With surprising regularity, Paul uses material images, often to describe his ministry to the churches. He and his helpers are like nurses to the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 2:7). He is a laboring woman in Galatia (4:19), and he nurses the Corinthians with milk, since they are infants in Christ (1 Corinthians 3:1-2). He himself is an infant (1 Thessalonians 2:7), sanctified like Jeremiah from the womb (Galatians 1:15) but a miscarried fetus (1 Corinthians 15:8).
Beverly Gaventa’s Our Mother Saint Paul is a thorough study of these texts, which, she claims, often employ “squared” metaphors. By that, she means metaphors that are not simple comparisons (e.g., Paul is father to the churches), but metaphors that include a second metaphorical twist, a “double switch.” Paul as builder, farmer, father makes sense, given that he’s a man; when he compares his actions as a man not to masculine activity but to labor, nursing, and maternal care, he has squared the metaphor (4-5).
Paul does use paternal images too. He “begets” Onesimus while in prison (Philemon 10; cf. 1 Corinthians 4:15). But the maternal images have a distinctive focus: “Maternal imagery appears in contexts referring to the ongoing nature of the relationship between Paul and the congregations he founded; paternal imagery, by contrast, regularly refers to the initial stage of Christian preaching and conversion” (6).
Further, Paul’s use of “labor” both as an image of his own apostolic ministry and of the eschatological crisis that leads to new creation (Romans 8:22) is suggestive. By applying a traditional apocalyptic metaphor to his work, “Paul associates his own apostolic vocation with the anguish anticipated in an apocalyptic era and recalls for the Galatians their crucifixion with Christ. As such, Gal 4:19 employs a conventional metaphor, that of the anguish of a woman in labor, to identify Paul’s apostolic work with the apocalyptic expectation of the whole created order” (8). Churches are born through Paul’s anguished labor, but in birthing those churches Paul is a participant in the birth of a new world.
Gaventa is not original in calling attention to these maternal metaphors. They are, perhaps surprisingly, found in the tradition. One account of Paul’s execution describes milk rather than blood spurting from his body when he is beheaded. Guierric of Igny, a twelfth-century Cistercian said that in Paul there was no blood “but the whole was milk in him” (quoted p. 15). Anselm called Paul “the nurse of the faithful” and “our greatest mother” (quoted p. 15).