Barnes front

My book is a revised version of my dissertation:

Barnes, Nathan J. Reading 1 Corinthians with Philosophically Educated Women, Pickwick, 2014.

Barnes, Nathan J. “Reading 1 Corinthians with Philosophically Educated Women.” PhD diss. Brite Divinity School, 2012.


Nathan Barnes insightfully explores how women with some philosophical education might engage Paul’s 1 Corinthians. Barnes shifts the discussion beyond previous work in three important ways: in gender, from male author to women readers; in status, from lower ranks to more elite, educated readers; and from linguistic and thematic philosophical fragments to engagement with substantial text segments. A significant contribution. —Warren Carter, Professor of New Testament, Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University


My book engages the question “what is the substance of the philosophical teachings that women may have known in the Pauline communities of the Greek East, and how does this knowledge inform their understanding of 1 Corinthians?”  I will argue that the involvement of women in philosophy indicates that women in the Corinthian church could have the philosophical background required to interact with several teachings in 1 Corinthians which are already located in Greco-Roman philosophy: friendship and patronage, the ideal teacher and Paul’s apostleship; self-sufficiency and the agon motif; and teachings concerning marriage and family that Paul applies to worship regulations.

The history of the involvement of women in philosophy, according to the biographers of Pythagoras, first century witnesses such as Cicero, Plutarch, Seneca, and Musonius Rufus, Diogenes Laertius, and archaeological evidence (such as monuments to female philosophers and other epigraphy) indicate that elite women, freedwomen, wives and daughters of traveling philosophers, and slaves were exposed to some level of philosophical training.  The least that we could expect these women to know well is the Cynic-Stoic doctrine of self-sufficiency along with its most common usage in the agon motif, which stands at the intersection of the most popular philosophies in the first century.  The agon motif is the common athletic metaphor that philosophers used to explain the importance of training oneself to have adequate mental and physical self-control to successfully live the good life. At the same time, the doctrine of self-sufficiency or self-control is a central component to how popular philosophies approached many other issues such as friendship and patronage, the ideal teacher, and family life.

New Testament scholars have found parallels to Paul’s teachings in 1 Corinthians and Greco-Roman philosophy, but the question of how philosophically educated women would interact with these teachings has not been addressed.

As we know, there is no sentence in Corinthians that indicates that a woman is a philosopher, a student, or that a tutor is actually in a home (the definition of Paul’s opponents notwithstanding).  However, the Corinthian correspondence indicates a social context and content that is conducive to the presence of such women.  This context is reconstructed from the history of the involvement of women in philosophy, which indicates the presence of women in Corinth who likely learned key concepts in the popular philosophy with which Paul interacts in 1 Corinthians.  The circumstances in which a woman would learn philosophy in the ancient world and experience Christianity are both centered in a household framework that includes a variety of social contexts.

The contribution of this book is the uncovering of how the presence of philosophically educated women in the Corinthian church impacts the interpretation of 1 Corinthians. Very significantly, the possible presence of philosophically trained women in the community highlights how critical it is for Paul, from the outset of 1 Corinthians, to clarify his position regarding rhetoric, philosophy, and his role as apostle (1 Cor 1:18-31; 2:1-5; 3:18-21; 4:1-13) because non-elite women as well as elite patrons could have taken a position for or against him based on the substance of his teachings.

At stake are the decisions of philosophically educated women regarding friendship and patronage, their acceptance of Paul as apostle and teacher, and their roles in the family (7:1-40) and in worship (1 Cor 11:1-16; 14:26-40).  In order for goods and services to continue to flow to the church, the patron needs to be praised adequately for her support and assured that the Christians who meet in her home will not bring her disrepute.  She needs to be able to assert her authority without being a threat to Paul’s understanding of himself as apostle.  In 1 Corinthians, non-elite women were perhaps the ones who were closely regulated with respect to their participation in worship, clothing, and marriage, which assures the patron that they are supporting a moral cause that will not bring them disrepute.