George Bernard Shaw called Paul “the eternal enemy of Women.” Shaw certainly liked his hyperbole but it isn’t quite true. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of feminists can’t stand him. Katherine M. Rogers in her history of misogyny, The Troublesome Helpmate, says, “The foundations of early Christian misogyny — its guilt about sex, its insistence on female subjection, its dread of female seduction — are all in St. Paul’s epistles.” Others, like Elaine Pagels are determined to make him a proto-feminist by dismissing his talk of submission as the ravings of Pauline impostors.
There are three main passages that brand Paul, in Sarah Ruden’s phrase, “An Apostolic Oinker” The first two are in 1 Corinthians and refer to head coverings and the instructions for virgins respectively. The last is found in 1 Timothy 2:12 and includes the statements about women remaining silent in the assembly. I would have loved for Sarah Ruden to have dealt with this last passage in her commentary on Paul’s misogyny but, alas, Dr. Ruden agrees with a lot of university scholars who don’t think 1 Timothy is written by Paul at all (mainly because the Paul of 1st Timothy seems to them much more chauvinistic than the Paul of 1 Corinthians.)
Can’t win them all, I suppose. I’ll have to settle for Ruden’s commentary on head coverings and marriage. Here’s how she starts:
. . . [M]odern readers tend to come at the passage in 1 Corinthians from the wrong angle. It would not have been remarkable that women were forbidden to speak among the Christians. It’s remarkable that they were speaking in the first place. It’s remarkable that they were even there, in an ekklēsia [assembly], perhaps for all kinds of worship and deliberation, and that their questions needed answers, if not on the spot. Paul’s negativity—even his typical snapping about authority—is extremely modest against the polytheistic background.
This is consistent with what we’ve talked about my previous posts on Ruden’s Paul Among the People. Paul gets branded as a Procrustean stick in the mud but we find he is really a radical iconoclast. Paul’s working out of Christian community, seen in its context, shows a remarkable progressive innovation from the Greco-Roman status quo. Fine and good but what about these women and their veils? 1 Corinthians 11 says:
4 Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. 5 But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head. 7
I’ll admit this passage always nagged at me. Early in my Christian walk I conjured up images of burqa clad women with their heads down like poor dumb animals. Then I went to a Brethren church in North Carolina where women wear head coverings which for all the world looked like my grandmother’s tea doilies. The oppressive nor the comical seemed to sit right with me. ( And lest you accuse me of insulting the Brethren, I had a few of the women laugh with me about the doily thing. Apparently they have their own jokes). Per usual Ruden excavates the secular ethos through her understanding of Greco-Roman literature:
Respectable Greek and Roman women traditionally wore concealing veils in public. Marriage and widowhood were the chief things that a veil signaled. (For a Roman woman, “to get married” and “to veil oneself” were exactly the same word.) The veil held great symbolism: it reminded everyone that all freeborn women, women with families to protect them, were supposed to enter adulthood already married, and that they were supposed to stay chastely married or else chastely widowed until the end of their lives. The veil was the flag of female virtue, status, and security. In the port city of Corinth, with its batteries of prostitutes—including the sacred prostitutes of the temple of Aphrodite—the distinction between veiled and unveiled women would have been even more crucial
So the veil was not a symbol of oppression but protection. Those veiled were not to be propositioned, leered at etc. They were not “on the market” nor “on the make.” According to Ruden this fashion division was a legal restraint. Literally fashion police at Greek festivals would patrol the crowds to make sure no low born women was caught wearing a veil. Prostitutes were forbidden to wear them and any woman caught in adultery was forever barred from wearing a full length stola.
Now given all of this how was the church to treat women? Since in Christ there is neither “male nor female” according to Galatians should this Greco-Roman custom be cast off along with Roman sensuality? That would have been progressive but it also would have been degrading. Here’s Ruden again:
I think Paul’s rule aimed toward an outrageous equality. All Christian women were to cover their heads in church, without distinction of beauty, wealth, respectability—or of privilege so great as to allow toying with traditional appearances. The most hurtful thing about bareheaded, gorgeously coiffed wives might not have been their frivolity but rather their thoughtless flaunting of styles that meant degradation to some of their sisters—as if a suburban matron attended an inner-city mission church in hip boots, a miniskirt, and a blond wig.
Quite an image isn’t it? The reason all women should worship with their heads covered was so that no woman felt less than any other. Here’s something that took me a while to wrap my head around. Are we cognizant that there were likely “practicing” prostitutes that were in that church worshiping along side matrons of society? These prostitutes would have been slaves or temple prostitutes who had somehow found their way to faith or were just “seekers” understandably attracted to any ethos that didn’t treat them like cattle or yesterday’s trash.
That they had sex for money or sustenance was not their choice. They were not engaged in the oldest profession but the oldest denigration. Imagine what that must have been like. A known prostitute converts to Christianity heart and soul and she comes to an assembly to hear about Jesus and his followers, one of whom is advocating that “there is neither male nor female” in Christ. Sweet mercy, what good news. She is not cattle or a just a means of pleasure. She is a joint heir with Christ and the church is his bride that he not only tolerates but loves with this new weird love. Now imagine that in this sanctuary this prostitute doesn’t have to endure the leers and whispers because as you look out over the small gathering all the women are veiled. Sweet mercy what a relief.
Sitting alongside our veiled prostitute, you have a virgin daughter and she too is listening to Paul’s letter. She is a Christian but her parents may not be. Maybe only her mother is. At any rate, she is shortly to be wed to a man twice her age who is on his third marriage and who is not a believer at all. What is she to do? For the average Corinthian, she has no choice what so ever. Now Paul talks about the prospect that any Christian male or female has the freedom to be celibate if they can maintain it. ( 7:8-9 But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.)
. . . most modern Westerners tend to take Paul, with his preference for celibacy, as grim and negative, urging people to give up the greatest human joys for a chilly, lonely religious life. This mistake comes partly from an assumption that erotic, mutually nurturing marriage was a ready option for Paul’s followers, when actually he was calling them away from either the tyranny of traditional arranged unions or the cruelty of sexual exploitation, or (in the case of married men exploiting the double standard) both. The language of equality here in 1 Corinthians absolutely does not fit [G.B. Shaw's] reading; it in fact rebels against the unmitigated chauvinistic attitudes Paul would have found in Greco-Roman households . . .
Next to these two women is a slightly older matron whose husband has recently come to the faith. She hears Paul say the following:
3 The husband must [a]fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.
Say what? the woman has authority over the husband’s body? Is this some kind of comedic farce? Afraid not. In fact, Ruden reminds us that literary landscape would instead remind the virgin and the matron of their duties:
She clings—yet you still tear her from her mother And give the chaste girl to the burning young man. Are enemies in a captured city crueler? …Virgin, you must not fight with such a husband. It isn’t right—your father gave you to him, Your father, and your mother—you must mind them. They own a part of your virginity: Your father’s granted a third, your mother a third. Only a third is yours: you are outvoted. [From the Wedding Song of Catallus]
Three women hearing from Paul the Chauvinist that they are not objects, bargaining chips, or conveniences, but in Christ, they are new creatures worthy of respect, dignity and God’s love . No wonder the Roman empire thought Christianity was dangerous.