‘Have you ever read 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 and wondered what Paul is going on about? I hope, if you have read it, that you did find it confusing. If you did, it means you were trying to think it through. Anyone who has really tried to get to the bottom of what Paul meant in this short passage, has probably discovered that 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 is genuinely one of the most difficult passages in the Bible for anyone to understand. Even really clever and scholarly people are baffled by some of it.’
That’s how I begin my new book, Unveiling Paul’s Women: Making Sense of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, which is an extended and in depth Bible study of Paul’s passage on head coverings in 1 Corinthians. I’ve been working on this passage and the topic of women in Paul’s letters for a few years now and have come to the conclusion that the whole topic of Paul’s attitude to women has been coloured and shaped by mistranslations, misinterpretations, and misunderstandings.
In two of my books, I have dealt with what I see as a big misinterpretation and misunderstanding around what Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 11 by telling men that they should pray with their heads uncovered and women that they should only pray and prophesy in public if they had their heads covered. My view is that Paul is actually in conversation here with the male leaders in Corinth who are making women wear head coverings—and that it’s not the women who were the problem in Corinth, it was the men! I give many, many reasons for why I think that is the case, which I won’t repeat here. The process of my research has led me realize that much of the confusion we face over women in the Bible is because we’ve made the wrong assumptions in the first place.
The way that the Bible is understood on the subject of women is changing quite rapidly and this is being shaped a) by the rapid increase in the number of female scholars who are studying the Bible and b) the increase in the number of male scholars who are sympathetic to the idea that the Bible is not fundamentally advocating that women should take lower or lesser positions in church, marriage, and life. Women, it seems, as well as men, are free to lead also. So men and women are reading the original texts and seeing something different in them from how they’ve mostly always been read.
One of the things that’s really important to say (and to keep saying) is that this shift is not occurring just because of cultural pressure to ensure that women have an equal place in all spheres of society. There are a complex set of factors that have converged to cause a shift and some are cultural: the education of women in general, the education of Christian women in particular, and the ease with which information can be shared now have all contributed. However, the change in perspective on the Bible and women can’t be attributed just to that. It can also be attributed to a refusal to allow people to ignore the obvious messages in the texts that endorse the leadership and involvement of women in the church at every level. It’s become clear then that up until now, we have often been misled.
Take for example the story of Junia, the female apostle mentioned by Paul in Romans 16:7. You can read her story in Scot McKnight’s book, Junia is Not Alone. I recommend it. Early readers of the Bible knew that Paul was referring to a female apostle. We have evidence of that. Later readers took offense at the idea and decided that he couldn’t have appointed a woman as an apostle, but what to do? As Scot says, they killed her off, and appointed a man in her place. They changed her name to a masculine form and made her a man! It’s only been fairly recently that scholars have become intolerant of this ‘error’ and have insisted that she be reinstated as herself, a woman, outstanding among the apostles. You won’t be surprised to hear though, that now we all know she’s a woman, men are arguing that she wasn’t really an outstanding apostle, it’s just that her reputation among the apostles was that she was outstanding!
Paul appointed female apostles, prophets and teachers. I have written on this and will continue to make this point. Another famous example is Phoebe who is also mentioned in Romans 16. In most translations of the Bible in the past, Phoebe is cast in a ‘servant’ and ‘helper’ role. But, in fact, the words used to describe her place her in a leadership role on a level with Paul, as one of his key colleagues, and in a position where Paul was also actually dependent on her as a patron or benefactor.
The history of women in the Bible tells us that if interpreters have already decided that Paul can’t possibly have appointed women to lead, then they will translate words accordingly to give the impression that women were, are, and should be in a subordinate role. As more and more people are reading the Bible for themselves it is becoming evident that this is what has been done. It is not that a cultural shift is leading to a distortion of the Biblical texts, it’s that the changes in our world and in our hearts is leading to the texts being read more truly all over again.
Lucy is the Principal of Westminster Theological Centre and with her husband Nick, leads Crossnet Anglican Church in Bristol. If you want to dig deeper into the issues Lucy raised in the article, then do check out her book Unveiling Paul’s Women: Making Sense of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.