This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting upon Women and Gender in Early Christianity.
In her A Feminist Introduction to Paul (St. Louis: Chalice, 2005. 159 pp.), Sandra Hack Polaski outlines some of the major feminist concerns with the Apostle Paul and his writings. Methodologically, Polaski advocates a “transformative” reading of Paul which builds upon the insights of conformist, rejectionist, and resistant readings of Paul, imaginatively asks new questions of those sources, and creatively seeks to offer new interpretations of his texts.After outlining her approach and contextualizing Paul’s world, Polaski examines several problematic passages from the Corinthian correspondences.
Especially important for Polaski is the proper interpretation of Galatians 3:28, where social binary divisions no longer have to hold because of the freedom offered in Christ. This she argues is the “manifesto” of Paul’s missionary activity, however imperfectly adopted by the apostle due to the limitations of his time and place. This verse becomes the paradigm for an examination of Paul’s ethical concerns, which should be interpreted in light of his struggle of balance this dictum of freedom with the expectations of the Greco-Roman world. After a consideration (and critique) of the pseudonymous pastorals, Polaski concludes with consideration of how to approach Paul today. Especially important in this respect is coming to terms with his doctrine of the New Creation (freedom) in Christ and an awareness of commitments that color perspective, a fact that is true of Paul and his contemporary readers.
Overall, I greatly appreciated Polaski’s overview of how a feminist reading problematize and seeks to transform the Pauline epistles. Especially important was the call to “acknowledge commitments” in ourselves and “bear with Paul” as we seek to understand and transform his authentic writing, recognitions which serve both as a reminder of our place in history and a call to historical charitability. Additionally, I appreciated Polaski’s argument for two different groups of women being addressed in 1 Corinthians, allowing contemporary readers the opportunity to read Paul’s “commands” concerning women in the church as specific ordinances rather than general characterizations.
My major critique of this work surrounds Polaski’s tendency, at times, to reach for a gendered explanation of Paul’s position while neglecting theological considerations. For example, Polaski discusses circumcision—arguing that this signifier’s necessary association with maleness formed the basis for Paul’s preoccupation with the practice—without explaining why this was Paul’s obsession and not his opponents. Likewise, with homosexual practice, Polaski assumes Paul’s critique comes from the perspective of “violating male norms” without considering the role that idolatry (and idolatrous behavior) play in his condemnations. My point is not that there are not gendered explanations for Paul’s writings on such issues, only that examination’s of Paul’s perspective on these matters should take theological and historical explanations into account as well. Overall, A Feminist Introduction to Paul helpfully frames some of the major feminist concerns with Pauline writings and theology, offering readers a useful guide to thinking about these issues in meaningful and transformative ways.