A (Sort of) Book Review: Paul Women and Wives

Paul, Women & Wives

Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004).

Originally published by Baker in 1992, republished by Hendrikson, with a new preface, I picked this book up because a. Keener is a phenomenal scholar b. a lot is being said about gender roles, and I wanted to interact with someone I know I can take seriously as an exegete c. I’ve been chewing through lots of Paul over the past year, and general Pauline theologies don’t get into specific issues in comprehensive ways d. it was on sale, and people like me can’t pass up inexpensive books by great authors.

What it’s about

Paul, Women & Wives is divided into two parts, part 1 examining the Pauline texts which speak of women’s roles within the context of the church meetings, and part 2 which examines the role of women within the context of marriage. Both of these topics are of course controversial in some circles. I have my opinions on the topic (on women in ministry, and on marriage). Keener approaches the key texts on women’s roles, and does so by placing Paul within the context of the culture of first century Jewish and Roman societies, and also opens up the small passages (in some cases isolated verses) within the broader context of the Epistles in which they are located, and Paul’s corpus as a whole. In doing so, Keener treats these statements with an understanding beyond the proof-texting approach these verses are often victims of.

Keener is perhaps the authority when it comes to the historical context of the New Testament. He literally wrote the book on New Testament background. So, with a mind-boggling high number of primary source materials, Keener unveils the views held by Jewish and Roman writers regarding the role of women, both in household roles, and religious roles, and then presents them side by side with key Pauline texts.

In part 1, Keener examines the pertinent texts which on the surface appear to limit women’s participation in Church (1 Cor. 11:1-16, 14:34-35, 1 Tim. 2:9). He argues that these are situational, not universal commandments (ie. the directions given to the Corinthian church are in response to the behaviour of women in the Corinthian church, and his directions to Timothy are a response to what was happening in the Ephesian church where Timothy is leading). Keener ultimately concludes that the “silencing” of women in the Church which many attribute to Paul is wrongly understood, and that Paul is suggesting that women, because of their lack of previous training/experience are not yet suited to teach, because they themselves had not yet been properly/fully taught. The appeal in 1 Tim. to Eve’s creation after Adam does not subordinate her to Adam, but points out that Eve was not present to receive the commandment from God, and apparently did not receive adequate guidance from Adam, which then accounts for her being susceptible to deception. In other words, women in Ephesus were not to teach because they were uneducated, but they should instead learn. This is not a critique or declaration of the ineptitude or unfitness to teach, but a critique of the culture which has left women out of study. This means that in the future, trained women could be seen as able to teach. He writes, “If Paul does not want the women to teach in some sense, it is not because they are women, but because they are unlearned.” (120) The Corinthian women were instructed to be silent, not because all women women everywhere are under the divine assignment of being silent, but because the Corinthian women were disrupting the worship of the Church (the whole section of 1 Cor. 11-14 is about orderliness, propriety and attentiveness in worship). Thus, women should not speak during worship (although, as Keener notes, Paul recognizes that female prophets were present, and encouraged to speak, as long as it is in an orderly fashion), but hold any questions until later to ask their husbands, who presumably have had greater access to education.

In part 2, Keener places the “household code” of Ephesians 5:18ff in its broader context. He points out the grammatical issues (the often quoted verse 22 is a dependent clause, “borrowing” its verb [submit] from verse 21, which instructs all believers to submit to each other). Thus, verses 22-24 cannot be read in isolation as the proper place for women in marriage, but must be understood as part of a broader context which calls on all Christians to practice grace, submission, love, compassion in all their relationships (157-159). Instead, “we must take verse 22 as an example of verse 21’s mutual submission” (169). Men are called on to love their wives, as Christ loved the Church, and in 5:1-2 Paul had outlined what that relationship looks like; serving, giving, selfless ie. submissive (166-167). Paul, far from upholding archaic patriarchal views, is described like this: “His social statements are among the most radical of his day” (139).

Keener also includes a helpful appendix which illustrates from other portions of the Pauline corpus that Paul commended several women leading within the Churches he founded/interacted with (Phoebe, Priscilla, Junia, Euodia, Syntyche, and the explicit reference to female prophets in 1 Cor. 11:5, which makes it clear that women were permitted to speak in the church at Corinth).

The conclusion of this book is not a bold declaration that egalitarianism is the only biblical option, but is meant to help us reinterpret the passages used to bolster a non-egalitarian position. Keener challenges the usual arguments which limit women’s roles, but does not build a case for women’s full participation (but of course, if the argument against full equality is invalid, equality is the logical next step).

The Good

Craig Keener is, without a doubt in my mind, a master of the sources of the period of the composition of the New Testament. His immense research, and overwhelming use of primary sources is mind-boggling at times. But it is clear that he has taken into account as vast an array of material to get the most comprehensive picture of Paul’s contemporaries possible. Nowhere have I seen this kind of detailed presentation of the period’s material depicting the attitudes towards gender. Keener demonstrates that both pagan and Jewish writers are highly critical of women as weaker, gullible, and the potential source of ruin for men who do not master their wives. The general assumptions of the ancient world are regularly challenged by Paul who calls on men to love their wives as the love their own bodies (ie. treat her as you would treat yourself, hence as your equal). This would certainly be a radical argument for Paul to make with a pagan or Jewish audience. Keener overwhelming makes his point, that although exceptions exist, overall, the situation for women in the first century was certainly a lot more restricted than anything Paul proposes.

Keener’s style, while contain a bewildering array of citations and references and material to absorb, is still somehow accessible. He does not write with dry, detached, scholarly arrogance or assumptions. This book would be readable and helpful to a huge audience. It even contains a few light, humourous moments. While the book looks like a bit of a long read (278 pages without bibliography and indexes), a significant chunk is actually endnotes, so the actual text of the book itself is significantly smaller than it would appear. It is just incredibly well researched, and all scholarly standards for citation have been met or exceeded. No one could possibly accuse Keener of not citing sources (btw, to give you an idea of the quantity of sources, his bibliography is just shy of 40 pages).

Keener’s presentation is convincing, well argued, and hard to refute. His hermeneutical approach takes into consideration the historical and literary contexts. His is able to frame the sections used in proof-texting in ways which open up their situational meaning. He is able to make sense of the incredible tension which comes from a surface reading of Paul, where he applauds the work of his female co-workers on one hand, but then appears to force women into passivity, submission, and out of leadership roles. By digging further to surrounding texts, and the historical realities of the communities to whom Paul was writing, we see that the tension is not really with Paul, but with our distance from Paul and his audience.

The Not-So-Good

It’s hard to find much fault with this book. On almost every level it is a resounding success. The only nit-picky flaw I can pick out is my neurotic hatred of endnotes following each chapter. I am adamantly pro-footnotes, and if endnotes must be used (although I can’t think of any reason to believe endnotes must get used) I would prefer to see them at the end of the book. But that’s my own issue as a reader, and I can’t really fault Keener or his publisher for using this style (but it sure would be nice if publishers used one style across the board, and preferably make that one style Chicago footnotes).

As I’ve noted in other reviews, I have my own system for marking up books (I know some people hate marking up books, but I need to, especially when I plan to go back and review). I have symbols, and words/phrases I use in the margins. A great book will have fewer of the negative symbols, and this one had only one or two question marks (indicating I’m not fully following the argument or that something needs more clarification) in this whole book. It is outstanding in style, argumentation, research, and overall impact.

Perhaps Keener could have been more strong in his argument in favour of women’s full inclusion in all aspects of the ministry of the Church. He exposes the weakness of the traditional arguments, but doesn’t present a forcefully articulated alternative. In his concluding remarks he admits “The number of ‘mays’ and ‘possibles’ in my own arguments indicates that I myself am not settled on every detail… although I am convinced that the case as a whole is sound” (225). He does affirm that “Because women are men’s equals spiritually and intellectually, they are also capable of fulfilling the spiritual and intellectual roles” (225). This affirmation is encouraging, but could be more direct and emphatic.


I would say this is a must read for Pauline studies and gender studies within the Church. I would encourage anyone with any interest in Pauline ethics- pastors, denominational leaders, etc.- to read this, and take it seriously. Keener has masterfully demonstrated that many long-held assumptions, rooted in proof-texting approaches, are problematic, and need to be readdressed. Although many in various Christian traditions would adamantly disagree with Keener’s conclusions, it is impossible to not take him seriously, and ask the tough questions about certain assumptions. Even (or perhaps especially!) those who argue for male-only clergy and male head of household should heed Keener’s call to wrestle with the underlying assumptions behind those arguments, and take seriously the Pauline corpus as a whole, and to place oneself in the context into which Paul was writing to see what Paul is actually saying to the women of the Church and the men who interact with them. In doing so, we may be surprised what opens up to us- not a Paul who imposed limitations on his sisters in Christ, but a Paul who called for all to listen, learn, and take on the responsibility of teaching only after achieving a mastery of the material, so as to avoid confusion in the church.

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One Response to A (Sort of) Book Review: Paul Women and Wives

  1. I have greatly benefited from many of Keener’s works (his commentaries on John and Matthew, his Historical Jesus of the Gospels, and his books on miracles) and have immense respect for his scholarship. I found this book a stimulating read too. However, I was very far from convinced of his case, which didn’t really address many of the questions that I would pose to such a position.

    For instance, I really don’t think he pays enough attention to the ‘gendering’ of ministry, where (ordained) women would minister to other women, but that they would serve under male leaders (a pattern borne out by study of the historical evidence). I also think that he fails to do justice to the way that a passage such as 1 Timothy 2 is framed in terms of the relationship between men and women: if the issue was merely that many women were untaught, why frame it in terms of ‘exercising authority over a man’? Why is authority over a man the issue, rather than just authority as such? Also, his explanation for the fact that this is given as a general rule here struck me as a rather weak one. Furthermore, the fact that the Adam/Eve relation is then brought into the picture seems to highlight that this isn’t just about untaught women teaching, but is about the relationship between men and women in this area. If the issue that Paul was making was only accidentally related to gender, then choosing to illustrate this with a rather unclear illustration from Adam and Eve was an astonishingly good way to muddy the waters.

    On that note, there were also points that raised questions, even as they purported to be answering them. For instance, you summarize his point:

    “The appeal in 1 Tim. to Eve’s creation after Adam does not subordinate her to Adam, but points out that Eve was not present to receive the commandment from God, and apparently did not receive adequate guidance from Adam, which then accounts for her being susceptible to deception.”

    But this merely highlights one of the many reasons why Genesis 2-3 are such a problem for egalitarians. Following the narrative of Genesis 2-3, we see something very different from the prelapsarian egalitarianism that most suppose existed and Keener is one of the few egalitarians who seems to notice one of the crucial details, even though he doesn’t seem to reflect much upon its import. A rough retelling of some of the details of Genesis 2-3 should make its problematic character for egalitarians clearer:

    God creates a man to till the earth from the ground, breathing the breath of life into him. Having created the man, God then creates a garden and places him within it, giving him the commission of guarding and keeping it. From the description of the Garden in Genesis and elsewhere in the Scriptures it is the prototypical sanctuary and the man’s task of ‘guarding and keeping’ takes the same form and language as that of the Levitical priesthood. The man is given the commandment concerning the tree. God then determines to make a helper and counterpart for the man. All creatures are brought before Adam to be named (corresponding to God’s own authoritative naming on the first three days of forming in the creation). Then God creates a woman from the man’s side and brings her to him and the man names her as woman.

    The woman isn’t given the commandment concerning the tree, but has to be taught by the man. She isn’t separately commissioned, but comes under the man’s commission as the helper created for him. She also is presumed to come under the commandment given to the man individually, even though the command is not given to her personally. He is the source/head of humanity, the one who stands for humanity as a whole. The woman is deceived by the serpent and the man commits a knowing trespass. God speaks to the man as the bearer of the commandment and the general judgment of death and exile from the Garden focuses upon the man throughout. Adam then names the woman Eve.

    The problem is that in the pre-Fall state, the man is clearly the leading priest. The priestly role that the woman plays is under his leadership and in terms of his commission. He is the one who has been given the priestly ministry of guarding and keeping (his wife being included), who has been given the duty of upholding and teaching the law (concerning the tree), and the one whose role is fundamental. The woman receives her commission through him as his helper (a relationship that isn’t symmetrically reversible), much as the other priests and Levites depended upon Aaron for their ministry (and the parallel between the woman being brought to the man and the Levites being brought to Aaron in Numbers 3 might be illuminating here). The woman also relies upon him to teach her the divine commandment as, no matter how well she learns it, she has a different relationship to it than he does.

    When Paul alludes to Genesis 2 and 3—as he does extensively in 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2—the prelapsarian order of male priestly leadership is recalled. Whether we want to speak of the man as the ‘head’ or the ‘source’ of the woman, much the same problems for egalitarians follow from Genesis 2. Keener doesn’t really begin to wrestle with these.

    Now, obviously, there is much more to be said than this. While I think that the Scripture punctures egalitarianism, it also challenges typical hierarchical approaches, as we see the unique vocation of the woman and the dignity to be accorded to it (also, as the man’s unique vocation is more clearly defined). However, showing the limitations of Keener’s approach is my point here.

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