences. Instead, Paul, ‘good Jew that he was’, is shown to be in agreement with the later Talmud when he taught that the God of Israel was also the God of the Gentiles and that there was therefore no need for them to convert in order to receive his love and beneficence.38
There is a definite sense in which Levine appears to have conservative evangelical Christians in mind when she makes some of her observations regarding Paul. She wonders at the long-term legacy of the apostle’s ‘statement directed to a small, first century Greek congregation’ that Christ would soon return (Thessalonians) and the American right’s fixation on the rapture and end times.39 She contrasts ‘the [Christian] proclamation heard so often today that “I am saved,”’ with Paul who ‘tends to put the idea of salvation into the future. Jesus justifies and sanctifies (in the present), but one is saved in the future [in Paul’s view].’40 And, in contextualising Saul’s actions in persecuting the church, she points out how he resembled Protestants of all types who had attacked members of the Church of Latter Day Saints for teaching something contrary to the basic tenets of their theology.41
At the same time, the modern context of interfaith dialogue provides an important backdrop to the study. For example, Levine’s Paul had hoped that the Jewish representatives of the church would have prioritized the good of the institution as a whole over their particular practices. In discussing the controversy of Paul’s attitude to food laws, Levine suggests that the fact that Peter and the other Jewish followers of Jesus in Antioch were determined to follow Jewish dietary practice might be seen as their recognition of the importance of their own cultural and religious identity. The lesson to be drawn is that
Multiculturalism, then and now, cannot function if there is a homogenous default that causes one group to give up what is of enormous value to them, especially if what is to be forsaken is divinely mandated Torah.42
In making the traditional Jewish case clearly and unambiguously, Levine emphasises a number of times the idea that, as far as Jews were concerned, Paul’s Christ was redundant since they already believed in the resurrection of the dead and in a just God who forgave sin: ‘there was nothing broken or missing in their system that his death or resurrection could fix or fill.’43 And in a chapter dedicated to interfaith dialogue, she emphasised that Paul’s explanation in Romans 11 for the ‘failure’ of the Jewish people to recognise Jesus (by stating that a ‘hardening’ had come upon the Jews until the Gentile mission be accomplished), was ‘not altogether a model of good Jewish-Christian relations… since Paul does identify those hardened Jews as “enemies of God” and as lopped off the root of Israel (Romans 11).’44
Other Jewish commentators have written about Paul as a means by which to challenge Christian assumptions and/or to inculcate Jewish-Christian dialogue, of course.45 It is perhaps in her sensitivity to feminist approaches to New Testament studies that Levine is more distinctive. In addition to challenging Christian feminist presentations of Jesus freeing women from an oppressive, misogynistic Judaism, Levine also wishes to correct similar ideas about Paul. Against those who see the apostle as sexist and placing restrictions on women,46 as a result of his rabbinic training, she points out the anachronism of the charge: that he belonged to no rabbinic school, and that the rabbinic literature is to be dated to after Paul.47 Against those who would see him advocating a positive role for women to play against the background of Judaism, where the women’s role was passive, she diplomatically draws upon Christian feminist writers whose familiarity with the sources give the lie to such ‘noxious stereotypes’.48 She also insists that the Jewish community has always regarded women as full members and demonstrates from a variety of texts from intertestamental literature, Josephus, and the Talmud the positive, active role of women within Judaism, all the while acknowledging that ‘both church and synagogue are patriarchal institutions; neither was egalitarian in the first century.’49 A particular case in point, which Levine critiques twice in the book, is the claim that Paul’s abolition of circumcision and introduction of baptism as an initiation rite opened up the new faith to the Gentiles, men and women, and abolished a rite that venerated male fertility. Such commentators, Levine suggests, overlook the alternative interpretation of baptism, a symbol of rebirth, as a substitution of the biological mother’s role with birth into the church. ‘That is, baptism can be just as much a problem symbolically as circumcision when it comes to questions of gender.’50 In any case, she argues, Paul promoted the idea of baptism not because of some feminine impulse or concern that women should not bear the mark of circumcision, but because circumcision indicated conversion to Judaism, which he regarded as unnecessary.51 That Paul is cast as neither a hero nor a villain in this context must be put down to Levine’s remarkable balance of ideological self-awareness and well-honed sensitivity to historicity.
Levine represents an important commentator on Paul whose Jewish feminist perspective means that she will battle with Christians, and Christian feminists, who seek to elevate Christianity at the expense of denigrating and misrepresenting Judaism. Her practical, programmatic approach to Jewish-Christian relations, and her use of Paul in this context, is premised upon the need to correct the erroneous views that Jews and Christians have of each other for the purposes of more harmonious interfaith relations. Bearing in mind that, as Levine herself points out, being biased is not the same things as being wrong, she explains,
I am convinced that interfaith conversation is essential if we are to break down the prejudices that have kept synagogue and church in enmity, or at best tolerance, for the past two millennia. In other words, I am placing my scholarship in service to personal, pastoral, and even political ends.52
The Jewish feminist perspective, as reflected in the work of Eisenbaum, Ilan, and Levine, and others, has become a permanent feature – and an increasingly influential voice – within the modern Jewish ideological landscape. As feminists, they have succeeded in highlighting women’s experiences in ancient Jewish history, challenging some of the venerable assumptions that continue to shape the role of women in modern Jewish society. Paul is used to stress the value of the male and female difference (Eisenbaum), to establish a precedent of near-equal status among Pharisees (Ilan), and to correct anti-Judaic bias amongst Christian feminists (Levine). As Jews, these scholars care passionately about the state of Jewish-Christian relations and believe that the Apostle to the Gentiles, when properly returned to his Jewish context, can contribute to greater mutual understanding between the faith communities in today’s world. That Paul, who has always attracted the attention of Christian feminist New Testament scholars, also acts as a research focus for Jewish feminists, is, perhaps, not so surprising. That he can be regarded as their ideological ally, however, certainly is.
- See, for example, Daniel R Langton, ‘The Myth of the “Traditional Jewish View of Paul” and the Role of the Apostle in Modern Jewish-Christian Polemics’, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 28/1 (2005), 69-104.
- Of course this is an over-simplification. Amy-Jill Levine notes ‘Feminist studies appear to be moving towards a consensus that recognises Paul as a product of his own time: he is androcentric and patriarchal and he does value spirit over the flesh, but he also supports women’s leadership… and endorses marital relations for those lacking the gift of celibacy.’ Amy-Jill Levine, ed, A Feminist Companion to Paul (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2004), 1.
- Pamela Eisenbaum, ‘Following in the Footnotes of the Apostle Paul’ in Jose Ignacio Cabezón & Sheila Greeve Davaney, eds., Identity and the Politics of Scholarship in the Study of Religion (London: Routledge, 2004), 78.
- Eisenbaum, ‘Following in the Footnotes of the Apostle Paul’, 93.
- Pamela Eisenbaum, ‘Is Paul the Father of Misogyny and Antisemitism?’, Cross Currents 50:4 (Winter 2000-01).
- Eisenbaum, ‘Is Paul the Father of Misogyny and Antisemitism?’, 508.
- Eisenbaum, ‘Is Paul the Father of Misogyny and Antisemitism?’, 508. Eisenbaum does feel obliged to note that ‘Critics of the new perspective claim that it is motivated more by contemporary Jewish-Christian relations in light of the holocaust than by an accurate reading of Paul.’ Ibid.
- Eisenbaum, ‘Is Paul the Father of Misogyny and Antisemitism?’, 518-519.
- Eisenbaum, ‘Is Paul the Father of Misogyny and Antisemitism?’, 509. Texts cited in support include Romans 3:1-2 and Galatians 3:10; Romans 9:4-5 and Galatians 2:12; 1 Corinthians 7:3-4 and 11:7.
- Eisenbaum, ‘Is Paul the Father of Misogyny and Antisemitism?’, 511-512.
- Eisenbaum, ‘Is Paul the Father of Misogyny and Antisemitism?’, 512.
- ‘Some liberal intellectuals, many who identify themselves as feminist, believe there are essential differences between men and women, differences which may or may not be complementary, but which in any case cannot be transcended.’ Eisenbaum, ‘Is Paul the Father of Misogyny and Antisemitism?’, 512.
- Eisenbaum, ‘Is Paul the Father of Misogyny and Antisemitism?’, 512. Here Eisenbaum makes it clear that she realises that the liberal interpretation does not see Paul calling for the obliteration of cultural difference, but rather calls for a claim to ‘common humanness’ – but she points out that this does imply a ‘human sameness’ as a profound level.
- Eisenbaum, ‘Is Paul the Father of Misogyny and Antisemitism?’, 514.
- Eisenbaum, ‘Is Paul the Father of Misogyny and Antisemitism?’, 515.
- Eisenbaum, ‘Is Paul the Father of Misogyny and Antisemitism?’, 515.
- Eisenbaum, ‘Is Paul the Father of Misogyny and Antisemitism?’, 515.
- Eisenbaum, ‘Is Paul the Father of Misogyny and Antisemitism?’, 517.
- Eisenbaum, ‘Is Paul the Father of Misogyny and Antisemitism?’, 520, 521.
- Tal Ilan, ‘Paul and Pharisee Women’ in Jane Schaberg, Alice Bach, Ester Fuchs, eds., On the Cutting Edge: The Study of Women in Biblical Worlds (London: Continuum, 2003), 83.
- Tal Ilan, Integrating Women into Second Temple History (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 2001).
- Ilan, ‘Paul and Pharisee Women’, 83.
- Tal Ilan, ‘Paul and Pharisee Women’ in Jane Schaberg, Alice Bach, Ester Fuchs, editors, On the Cutting Edge: The Study of Women in Biblical Worlds (London: Continuum, 2003).
- Ilan, ‘Paul and Pharisee Women’, 87. The text cited is from the Tosefta (a legal compilation similar to the Mishna) t. Demai 2.
- Ilan draws upon T. Shabbat 1:15, t. Hagigah 3,
- Again, Ilan concentrates on t. Demai 2. Ilan sets aside the observation that nowhere in the early rabbinic literature is the female equivalent of haver (i.e. havera).
- Ilan here draws on ‘Were you not a slave when you were called? Do not let that trouble you’ (1 Corinthians 7:21) and the epistle to Philemon in which Paul assumes that the Christian Philemon can own the Christian slave, Onesimus. Ilan, ‘Paul and Pharisee Women’, 95.
- Ilan, ‘Paul and Pharisee Women’, 94-95.
- Ilan, ‘Paul and Pharisee Women’, 97.
- Ilan, ‘Paul and Pharisee Women’, 97-98.
- Ilan, ‘Paul and Pharisee Women’, 98.
- Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (New York: Harper Collins, 2006), 1. Brought up in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts, Levine’s introduction to the church was, she recalls, through ‘ethnic Catholicism, and it was marvellous’.
- Amy-Jill Levine, A Feminist Companion to Paul (London: Continuum, 2004), 2.
- Levine, The Misunderstood Jew, 59.
- Levine, The Misunderstood Jew, 65.
- Levine, The Misunderstood Jew, 66
- Levine, The Misunderstood Jew, 85.
- Levine, The Misunderstood Jew, 69. Levine cites BT. Sanhedrin 105a, ‘Righteous people of all nations have a share in the world to come.’
- Levine, The Misunderstood Jew, 60.
- Levine, The Misunderstood Jew, 67.
- Levine, The Misunderstood Jew, 65.
- Levine, The Misunderstood Jew, 76.
- Levine, The Misunderstood Jew, 67.
- Levine, The Misunderstood Jew, 218. Levine treats the passage in greater depth, 82-84.
- See Daniel R Langton, ‘The Myth of the “Traditional Jewish View of Paul” and the Role of the Apostle in Modern Jewish-Christian Polemics’, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 28/1 (2005), 69-104. This is by no means the only reasons for approaching Paul. See Daniel R. Langton, ‘Modern Jewish Identity and the Apostle Paul; Pauline Studies as an Intra-Jewish Ideological Battleground’, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 28/2 (2005), 217-258.
- Levine cites 1 Corinthians 14: 34-35. ‘The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.’
- Levine, The Misunderstood Jew, 178.
- Levine, The Misunderstood Jew, 178-179. Levine cites Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Wanda Deifelt.
- Levine, The Misunderstood Jew, 73.
- Levine, The Misunderstood Jew, 179.
- Levine, The Misunderstood Jew, 73.
- Levine, The Misunderstood Jew, 5.