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Book Review: “Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ” by Cynthia Long Westfall

[U]ntil very recently (ca. 1980s), traditional readings [of Bible passages related to women] have assumed the ontological inferiority of women through the entire history of interpretation, and it is implausible to think that an interpreter can effectively shed the foundational assumptions of the traditional view and still coherently maintain the remainder of interpretations and applications virtually intact. (4)

[T]raditional readings of the texts have been used and are being used overtly in a social construction of a theology of power and control that privileges one group over another (males over females), and those readings are controlled by the privileged group (males). (4)

Cynthia Long Westfall’s Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ brings forward insights from hermeneutics, linguistics, sociology, history, and insight into the ancient world to present a consistent reading of the Pauline corpus in regards to gender. Westfall contends that the traditional reading of the text must face the challenge that it does not consistently read the Pauline corpus, but rather tends to prioritize certain readings of texts over other texts, rather than trying to unify them. A lack of consistent methodology is also a problem, as hermeneutic method changes depending upon what the text is taken to defend (3). Moreover, traditional readings of the texts are “problematic,” she argues, for several reasons: first, the traditional readings of the texts “have not resulted in making sense of Paul’s Letters” (ibid); second, these readings of the texts are making a theology of power (4); third, the ontological basis for the traditional reading has largely been acknowledged as mistaken (see the first quote, above); fourth, both the individual and the group can make significant contributions to and impact on interpretation. For these reasons, Westfall suggests a return to the texts to see what they actually mean in context, again, drawing on linguistics, contemporary cultural studies, and many more disciplines.

Westfall organizes the book topically, looking at how various topics relate to Paul and gender. These topics are culture, stereotypes, creation, the Fall, eschatology, the body, calling, authority, and an extended look at 1 Timothy 2:11-15. By organizing the book largely around these important topics in Paul’s thought, Westfall avoids the somewhat common theme of books about sexuality in Christianity of looking at one proof text after another to come down on one side or the other. Instead, Westfall presents a cohesive, rational way for looking at the whole of the Pauline corpus, yes, through looking at individual texts, but also by uniting Paul’s thought and bringing in insights from various fields.

Time and again throughout Paul and Gender, I came upon a way of looking at things I hadn’t considered before. Westfall’s use of linguistics and deep knowledge of the cultural context of the New Testament leads to arguments and conclusions that are powerful and compelling. Some of her points seem obvious on reflection, but were points I have rarely if ever seen discussed in literature related to men and women in Christ. For example, regarding 1 Timothy 2:13, she notes that in Genesis, from which Paul is drawing his point, primogeniture is constantly reversed. That theme is one I had learned and put forward myself, but I hadn’t thought about how it could be applicable to understanding Paul’s use of Adam first/Eve next in 1 Timothy. Why is it that complementarians repeatedly make a bald assumption that primogeniture is seen by Paul as an inherent hierarchy between man and woman when Paul is specifically using an example from a book where primogeniture is consistently overthrown by God? Her extensive look at 1 Corinthians 11 helps to make it even more clear how difficult it is to adequately understand some of these texts as English speakers. Through conversation with many contemporary sources, she conclusively demonstrates that the notion of the man being “head” is not a hierarchy. Moreover, her reading of what is meant by calling woman the glory of man as well as her interpretation of why women should have a kind of covering over their heads is one that answers many, many questions for me as a reader. By showing what, culturally, was going on in Corinth and the church in general, she presents readings that explain the text rather than obscure it further–or turn it into a proof text for a specific position.

The greatest strength of Westfall’s approach is that it truly does present a unified look at the Pauline corpus. Rather than having to look at texts piecemeal and form a series of doctrinal theses therefrom, Westfall’s reading of the texts related to gender present a consistent, holistic view of Paul’s teaching on gender. It is a truly remarkable book that deserves careful reading. I spent several hours on the chapter on “culture” alone, finding many deep insights both in the main text and the footnotes. As a reader, I feel as though I have a much deeper and more complete understanding of Paul on these topics than I did before I read it.

With Paul and Gender, Cynthia Long Westfall has created one of the most profoundly exegetical and deep challenges to the complementarian reading of the Pauline Corpus in existence. Her breadth of knowledge of many different fields of studies is effectively utilized to present a cohesive, persuading reading of Paul regarding gender. May all who are interested in finding what the New Testament teaches on gender read this book.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.


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