Chapter 11: Paul
After Jesus died, the multitudes that thronged around him during his life did not mourn his death. He was just another holy man who had met his fate. And for some, his death was the judgment of the God he had blasphemed. Jesus claimed that God was his Father and taught others that they, too, were the children of God.
Certainly, the life and death of Jesus did not impress the historians of his own time. His ministry had no value in their eyes and they did not even bother to record the events of his public life. But they did keep records of the exploits of men like Judas the Galilean, John of Gischala, and Simon Bar Giora. They were men who violently opposed their enemies during the Roman occupation and were willing to kill or be killed in the name of the Lord. Terrorists and revolutionaries, they merited the attention and respect of their contemporaries. They were considered the important leaders of their time.
But Jesus taught that violence was self-perpetrating and would lead to their own destruction: "All those that take up the sword shall perish by the sword." Unfortunately for his countrymen, they did not accept his message. They were busy recruiting the partisan support that would allow them to lead a full-blown revolution against Roman occupation. It was an uprising that destroyed their own nation.
Forty years before it happened, Jesus predicted what would take place. He said the Jerusalem Temple would be razed to the ground and "not a single stone will be left on another: everything will be destroyed." But the people believed those who said that God would give them victory if they took violent action against their enemies. It was this belief in the power of the unrestrained male principle that led the sons of Israel to their disastrous attack on the Romans. They lost everything, and for almost 2000 years the Jewish people were a nation without a country.
By the time the Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70, Christianity was no longer identified only as a Jewish reform movement. Initially, Peter and the other disciples understood their mission to be one of restoring Judaism; of freeing it from various abuses that had developed through the centuries. So after Jesus died, they made Jerusalem the center of their ministry.
Had their understanding of Christianity prevailed, the young movement would never have been able to survive the fall of Jerusalem and the subsequent loss of Jewish autonomy. The message of Christ would have been lost in the tumultuous conditions that followed the defeat by Rome. But someone with a different vision had become a follower of Jesus; someone whose efforts to convert others were centered on the world of the Gentiles. A man who was not involved with the center of Christian activity in Jerusalem.
That man, Saul of Tarsus, had a visionary experience that changed the direction of his life. He had been a Pharisee, a scholar thoroughly familiar with the requirements of rabbinic Judaism. He had also been a zealous persecutor of those who followed the teachings of Christ. But about five years after the death of Jesus, Saul had a vision in which Christ called him to be his follower: he was to be a missionary to the Gentiles. He spent the rest of his life explaining the significance of the life and ministry of Jesus and its relationship to Judaism. It was through his missionary activities that Saul of Tarsus became known to the world as St. Paul, the Apostle. It was Paul who gave Christianity its theological basis.
Surprisingly, this former Pharisee was able to let go of some of the outer symbols of Judaism more easily than those who did not have his religious training. The question of whether or not to circumcise was especially troubling to the disciples. It was Paul who understood that the coming of Christ obviated the need for that ritual. In Jesus, the female principle had been fully manifested; in him the male/female balance of the Creator God had been revealed. Paul taught that in Christ, the covenant of circumcision had achieved its purpose.
So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him;....For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form...In him you are also circumcised...not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ.
To be a Jew is not just to look like a Jew and circumcision is more than a physical operation. The real Jew is the one who is inwardly a Jew, and the real circumcision is in the heart...something not of the letter but of the Spirit.
At times, Paul's rejection of ritual circumcision was less theological in tone. He wrote a letter to the church in Galatia urging the congregation there to reject any efforts aimed at having them circumcised. He told the men to "stand firm" in their refusal to submit to the ritual. As for those who insisted on being circumcised, he sent them a message: "I would like to see the knife slip."
Paul combined a fiery and passionate temperament with a profound intellect. His penetrating mind allowed him to understand that in Christ the distinctions human beings made with regard to each other did not exist. Categorizing people by religion, status, and gender had nothing to do with their true identities. In his Epistle to the Galatians, he wrote: "You were baptized into union with Christ, and now you are clothed with the life of Christ himself. So there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free men, between men and women; you are all one in union with Christ Jesus."
In this epistle, Paul expounded on the heritage that Sarah, the wife of Abraham, had bequeathed to her descendants. "Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman...we are not the children of a slave woman but of a free woman....Freedom is what we have--Christ has set us free!"
But despite his profound mind and his passionate message of freedom in Christ, Paul lacked any practical understanding of what the female role was to be in the Christian dispensation. Because he had never met Jesus, he had no understanding of the inclusive role that women had been given. He had no way of knowing that Jesus did not assign the female a role that was subservient to the male. The gospel record that would later be circulated among Christians had not yet been written.
Not only did Paul lack access to the gospels, it was not until three years after his conversion that he was able to meet with any of the other Apostles. He had been preaching and teaching in Damascus and in A.D. 37 he journeyed to Jerusalem. There, he finally met some of the Apostles, and for two weeks he and Peter discussed his role in establishing the new dispensation.
The topic of woman's place in the church was not even a subject for discussion. The Jewish disciples of Jesus were still terrified of Paul who, as Saul the Pharisee, had been responsible for the imprisonment of so many of Christ's followers. During his time in Jerusalem, Paul shared his testimony of conversion and assured the other converts that he was no longer a menace to them; now he was a committed disciple of Christ. After two weeks he headed back North to continue his own ministry. He did not meet again with Peter, or the other church elders, for another fourteen years.
During those years, Paul taught that in Christ Jesus there were no longer any distinctions between Jew and Gentile, slave and freeman, or women and men. But when it came to integrating women as equal partners in the church, Saul the Pharisee overrode Paul, the spokesman for Christ. In the practical matters of daily existence he fell back into the misogyny that was his rabbinical heritage. He had no other guidelines by which to structure religious gatherings, so he applied many of the rules that governed the synagogue services to the churches that he founded.
But it was not only the structure of church services that was dictated by Paul's bigotry; his sexism caused him to contradict even the most profound doctrines that he himself taught. The basis of his theology was the teaching that the Mosaic dispensation of the Jewish Law had been developed for an unredeemed human race. But through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, that Law had been superseded by the dispensation of Grace. "And now we hold that faith in Jesus Christ, rather than fidelity to the Law is what justifies us and that no one can be justified by keeping the Law."
Although Paul rejected the Law as a means of salvation, he invoked that Law in order to keep women subservient to men. He demanded that they be ruled by its provisions. He wrote to the church at Corinth: "Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says...for it is a disgrace for a woman to speak in the church" (emphasis added).
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul bound women to the Law because for them to speak out was "a disgrace." But in another letter, written to the head of the church at Ephesus, he gave a different reason for female silence. He said women must keep quiet because "Adam was first formed, then Eve." The Apostle did not even try to explain this senseless pronouncement; he was well aware that being the first-born was no guarantee of preeminence.
Having delivered himself of this doctrine, Paul further demonstrated the extent to which any strongly held prejudice blinds a person to truth--even scriptural truth. In his Epistle to Timothy, he gave still another reason for keeping women in subjection to men. "Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner."
Paul was referring to the Fall in the garden of Eden when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. His rabbinical conditioning led him to interpret the event in such a way that the woman was the sinner, not the man. This interpretation was widely held, although the book of Genesis clearly states that their sin was a joint enterprise.
Paul inherited a sexism that had been increasingly reflected in the Jewish explanation of the scriptures. And the story of Adam and Eve reflected that growing misogyny. Initially, the excuse for deprecating women was that Eve was the first person to sin: it was she who took the first bite of the forbidden fruit. Later it was decided that because she was the first to sin, she was also the principal sinner. And by the time Paul was learning the scriptures, the inference was that Eve was the sinner, and Adam the poor innocent who had been lured to his fate by the woman.
Paul was able to continue this, and other sexist traditions, only because he had never known Jesus. He had no idea that the Lord encouraged women to take their place by the side of men, and learn the things of God. Neither did he know Jesus had taught that for women, as well as for men, spiritual development was the most important function of their lives.
Because he did not know Jesus, Paul continued to be bound by the sexism in which he had been trained. It was a sexism that decreed the study and practice of Torah to be the primary duty of every man. Being a father and husband was secondary. Women, however, were "excused" from having to center their lives around the word of God; for them, wifely and domestic duties were more important than religious studies. This established a double standard: the salvation of men was to be found in the Law of God, but women were to be saved by being mothers and wives.
Although Paul understood that with the coming of Christ the Jewish Law was no longer the means of salvation for men, his sexism blinded him to the point that he continued to believe that women could be redeemed through childbirth. In his letter to Timothy, who was in charge of the Ephesian Church, Paul trained his young protégé in the theology of sexism when he wrote, "The woman was led astray and fell into sin. Nevertheless, she will be saved by childbearing if she lives a modest life" (emphasis added).
Paul's doctrine directly opposed what Jesus taught. Christ refused to stress the importance of motherhood for women. In fact, he plainly stated that for women--as for men--procreation was secondary to hearing and observing the word of God. But without access to the gospels, Paul did not know that he was teaching a false doctrine regarding the salvation of women.
Paul gave his life to proclaiming Jesus as the savior of the world. He lived a life of heroic proportions; a life marked by deprivation, imprisonment, physical abuse at the hands of his enemies and, ultimately, by martyrdom for the cause to which he gave everything. But the Christianity he proclaimed was contaminated by his sexism. And the seeds of that sexism continued to grow throughout the centuries until they choked off the spiritual life of institutional Christianity.