Sunday, July 16, 2017

Why was St. Paul such a chauvinist?

Dear Rev. Know-it-all,

Can you explain why St. Paul was such a male chauvinist?

Mary Jo Van Istick

Dear Mary Jo,

I’m not sure he was such a chauvinist. He wrote, “The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.” (1Cor 7:4)  As far as I know, Paul of Tarsus was the first person in history to say that a man and a woman had equal rights over one another in any way.  He also forbad divorce in an age when divorce was easy and common. He conceded that a woman under certain circumstances could divorce her husband, though a Christian woman who did so could not remarry.

This is amazing. I have long studied ancient texts etc. because I don’t really have much of a social life, but in my many years of study I have never run into a document earlier than the time of St. Paul that allowed a woman to divorce a man. Men could and did divorce women frequently, but women tell a man to go packing? Never! Women did not have the right to initiate divorce until around a century after St. Paul wrote these words. (1 Cor. 7:10-13) “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord), a wife must not separate from her husband, but if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. A husband must not divorce his wife. For the rest, I say this (I, not the Lord): If a brother has an unbelieving wife and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. If a woman has an unbelieving husband and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. (1 Cor. 7 10-13)

Apparently, Paul thought it permissible for women to divorce men under certain circumstances, but not to remarry as the Lord Jesus taught. He seems also to have taught that a Christian man could never divorce his wife with the sole exception of a non-Christian wife and then only with her permission. This is astounding considering the customs of the time. Further, Paul says the prohibition against a man divorcing his wife is a command from the Lord and not just an opinion of Paul’s. The permission to divorce an unbelieving wife if she wants out of the marriage is Paul’s opinion not the Lord’s. Fascinating.

Paul clearly indicates that some of what he says is from the Lord and that some is not. Again, amazing! Paul, unlike most modern theologians, was able to admit that his opinion was not necessarily God’s opinion!! How can this be? If it’s in the Bible isn’t it God speaking? Apparently not. Paul clearly says that some things he orders as a legitimate Church authority are not from God, but others are.

This brings us to unveiled women speaking in church. There are two particularly egregious and irritating passages about women kept quiet in church. “As in all the congregations of the Lord’s people, women should remain silent in the churches, they are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:33-35) and “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” (1Timothy 2:12)

Corinth and Ephesus were important Greek cities in the Roman Empire. Corinth was an important trade city that straddled the narrow isthmus between northern and southern Greece. To save time and avoid danger, ships would be hauled out of the water by slaves on one end of the isthmus and dragged to the other end. There were lots of sailors with a lot of time on their hands. There was also a temple dedicated to Aphrodite the goddess of “Luv” on a hilltop right in the middle of town.  In it were a thousand beautiful women who served as priestesses of the goddess. The ancient believed that intimacy with a temple priestess, or a transvestite temple priest depending on your tastes, was an act of religious devotion and would bring good luck. For a certain monetary consideration the women (and quasi-women) clergy of Corinth were happy to be of help. Needless to say, the sailors ran into town to pray while their boats were being dragged across the isthmus. In the ancient world women talking with strangers in the streets was simply not done, except of course for those in the service of pagan religion. They went about heads uncovered saying things like, “Hello, Sailor!” to perfect strangers.

The new sect of the Christians considered itself a family of faith and was a very small group of people. They first seem to have met in private homes for worship and as one would in a domestic gathering the ladies took off their veils, greeted everyone with a kiss and talked freely. You know how neighbors love to talk. The Corinthians, I imagine, peering through the lattice at their Christian neighbors, seeing unveiled women talking and kissing, must have thought, Oh Good! Another outpost of the worship of our goddess! To this St. Paul responded, “Put your veils back on and be quiet ladies. The neighbors are getting the wrong idea!” 

Ephesus was another port town just across the Aegean Sea from Corinth. It was even more religious than Corinth. It was the home of the great temple of Artemis (Diana) the virgin goddess, patroness of hunters. Diana was served by a great number of priestesses called Melissai or “honey bees”. At first they were all virgins but customs change. The honey bees conducted the rituals of the temple which included sacrifices and ceremonial prostitution. The temple at Ephesus was magnificent and considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World which was an ancient bucket list. There were actual tours that would take you to see the seven wonders, and the Temple of Diana at Ephesus was on the list. Lots of tourists; lots of honey bees. So what has this to do with women being kept quiet in church?

(Next week: St. Paul and the revenge of the Honey Bees!)

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