Was Paul Accompanied
by Women Missionaries?
NCW 27, January 1996
Q. I am a little confused as to the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 9:5. In the tradition I was raised in we were taught that the apostles were unmarried. Some translations say that the apostles were accompanied by "a wife", a "Christian wife", a sister, and even "a sister, a wife". What is the correct translation?
In the chapter you make mention of, Paul is defending his and Barnabas' right to bring along their wives on mission with them, which evidently the Corinthians had criticized him for. Indeed, it seems that the Corinthians were quite a stingy group at first, for they were unwilling to support Paul and Barnabas financially in any way. Though Paul and Barnabas had the right to bring their wives with them and receive food, drink and shelter from the saints they were visiting, the Corinthians chose instead to shame them by insisting they leave their wives at home and that they earn their own keep. This was not, however, a rule. Paul says it was, in fact, his right, but he would not press for it.
In the Didache, a church "constitution" written about A.D.150, we learn that traveling apostles, prophets and teachers were supported from the tithes and offerings of the people, as by this time it was clearly understood that this was an apostolic right. However, the apostles had no right to demand support -- they could only make their needs known and it was up to the congregation they were visiting to support them as moved by their own conscience and the Holy Spirit.
There is no doubt from this passage that Paul and the other apostles were married. There was no celibacy in the apostolic or the sub-apostolic church. Priesthood celibacy, prophesied as part of the great "falling away" that would take place in the Church later, was a product of the apostasy that took place in the post-New Testament era.
The Authorised King James Version translates your passage: "Have we not power to lead about [take along with us] a sister, a wife...". Most modern translations drop the word "sister", though it is there in the Greek. Catholics and some others maintain that this should be translated as "sister woman", in other words, an unmarried sister helper. This is, however, to strain/stretch the meaning of the Greek. The original text actually reads, translating it literally: "Not not have we a right a sister a wife [adelfhn gunaika] to lead about, as also the others apostles, and the brothers of the Lord, and Kephas?" (Vatican MS 1209, recension by Dr. J. J. Griesbach).
There are three possible interpretations of this passage: (1) Apostles were allowed to take an unmarried sister or their own wife as assistants ("deaconesses") in the missionary field; (2) They were only allowed to take a Christian wife (i.e. one who was a sister in the faith); or (3) They were allowed to take one sister-wife (i.e. one wife from a plural family). The second interpretation has, outside the Catholic Church, usually been the most favoured one though it should be remembered that gunaika can also be translated as "woman".
Is has been argued that for an apostle to have taken a women about to whom he was not married would have excited slanderous gossip and been used to question the apostle's moral integrity. This is a legitimate point. We know that Paul did receive considerable assistance from women in the Church though there is no concrete evidence that they actually travelled around with him. We would therefore tend to place the first interpretation as the least likely one.
The third interpretation is not one generally entertained because of the strict monogamous tradition that arose in Christianity in the post-apostolic era. However, we must not forget that polygamy was practiced by the Hebrews and that conversions amongst the Jews living in this fashion in the apostolic period is not unlikely. Evidence that this indeed happened is to be found in Paul's writings to Timothy the evangelist; pastors in the Churches are to be the faithful husbands to their first wife, as also were the deacons to be (1 Tim.3) which can only mean that some members of the congregations, probably Jewish converts, were living polygamously. Otherwise, had monogamy been exclusive, such an instruction would have been unnecessary. It is not impossible, therefore, that some of the apostles, who were all Hebrews, lived polygamously. However, we cannot be certain from the New Testament texts. What we do know, however, is that the apostles were all married.
The Church has no official pronouncement on this passage as the Holy Order has never issued a translation of its own, other than to say that all three interpretations are possible. The consensus (which, we should stress, should never be mistaken for the truth -- in other words, every member is free to have his own interpretation in a spirit of tolerance and mutual respect until an official pronouncement is given) is that the second interpretation is most likely the correct one.
This page was created on 8 May 1998
Last updated on 8 May 1998
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