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Women in 1st Century Mediterranean Culture: A Comparison Between Philo of Alexandria and Paul of Tarsus

March 8th, 2006 by Jason · 10 Comments

I haven’t posted in a few weeks, mainly because I’ve been madly working away on a research paper (which always take me a long time) on Philo and Paul’s view of women. It was, by far, one of the most fun papers I’ve gotten to research recently. And though I didn’t plan it this way, I think it’s kind of cool that I finished it on International Women’s Day. Anyhow, on to the paper:

One hundred years ago finding scholarly writings on the role of women in ancient Mediterranean society would have been a frustrating, if not fruitless endeavor. Now, however, due to the influence of a feminist critique of male-dominated scholarship and society, there is no dearth of sources for studying how women were perceived and how they lived in the 1st century, Mediterranean world. One figure who has reemerged as an important source for investigating this topic is Philo of Alexandria (c. 30 B.C.-c.A.D. 45), a Jewish scholar who wrote extensively on the Pentateuch. As a near contemporary of Paul of Tarsus we can compare and contrast Philo and Paul’s view of women to better grasp the ways in which Paul endorsed or rejected the common views of his day. What we will find is that Philo, like most Jewish men of his time, accepted and argued for the harsh, low view of women that was prevalent in the larger Greco-Roman world while Paul stood in sharp contrast to his larger society as a progressive on the issue of womens’ roles in marriage, the church, and society.

Continue reading the paper…[PDF]

Tags: papers · theology

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 isaac // Mar 11, 2006 at 10:05 am

    Hey J, I read your paper yesterday on the airplane. Great stuff. I’m in CO hanging out with Katie and my soon-to-be inlaws. Great times. It’s a week of wedding planning! Anyhow, I thought I’d make some observations on your paper.

    As a whole, it seemed like an important point to put Paul in his historically context—i.e., read him in light of another contemporary Jew. That seems like a very helpful starting point. Philo seems like a great foil for Paul. And I think most of all you made me more curious about Philo and what he was about. I guess it’s because I don’t need any convincing that Paul offers a radical political vision that changes assumed cultural differences between men and woman. But I got that from John Yoder—his chapter on “Revolutionary Subordination” in The Politics of Jesus. I notice you didn’t use Yoder in your paper, why? Just a curiosity.

    Anyhow, how about some questions:

    On page 5 you interpret a passage from Philo and write: “To be like God one must do away with the ‘womanish’ qualities that pollute the rational male soul,” and “In order to be saved one must become a ‘virgin’ again.” What I want to know is if virgin is a category for me too. I wonder about this because it seems to me that, at least for the quote you give, woman aren’t suppossed to return to “a rational male soul” like you say, but they must return to the state of virginity. So, is “virgin” synonymous to “male soul” or is it something different? I think that should make a difference in terms of what men or woman should aspire to be for Philo—the same thing, or do they both have something to return to that is not univocal.

    Another question is Philo’s use of allegory. On page 6 you want to argue that Philo is talking about “real men and woman” (contra Baer) and you give the biblical character Sarah as an example. Well, I’m not sure Sarah can count as a “real person” on Philo’s grounds because she is part of Scripture and thus subject to an allegorical read. I guess I’m wondering if you can say a little more about Philo’s allegorical method which, as far as I know, is really important for how he treats the characters in Scripture. I am a bit hesitant to say that Sarah is a “an actual woman” according to Philo’s hermeneutics.

    I wondering if you could give a little more context for that important line from Questions in Exodus that you quote on page 7: “the female is nothing else than an imperfect male.” That seems really important in your argument and I would love to know the context—what exactly is Philo arguing at that point in his text? I’m just really curious.

    How do we not go down the trail of Gnosticism if Jesus’ body is not important? I couldn’t help but think about this as I was reading the bottom of page 7 and the top of page 8: “And while Paul often encourages Christians to ‘be conformed to the image of God’s Son’ and to have Christ formed in them, this has nothing to do with Jesus’ maleness. Being conformed to the image of Christ is never spoken of in gendered terms…” If the ‘maleness’ of Jesus’ body is not important, then what counts as the important stuff that makes him concretely human, as oppossed to some pure, androgynous, Gnostic spirit? Or is “human” something that is not gendered? If that’s the case, then that seems to lead into all sorts of touchy questions about what we think about our gender, right?

    On page 9 you seem to put alot of trust in Eusebuis’ characterization of Philo? Is that a good idea? Why should we trust Eusebuis to give us an honest read of Philo? And you use him, and seemingly that quote alone, to make quite the claim: “Philo…sits firmly in line with the larger Greco-Roman and Jewish world in describing the relationship between husband and wife in harsh and patriarchal terms.” And it sounds like you are basing that on a Philo quote from Eusebius.

    Another thing: you do a great job in making Philo a Greco-Roman voice and showing of Paul is quite different from that. But I don’t you a lot on how Paul and Philo are continuous and discontinuous with the Judaisms of their day. I think that might interesting in thinking about how Jewish Philo and Paul are, not just highlighting the Greco-Roman stream.

    I think you argued quite powerfully for this important point: “while Paul does call on wives to submit in some sense, we can conclude that he does not thereby approve of the patriarchal structures as divinely ordained institutions and, in fact, works within them to subvert them.” (p.12) Great work!

  • 2 Camassia // Mar 14, 2006 at 1:46 pm

    I think Isaac raises some good points there. I’m coming from a somewhat similar position since I’ve also heard the same kind of thing from Yoder and also from Telford, but the big sticking point for me has always been that 1 Timothy passage you mentioned. I give you credit for examining it, instead of ignoring it the way Yoder does, but I must admit I’m still not convinced. If the “Adam was created first” line has no significance beyond temporal sequencing, why on earth does Paul bring it up? I mean, we ought to consider that the larger context here is Paul saying that a woman shouldn’t have authority over a man, and the “for” at the beginning of that sentence carries a natural implication of “because.” Secondly, I don’t buy the point that because Paul used Eve as a metaphor for all deceived people in 1 Corinthians he could not possibly be comparing men and women here (a claim Telford also tried to make to me, as I recall). Paul does not make absolute metaphors, he makes contextual ones. I mean, consider the fact that in many places he refers to all believers as the body with Christ as the head, but in Ephesians 5 he says the husband is the head and the wife the body. So, if you’re a married Christian guy, are you a body or a head? It depends on the context. By the same token, I see no contradiction in the idea that Paul could be using Eve as a metaphor for different things in different letters to different people.

    Let me say, I wish I could believe you, because that passage bugs the hell out of me. But I have yet to hear a good reason why it doesn’t mean exactly what it appears to mean.

  • 3 Jason // Mar 22, 2006 at 8:36 pm

    Sorry for taking so long to reply to your comments. I definitely appreciate that both of you read and critiqued the paper.

    Camassia, I agree that the 2 Tim. passage is disturbing and difficult. I still think that Paul (or whoever wrote the letter) isn’t trying to argue that there is a gender hierarchy based on the creation order for two reasons. First is that the order of creation (Adam, then Eve) is never used in Scripture to signify a hierarchy or “chain of command.” It’s certainly not in Genesis, and I can’t think of anywhere, but here, where it might be quoted that way. Granted, Paul here could be taking the idea of hierarchy from someone like Philo, but I don’t think the passage has to be read that way. The second reason, which bolsters the first, is that the point of Paul bringing this up seems to be that “Eve was deceived.” The problem in the Ephesian church appears to be that certain women (widows, specifically) were being led astray by false teachers with a gnostic bent. If Paul is arguing that he doesn’t want these women domineering men with that teaching it makes more sense out of that quotation. What do you think, at all convincing?

    Isaac, that’s a great question about whether “virgin” is the same thing as the rational male soul. From that quotation on page 5 I would wager a “yes.” It appears that “virgin” is the metaphor Philo likes to use to describe the putting off of the “female soul” to attain the “male soul.”

    You’re right that Sarah, in that passage on page 6, is being treated alegorically. However, I still want to argue that Philo’s consistent use of the “virgin” metaphor for women, his consistently negative allegorization of women, and the social theory of language (which basically says that our language both influences our view of society and is influenced by the society we grow up in. To put it in contemporary terms: I don’t think we can consistently use “girl” when referring to a woman without that eventually forming in us the idea that women are less mature or intellectual or capable than men) show that this metaphor of women having to lose their femaleness is not just allegory, but spills over into a sexist attitude in real life.

    About the “female being nothing more than an imperfect male.” Unfortunately, I’ve returned all the books, but if I remember right it came out of Philo’s discussion on why only male animals could be sacrificed and Philo allegorized it as that the female was not perfect, because she lacks certain male qualities.

    About Jesus’ maleness. I also don’t want to argue that Jesus’ gender wasn’t important or an integral part of who he was. Certainly, that Jesus was male and a sexual being like us is part of what makes him fully human. However, I don’t think this means that the fact that he was male means that his maleness is also tied to his deity. In other words, I think Jesus just as well could have become incarnate as a woman. The point I want to get across is that we are not all being encouraged to become “like males” when Paul encourages us to conform ourselves to Christ. What do you think, is that contradictory?

    You’re right that Eusebius should be taken with a grain of salt. But even without that quote, I think it’s pretty evident that Philo stood in line with his contemporaries in his view of marriage. For example, the quote I give of his on page 13 indicate that he sees a woman’s place as in the home, raising children, and under the authority of their husbands when it comes to matters outside the home.

    And lastly, you’re right, it would be interesting to compare Philo and Paul to the Judaisms of their day since they interacted with that just as much as with their Greek contemporaries. Just as a conjecture I would say that Philo is more liberal than many of the Jewish schools of his day. For example, the Essenes wouldn’t even allow women into their group while Philo praises the aged virgins in Therapeutae.

    Whew, that’s a long comment, but I think I hit all your questions.

  • 4 Camassia // Mar 23, 2006 at 2:45 pm

    In regard to the “female is an imperfect male” thing, I believe that traces to Aristotle, but it had currency in the western world for a remarkably long time. I first encountered it in college, in a paper contrasting views of female anatomy and sexuality in the Renaissance with the modern era. The classical view was that we all start out in the womb with the potential to become male or female, and our development is fueled by “heat” (not just temperature, but a sort of life energy). The thinking was that less “heat” makes the baby female, more makes it male. The same basic organs develop in different ways (which is true, actually). So the male was considered to be the more developed, more mature form of a human being. It wasn’t until the 18th century that scientists started thinking of the genders as two parallel forms of development.

    Jason, I agree that the hierarchical theory of creation isn’t anywhere else in the Bible, but that has the problem of all arguments from silence. I still don’t see why Paul would have brought it up otherwise. If his point was just that Eve was deceived, he could have started with that, not with the order of creation. Clearly that meant something.

    The church issues you mention were also probably there, but that also doesn’t strike me as a reason to differentiate Paul from Philo. If the problem were just false teaching, he could simply say, “Don’t listen to false teaching,” as he does on many other occasions. The fact that he goes all the way back to Adam and Eve indicates that he sees an inherent gender component to the problem, as does the fact that he doesn’t just say, “Don’t give authority to those women who are teaching falsehoods,” but “Don’t give any woman authority over any man.”

    I talked with Telford about this again yesterday and he mentioned a book called “Roman Wives, Roman Widows” that claimed that in NT times there was a sort of women’s movement that Paul opposed because of un-Christian practices that it involved (like sexual promiscuity), and that this might help explain some of the seemingly contradictory things he said to his female congregants. Are you familiar with it?

  • 5 Jason // Mar 29, 2006 at 10:03 am

    Camassia,
    I haven’t heard of “Roman Wives, Roman Widows” but I do know the cult of Artemis was in Ephesus and there is some speculation that the priestesses (say that 10 times fast!) might have provided a negative model that the women in Ephesus were imitating.

    Ok, a couple thoughts on your good point that Paul must have meant something in bringing up Adam. First, and perhaps tangential, is that Linda Belleville, in her article on this passage in Timothy, argues that the verse shouldn’t be translated “I don’t permit women to exercise authority over men” but “I do not permit a woman to teach with a view to dominating the man.” The key word is authentein which wasn’t translated as “exercise authority over” until post-WWII translations and the few times that word is used in other Greek literature it means “to dominate” or “have mastery over.” Anyhow, if Belleville is right, and I think she is, then the point of the passage is not about women-in-general teaching men-in general, but a specific problem, women teaching (a heresy, presumably) in a domineering way.

    So what does that have to do with “For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.”? Well, I think it underscores that the emphasis is on the second sentence. The conjunction And it was not… seems to provide the reason for why Paul is making this allusion to Genesis. But still, you’re question of “then why bring up the creation order at all?” is a good one. Here’s my shot at it: one, to bring in the context of where he’s coming from (Genesis) and two, in order to make an analogy of “firsts” (The man was created first, but the woman was the first to be deceived). Still, in reading that passage I feel the tension of what I’m saying. But then again, I have to wonder if Paul’s concern here is with women and the way they are teaching, why would he all of a sudden make this a matter of “well men wouldn’t teach this way because they were made first?” That seems as much of a stretch as my interpretation.

  • 6 Camassia » Questions of a catechumen: sex and violence // Mar 29, 2006 at 12:22 pm

    [...] The church has traditionally solved this problem by only letting men be ordained. But of course, that’s never really the stated reason. Some Catholics have told me it’s because the priest plays the role of Christ in communion, but that doesn’t explain why all the other levels of the church hierarchy have to be male. (Actually, I heard somewhere that there’s theoretically nothing to stop the Pope from appointing female cardinals, since they don’t have to be ordained. But I’ll leave that for Catholics to sort out.) Recently Jason Rust and I discussed the weird passage in the New Testament that seems to most decisively rule out church authority, where Paul argues that a) man was created first, and b) Eve was deceived, and Adam wasn’t. There are a lot of ways you can read that, but the second point at least sounds like the whole “women don’t really know how to deal with the world out there” line that I mentioned a few paragraphs ago. Possibly he’s trying to set men up as guardians against heresy (a line I’ve heard favoring the maleness of bishops elsewhere). [...]

  • 7 Lyndsey // May 10, 2006 at 12:22 am

    Hey, what an awesome essay! I’m a student studing – Christians in the Roman world. My latest essay is on “how did the role of women within christianity change over the first two centuries of the early church”. Thanks for raising so many clear and interesting points.Hope they help me in writing a good essay.

  • 8 Jason // May 10, 2006 at 8:08 am

    Lyndsey, thanks for stopping by and reading the paper. I’d be interested in reading what you come up with if you want to share it when you’re finished.

  • 9 wwrwet // May 22, 2007 at 6:48 pm

    Hi. Cool design. Keep up the good.
    Good luck.

  • 10 Pamela // Jan 22, 2011 at 6:56 am

    Thank you, Jason. I am currently wrestling these scriptures myself and find your article and subsequent dialogue enlightening.

    To add to this conversation concerning 1 Tim 2:13-14, John Temple Bristow in his book, What Paul Really Said About Women, writes:

    “Now, a great portion of the Gnostic writings added to or rewrote the story of Adam and Eve, often teaching that the first man was androgynous (both male and female) until he/she was cut in two, with Adam and Eve (who was to Adam “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”) then becoming separate individuals. In some accounts, Eve was created before Adam or else was the spiritual force who awakened Adam and resided in the tree of Life. The physical Eve, following the word of the “instructor,” ate of the fruit of the tree and gave the fruit to her husband, and both received knowledge—which was good. Other Gnostic writings depict Adam as not understanding what is happening”

    He cites Clement of Alexandria and Glover in this passage.

    He concludes, “Within the context, it seems almost certain that Paul’s intention was not to make any statement regarding superiority or inferiority, but to refute the doctrines of certain Gnostic teachers.”