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From the archives: Paul was only talking about households

29 June 2020

The New Testament scholar James D. G. Dunn died last Friday, aged 80. This article was first published in the Church Times on 18 January 2013


St Paul’s teaching is wrongly applied, says James Dunn

ON THE subject of women’s ministry, priesthood, and episcopacy, I am surprised at how limited and selective is the appeal to the Bible by those who claim that they are faithful to it.

Most often ignored, in my experience of discussions on the issue, is Paul’s greeting in Romans 16.7 to Andronicus and Junia, Paul’s kinsfolk (fellow-Jews), “who are prominent among the apostles, who were in Christ [Christians] before me”.

• It is clear that Iounian is a female name: that Paul was referring to a woman, Junia, who was universally recognised by the commentators of the Patristic period and beyond; and the study of Graeco-Roman names (from inscriptions, papyri, and so on) gives no indication that there was a male name “Junias” in use at the time, but plenty of references to “Junia”. So Paul was greeting a woman, and quite probably a husband-and-wife duo, Andronicus and Junia.

• The Greek of the next phrase almost certainly means “who are prominent or outstanding among the apostles”, as, again, Patristic commentators agreed. Had Paul wanted to say “well-known to the apostles”, he would have written the phrase differently.

Interestingly, those who assume that the name must be masculine (“Junias”) take it for granted that the phrase means “distinguished among the apostles”. So Paul regarded Junia as an outstanding apostle. (Both points are thoroughly examined by the well-known New Testament scholar E. J. Epp in Junia: The first woman apostle (Fortress Press, 2005).

• Since Andronicus and Junia were Christians before Paul, the most obvious inference is that they were numbered among “all the apostles” to whom the risen Christ appeared some time before his appearance to Paul (1 Corinthians 15.7-8). That is, they belonged to that body of apostles which was larger than the Twelve, and which had been appointed by the risen Christ as apostles — just as Paul subsequently was.

For Paul, this would mean that they had been commissioned by the risen Christ as missionaries and church-founders — like Paul (cf. 1 Corinthians 9.1-2). They could not be “apostles” in the sense of “church delegates”, as in 2 Corinthians 8.23, a usage that does not appear until later; “prominent among the apostles” clearly has in mind a recognised group - most obviously the group referred to in 1 Corinthians 15.7.

• It is also worth noting that, since Andronicus and Junia are the only apostles mentioned in connection with churches in Rome, before Paul and Peter appeared on the scene, one or more of the churches of Rome were most probably founded or jointly founded by the woman apostle, Junia.

• The corollary follows: if one of the first church-founding apostles was a woman, then what subsequent ministries of the Church can be denied to women?


DO 1 CORINTHIANS 14.34-35 and 1 Timothy 2.11-12 override such a corollary? Not necessarily, and probably not; for the Greek word “gynê” can also mean “wife”, as any lexicon will demonstrate (cf. 1 Corinthians 11.3).

“If they [the gynaikes] want to learn something, let them ask their own men [andres = husbands] at home” (1 Corinthians 14.35). Does that not naturally imply that “gynaikes” here should be taken in the sense of wives?

Since 1 Corinthians 14 has in view worship-meetings in private homes, the counsel is presumably determined by the concern that the paterfamilias be not embarrassed by his wife’s asking questions in public, which he, as head of the family, can deal with in their own home.

It is equally probable that “gynê” should be translated “wife” in 1 Timothy 2.11-12. The gynê should “learn in silence in full submission” (2.11).

“Submission” (hypotagê) is the language of the household code: the head of the household (”anêr”) should be able to expect other members of the household, notably his wife, to be subject to him (Colossians 3.18, Ephesians 5.22, Titus 2.5, 1 Peter 3.1, 5); similarly, children should be subject or submissive to their parents (Luke 2.51; cf. Colossians 3.20, Ephesians 6.1), and slaves to their masters (Titus 2.9, 1 Peter 2.18; cf. Colossians 3.22, Ephesians 6.5).

It is therefore not at all surprising that the call here, as in 1 Corinthians 14.34, is for the gynaikes to be “submissive”, that is, to give due respect to the head of the household.

So when we read in 1 Timothy 2.12 that “I do not permit a gynê to teach or have authority over an anêr,” we are almost certainly still in the language of the household code: “I do not permit a wife to teach or have authority over her husband.”

Here we should appreciate that in Graeco-Roman society the household was the basic unit and building-block of community. It would have been seen as wholly irresponsible and subversive to act in a way that could be taken as mounting a challenge to the headship and authority of the paterfamilias, who was the only legal entity in the household, and gave it its identity.

The teaching here, then — for all its theological harking back to the story of the first man and woman/husband and wife (1 Timothy 2.13-14) — is most obviously motivated by the concern to reassure city authorities that the Christians were not seeking to undermine social stability.


IT IS a very dubious procedure, therefore, to abstract these texts from the historical situations within which and to which they were written. Given Paul’s high commendation of the apostle Junia, and the fact that about 20 per cent of his co-workers were women, it is at least very doubtful whether Paul would have approved of such a generalised use of 1 Corinthians 14.34-35 and 1 Timothy 2.11-12.

Although he did not think of churches as ordered by priests — and the references to episkopoi in Philippians 1.1, 1 Timothy 3.2, and Titus 1.7 are hardly to “bishops” as understood in terms of apostolic succession — I have little doubt that Paul would have been indignant that 1 Corinthians 14.34-35 and 1 Timothy 2.11-12 are being cited as his justifying the refusal to accept that women could be priests or bishops in the Church of England today.

At the very least, therefore, conservative Evangelicals cannot justifiably claim the authority of Paul for their unwillingness to recognise that God may today be calling women not only to the priesthood, but also to the episcopate.

James D. G. Dunn is Emeritus Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at Durham University.

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