There are not many explicit statements in the undisputed letters of Paul (to which this article is confined) concerning gender issues. But the interpretation of the few that can be found have had a significant impact in subsequent history, not only at the level of scriptural interpretation but also in communities and societies that were decisively shaped by interpretations and ethics derived from biblical traditions. Church and state authorities have referenced Pauline statements in declaring the legitimacy of gendered hierarchies and respective appropriate behavior. Perceptions and attitudes over against women, same-sex relations, and men who did not conform to the majority image of masculinity were sanctioned—with reference to Paul. The use of Paul and his letters in support of gender discrimination rendered him a problematic figure for emerging gender-sensitive approaches (i.e., feminist biblical interpretation). It is an uneasy relationship, burdened with a problematic reception history, with detrimental implications for all who did not cohere with certain standard perceptions of the “ideal” man.

Initial debates about Paul and gender concentrated on Paul’s perception of women and their roles in the early Christ-movement, with positive and negative evaluations, depending on the respective hermeneutical presuppositions; these were complemented in a second stage by analyses that considered structural dimensions of Pauline discourses such as his rhetoric and its relevance in relation to gender issues; a further strand advocated that the relevance of gender issues could not be confined to women’s issues but should include his theologizing in general. Broadly speaking, thematic and structural dimensions are the two major strands in all subsequent gender-sensitive studies on Paul, with numerous intersections, complemented by additional recent focal points in biblical interpretation, such as empire studies, postcolonialism, and more recently masculinity studies, as well as Paul’s Judaism. This article will thus focus on the following: (1) Paul and women, (2) structure and gender, (3) intersections, and (4) particularity, universalism, and gender.

Paul and Women.

Early examination of Paul and gender emerged with the arrival and growing recognition of feminist approaches in biblical studies with their focus on uncovering the hidden histories and voices of women. Although feminist interpretation found liberating dimensions in the Gospels, Paul provided difficulties in this respect. Earlier feminist interpreters struggled with the tensions between Paul’s statements about women and his apparent cooperation with them (e.g., Rom 16). The explicit gender hierarchy advocated in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, paired with the command that women should be silent in the assembly (1 Cor 14:33–35, if not considered an interpolation), was considered the main cause for the reintroduction of hierarchies generally, and of gender hierarchies in particular, into an originally egalitarian movement of equals. The reasons for this were variably attributed either to Paul’s familiarity with Greek or Hellenistic thought (Martin, 1995; Boyarin, 1994) or to his Jewish heritage generally or some specific rabbinic training (see discussion in Ehrensperger, 2004). However, it has been clearly demonstrated that claims that such statements were the result of Paul’s supposed rabbinic training are completely unhistorical and anachronistic (Levine, 2006, p. 178).

Nevertheless, without such anachronistic presuppositions, Paul has still been seen as the one who distorted the original ethos of the Christ-movement through the introduction of hierarchical structures into the Christ-movement (Schüssler Fiorenza, 1983, p. 233, and 1999, pp. 149–173). This is considered particularly problematic since it is seen as having led to the oppression of other voices, particularly those of women (Kittredge, 1998; Wire, 1990). Paul is seen as a Hellenistic thinker who is shaped by concepts of essential hierarchical dualisms, which impact decisively on Paul’s perception of gender (Castelli, 1991; Boyarin, 1994).

Rather than focusing on Paul’s explicit statements about women, Schüssler Fiorenza and MacDonald have also concentrated on Paul’s actual cooperation with women, which is considered quite remarkable given the first-century context of Paul’s activities. MacDonald (1999) foregrounds Paul’s actual recognition of women in leadership roles over against his explicit statements, which are seen as being of less relevance since they did not seem to have impinged on Paul’s actual appreciation and recognition of the role of women in the Christ-movement. It seems evident that Paul’s actual relation to women in the Christ-movement points to a more egalitarian practice than his actual statements would indicate. He certainly accepts women in leadership roles according to the list of Romans 16. Wire has questioned that this is also the case in Corinth, where she rather sees him as trying to diminish the influence and power of such leading women (Wire, 1990).

Some recent research into the status and role of women in Judaism has added further insights not only to women’s leadership roles but also to some of Paul’s explicit statements. Ilan (2006) has drawn attention to parallels between Paul’s arguments about intermarriage between Christ-followers and outsiders in 1 Corinthians 7 and similar Pharisaic stances. She found that this is affirmed in a discussion of whether Pharisee men or women could remain or get married to members of the am-haaretz, in that the status of the insider is seen as not affected by the status of the outsider. Moreover, Paul’s inclusive practice of table fellowship is seen as rooted in Pharisaic inclusive table-fellowship traditions, as is his acceptance of women in leadership roles (Ilan, 2006; Brooten, 1982). Paul’s guidance concerning women’s active participation in community gatherings also shows analogies to general practice in synagogue assemblies. It is evident according to biblical texts (e.g., Ezra 2:65; Neh 7:67; Jdt 15:12–13) as well as Second Temple Literature (Philo, Decal. 32; Mos. 1.180; 2.256; Josephus, Ant. 14.258; 14.260) that women were part of the synagogue assemblies on a sabbath and were active participants through singing and praying as were men. The issue differs when it comes to reading and interpreting the scriptures; this is a role and task assigned to men of special knowledge (Omn. Prob. Lib. 81–82). Paul’s stance in 1 Corinthians 11, which clearly assumes active participation of women in the assemblies, and in 1 Corinthians 14:33–35, which seems be in contradiction to the previous passage, may reflect this difference in gendered activities. 1 Corinthians 14:33–35 might be directed at some involvement in teaching and learning activities of women rather than being a general call to silencing women in the assemblies of Christ-followers (Ehrensperger, 2014). Rather than introducing new restrictive roles into the Christ-movement, Paul here could be seen as providing guidance to his gentile communities in analogy to community practice with which he was familiar.

The diverse ways in which Paul’s explicit and implicit stances in relation to women have been approached demonstrate the significance of critical reflection on the hermeneutical presuppositions that frame interpretation as well as the significance of in-depth research into the first-century context of Paul’s writing. In as much as Greek and Roman culture and practice are important and must be considered, Paul’s Judaism has only just begun to be explored in this respect but is proving to be important for many aspects of Paul’s dealings with women (Ehrensperger, 2014). However, the focus on Paul’s explicit and implicit statements concerning women is not the only relevant field from a gender-sensitive perspective. There are aspects of Pauline discourses that are highly relevant in this respect, in terms of theological content as well as at a structural level (Schottroff, 1996; Sutter Rehmann, 2000; Ehrensperger, 2004).

Gendered Structures.

Since gender permeates any discourse and shapes perceptions, perspectives, and evaluations, Pauline discourse has been recognized as a gendered discourse and analyzed as such. Structural aspects of Paul’s way of arguing have been moved to center stage, particularly in approaches that highlight hierarchies and power in Pauline rhetoric. Thus Paul’s call to imitation is interpreted as a request to mimicry or a discourse of sameness through which the apostle is perceived as having claimed superiority and established a dominating hierarchy over his communities. This interpretation is based on the presupposition that Paul’s imitation language followed Greek perceptions of mimesis, including the notion that the achievement of sameness is the ideal of imitation. This attributes a superior and unattainable status to the model, that is, the apostle, because perfect sameness with him cannot be attained by any member of his communities (Castelli, 1991, pp. 86–89). According to this perception, a static, dominating hierarchy was advocated by Paul in the vein of the male elite ideology of Greco-Roman culture. Also presupposing predominantly Greco-Roman influence, Kittredge (1998) concludes that Paul’s rhetoric of obedience replicates the obedience discourse of the dominating imperial male elite culture. This is clearly a discourse of subjugation and submission deriving from the ideology of conquest, and based on this presupposition, the conclusions in relation to Pauline discourse are plausible and have already been argued by Bultmann and Käsemann (see discussion in Ehrensperger, 2007, pp. 155–158).

In a similar although different vein, Marchal (2006) analyzes the letter to the Philippians structurally as a friendship letter, oriented on the Greco-Roman ideal of friendship, which, rather than being merely a relationship of equals, shared with explicit patron-client relationships hierarchical mechanisms of authority and control. The friendship rhetoric in this letter is seen as veiling conflict between Paul and the Philippians rather than expressing a special bond and thus was a means through which Paul tried to re-establish his authority and control over this community. Paul presents himself in the vein of the ideal man of the imperial elite who thereby imposes his power on the predominantly gentile community, which is thus in the position of the dominated female.

A replication of imperial structures of domination by Paul is also found in his rhetoric of community/ekklesia construction (Økland, 2004). Økland argues that Paul constructs the ekklesia as communal public space, thus replicating the gendered public (male)/private (female) space of the dominating culture. In her analysis of 1 Corinthians 11–14, real women are not in focus but “women” are seen as being used “to think with” in support of the construction of the public/male ekklesia space. Through the construction of ekklesiai as public/male spaces, Paul is seen as replicating dominating gender hierarchies. But since Paul seemed to have taken the unity of men and women in this male ekklesia space for granted, Økland concludes that the women through their presence could subvert this structure and create nevertheless some alternative “women’s space” within the ekklesia.

Approaches that predominantly focus on the structure of Paul’s way of arguing tend to contextualize his discourse as either embedded in, or influenced by, the dominating Greek and Roman elite ideology. Through the structural and linguistic parallels identified from within this context, it is concluded that Paul mainly replicates, or certainly contributes to the replication of, imperial male-dominated power structures. Thus, Pauline discourse is seen as gendered in accordance with the imperial ideology and practice with Paul in the assigned position of the subject in the dominating, male position. There can be no doubt that this gendered image of Paul has had a massive impact in reception history. Unlike in the approaches described above, this image, rather than being considered problematic, was considered the universally applicable or true image of Paul. What is evaluated in its problematic implications for gender perceptions in these recent approaches was advocated as the authoritative image of Paul in mainstream Christendom. Significantly, this male-dominated image of Paul was inherently intertwined with the image of Paul as a lonely hero whose theology had overcome the particularistic constraints of Judaism (Schottroff, 2004; Johnson-DeBaufre and Nasrallah, 2011). This image of Paul has sometimes been replicated by early feminist approaches in that the anachronistic perception of Judaism, in its role as a negative foil for Christian self-understanding, served to depict a law-free gospel advocated by Paul as liberating women from patriarchal Jewish constraints such as purity laws (for a discussion see Schottroff, 2004).


As noted above, different hermeneutical presuppositions and contextualizations thus contribute significantly to the perception of Paul and gender. If structural aspects are rendered central and read as analogous to Greek and Roman dominating patterns, a male-gendered Pauline discourse is uncovered. It is thus not a surprise that if the presuppositions and contextualization of Paul are envisaged differently, this has also implications for the dimension of gender inherent to his discourse. As far as Paul’s explicit statements concerning women are concerned, it has been demonstrated that they can well be placed within Jewish traditions of the time. But rather than seeing this as a fallback into pre-Christian traditions, which Paul should actually have overcome through the so-called law-free gospel he advocated, this contextualization demonstrates the diversity of roles and perceptions of women in Judaism. The knowledge and understanding of first-century Judaism is thus decisive for a sociohistorically informed understanding of Paul’s statements and relation to women in the early Christ-movement.

Other aspects of Paul’s theologizing also have been read without the presupposition of a separation of the early Christ-movement from Judaism, nor of a contextualization of the Pauline discourse primarily within Greek and Roman ideologies and patterns, nor in accordance with these. Empire studies have found aspects of Paul’s language as resonating with imperial ideology but, rather than replicating it, explicitly or implicitly challenging it. Thus, Elliott (2008) has advocated that Pauline discourse, although resonating with imperial ideology, claimed its key terminology for characteristics of life in Christ and thus challenged and subverted the imperial ideology and its totalizing claims. An alternative to the imperial ideology and domination is thus being formulated and, rather than replicating the domination system, Paul’s discourse radically subverted it. Elliott’s approach is part of an interpretive tradition indebted to scholars such as Georgi (1997). Paul’s embeddedness in Judaism is recognized in such approaches; his theologizing is thus not perceived through the lens of the opposition between a particularistic and legalistic Judaism and a universal, law-free gospel. Rather, the antithesis is between imperial ideology and actual domination and the message of the gospel.

Although overcoming the interpretation of Paul in antithesis to Judaism is to be welcomed from a gender-sensitive perspective, the anti-imperial stance found in Paul has been critically questioned by feminist scholars in two aspects in particular. The inversion—or as Georgi had formulated it, the “turning upside down” of imperial terminology—does not amount to an actual change of the discourse per se. It just exchanges roles, but the rhetoric of domination and submission remains in place, albeit now in the service of the Christ-movement. Thus, imperial patterns of arguing and acting are reintroduced into the Christ-movement and could be and have been exploited to that effect as subsequent reception history demonstrates. This is the caveat highlighted by approaches such as Marchal’s mentioned above. Intertwined with this critique is the note that the gendered dimension of the imperial discourse has not been addressed in most anti-imperial approaches to Paul.

In the wake of the recognition of the gendered dimensions of Greco-Roman ideology, interpretations began to focus on masculinity discourses in Paul’s letters. Paul the man as well as Pauline rhetoric were the focus of analyses by Clines (2003), Larson (2004), Glancy (2004), and Lopez (2008), to mention only a few. Whereas Clines analyzes the man Paul according to set categories identified by him as clear indicators of manliness in biblical literature (strength, violence, powerful and persuasive speech, male bonding, womanlessness) and concludes that the image of Paul (in his letters and the book of Acts) coheres with these categories, Larson and Glancy have demonstrated that compared with the elite Greek and Roman ideal of masculinity, Paul fails to cohere with these at almost every level. His “boasting of beatings” renders him a figure of contempt, his self-declared foolishness (2 Cor 11) can hardly serve as an example of self-assertion, and his failure to deliver his message in impressive rhetorical performances disqualifies him from credentials expected of any orator, namely the ability of expressing the power of the words through respective masculine body language (Glancy). Paul’s lack of the expected masculine credentials as evident in his beaten, weak body demonstrates clearly the gendered character of the power play at stake in the debates about his apostleship in the Corinthian correspondence. Paul enters the ring of competition reluctantly and presents as his credentials unmanly or effeminate characteristics.

The focus on the image of Paul the man draws attention to the fact the Roman imperial discourse was itself a gendered discourse par excellence. The claim to exercise power and domination over others was formulated in a gendered way: the ideal man of the Roman elite was depicted as the one who had the right and strength to force others into subjugation, whether these are competitors, women, slaves, children, or conquered peoples. Competition for dominating power was at the heart of this masculinity discourse, infusing society with an ethos of a fierce striving for male honor. The losers in this competition were degraded to femininity, to a servile status of shame and contempt. This also applied to conquered peoples, as Lopez (2008) has demonstrated, and was visualized in Roman imperial art of conquered nations as violently subjugated women. Paul was a member of such a subjugated people, and he proclaimed a message of someone who was tortured to death on a Roman cross. The accumulation of femininity according to the dominating imperial discourse could hardly be more explicit. In this contextualization, Paul is thus seen as a Jewish man, which as such disqualifies him from cohering to the ideal of masculinity of the dominating power. In addition, he cannot present the bodily credentials required of a manly leader according to the dominating discourse; the recognition of one crucified accentuates the inversion of the dominating gendered discourse of Roman imperialism. According to Lopez this inversion happened for Paul at his “conversion,” which she interprets as the conversion from identification with violent imperial imposition of control against those who differ, that is, from an ideal of impenetrable masculinity to embracing a “feminine” stance. Through this experience he places himself at the bottom of the imperial hierarchy, in solidarity with the defeated and colonized. One might question this interpretation of Paul’s calling experience because Paul before and after his call was a member of a defeated and colonized nation, but the emphasis on the gendered dimension of the imperial discourse and the contextualization of Paul and of his activities among, and letters to, members of other conquered nations in relation to this discourse provide numerous valuable insights.

The dimension of Paul’s Judaism is recognized by some of the approaches that draw attention to Paul’s masculinity in the context of the gendered imperial discourse. However, the recognition of Paul’s Judaism is relevant in light of the question of gender not only because Paul is acknowledged as a member of a conquered people, but also in a wider sense. This tradition had developed an alternative discourse of meaning and ethos of life based on its scriptural traditions over a long period of interaction with and distinction from dominating imperial powers (Rajak, 2009; Ehrensperger, 2013). The masculinity advocated by Roman and other imperial powers was not merely replicated in this tradition. The image of Paul, the feminized apostle as the man who does not cohere to the dominating ideal of imperial masculinity, resonates clearly with images of leaders in scriptural narratives who also do not conform to the latter. Leading male characters do not display any of the characteristics of the imperial ideal of masculinity. Leaders like Moses, David, or prophets are ambiguous, vulnerable, deceitful, and at times failing human beings (Ehrensperger, 2007). That this was the tradition of a conquered nation made it all the more prone to contempt from an imperial perspective, but it is most likely that Paul’s understanding of his role, as well as his interpretation of the cross and of the Christ-event as such, was embedded in such Jewish traditions.

Particularity, Universalism, and Gender.

Not only clearly identifiable notions of gender or gendered discourses in the Pauline letters are relevant in light of the question of gender. As noted above, there are trajectories in Paul’s way of doing theology that merit further attention. A number of aspects highlighted in Pauline interpretation (although rarely recognized in relation to gender questions) deserve attention here: the fact that Paul’s letters are actual letters, addressed to particular communities at a particular moment in time, indicates that they are examples of concrete theologizing. This coheres with emphases in feminist approaches that theologizing is a search for meaning in relation to the context of the concreteness of everyday life in all its aspects. The fact that Paul’s letters are part of an ongoing conversation provides insight into “theologizing in process,” although only in fragments. Both the emphasis on the necessity of theology to relate to concrete life in its particularity and the notion that theologizing and interpretation are ongoing processes, ideally in the form of conversations over meaning, are dimensions that have been emphasized by gender-sensitive approaches. The fact that the letters of Paul are communal, that is, sent by small groups of people to communities, provides glimpses of insights into collective rather than individual leadership (Ehrensperger, 2007; Kittredge, 2003; Johnson-DeBaufre and Nasrallah, 2011). The fragmentary character of the Pauline letters, their communal dimension (both on the part of the senders and on the part of the recipients), and their concrete particularity are highly relevant structural factors in light of gender-sensitive approaches.

Although all dimensions of Paul’s (and his colleagues’) theologizing require consideration in light of gender, the aspect of Paul’s theologizing that will be highlighted here is the emphasis on the recognition of particularity of and in his letters. It is an aspect that is structurally, as well as in terms of the message Paul conveys, significant in light of the question of gender. There is growing recognition that the Pauline letters are addressed to gentiles, or members of the non-Jewish nations, and thus are “particular” not only in that they are addressed to specific communities, but also in the sense that the communities addressed were founded by himself (apart from Romans) and thus were predominantly “gentile.” Paul considered his call to have commissioned him to convey the hypakoēn pisteōs of the “nations” (Rom 1:5) and was careful not to go beyond the boundaries set to him (Rom 15:20). Paul’s guidance and explanations are particular in the sense that they address Christ-followers from the nations and thus must consider their particular context of life and understanding. In contrast, the message Paul and his colleagues proclaim is part of the Jewish social and symbolic universe, as are the senders of the letters. The challenge the senders face is to convey a message out of a Jewish context of life and understanding to a gentile audience. Thus, they are involved in a process of cultural translation (Ehrensperger, 2013). Evidently Paul strongly defends the particular identity of Christ-followers from the nations over against any notions that to be part of this movement they would have to become Jews. But with the same clarity, Paul never argues or expects that Jews would cease to be Jews when joining the Christ-movement.

According to Paul, particularity, be it Jewish or gentile, is not considered a problem that needs to be overcome in Christ. Having identity, values, and commitment of a particular people, the Jews are not considered an obstacle for peace and reconciliation between people who are different, nor are the identity and values of Christ-followers from the nations a problem per se, except that they have to “turn away from idols” (1 Thess 1:9). Although the latter certainly had major implications at an everyday level for those from the nations, Paul consistently and repeatedly insists that Jews and gentiles retain their identity in Christ, that they remain in the calling in which they were called (1 Cor 7:17). The recognition of Jewish and gentile identity in Christ is the recognition of particularity and difference. At the heart of the earliest Christ-movement is thus not a hegemonic claim to sameness, but the recognition of unity and equality in difference. Neither Jew nor Greek must assimilate to the identity of the other for unity and reconciliation to be possible in Christ. “Never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another” (Rom 14:13), not to injure one another (Rom 14:15), but to accommodate to one another (Rom 15:2), and to welcome one another (Rom 15:7) are certainly not calls to assimilate to the identity of the other or to become the same. Recognition and respect for others in their difference is a prerequisite for understanding, reconciliation, and unity. It means to recognize that there is no such phenomenon as a universal human being in this earthly existence—there are only particular human beings in particular places at specific moments in time.

The recognition of particularity in Paul’s theologizing is a decisive aspect for approaches that try to overcome any universalizing hegemonic tendencies in contemporary interpretation and for gender-critical approaches in particular. Feminist approaches have criticized universalizing interpretations of Paul (Castelli, 1991), although these were attributed to Paul rather than to his (male) interpreters. The so-called traditional image of Paul considered him the champion of universalism, understood as a hegemonic discourse of sameness with particularity being the problem that was overcome in Christ (for a discussion see Ehrensperger, 2004). Universalism and particularity tend to be considered mutually incompatible, just as diversity and particularity are considered the obstacle to unity—which could only be overcome through an eradication of difference and particularity. The notion of oneness in Christ (Gal 3:28) is interpreted as that which overcomes difference and particularity. Such universalizing tendencies in interpretation not only denied recognition to Jewish identity but also continued to legitimize androcentric gender perceptions in that the ideal generic human being was conceptualized according to the dominating elitist template of masculinity. Those who did not conform to this image, whether men or women, would not be granted equal respect because their difference was considered a hindrance to full humanity. The ideal Christian could be neither Jewish nor female. The image of the ideal elite (Roman) man dominated Western societies for centuries and Christendom integrated this image into its value system. This universalization of a particular male ideal had detrimental effects for women, for Jews, and for peoples who eventually became subject to European colonization, as well as for men who did not conform to this image of masculinity.

The universalization of a particular image of men as representing humanity as such imposed assimilation on those who were different or exposed them to contempt and humiliation. Feminist theory and gender studies, from their beginnings, have used a variety of approaches on identity to critically reveal the flaws of universal definitions of human beings on one hand and of the “othering” of women and gay men in the wake of such definitions on the other. Although the difficulty with defining identity permeates gender studies as well as other disciplines trying to address such issues, it can be said with some confidence that there is a consensus in feminist theory and gender studies that inherent to the recognition of the contextuality of human existence is the omnipresence of gender in all social interactions and processes in the form of variations of a theme. Without resorting to essentialized or biologist notions of gender in terms of characteristics, roles, or sexuality, the social and contextual dimension of human existence includes the embodiment of gender in various ways. Gender is not an abstraction, but is always concrete and thus particular, embodied or “inhabited” by men and women in particular ways within the contexts of their societies.

An analogy can be drawn between the universalization of the image of the so-called ideal elite man as the template for being human and the universalization of the non-Torah-oriented way of life as the one and only way of life in Christ. Both are universalizations of particulars and thus are discourses of assimilating domination. To declare a particular embodiment or way of life universal means to ignore, eradicate, or otherwise delegitimize any other form or way of life, not only at the level of linguistic discourse but also in actual reality. The contempt and at times violent oppression of women, Jews, non-elite men, and homosexuals are expressions of similar efficacies of universalizing notions and practices.

The recognition of particularity as being at the center of the Pauline letters is thus an important step in light of gender-sensitive perspectives because it resonates with the latters’ emphasis on embodiment and the particularity of human experiences, practices, and perceptions. Although the emphasis in the Pauline letters is on the recognition and respect of particularity and diversity as constitutive of unity in Christ of Jews and non-Jews, this emphasis in and of itself challenges the notion of an assimilating sameness discourse at the center of the early Christ-movement. Paul himself did not draw out these implications in relation to gender. However, in light of contemporary gender questions there is no reason not to draw implications of this emphasis by analogy. The passage often referred to in so many discussions, Galatians 3:28, has been interpreted as meaning that the identity of Jews and Greeks is rendered “obsolete,” or given up in Christ. Only rarely has such an argument been advocated in relation to male and female (e.g., Boyarin, 1994). Gender diversity thus has not been considered a problem in Christ, and the question must be asked, then, why the particular forms of life of Jews or Greeks should be rendered obsolete. The issue is not the particularity of these diverse identities but discrimination against others based on them. The focus on particularity is a concern in gender studies as well as in the Pauline letters. This is thus an important, although certainly not the only, intersection, for Paul, Pauline studies, and the question of gender.




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Kathy Ehrensperger