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Posts Tagged ‘1 Corinthians’

paul3In one of  his letters to the Corinthians, Paul refers the Christian community as those “on whom the ends of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10:11).  That is as good a summary of Paul’s idea of where the church sits in the grand scheme of things as one is likely to find.  While many of Paul’s Jewish contemporaries looked forward to a day when God would finally act to put an end to the present evil age and to renew, restore and rectify the Israel and the world, for Paul that long awaited, climactic act had already happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the in-breaking of the Spirit of God in the church.  The church, therefore, both then and now, exists in a time between the times.

As he says to the Galatians, our Lord Jesus Christ “gave Himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age,” such that Christians would be co-crucified with Him to and liberated from the (old) world and it’s arrangements, it’s “elementary principles,” that we would “walk by the Spirit,” bearing the fruit of the “new creation” (Gal 1:4; 4:3-7; 6:14-15).  The new creation is dawning amidst the people of God, but, nevertheless, the old “evil age” is still present.

Paul’s conception of the church as a people living in the overlap of and the tension between the present world that is passing away and the dawning new reality in Christ is a basic structure of his theological thought.  Christians are in some sense already part of the new reality.  “…[If] anyone is in Christ, there is new creation (w[ste ei; tij evn Cristw/|( kainh. kti,sij). The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Cor 5:17, my translation)  Nevertheless, the old looms large in Paul’s mind and he urges Christians to strive to transition as much as possible from the old reality to the new reality of which they are part.  Christians who, in some sense, already have died to sin and been made alive to righteousness to “walk in newness of life” must therefore “consider [themselves] dead to sin and alive to God in Christ,” must “present [their] members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification” (see Rom 6; cf. 7:6).  Christians must work to shrug off the old reality of the present evil age and to realize the dawning new eschatological reality of the age to come.  Christians must become what they, in some sense, already are.

Paul too participates in this transition from the old to new.  It is not the case that Paul became fully and entirely a man of the age to come immediately following Jesus’s taking ahold of him on the Damascus road.  Paul too had to struggle to walk in newness of life, to realize the dawning eschatological reality in his life.  Even writing towards the very end of his life, Paul is under no illusions about him having “arrived.”  He writes,

12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Paul recognized himself to be a work in progress and that the resurrection life of Christ, the new creation was still in the process of being worked out in him.  And Paul also, at times, recognized that the constraints of the old still inhibited his realization of the new in his intellectual life.  As he writes to the Corinthians, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; thenI shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12).  Paul makes no claim to have fully and perfectly synced-up his thought with the dawning eschatological reality. 

 

Eve Tempting Adam, the Creation of Eve and the Expulsion from Paradise Beyond

Hendrik de Clerck, Eve Tempting Adam, the Creation of Eve and the Expulsion from Paradise Beyond

Thus it really should come as no surprise to us if Paul’s thought reflects the conceptions, assumptions, prejudices and interpretations common to his time, specifically those about gender.  The ancient world in general and much of ancient Judaism in particular had a rather demeaning view of the nature and roles of women.  As Bart Ehrman helpfully summarizes, in the Hellenistic world women were viewed not as a different type of humans from men but rather as possessing lesser degrees of humanity than men.  For instance, the 1st century Jewish philosopher Philo writes,

 
…because a male is more complete, more dominant than the female, closer akin to causal activity, for the female is incomplete and in subjection and belongs to the category of the passive rather than the active. So too with the two ingredients which constitute our life principle, the rational and the irrational; the rational which belongs to the mind and reason is of the masculine gender, the irrational, the province of sense, is of the feminine… (Spec. leg. 1.200-201)
 

 

For progress is indeed nothing else than the giving up of the female gender by changing into the male, since the female gender is material, passive, corporeal, and sense-perceptible, while the male is active, rational, incorporeal and more akin to mind and thought (Questions in Exodus, 1:8)

This way of understanding femininity is shared also by the influential Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle and was common in antiquity.  Within Judaism this negative view of women was exacerbated by the tendency to blame Eve (and therefore women in general) for humanity’s fall from grace.

The woman, being imperfect and depraved by nature, but the man, as being the more excellent and perfect creature, was the first to set the example of blushing and of being ashamed, and indeed, of every good feeling and action made the beginning of sinning and prevaricating. (Philo, Questions and Answers on Genesis 1.43)

But the woman first became a betrayer to him. She gave, and persuaded him to sin in ignorance. (Sibylline Oracles 1.42-43)

 Adam said to Eve, “Why have you wrought destruction among us and brought upon us great wrath, which is death gaining rule over all our race?” (Apocalypse of Moses [Life of Adam and Eve] 14.2)

From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die. (Sirach 25.24)

It was thought that women were, as Philo said, “imperfect and depraved by nature” and, therefore, Eve’s being deceived was practically inevitable.  Thus women were to be relegated to more “suitable” subordinate social roles lest they cause any more trouble (see 1 Tim 2:12-14).

Paul never entirely escaped this misogynistic frame of thought.  Undoubtedly the activity of the Spirit that he observed in female Christians and perhaps the urgings of the Spirit he sensed within led him to revise his ideas about women and, in some ways, to lean towards a relatively egalitarian view of gender.  But in contrast to his theology of Jews and Gentiles, which clearly represents a Herculean intellectual effort on Paul’s part, Paul never seems to go all the way in tracing out the implications of his insight that “[there] is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  In other words, Paul still evinces the prejudices of his day, the vestigial thought forms of the old world, the present evil age, in his deliberations on the nature and roles of women.

In an earlier post I alluded to the fact that in 1 Cor 11:7-9 Paul seems to be reading the creation narratives of Gen 1-2 in such a way as to make the man alone the image of God and woman to be a facsimile of the man.  The text reads:

7 For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. (1 Corinthians 11:7-10) 

For modern English readers of the Bible there is a sense that Paul could not possibly have so badly misread Genesis 1:27 as to deny woman equal status with man as the imago Dei.  We tend automatically to read the verse, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  But that is not literally how the text reads, and when the text is read word-for-word, without interpretive glosses it becomes slightly more ambiguous. 

Both the Hebrew text and the Septuagint text of Genesis 1:27a read “So God created the man (MT, ‘~d”a’h’¥-ta,; LXX, to.n a;nqrwpon) in his own image, in the image of God he created him,” employing masculine singular pronouns (MT, At=ao; LXX, auvto,n).  It would not be at all difficult for an ancient reader to interpret the verse thus, “So God first created the man, Adam, in his own image, in the image of God he created him; then male and female he created them, forming Eve from Adam.”  Such a reading would not only have been possible for a reader with a background knowledge of the creation narrative in Genesis 2, but for an ancient interpreter espousing the sorts of notions about women illustrated above such a reading would be quite plausible.  It is apparently just such a reading that informs Paul’s deliberations in 1 Corinthians 11:7.

Lucas Cranach, Adam and Eve, 1526, oil on panel, Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, Samuel Courtauld Trust

Lucas Cranach, Adam and Eve, 1526, oil on panel, Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, Samuel Courtauld Trust

It seems that here Paul’s theological thought and his reading of Scripture are profoundly shaped by the tension between the conceptions he has inherited from his ancient context which are structured along the lines of the old aeon on the one hand and the radically transforming vision of God’s emerging new creation on the other.  God’s endowing men and women alike with the same Spirit led Paul to lean in a counterculturally egalitarian direction, much as the endowment of Jew and Gentile alike with the same Spirit led him to redefine Israel so set both Jew and Gentile on equal footing before God.  But Paul does not go quite as far in his re-envisioning  the place of women in the emerging eschatological order as he does in re-envisioning the place of Gentiles.  But he has undoubtedly made a start.  The result is that on the matter of gender, Paul is simultaneously a man of antiquity and the present evil age on the one hand but also a man of the dawning age to come on the other; a man very much of his time and yet a man ahead of his time as well.

Thanks to Stephen Young for digging up several of the primary sources cited above.

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Over the past few weeks I have been exploring the Apostle Paul’s thought on gender and the broader theological implications thereof.  Thus far I have argued that the allegedly Pauline passages usually adduced as warrants for quelling gifted Christian women are not actually Pauline at all.  I have also argued that Paul’s gospel entails a radical reordering of creation that undermines sharp social distinctions between the sexes.  I now turn to a very knotty passage,  1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

At first glance, the passage would seem to raise grave difficulties for anyone who would argue that Paul advocates a more egalitarian view of gender roles under the umbrella of his gospel.  Paul here argues that Corinthian women are to wear head-coverings or veils in public worship.  Paul’s rationale is as follows,

For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority (evxousi,an) on her head, because of the angels.

 Paul here seems to root a hierarchical relationship between the sexes in the very ordering of creation.  Verse 7 clearly echoes Genesis 1:27, but with an extremely odd interpretive twist that apparently makes man the primary bearer of the imago Dei.  Verses 8-9, likewise, allude to the creation narrative of Genesis 2.  Woman, he says, was in some sense made “for man” and, therefore, is under his authority.  Thus she should adorn herself in a manner befitting her subordinate status.  However, I want to suggest that this first impression of the passage is highly misleading.

A veiled woman depicted in fresco from Pompeii, 20-60 CE.  London, British Museum.

A veiled woman depicted in a fresco from Pompeii, 20-60 CE. London, British Museum.

Taken in isolation, this passage would seem to cohere well with the pseudo-Pauline sanctions against women teaching or having authority over men in 1 Timothy 2.  However, it is clear from the context that Paul is concerned that women wear these veils precisely when they pray and prophesy in public worship (11:5).  These women are clearly not silent spectators in the pews.  Furthermore, as we have seen in previous posts, numerous women can be cited who likely played prominent roles in Paul’s churches, including Chloe (see 1:11), who probably hosted a Corinthian house-church.  Thus, any attempt to construe this passage as barring women from leadership roles within the Church are dubious indeed.

 

Furthermore, it is not clear that the symbol of “authority” (evxousi,an) constituted by the head-covering is to be taken as a token of the wife’s subordination to an authoritative husband.  Such coverings performed a set of specific symbolic functions in the context of the Roman world.  Anthony Thiselton explains,

It is beyond doubt that in Roman society a hood (or perhaps a veil) was what a married woman was expected to wear in public as a mark of respectability.  In the context of public worship, a married woman without a hood or veil was, in effect, inviting men to “size her up” as a woman who might be willing to be propositioned and “available.”  (1 Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary, p. 173)

In the Roman world a veil functioned more or less as a wedding band functions in our own world.   A married woman was to distinguish herself from an unmarried woman by wearing a veil. 

This historical observation also helps to shed light on the nature of the “authority” (evxousi,an) that the veil symbolized.  In chapter 7 of the same letter, we find that sexual indescretion has become a serious problem in Corinthth and that Paul prescribes committed, sexually active monogamy as the remedy (7:4, 9).  For chastity’s sake, Paul demands that married couples be sexually active, invoking the idea that spouses have obligations (ovfeilh.n) to one another, including conjugal rights.  He goes on to say, 

 

For the wife does not have authority over (evxousia,zei) her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over (evxousia,zei) his own body, but the wife does. (7:4)

Augustus' wife Livia (50 BCE-29 CE) wearing a veil. The sculpture dates from the 1st century CE and is in Museum of Roman Civilization. Credit: Barbara McManus, 1982

Augustus' wife Livia (50 BCE-29 CE) wearing a veil. The sculpture dates from the 1st century CE and is in Museum of Roman Civilization. Credit: Barbara McManus, 1982

We see here that in Paul’s way of thinking it is not the case that the husband simply has authority over a submissive wife.  Rather, both partners of the marriage have authority over one another.  Thus, when Paul tells the Corinthians in chapter 11 that “a wife ought to have a symbol of authority (evxousi,an) on her head,” he should not be taken as implying that marriage is to be a hierarchical arrangement.  Marital authority, the authority symbolized by a wife’s veil in 1 Corinthians 11, is mutual and shared, according to Paul.  The veil symbolizes no more than the woman’s being in a relationship of mutual obligation with her husband.

I think we get confirmation in seeing the veil’s symbolized “authority” as mutual in the fact that Paul immediately goes on in chapter 11 to underline the mutual interdependence of the sexes and the common dependence of both sexes on their Creator:

11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; 12 for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. 

  The husband mustn’t forget that he owes his life and the continuation of his line to women.  Neither spouse can forget that the wife ultimately owes her existence and allegiance to God alone.

In my next post I will consider how Paul’s reasoning in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 fits with his assertions in his letter to the Galatians that “there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” and that all that matters is “new creation.”  But to summarize our conclusions thus far concerning 1 Corinthians 7 and 11, we have seen that Paul’s directive for married Corinthian women to wear veils does not entail a subordinate role for women in the Church.  Married women were to wear the veil while they led prayer and prophesied in public worship as a symbol of marital fidelity, the very same fidelity to which their husbands were bound.  In short, we have found that even here, in what initially seemed to be perhaps the most misogynistic of Pauline texts, those who would bar women from the ministry or relegate them to marital servility do not have the support of Paul the Apostle.

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