A Window into the Past: Women, Greco-Roman Society, and The Pastorals (pt. iv:1 Cor 11:2-16)

Literary Context

The passage under examination follows Paul’s discourse on idolatry (8:1-11:1) and precedes his discussion about propriety and impropriety in the Lord’s Supper (11:17-34) (Hjort 60).  Brigitte Hjort recommends seeing the framing of 1 Cor. 11:2-16 as part of a cohesive discussion about idol worship and/or religious abuse specifically related to food and drink (8:1-11:34) (61, 63).  However, in chapter 12, Paul begins with his examination of the proper use of Spiritual gifts within the worship service concluding in chapter 14 (vv.26-40) with a discussion on “orderly worship” and the function of the different parts of the body (12:1-14:40).  It appears that the content of 1 Cor. 11:2-16 is more closely linked with what follows rather than what precedes, thus, this passage appears to be the introduction to Paul’s lengthy address on proper versus improper conduct during worship (Hays 181).

Head Coverings (11:2-16).

v.2.  Paul begins the pericope by praising the Corinthians for remembering him and for keeping the traditions that he gave to them (v.2).  The Greek word (Ἐπαινῶ) has a stronger connotation than the typical translation “I commend”.  epaino is often associated in Biblical Greek with praising God or honoring a person (Thiselton 809).  Thiselton writes, “In the context of an honor/shame culture some forceful attribution of honor (praise) is required…” (809).  Paul is using purposeful rhetoric to grab his audience’s attention.

Why is Paul praising the Corinthians?  Because they have kept the traditions (παραδόσεις) that he has handed down to them (παρέδωκα).  Thiselton explains that the active sense of parado,seij (from the verb paradi,dwmi) is “betrayal” and the passive sense is “tradition”, “that which is handed on, including teachings, creeds, narratives, catchesis” (810).  F.F. Bruce comments, “The traditions [paradoseis]…were the instructions, relating to matters of doctrine and practice alike, which [Paul] delivered to his churches on the authority of Christ” (102).  Likewise Thiselton, referring to Polycarp, Irenaeus, Clement, and Origen comments, “In early Christian literature the words soon come to denote an authoritative tradition of Christian teaching” (810).  But Bruce warns his reader that though “apostolic tradition” may find its roots “‘from the Lord’” paradoseis and kurios are not to be mistaken as synonymous (103); thus, “…the…‘tradition’ of which [Paul] goes on to emphasize [vv.3-16]…probably does not go back beyond his own teaching” (Bruce 103).  However, what follows is not to be discarded for Paul was one to have the mind of Christ (Bruce 103).

v.3.  After grabbing the Corinthians’ attention, Paul begins his discourse on head-coverings by giving three examples of the headship relationship (the “kephale-structure” (Bjort, 64)): Christ and man, husband and wife, and Christ and God.  Thiselton refers to the translation of this verse as one that “…has caused more personal agony and difficulty than any other in the epistle…” due to the ambiguousness of the meaning of the Greek word κεφαλὴ, (811)[2], and to the vagueness of Paul’s motives for starting his discussion about head coverings with the “kephale-structure”.  To better understand this verse, we will examine the Greek word translated as “head” (kephale) and the “kephale-structure”.

Some scholars argue for translation of kephale, as “source”; Leon Morris, Gordon Fee, and F.F. Bruce (et al) defend this position (see Thiselton 814).  Morris argues for “source” based off the assumption that “…the functions of the central nervous system were not known to the ancients, who held that we think with the midriff, the phrēn (JTS, n.s., v, 1954, pp. 211-215).  The head was not the controlling factor” (149; and Bruce 103).  Though “source” seems to mend the inherent difficulties within the passage under consideration, Thiselton points out that “…the paucity of lexicographical evidence remains a major obstacle to this translation” (820).  And, considering Paul’s argument in the rest of the passage is based on the theme of “glory” and “honor/shame”, “source” as a translation of kephale, does not contextually flow with Paul’s skillfully devised rhetoric and appears disconnected from Paul’s point.

Traditionally, the translation of kephale, has been “authority, supremacy, leadership,” a view supported by scholars such as Wayne Grudem, J. Fitzmeyer, and others (Thiselton 812-3).  Richard Hays writes, “…in view of the whole shape of the argument, the patriarchal implications of v.3 are undeniable” thus, the concept of “authority” is to be retained (184) and David Ewert writes, “…‘head’ is…used in the sense of ‘leader’, and…[that sense] is not absent here.  As Christ in his incarnation submitted to God, and man is subject to Christ…so the married woman is subject to her husband” (115).  Culturally, the Corinthians would have understood kefalh, to have the connotation of “authority” due to the Empire’s rhetoric of the paterfamilias.  Daniel Arichea writes, “The idea of ‘authority’ would reflect the structure of the household in Roman society, where there is an emphasis on the paterfamilias” (461).  Craig Keener agrees, “…ancient literature…applies [kephale,] often to ‘authority’ or to the ‘most honored [or prominent] part.’  Both ‘authority’ and ‘honored part’ fit Paul’s Christology (11:3) as well as the normal structure of the household in Paul’s’ environment” (1-2 Corinthians 92).  Is Paul touting the party line of the Roman Empire and its hierarchical structure of state and family or is he subverting the empire, subjecting it all to Christ?  If kephale, only means “authority” (or the like) in this pericope, then we may be left with a Christ that has restored everything but the relationship between man and woman.  Another issue I have with translating kephale as “authority” within this verse is that one would be prone to see the Trinity in terms of subordinationism.  If Paul is talking about hierarchy and authority within the “kephale-structure” of this verse, then God is “authority” over (i.e. greater than, super-ordinated over) the incarnated Christ thus the implication is that Christ is somehow inferior (subordinated) to God.  If Christ, in His incarnation, is not fully God (and fully man) then we are left in our sins and are without hope.  Referring to Chrysostom, Thiselton writes,

Chrysostom is aware that a parallel between men/women and God/Christ should not give ‘the heretics’ grounds for subordinationist Christology.  In certain respects head denotes a kind of primacy, but both God and Christ on one side and men and women on the other are the same mode of being. ‘For had Paul meant to speak of rule and subjection…he would not have brought forward the instance of a woman (or wife), but rather of a slave and a master….It is a wife (or woman) as free, as equal in honour; and the Son also, though He did become obedient to the Father, it was as the Son of God; it was God’….Chrysostom…reflects Paul’s notion that in the context of love between God and Christ, or between man and woman, obedience or response is chosen, not imposed… (819).

One must not confuse “submission” with “subjection”.  The Father did not force Christ to the cross, rather, Christ submitted Himself to the Father to death on a Cross (Phil. 2:8).  This submission was an oblation, was an offering of Himself to God in order to glorify God by atoning for the sins of humanity, thus restoring humanity to God.  As well, a wife’s submission to her husband is her oblation, her offering, a laying down of herself for the glory of her husband and not because he is her authority but because she glorifies him.

Thus, there is a third (and better) way to look at the word kephale.  It is possible that kephale translated as “head” contains the notion “that which is glorified”.  When looking at the relationships Paul uses in this verse (every man and Christ, woman and man, and Christ and God), one may notice that one part of the coupling is the person/being that is glorified and that the other is the agent by which the glorification occurs (i.e. woman glorifies man, man is glorified by woman).  However, the glorification is not a selfish desire by the one in detriment to the other.  It is just the opposite; there is mutual reciprocity with in the “kephale-structure” (Thiselton 804).  As one is glorified so is the other part (Thiselton 804).  Thiselton offers,

The Greek Fathers’ use of the term perichoresis well suggests the dialectic of distinctiveness, reciprocity, and oneness which Paul beings to unfold.…The God-Christ relation has nothing to do with self-glory or with affirmation of the self at the expense of the other…This shared love controls the use of freedom, and thereby each brings ‘glory to the other by assuming distinctive roles for a common purpose.  This is the context that gives currently to the widespread comment that ‘the relationship between man and woman is thus in some sense paralleled by that between God and Christ (804, emphasis Thiselton’s).

Keener writes, “Although some argue plausibly that ‘head’ figuratively functions as ‘source’ or ‘first part’…ancient literature also applies it…to the ‘most honored [or prominent] part….‘honored part’ fit[s] Paul’s Christology (11:3) as well as the normal structure of the household in Paul’s’ environment” (92).  Thisleton offers, “preeminent, foremost, and synecdoche for a representative whole” as the translation of kephale that

…has the merit of most clearly drawing interactively on the metaphorical conjunction between physiological head (which is far and away the most frequent, ‘normal’ meaning) and the notion of prominence, i.e., the most conspicuous or topmost manifestation of that for which the term also functions as synecdoche for the whole.  The public face is linked with responsibility and representation in the public domain, since head is both the part of a person which is most conspicuous and that by which they are most readily distinguished or recognized.  These aspects feature more frequently and prominently in first-century Greek texts than either the notions of ruler or source… (821, emphasis Thiselton’s).

Each of the secondary (not inferior) parts of the “kephale-structure[s]” reflect and glorify the primary parts as that which is conspicuous, the preeminent part, the part “by which they [the secondary aspects] are most readily distinguished or recognized.”  It is through God that one recognizes Jesus, it is through man that one recognizes woman, and it is through Jesus that one recognizes redeemed man.  Through the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, God is glorified because Jesus was the perfect propitiation for our sins and creation is restored to God, through Jesus we know God.  Through the creation of woman (Gen 2:18-23) man is glorified and is man because of her creation and is able to commune with God; through woman we know man.  Through redeemed man Jesus is glorified—for it was the first man, Adam, brought to life by the intimate breath of God (Gen. 2:7), that was the prototype to the last Adam, Jesus, who would exhale that same breath on the cross, finally restoring the creature to the Creator (John 30:19); through redeemed man we see Jesus.  If kephale is translated in this way, one is made aware of the reciprocity and mutuality between the two parts of the relationships—God and Christ, man and woman, and Jesus and man—described by Paul in v.3.  And, in light of the honor/shame (and glory v. 7) argument that follows, this translation of kephale. fits well and adheres to Paul’s rhetoric.

vv.4-6.[3]  Paul continues his argument started in the previous verse (v.3) with a discussion on the propriety of men and women covering their heads while praying or prophesying.  It is important to notice here that Paul is using kephale in two different ways.  One way is in the literal sense “head” as in “The head of a man or beast” (Brown 157; Bruce 104); and, the second is in the way described in v.3 (see above) “head” as in the part that is glorified.

The primary difficulty of these verses (vv. 4-6) is the translation of the phrase κατὰ κεφαλῆς ἔχων.  Ralph Yeager explains, “exwn is intransitive.  There is no object expressed.  Kata literally means ‘down’ and kephale is a genitive which serves to accent the person or thing affected—thus, ‘having (something) down upon his head’” (6).  Is Paul referring to long hair or veils?  Alan Johnson writes,

…Paul, rather than referring to some external cloth covering on the head, is actually referring to the way their hair was worn or coiffured, differentiating in this manner males from females in worship leadership. The case for this view relies heavily on an abundance of archaeological evidence from the Mediterranean world of Paul’s day… (189).

Johnson refers to the culture of the Corinthians to defend his argument.  Hairstyles were socially used to differentiate gender identity; thus, men having long hair and women having short, blurred the “social boundaries between the sexes and act[ed] against nature (that is, culture)” (Johnson186-7).  “This [blurred social boundary] brought ‘shame’ on individuals and their corresponding ‘head.’  The problem Paul is addressing is the incurring of social shame through boundary-transgressing hairstyles…(Johnson 186-7).

Arguing from Greaco-Roman social history, Horsley adds to the argument for longhair,

…men normally had short hair and women long hair braided or otherwise wound up around their heads (thus portrayed on coins and statues)….It was also standard social custom for women as well as men to have their head uncovered, as can be seen in portraits of women, including Roman women in Corinth….Thus ‘down the head’ in verse 4 is best taken as a reference to long hair, which would have been considered disgraceful for a man, particularly when praying or prophesying (154; Hays 185).

Richard Hays comments, “For women to have loose hair in public, however, was conventionally seen as shameful, a sign associated either with prostitutes or…with women caught up in the ecstatic worship practices of the cults associated with Dionysis, Cybele, and Isis” (185-6).

Bruce, Morris, and Thiselton argue (or defend) that Paul is referring not to long hair but to a “veil”.  Bruce writes, “…what Paul has in mind is a veil which covers the whole head and in particular conceals all the hair…” (104).  Morris argues that though “long hair” would fit the scope of the later part of Paul’s argument, it ultimately runs into problems in relation to the terms “covered and uncovered” (150).  And, after a detailed survey of the argument (823-6), Thiselton writes, “We are forced to conclude that although [the] case is strong [for long hair], we cannot regard it as conclusive, while lexicography and the Roman background…suggests that with his head covered remains in the end more probably” (825).  Finally, Troy Martin uses v.15b as the key to understanding the passage and the translation of περιβολαίου (“testicle”) to explain that the Graeco-Roman period saw the hair on the woman’s head as a part of her genitalia and as an equivalent part to the male testicle, thus women should keep it covered up (83-4).

Considering Greco-Roman custom (discussed here and above), the context of the verse and Paul’s argument, I believe that Paul is Paul is referring to the way men and women keep their hair rather than to “veils” in these verses.

The point of vv4-6 is honor and shame, about propriety and impropriety within the worship context.  As Thiselton points out, a better title for the pericope would be, “‘Mutuality and Reciprocity: Self Respect, Respect for the Other, and Gender Identity in Public Worship” (825).  Johnson comments about the honor/shame code for women within the Greco-Roman culture,

…the ancient Mediterranean world had in place an elaborate honor-shame code governing the public and private behavior of men and women….A woman’s honor…was her shame, in the sense that her honor was her good reputation and chastity, which required her to have a sensitive consciousness of her sexual vulnerability.  She was to excel in the practice of sexual modesty, being discreet, shy, restrained, timid and subordinate to male authority (186-7).

Thiselton further elaborates on the honor/shame code within the Roman imperial period,

…it was men, rather than women, on whom a woman’s clothing most reflected.  Regulation was required when ‘men participated in status-seeking by means of the clothing of their women….The usual purpose of honouring women was to exalt the men to whom they were mothers, wives, or sisters.’  In this context language about glory, source, and reciprocity becomes important (802).

Honor/shame, glory, source and reciprocity are embedded, according to the above two scholars, within the community of Corinth.  It appears, from vv.4-6, that Paul is placating the current social honor/shame codes and keeping women in a situation that is inferior to men.  However, Thisleton provides insight into what Paul may be doing in these verses, “…Paul intends…to enact a rhetorical shock: do you really want to shame yourself, your family, and your God in such a way?  Or alternatively: are you really serious about no longer wanting to be honored as a women, or do you genuinely want to use ‘gospel freedom’ to eradicate all that relates to gender distinctiveness?…” (832, emphasis Thiselton’s).

vv.7-10.[4]  Paul furthers his argument about honor and shame with in the genders based off of a brief explanation of Gen 2:18-23 and concludes (in v.10) that a wife, because of the angels, should have a symbol of authority on her head.  V. 7 initiates Paul’s discussion about covered/uncovered heads by referring to man as the image and glory of God therefore he should not cover his head.  Paul continues in v.7b that woman is the glory of man and explains in vv. 8-9 why she is the glory of man.  There is a significantly troubling aspect to these verses (7-9): is Paul touting the hierarchical/patriarchical line by saying that since the woman does not reflect the image of God as man does, and was created from and for him she is inferior?  Bruce highlights the unparallel structure between the two parts of the v.7, “Paul does not deny that woman also bears the image of God; indeed, he implies that she does by carefully avoiding complete parallelism” (105). Thiselton adds, “If we give due care to the nuances and force of image and glory in the biblical writings…it becomes clear that the emphasis falls less on hierarchy…than on relationality” (833, emphasis Thiselton’s).

Man stands as the image and glory of God because he was the first of all creation (Gen 2:7), and it was with this created man that God formed His covenant, for God intimately breathed into him, bringing him to life like no other creature (Barth CD III/1 236).  Thiselton writes, “…man as male first comes onto the cosmic scene as the image which is to manifest God in his life and deeds, since authentic personhood entails living ‘for’ and ‘in relation to’ an Other, not as one centered upon the self” (834).  Karl Barth writes it beautifully,

…it is in the…free love that He has resolved in Himself from all eternity on His fellowship with man in the person of His own Son.  As this free love is revealed, i.e., made visible outside His own being, His hidden glory is revealed.  And this is creation to the extent that it makes the creature the exponent, sign and witness of the divine meaning and necessity (CD III/1 230).

It is Adam that God first creates and makes his covenant with (woman is not exempted from this covenant, for she is created from the one who the covenant was first formed).  However, Adam’s state of loneliness (Gen. 2:18), which is not good, prevents him from being in a relationship with and living for the “Other” who created him; thus woman is created to save Adam from loneliness and become man’s glory (Gen.21-22).  However, woman is only the glory but not the image of man, for if she were the image, it would have exacerbated Adam’s condition of loneliness for that other would not have been woman, but another man—it would have been himself.  Consequently, the intended relationship between God and His image, man, would have remained disrupted.  Woman had to be a different yet similar being to draw Adam out of his loneliness and into a relationship with God.  It is through the creation of woman that man becomes more man and through the relationship with man that woman becomes more woman.  The two beings are interdependent rather than hierarchical/patriarchical (as vv.11-12 will draw out).  According to Paul’s argument in vv.7-10, man who reflects the Glory and Image of God should not cover that Image or Glory; however, in worship, where God is the focus and not man, woman should cloak her glory, which is the glory of man, as to not draw attention away from the focus: Christ (1:18) (Morris 151; Keener 1-2 Corinthians 93).  Paul, through terms of glory and reflection, is speaking about honor and shame (Horsley 155).

The conclusion of Paul’s argument in vv.7-10 culminates in an awkward statement: “That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels” (v.10).  Primarily, it is Paul’s use of ἐξουσίαν (“authority”) in this verse that is troubling.  The secondary issue is the qualifier, “because of the angels.”  Yeager explains, “A variant reading has kalumma instead of exousian…[the prior indicates] that the passage means that the woman should wear upon her head a veil to symbolize her subjection to the superior authority of her husband, and to the Lord who ordained in creation that it should be so” (14).  However, Paul specifically used ἐξουσίαν to express a specific point.  Ewert illuminates that Paul is subverting the common understanding of women and authority; in light of the culture we should “…expect Paul to say the opposite, namely that she should be in submission to authority and wear the head covering as a symbol of her submission” rather than the covering (her hair) as a sign of her authority (117).  Hays writes, “The expression ‘to have authority’ in Greek always means, just as it does in English, to exercise authority, not to submit to it (187).  Morris agrees, “Far from being a symbol of woman’s subjection to man…her head-covering is what Paul calls it—authority: in prayer and prophecy she, like the man, is under the authority of God’” (M.D. Hooker qtd in Morris 152).  Jason BeDuhn comments that the combination of ἐξουσίαν and ὀφείλει is significant for Paul, “… ‘this does not imply external compulsion but obligation.’  Paul always employs opheilei with the sense of performing one’s duty and acting upon one’s own responsibility and commitment” (303).  Bruce writes,

Here, as elsewhere in this letter, ‘authority’ is probably to be understood in an active sense: the [covering] is not a sign of the woman’s submission to her husband’s authority…. it is a sign of her authority.  In the synagogue service a woman could play no significant part: her presence would not even suffice to make up the requisite quorum of ten (all ten must be males).  In Christ she received equality of status with man: she might pray or prophesy at meetings of the church and her [covering] was a sign of this new authority…” (106).

The woman is to take charge of her physical head.  Paul is transforming “…the symbolic connotations of the head covering: the bound hair becomes a fitting symbol of the self-control and orderliness that Paul desires for the community as a whole” (188).

διὰ τοὺς ἀγγέλους in v.10 has been cause for great speculation for translators and exegetes “since the era of Tertullian (c. AD 200)” (Thiselton 837).  Many explanations have been offered for Paul’s terminology; however, the most cogent explanation is made by Thiselton and Hays.  Thiselton writes, “Among the Jewish traditions which find their way into the NT, those in which angles are perceived as ‘guardians of order’ as well as ‘participants in the church’s praise to God’ prove the best clue to Paul’s meaning…this element is noted in the Qumran writings…[and] in Gal 3:19 Paul observes that the law was put into operation ‘through angels by a mediator,’…” (841, emphasis Thiselton’s; Hays 188; Ewert 118).

vv.11-12.  Though woman can have authority, Paul emphasizes that woman is not independent of man nor man independent of woman.  In light of the above discussion on vv. 3-10, there is no reason for Paul to change the subject in order to back track and explain the equality between the sexes.  However, one cannot dismiss that Paul’s use of the strong adverb πλὴν signifies that Paul is going to go in a different direction (Johnson 197).  It is true that Paul is changing the subject but for a different reason; Paul is drawing his audience back to the main point: you are not independent in yourselves for everything is from God.  Paul is restating his thesis of the letter: this is about Christ and the cross not about you.  In light of the placement of the pericope, in the beginning of the discussion of propriety and impropriety during worship, the Corinthians’ conduct is a reflection of God, of Christ to the community.  Thiselton writes,

…Paul insists that true human relationality entails otherness and indeed respect for the otherness of the other as a necessary basis for true reciprocity, mutuality, and relationality that constitutes what it is to be human.  Yet he adds that this in turn depends on how these roles are fulfilled in relation to God’s will as creator who ordered the world…and to God’s saving action through Christ as Lord of the church…” (843).

vv.13-15.  In case Paul’s scriptural arguments from v.3-12 have proved fruitless in proving his point, he calls the Corinthians to use their cultural experience to judge for themselves what is proper.  Paul’s rhetorical question (v.13) expects a “no, its not proper” answer (Yeager 17).  “Paul…appeals to the mores and values of the Greek world…a number of Greek sources inform us that Greek men did not grow their hair long.  For a man to wear his hair long would be to dishonor (atimia) his position as a male in society.  In the Hellenized world that cherished order, men were supposed to look like men” and women like women (Burton 278).

A translation of φύσις (v.14) may provide lexical help in understanding Paul’s point in vv. 13-15 for to argue from nature seems convoluted because both a man’s and a woman’s hair grows in nature.  Thiselton offers helpful insight to the word hay phusis, “…Paul may use φύσις  sometimes to denote the very ‘grain’ of the created order as a whole, or at other times (as here) to denote ‘how things are’ in more situation or society terms” (845; Johnson 199).  Thus, the better translation should be “the very nature of things” rather than “nature” (Johnson 199).  Paul is not appealing to nature but to the culture of the Corinthians, “Does not your own culture show you that this (vv. 14-15) is inappropriate?”  Paul’s concern in vv.14-15, then, is, as Thiselton states, “…simply to press the issue of gender differentiation and its expression through some semiotic code such as hair or dress.  Semiotic code depends on shared conventions, and social norms generally encourage gender differentiation” (846).

v.16.  To conclude his discussion, Paul arbitrarily closes with a warning that contention over this matter will not be tolerated, for there are no other practices not even in all of the churches of God.  The Corinthians had a natural tendency “to be a law to [themselves], without reference to Christian procedure elsewhere” (1 Cor. 14:36) (Bruce 108).  Hays writes, “…Even if they do not accept his other arguments, the Corinthians should conform their head-covering practice to those of the other churches, because they are called to be one with ‘all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1:2)” (190).  The Corinthians are not only to be a unified body in Christ within their own congregation, but they are to be unified with the other churches of God.  Once again, Paul concludes his argument by bringing his audience back to the point of his letter: Christ and the Cross.

A Window into the Past: Women, Greco-Roman Society, and The Pastorals (pt. III:1 Cor 7:1-7)

1 Corinthians 7:1-7:

Principles for Marriage

Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

Now as a concession, not a command, I say this.I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.

v.1.  Paul, in response to the questions of the Corinthians, writes, “‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’”  Johnson writes about the expression translated as “not to touch a woman”, “…the expression…is not the equivalent of ‘not to marry.’ In Hebrew and Greek it is a euphemism for not to have sexual intercourse with woman (Gen 20:6; Prov 6:29)” (108).  Johnson continues by adding that the expression does not necessarily belong to Paul but is a Corinthian colloquialism: the Corinthians were rejecting sexual intercourse with their wives in order to achieve a more intimate relationship with Sophia (Johnson 108-9).  Bruce adds this scenario, “…[Paul is] deal[ing] with ascetics who, partly perhaps in reaction against the libertines, argued that sexual relations of every kind were to be deprecated, that Christians who were married should henceforth live as though they were unmarried, and those who were unmarried should remains so, even if they were already engaged to be married” (Bruce 66).

v.2.  Leon Morris writes, “Since fornication was so common at Corinth it was hard for the unmarried to remain chaste and hard for them to persuade others that they were, in fact, chaste” (Morris 102).  And Keener observes, “Paul may refute [the Corinthian’s] point about a man not ‘touching’ a woman…but if he is conceding it, he applies it to unmarried intercourse only (6:12-21); he goes on to demonstrate that married people must have intercourse (7:2-7).  Contrast ‘It is well,” kalon, with ‘It is not good,’ ou kalon, in Gen 2:18, a context Paul has just quoted in 6:16)” (62).  Paul’s Jewish background would have provided him with the understanding of the  value of marriage and childbearing; but this was not restricted to Paul and his contemporaries, but was manifest in August’s legislation, “…to replenish the Roman aristocracy two generations before Paul’s time.  Augustus’s laws reward with tax incentives widows and divorcees of childbearing age who remarried as quickly as possible” (Keener 63).  On the other hand, Keener also notes that “Some thinkers…believed that marriage proved a distraction from high pursuits (e.g., Cynics in Epictetus Diatr. 3.22.69-76).  Some radical philosophers (especially Cynics) therefore eschewed marriage, nevertheless condoning the release of sexual passions on prostitutes (cf. 6:12-21)” (Keener 63).  Paul may have been dealing with the same group of people who were causing trouble in 6 as in 7 (Keener 63).

v.3.  Morris writes, “Each partner in a marriage has rights and Paul calls on each to pay what is due….Paul does not stress the duty of either partner at the expense of the other, but puts them on a level, a noteworthy position in the male-dominated society of the time” (103).  What is most striking in Paul’s language is the idea of “giving” rather than “getting”; in a culture that was obsessed with getting somewhere weather socially or spiritually, this command to give is countercultural.  “Marriage is the giving of oneself to another” (Morris 103).  Essentially, marriage is not the getting from one what one wants or thinks they deserve.  Horsley observes,

The Therapeutics near Alexandria, described by Philo, provides a striking similar example of women and men who leave their spouses and become ‘elderly virgins.’ Their motivation for spurning the pleasures of the body, moreover, is their devotion to Sophia, whom they consider to be their spiritual life-mate.  This makes the comparison all the more compelling, considering the importance of Sophia to the Corinthian spirituals addressed in chapters 1-4 (Horsley 96).

vv.4-5. Keeping in mind the discussion above about the Roman woman being the property of the husband, the first half of this verse is very much within the constraints of Roman society at that time.  However, the later part introduced by “likewise” is the countercultural statement.  Johnson writes that neither one has the right to do with their body what they want, “…because the other has a rightful claim to sexual satisfaction.  This requires mutual submission (Eph 5:21)….the principal of mutual submission and mutual consent (v.5) is very important in minimizing abuse…Paul’s view of marriage [is a] profound union that entails a shared body, the two becoming ‘one flesh’ (Eph 5:31) (Johnson 110-1).  And Bruce adds, “By the marriage vow each relinquishes the exclusive right to his or her own body and gives the other a claim to it; the verb rule over is exousiazō, denoting the exercise of exousia (‘authority’)” (67).  Horsley proposes that Paul is responding to a Corinthian-ism, “‘[a woman had] authority over her own body’” (97).  Horsley writes, “After reversing that principle, Paul sweetens his denial of authority over her own body with the reciprocal wife’s authority over her husband’s body.  This is certainly a break with patriarchal marriage patterns, at least rhetorically” (Horsley 97).

About Paul’s use of “authority”, Horsley comments, “Among the Corinthians it could have been an expression of empowerment, whether in liberation from parochial taboos such as dietary restrictions (eating food offered to idols, in chaps. 8-10) or old-fashioned customs such as patriarchal property rights (the man ‘having’ his father’s wife, in chap. 5)” (97).

In v.5, Paul makes it clear that it is okay to abstain; however, abstention was only to be for prayer and only for an agreed amount of time.  After the abstention, husband and wife were to return to intimate sexual relations with each other to avoid Satan’s temptation and the Corinthian’s lack of self-control.  Horsley writes, “Permanent abstention from sexual relations is often associated with women in prophetic or other religious roles in other New Testament cases and in the general Hellenistic-Roman culture…” (Horsley 97).  Women were able to find their way out from under Patriarchal domination by submitting themselves to the pursuit of Sophia which involved, as discussed above, devoting all their energy to toward the intimate relationship with Sophia and away from their sexual relations with their husband.  Thistleton observes,

‘With prostitutes and mistresses abundantly available (recall 6:12-20) Corinthian men unable to have sex with their wives would often look elsewhere.’…from the papyri and from Plutarch the double standards of a degree of extramarital relationships in the case of men in the Roman world, in contrast to married women.  Paul’s moral and pastoral principle remains either (a) monogamy (with a full relationship for most of the time; cf. v. 5); or (b) celibacy; but not (c) irregular physical relationships.  Paul…[is]…offer[ing] an antidote to a Corinthian desire to change everything with their new-found status” (Blomberg qtd in Thisleton 503).

(Next: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16)

A Window into the Past: Women, Greco-Roman Society, and The Pastorals (pt. II)

A brief history of Corinth:

Corinth in Brief

Prior to the Roman conquering in 146 B.C., “Corinth had been a leading center of Greek power.…In 44 B.C.E, Caesar refounded Corinth as a Roman colony,” and during Paul’s day, Corinth was officially, according to architecture and inscription, Roman (Keener 6-7).  Alan Johnson writes, “…the city’s architecture looked Roman, it was governed by a Roman civic structure, and it was inhabited largely by Roman people—a small contingent of Caesar’s military veterans, many freedmen and women, and urban plebeians” (14).  F. F. Bruce adds, “…its citizens were Romans, probably freemen from Italy, but the population was augmented by Greeks and Levantines, including Jews” (Bruce 19).  “Evidence for the prominence of Roman, rather than Greek, patterns of culture in the most respected mores….[is the] clear example concern[ing] the wearing of hoods by women in public, especially in public worship, as well as the issue of head covering (just possibly an issue about hair) for men (1 Cor 11:2-16)….” (Thiselton 5).

In the first century, “…the city was a bustling commercial crossroads for Europe and Asia.  Ships from the west traveling from Italy through the Corinthian Gulf would head for the port of Lechaeum, Corinth’s eastern harbor.  Those from the east could harbor at Cenchreae, which faced eastward toward the Saronic gulf, which eventually led to the Aegean Se and Asia.  An ancient cargo roadway a few miles to the north connected the western sea lanes with the eastern across the isthmus at is narrowest point…” (Johnson 15).  In addition to being the primary harbor for ships, Corinth was also known for the manufacturing of goods (Johnson 15).  Keener notes, “Its location on the Isthmus had long involved Corinth in trade….Local banking, artisans, and finally the current provincial seat would have further augmented the city’s wealth” (7).

Bruce provides some insight into “Old Corinth” Prior to Roman conquering,

Old Corinth had been a by-word for licentiousness, and this hotch-potch of races would have hastened the process by which the new Corinth acquired an equally unsavoury reputation.  AM Hunter says that in the popular mind Corinth suggested ‘culture and courtesans… “Corinthian words” implied pretensions to philosophy and letters, and to ‘Corinthianize’ was popular Greek for ‘go to the devil’….[Corinth] acquired a reputation for luxury, and its name became proverbial for sexual license.  It was a centre of the worship of Aphrodite, whose temple stood on the summit of the Acrocointhus… (18).

Even after Rome conquered Corinth and turned it from Greek ways to Roman ways, Corinth was able regain its wealth (Bruce 18).  However, with the return of its wealth  “…the old reputation for sexual laxity also returned: the temple of Aphrodite was staffed by 1, 000 female slaves dedicated to her worship, who are said to have made the city a tourist attraction and enhanced its prosperity (Strabo, Geog. Viii. Vi. 20)” (Bruce 18-9).

Though there was a vast amount of wealth in Corinth, Horsley observes that there was a ‘gulf’ between the scant wealthy and powerful and the larger, poorer population (31).  He writes,

Despite this, or perhaps partly because of this, Greek society—and even more so Roman society—was obsessed with rank and status…. women were subordinated to and under the power of their husbands and masters.  In Corinth the lower strata must have been every bit as concerned with their status as the elite scrambling for provincial honors and imperial favor (Horsley 31).

Keener makes the point that “condescending below” one’s social classes “was considered shameful in terms of social intercourse” (8).

However, though there was a vast gap between the haves and the have-nots, Johnson proclaims that  growth between the classes was possible, “…at Corinth the culture allowed a rapid rise in social status for many people.  Power (to achieve goals), education, wealth, knowledge, religious and moral purity, family and ethnic group position, and local community status were prized goals in this highly status conscious society” (18).  “‘Corinth was a city where public boasting and self-promotion had become an art form.  The Corinthian people thus lived with an honor-shame cultural orientation, where public recognition was often more important than facts…’” (Witherington qtd. in Thiselton 13).

In fact, this status seeking tendency was not localized in the pagan society surrounding the budding churches in Corinth, Johnson observes,

Many characteristics of the cultural life of first-century Corinth were seeping into the life of the Christian community.  Instead of being transformed by Christian values and viewpoints, they were behaving like their counterparts in the pagan society around them.  Status seeking, self-promotion, a competitive drive for adulation and success, even use of the Christian church as a means of self-promotion and advancement are themes that reoccur though out the letter.  There was a spirit of self-satisfaction and boasting, a spirit of having arrived and not needing anything else (4:6-8).  Those without means were being marginalized, neglected and even humiliated in the church’s meetings (11;7-34; 12:21-26).  A wrong notion of Christian freedom, more like the ‘freedom’ of the surrounding culture, was prevailing in their relationships with each other and toward the wider culture (6:12; 8:9; 10:23) (Johnson 22-3).

It is not naïve to assume that there was a predominance of Greco-Roman ways and thoughts that were infiltrating the Corinthian churches and are the reasons why Paul treats those Corinthian questions in the manner in which he does (Morris 18).  “Only when Paul went to Corinth did he encounter a Hellenistic urban ethos that was both the product of and fully assimilated into the Roman imperial order” (Horsley 28).

It is typically understood by scholars that the Corinthians, as a society, were immensely concerned with Sophia, and the effects Sophia had on their social relations.  “Their strong enlightened consciousness freed them from the parochial prejudices of conventional moral codes.  Spiritual experiences in particular were given for the satisfaction, illumination, and personal fulfillment of the individual” (Horsley 37).  Horsley notes, “The Corinthian’s exalted spiritual status and immortality gained from their intimate relationship with Sophia had significant implications for mundane social relations.  On the one hand, for some Corinthians the all-important cultivation of their relationship with heavenly Sophia required devoting their energies to the spiritual life” (Horsley 37).  The intimacy with Sophia was not restricted to men, but was available to women, as well.  Intimacy with Sophia as described by Horsley above meant, “devoting their [men’s and women’s] energies to the spiritual life.”  Therefore, as Horsley comments, “…intimacy with Sophia meant avoidance of marital/sexual relations, and perhaps, by implication, liberation from confining subordination in a traditional patriarchal marriage for women” (Horsley 37).

No More

Driving my husband to work, I heard something on a Christian radio station that he had set the car radio to. There’s a reason why I don’t listen to Christian radio (apart from my Pandora Waterdeep station), and what I heard this morning reinforced my desire NOT to listen to Christian radio. The statement was one of those statements that made me simultaneously deeply embarrassed and deeply angry; I slunk down in the driver’s seat a little bit and growled. Grrrr…

The nice thing was that my husband was as baffled and put-off by the statement as I was; solidarity in unity.

In a discussion of some books from the 60’s that were being considered as reasons why we are in the current cultural climate we are in terms of gender and gender relations and feminism, one of the personalities said: Look, in Galatians 3 we read there is neither Jew or Gentile man or woman; this here is speaking to complimentarianism, men and women are equal in image, dignity, worth, value but have different functions…

My husband and I looked at each other, “What did he just say?!”

We didn’t have an issue with the whole “equal but different”; I advocate for the same thing. While we both knew where he was going with his thoughts on “equal but different”, that wasn’t the idea that that made our jaws drop. What made our jaws drop was this: Galatians 3 is about complimentarianism. My husband’s astute response was: if anything, that passage lends itself more toward “egalitarianism” than “complimentarianism”. He’s right (my husband’s very smart). The passage in Galatians 3 where Paul says, “ There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female,for you are all one in Christ Jesus” certainly does lend itself more to “egalitarianism” than “complementarianism” in that that portion of scripture is part of the unity out of plurality, all one, heirs of Christ, discussion. No where there does Paul discuss the equal-but-differentness of the couplings. The radio personality was just wrong. Out of all the passages of scripture one could pick from to argue _for_ “complimentarianism”, that IS NOT one of them; it’s not even close to being one of them. The breaking down of the barriers between segregated classes, races, genders, is gone, according to Paul: in Christ all are ONE.

So why did my feather’s ruffle so much at the comment? Because of both what my husband pointed out and this: both the terms “complimentarian” and “egalitarian” are recent man made terms often imposed on the the bible to try to make sense of things, to group like to like, to make a statement. “I’m an egalitarian” should tell you, in short, that I hold certain things to be true about gender and the distinction and likeness therein; “I’m a complimentarian” tells you the something similar about the person: what they hold to be true about gender and gender relations. They are terms to deal with the radical freedom the Gospel brings to human beings and all of their relationships. To say, “I’m an egalitarian” says: men and women are equal ontologically speaking; “I’m a complimentarian” says: men and women are compliments ontologically speaking. But the terms are so ambiguous that you have radically different shades of each. For instance, take my own marriage: we are very progressive when it comes to women and men and the relationship between the two: we don’t believe that men are better leaders than women, we don’t believe that substantially speaking there’s a secret authority gene given to men, we don’t believe in gender stereo-types, we affirm strong women _and_ strong men, we affirm the good that the feminist movement brought, etc. But, I stay home with the kids and he goes to work; I take care of the house and meals, and he brings home the “bacon”; i love making our home a sanctuary for him and my children to come home to and he makes that possible. Using my own marriage as an example, you can see that our life disturbs the neat and clean lines a term like “egalitarian” would like to create. I’ve also seen “complimentarian” relationships look _just_ like mine. In my immediate circle of friends who claim “complimentarian” status, I’ve never seen the husband assert his “authority” over his wife; they always come to decisions the same way we do: by the power of the holy spirit, bringing unity where there is division. In my immediate circle of friends who claim “egalitarian” status, I’ve never seen a confusion of gender or a rejection of proper orientation of man toward woman and woman toward man. So, I’m left to ask:

Is there actually such a things as “complimentarian” and “egalitarian”?

And to ask further:

Is it even helpful to bifurcate Christianity with these terms?

My answers to both: no. In order for “complimentarian” and “egalitarian” to be true and real, something has to be asserted that just won’t ever be asserted between two people who _just_ love each other. And, when we are fighting on so many grounds to maintain the truth of the Gospel, do we need the minutia of “in-fighting” and trying to uphold man-made, ambiguous, and unhelpful terminology? I’d say we don’t.

Here’s how I see it, and I’ll end with this: the terminology is wrought with problems and should be dismissed completely. Rather than defining our marriages as “complimentarian” or “egalitarian”, why not: Christian? Gospel centered? Or, better yet, “I’m married to an amazing man/woman and I can’t believe they love me.”  We don’t need more boxes to fill and lines delineated; the body of Christ is unique in that it is unity OUT OF diversity, this applies to marriages, too. There are no two marriages that look the same, not all men like _one_ type of woman, and vice versa. Marriages, like the people that inhabit them, will look different and will sound different, but it will be the presence of the Holy Spirit, the tangible brokenness of each member, their individual and mutual need for Christ that will be the beautiful and pleasing aroma of unity and similarity.

A Window into the Past: Women, Greco-Roman Society, and The Pastorals (pt. I)

Hunker down and get comfortable…this is gonna be a long ride.

What I’m going to post over the next several weeks are portions of a paper I wrote while working on my MDiv (Master of Divinity, the first of two masters I have in theology and biblical studies). I’ll be upfront and honest about one thing: I didn’t perform as well on this paper as I typically did on papers; I received a B for it. The one reason I’ll offer for the lower grade was twofold: I not only exceeded the page limit by a whopping 19 pages (gah!) but I also didn’t have a thesis statement. In my opinion, I couldn’t have a concise, single statement that would coherently gather all 8 texts concerning the “house-codes” and women in the pastoral epistles while remaining true to each individual text in its own right. Was Paul merely saying the same thing over and over to different people? I’m not prone to affirm with a yes. While the language is similar, each context, having its own issues begs for nuanced responses. Paul’s approach in Crete (the book of Titus) manifests a different situation than, say, the one in Corinth.

But with that said, I don’t want to sound like I think that the text and Paul himself are barred down and locked in the past. Yes, both the cultural context and the “then” audience are important to understand for they do dictate a lot of our understanding of the text and what is going on. But, _you_ are now the audience, the hearers, and you play a vital role, too, not just in peering into the past, but receiving the words that have traveled from 50 AD to 2015, because the word moves through history, breaking through time and space barriers, longing to be heard, causing you to hear it and pulling you into to this grand story. You are now in that house church in Thessoloniki, caught up in the Gospel, the freedom it brings, the wonder and the excitement and you are now listening to a letter being read to you from St. Paul.

Now, to move on to the subject of this “series”…some things to cover before I continue:

1. I’ll be posting short segments, pieces really. I’d rather err in readability and digestibility and having more posts in a series, than trying to be efficient. Also, I suck at trying to be efficient in word economy especially with my own work–yes, I’m an editor, but I can’t edit my own work.

2. The paper was written in 2006. As I go, I’ll make some edits or expound where I can, but mostly I’ll be cutting and pasting from the document. It’s primarily exegesis and history; so, I don’t think I’ll have much to add or edit. But again, every thinker, writer, author, eventually disagrees with their historical counterpart one way or another…thinking to themselves: i can’t believe I wrote THAT?!?!

3.  Even though i exceeded the imposed page limit by 19 pages, this work is by no means a comprehensive work (though it sure felt like it at the time…). I’m also not an “expert” in the field of Greek antiquity, Paul, exegesis, or gender issues. I’m a thinker and I can do exegesis, and I can make educated deductions about things I read and apply them…but I’m not an expert.

So, with no further ado…here we go!

Let’s start with the views of women Greek and Roman antiquity:

The View of Women in Greece

Being a woman in ancient Greece was everything short of glamorous. Philo explains that women were strictly created for the indoor life, a life of seclusion (qtd. in Sly 196); she was not to be a too interested about the matters other than her own household, and “She should not shew herself off like a vagrant in the streets before the eyes of other men, except when she has to go to the temple (hieron), and even then she should…go… when most people have gone home (Spec. 3.171-174)” (qtd. in Sly 196-7).

Ancient Greek literature provides a perfect portrait of the typical male understanding of women during that time,

….women were considered more subject to those chaotic natural forces upon which humans depend, more passionate and less rational, and thus more volatile and potentially destructive unless subordinated to the controls of reason and culture. At the same time, women are lovely and alluring, shining with the pleasures of Eros and the charms of Aphrodite; they possess a power upon which men are dependent and to which they are intensely attracted. In short, the power of woman is the power of Eros, the creative and destructive force of nature both inside our souls and out in the world, a force terrible and beautiful—‘death and undecaying life,’ as Sophocles describes Aphrodite (Thornton 41).

Woman as the “force terrible and beautiful” was subject to the “controls of reason and culture” that were man’s; that which was incapable of being understood (woman) was confined (by man) to a status equal to that of a slave. Pandora, from Greek literature, embodies the above description of why women were not just relegated to an inferior position, but were, in a sense, feared,

Pandora is the first woman created….She is fashioned by Hephasitus, the craftsman god, as an ‘evil thing’ hidden in the semblance of ‘bashful minded.’ Athena teaches her the woman’s arts of needlework and weaving, while Aphrodite gave her sexual allure, the power to arouse ‘cruel longing and limb-devouring cares.’ And the trickster god Hermes provides her with a ‘bitch’s mind and a deceptive character’ and ‘lies and wily words.’ This ‘sheer trap’ is the ancestress of women, a ‘plague to men who eat bread’ (Thornton 41).

Using Pandora as an example, B.S. Thornton writes,

…her sexual power, both attractive and duplicitous, but also necessary for humanity in order to reproduce and have the children who will protect them from what Hesiod calls ‘deadly old age.’ Man’s dependence on nature and its procreative power animates this fear of women, for women seem to be more intimate with that ambiguous power, creative and destructive all at once (Thornton 41).

Helen provided another example of the “terribleness” of woman and her duplicitous nature, “The most famous woman from Greek myth, Helen, perhaps best exemplifies woman’ double character—her seductive allure and destructive capacity. Helen is not just the most beautiful woman, but the most sexually beautiful woman in the world…Terrible is the likeness of her face to immortal goddesses’” (Thornton 42-3).

Though Pandora and Helen embodied the reason for control over women because of their inherent “duplicitous” nature, there was, however, an alternative and a more preferred figure of woman from ancient Greek literature: Penelope. Penelope, from the “Odyssey”, was the archetypal wife, Thornton writes, “…the hallmark of Penelope’s character is the virtue that was most capable or reining in the power of Eros, the virtue most important for a wife to possess: rational self-control, the ability to restrain her appetites out of loyalty to her husband and her household” (Thornton 53).

Though scarce in advocates, there was another opinion of women.   Plato, in his “The Republic”, discusses the need for women who are the wives of the guards to be trained for warfare and schooled like the men,

Actually, they are to be not only wives, but guards themselves…the women of the guards are capable of making a creative contribution to building up the community, but…not… through family life. He is opposed to the prevailing view that they are meant by nature only to bear children, bring them up, and look after the household ….Now, if they are to do the same work as men, they should have the same upbringing …and education…Therefore the women of the ruling class must be schooled in ‘music’ and gymnastics just like the men, and also trained for war (Jaeger 244).

Though Plato is talking about a specific societal-class of women, his understanding that women would be a valuable asset to the guards if they were trained in a similar fashion is incredible; his contradiction to the normal role of women as strictly child bearers and homebodies is encouraging. Plato defends his argument is terms of “different equipment”,

A man who is not equipped to be a cobbler is not to do the same work as a man who is. But if one a man is bald and another has a fine head of hair, they might both (despite that particular difference in their equipment) be qualified to become cobblers. No doubt the natural difference between men and women influences their lives more profoundly than that, but still they may both be equally well equipped for the same vocation (Jaeger 245).

Though, Plato expresses that woman can be “equally well equipped for the same vocation,” he contends that man is still superior over woman in every area “…even in those which are declared to be woman’s province by those who maintain she is a domestic creature—cookery, baking, and weaving; but there is no one work which man or woman alone can do and which is impossible for the other sex” (Jaeger 245-6). According to Plato, though men and women can be equally trained, woman will fall short to man, even in her own sphere. Ultimately, Plato does not lag too far behind his contemporaries on the subject of women.

The View of Women in Rome

Roman women were cut from a different cloth than Greek women. Though they did not bear their own names—like we do in our culture, and bore the feminine version of their father’s name, (i.e., Julius/Julia, “If a man had more than one daughter, the second would be designated ‘Secunda’, the third ‘Tertia,’ and so on”) (Ball 197)— under the empire, they did have more social freedom than the Greek women. Albert Ball writes, “Because they weren’t bound to the house the way Greek women were, Roman women seem not to have been content to play mother and homemaker….By Augusts’ day, women reclined on couches at dinner beside their husbands instead of sitting by their feet or on chairs” (198). These somewhat ‘liberated’ women could run the family business when their husbands passed, (under the reign of Claudius) bought and sold property, and could remain single, but they could not vote (Ball 197). Around 44 B.C., Bruce Winter says that there was

…evidence of a ‘new’ type of woman…in certain circles in Rome. Both in ostensibly factual texts and in imaginative writing a new kind of woman appears precisely at the time of Cicero and Caesar: a woman in high position, who nevertheless claims for herself the indulgence in sexuality of a woman of pleasure. What could have given rise to such a change in the traditional behavior of married women? Wives still brought to marriage the all-important dowry but could now retain their own property. It was also possible for them to terminate the marriage, and receive back a portion of or the whole dowry” (Winter 21-2).

Therefore, it was not only financial independence that these Roman women experienced; they also experienced a small degree of social freedom (Winter 22).

Though Women were allowed these certain privileges in society, these liberties do not indicate a redeemed relationship with man. In fact, Ball writes that there were similarities between the men of Rome and Greece and their view of women, “Greek men considered women by nature intellectually inferior to men; the primary level of interaction between them was sexual….Roman men shared the Greeks’ opinion to a degree, so women never enjoyed political rights in Rome …” (197). In fact, “Greco-Roman women lived under the protection of their fathers until they were handed over to their husbands….Throughout their lives, they had the legal status of children…In Cicero’s words, ‘Our ancestors established the rule that all women, because of their weakness of intellect, should be under the power of guardians’ (Pro Murena 12.27)” (Ball 198).

On average, it is understood that because of the liberties of the Roman women, they were described as acting more aggressive then any other woman of their time and in history (Ball 198). In order to maintain societal control, “…Roman men, once the emperors rendered [women] politically impotent, could only try to salvage a few scraps of power by urging women to be subject to their husbands; ‘in no other way do woman and man become equal’ (Martial 8.12)…” (Ball 198-9). This inequality between the sexes, in spite of social liberties experienced by Roman women, is best understood in terms of the social laws of adultery, “The Greek and Romans did teach that one should not commit adultery, but not because the act violates a divine prohibition. It was views as a violation of property rights. Greek and Roman men didn’t want another man sleeping with their wives—who were their property—anymore than they wanted someone stealing their farm animals” (Ball 220).

The Roman (and Greek) family mirrored the relationship of the state to the emperor,

Within each family the father, as priest and patriarch, had patria potestas, absolute control of the lives and affairs of his wife and children…The law allowed him to inflict capital punishment on them or sell them into slavery, though such things hardly ever happened. He arranged his children’s marriages and planned his sons’ careers….The woman was expected to practice domestic crafts, manage the slaves, and behave herself with the utmost propriety (Ball 225).

Wayne Meeks advocates the same idea of the patria potestas within the Roman Family, and explains that “The traditional patria potestas of Rome had become less absolute from the time of the late republic on; the Hellenistic queens of the East and of Egypt had set a pattern of ‘masculine’ ambition and ruthlessness that women of the Julio-Claudian houses soon imitated” (Meeks 23). Craig Keener writes, ‘… ancient writers [thought] of families in…[the] general terms of rank and duty; ‘family’ was defined more by relationships of subordination than by blood relationship. The man in charge of the household was often even compared to a king, since the family was viewed as a microcosm of society” (Women and Wives 146). The influence of foreign queens, who behaved as men on the women of the Roman empire, was a primary factor in the call for wives to be in submission to their husbands, as the family unit was in submission to their head, the emperor.   Winter provides an example of the Response of the empire of Rome to the New Roman woman,

…‘the married women of the imperial family would provide her with examples of appropriate ways for a wife to behave. Works of the visual arts would show her how they dressed and how they wore their hair’. They were ‘models she should emulate, or exempla, to use the term that would come naturally to the mind of the Latin-speaking person’….A good example of traditional values is found in the statue of Regilla, the wife of the famous sophist of Athens, Herodes Atticus, around whom Philostratus wrote his Lives of the Sophists. The council of Corinth had erected a statue in her honour, and the inscription which contained the resolution of the Council read—This is a statue of Regilla…. ‘pre-eminent above others, who has attained the peak of every kind of virtue, whom she took as her husband, Herodes famous among the Hellens and furthermore a son (of Greece) greater than them all, the flower of Achaia (34-5).

Through the statues of empirical women showing how to behave and dress as a “proper” Roman woman, women of the time were exhorted (visually and verbally) to be virtuous and exemplary above all women, especially in comparison to the New Roman Woman. The ultimate desire in this propaganda was to preserve the status-quo; if one preserved the status-quo of the family, one preserved the status-quo of the state. Keener writes,

Maintaining the systems as it was had long been emphasized by ideologists of the state: ‘Preserve the present order, and do not desire any change, knowing that revolutions inevitably destroy states and lay waste homes of the people.’ Thus it was commonly believed that earlier Roman society had had much ‘higher’ morals, including much more sever discipline of unsubmissive wives (Keener Woman and Wives 144).

The State was determined to keep everything the way it was and to maintain the status-quo. With the influx of the New Roman Woman caused the women of the Greco-Roman society to seek change, therefore the Empire had to do something. The emphasis on the wives’ submission to the husband became the venue for maintaining the desired status-quo

Who is Woman?

Below is an entry I wrote for the Mockingbird Devotional (buy it here) on Gen 2:

Genesis 2:23                                                                                                                                        Lauren R. E. Larkin

This one at last is bone of my bones And flesh of my flesh…You surpass them all.

Who is woman? A question asked by men and women alike and that is applicable to all generations. A question I ask myself, as a woman. A question all too often defined by her form and function. But we cannot isolate her from man to answer the question, because the answer to who she is lies in her relation to him. And often the answer seems to be not really an answer at all. She is completely similar to him, yet utterly different; she is equal yet not interchangeable; she is of the same flesh and bone yet a different person completely; she is comfort and challenge.

There is no substitute suitable for woman to man.  Being “bone of [his] bones, flesh of [his] flesh” she is his perfect helper; and she is God’s first act of intervention on the behalf of man. The best answer I can give to “Who is Woman?” is: she is the first gift of Grace. She would not only alleviate man’s loneliness, drawing him up and out of himself toward another, but would also be the means by which God would consummate His relationship with him—with them as one. Without her, there is no relationship between God and man; without her, loneliness prevails and the Bridegroom is left standing at the altar.  Through her creation, God demonstrates to the whole of creation His love for this curved-in man who cannot help himself, who is stuck in his loneliness and isolation by bestowing to him this wonderful gift of Grace.

The word used in Gen 2:18, “Helper”, is the same word often used of God throughout the Old Testament. In her creation, in her name (“helper”), the themes of protecting, supporting, shielding, sustaining, delivering, comforting, giving hope, and blessing are ever present. As God gently nudges Adam awake, and brings her to the man, Adam is delivered out of loneliness into communion; he is given hope, comfort, and is blessed by her. She imputes to him that which is intrinsically hers and that which he lacks: glory; she is his glory (cf. 1 Cor. 11:2-16). Apart from her, the story ends too early.

Paul says in Ephesians 5:32 about the union of man and woman, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”  The very characteristic demonstrated here in the creation of woman as man’s helper, will reverberate through the books of the Old Testament and into the ears, hearts, and minds of the New Testament audience as well as into our’s. We were, like Adam, isolated, lonely, hopeless, and helpless. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:4-5).   In Jesus, through His life, death, resurrection, and ascension, God demonstrates Himself to be our true helper.  What is intrinsically His (righteousness), he imputes to us; we were estranged, yet He entered into the midst of it and called us and brought us into communion with Him at His expense.  We live because He, being merciful and taking pity on our estate, died.

As it was in the beginning, so it is now: like Adam, we’ve been saved by Grace

Random Thoughts on Egalitarianism and Justification

A while back, I received an email from a Twend (Twitter+Friend=Twend) about egalitarianism within the marriage and male/female relationships. My husband and I are “egalitarian” in our approach to our marriage and relationship with each other, and I passionately welcomed this email. I don’t make a huge deal about our “egalitarianism” because I find it more divisive than helpful in social media contexts. I love talking about it; i don’t love tweeting about it because, in my opinion 140 characters in an environment that is consistently devoid of the I/Thou relationship is a recipe for disaster.
While this email exchange took place a few months ago, I’m posting it now because I find myself in the midst of a pretty radical and awesome and huge project on gender and the gospel. So, why not just put this email in to a post and put it on my blog. I’m passionate (VERY) about gender and gender relations; this isn’t some fleeting fancy. The bulk of my research is aimed in the direction of gender and gender relations. I think about this topic daily, examining all the different facets for all the different angles.
So here is my response (slightly cleaned up) to my twend about “egalitarianism” and all the “rights and privledges therein” 😉

I’ve done a lot of study on the creation of woman and through all of it I just don’t see any reason for an emphasis on one gender having authority over another–it’s pointless and causes more turmoil than it’s worth. My husband agrees and he finds it ludicrous. you should hear how he talks to our daughter about being equal with men: she’s not “eye-candy” or, his favorite phrase, she’s not to be “subjected to the male gaze and can wear whatever she wants!” (She often has pants tucked into socks and strips going all different directions from head to toe!) He’s even on me when I wear make up. I tell him: IT’S FUN! And he says: you wear it because you’ve been raised to do it by our culture. I typically just roll my eyes… my shoes and makeup are fun to wear/put-on…i love me some sexy boots and smokey eyes! #ohhedoestoo 😉

This is how we view our relationship: in light of the two great commandments. These commandments are: Love the Lord your God and Love your neighbor as yourself. In my opinion, my husband and my children are my CLOSEST neighbors. I don’t then need a another commandment or “law” to come in and tell me that my role as a woman is to be at home and in submission to my husband. If the gospel is the thing by which order or, what I prefer to say, orientation occurs between me and God and me and my neighbor, then the gospel rightly orients me toward my husband because it rightly orients me toward God through the Son by the power of the Spirit. My husband and I think “roles” are pointless, and that, truly, we in merely loving each other serve and mutually submit to each other. If i love you, then why wouldn’t I put you first? For all intents and purposes, if you were to look at my life and how we run our family, we look very traditional: I stay home, he goes to work (etc). But it’s less because I should or because he can’t and more because we wanted to run our family in this way (again, laying down our lives for our neighbors, our spouse, our children, putting our desires on hold until later)–it also helped that he made enough to see that it happened.

Some have argued (and have said this too me) that egalitarianism (again, a pointless word) leads directly to androgyny–as in you can’t avoid it. This is stupid. This is like me saying that “complimentarianism” (another pointless word) always leads to domestic violence. It doesn’t. Do i find it a dangerous concept? YES; in the hands of the wrong man, yes, it will lead to violence and oppression.  I’ll always err on the side of more liberty than less because I know the law is impotent to do what it desires (orient rightly). Androgyny only occurs if we begin to think that men and women are equal AND interchangeable (rather than: equal BUT NOT interchangeable). But if we adhere to equality and difference then it opens up a beautiful relationshiop between the two. Now, the accusation that egalitarianism leads to androgyny came to me from a student in a class who is a  confirmed “complimentarian”: the husband has authority over the wife. Now his accusation came after a discussion that one gender doesn’t have authority over another. So his point: without some authority over the woman the man’s role is now no longer defined and out of the window goes masculinity. Thus, masculinity and “decision making” and “authority” are inherently linked and femininity linked with it’s compliimentary features: “non-decision making” and “subjection.” Here’s the problem I see in that line of logic: 1) he is linking masculinity to a “work” which is a huge problem considering that in heaven while there will be no marriage or giving of marriage there will still be “gender” and “masculinity” (keeping in mind that the image of God isn’t erased in heaven but made glorified by his creation man and woman) and 2) what happens to said man when he loses his mind? Does he ALSO lose his masculinity? No, that’s stupid. He’s STILL masculine, he’s still a man even when she has to decide on his behalf.

The problem lies in the inability to go into the abstract and the deep desire of limited humanity to always want to figure out everything down to the tiniest molecule and have an answer: if a then b! But I love the abstract. What if, Twend, what if masculinity and femininity are defined by each other…what if just my presence as a woman (i.e. not man) is enough to emphasize, draw out, point to my husband’s masculinity. Boobs and hips aside: I’m NOT him; if we allow this to be true, and if we allow our nakedness with each other to be the deciding factor about who is feminine and who is masculine, then a whole new world opens up to us. Things that are classically “masculine” and “feminine” are now more appropriately considered human. My husband can cry and I can be a hard-ass, neither one acting like the other gender. In this light, we see how the doctrine of justification penetrates even the most intimate human relationships: no longer defined by works but by God’s declaration to us: forgiven sinners, forgiven men AND women. In how I understand the totality of the event of justification, i believe that works can no longer define me WHATSOEVER. And thus I’m free to be fully woman in right relationship to my husband, a man.

So, while there are things on this earth that still define me as a woman–things that I feel obligated to do or chose to do because I’m a woman–these works do not define me as a woman in Christ (not even birth or the act of sex, because women who don’t have either are still fully women).

Let’s also consider Ephesians 5. In v. 21 we have the verb translated as “submitting” and I know that this is the verb that is pulled into the subsequent verse (v.22) when Paul turns his attention to wives: submit to your husbands. Then, after only three short thoughts, he turns to the husbands and addresses them in a rather lengthy discourse starting with an exhortation to lay down their lives for their wives. Now, what I’ve heard from a number of people (both professors and lay people alike) is this: women only have to submit, but men have to lay down their lives! I find this statement ridiculous and irritating. I find submission to be a form of laying down yourself for another (it’s not subjection considering that the verb is a deponent with an active meaning: submit yourselves); in order for me to submit, let’s say, to the will of my husband, I have to put myself aside, sort of like an act of oblation; this, to me, thematically jives with 5.21: “Submitting therefore one to the other.” Submission is loving your neighbor as yourself and incorporates laying yourself (‘your life’) down (‘dying’). In this light, submission/submitting yourself = laying down your life.  Thus, Paul isn’t totally saying something new as in “subject” to the husbands, but rather explaining in clearer language what it means to live out “submitting therefore one to the other” (toward their wives). And if he is using different language to say something similar to the husbands as he did to the wives, then my next question is why? Why change the language?

The thought I’ve been having lately about the “why” is this: Paul speaks to the women in terminology they would’ve existentially understood–the language they would’ve been familiar with but also because of the woman’s ability (and in the case of Paul’s age) one of her primary functions in bringing forth life into the world: a woman, having gone through the experience of pregnancy, labor, delivery, and caring for a helpless child, would have been well acquainted with the event of submission as a laying down of their life, of loving something/someone form the inside out that can give nothing back in return (agape). I’m not saying that Paul had this later aspect on the forefront of his mind, but it’s intriguing to me that he speaks nearly in shorthand to the wives. Thus, what he says to the women, is not radical: it’s nearly status quo; they would’ve nodded ” oh yes, we understand.” But what’s radical is what follows with his discussion to the men. The feeling in the transition from talking to the wives to the husbands is as if he paused and said to the husbands: all y’all best sit down for this; i’m about to blow your minds. And thus enters into a longer explanation of how the husbands are to love (agape) their wives and live out the “submitting one to another” aspect of 5.21. Both the act and the concept would have been so radical to the husbands, that Paul essentially has to spell it out for them and even then Paul loses his own mind and gets caught up–nearly raptured–in the mysteries he can’t even explain well enough. So, in short, my thoughts have been that Paul had to explain in detail (agape worked out in submission to another (the wife)) to the husbands because it was radical and foreign, and he could speak plainly and briefly to the women, because they would’ve understood (per the reasons mentioned above).

another thing to think about (and I’ll end with this) is: whenever Paul seems to be correcting the women in his churches it’s nearly always because their pendulum has swung too far. Thus, while they are trying to flaunt their freedom, they are really just a law to themselves and others. Don’t dominate men, women, because that’s not freedom nor is it the proper correction to Gen 3. No gender is to dominate the other gender; don’t abandon your children and husband because now you’re “free”; that’s not freedom. Freedom is being able to say: this might suck and i might want to be devoting my life to the Lord (PhD, Career, etc), but I can’t because I have these lives, these others that need me. That’s freedom. That’s Gal 3. The law has been abrogated, the prison warden has been silenced and unemployed, and I am no longer defined by my deeds (“there is therefore no…”) but I am still here and there are things I must still do. Paul is always hyper concerned to protect the gospel from slander: if having a woman publicly teaching men was considered offensive to OUTSIDERS in his day and age, then he would encourage abstaining from the practice. From the commentaries I’ve read, it seems that Paul is not universally making a claim about women but, rather, talking about how things should proceed in order to move the gospel forward. (Cf. 1 and 2 Tim, Titus, Ephesians, Corinthians…etc).

Death to Life in Fertility to Birth: Infertility and Loss

And Elkanah, her husband, said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” … [Hannah] was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly. And she vowed a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.” (1 Sam 1:8-11)

Affliction; this is the word Hannah uses to describe her childless state, her barren state, as she prays to God (actually, it’s more like pleading and begging). Hannah is afflicted with grief and sorrow. She is distressed and she weeps bitterly. She can’t eat, she laments (the deeper connotation of the word translated as “weep”), and she is not merely “sad” as a “feeling of blueness” as we would casually say, “I’m sad today.” It would be better to render the question from her husband, “why is your heart sad?,” as “why is your heart broken?”  Anyone reading who has suffered a broken heart knows that this feeling breaks through the floor of sadness into a realm that effects both the mind and the body in painful ways. A broken heart is described as such because the heart actually feels broken; there’s an ache or a piercing pain that seems to ricochet through the fleshiness of the heart muscle–it’s not merely metaphorical.  Hanna experiences this depth of broken-heartedness.

Over what?

A longing and a desire gone unmet.

Hannah is barren; she is without a child.  Hannah isn’t over-reacting about her childless state. The way the story is told seems more like a snapshot of her life at this one moment of her distress over being barren rather than a wholistic picture of what Hannah has been suffering–Hannah’s story practically opens the book of 1 Samuel. In v. 5 there is the mention that the Lord had closed her womb. And then from there, we jump right into her peaking distress and broken heart. In this way–the way the story is told–we miss out on the beauty that is the climactic point of Hannah’s distress and weeping. She is wholly consumed by hope deferred; hope deferred doesn’t merely occur because hope has been deferred once…but over and over and over again. Hannah has been pushed to the brink of the cliff that leads to despair, to death.

Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life. (Prov. 13:12)

Hope deferred makes the heart sick and this sickness steals life from the victim. Hannah has spent who knows how long longing and yearning for a child. Think of the numerous months coming and going, each one delivering it’s “no” and “not this time” to Hannah’s heart–hope sprung, hope dashed.  And the deferral of her hope has made her sick: she can’t eat, she can’t stop weeping bitterly, she is inconsolable.  This is a picture of a woman who is not well, who is suffering intimately with the brokenness of a very fallen world. When hope has been deferred for so long and dashed against the rocks so many times, one begins to long for not-hope. The deferral of hope can make one so sick that they wish for hope to take flight and to vanish, never again to alight on the heart–for, to the suffering soul, to live a life vanquished of hope seems better than to have hope yet once again only to have it dashed…yet once again.

And so it is with those of us who have suffered with infertility or loss or both. In both infertility and loss there is a hope, a real, tangible, hope that blossoms and the real hope that is shattered into what seems like shards upon shards. And each time this hope is dashed, there is a death. And it is this death that leaves the woman a different creation the next day. Out of all the experiences surrounding fertility and birth, it is those who suffer from infertility and loss who get the one two punch of Gen 3–the curse rears it’s head both in the inability to get or to stay pregnant (pain increased) and the all to alert awareness that death still marches about the earth creating casualties, leaving scars. These are the women who will enter into the battle that wages to bring forth life (my life for this one), who will face death, and who will exit the battlefield marred.

And yet, out of this real encounter with death, with “no,” with “not this time,” there is life: for she is a new creation out of this death–never to be the same again. For it is she who has suffered death that knows what life is; it is she who has not born new life who understands–on a deep and visceral level–just how miraculous new life is; it is she who has wept bitterly and cried out for relief who knows from Whom joy and comfort come; it is she who knows the failure of the very thing she was uniquely gifted to do who finds her very person not in the sum of her working or not-working parts, but in the totality of The One who has born the brokenness of the world (and of her body) in His body and who has dealt death a death-dealing blow. And while she has not brought forth new life quantified in onsies and diapers, she is the epitome of new life, for it is she who declares even in this darkness: life.

 

The Death and Life in Fertility to Birth: Labor and Delivery

O Lord, in distress they sought you;
they poured out a whispered prayer
when your discipline was upon them.
 Like a pregnant woman
who writhes and cries out in her pangs
when she is near to giving birth,
so were we because of you, O Lord;
     we were pregnant, we writhed,
but we have given birth to wind.
We have accomplished no deliverance in the earth,
and the inhabitants of the world have not fallen.
 Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise.
You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a dew of light,
and the earth will give birth to the dead. (Isaiah 26:17-19)

Femininity is often defined in terms more associated with a church mouse than that of a living, breathing, human being. Meek and mild are the boundary markers for interpretations on what is feminine: soft, smooth, gentile, maternal, quiet, proper, etc. It will be no surprise to you then that I would disagree with any definition of femininity that is based on such words/terms. In defining femininity, we must consider the very thing that biologically defines a woman: birthing. Thus, redefine femininity. Rather than meek and mild, it is strength, fortitude, and even fierceness that defines femininity. A woman in labor is completely feminine. A woman in labor is confronting death to bring forth life; no small task. And she confronts death alone. No person (apart from the Holy Spirit) takes her hand and guides her through it. It is here where the ferocity that is woman comes to the fore; she will (speaking in terms of an un-medicated labor and delivery) moan, grunt, even growl at death, bring it, Death! She’ll stare it down. My life for this one! A proper definition of femininity must incorporate this imagery.

Labor and delivery is earthy and visceral. I’ve yet to meet a husband, having witnessed his wife giving birth, who has not walked away completely changed in his opinion of what this woman can do and even is. Many male comedians have joked–in truth to a great degree–that if God came down and changed the roles (men now being child-bearers) that the human race would cease to exist. Men who have stood by, next to, or even those who have have held their wife during labor (my husband), and witnessed this process are forever changed in their own way–at the least his view of her is radically altered. Thus, in the process of creating a definition of femininity that incorporates the imagery of the woman in labor, the definition of masculinity is redefined. Chivalry become less about protecting her from danger and more about protecting her space to enter into this danger. His inherent ability and desire to protect (a generalization I’m willing to make having seen this “protector” spirit in my young sons) will be turned outward, toward the world, keeping the world at bay; in his presence she is safe, he becomes the source of comfort and soothing–he becomes the homestead–while she enters into this event and while she works and battles. He is not holding her, but holding everyone back. In light of modern birthing techniques, the husband often loses his role in this process, being relegated to the side and designated unhelpful or useless–a problem that needs a correction. Husbands are crucial to the process and the event this woman, his wife, will go through, for he is her first source of comfort, the one who knows her intimately, and his presence can represent to her that she is free to enter into this battle, to face death.

So, let us speak in terms of the theme of these posts, and let us look on the death and life in labor and delivery.

From the onset of labor to the completion of pushing, the woman submits to the event happening to them. The woman gives herself up (has to) to bring this other life into the world.  A woman who is laboring (naturally) will often look almost lifeless during the highpoint of contractions–slumped and limp held up only by the strength of her husband’s arms or still, inexpressive,  curled up on her side. Even delivery (pushing), the most primal of the process and invoking the totality of the activity of the woman–activity surfacing beyond all reason, in spite of all exhaustion–in itself, represents her total submission to the event–she has to push. She is face to face with death (her death), she will give the whole of herself to the process and afterwards is forever different.  She does not choose when labor begins, but it seizes her, and she can do nothing but die to herself to bring this child into the world. When you see her child, you see the death she went through in labor and delivery to move this child from her body in to the world. It is impossible to go through this process, this event and remain the same.  There is a new woman at the end of the event and not merely a new title to add to the others.

But let me not forget those of us who endure a different labor and delivery process; for those of us who endure Cesarian sections (a major surgery to extract the baby from the very lowest part of the abdomen) also go through the death into new life process. Having had three C-Sections, the imagery of being laid out on an operating table in a cruciform position does not escape my attention. My arms are stretched out to the side, and strapped (albeit loosely) down. My legs pulled straight on a narrow (and I mean NARROW) table. It is in this position, cruciform, that I will give birth. I don’t want to make a too-big of a deal about this nor draw a one-to-one comparison between her and Jesus’ death. But the imagery is there. During our last (and final) delivery, I walked (without Daniel) to the OR; everything about this small trek to have our daughter felt like dead woman walking. Each step down the cold hallway, barely covered by my gown, led me toward my confrontation with death. Without the lead-up that is the transition between early stage labor to a stage referred to as “transition”, you feel catapulted to deaths door in the event of a c-section.  As she is laid out, strapped, prepped, and as the curtain is raised–separating her from the gruesome scene below–she will close her eyes, breathe out, and say, “My life, for this one.” She will never be the same when the last suture is in place, and she will bare the scar of this confrontation, it will be the symbol of her new, of her different self, forever marked.

Labor Pains

I am sick today,
sick in my body,
eyes wide open, silent,
I lie on the bed of childbirth.

Why do I, so used to the nearness of death,
to pain and blood and screaming,
now uncontrollably tremble with dread?

A nice young doctor tried to comfort me,
and talked about the joy of giving birth.
Since I know better than he about this matter,
what good purpose can his prattle serve?

Knowledge is not reality.
Experience belongs to the past.
Let those who lack immediacy be silent.
Let observers be content to observe.

I am all alone,
totally, utterly, entirely on my own,
gnawing my lips, holding my body rigid,
waiting on inexorable fate.

There is only one truth.
I shall give birth to a child,
truth driving outward from my inwardness.
Neither good nor bad; real, no sham about it.

With the first labor pains,
suddenly the sun goes pale.
The indifferent world goes strangely calm.
I am alone.
It is alone I am.

Akiko Yosano

The Death and Life in Fertility to Birth: Pregnancy

“To the woman he said, ‘I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children'” (Gen 3:16a,b)

When Martin Luther translates this verse from Hebrew into German, the first two parts of the verse read like this, “Und zur Frau sprach er: Ich will dir viel Mühsal schaffen, wenn du schwanger wirst; unter Mühen sollst du Kinder gebären.” Or, in English, “And to the woman he said: ‘I will create/make many toil/distress/difficulty when you are pregnant; under troubles/pains/toils you are supposed to give birth to children.'” The Hebrew supports Luther’s translation choices. The Hebrew word w’heronekh’ incorporates not only the idea of child-bearing, but, more specifically, the whole of the event from beginning to end:  including pregnancy and conception. If this were not so and if the word only referred to the act of child-bearing (the labor and delivery part, which is often the focus for many people), then the second of the first two statements to the woman would be redundant–the second being nearly unnecessary. In what God says to the woman as part of her curse to bear is that from beginning to end the event of bringing forth a child will be toilsome, hard, filled with sorrow, pain, difficulty, and distress; there is no part that goes unscathed by the curse. Bringing forth a child, in simple terms, will not be easy in any stretch of the imagination. Part of the battle ground between life and death will be her very body; as fast as she can rejoice, she will be able to weep.  All of it happening to her and in her and apart from her control–and there in lies her death, her pain, her toil–it’s not merely physical but also emotional and intellectual.

For this post, I’ll focus primarily on pregnancy (and not conception, I’ll save that for a later post), which makes sense because I’m 38.5 weeks pregnant. Pregnancy is, if you will, sort of on my mind. So what does death and life look like as a woman progresses through pregnancy? A perpetual (or what feels like a perpetual) loss of self, a handing over of one’s self to the event. Physically, this is somewhat more obvious. The pregnancy, and by this I really mean the growing life within the womb, takes over. A glass of milk is no longer merely some Vit D for the mom, it will go first to the child. Our bodies, literally, re-prioritize who is important; and the important person is the new life, the child. If we don’t ingest enough vitamins to cover both baby and mom, we, ourselves in our body, will suffer. Then there’s the ever present aversions (both smell and taste and touch) that pop up in an otherwise normally unaffected mother. With my second son I couldn’t tolerate the smell of Ham. Ham. It’s completely innocuous; it has no danger to it whatsoever, but I reacted to it like I would rotten eggs or rotten meat. There’s the nauseous hailing in “morning sickness”, which, by the way, is typically more of an all-day sickness that can fluctuate in correlation to, well, nothing really. It sort of does what it wants. Personally, I would be nauseous both full or hungry, both rested or tired. And speaking of rest, what’s that?? In the beginning, in those first few weeks, there is, typically, extreme exhaustion, no matter what you do. You could sleep all day and wake up and feel exhausted.  Physically, the woman is taken over. She is no longer in control of her body, and this is the beginning of the death of herself.

But it doesn’t end with the completion of the first tri-mester; no. way. As the pregnancy progresses so will her weight, her hips will spread, her belly will expand, her breasts will enlarge, her feet will change, her ligaments (all of them) will loosen and the once graceful and deft will quickly become, shall we say, a bull in a china shop. On a confessional note, I bump into more walls, door frames, and banisters than I care to admit. My large belly has actually turned on and ignited gas burners on our stove. My husband got nervous one night, because he was certain I’d burn my belly reaching up over the stove to get something down from the cabinet above. At this stage in the game I can’t actually just sit up from a lying down position, but have to sort of do this roll thing and throw in a grunt or two. And that’s just what I’m willing to share.  Every month that progresses by, she will lose more and more of herself and who she was. Every turn through out the pregnancy changes her, for good–there’s truly no going back to what was.

While the physical symptoms present themselves in such tangible ways, there are yet more concerns for the pregnant woman that lie just under the surface of the physical in the emotional and intellectual. Fear.  I am not only losing control of my body as it seems to completely hand itself over to this process of growing this life, but I am in the midst of a deep, spiritual awareness that I’m not in control and that awareness brings with it fear.  Humanity in general does not like to be out of control; we’d rather be God than confess that we need Him.  This truth is ever present in the life of the pregnant woman. What do you mean there’s, technically, nothing I can do to guarantee a successful result?! Fear (and anxiety, it’s sister) is the tantamount emotional and intellectual response to the realization that one is not in control. And fear is the exact emotion she will feel (some of us more and some of us less) during the entire pregnancy, for there is no definite to lay hold of; confidence is pure illusion.

For me, fear rears it’s head frequently. I remember remarking to a friend when I was pregnant with my first that I wish I had a window that I could look through to see if everything was okay with my baby. I want there to be something that I can do to ensure a good result: I won’t drink coffee or alcohol, I’ll avoid noxious odors and certain foods with old-wives tales linking them with miscarriage (from any culture), I’ll happily stop running and other activities that could result in loss or damage to the baby. But still, even if I do all of those things, there’s no guarantee. Even currently being 38weeks (almost 39) pregnant, I still have that lingering concern about whether or not everything is okay, and I have it everyday. Throughout the first trimester, I was concerned about miscarriage; then through the second trimester, concerned about late term miscarriage, still birth, the results of tests; and, now, as I approach the end of the third trimester, my concern lie in her movements throughout the day, what the outcome of labor and delivery will be, is she really healthy (mentally and physically), and will we be okay through the c-section/recovery. As I go through my day without taking hold of the concrete answers I desire, and made aware of my inability to do anything, I am thrust to my knees (sometimes very literally) at the foot of the Cross, asking for help to make it one more day, to take one more step through what seems to be a thick fog. Each breath accompanied by honest confessions of fear and weakness and heartfelt pleas for His mercy.  The more I progress through this pregnancy I made more and more aware that while the end will hopefully result in the bringing forth a new life into this world, there is something between here and there and that something is death.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).

From conception to birth, the woman is thrown to the foot of the Creator’s throne, dependent on His will, His mercy, and His strength through her weakness. Everyday for nine months, she will make this journey; everyday she will hand herself over to the death of herself; everyday she will be much more different than the day before; everyday she will join her voice with Mary’s, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Everyday she will die, only to be raised up anew.