June 30, 2016

In 1906 a small cave was discovered cut into the rock on the northern slop of Bulbul Dag, high above the ruins of ancient Ephesus, just off the mid-Aegean coast of Turkey. To the right of the entrance and beneath layers of plaster, Karl Herold, of the Austrian Archaeological Institute, uncovered two sixth-century images of St. Thecla and St. Paul.

They are both the same height and are therefore iconographically of equal importance. They both have their right hands raised in teaching gesture and are therefore iconographically of equal authority. But although the eyes and upraised hand of Paul are untouched, some later person scratched out the eyes and erased the upraised hand of Thecla. If the eyes of both images had been disfigured, it would be simply another example of iconoclastic antagonism, since that was believed to negate the spiritual power of an icon without having to destroy it completely. But here only Thecla's eyes and her authoritative hand are destroyed. Original imagery and defaced imagery represent a fundamental clash of theology. An earlier image in which Thecla and Paul were equally authoritative apostolic figures has been replaced by one in which the male is apostolic and authoritative and the femal is blinded and silenced. And even the cave's present name, St. Paul's Grotto, continues the negation of female-male equality once depicted on its walls.

We take that original assertion of equality and later counterassertion of inequality as encapsulating visually the central claim of this book for Christianity itself. The authentic and historical Paul, author of the seven New Testament letters he actually wrote (Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galations, Philippians, I Thessalonians, Philemon), held that within Christian communities it made no difference whether one entered as a Christian Jew or a Christian pagan, as a Christian man or a Christian woman, as a Christian freeborn or a Christian slave. All were absolutely equal with each other. But in I Timothy, a letter attributed to Paul by later Christians though not actually written by him, women are told to be silent in church and pregnant at home (2:8-15). And a later follower of Paul inserted in I Corinthians that it is shameful for women to speak in church, but correct to ask their husbands for explanations at home (14:33-36).

Those pseudo-Pauline, post-Pauline, and anti-Pauline obliterations of female authority are the verbal and canonical equivalent of that visual and iconographic obliteration of Thecla's eyes and hand in that hillside cave. But both defacements also bear witness to what was there before the attack. Pauline equality was negated by post-Pauline inequality. Our book is about the actual and historical Paul, about the radical apostle who was there before the reaction, revision, and replacement began. He did not think in terms of political democracy or universal human rights. He only said that Christianity has never been able to follow, that within it all are equal and this is to be its witness and challenge to the world outside.