The role of women in the Christian churches of Paul's day

    by Dr. Helmut Koester


HELMUT KOESTER: ...I'll say a few things about the Epistle to the Romans. First of all, I think there are two letters. Romans 16 was not sent to Rome. Romans 16 has a long list of several dozen names of people that Paul knows. He didn't know several dozen people in Rome. Moreover we know that these people are connected with Ephesus.

Prisca and Aquila were in Corinth, and they came over to Ephesus when Paul started his mission there as his assistants. That Prisca and Aquila had meanwhile moved to Rome is not quite believable, because they were apparently still in Ephesus a few months earlier, when Paul left there. So were many others…

Romans 16 is a letter of recommendation, the earliest letter of recommendation for a Christian minister, and it's written for a woman, Phoebe, who is, in the beginning of the chapter, said to have been a deacon, not a deaconess -- but a deacon in the sense of a preacher, a minister, because Paul uses the same word for himself. He calls himself, in a number of instances, a deacon of the new covenant in 2 Corinthians.

It's the male form not even the female form that is used in Greek here. The other word that is used for Phoebe is a Greek word "prostatis." Now if you go into the general dictionary of Greek, it will say "prostatis" has two meanings: "1. president, and 2. patron." Now an Old and New Testament dictionary which is no longer in print said "prostatis" means "1. president, 2. patron, 3. helper," in parenthesis, "(only in Romans 16:1)." And that's the translation that has existed for a long time. I think it has now disappeared from The New Revised Standard Version.

So, Paul writes this as a recommendation for Phoebe who is probably the president of the Christian community in Cenchreae and a deacon that is a preacher -- not a helper and a deaconess. (That's the old translation.)

And this letter has one other very interesting information about women, namely it contains greetings to Junia and Andronicus, who both have been "well-respected apostles before me." Now Junia is a woman. I showed you the inscription for Junia for the woman.1 And there's an old debate that this should read, "Junias," which is a male name, with an "s" at the end, and that's because it was unthinkable that a woman was an apostle.

Now early in this century a very famous German scholar, Hans Lietzmann, who was a superb philologian, made an investigation into all surviving names of antiquity and came to the conclusion that the name Junias did not exist -- that the name Junianus existed and that the name Junias is possible as a short form for the name Junianus, but there was no evidence that it was ever used. So he says philologically you cannot bring evidence that this was a man Junias rather than a woman Junia, but he says that since it's not thinkable that a woman was an apostle, we have to read the male name Junias. And later commentaries say we have to read the male name Junias, because Hans Lietzmann has brought the philological evidence. Well,... he has done the evidence. He has done the opposite! So, no question -- scholars agree today that indeed Romans 16 contains reference to a female apostle named Junia, whom Paul recognized as an apostle before him.

The other two dozen names are not girlfriends and boyfriends of Paul, but they are, of course, collaborators, and Paul writes this letter to Ephesus as a sort of final greeting to the Ephesian community, with also greetings among others from Erastus, the city treasurer, of which I showed you the slide of the pavement that he made.2 That is Romans 16. Romans 1 through 15 is also a letter of recommendation, but a letter of recommendation for himself, because he now goes to the community that does not know him…

QUESTION FROM A SEMINAR ATTENDEE: What should we finally make then of Paul's position towards women? I mean Ephesians has that passage, but it's not by Paul -- from his school. How do you reconcile that with -- of course the context is different -- but how do you reconcile that with what goes on in terms of equality of the genders... Women in seminary are so down on Paul and his attitude towards women. What are the ends that we should be making of Paul?

HELMUT KOESTER: I think everything that has been said negative about Paul's attitude -- negative attitude to women -- is nonsense. I think I know the Pauline epistles very well... I disagree with a number of feminists who sort of take Paul as their target. If they want to take Paul as their target, well, forget it, then you have nothing to stand on.

If Paul mentioned 40 names in his letters -- of individuals (and if we must assume that these individuals are fellow workers) -- and talked about the big missionary enterprise of which there are dozens of people or participants, well, of those 40 people, 16 are women. That's a considerable proportion of women involved in the Pauline missionary effort.

There was no problem. I don't think Paul had any problem with women. But the society had a problem with women in leadership, and the problem with women in leadership in the society became aggravated in the following generation, because there was one way in which women could buy in the religious communities their freedom and independence and leadership, and that was by giving up their roles as wives and mothers, and that is clear in the second century controversy with gnosticism.

Even in the Marcionite church, a Pauline-type church of the second century,... women are recognized as equal to men as leaders, but they had to be virgins. The price of virginity is a very heavy price to pay for the status of a woman in the community.

Here Christianity is drawn into two very -- I would say -- in-a-way, destructive movements. One is the maintenance of the old patriarchal system. And the other one is the growing emphasis on asceticism and denial of the flesh and denial of sex. And the Christian movement has had great difficulties and has not been successful to solve that conflict.

Until today …, you have ... the question, "Will there ever be women priests in the Roman Catholic Church?" And one answer, "Yes, perhaps, but they'll have to be virgins." What answer would that be?" The recognition of the full humanity of male and female existence in one's worldly and fleshly function, antiquity has not been able to recognize, and has therefore put up virginity as one of the obstacles here. On the other hand, the Roman society was not a society that was ready to give up its hierarchical patriarchal system. Now everything is not as black and white, if one reads the history of the Christian community in antiquity.

It's not the case that, immediately after Paul, women were denied all their rights in the churches. The Pastoral Epistles are an attempt to put women into their place, but it by no means says that it was a successful attempt. Women played considerable roles in Christian churches, and this comes particularly out again in the fourth century with the great women leaders -- ascetic women leaders -- like Melania.3

So, but, there has never been a successful attempt in Christian churches to solve this successfully, to solve this as it ought to be solved, but that's not the only conflict. The ethnic differences and social differences harm Christian communities today just as well as the gender differences. So my answer is that the question of the equal status of women in the churches can only be solved, if we solve at the same time the question of equal status in Christian communities of people of different race and different gender and different social status. Those three belong together, and the formulation of Galatians 3:28 is unequivocal. There's no question here.

It can also be as Dennis MacDonald had argued that the older Christian formula - baptismal formula -- was "there is neither male nor female" and that it was Paul who added "the Jew and Gentile" and "slave and free" -- that is, Paul expanded this -- the social and political aspect -- of this equality formula. So I think that stands as a challenge... If we want a biblical basis, Paul is the biblical basis for this, and not the stupid attacks on Paul, and then you say Paul is eventually responsible for what the Pastoral Epistles had written. This is nonsense. That was a hundred years later. How can Paul be responsible for what they write?

QUESTION FROM A SEMINAR ATTENDEE: Is it fair to say then that Paul wasn't setting forth a theology when he was saying about how women should be in the church at that time, but he was just talking of the need of society at that point."

HELMUT KOESTER: Paul had a vision of what the society -- the community -- of the new age should be like, and of the principles of the community in new ages. And that fulfills old dreams from Greek philosophy. That's not new -- as old as the sophists of the time of Socrates -- that the new community should do away with social and gender differences. And the concept of a new community that belonged to a new age implied that as a charter...

1 Dr. Koester showed the inscription regarding Junia in his slide show presentation to those attending the seminar.

2 Erastus, the city treasurer, is one of the very few Christians mentioned in the New Testament of whom there is verifiable archeological evidence of their place and time. Dr. Koester showed a slide of a Erastus' pavement, which described him as the city treasurer. At that time and place, engraved pavements were used for the same purpose that signs on the window, the door, the awning, or elsewhere on the front of today's stores and businesses. This is literally concrete proof that Romans 16 was written to the Christians in Ephesus.

3 For more information on Melania, see pages 87-88 and page 96 in Elaine Pagels' Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (New York: Random House, 1988).

An explanation of misrepresentations of Paul's teachings regarding women

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