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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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paulIt is not uncommonly claimed that Paul’s thought developed over time.  The classic example of development in Paul’s theological thought is his dimming expectation of Christ’s imminent return.  As I have argued elsewhere, early on Paul believed that Christ would return within Paul’s lifetime and he advised Christians accordingly.  But by the time of his imprisonment in Rome, not too long before his execution, Paul’s expectation that he would live to see Christ’s return was flagging.  He no longer spoke confidently of himself and his correligionists as “we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord,” (1 Thess 4:15, 17, written ca. 41-43 CE) but rather began coming to terms with his imminent demise (Phil 1:21ff, written ca. 61-63 CE).  He still believed that the Lord would return soon, mind you, but no longer did he think he would live to see it (Phil 4:5).

Now, one may suspect that explaining the phenomena of Paul’s writings by recourse to his theological development is a distinctly modern approach to understanding the Apostle to the Gentiles, but, in fact, it is not.  In my last post I highlighted Paul’s scrap with Peter over Peter’s parting company with Gentiles at meals (Gal 2).  The late 2nd century apologist Tertullian (ca.160 – ca.220 CE)explained Paul’s actions as being the result of his relative immaturity as a Christian.  He writes:

Now [the Marcionites] adduce the case of Peter himself, and the others, who were pillars of the apostolate, as having been blamed by Paul for not walking uprightly, according to the truth of the gospel–that very Paul indeed, who, being yet in the mere rudiments of grace, and trembling, in short, lest he should have run or were still running in vain, then for the first time held intercourse with those who were apostles before himself. [3] Therefore because, in the eagerness of his zeal against Judaism as a neophyte, he thought that there was something to be blamed in their conduct–even the promiscuousness of their conversation–but afterwards was himself to become in his practice all things to all men, that he might gain all,–to the Jews, as a Jew, and to them that were under the law, as under the law,–you would have his censure, which was merely directed against conduct destined to become acceptable even to their accuser, suspected of prevarication against God on a point of public doctrine.[4] Touching their public doctrine, however, they had, as we have already said, joined hands in perfect concord, and had agreed also in the division of their labour in their fellowship of the gospel, as they had indeed in all other respects: “Whether it were I or they, so we preach.” (Against Marcion, Book I, Chap XX)

According to Tertullian, Paul outgrew this hot-headedness and later adopted the policy of becoming all things to all men that he might win the many, which, apparently, Tertullian took to be the policy that Peter endorsed all along.  As he writes in Book IV, Chap III of the same work, “And yet as Paul himself ‘became all things to all men,’ that he might gain all, it was possible that Peter also might have betaken himself to the same plan of practising somewhat different from what he taught.”

Harmensz van Rijn Rembrandt, "The Apostle Paul in Prison", 1627, oil on panel

Harmensz van Rijn Rembrandt, "The Apostle Paul in Prison", 1627, oil on panel

To my mind, this sort of explanation is helpful not only for making sense of Paul’s letters but also for reminding us that Paul was not the two-dimensional, ready-made Sunday-school felt-board character we often imagine him to have been but rather a flesh-and-blood human being, living and thinking in the complicated, rough-and-tumble world of the first century.  Paul was a man attempting rethink everything he had learned at his mother’s knee and at the feet of his tutor, Gamaliel, in light of the recent resurrection of a crucified man who, by Pharisaic standards, had played fast-and-loose with the Torah, and in light of the still unfolding activity of the Spirit amongst Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and freemen.  It is difficult to imagine how his thought could not undergo some change over the course of the nearly three decades in which he worked.

I, personally, am encouraged by the fact that the New Testament gives evidence of Paul’s humanity.  It is a reminder that these things actually happened and are not a bunch of made-up fairy tales, too pristine and tidy to fit in the real world.  Howeverso problematic these observations may be for our attempts at solving our contemporary theological conundrums, I prefer them to an unproblematic (and correspondingly unrealistic) picture of emergent Christianity because they indicate, to me at least, that maybe, just maybe the gospel is true.

But, of course, these observations make facile proof-texting appropriations of Paul’s letters (or of any New Testament text, for that matter) for contemporary theological purposes dubious indeed.  We must, rather, attempt by means of historical imagination to enter the world of the New Testament and sit at the feet of the Apostles as they were, listen into their debates amongst one-another and hope and pray to hear the voice of our common Master.  Then, hopefully having heard His voice, we must leave their very different world and attempt to live faithfully by what we have heard in our own.

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One of the most striking passages in Paul’s letters comes in the second chapter of Galatians.  Paul has been demonstrating his solidarity in the gospel with the Jerusalem based Apostles, Jesus’ orignal disciples and His brother, James.  While always being sure to maintain that his message and ministry is independent of theirs, Paul has been keen to underline their fundamental agreement.  But then, as there always does, there comes a “but.”

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. (Galatians 2:11-13)

Paul goes on to give Peter a stern dressing down because, he says, Peter “stood condemned.”  One wonders if Peter saw it that way.  I suspect not.  Had Peter knuckled under to Paul’s tirade, we would expect Paul to say so.  He has been

Peter and Paul at Antioch

Peter and Paul at Antioch

adamant about their fundamental agreement up until this point in the passage, but here he is content to give us only one side of the story and himself the final word and to leave it at that.  Apparently these two Apostles did not come to a meeting of minds.

We do not know exactly why Peter stopped eating with the Gentiles.  Perhaps Peter thought such a practice would be expedient in his mission to the Jews; his way of being as one under the Torah to those under the Torah.  Perhaps James’ men brought news of Jewish persecution of the churches in Jerusalem, and Peter thought it best not to push the issue until things quieted down (cp. Acts 6:11-14).  At any rate, we ought not to assume that he had no good reason at all.  We should not even facilely assume that he was clearly wrong and Paul was clearly right.

And there’s the rub.  Apparently, as they sought to make sense of their world in light of Jesus’ resurrection and the urgings of the Spirit, the Apostles could and did come down on different sides of an issue.  Galatians 2 narrates one instance, but we find these early Christian differences enshrined in the very pages of Scripture as well.

For instance, John the Seer voices his clear disapproval of those in the churches of Pergamum and Thyatira eating food sacrificed to idols: 

 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and to fornicate. (Revelation 2:14)

But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to fornicate and to eat food sacrificed to idols. (Revelation 2:20)

The fornication in view here is probably a metaphor for idolatry (cf. Rev 17; Hos; Ezek 23, etc.) to which John understands eating of food sacrificed to idols to be tantamount.

The Apostle Paul had a more nuanced and liberal view of the matter.

 

 

 

Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. 2 If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. 4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that an idol has no real existence, and that there is no God but one. 5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth- as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”- 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. 7 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. (1 Corinthians 8:1-13)

Paul sees nothing intrinsically wrong or idolatrous in eating food sacrificed to idols per se.  However, he says, not everyone sees it that way and we need to respect their tender consciences.  John the Seer comes to mind.  On Paul’s definition, the author of the Book of Revelation would qualify as a “weaker brother,” a designation that we may suppose John would have been less than pleased with.

 

 

The Four Apostles by Albrecht Dürer, 1526.  From left to right, John, Peter, Mark and Paul.

The Four Apostles by Albrecht Dürer, 1526. From left to right, John, Peter, Mark and Paul.

Similarly, whereas the Gospel of Mark (10:1-12) does not permit divorce under any circumstance, Matthew apparently sees this policy as being too strict and permits divorce on grounds of adultery (19:1-9).  Paul seems to side with Mark on the matter: Christians are not to seek divorce, even from unbelieving spouses who were likely cavorting with temple prostitutes (1 Cor 7:10-16).  Most of us sympathize more with Matthew, however.

We find that Jesus and Paul believed the end of the world and the final Judgment would arrive within a generation (e.g., Matt 24:34; Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27; Rom 13:11-12; Phil 4:5; 1 Thess 4:15, 17, etc.).  The author of 2 Peter seems less hopeful (3:8-9).  All of us, with the aid of hindsight, agree with 2 Peter over against Jesus, Paul and the Synopticists.

There’s no two ways about it.  Sometimes to side with one Biblical author one must side against another.  Things are not as simple as just “believing the Bible.”  The diversity of opinions between the Apostles and within the pages of Scripture itself forces us to pick-and-choose, to take sides, to disagree with one Biblical author or another.

It is the Bible itself, not hubris nor merely our modern sensibilities, that forces us to do so.  At the end of the day, as when God challenged Jacob at Peniel, the Bible gives us no choice but to wrestle with the Bible if we would procure its blessings.  We cannot simply assent to whatever it says.  That way does not lie open to us.  We have to try, with the aid of the Spirit, to wrest Jesus, who is the true source of our life, from the pages of Scripture; to discern the voice of the resurrected Christ amidst the diverse and at turns discordant voices of the Biblical writers.  It is for this reason that I will, at times, feel fully at liberty to prayerfully and gladly disagree with an Apostle.

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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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In my last post I sided with those NT scholars who argue that the key Pauline texts that curtail the preaching ministries of gifted women are not actually Pauline texts at all.  1 Timothy 2:11-15, with its demand that women neither teach nor have authority over men, is part of a corpus of letters written pseudonymously in Paul’s name several decades after the Apostle’s death.  In the case of 1 Corinthians 14:33-35, we have a scribal gloss inserted to square the policy of that letter with that of 1 Timothy!  In short, these texts tell us less about Paul’s understanding of gender roles than they tell us about the attitudes towards gender that emerged and came to predominate amongst second and third generation Christians.  To get a bead on what Paul actually thought about gender we are on much firmer ground if we go to the undisputed epistles.  There we find a picture very different from what we looked at in the last post.

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he addresses a group churches in the Southern part of the Roman province of Galatia. 

The Temple of Augustus and Livia in Vienne, late 1st century BCE

The Temple of Augustus and Livia in Vienne, late 1st century BCE

Several of the cities in which these churches were situated, namely Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra, were Roman colonies.  Roman colonies were typically homes for retired Roman military and were places of intense patriotic and, indeed, religious devotion to Rome and to Caesar.  Archaeological evidence has shown that there was a temple devoted to the cult of Caesar Augustus in Antioch dating as far back as 2/1 BCE.  At least in this city, and likely elsewhere in Southern Galatia, Caesar-worship was a common fixture in Galatian religious and social life

While Jews enjoyed the state sanctioned protected status of being a religio licita, which permitted them to forego participation in the imperial cult, the Galatian christians were generally Gentile converts and, as such, did not share this protected status with their Jewish brethren.  Thus, the gentile Galatian Christians were under immense social pressure from without the Church to either participate in the imperial cult or to become Jews by being circumcized and keeping the Torah (see Gal 6:12).  Furthermore, an influential group of Jewish Christians, apparently based in Jerusalem and associated with James the brother of Jesus (2:12), were also pressuring the Galatian churches to maintain distinctions between Jews and Gentiles.

For the Apostle Paul, to continue to treat these distinctions as sacrosanct was a betrayal of the very gospel of Christ.  He argues that the Torah (or the “Law”) has run its course, its power being terminated and its curse exhausted in the death of the Messiah.  Thus, for Paul, to be united with Christ in His death and new, resurrected life is to have died through the Torah to the Torah such that its commands and distinctions no longer hold sway over you.  Instead, to the Christian, being united to Christ in His death and resurrection, means such distinctions matter not, what matters is the eschatological reality of the Spirit that fulfills and goes beyond the Torah, the “new creation.”

It is within this context that Paul writes,

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

paul2It is jarring here that Paul is not content to simply strike through distinctions between Jews and Gentiles.  Rather, in his mind the gospel has implications reaching far beyond Jew-Gentile relations within the Church.  Rather, he says the gospel delegitimates a deeply entrenched economic and societal structure, namely slavery, and, for our purposes most importantly, gender distinctions.

We have to keep in mind that this is no hyperbolic throw-away line for Paul.  For him, the stakes here are as high as they get and each step of the argument of which 3:28 is the conclusion has been taken with the utmost deliberateness.  Nor is he articulating some sort of pie-in-the-sky ideal.  For Paul, the abolition of these distinctions have practical implications for the Church in the here and now.  In fact, the practical outworkings of the gospel are probably Paul’s chief concern as he is deeply concerned, not about what some of the Galatians think or say, but about what they are about to do, namely, be circumcised. 

Indeed, it must always be born in mind that for Paul, Peter’s decision to break off table-fellowship with Gentiles was out of step with the truth of the gospel (2:14).  The gospel entails not merely the guarantee of forgiveness of sins and a happy hereafter, but rather the radical rearrangement of our present world, the living out of what it means to be crucified to the old world and participants in the “new creation” that is presently dawning in the crucified and resurrected Christ.

women4Paul does not elaborate here on the practical implications of there being  “neither male nor female” amongst those who are one in Christ Jesus, but we can safely assume that there were some such implications.  As it was pointed out in the previous post, women clearly prophesied and publicly prayed in Paul’s churches (see 1 Cor 11:4-5).  Women apparently played key roles in Paul’s ministry (see especially the numerous women listed in Rom 16).  Some of them were the hosts and patrons of house churches (e.g., Prisca, Rom 16:3-5; Chloe, 1 Cor 1:11; ).  One, Junia, was notable amongst the apostles and was perhaps even an apostle herself (Rom 16:7).  Given this rather wide-angle picture of Paul’s ministry, it is difficult to believe that he would have pushed for an ecclesiastical glass-ceiling for Spiritually gifted women.  Indeed, much to the chagrin of the writer of 1 Timothy and of some later anonymous scribe, it seems highly likely that Paul allowed women to teach and have authority over men.

As I have already said, to begin to wrestle with Paul on questions of gender will require us to rethink nearly everything.  When we engage Paul on this matter we find ourselves confronted with a gospel of cosmic proportions, one that frees us from the present evil aeon (1:4), that crucifies the old world to us and us to the old world and ushers in a radically new creation (6:14-15) that abolishes the distinctions characteristic of the old world, including those pertaining to gender.  In short, at least as far as Paul is concerned, to treat questions of gender as peripheral is a grave mistake.  For Paul, matters of gender roles are as tightly bound up with the very heart of the gospel as are matters pertaining to the purpose of the Torah, justification, Jew-Gentile relations, and the cross itself.

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The Apostle Paul is both maligned by feminists as a misogynist extraordinaire and hailed by traditionalists as a champion of hard-and-fast gender roles.  Both of these interpretations of the Apostle to the Gentiles rest on but a handful of hotly disputed and, as we will see, highly questionable texts.  On the other hand, there are many who would suggest that Paul had a much more egalitarian approach to matters of gender than we have heretofore realized. Indeed, it has been suggested that in Paul feminists should find an apostolic ally rather than an adversary.  Over the next few weeks, I will try to work through these nettlesome issues but, as we will see, seriously raising the question of Paul’s stance on gender necessarily raises questions about the very character of the Bible, the nature of humanity and the enterprise of theology, and these questions, in turn, raise further questions still.  Like the Mandelbrot Set, the closer we examine the matter, the more complexity we will discover.

In Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth we read the following:

As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. (1 Corinthians 14:33b-35)

These verses have been loudly and triumphalistically trumpeted by male chauvinists and equally loudly and roundly denounced by feminists.  However, while it may at first appear perfectly clear that Paul here places a universal gag order on women within churches and that readers need only to decide whether to follow or to part with Paul on this matter, I would suggest that the attentive reader of his letter should, at this point, be quite puzzled.  For in chapter 11 of the same letter Paul gives women some guidelines concerning their attire precisely for times when they speak in the church:

Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, 5but every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head- it is the same as if her head were shaven. (1 Corinthians 11:4-5)

This apparent inconsistency within the letter cries out for an explanation, and one isn’t far to find.

With respect to 14:34-35, the verses demanding women’s silence in church, several ancient manuscripts of the letter set the verses at the very end of the chapter, after verse 40, rather than in the place they are normally thought to belong (D F G 88* Ambrosiaster Sedulius Scotus).  The 6th-century Codex Fuldensis, which contains a Latin translation of the New Testament, has a scribal siglum following verse 33 directing readers to the lower margin of the page where the text of verses 36-40 is provided, perhaps indicating that they are not to be read in church as part of the lectionary.  These irregularities with the placement of these verses have led many scholars, not least Gordon Fee, to conclude that they were not originally in the letter and are not authentically Pauline.

In addition to the inconsistency between chapters 11 and 14 and the textual considerations, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has shown that women clearly played an active role in Paul’s mission and churches (Acts 18:18-28; Rom 16:1-2, 3-4, 7; Phil 4:2-3) and most likely participated in the preaching and teaching.  Finally, as Richard Hays points out, nowhere else in 1 Corinthians does Paul appeal to the universal practice of “the churches” (a phrase that smacks of late-1st, early-2nd century proto-catholicism) and “the unqualified appeal to ‘the Law’…is–to say the least–uncharacteristic of Paul’s way of appealing to Scripture as a source of behavioral norms.”

scribeIn short, it seems highly unlikely that verses 34-35 and their mandate for the hushing of women were actually written by Paul.  As Hays and others have suggested, in all likelihood, these verses were added by scribes/interpreters in the 2nd or 3rd century in order to square 1 Corinthians with the teaching of 1 Timothy 2:11-12.

And at this point some of you will be thinking, “Yeah, what about 1 Timothy 2?  Didn’t Paul write that?  Can’t we say, based on that text alone, that Paul required the silence of women in church?”  The text in question reads:

Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing- if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. (1 Timothy 2:11-15)

Here, it would seem, is a clear instance of Paul demanding the universal silencing of women within the churches.  Arguments suggesting that the passage addresses only a unique, local situation and does not have the church at large in view are ultimately unpersuasive.  The commands of verses 11-12 are justified by appeals to the created order (v. 13) and the events within the Garden of Eden (v. 14), not to the local circumstances of Timothy’s church.  So clearly here Paul calls for the ecclesiastical cowing of women.

That is, of course, if Paul wrote 1 Timothy.  And that’s quite a big ‘if’.  The evidence stacked against Paul’s authorship of 1 Timothy and the other Pastoral Epistles is considerable.  Some would say it is nigh unto insurmountable.  Kenton Sparks helpfully summarizes the lines of evidence as follows:

  1. We know from 2 Thess 2:2 and from numerous extant examples (3 Corinthians; Epistle to the Laodiceans; Letters to Seneca) that early Christians composed letters in Paul’s name.
  2. Furthermore, in the pastoral epistles, of which 1 Timothy is one, terms like “faith,” “truth” and “savior” take on senses unattested in Paul’s undisputed letters.  In other words, the vocabulary is uncharacteristic of Paul.
  3. P46, a collection of Paul’s letters dating to ca. 200 CE, omits the Pastorals and Tatian (c. 120-180 CE) partially rejects them.
  4. The Pastorals evince a hierarchical church structure unattested in Paul’s undisputed epistles and more characteristic of second generation Christianity.

All of this suggests that the Pastoral Epistles, including 1 Timothy, are probably pseudonymous letters composed several decades after Paul’s death.  There, are of course, counter arguments, but they tend to be quite weak.  Donald Guthrie is just flat wrong to suggest that we have no examples of pseudo-Pauline letters (see 1 above) and Carson, Moo and Morris are wrong to suggest that the Church never accepted such pseudonymous letters (the Epistle to the Laodiceans is a good example.  Whether Churches accepted pseudonymous letters knowingly is another matter).  At the end of the day, the weight of evidence suggests that the Apostle Paul did not write 1 Timothy.

So, what are we to make of this?  First, it seems that the key texts used for barring women from preaching, teaching and holding leadership positions within the Church have turned out not to be authentically Pauline.  Allegations against Paul of being misogynistic may need to be dropped.  Allegations against female pastors of being un-biblical may need to be dropped as well.  Second, it is clear from the foregoing discussion that rethinking Paul’s stance on women will have far reaching implications.  Even an initial foray into this question necessarily raises questions about the very nature of Scripture.  What are we to make of the problematic passing down of the Bible, wherein scribes occasionally edited and glossed over difficult passages?  How are we to think about the Bible’s inclusion of pseudonymous texts?  Are such texts any less authoritative?  If not, why not?  If so, how so?  But we have only scratched the surface of our initial question and I suspect that seriously rethinking Paul on gender will likely lead us to rethink just about everything.

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"And her master rose up in the morning, and when he opened the doors of the house and went out to go on his way, behold, there was his concubine lying at the door..." (Judges 19:27)

"And her master rose up in the morning, and when he opened the doors of the house and went out to go on his way, behold, there was his concubine lying at the door..." (Judges 19:27)

Several months ago I was asked to teach a Sunday school on the last three chapters of the Book of Judges.  The Sunday school series for the most part had been standard evangelical, moralistic fare, looking to Gideon as an example for doubters and Samson as some sort of hero.  But Judges 19-21 is, to say the least, not particularly amenable to such moralistic readings.  Not many of us struggle with turning out our concubines to be gang-raped to death by angry mobs, or with dismembering their corpses and then FedExing their limbs to our relatives (chap 19).  At least we don’t on a regular basis.  And I may be wrong, but I doubt that many of us would endorse the “ambush, kidnap and force into marriage” approach to courtship (chap 21).  In short, it is probably unwise to treat Judges as a trove of tales about virtue and role models.

How, then, should we read Judges?  I would suggest that the Book of Judges should be read Messianically.  That is to say, the Book of Judges, as we now have it, points forward to the Messiah as the hope of Israel.

The Book of Judges is comprised of a bunch of stories that probably circulated orally and independently in Israelite society for quite some time before being put to writing and combined into a single narrative.  While the Book itself probably underwent many editions over the years, two editions of the Book of Judges are both easily identified and very important for understanding the book.

The first clue as to the existence and date of an earlier edition of the Book is provided by the phrase, “so the Jebusites have dwelt with the Benjaminites in Jerusalem to this day (hZ<)h; ~AYðh; d[;Þ)” (1:21b).  David routed the Jebusites from Jerusalem in 1003 BCE (see 2 Sam 5:6-9) and so, naturally, Judges 1:21b must have been written before that event.

This first edition is clearly a piece of Davidic propaganda that dates to the period when David was King only of the South and Ish-Bosheth, the son of Saul, ruled over the northern tribes in Ephraim (1010-1003 BCE) and when both kings had ambitions of controlling all of Israel.  Judges repeatedly evinces a pro-Judah (David’s tribe), anti-Benjamin (Saul and Ish-Bosheth’s tribe) polemic that ony makes sense within a context wherein both of these two houses were vying for control of Israel.  Some highlights of the Book’s pro-Judah/David and anti-Benjamin/Saul/Ish-Bosheth bias are as follows:

  • 1:1-2, The Lord specifically chooses Judah to lead the Israelite conquest of the land.
  • 1:1-34, Of the Twelve tribes, Judah alone succeeds in routing the people of the land (with the exception of the plain, for which the Book of Judges gives them an excuse!).
  • 1:21, The tribe of Benjamin’s failure to drive out the land’s inhabitants, namely the Jebusites (whom David would succeed in conquering.  Benjamin fails to take Jerusalem, a city which Judah had already (!?) captured, struck with the sword and put to the torch (1:8).
  • 3:7-11, The first judge treated in the Book is Othniel, a man from the tribe of Judah, and the report concerning him is completely benign.  His story is immediately followed by one of Ehud, 3:12-30, a left-handed Benjaminite. “Benjamin” means “son of the right hand.”  In the Ancient Near East being left-handed was highly stigmatized.  Benjamin assassinates the morbidly-obese king Eglon of Moab (whose name means “calf” or “heifer”) in the bathroom, spilling his excrement everywhere, and then apparently makes his getaway via the toilet.
  • 19:22-30, The Book of Judges narrates the decline of Israel the climax of which is the crime of the Benjaminite city of Gibeah (Saul’s hometown, 1 Sam 10:26).  The implication of the grotesque narrative is that the Gibeanites have turned out to be worse than foreigners (see 19:12).  In fact, Gibeah is portrayed as a new Sodom (compare with Gen 19).
  • 20:18, When the other eleven Israelite tribes go to war against errant Benjamin the Lord specifically chooses Judah to lead them just as He chose Judah to lead the conquest of the land in 1:1-2.
  • 20:48; 21:10-12, The force used against the Benjaminites resembles that which was normally reserved for the peoples that Israel was disinheriting (see Deut 7:1-2; Josh 6:15-21; 10:40, etc.).

The weight of this evidence makes it almost certain that the earliest edition of the Book of Judges was a piece of Davidic propaganda from the time when the Saul’s Benjaminite dynasty still constituted a threat.  That leaves us with a date somewhere between 1010-1003 BCE.

KingDavidWithin the context of this first edition, the Book’s four-fold refrain, “In those days there was no king in Israel,” (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25) should be understood as initially pointing to a specifically Judahite king,  namely David, as the solution to Israel’s plight.  The Book of Judges is structured by a cyclical narrative pattern: Israel apostasizes -> Israel is punished by YHWH with a military defeat and subjugation -> Israel is distressed -> YHWH raises up a judge who rescues Israel -> The judge dies -> Israel apostasizes again….  With each cycle the judges become less respectable and the narrative becomes increasingly grotesque, such that we should read the Book as depicting Israel as being in a downward spiral that hits rock bottom in deplorable behavior of the Benjaminites relayed in chapters 19-21.  Within this schema, Israel’s problem is that “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6; 21:25).  The unsubtle implication of the Book is that Benjamin is very much a part of that problem and that a Judahite king, David is the answer.

The existence of a second (or, at any rate, later) edition of the Book of Judges becomes apparent in chapter 18, verse 30 which reads, “The Danites set up the sculptured image for themselves; and Jonathan son of Gershom son of Manasseh, and his descendants, served as priests to the Danite tribe until the land went into exile.”  This text refers to the capture of the land and expulsion of the people of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 BCE, nearly three centuries after the time of David (see 2 Kings 17:6).  The second edition of the Book of Judges must have been written after that event and in all probability post-dates the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE and the beginning of the Babylonian exile.

In the Exile the unthinkable had happened: the Davidic dynasty was more or less dethroned.  It seemed as though YHWH’s promises to David had failed (2 Sam 7).  During this period the Book of Judges was incorporated into a larger narrative stretching from Deuteronomy through 2Kings that scholars call, naturally enough, the Deuteronomistic History.  In this larger narrative the downward spiral of Israel resumes with the sin of Solomon, David’s heir, leading to the splitting of the Kingdom into two, the general apostasy of Israel’s kings (with some notable exceptions, such as Hezekiah and Josiah) and finally to the manifestation of YHWH’s wrath towards His people in the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles.

pantokrator3Despite the abysmal failure of the dynasty, exiled Israel, or, more specifically, the Judeans, still looked to members of the Davidic line as providing glimmers of hope for a brighter future (see 2Kings 25:27-30; Isa 9:1-7; Zech 4, etc.).  It is, I suggest, in this context of messianic hope that the second edition of the Book of Judges, now incorporated into the grand narrative of the Deuteronomistic History, should be read.  In this context the phrase “In those days there was no king in Israel” takes on deep and profound notes of messianic hope, pointing still to David but pointing also through  and beyond David to his long-awaited heir who would one day rescue captive Israel.

Thus, Christians need not try to find a moral in the disturbing stories of Judges 19-21.  Rather, with the aid of eschatological hindsight, Christians can find there something far better: their Savior.

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