Religion and Abortion Part 5: The Bible and Patriarchy

Patriarchy: The Default

In the first blog post of this series, we saw that women’s rights, an Enlightenment value, oppose the traditional claims of patriarchy. In this post we will ask, how patriarchal is the New Testament?

Justifying patriarchy on the basis of the Bible is no problem. The Adam and Eve story subordinates Eve to Adam and blames her for their expulsion from the garden of paradise. This creation myth strongly inculcates the values of patriarchy in the West. Biblical writings were born in patriarchy and they support it. “Lord” (kurios), a frequent title for Jesus in the New Testament, has a rich heritage. It denotes a male as master of his wife and a household of slaves. Domination (dominus, Latin for master), is inherent in the word. “Lord,” is also a title for the emperor, and by extension for the g-d of Israel. After “father,” Lord/master is the title of patriarchy.  

Those who espouse “biblical values” trend strongly to patriarchy. Evangelicals ground their understanding of the correct “biblical” view of the relationship between men and women on “Wives be subject to your husbands.” The case against same-sex marriage is based upon “God created the male and female” (Genesis 1:27). Justifying patriarchy from the Bible is not hard. It’s the default. With God as father and Jesus as Lord/master, patriarchy is a lock. Or so it seems.

Resisting Patriarchy

A Simple Case

If you pay close attention, several voices in the New Testament challenge patriarchy. Let’s begin with a simple example. The first beatitude in its Lucan form is surely an authentic Jesus saying. It occurs in the Q-Gospel (Luke 6:20, Matt 5:3) and the Gospel of Thomas 54, extremely strong multiple attestation.

“Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20 KJV). Even a simple reading of this beatitude reveals how it turns the world upside down. The Scholars Version catches the saying’s absurdity: “Congratulations, you poor!” Who thinks the poor are to be congratulated? Israel’s wisdom tradition saw riches and wealth as a sign of g-d’s blessings, as later did the Calvinists. Poverty was a curse. Differences in wealth create a hierarchical society. The first beatitude does not raise the poor to the level of the rich but brings the empire of g-d down to the level of the poor, burlesquing both g-d and empire. The author of the Gospel of Luke adds a woe drawing the appropriate conclusion: “Woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation” (6:24 KJV). “Blessed are you poor” imagines no compromise with patriarchy. It stands completely aside it. To reach this conclusion requires no extensive exegesis, but a simple, plain reading. Case closed. Jesus stood against patriarchy, yet he had to frame his argument within patriarchy, the prevailing value of his cultural context. G-d and empire are patriarchal terms and their use by Jesus will eventually subvert Jesus’ resistance to patriarchy. The empire will not be burlesqued but become a real empire and g-d will ascend to heaven and promise to raise up the poor.

The Christian tradition chose to ignore this plain reading, beginning with Matthew who spiritualizes the beatitude with “poor in spirit” (5:3). Later tradition downplays and sidesteps the beatitude as an “evangelical counsel.” Patriarchy wins out.


A second example, also from the Q-Gospel, is less surely an authentic Jesus saying, but appears in a pre-70 CE Galilean tradition of Jesus followers. Both Matthew and Luke preserve this saying.

Think about how the lilies grow: they don’t slave and they never spin. Yet let me tell you, even Solomon at the height of his glory was never decked out like one of these. (Luke 12:27, also Matt 6:28 SV)

This saying, like many Jesus sayings, makes a bold, even shocking comparison: a lily to Solomon. The comparison operates on several layers. Comparing a lily to Solomon violates the expectation of scale. How is a flower like a human, even more how is a great and powerful king like a wildflower? But to compare Solomon, outfitted as a king, to a wildflower makes fun of royalty’s pretentions. After all, the purpose of royal raiment is to impress. But the analogy pushes even deeper. A wildflower does nothing to attain its glory. Many slaves must toil and spin to produce a king’s rich garments. Layer by layer, this apparently simple analogy from the Q-Gospel undoes the hierarchical scale on which patriarchy depends.

Who’s in Charge?

From late in the first century, we see another saying attributed to Jesus undermining hierarchy and patriarchy in a community’s organization.

But none of you are to be called “Rabbi”; after all, you only have one teacher, and all of you belong to the same family. And don’t call anyone on earth “father,” since you have only one Father, and he is in heaven. You are not to be called “instructors,” because you have only one instructor, the Anointed One. Now whoever is greater than you will be your slave. Those who promote themselves will be demoted and those who demote themselves will be promoted. (Matt 23:8–12 SV)

Matthew’s school resists those who want to stand out from the rest with their titles, maintaining that at the level of community, they are all family, or as the Greek says, “brothers,” that is, children. Titles are eliminated because only one has a title. Yet patriarchy remains because the author cannot escape the use of patriarchal language. The use of “brothers” subverts the author’s intent.

A Critical History

Paul: Patriarch or Slave?

The Envoy Paul, or traditionally the Apostle Paul, has a reputation for anti-female and authoritarian positions as a supporter of patriarchy. This reputation is undeserved, in my opinion. To decipher how Paul got this reputation requires a deeper investigation.

You are no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free born, no longer “male and female.” Instead, you all have the same status in the service of God’s Anointed, Jesus. (Gal 3:28 SV)

Galatians 3:28, a fragment of an early baptismal formula, is central to Paul’s argument in Galatians. Since some Galatians had insisted on the necessity of circumcision, Paul’s letter attempts to refute that position. Paul argues that, since there is no status difference between Jew and Greek, circumcision makes no difference.

While Paul’s argument only needs the first of the quotation’s three elements, he quotes all three, wiping out the major props of status in the ancient world and eliminating any claim to status within the community. This same understanding underlies Paul’s metaphor of the body of the Anointed. The standard Greco-Roman use of the body metaphor justifies hierarchy—some parts of the body are better than others. Paul’s usage makes all parts equal.

If everything consisted of just one part, there would be nobody, would there? But the fact is, although there are many parts, there is one body. It's just not possible for the eye to say to the hand, "I have no need of you"; or for the head to say to the feet, "I have no use for you." (1 Cor 12:19–21 SV)

Paul’s metaphor recognizes difference without status. He carries this understanding over to his position on sexual relations between a married couple. As the Corinthian community began to experience and experiment with this radical undoing of hierarchy and patriarchy, it crossed societal boundaries. They wrote to Paul about issues they were running into.

But because of the temptation to fornication, let each man have his own woman and each woman have her own man. To the woman the man should fulfill his duty and likewise the woman to the man. The woman does not have authority over her body but the man, and likewise the man does not have authority over his body but the woman. (1 Cor 7:2–4, My translation)

As with the body metaphor, Paul recognizes sexual difference but does not accord to the man ownership or domination of the woman.

These quotations clearly indicate that Paul does not deserve his reputation as a supporter of patriarchy and anti-female, so where does that reputation come from? To answer that question, we turn to the post-Pauline letters.

Wives Be Subject

An anonymous author who belongs to a Pauline school wrote the Letter to the Ephesians around 100 CE. This school studied and discussed Paul’s letters. As part of this school activity, the author imitates the Pauline letter form and borrows directly from the Letter to the Colossians, also written by an anonymous author.

The author employs the body of the Anointed in the traditional, Greco-Roman, hierarchical fashion. The Anointed is the head of the body (Eph 4:12), unlike the Pauline model in which the Anointed is the body. The model in Ephesians is cosmological: the Anointed in heaven is the head and on earth the church is the body.

The cosmological model has ethical implications. The author is very concerned about who is subject to whom. The relationship between the Anointed Lord and the church is the model for the relationship between husband and wife.

Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. (Eph 5:22–24 NRSV)

Missing here is the mutuality so characteristic of Paul. Patriarchy has made a complete comeback in the post-Pauline tradition.

Order of Widows

1 Timothy, one of the Pastoral letters (2 Timothy and Titus), is an imaginary letter written by a fictional Paul (the Pastor) to his young disciple Timothy. All three of the Pastorals were written around 135 CE as single compositions.

The Pastor is very concerned about the behavior of women and his model is the patriarchal family.

Do not rebuke an older man but exhort him as you would a father; treat younger men like brothers, older women like mothers, younger women like sisters, in all purity. (1 Tim 5:1–2)

In dealing with the order of widows, a very important group in early Jesus communities who ran what we call social services, the Pastor tries to curb their behavior and appearance in public. He is suspicious of young widows and does not allow them to enroll in the order of widows.

But refuse to enroll younger widows; for when they grow wanton against Christ they desire to marry, and so they incur condemnation for having violated their first pledge. Besides that, they learn to be idlers, gadding about from house to house, and not only idlers but gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not. So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, rule their households, and give the enemy no occasion to revile us. (1 Tim 4:11–4 NRSV)

With the Pastor, patriarchy triumphs over Paul’s understanding of mutual marriage relations in favor of relations dominated by the male. Misogynist tropes are on full display.

Thecla the Rebel

The Acts of Paul were written sometime around 150 CE. Chapters three and four form a separate cycle referred to as the Acts of Paul and Thecla. Whether they were composed separately from the Acts of Paul is debated, but they did circulate separately and are well attested in Greek, Latin, Coptic, and Syriac, while the other parts of the Acts of Paul have survived as fragments. Thecla was extremely popular until at least the ninth century. She is still recognized as a saint in orthodox churches and only in the 1960s was removed from the list of Catholic saints. Both Thecla and the Pastor are fictional characters.

Thecla is everything the Pastor abhors. She rejects various suitors and imperial authorities, is independent, acts out in public, is pictured naked in the arena, celebrates celibacy, cuts her hair short, wears a man’s clothing, and forms her own family with other women. She even on occasion takes Paul to task.

Patriarchy Strikes Back

The Pastoral Epistles and the Acts of Paul and Thecla are contesting the meaning and direction of the Pauline tradition. That debate finds its expression principally in the role of women. By the fourth century the tradition was lurching in the direction of patriarchy.

Sometime in the early second century Paul’s letters were collected and probably at the same time edited. Including Colossians and Ephesians with Paul’s authentic letters pulled the authentic letters in the direction of patriarchy or at least opened Paul’s antipatriarchal position to contradiction or modification by the patriarchal tone of Colossians and Ephesians.  

The actual editing pushed Paul’s letters themselves in a patriarchal direction. A good example is the insertion of a command that women should be silent into pre-existing discussion of prophecy.

31 All of you can prophesy if you speak one at a time, so that all may learn and be encouraged. 32 When and how prophets speak is under the control of the prophets, 33 because God is not a God of disorder but of peace. EDITORIAL INSERT 39 So, my friends, be eager to prophesy and don't forbid ecstatic utterance, 40 but everything should be done appropriately and in an orderly way. (1 Cor 14: 31–40 SV)    

Between verses 33 and 39 the editor inserted into Paul’s letter a command that women should be silent.

As in all the churches of God, 34 the women should be silent during the meetings. They are not permitted to speak, but must be subordinate, just as scripture says. 35 If there is something they want to know, they should ask their own husbands at home, because it is a disgrace for a woman to speak out in a meeting of the congregation. 36 Or do you think that the word of God originated with you? Or that it has come only to you? 37 If any of you thinks you are a prophet or are inspired by the spirit, you should recognize that what I am writing to you is a command of the lord. 38 Anyone who ignores this will be ignored. (1 Cor 14:33b–38)

The insertion represents the Pastor, not Paul. But it subsequently determined how Paul was viewed and destroyed his reputation. Initially the canon of the New Testament probably formed around a collection of Pauline letters, to which the Pastoral letters were added, not the more popular Acts of Paul and Thecla. Canonical Paul became patriarchal Paul. “Wives be subject ”came to the fore, while the image of mutuality in 1 Corinthians 7 disappeared.

Through the eyes of patriarchy even Paul’s picture of mutuality was distorted or ignored. The introduction to Chapter 7 reads: “Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman” (1 Cor 7:1 KJV), or as SV renders it: “I do think it is better for a man to abstain from sexual intercourse with a woman.” This has traditionally been interpreted in an anti-female, anti-marriage way. Yet Paul goes on to view marriage as a relation of mutuality. Paul concludes his argument with the notice that g-d has called them to marriage: “Each of you should continue to live the life the Lord has apportioned to you as you were when God called you” (1 Cor 7:17).

The patriarchal interpretation of Paul has been in place since at least the fourth century when the Paul of the Pastorals won out over the Paul of the Acts of Paul and Thecla. In the past forty-five years, feminist scholars have challenged that interpretation, beginning with the groundbreaking work of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (1983). In the twentieth century feminism has taught us how to challenge and undo patriarchal language. By attacking patriarchy at the root level of language, they have moved beyond the trap that language set for Jesus and those who followed him in resisting patriarchy.


Since my expertise is in the New Testament studies, I have not dealt with scholarship challenging the patriarchal interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, but I would be remiss not to acknowledge that it is extensive and impressive. I highly recommend Carol Meyers’ magisterial Discovering Eve, Ancient Israelite Women in Context. In this work she excavates the layers of patriarchal misinterpretation of the Eve story, one of the primordial stories lying at the root of the myth of western patriarchy and misogyny.


How does our examination of the Bible and patriarchy bear on the issue of abortion? Religious conservatives who oppose a woman’s right to chose often do so in the name of tradition. Where does “tradition” begin? We have seen that the Christian tradition is mixed and entangled with history. While opposed to abortion, it never claimed abortion was murder. Neither Jewish nor Christian scriptures take a position on abortion. Traditional anti-abortion stands are imbedded in a commitment to patriarchy, not to the Bible. Adherence to “biblical values” does not demand adherence to patriarchy. Important voices in the New Testament, as well as in the Hebrew scriptures, challenge patriarchy. such as Jesus and Paul.

Religious conservatives often turn to tradition to defend their patriarchal positions but then insist on the tradition starting in the fourth century under Constantine. Why not start with the historical Jesus and the historical Paul, not the imperial Jesus and patriarchal Paul of the fourth century? Tradition is complex, varied, and often misguided. Ultimately, we are responsible for the moral positions we take, regardless of what the traditions say.

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