Paul the Father of Sexism and Anti-Semitism?

Pamela Eisenbaum's Article
Paul: Source of Racism and Anti-Semitism? Which is correct?

Every word of Paul is to be taken literally as the inspired Word of God.

God intends women to be subordinate to men and Jews to be converted as Paul taught.

Paul was sometimes right and at other times wrong. His writing needs to be examined critically and intelligently.

God intends for women to be equal with men, and Jews are to be honored equally with Christians.

Paul was a sexist and is one of the major sources of anti-Semitism.

I may agree or disagree with Paul but he is a fascinating figure, worthy of study.

Paul sucks .... forget about him and the sooner the better.

None of the above.

One of the most amazing things about the Apostle Paul is that he is quoted by both sides in the great moral and political battles of our time.

His resounding prose is used by fundamentalists and liberals alike as ammunition in the culture wars of the new millennium. For example, fundamentalists invoke Paul to support their refusal to allow women to play a leadership role in the church.

After all, it was Paul who said: "Women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says." (1 Cor 14:34)

By contrast, liberals invoke Paul when arguing that women should have an equal place within family, church and society at large.

After all it was Paul, who wrote: "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." (Galatians 3:28)

Paul also seems to inspire both sides in the debate over whether Christians have a mandate to go out into the world with the intent of converting everyone to Christianity, particularly Jews.

After all, it was Paul who insisted that salvation comes not by anything we can accomplish on our own, nor by works of the law, but rather "by faith in Christ." (Gal 2:16)

On the other hand, it was also Paul who said that Christ's saving activity is effective universally, and applies to all people without exception. After all it was Paul who wrote: "As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive." (1 Cor. 15:22)

Writing in a recent issue of CrossCurrents magazine, Pamela Eisenbaum takes a closer look at these contradictions in the writing of Paul. Eisenbaum examines Paul from the perspective of a Jewish feminist teaching New Testament at a Christian theological seminary.

Her article, Is Paul the Father of Misogyny and Anti-Semitism? begins with several questions added to the one in her title: "Why is it," she asks," that some people can believe fervently in Paul's commitment to egalitarianism among the sexes while others believe just as passionately that Paul puts men above women?

Why is it that Paul is viewed by some as the quintessential Christian in a world in which Christianity trumps Judaism, while others argue passionately for seeing Paul as a Jew who has been misunderstood by subsequent Christian readers?

While diverse interests often lead readers to draw differing conclusions, the whims of readers are not solely to blame for such widely divergent views of Paul. Paul himself is partly to blame.

He seems to speak out of both sides of his mouth; he has good as well as bad things to say about women and Jews. Ambiguity plagues ... the writings of Paul."

Eisenbaum then explores the reasons from Paul's ambiguity on the subject of both Jews and women, and she concludes by proposing the Paul saw in marriage a metaphor that defines the optimal relationship between persons of different faiths, genders, or social standing.

Beyond his own ambiguity, Eisenbaum suggests that Paul actually felt that the proper relationship between Jews and Christians, as between women and men, was that of the marriage partnership: two people with real differences joined together in a loving relationship such that differences are not obliterated but are seen as complimentary within the new family that marriage creates.

"Christ has enabled Jews and Gentiles to become related to each other as children of Abraham, but they do not cease to be Jews and Gentiles. As Paul himself says, 'Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another. ... Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God.'" (Romans 14:12-13)

In sum, Eisenbaum suggests that most people read Paul from a biased perspective, thus obscuring the positive and creative aspects of his writing.

This includes both Christian evangelicals who assume that Christianity is somehow superior to Judaism, and critics of Christianity (including some Jews) who see Paul as essentially hostile to their faith and tradition.

Instead, Eisenbaum argues, Paul should be read as a Christian who remained a Jew throughout his life, a disciple of Christ who did not renounce Judaism and never encouraged others to do so.

With respect to the relationship between men and women, Eisenbaum traces the ambiguity of Paul's writing on this issue to his own confusion between those aspects of gender that are "predetermined" by nature and what can be expected of any two people in a loving relationship such as is required by God.

She points out, for example, that Paul clearly believed that what we now recognize as being dictated solely by the whim of fashion was in fact ordained by God in "nature." The most obvious example of this is Paul's view of hair styling as reflected in the following:

"Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering." (1 Cor. 11:13-16)

Hence, it is clear, modern readers of Paul will need to distinguish between such elements of his writing in which he is merely giving voice to the fashions or opinions of his time, and those that reflect deeper sources of inspiration.

In sum, Paul's view of the proper relationship between men and women, as between Christians and Jews, was similar to that of any two people in a loving relationship where genuine differences need to be accommodated and responsibilities shared for the greater good of both parties. The only rule that ultimately applies to all human relationships is the rule of love.

Reading Paul as Eisenbaum does, allows for a far deeper appreciate of what the Apostle has to offer. For he can be seen, not as adding fuel to the fires of the culture wars that are currently tearing many communities apart, but rather as a source of new insight and understanding that will allow people with real differences to live together harmoniously in a society that is welcoming to all people. Eisenbaum's article may be read in its entirety at the CrossCurrents website:

Pamela Eisenbaum is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies and Christian Origins at the Iliff School of Theology. Her book The Jewish Heroes of Christian History: Hebrews 11 in Literary Context was published in 1997 by Scholars Press. She is currently writing two additional books, one on the apostle Paul and one on the Epistle to the Hebrews.