how did rabbi paul change from jewish patriarchy?

by Robert & Mollie  Brow   (web site -

(A posting on the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association discussion list February 7, 97)

 1 Corinthians 7:1-16 is the Magna Carta of our very modern western idea of mutuality in marriage. Some of Paul's ideas may be hard to understand, but here we find a rabbi presenting a vision of a tenfold mutuality between husbands and wives which would have been unthinkable in a patriarchal model of marriage.

 Old Testament men like Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon felt free to have other wives and concubines but this new mutuality assumes the same kind of monogamy as we do. In patriarchy a woman was owned by her husband. In no sense could it be said that a woman owned "her own husband" (7:2).

 The apostle also specifies a total mutuality of sexual giving and receiving. "The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband" (7:3). Even now in many parts of the world only men have sexual rights. Paul's idea of a woman having a say in the expression of her sexuality is incredibly modern.

 Thirdly, as opposed to patriarchal authority, both the man and the woman are to offer their body in loving service to the other. "The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does" (7:4). But where did Paul get such an astonishing idea?

 Paul expects a mutuality of prayer in a Christian marriage, though he does not want this to become excessively monastic. "Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again" (7:5).

 The apostle commends his own vocation of celibacy, but he recognizes the ordinary sexual needs of women as well as men. "To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion" (7:8). We cannot imagine Paul being concerned for the sexual needs of widows before his conversion.

 Neither party in a Christian marriage should contemplate breaking up their agreed mutuality. "The wife should not separate from her husband ...and the husband should not divorce his wife" (7:10,11) The mutuality here is in stark contrast to patriarchal practice where only the man can initiate a divorce.

 Although he indicates this is only a personal opinion, Paul also has a strict mutuality in mind even where the other partner is not committed to a Christian model of marriage. "To the rest I say - I and not the Lord - that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him" (7:12-13). Here when Paul distinguishes his own opinion from the Lord's this suggests that he received a model of marriage that originated from Jesus himself.

 Perhaps the most striking mutuality between men and women is in the statement that "the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy" (7:14). If either the wife or the husband has faith in God, her holiness or his holiness counts for the whole family. Whatever being holy means in this case, it is hard to conceive of a stronger statement of mutuality in an apostle who is often maligned as a male chauvinist.

 There is the right of Christian women, as well as men, to allow a partner to leave if he or she has no spiritual commitment to the marriage. "If the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound" (7:15). If however there is any way to maintain peace with a partner who does not share one's faith the outcome could easily be a glorious change in attitude. "It is to peace that God has called you. Wife, for all you know, you might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife" (7:16). We wonder how a patriarchal rabbi could ever arrive at the idea of a woman saving her husband?

 In every one of these ten cases Paul declares a complete mutuality of rights and loving responsibilities between wives and husbands. And this very modern vision of mutuality is mentioned without surprise as if it was already part of a new model of Christian marriage. It is hard to believe Paul invented it. It is much easier to believe the Son of God introduced it into an astonished patriarchal world.

 How long did it take for Paul to change from patriarchy to mutuality? Our guess is that Paul wrote his letter to Corinth during his third missionary journey, and this might have been about twenty years after his conversion. We imagine he had many discussions and struggles as he changed his mind. And even later in this same letter he still thinks it is necessary for married women to recognize the headship of their husbands by wearing a veil on their head. (1 Corinthians 11:1- 5). Is this evidence that he still had some patriarchal attitudes which would change in due course? We prefer to think that his definition of headship in marriage is unlikely to be a denial of his previous statement that "the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does," (1 Corinthians 7:4). This must mean that in some senses a married woman has the same kind of authority as her husband.

 Women reading the Epistle to the Ephesians often object to the statement "Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord" (Ephesians 5:22). But they may not notice that the passage begins with "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ," which requires a submission of each person to every other member of the Christian community. It is in that context that we have by way of example three pairs of mutual submissions in the church. Wives and husbands, children and parents, and slaves and masters. (Ephesians 5:21-6:9). The submission of wives was already well known in the ancient world. What is new is the huge submission of "Husbands love your wives, just as Christ loved the church," which would suit most married women just fine.

 Similarly the submission of children and slaves had been taken for granted. But now there is the recognition of the submission of parents for many long years to their children's needs and the added difficulty of "Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger." Similarly the enthusiastic service of slaves "as to the Lord" is to be balanced by the corresponding submission of "Masters, do the same to them" (Ephesians 5:25, 6:4 and 9). In this passage the headship of husbands, parents, and those in any kind of management is certainly not a one-sided autocratic authority.

 Paul's analogy of a local church as a body with many kinds of function is in any case incompatible with a patriarchal wielding of authority (1 Corinthians 12:4-14:33 and Ephesians 4:11-16). It requires a mutual submission of members with many different gifts, of whatever sex or age or class, to one another. Listeners submit to whoever is teaching or giving a prophecy. Pastors submit to the flock. Those with gifts of healing attend to the sick. All are to serve and love all others in the family. And the mutual submissions of husbands and wives to one another is one part of this surprising new kind of organism.

 Although we have no evidence to explain how Paul shifted so radically from patriarchy to mutuality we cannot resist hazarding a guess as to the kind of situations which might have helped him change his mind. It must have been a traumatic experience to find himself in a Christian community where women as well as men were being baptized (Acts 5:14). This meant that they became disciples of the Word of God on the same basis as men. Following the example of Jesus women were being taught the Old Testament, which was strictly forbidden by the rabbis.

 We like to think that another turning point might have been Paul's arrival in Philippi to evangelize Europe. He had seen a vision of a man of Macedonia asking him to come over and help. But when he got to Philippi Paul discovered that the man of Macedonia was really a woman. Lydia was the first convert, the first church met in her home, and the first communion service was probably at her dining room table (Acts 16:9-15, 40). After a few months Paul might have seen the new model of marriage in action when he stayed with Priscilla and Aquila in Corinth. She was obviously a liberated woman, who later took the lead in inviting a famous Alexandrian theologian to her home in Ephesus and "explained the Way of God to him more accurately" (Acts 18:1-4, 18-21).

 But we are only guessing, and we will never know exactly how God managed to transform Paul's attitude to women. He himself exhorted us to "be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that you may discern what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God" (Romans 12:2, margin).

 Is there evidence for this new model of marriage mutuality in the four Gospels? We might begin with the fact that a man's decision to commit adultery is already an adulteration of his marriage, even if the physical act does not take place (Matthew 5:28). Jesus very delicately does not refer to women in this situation because patriarchy assumed that no woman should even look in the direction of another man. Men can look wherever they please.

 A new mutuality appears in "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery" (Mark 10:11,12). In the patriarchal model only the husband was allowed to divorce his wife, and that could be any time and for the most trivial of reasons. Here the word "commit" need not be part of moikhatai, and I would prefer a metaphorical translation (as already occurs in the OT) to read "adulterates her marriage" and "adulterates his marriage."

 In this and the parallel texts in Matthew a quite new meaning of adultery emerges. "Whoever divorces his wife, except for adultery, and marries another commits adultery" ( Matthew 19:9) In a marriage based on mutuality (as in 1 Cor. 7:1-16) dismissing one's partner by divorce is an adulteration of the marriage. If however the woman has been unfaithful, then the mutuality of the marriage is already adulterated. If the other chooses to leave (as in 1 Cor. 7:15) there can mutual consent which is not adulterous. But in contrast to the patriarchal model of marriage, polygamy is in any case rejected.

 On any model of marriage we have the very problematical text in the Sermon on the Mount. "Anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery" (5:32). Rather than review all the hundreds of interpretations of this text (which I am not competent to do anyway) I assume that the text made sense to the early Christians in their new model of marriage. Obviously they didn't think that a woman divorced by her husband had been literally penetrated by another man. As in Mark 10:11,12, adultery had become a metaphorical adulteration of a marriage. So I would prefer to paraphrase "whoever divorces his wife, except in a case where the adulteration has already taken place, causes the adulteration of their mutuality in marriage."

 (This is an edited version of chapter 3 & chapter 4 of Adultery: An Exploration of Love and Marriage, 1996).


model theology home | essays and articles | books | sermons | letters to surfers | comments