Sunday, 5 June 2011

Gender in biblical and patristic writings

This post looks at ideas about gender that are found in the New Testament and the Fathers. I am interpreting "patristic" somewhat loosely to cover the period up to Aquinas.

There is something of a tension between two ideas found in the texts.  The first is that men and women are equal in the eyes of God and from the point of view of salvation.  In this regard, we have St Paul's famous statement that gender, like nationality and social status, was dissolved in Christ, together with the veneration of the Virgin Mary and various female saints and biblical characters.  The second is that men and women are importantly different: their characteristics and roles are not interchangeble or equal.  This view was perhaps most famously held by St Thomas Aquinas, who was influenced in this regard by the writings of Aristotle.

The themes found in the texts below can be summed up in this way:

- Men should hold authority and women should submit to them, though not in a servile manner.  This applies both in the domestic sphere and in public situations. 

- Biblical precedents are cited for this.  Specifically, Adam was created before Eve and it was Eve who persuaded Adam to sin (though Eve is by no means exclusively blamed for the Fall).

- Furthermore, the male sex is in some sense superior, and the female sex is weaker.  Men have stronger reasoning faculties, and women are more inclined to be weak-willed.

- The proper spheres for women are housekeeping, domesticity and childbearing.  Women are also naturally modest and linked with chastity.


Galatians 3.27-28

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.


Ephesians 5.22-25

Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.


1 Timothy 2.11-15

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.


1 Peter 3.1-7

Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.... It was in this way long ago that the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves by accepting the authority of their husbands. Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him lord.... Husbands, in the same way, show consideration for your wives in your life together, paying honour to the woman as the weaker sex, since they too are also heirs of the gracious gift of life....


1 Corinthians 14.34-35

[W]omen should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.


Clement of Alexandria, The Paedagogus

Such women care little for keeping at home with their husbands; but loosing their husbands' purse-strings, they spend its supplies on their lusts, that they may have many witnesses of their seemingly fair appearance.... As you might expect, they become lazy in housekeeping, sitting like painted things to be looked at, not as if made for domestic economy....

Luxury has deranged all things; it has disgraced man. A luxurious niceness seeks everything, attempts everything, forces everything, coerces nature. Men play the part of women, and women that of men, contrary to nature; women are at once wives and husbands: no passage is closed against libidinousness; and their promiscuous lechery is a public institution, and luxury is domesticated....

But for one who is a man to comb himself and shave himself with a razor, for the sake of fine effect, to arrange his hair at the looking-glass, to shave his cheeks, pluck hairs out of them, and smooth them, how womanly! And, in truth, unless you saw them naked, you would suppose them to be women.... For God wished women to be smooth, and rejoice in their locks alone growing spontaneously, as a horse in his mane; but has adorned man, like the lions, with a beard, and endowed him, as an attribute of manhood, with shaggy breasts, - a sign this of strength and rule.... [A]nd so high a value does God set on these locks, that He orders them to make their appearance on men simultaneously with discretion, and delighted with a venerable look, has honoured gravity of countenance with grey hairs.... This, then, the mark of the man, the beard, by which he is seen to be a man, is older than Eve, and is the token of the superior nature. In this God deemed it right that he should excel, and dispersed hair over man's whole body. Whatever smoothness and softness was in him He abstracted from his side when He formed the woman Eve, physically receptive, his partner in parentage, his help in household management, while he (for he had parted with all smoothness) remained a man, and shows himself man. And to him has been assigned action, as to her suffering; for what is shaggy is drier and warmer than what is smooth. Wherefore males have both more hair and more heat than females, animals that are entire than the emasculated, perfect than imperfect. It is therefore impious to desecrate the symbol of manhood, hairiness....


Tertullian, De cultu feminarum

....in order that by every garb of penitence [woman] might the more fully expiate that which she derives from Eve, — the ignominy, I mean, of the first sin, and the odium of human perdition.... And do you not know that you are an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil's gateway: you are the unsealer of that tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God's image, man. On account of your desert — that is, death — even the Son of God had to die....

Submit your head to your husbands, and you will be enough adorned. Busy your hands with spinning; keep your feet at home; and you will "please" better than [by arraying yourselves] in gold.


St Jerome, Against Jovinian

[Chastity] holds the primacy of all virtues in woman. This it is that makes up for a wife’s poverty, enhances her riches, redeems her deformity, gives grace to her beauty; it makes her act in a way worthy of her forefathers whose blood it does not taint with bastard offspring; of her children, who through it have no need to blush for their mother, or to be in doubt about their father; and above all, of herself, since it defends her from external violation.... The virtue of woman is, in a special sense, purity.


St John Chrysostom, Homily 13 on Ephesians

Hearken about the women of old; they were great characters, great women and admirable; such were Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Deborah, and Hannah; and such there were also in the days of Christ. Yet did they in no case outstrip the men, but occupied the second rank. But now it is the very contrary; women outstrip and eclipse us. How contemptible! What a shame is this! We hold the place of the head, and are surpassed by the body. We are ordained to rule over them.... These things I have said not from any desire to elate them, but to shame ourselves, to chastise, and to admonish us, that so we may resume the authority that belongs to us, not inasmuch as we are greater in size, but because of our foresight, our protection of them, and our virtue. For thus shall the body also be in the order which befits it, when it has the best head to rule.


St John Chrysostom, Homily 9 on 1 Timothy

Shall not women then be saved? Yes, by means of children....

If it be asked, what has this to do with women of the present day? it shows that the male sex enjoyed the higher honor. Man was first formed; and elsewhere he shows their superiority. “Neither was the man created for the woman, but the woman for the man.” [1 Cor. 11.9] Why then does he say this? He wishes the man to have the preeminence in every way; both for the reason given above, he means, let him have precedence, and on account of what occurred afterwards. For the woman taught the man once, and made him guilty of disobedience, and wrought our ruin. Therefore because she made a bad use of her power over the man, or rather her equality with him, God made her subject to her husband.... The woman taught once, and ruined all. On this account therefore he saith, let her not teach. But what is it to other women, that she suffered this? It certainly concerns them; for the sex is weak and fickle, and he is speaking of the sex collectively.... As all men died through one, because that one sinned, so the whole female race transgressed, because the woman was in the transgression.

Let her not however grieve. God hath given her no small consolation, that of childbearing.... By these means they will have no small reward on their account, because they have trained up wrestlers for the service of Christ....


St Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I.92.1

It was necessary for woman to be made, as the Scripture says, as a "helper" to man; not, indeed, as a helpmate in other works, as some say, since man can be more efficiently helped by another man in other works; but as a helper in the work of generation.... Among perfect animals the active power of generation belongs to the male sex, and the passive power to the female.... But man is yet further ordered to a still nobler vital action, and that is intellectual operation. Therefore there was greater reason for the distinction of these two forces in man; so that the female should be produced separately from the male; although they are carnally united for generation....

As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten [deficiens et occasionatum], for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence; such as that of a south wind, which is moist, as [Aristotle] observes. On the other hand, as regards human nature in general, woman is not misbegotten, but is included in nature's intention as directed to the work of generation....

Subjection is twofold. One is servile, by virtue of which a superior makes use of a subject for his own benefit; and this kind of subjection began after sin. There is another kind of subjection which is called economic or civil, whereby the superior makes use of his subjects for their own benefit and good; and this kind of subjection existed even before sin. For good order would have been wanting in the human family if some were not governed by others wiser than themselves. So by such a kind of subjection woman is naturally subject to man, because in man the discretion of reason predominates....

[A]s [Aristotle] says [Ethic. 8.12], the human male and female are united, not only for generation, as with other animals, but also for the purpose of domestic life, in which each has his or her particular duty, and in which the man is the head of the woman....

[T]he woman should neither "use authority over man," and so she was not made from his head; nor was it right for her to be subject to man's contempt as his slave, and so she was not made from his feet....


St Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, II-II.156.1

Accordingly, since woman, as regards the body, has a weak temperament, the result is that for the most part, whatever she holds to, she holds to it weakly; although in rare cases the opposite occurs.... [Aristotle] speaks of women as though they had not the firm judgment of reason, although the contrary happens in some women. Hence he states that "we do not describe women as being continent, because they are vacillating" through being unstable of reason, and "are easily led" so that they follow their passions readily.


St Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, III.31.4

The male sex is more noble than the female, and for this reason [Christ] took human nature in the male sex. But lest the female sex should be despised, it was fitting that He should take flesh of a woman. Hence Augustine says [De Agone Christ. 11]: "Men, despise not yourselves: the Son of God became a man: despise not yourselves, women; the Son of God was born of a woman."


St Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, Supp. III.39.1

[S]ince it is not possible in the female sex to signify eminence of degree, for a woman is in the state of subjection, it follows that she cannot receive the sacrament of Order.


St Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on 1 Corinthians

For, first of all, man is more perfect than woman not only in regard to the body, because, as [Aristotle] says... “the female is an occasioned male,” but also in regard to the soul’s vigour, as it says in Ecclesiastes [7.29]: “One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found.” Secondly, because man is naturally superior to the female, as it says in Ephesians [5.22]: “Wives, be subject to your husband as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife.” Thirdly, because the man exerts an influence by governing the wife, as it says in Genesis [3.16]: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Fourthly, the man and the woman are alike in nature, as it says in Genesis [2.18]: “I will make him a helper like to him.”....

This, therefore, is the reason why the woman was produced from the man, because he is more perfect than the woman, which [St Paul] proves from the fact that the end is more perfect than that which is for the end; but man is the woman’s end. And this is what he says: "For man was not created for woman, but woman for the sake of man", as a helper, namely, in reproduction, as the patient is for the sake of the agent and matter for the sake of form....

The reason [women] are subject and not in the forefront is that they are deficient in reasoning, which is especially necessary for those who preside. Therefore, [Aristotle] says in his Politics that corruption of rule occurs when the rule comes to women....[I]n women the natural feeling of shame is commended. If therefore they ask and dispute in public, it would be a sign of shamelessness, and this is shameful to them. Hence it also follows that in law the office of advocate is forbidden to women.