Traditional Christianity believed that the statements attributed to St. Paul in I Timothy 2--that women were created second, sinned first, and should keep silence--were the universal consensus of the early Church and its founder, Jesus. Women, traditionalists believed, should simply accept these teachings as true.

In the last three decades, however, a Christian feminist movement began to criticize these passages in the New Testament. They drew a picture of St. Paul as an unmitigated misogynist. In their view Christianity started with an egalitarian view of gender relations taught by Jesus. But this was destroyed by Paul, who imposed a patriarchal interpretation of Christianity that taught that women are inferior, primarily culpable for sin and the fall of humanity, and excluded from ordained ministry. Today both of these views would be seen by New Testament scholars as too simplistic.

There was probably no moment in early Christianity where women were totally included as equals with men. Christianity was born and developed in the context of patriarchal social structures in both the Jewish and Hellenistic worlds. But there were radical ideas floating around in early Christianity that suggested that gender hierarchy had been dissolved through baptism into Christ for a new humanity beyond gender. This is expressed in the baptismal formula used by St. Paul in Galatians 3:27-8: "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

This baptismal formula was not invented by Paul, but belonged to the Hellenistic Jewish-Christian church that he joined upon his conversion. This church included women and men, slaves or former slaves, and freed men and women from Greek and Jewish backgrounds. This baptismal creed assured them that all the hierarchies between these different social statuses had been dissolved in Christ, that they all shared a new oneness in Christ. The gender part of this formula was probably linked from its beginning with celibacy. Women became equal with men by dissolving their traditional relations with men as wives. Thereby they were also freed to teach and preach in local assemblies and as traveling evangelists.

Paul accepted this activity of women when he joined the church that used this baptismal creed. He continued to assume that women could speak in Christian worship assemblies, lead local churches, and travel as evangelists, as is evident from his references in his epistles to women engaging in these roles. But he also was troubled by what he saw as a radical interpretation of this "newness in Christ," which suggested that all social hierarchies had been dissolved, that Christians should all adopt a celibate lifestyle and could see themselves as transcending sin. In his first epistle to the Corinthians, he sought to curb this more radical interpretation. He insisted that the total transformation of Christians in Christ awaited Christ's return as Messiah, which he believed was soon to come.

Although he accepted the practice that women could speak in church worship assemblies, Paul demanded that they should do so with veiled heads to indicate their continued secondary status in the order of creation (I Cor. 11:5). But the passage in I Corinthians 14: 33b-35--where it is said that women should not speak at all--is generally conceded by scholars today to have been an interpolation from the next generation after Paul. It was not part of the original text.

In the generation following Paul, Christian churches that looked to Paul as their founding evangelist became split on these teachings about women's role. Some groups in these second-generation Pauline churches continued and expanded the view that gender hierarchy was overcome through baptism. In Christ there was no more male and female. This also meant that reborn Christians should transcend marital relations and anticipate the Kingdom of God in which there will be no more marrying and giving in marriage (Luke 20:35). These Pauline Christians wrote texts, such as the "Acts of Paul and Thecla," which celebrates the story of a woman converted by Paul who rejects her fiancé, adopts men's clothing, and travels as an evangelist. Persecuted by the agents of family and state, she is vindicated by God through miraculous protection from harm. Paul reappears at the end of the story to affirm her role and commission her to preach in her hometown.

Another group of Pauline Christians rejected this new freedom of women to refrain from marriage and to engage in ministry. It is their voice that is reflected in the texts of I Timothy 2:11-15:

I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve, and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet women shall be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness with modesty.
This text was later to be received by the historical Church as the normative one, forbidding women public ministry and also demanding that they marry and bear children. But a celibate option for women also continued and was institutionalized in women's monasticism.

What Christians need to see today is that both options existed in early Christianity. In Paul's own writings, he assumed that women could teach and lead churches, although he wished them to do so with the traditional sign of women's secondary status on their heads. In the next generation, Pauline Christians split between those who wanted to continue this ministry of women, linked to a radical view of women's new autonomy in Christ, and those who wished to suppress it altogether. But in the church for which Timothy wrote, both views still coexisted in the same church.

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