Paul's “Backsliding” Feminism
As I have been arguing throughout, Paul was motivated by a Hellenistic desire for the One, which among other things produced an ideal of a universal human essence, beyond difference and hierarchy. This universal humanity, however, was predicated (and still is) on the dualism of the flesh and the spirit, such that while the body is particular, marked through practice as Jew or Greek, and through anatomy as male or female, the spirit is universal. The strongest expression of this Pauline cultural criticism is Galatians and especially 3:28–29. 1 Corinthians, on the other hand, has been read and used within much Christian practice as a powerful defense of a cultural conservatism. Making 1 Corinthians the hermeneutical key to Paul has had fateful cultural consequences, although to be sure such a reading has also been the product of the very ideologies that it eventually underpinned. I have been claiming throughout that the major motivating force behind Paul's ministry was a profound vision of a humanity undivided by ethnos, class, and sex. If Paul took “no Jew or Greek” as seriously as all of Galatians attests that he clearly did, how could he possibly—unless he is incoherent or a hypocrite—not have taken “no male and female” with equal seriousness (Fiorenza 1983, 210)? The task of my reading here, among other things, is to articulate a coherent reading of Paul as a social and cultural critic, i.e., reading Galatians very seriously while also making sense of Corinthians (cp. Gager 1983, 226).
I am, of course, not the first critic to attempt this task. In her justly famous feminist reconstruction of Christian origins, In Memory of Her, Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza reproduces an “apocryphal” female epistle of Phoebe, written by one of Fiorenza's students. This document contains the following lines:
The second story is one I would like to discuss with Paul who lately seems so concerned with putting women back in “their proper places.” He is so taken up with giving a good impression to the pagans that he is reverting to his rabbinic prejudices I think. As if the proper place of woman was in the home bearing children—“woman is the glory of man” indeed! Surely with his background he would know where Genesis puts woman: “in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” What a strange man he is. In his letter to us he so firmly emphasized the equality of woman and man in marriage; in the same letter he raged on and on about hairstyles in the assembly.…And, even more pointed, are these words from his letter to our Galatian neighbours: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” I do fear that some people hear, not these words of Paul which so clearly reflect the attitude and teaching of Jesus our Wisdom but hear instead his returns to the past before he received the freedom of the Spirit. I shudder to think that some time in the future a leader of one of the churches will say, “Gentiles, slaves and women cannot become part of the ministry of the Word because Jesus did not entrust the apostolic charge to them.” When I said that to Paul, he laughed uproariously and exclaimed, “Phoebe you are a person with the strangest notions! If any of my letters do survive, only someone bewitched will fail to see the difference between my preaching of the Good News and my ramblings about cultural problems and situations. People from another age will easily disregard the cultural trappings and get to the heart of the message.” If only that distinction were as clear to the rest of us as it is to Paul! (Fiorenza 1983, 63–64)
Fiorenza, of course, quotes this discourse very approvingly. This student writing, according to her, “can highlight the educational and imaginative value of retelling and rewriting biblical androcentric texts from a feminist critical perspective.” What we have here, in fact, is a fairly typical move of certain Christian feminists. One aspect of Pauline discourse, indeed constituted by only one (crucial) verse in Galatians, is rendered the essential moment of his message about gender, while the rest is relegated to an incompletely exorcised demonized Jewish past. I submit here two propositions: The first is that such a reading of Paul will simply not stand up critically and, indeed, trivializes him beyond retrieval. Paul's so-called “ramblings” about cultural problems and situations are, indeed, at the heart of his ministry, as Fiorenza herself indicates (226). The second is that no feminist critical perspective will be progressive if it is dependent on false and prejudicial depictions of Judaism—the Rabbis presumably lacked the background that included reading “in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them”—or, for that matter, prejudicial representations of so-called paganism.
I have not cited Fiorenza here because she is in any way an egregious offender in these respects; if anything, she has made special efforts not to fall into such traps. For that reason, however, this lapse is all the more symptomatic. Her student has failed to produce an acceptable solution, but she certainly has exposed the problem. For there is a major issue here for Pauline studies. On the issue of gender, as on several other matters of equal significance, Paul seems to have produced a discourse which is so contradictory as to be almost incoherent. In Galatians, Paul seems indeed to be wiping out social differences and hierarchies between the genders, in addition to those that obtain between ethnic groups and socioeconomic classes, while in Corinthians he seems to be reifying and reemphasizing precisely those gendered hierarchical differences. Fiorenza's student's answer to this dilemma comprehends, in fact, two types of standard approaches to such problems in Pauline studies. One is that there is conflict within Paul between an unreconstructed Jewish past and his Christian present, and the other is that Paul was given to caving in under external “pagan” pressures, even on fundamental and critical points in his ideology. In a third approach to this and other similar problems, Paul is granted absolution, as it were, from the sin of inconsistency by being absolved of any desire for consistency to start with. According to this version of Paul, he was not a systematic thinker, and all of his pronouncements are oriented toward the local problems with which each of his epistles is dealing (Räisänen 1980; Räisänen 1985). Thus, while writing to the Galatians, Paul emphasized the social equality of the sexes in the new Christian reality, but when writing to the Corinthians, for whom such notions of equality had apparently become spiritually and socially dangerous, he backtracked or backslid and reinstated gender difference and hierarchies.
In my view, none of these ways of understanding Paul is adequate, and I wish to propose here a different way of reading him, one which is generated, no less than the reading produced by Fiorenza's student, by feminist reading practices, politics, and theory. Let me begin by restating the problem. First of all, there is the question of apparent contradiction between Galatians and Corinthians. This contradiction obtains on two levels. First, in the baptismal formula in Galatians 3:28, the phrase “There is no male and female” is included, while in the Corinthians (1 Cor. 12:12–13) version it is dropped. Second, much of the advice on marriage and general discussion of gender in Corinthians seems to imply that there very much is and ought to be male and female in the Christian communities and households, certainly insofar as marriage is to continue. Finally, even within Corinthians itself, there seems to be much tension between “egalitarian” notions of the status of the sexes and rigidly hierarchical ones. I am going to propose a partially new resolution of these contradictions within the context of my overall interpretation of Paul's thought, because these expressions and tensions function within the entire system. I will argue in the end that Paul is caught here on the horns of a dilemma not of his own making, as it were, and one on which we are impaled into post-modernity and (embryonic) post-patriarchy—the myth of the primal androgyne.
The construction I wish to build here is constituted on the following notion: The famous “myth of the primal androgyne,” together with the myth of Adam's rib, provides the ideological base of gender in our culture until this day. According to this myth, the first human being was an androgyne who was later split into the two sexes. However—and this is the catch—in the Hellenistic world and late antiquity, the primal androgyne was almost always imagined as disembodied, so that the androgyne was really no-body and dual-sex was no-sex. This myth, I suggest, encodes the dualist ideology whereby a spiritual androgyny is contrasted with the corporeal (and social) division into sexes.
Given this general understanding of the context of Pauline thought and expression, I can begin to set out my interpretation of the differences and apparent contradictions between Galatians and Corinthians on gender. To put it briefly and somewhat crudely: Galatians is, on my reading, a theology of the spirit and Corinthians a theology of the body. In Galatians Paul's major concern is to defend his doctrine of justification by faith as a means of including the gentiles in the Israel of God, and he violently rejects anything that threatens that notion and that inclusion. “For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor freeman; there is no male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ If, however, you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26–29).
But in Corinthians, Paul is fighting against pneumatics who seem both radically anti-body and radically antinomian. He thinks the whole Christian mission is in danger, having fallen into the peril that he anticipated at the end of Galatians of allowing the spirit to provide opportunity for the flesh, because the realities of the flesh and its demands have not been attended to. He produces, therefore, a theology of the body that balances and completes, but does not contradict, the theology of the spirit of Galatians. It is no wonder, then, that this is the text which is richest in “halakhic” prescriptions, and no wonder, as well, that it is this text which inscribes hierarchy between men and women in the marriage relationship. In the life of the spirit, in Paul as in Philo, there may be no male and female, but in the life of the body there certainly is. Next is the fact that in Corinthians there is an explicit and frequent appeal to both Jewish tradition and that of apostolic, Jewish Christianity. Several times in this letter Paul refers to his passing on of tradition (παράδοσις) that he had received, and all but one of his citations of traditions attributed explicitly to Jesus appear in this letter as well (Tomson 1990, 72–73), while according to Wire's interpretation all such citations are in Corinthians (Wire 1990, 272). All this is in direct contrast (not contradiction) to Galatians, in which Paul emphasizes that he is not authorized by tradition, by the teaching of Jesus in the flesh, that he is an apostle not from men but from God, authorized by his visionary experience of the spirit. It is no accident that the Pauline text that most thematizes the body is the one that also most manifests such fleshly concerns as rules and regulations, tradition, literal interpretations, and authority. I suggest that we best read Paul as a middle way between the insistence on literality and corporeality, perhaps even the monism of the Jerusalem Church, on the one hand, and the radical dualism of gnostics (and gnostic-like tendencies in the early Church), on the other. Paul's is a dualism that makes room for the body, however much the spirit is more highly valued. In this light I will reread Paul on gender.