St. Paul's Views on Women, Sex, Marriage and Jews

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Paul and Thecla in a Christian catacomb

Many of Christianity’s strong positions against women’s rights and sexuality can be traced back to Paul, not Jesus. Although Paul encouraged Christians to be celibate, many scholars believe that he had a wife that he divorced before his conversion at the age of 30.

Paul was less tolerant for sexual deviancy and sinning in general than Jesus. Reacting to the “unbridled passion” and “sexual addiction” he observed in the Roman Empire, he wrote: “Make no mistake: no fornicator or idolater, none who are guilty either of adultery, or homosexual perversion, no thieves or grabbers or drunkards or slanders or swindlers, will possess the kingdom of God.”

On homosexuals, Paul added: “God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural...Men committed shameless acts with men and received their own persons the due penalties for their error.”

Some of Paul’s more unpopular views must be seen in the context that he was spreading the word in a pagan Roman world that “deified violence and exploitation” and where keeping slaves, exploiting women and even raping young boys were common practices.

Paul on the Gift of Love and Friendship

Paul wrote in First Corinthians: 1 Corinthians 13: 1 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. [Source: Revised Standard Version]

“4 Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; 5 it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; 10 but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. 13 So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love

Children of God, an Appeal to Friendship: Galatians: Chapter 4: 1 I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no better than a slave, though he is the owner of all the estate; 2 but he is under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. 3 So with us; when we were children, we were slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe. 4 But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" 7 So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir. [Source: Revised Standard Version]

8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods; 9 but now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits, whose slaves you want to be once more? 10 You observe days, and months, and seasons, and years! 11 I am afraid I have labored over you in vain.

12 Brethren, I beseech you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You did me no wrong; 13 you know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first; 14 and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. 15 What has become of the satisfaction you felt? For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me. 16 Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth? 17 They make much of you, but for no good purpose; they want to shut you out, that you may make much of them. 18 For a good purpose it is always good to be made much of, and not only when I am present with you. 19 My little children, with whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you! 20 I could wish to be present with you now and to change my tone, for I am perplexed about you....

Paul on Circumcision and Freedom for Love

Ravissement de Paul by Poussin

Galatians: Chapter 5: 2 Now I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. 3 I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole law. 4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love. [Source: Revised Standard Version]

7 You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth? 8 This persuasion is not from him who calls you. 9 A little leaven leavens the whole lump. 10 I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view than mine; and he who is troubling you will bear his judgment, whoever he is. 11 But if I, brethren, still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? In that case the stumbling block of the cross has been removed. 12I wish those who unsettle you would mutilate themselves!

13 For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." 15 But if you bite and devour one another take heed that you are not consumed by one another.

Paul: Works of the Flesh and Fruit of the Spirit

Galatians: 16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. [Source: Revised Standard Version]

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. 26 Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another.

Paul, Jews and Judaism

Everywhere he went, however, Paul also encountered Jewish followers, who called him a heretic. He endured beatings, stoning, and arrests for preaching the gospel. While biblical accounts show that Paul didn't claim to be anything more than an ambassador for Christ, he did have a unique strategy. He worked to baptize souls regardless of whether they were Jewish or Gentile. [Source: Jean-Pierre Isbouts, National Geographic History, December 1, 2022]

One big question centered on whether converts to Christ should also be expected to become Jewish. For the Jerusalem apostles, the answer was yes. For them, faith was inseparable from Jesus’ teachings as a Jewish rabbi. Paul disagreed. He welcomed Gentiles who were attracted to Christianity but were not interested in adopting Jewish customs. In his Letter to the Romans he said that faith in Christ supersedes Jewish Law; that each community is part of the “body of Christ” and should be governed by love; and that faith in the Christian God holds the promise of eternal life.

Jaroslav Pelikan wrote:“Recently, scholars have rediscovered the Jewishness of the New Testament, and particularly of Paul. His epistle to the Romans (9-11) is the description of his struggle over the relation between church and synagogue, concluding with the prediction and the promise: "And so all Israel will be saved" — not, it should be noted, converted to Christianity, but saved, because, in Paul's words, "as regards election they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable" (Rom. 11:26-29). [Source: Jaroslav Pelikan, “The Illustrated Jesus Through the Centuries”, Yale University Press 1997 pp. 9-23, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

This reading of the mind of Paul in Romans gives special significance to his many references to the name of Jesus Christ there: from "descended from David according to the flesh... Jesus Christ our Lord" in the first chapter, to "the preaching of Jesus Christ," which "is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations" in the final sentence. Here Jesus Christ is, as Paul says of himself elsewhere, "of the people of Israel..., a Hebrew born of Hebrews" (Phil. 3:5). The very issue of universality, supposedly the distinction between Paul and Judaism, was, for Paul, what made it necessary that Jesus be a Jew. For only through the Jewishness of Jesus could the covenant of God with Israel, the gracious gifts of God, and his irrevocable calling become available to all people in the whole world, also to the Gentiles, who "were grafted in their place to share the richness of the olive tree" — namely, the people of Israel (Rom. 11:17).

Paul: Are Jews and Non-Jews Equally Welcome as Christians?

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “It's during the time that Paul is Antioch that a major new development starts to take place in the Christian movement. Because it's there that we first hear of the expansion of the movement more to gentiles, to non-Jews. Even though it's coming out of this predominantly Jewish social context of the synagogue communities of Antioch. Now the situation seems to be that initially when people were attracted to the Jesus movement, they first became Jews and they had to go through all the rituals and rites of conversion to Judaism. But apparently it's among Paul and some of his close supporters that they began to think that it was okay to become a member of the Christian movement without having to go through all of those rites of conversion to Judaism, and that would, in the case of Paul's career, spark one of the most important controversies of the first generation of the Christian movement. Do you have to become a Jew in order to be a follower of Jesus as the Messiah? [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“The major issues in converting to Judaism for a gentile, for a non-Jew, is that one must, if a male, become circumcised, and of course this was a an obvious distinction if one is working out in a Greek gymnasium where everyone was nude to begin with so the physical fact of circumcision was the noticeably distinctive quality to Jewish self-identity in the Greco-Roman world. So the ritual of circumcision as a process of conversion to Judaism is one of those major hurdles that people would have thought about from the Greek world background in which Paul was living. “Now the other things that one must do in order to convert to Judaism, in addition to circumcision if a male, would be to observe the Torah. That is, the Jewish law and the dietary and other kinds of purity regulations that would have come from the Torah.

Paul and King Agrippa

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “Appare“The one other thing to say, though, is that conversion to Judaism was actually much easier for women, and it may actually be the simple fact that more women could easily be attracted to Judaism...we know that later on when we see Paul's churches in the Greek world... in those Greek cities there are far more women in them, and it may be that this is where he had an early following precisely because it was already a hurdle that was easier to jump.

“Paul's notion that it was possible for gentiles to enter the congregation of God without some of the rules of Judaism interestingly enough seems to be a conviction on his part that comes from his own interpretation of the Jewish scriptures. In fact he gets it mostly from the prophet Isaiah. Paul's message of the conversion of gentiles seems to be predicated on the Isaiah language of what will happen when the kingdom comes when the Messiah has arrived and there will be a light to the nations, "a light to the gentiles." And in that sense Paul views the messianic age having arrived with Jesus as being a window of opportunity for bringing in the gentiles into the elect status alongside the people of Israel. So what Paul is really doing is creating this apocalyptic message of what the kingdom is about to be, and the arrival of the gentiles, the engrafting or integrating of the gentiles who will come to believe in the true God of Israel into the community of Israel as the elect nation, then is one of the hallmarks of the messianic age.

Paul Frets Over Jews and Gentiles Eating Together

ntly Paul's attitude toward gentile converts stimulated controversy both at Antioch among the Jewish communities there and also among the older Christian communities back in Jerusalem. There are several issues involved here. One is the notion of the dietary laws, the eating restrictions that would have obtained for eating certain kinds of food if one was an observant Jew. Also with whom one could eat, and so we see some indication during Paul's time in Antioch that this becomes a source of some tension. Precisely because in Paul's view it's now possible to integrate these gentiles, people who don't keep the proper food laws, into a dining fellowship with Jews, all of whom are followers of Jesus. And it's in that mixed community where fellowship around a common meal and the celebration of the story of Jesus is the center where Paul brings everyone together, but because it's at a meal it also runs headlong into some Jewish sensitivities about what kind of foods you can eat and with whom you can eat. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“Now where we see this tension coming to a head most clearly is after Paul returns from a conference in Jerusalem. When he went to Jerusalem he took with him a young gentile convert by the name of Titus who was Paul's test case and Paul says explicitly that he went down to Jerusalem to meet with the leaders of the church there. ... Peter, one of the leading Apostles from all the gospel stories, and James the brother of Jesus himself.... When Paul goes to see them he takes with him Titus and some of others of the Antioch community who are his supporters in the beginning..., and they go down to ask the question of "how do we deal with these gentile converts?" and they manage to get some sort of rough agreement with the Jerusalem leadership. They agree that it's okay for Paul to convert these gentiles and yet not to force them to be circumcised.

“So when Paul goes back to Antioch he seems to think that he's won a major victory in the understanding of what the Christian will be. Shortly after his return to Antioch, however, Peter arrives from Jerusalem. Initially Peter seems to have been willing to [keep] fellowship with Paul and these gentile converts. He eats with them, but then not too long thereafter some other people from Jerusalem arrive and Peter backs off. He refuses to eat with them, and Paul blows his stack because he feels that Peter has backed out on a fundamental agreement on what it means for gentiles to convert to followers of Jesus. Paul says he confronts Peter to his face and challenges him with hypocrisy.

“The other thing that emerged out of the Jerusalem conference was that Paul would go predominantly to a gentile audience and from this point on in Paul's career he is a preacher predominantly to gentiles. He doesn't really work mostly in Jewish communities any longer. In fact he even says that Peter is the one charged to be the missionary to the Jewish communities. Now as part of this agreement that was reached in Jerusalem, Paul also decides that it would be important to raise funds in support of the poor in Jerusalem. That is, the followers of the Jesus movement who live there and who seem to be beset with some problems as a result of the famine or other kind of economic distress. So part of Paul's missionary activity for the rest of his career is raising funds to bring back to Jerusalem.

Miracle of Saint Paul on the Island of Malta

“The blow up in Antioch over eating with gentiles probably is the turning point in Paul's career. Up until that point Paul has worked predominantly within Diaspora Jewish communities, where he moves out of the Jewish context to deal with gentiles, but after the blow up with Peter, Paul leaves Antioch and probably never returned again. And from that point on, Paul works almost exclusively within gentile communities. Now we know he does encounter other Jews in these major Greek cities and there presumably are Jewish communities in all of them, but Paul doesn't view himself as working any longer within a predominantly Jewish matrix.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Live Science,, Archaeology magazine, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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