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Ronnie Toft

Gender and the New Testament


A Biblical Construct of Equality and Submission

The Bible has been the single most socially, politically, and religiously influential
text in the Western world in the past 1500 years. Its authority has expanded to every
corner of the world since its inception and has been the cornerstone of billions of
peoples’ lives from every corner of the planet. More people follow the teachings outlined
in the Bible than any other canonical text. Entire empires and nations have been created
around its principles and edicts. Still today many of our laws, and even more social
norms, are based on Biblical directives.
Gender definitions and the roles and operations that come out of them have been a
huge part of any society. If one wishes to understand how a society conducts itself one
would benefit greatly from a look at gender definitions. Certainly much controversy has
come out of gender and its fragile and complicated components in our own modern
society. Gender has always been an arena of contention and in the last few hundred years
western society has seen a lot of dispute and a lot of change in this area. Many scholars
have criticized the heavy weight of gender constructions of identity. Judith Butler
questions the solidity of gender and the gender cage that society uses to
compartmentalize its subjects. Most people see gender as a vehicle for oppression used
by those in power to solidify their authority. Indeed it would seem that women, with few
exceptions, have been denied many rights, opportunities, and status on just about every
level, field, and situation throughout western history.
When a scholar looks at any aspect of society, history is an important view to
consider. How did we get here? Is this a universal concept or is it culturally constructed?
What influences have played into the subject? Where are we headed? Can the sways of
the past be reutilized for change or should they be eradicated? These are all important
questions to consider when critically tackling a societal issue. If one is looking
specifically at western society then Christianity is a power player; its one of the biggest in
fact as it has ruled western thought for centuries and has been the vehicle for power for
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just as long.
Keeping all this in mind I will take a look at Christianity’s gender definitions and
how they were originally designed to play out as outlined in the Bible. I look specifically
and exclusively at the canonical New Testament*, as accepted by both the Catholic and
Protestant church, because it deals with social issues such as gender roles in much more
fluid and less legalistic terms and also because the New Testament is aimed at humanity
at large rather than just the Jewish race, as compared to the Old Testament.
I also focus on the New Testament teachings since it has had a much larger
influence on Western thought than Old Testament tradition. This is due to Christ’s claim
in Luke 22:20 that his death marked a new covenant between God and humankind under
which (as explained by many New Testament authors ie. Romans 8:1-3, 2 Corinthians
3:6, Hebrews 9:15) we are no longer under the condemnation of the law but set free from
sin through grace. As such, social and religious legality is not as influential as they are in
(Old Testament) Judaism. This new theology shifted the church’s focus from legalistic
religion to interpersonal relationships, which brought with it a new look at how the sexes
and genders should relate to each other.
Of course much has changed from the Bible’s original plan for humanity and the
church today. Two thousand years is more than enough time for fallible creatures to
skew and distort any philosophy and since the church is a human institution it is
susceptible to human error and selfishness. This is why I focus on the Bible’s teachings
and not the church’s take on gender over the centuries. Although such a study would be
very interesting, in the following pages I will focus on the original foundations the church
has built their gender definitions upon in the teachings and life of Christ, the apostles and
other New Testament authors.
While collecting research materials for this topic I noticed a strong trend in gender
studies in the Bible. All of the books written on the subject, at least that I found, were
feminist or masculine readings of the Bible. Although these perspectives are crucial to
the subject, and I will certainly integrate these ideas into this study, I am interested in a
broader idea of gender and how it is constructed in the New Testament. Just as gender

*
Except when otherwise noted, I will be using the New International Version of the New Testament for its
well-balanced combination of scholarly interpretation, clear and modern language, and widespread use for
the past 40 years.
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scholars such as Butler and Foucault look at gender not as specifically feminine or
masculine poles but rather as an idea or force which works through each individual to
create their identity so too am I interested at how the concept of gender is viewed in the
text. Due to the overwhelming relational emphasis in the New Testament as noted above,
gender is constructed in how they play out in intergender relationships. Thus I will be
looking at how gender normatives are created out of these relationships.
Through a combination of spot readings on teachings of gender roles, intergender
relationships, and examples of gender definitions as played out by specific characters in
the New Testament and readings of gender studies on the Bible, I have noticed a
foundational basis of gender relations that plays throughout the New Testament. It would
seem that gender definitions come out of two key New Testament philosophies, equality
and selflessness. For the public arena the text emphasizes equal value of the two genders.
How that interprets into treatment of the sexes will be looked at later. When dealing with
personal lifestyle the New Testament encourages submission to others as the prevailing
gender role.
The New Testament states that there is equality for all people under the new
covenant in Christ since Christ died for all people. Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither
Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ.” This
passage delineates an important distinction between the Old and New Testaments. The
Jewish law was meant for a specific group of people, free Jewish males. And although
women were also included in this old covenant it was only through their circumcised
male relatives. (Groothuis 32) This scripture states that relation to God is no longer based
on a person’s external circumstances at birth but rather that, through Christ, there is
equality for all. What this equality means exactly and how it applies to gender is unclear
in this passage, although it seems clear in the verse that sex is not a determining factor for
this equality.
When looking at the binaries mentioned, the Galatians passage seems directed at the
equal access to salvation. The idea of equality between the sexes however also carries
over into the breakdown of the religious stratification evident in the Old Testament. No
longer are men and women unequal in their access to God and religious duty. Since
religion and religious roles are less important in New Testament Christianity and in fact
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did not even exist on a large scale at this point since a unified international church had
yet to develop by the time the apostolic letters were written, women held large sway in
the new religious movement after Christ’s death. Paul refers to many women who are
mentioned as strong and invaluable resources to the cause.
This very progressive and even revolutionary role that women were playing in the
new church seemed to come from this notion of equality held by the new Christians. In
Mediterranean societies before Christ women were valued only in relation with their male
relatives who acted as their sponsors. A woman without sponsors was considered a
source of shame to her family. The New Testament breaks these social customs by not
only mentioning women in their own right apart from sponsors, but as having important
roles, positions, and respect within their communities. New Testament texts were some
of the earliest examples not only of good, respectable, and self-sustained women, but also
of theology and doctrine pertaining specifically to them. “This fact alone shows that
Christianity had made an initial, radical move towards giving women a status separate
from that of men.” (Saunders, 21)
Romans 16:1-15 records a list of personal greetings from Paul to his associates and
friends in Rome that includes many prominent women in the church including Phoebe,
whom he names as a deaconess. His request to the Roman church regarding her, “I ask
you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she
may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me,”
(Romans 16:2) shows Paul breaking custom and demanding the Romans to treat Phoebe
according to her position in the community rather than her sex. Philippians 4:2,3 mention
Euodia and Syntyche as two women who have, “contended at my side in the cause of the
gospel.” Paul’s first convert in Europe was a woman named Lydia in the city of Philippi
(Acts 16:1-15). His conversation with her and her female troupe spawned the church to
which the book of Philippians was written. The New Testament also mentions females as
prophets: Acts 21:8,9 and 1 Corinthians 11:5.
The book of Acts of the Apostles gives an example of an important change that had
taken place in this new church. At the very opening of the book, after Jesus’ ascension,
the eleven apostles return to Jerusalem. “They all joined together constantly in prayer,
along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” (Acts 1:14)
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This verse shows not only men and women praying together but women also being a part
of the core followers of Christ. At this time Christianity did not yet exist. Christ’s
followers were merely considered a very small and radical sect of Judaism, and keep in
mind they were all Jews at this time. So in a time when men and women were separated
into different (and hierarchical) courts at the Jewish synagogues and women were
considered unworthy of entering the male court, to have women so intimately integrated
in this sect was unheard of. Since this scene takes place merely hours after Christ leaves
earth, we must assume that this radical change towards a woman’s religious place came
out of the teachings, actions and treatment Christ showed during his lifetime.
In the gospels Jesus held women in high regard. His actions seemingly were never
based on gender or sex but on the heart of the person. Two of his best friends were
women, Martha and Mary. Jesus relationship with these women constantly raised
eyebrows because of their open and equal relationship, and also because someone who
called himself a rabbi and the Son of God befriended unwed sisters. Each of their
meetings also seemed to produce amazing and radical consequences, even to today’s
audience. This relationship continues to move Jesus throughout the gospels. His most
amazing miracle, raising Lazarus, Martha and Mary’s brother, from the dead – the only
time he rose another person from the grave – comes from the faith and plea of Martha.
During their first meeting in Luke 10:38-42 Jesus breaches a big protocol by
entering their home alone. Apparently, it is just the three in their estate, their
brother/sponsor, Lazarus, does not appear in the story. Although Martha “received” him
into her home, Jesus being alone with two unwed women was a serious faux pas, and
quite possibly the root of Martha’s frustration of her sister’s attentive attitude at Jesus’
feet. (Saunders, 40) Here Jesus tells Martha, who unlike her sister has been running
around the house doing chores, "you are worried and upset about many things, but only
one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from
her." The popular and very surface interpretation of the text tells to a Christian woman’s
role but at its heart is about ministry and discipleship. (Thurston 14) Jesus is telling us
that he prefers us 1) that serving and learning from God is more important than cultural
niceties and 2) that should we decide to focus on those niceties not to distract those who
wish to focus on the learning. “Mary is welcomed as a disciple. To sit at the feet of the
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master is not an act of female submission but the appropriate position of a disciple.”
(Thurston 15) Although Jesus’ apostles were all male, and hand picked by him as such,
at the heart of the matter Jesus clearly did not refuse women discipleship or the honor of
learning at his feet, just as his male apostles did.
His friendship with Mary Magdalene, a former prostitute, was also controversial.
Yet Jesus befriended her and valued her as an equal child of God rather than on her
external circumstances. There are times that Jesus rebuked, condemned, and even
insulted women, the Syro-Phoenician woman for example. But these are never based on
the sole purpose of their sex. In fact the book of Luke tells us, in verse three of chapter
eight, that part of Jesus and the apostles’ support during their ministry came from women,
a complete contradiction to the sponsor culture of the time. Indeed Jesus seemed to treat
women just the same as he did men, not only a radical position but also the source of
soreness to many (men) around him. A great example of Jesus’ value of people coming
from the heart of the person rather than their exterior peripherals – as Jesus seemed to see
them – lies in the story of the adulteress about to be stoned as recorded in John 8:1-11. I
hesitate to use this example as its inclusion in the Bible is questioned since it is not
included in most ancient manuscripts, something most modern Bibles point out. Yet the
story is included in most versions of the English Bible and is a popular text so I will use it
tentatively. In the story the “teachers of the law” and the Pharisees, a powerful sect of
Jews who actively opposed Jesus throughout his ministry, publicly brought before him in
the temple courts a woman caught in the act of adultery. “They made her stand before
the group [that Jesus was teaching] and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught
in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now
what do you say?” (John 8:3-5) Verse six states that they were merely trying to trap
Jesus, “in order to have a basis for accusing him” and their language would certainly
agree with that. Jesus’ classical response, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the
first to throw a stone at her,” was based not on their sex, their position in the community,
nor any other external force. Rather Jesus “judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”
(Hebrews 4:12) equally between the groups, not swayed by biases based in their external
circumstances.
Another example of Jesus not persuaded by gender influence is his admonishment
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of James and John after what would be considered a traditional masculine sentiment. In
Luke 9:51-56 after a Samaritan village refuses to welcome Jesus and his followers since
they were headed to Jerusalem, the fiery apostles and brothers James and John asked,
“Lord do you want us to call down fire from heaven to destroy them?” The Samaritans
were a group of people in opposition to the Jews yet living in very close quarters with
them. A modern equivalent would be the tense relationship between Israel and Palestine.
With this comparison in mind, James and John’s aggressive, destructive and very
masculine statement bring up vivid images of the modern ‘fire from heaven’ in the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict and we can see the similarities in thought. Yet Jesus, again
not caring about social constructs of gender merits such as masculine aggression, “turned
and rebuked them.” (Luke 9:55) He did not praise their masculine views nor rebuke them
for not being caring and nurturing enough but rather was concerned about the heart, or
the righteousness, of the matter.
Now as I mentioned in the introduction to this paper I am not as interested in
conducting a specifically feminist reading of the text but am more interested in the
construction of gender. Unfortunately, gender as we understand it today through the
masculinity-femininity dichotomy is not directly addressed in the New Testament.
Rather we must read gender out of the players within the content. It would seem that the
New Testament authors did not distinguish gender from sex; females embody, represent,
and perform femininity and men do the same for masculinity. By seeing how the sexes
act and are taught to perform we see how gender is valued and constructed - or directed
to perform in both the public and personal arenas. Obviously the stories from which we
glean the Bible’s values are about people and not disembodied genders and the sections
of doctrine within the epistles are usually directed at specific people or a specific people
group with a specific issue and rarely concern themselves with the indistinct ideas of
gender. And, as I have shown, Jesus was not necessarily concerned with gender in his
teachings since he considered them, at the heart of the matter, equal in value. As such it
is important to look at sex in order to understand gender.
So although I have thus far looked at women in the New Testament I have done so
in order to look at how Christianity, starting with Christ, made enormous steps in valuing
gender equally. Of course I am working with the assumption that men are already valued
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since the New Testament was written around a very patriarchal society. Jesus, his
apostles, Paul, the father of the Gentile church, and most of the church leaders, as such
they were at that time, were all males. Masculine studies of the Bible have only recently
come about. “Masculinity was, at once, everywhere and nowhere in the discipline, so
ubiquitous as to be ordinarily invisible, and possessed, too, of the omnipotence that
omnipresence confers.” (Moore, 1) The culture of the time was still that men dominate
and this obviously did not change overnight for the Christian church, nor could it be
expected to. Their steps toward gender equality, however, were enormous. But the idea,
the principle, of equality was there, spawning first from Christ and continuing on through
the first few centuries of the church as recorded in the Bible, pure in theory if not always
in practice.
As stated earlier the second key in Biblical constructions of gender is submission.
When looking at teachings on how people are to act we see that selflessness is the main
motive throughout the New Testament. Out of this selfless lifestyle comes a strong
emphasis on submission and servitude. Others above yourself and God above all is a
foundational cornerstone in Christianity. When asked the most important command Jesus
replied, " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all
your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love
your neighbor as yourself.' (Matthew 22:37-39) Jesus also taught his disciples the power
of service in one of his most intimate and powerful object lessons in John 13 when he
washes his disciple’s feet. Later, in Philippians 2:5-7, Paul states that Christians should
emulate Christ’s selfless, serving lifestyle:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:


Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God
something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
So the idea of selflessness and its practical application, serving God and others, plays out
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in every area of New Testament theology and doctrine including, especially, gender.
An important detail to mention at this point is that most of these teachings come out
of the epistles (the books following the gospels and Acts). These letters were all written
to Christian audiences. The lessons recorded in these pages were for people already in a
relationship with God through Christ and who congregate in a local church. In fact, most
of the New Testament books are written, usually by Paul, to young churches facing
problems that needed to be addressed for the first time as the new religion expounded its
doctrine and principle. Keeping all this in mind the teachings on gender and relationships
are very specific, meant not only for Christians in the first two centuries but even more
explicitly meant to deal with a specific group facing a specific problem. As such some
teachings can seem at first dissimilar and unconnected, sometimes even contradictory,
and even blatantly offensive but we must remember that different groups need different
boundaries and cultural accommodations and these aspects of the texts must be taken into
account when being studied by a 21st century American. Many misconceptions and
problems have risen in New Testament interpretations because cultural considerations
were not taken into account. So the important facet of these gender lessons to look at is
the motive or intention behind the teaching when understood in context of the
circumstance.
A great example of this lies in the teaching of propriety in worship in 1 Corinthians
11:4-6:
Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors
his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head
uncovered dishonors her head—it is just as though her head were shaved.
If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and
if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she
should cover her head.
Obviously this is not a timeless directive for Christians to worship with their head
covered or uncovered depending on their sex. Rather this is a teaching on propriety in
worship. In Middle Eastern cultures of the time women with uncovered heads showed
loose morals, same for men with covered heads. (Yancey, 1232) Straddling a vital
Roman trade route through the Isthmus of Corinth, Corinth was an extremely large,
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wealthy, and infamously immoral city, much like Bourbon Street or Las Vegas for us.
(Yancey, 1223) Paul’s words then seemed to be addressing a specific problem of people
disturbing worship services and thus taking for themselves the glory meant for God in the
Corinthian church. From this then we can deem that gender rules takes a backseat to the
main Christian service of glorifying God and care for those around us (these people were
obviously distracting and probably disturbing the rest of the congregation).
As it progresses, this passage also introduces one of the most contested areas of
gender construction. Verses seven through twelve of the same chapter continues to say:
A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of
God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from
woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but
woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman
ought to have a sign of authority on her head. In the Lord, however,
woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For
as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything
comes from God.
The infamous relegation of women, of the feminine gender, so mediated, comes out quite
clearly here. Again, however, we see a difference in social construction and divine
province. First, Paul looks at the cultural construction of the time, that women are under
male authority even to be considered inferior, and argues that such cultural constraints
should be upheld if breaking them causes others to stumble in their faith and worship.
Directly after this however, Paul seems to lay down the divine principle on this subject, a
quick reminder that in Christ both genders are equally valued and neither should be
lorded over the other because Jesus “is Lord of all.” (Acts 10:36)
One of the most widely circulated and debated examples of biblical teachings
related to gender construction is that of female submission in relationships, specifically
marriage. The New Testament is very clear that indeed women are to submit to their
husband’s authority. Every teaching on marital relations agree: Ephesians 5:22 “Wives,
submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” Colossians 3:18 “Wives, submit to your
husbands as is fitting in the Lord.” 1 Peter 3:1 “Wives, in the same way be submissive to
your husbands, so that if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over
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without words by the behavior of their wives.” Clearly the wife’s main attitude toward
her husband should be one of selfless submission to his authority. As we have seen
above this does not exclude women from authoritative positions in the public sphere, or
even in the home. Merely these verses say that wives should be willing to respect their
husband’s direction and decisions. Respect is a key term here and will be looked at a
little later. First however we must realize that this is a skewed picture as is. To fully
understand the Biblical marriage we must look at the other side, at the husband’s role.
Looking at the same passages on husbands and wives as above we see the husbands
role directly afterwards: Ephesians 5:25 “Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved
the church and gave himself up for her.” Colossians 3:19 “Husbands, love your wives
and do not be harsh with them.” 1 Peter 3:7 “Husbands, in the same way be considerate
as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as
heirs with you in the gracious gift of life, and so that nothing will hinder your prayers.”
Here we see that husbands are to treat their wives with love and gentleness, at the least.
The Ephesians passage goes even further, commending men to treat their wives as Christ
did the church. Following this example, husbands are to put their wives good above their
own and to sacrifice of themselves for that goal, even to death, as Christ did. So
husbands also have their form of submission to their wives. But here we see a slightly
different directive for husbands than for their wives. More than respect (although 1 Peter
shows us that that is important as well) the husband’s relation to his wife should be
controlled by love.
Again the Ephesians passage, the largest on this topic, sets down the basics. Verse
33 states, “However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the
wife must respect her husband.” This passage encourages spouses to give each other
what they desire – respect for men and love for women. The relationship is based on
equal directives of love and respect, certainly a radical teaching of the time. Just before
introducing wives and husbands, however, Paul sets the stage in verse 21, “Submit to one
another out of reverence for Christ.” Again submission to each other out of love and
respect for God is the key lesson.
So what can we glean about gender constructions from this lesson on marriage,
possibly society’s most difficult and multifaceted relationship? As stated above
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selflessness and submission are the key terms but we also see a surprising rise of what we
would think of as traditional feminine qualities coming to the forefront. Love and
nurturing are an important part of this relationship. Throughout the New Testament the
body of Christians is referred to as the bride of Christ. Jesus referred to himself on many
occasions as the bridegroom of the church. In the Young’s Literal Translation of 2
Corinthians 11:2 Paul says to the Corinthian church, “for I did betroth you to one
husband, a pure virgin, to present to Christ.” Colossians 3:12 gives a very feminine
picture of ‘holy living’: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved,
clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.”
The “fruits of the Spirit”, the things we will be filled with if we live in faith and fear
of God, as listed in Galatians 5:22, 23 are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness,
faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control,” certainly traditional feminine traits.
Yet masculine traits come out in New Testament language as well. Usually when
dealing with rampant sin or other hurtful actions, New Testament authors employ strong,
aggressive tactics and language. Paul advises the Corinthian church to expel certain
members who appear to be causing real problems (1 Corinthians 5:2,3). Jesus overturned
tables, had some choice words, and even used a whip against merchants who were selling
items in the temple’s outer courts, disturbing people’s worship. He also called the
teachers of Jewish law “whitewashed tombs” (Matthew 23:27) and a “brood of vipers” on
multiple occasions because they were hindering others from truly knowing God, a direct
violation of the selfless commandment to serve God and others.
It would seem that gender construction in the New Testament, out of a foundational
teaching of equality and selflessness, is truly about balance of the feminine and masculine
traits in each of us. For most situations and in most relations with others we should have
the gentleness, compassion and nurturing tendencies traditionally compliant with
femininity out of service to others and God. Yet when the situation calls for correction or
admonishment, the traditional masculine traits of strength, aggression, and even
mercilessness should be applied. A well-rounded person utilizes every aspect of God,
both feminine and masculine, for “everything comes from God.” (1 Corinthians 11:12) 2
Timothy gives a great example of this. Paul’s most personal and intimate letter written to
his most beloved disciple, Timothy (who he calls “my dear son”) during his last days on
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Earth as he sat in chains in Rome gives a picture of how Timothy should carry on. He
encourages Timothy to gently instruct those who oppose him (2:25), to use Scripture to
teach, rebuke, correct, and train (3:16), and to “correct, rebuke, and encourage – with
great patience and careful instruction (4:2). Gender constructions as applied in the New
Testament are tools to an end. Rather than identity markers, they serve as a function of
God’s character in us to be employed in serving God and others.

Refrences

BibleGateway.com. 1995-2008. Gospel Communications International. 8-18 Mar,


2008. http://www.biblegateway.com/.
"Corinth." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 17 Mar 2008. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.
18 Mar 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?
title=Corinth&oldid=198933822>.
Deen, Edith. All of the Women of the Bible. New York, NY: Harper and Row,
Publishers, Inc., 1955.
Groothuis, Rebecca Merrill. Good News for Women: A Biblical Picture of Gender
Equality. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997.
Moore, Stephen and Anderson, Janice, eds. New Testament Masculinities. Atlanta, GA:
Society of Biblical Literature, 2003Sawyer, Deborah. God, Gender, and the Bible.
New York, NY: Routledge, 2002.
Saunders, Ross. Outrageous Women, Outrageous God: Women in the First Two
Generations of Christianity. Alexandria, Autralia: E. J. Dwyer Pty Ltd., 1996.
Thurston, Anne. Knowing Her Place: Gender and the Gospels. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist
Press, 1998.
Yancey, Philip and Stafford, Tim, eds. The NIV Student Bible. Grand Rapids, MI:
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Zondervan, 2002.