As Orthodox Christians we always look at Scripture within the context of Tradition. However, there are times when we borrow the practice common in this country of haphazardly selecting certain passages or translations to suit our own narrow purposes.
The passages most often used to define the status and delimit the participation of women are found in the letters of the Apostle Paul. In his book, What Paul Really Said About Women, John Temple Bristow gives an in-depth examination of St. Paul's writings.
Bristow first attempts to put them into the historical and cultural contexts in which they were written. He begins by examining the status of women in Ancient Greece - Athens and Sparta - and in Egypt. He shows, for instance, that whereas women in Egypt were regarded as equal to men, in Greece (Athens in particular), they were considered to be. Because Greece was considered to be a more advanced culture, mainly through the writings of Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle, many other cultures adopted Hellenism in hopes of elevating their own cultures. As a result, the preexisting ideas about the inferiority of women found in Hellenism spread to other cultures.
He also shows how women were devalued in the Jewish tradition, as evidenced in the writings of the rabbinical scholars on the stories of Adam and Eve. In the context of the times, the value that Jesus accorded women was a radical departure from the prevailing thought. Additionally, Bristow explains how cultural biases against women lead to a misinterpretation of scripture.
The most prominent scriptural example of the relationship between husband and wife is found in Ephesians 5:21-33. (Because this is the epistle reading for the Orthodox wedding service, I found this to be of particular interest.) Although this passage is often used to justify the secondary status accorded to women, Bristow shows that St. Paul actually meant to elevate the status of women. In St. Paul's view of marriage, women and men were to be united in mutual love and respect, just like Christ and the Church. This was a new way of looking at marriage. His well-researched explanation of the passage includes many references to the ways in which Greek and Hebrew texts have been translated. Translation issues are always complex and are made even more troublesome because languages are always evolving.
He continues to explore the issues of women as leaders in the Church, the education of women, questions of dress and hairstyle, and the holiness of celibacy.
The book is not long - one hundred and twenty pages - but it is an important study of women's issues within the Church. At the end of each chapter there are questions for thought and discussion, making this book a good candidate for study groups.