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Thursday, January 24, 2013

"Behold This Woman"

As a woman, you should dress plainly and modestly. You should not braid your hair. You should not wear jewellery, and certainly not costly gold and pearls. You should remain silent, and learn submissively. You are not allowed to teach, neither must you question nor rise above the authority of a man. And do not forget: you must keep silent. Why must you do these things? Because it was Adam who was created first, and because it was Eve who was deceived by the serpent and transgressed.

No, the little manifesto of all-brakes-off male chauvinist piggery with which I began this post is certainly not my own. You can read it for yourself in the New Testament’s 1 Timothy, 2:9-14. Its anti-female stance has served the Church well ever since it was written in the 2nd-century, and it has been seen as a licence to keep women in a second-class citizen role with a scriptural seal of approval. This passage on which so much Church policy rests appears in one of the letters of Paul, and among more free-thinking minds it has earned that particular saint the dubious reputation of being a grade-A [1]misogynist. 

There is just one problem. It seems that the letter in which this passage appears is not by Paul at all. The three letters 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus, bear Paul’s name. But for various reasons, partly to do with discrepancies of language, dating and theme, a majority of scholastic opinion now considers these [2]three letters to be written, as it were, under a falsified signature.

Now consider this: a global corporate business has as strict company policy a blanket ban on women holding any positions of authority within the company. Here in the European Union that company would have its ass hauled into court so fast that its feet wouldn’t even touch the ground. And it would lose the case, because the EU is very specific in its directives about ensuring gender equality in the workplace. Now for ‘global corporate business’ read ‘Catholic Church’, and my point is made. Apparently it is because our society invests religion with respect by default, whether that respect is [3]deserved or not, that the Church can with [4]impunity get away with practicing discrimination against women on a global scale, and in so doing, is placing itself – literally – beyond the law.

“We declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful.” The concluding [5]statement of the Apostolic Letter by John Paul II, May 22, 1994, entitled: “To the bishops of the Catholic Church on reserving priestly ordination to men alone.” The specific justification given in the letter – that Jesus chose only men as disciples – is a scriptural fallacy which it has become expedient for the Church to perpetuate.
Clearly on this example alone the law is a two-tiered structure: one for the Church, and another for the rest of us. Within the Catholic hierarchy the [6]glass ceiling is already reached at the lowly level of the mother superior of a local convent. Higher than that… forget it. Women within the Anglican community fare somewhat better, with Australia having recently appointed its [7]first female bishop. But as recently as November of last year, the Synod of the Church of England voted against the appointment of women as bishops.

This flagrant sexual discrimination which is both sanctioned and practiced by orthodox Christianity is tragic and demeaning for more than the reason of the obvious deep injustice to women. It is a brand of sexual prejudice which goes directly counter to the original egalitarian example of Jesus. Orthodoxy, in winning the 3rd-4th-century battle as the ‘official’ form of Christianity, ciphered away the original status of women’s spiritual equality which they had known in Gnostic communities. Female disciples were consigned to the background of history, and the sympathetically Gnostic Paul was redesigned by orthodoxy as both anti-Gnostic and anti-feminine with the aid of letters written in his name.

On the walls of a grotto in Ephesus, Turkey, is a mural depicting Paul with his companion Thecla. The way in which the two figures are portrayed indicates that, rather than being a mere disciple of Paul, Thecla shared [8]equal status as a wise teacher. It appears that Paul and his female companion wished to be a conscious mirror of the original Jesus-Mary Magdalene model. This does not imply a relationship in the way in which we might now view it, but was intended to reflect the greater cosmic harmonies of Spirit and Soul. Other Gnostics formed couples for the same reason, as did alchemists of later centuries: men and women who worked together at a transformation of the Self. Such partnerships of gender equality were therefore seen, not as ‘earthly’ relationships, but as mystic unions both in their nature and their objective.

Although the lower half of the Ephesus mural has been lost, what remains of the figure of Paul is in reasonable condition. But the figure of [9]Thecla who stands next to him has been vandalized at some time in antiquity: her eyes and her upraised hand have been gouged away. Blinded and mute, this defaced portrayal of a woman still communicates with us from out of her wounded silence.  

[1] Misogynist: a man who despises women. 

[2] Although not the only letters of Paul to have a suspect authorship, these specific three seem to be from the same hand. But if not Paul’s, then whose hand is it? One possible candidate is Bishop Polycarp, who apparently provided the role model for Bishop Irenaeus, a name not unknown on this blog as the editor of the four gospels which made it into the canon (my post The Gospel According to Somebody). And how suspect is it that 1 Timothy ends with a specific warning against following Gnostics and their beliefs, when that also happened to be Irenaeus’ favourite hobby horse? Add to this the fact that Paul himself expressed pro-Gnostic beliefs – and might even have been a Gnostic – and that these three letters could well have turned up (perhaps a little too conveniently?) around the time that Irenaeus was busy writing his massive anti-Gnostic work Against Heresies, then this would date the three letters to a period decades after Paul wrote those letters now accepted as authentic.

[3] Please see my post Respect. Catholic priests can be, and are, excommunicated even for just supporting the ordaining of women priests. Father Roy Bourgeois (right) was excommunicated after over 40 years of service to his church for speaking out against the injustice of this issue. The official papal stance is that the issue is beyond discussion (Apostolic letter of Pope John Paul II, 22 May, 1994). The phrasing of the letter - that the judgement will be 'definitively held' - ensures that the ruling is intended to be enforced in perpetuity, and that the Catholic Church will not allow the ordination of women as priests, not now, not ever. Oh, if only the Catholic hierarchy would show itself willing to punish its morally corrupt pedophile priests with the same robust vigor.

[4] Although it uses the euro currency, Vatican City State is not a member of the European Union and preserves its independent status; a status that clearly works to its advantage in such issues.

[5] This concluding phrase of the Apostolic Letter deserves close scrutiny. The adamant statement that the Church has "no authority whatsoever" is actually a subtly assumed negative. Think about it: the Church is in this sense not bound by civic law, and can - and does - assume whatever authority it chooses to invest itself with. If it decides that it has the authority to excommunicate someone (see note 3 above) then it does so. If the Vatican wanted to have the authority to invest women then it would grant itself that authority. So for the Church to claim that it has "no authority" to invest women is a pretense. Thus did Pilate wash his hands.

[6] The phrase 'glass ceiling' is taken to mean the invisible barrier which women encounter in organizations that thwart their further promotion upwards through management hierarchy.

[7] Bishop Kay Goldsworthy, appointed bishop of Perth in May, 2008. Anglican communities in New Zealand, Africa, the United States and Canada also have appointed women bishops.

[8] The author John Dominic Crossan points out that figures in a mural of this date (c.5th-6th-century), when depicted of the same height, as here, indicate equal social status, and the raised right hand denotes both teaching and leadership status – as would have been the norm for women in Gnostic communities. One Christian apologist assertion which I have come across attempts to explain this away with the claim that the woman is actually Thecla's mother: a strange claim to make when the name 'THECLA' (left) has been written alongside the figure.

[9] The Church has made Thecla a saint, but how many who already are familiar with Paul are as familiar with Thecla? And even the now-familiar Paul is the official Church version, which is not who Paul actually was in life, as this post indicates. Please see my post Anthony of the Desert: Life as Fiction for another example of the Church reinventing someone’s life to drive its own agenda. The events of Thecla's life are interwoven with legend. Condemned to be burned, she was saved by the timely intervention of a furious storm. On a later occasion, having fought off a nobleman who was attempting to rape her, she was herself charged with assault and condemned to be torn apart by lions. Again miraculous forces appeared to save her when the female beasts protected her from the aggressive males. No such miracles saved Polycarp. He was burned at the stake for refusing to make an offering to the Roman Emperor. This portrayal of Thecla (right) was painted by Sarah Paxton Ball Dodson in 1891. To read Thecla's story, please see my post Thecla: A Woman between Rain and Fire.

Elaine Pagels: The Gnostic Paul.
John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed: The Search for Paul.

Top image: “Behold This Woman”, published here under the terms of my Creative Commons Licence, original artwork created for this post by the ©David Bergen Studio, all rights reserved. Adapted from Emilio Franceschi's 19th-century bronze sculpture Eulalia Christiana in Rome's National Gallery of Modern Art. For those who would like to know more about Eulalia, the story of her defiant and tragic martyrdom is recounted on my other blog in the post The Sheltering Snow.

Stop Press added July 17, 2014: A year and a half after I wrote this post, this week has brought the news that the General Synod of the Church of England has voted by a majority of 351 to 72 (with a further 10 abstentions) to accept women as bishops, and so finally bringing it into line with other Anglican communities in the U.S., Canada, Africa and Australasia. The news is both welcome and shocking: welcome, because the approval is so many years overdue. But it is shocking and shameful that the question of whether or not women have equal rights before God is even an issue in the 21st-century. In an age which contains female Anglican bishops, female rabbis and female imams, the Catholic church shows every sign of continuing to hold on to its unrivaled position at the top of the religious male chauvinist piggery chart. What would Jesus say?


  1. The original sculpture is Emilio Franceschi's "Eulalia Christiana", depicting the Spanish martyr Eulalia (currently in Italy's National Gallery of Modern Art).

  2. Many thanks for supplying this information, Anon. I'll now add it to my my post.

  3. Paul, the self proclaimed apostle, was only a heretic. He hijacked an unusual and amazing man to institute a religion. There are well versed scholars that explain Luke gave indications in his writings of Paul's true character.

    Your website is eye candy, the artwork is fantastic.

    1. Anon, as I have mentioned in various places on this blog, the word 'heretic' is a shifting thing, and can be used as a negative term by anyone, anywhere simply to describe a belief with which they happen to disagree. So to say that Paul was 'only a heretic' seems just a way of saying that you disagree with what he said and did. The early Christian Gnostics (and later the Cathars) considered the orthodox Catholic Christians who wiped them out to be extreme heretics. So an equal case can be made that Christianity in its existing form (which is itself deeply schismatized) is a version hijacked by the forces of orthodoxy who distorted it from what originally was intended.


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