My Man Paul: the Vexatious Veil

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Ancient Corinth in Roman times

Paul had his work cut out for him in Corinth – his Letters to the Corinthians follow Galatians chronologically – a community whose members French writer Emmanuel Carrère characterizes as a bunch unruly or at least overly enthusiastic about the license of “freedom” to dissolve hierarchies and boundaries that their newness in Christ granted them.”They drank, fornicated, transformed the agapes [communal feasts] into orgies….” Moreover, Corinth, long a commercial centre and Roman colony, he describes as “an enormous, densely populated, dissolute port city….Half a million inhabitants, of whom two-thirds slaves.”

“Do you not know,” Paul thundered, that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? “Do not be led astray.” [1Cor 6:9] In David Bentley Hart’s translation, Paul is stabbing his finger at those who will not inherit, “neither the whoring nor idolators, nor adulterers, nor feckless sensualists, nor men who couple with catamites.” (Catamites? Other translators offer “sexual perverts” or “the effeminate.” But a catamite, Hart explains, is a boy prostitute. Paul is not denouncing a “sexual identity” but a “sexual activity,” a master’s or patron’s rape of young male slaves.)

And  not only them: “…nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom.” [1 Cor: 6:10]

As Pheme Perkins writes, this “vice list” may have seemed to his audience in Corinth – especially the men, unused to restrictions on their sexual behaviour – as the rant of a scold. But really it is “an invitation to a different kind of Christian maturity.” Paul is inviting these khristianos, followers of Khristos, “to engage in a process of ethical discernment.”

The Vexatious Veil

but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. [1 Cor 11:6]

What is exercising Paul so much about the unveiled (Christian) women of Corinth? He has no issue with the fact they pray and prophesy in the assemblies – a few chapters later he will exhort Corinthians, that “you can all prophesy one by one,” teaching and encouraging those who hear them – but the uncovered female head? What was the problem?

I grew up in a Ukrainian Orthodox church in the 1950s when it was customary for the married women to wear a brand new hat for the Easter services. My sister and I enjoyed very much the privilege of attending our mother on her shopping spree on the creaky wooden second floor of Johnston Walker’s department store where hats were set out on the heads of mannequins and mum tried out one after another. (Earlier models had become part of our dress-up wardrobe and I especially liked putting on, at a rakish angle, a white straw boater with a black velvet ribbon around the crown.) When I stopped going to church in the mid-1960s, away from home, I missed the transition to women’s hatlessness. Now the “Easter bonnet” seems show-offy, certainly a fashion statement, and I wonder if the female covered head had actually been pronounced some sort of ecclesiastical, even canonical, edict by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada’s male hierarchs? Or had the Church ceased paying attention to Paul’s moralizing about a woman’s head?

Prostitute in Byzantine Holy Land

Now, in these days of my struggling with the Orthodox Church’s entrenchment of patriarchal privilege (don’t get me started on its stubborn refusal to use ungendered language in English-language liturgical texts) it dismays me that the Paul who had declared that in baptism (and I was baptized as an infant) “there is neither male nor female” should also fulminate about “disgracing” my (hatless) head as though I were as good as going about with a shaven head. Apparently, women with shaven heads in Biblical times were “a recognized class of woman, probably the accused adulteress.”  While those who went about with a glory of hair, such as the prostitutes in the brothels, were often the inspiration of erotic poetry. So the unveiled head of a woman apparently signalled her intention to be sexually available, or at least, to let her hair down, “a practice probably associated with spiritual freedom in Dionysus worship.” The Corinthians, remember, were very recently pagans.

But here’s another angle: it was customary that “elite” women in Greek society wore a veil to signal precisely their respectability and high status. If we take Paul at his word – that, in the Christian worship assemblies that he addressed, the “new creatures” now baptized in Christ were to behave in an ethical manner toward each other – their conduct would set them apart from a society of brutish and selfish custom. The enslaved were brutalized with impunity, the prostitute was humiliated and scorned and forbidden to veil. Then perhaps it was a sign of the new community’s one-in-Christ-Jesus that all women should be given the honour of the veil, not just “respectable” matrons.

Portion of Ars Pacis monument

And, anyway, Pheme Perkins points to the “tendency” of some Commentaries and translations to give the “wrong impression to modern readers” when they refer to the women prophets as veiled or unveiled  Perhaps she is thinking that with that word we have in mind  the “hijab” and “niqab” when in fact it was a loose covering. And she invites us to look at the Ara Pacis sculpture, an altar in Rome dedicated to Pax, the Roman goddess of Peace.

Perhaps that is bit of feminist overstretching and I do not wish to impugn Ms Perkins, who may not in fact identify as a feminist, although it must be said “she is a nationally recognized expert on the Greco-Roman cultural setting of early Christianity, as well as the Pauline Epistles.” [Wiki] Perhaps Paul was merely ambivalent or even down right anxious about transgression of rigid social and cultural norms in the highly-demarcated society in which the Corinthian church was embedded. Against these he preached the spiritual norms of autonomy and dignity but, still, he pleaded that “All things should be done decently and in order.” [1 Cor 14:40]

Daniel Boyarin, author of A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity, reminds us that Paul has been preaching or writing to two very different communities, Galatians (pagans in the Turkish highlands, Paul’s first converts) and Corinthians (in an urban metropolis), in response to their particular concerns. (He is not establishing dogma or doctrine for a Universal Church that did not yet exist.) For us, he cautions, it is important which of these Letters we choose as the “interpretive key” to Paul. First Corinthians has been used as a “powerful defense of a cultural conservatism.” But if Galatians 3:28-9 is our interpretive key, then we start with a “profound vision of humanity undivided by ethnos, class and sex.”

As I outlined in Part One, after “authentic” Paul  of Galatians and First Corinthians come the Letters of Post-Paul (conservative) and Pseudo-Paul (reactionary). And so we read the notorious interpolation in 1Cor 14 – between the real Paul’s invitation, “for you can all prophesy one by one,” and “so, my brethren [“Paul was obviously writing to the entire church (which included sisters in Christ)”] earnestly desire to prophesy” – the astonishing rebuke that “the women should keep silence in the churches.” Women should be subordinate “for it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” Tell that to Phoebe or Lydia or Junia or Thecla. Or even to Paul.

It is generally conceded that the rebuke comes from the generation after Paul. Karen Jo Torjesen calls it a “scandal” that women were subordinated as the Christan Church grew in influence in Roman society. Rt. Rev. John S. Spong names the “church’s prejudice against women” outright, as Paul was “tamed and domesticated.”

Woman preaching in early Church

And so it is that we have: “Wives, be subject to your husbands” [Col 3:18]. “Women are not to teach or have authority over a man.” “We call this ‘reactionary,'” write Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, “because it is clearly reacting to what has been happening in the early assemblies: women who prophesy, who speak in tongues, who teach.” The radical mutuality between men and women that Paul preached to the Corinthians has been deradicalized. He had written: “Then again, in the Lord there is neither woman apart from man, nor man apart from woman. For just as the woman is out of the man, so too is the man through the woman, and all things are out of God.” [1Cor 11:11-12] Compare this to First Timothy: “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission for Adam was formed first, then Eve, and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” [1Tim 2:11-15] Wikipedia gives the date of composition of First Timothy  “some time in the late 1st century or first half of the 2nd century AD, with a wide margin of uncertainty.” Paul had died in c. 64; the church of First Timothy was now being persecuted in earnest.

Feminist theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, in Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation (1985), points out that the “household codes” that governed patriarchal relationships in Greco-Roman society (husband and wife, father and son, master and slave) “belong to the later New Testament…and are not found in the genuine Pauline writings.” These, such as Timothy, she calls “a deformation of the Pauline gospel,” yet theologians, resounding down the ages, have mostly chosen to interpret Paul anachronistically through the lens of Timothy.

The Acts of Paul and Thecla was fated to be sidelined as New Testament Apocrypha. Remember Thecla?: the Acts “celebrates the story of a woman converted by Paul who rejects her fiancé, adopts men’s clothing, and travels as an evangelist. Persecuted by the agents of family and state, she is vindicated by God through miraculous protection from harm. Paul reappears at the end of the story to affirm her role and commission her to preach in her hometown.”

St John Chrysostom

But my favourite example of misogynist revisionism of Paul is what happened to Junia, “foremost among the apostles,” as Paul hailed her in his last Letter. [Rom 16:6]  (An apostle, in its most literal sense, is an emissary, from Greek ἀπόστολος, literally “one who is sent off.” wiki) Even 300 years later in Constantinople Archbishop John Chrysostom eulogized Junia as the apostle for Christian woman to emulate: “To be apostles is a great thing, but to be distinguished among them—consider what an extraordinary accolade that is! They were distinguished because of their works and because of their upright deeds. Indeed, how great was the wisdom of this woman that she was thought worthy of being called an apostle!”

But along the way Junia became Junias and, according to the 1952 Revised Standard Version translation of the New Testament, Paul greets “Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and fellow prisoners, men of note among the apostles.” The “foremost apostle” has become insupportable in her gender.

So: is Paul a friend or enemy of women? I have decided to be guided by Daniel Boyarin for whom Paul was the “radical Jew” whose entire gospel is a “stirring call to human freedom and universal autonomy” from which women are not excluded. This is Paul’s “theology of the spirit” but even “in the flesh” the genders have mutual and reciprocal rights: “…let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband.”  [1Cor: 7:2-3] Returning to Galatians, Boyarin asserts that” if Paul took ‘no Jew nor Greek’ seriously as all of Galatians attests that he clearly did, how could he possibly – unless he is incoherent or a hypocrite – not have taken ‘no male or female’ with equal seriousness?”

Finally, I return to the effect on me of reading passages of Paul as by a religious poet and visionary (see A.N. Wilson on Paul ) who calls me to the internal transformation – how I envy the joy of it – when “everything old had passed away; see, everything has become new!” [2Cor 5:17]

And how are we transformed? By agape, love. C. S. Lewis’s “the highest level of love known to humanity: a selfless love that is passionately committed to the well-being of others.”

1Cor 13:4-7 has become a celebrated verse for Western (Christian or not) wedding ceremonies. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal….Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. 5 It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” And marriages do, after all, offer premonitions of transformation. But for me, I read on, to the transcendent love that will bear us away from what, on earth, we know “only partially,”  and what we prophesy only “partially.”

 “But when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away….For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love”





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George Melnyk
George Melnyk
3 years ago

Well done Myrna. Your voyage through the authorities and ending where you did is an excellent summary for us of the literature that interprets a contested figure. Your conclusion lifts the commentaries to a higher level.