Since the Apostle St. Paul is known for pronouncements like, “Wives, be subject to your husband as though to the Lord,” and “Women should keep silent at the meeting…if there is something they want to know they should ask their husbands at home,” it’s no wonder many people consider him misogynistic. Except it turns out he probably didn’t write those words and wouldn’t have had those sentiments, according to evidence cited by Karen Armstrong in this fascinating little book that attempts to set the record straight by taking its readers back into biblical times.
Armstrong almost always manages to open up my mind and turn my thinking around. Here she combines a careful reading of the texts attributed to Paul with the latest biblical scholarship and an in-depth look at the history of the time to make her case. When examined closely, Armstrong contends, the quotations above appear to have been inserted awkwardly into Paul’s letters, probably by later followers, and they contradict the main thrusts of Paul’s message which is largely egalitarian. He was a champion of the poor, and insisted on gender, ethnic, and class equality–Armstrong says that in Paul’s congregations there seem to have been about equal numbers of male and female leaders.
How ideas about Paul got so inverted is a moving, sometimes gritty story involving long held Jewish traditions, the clashing beliefs among early pre-church “Christian” leaders, changing historical circumstances, the fact that Jesus didn’t make the imminent return to the world that his believers had at first expected, and the often brutal ways Rome governed conquered people in the outposts of its empire. I particularly enjoyed learning more about the varied cultural groups Paul preached to in those Roman outposts–Armstrong describes their histories, philosophical mindsets, and religious backgrounds.
Armstrong delves deeply into Paul’s life, travels, and beliefs. The Jesus and Paul presented in this book are captivatingly real, flesh and blood men living in difficult times, intent on their missions in spite of the bodily dangers that drew their way. There are only 115 pages of text in this book, but they are backed up by 18 pages endnotes citing Armstrong’s sources.