If Genesis 2 portrays Adam and Eve as coequals engaging in reciprocal love that mirrors the very essence of God, then what do we make of the Apostle Paul and his order of creation talk? Did Paul misunderstand Genesis, or do we misunderstand Paul?
A Bit About the Apostle Paul
For those less familiar with the historical arch of the Bible, Paul was both a Roman citizen and part of the Jewish elite in the First Century AD. As a young man he was personally bent on destroying early Christianity. Then he had a transformative encounter with the risen Jesus. Paul was born a man of privilege in both the Jewish and Roman worlds. Through effort he gained more privilege. Then he cast it all aside to proclaim the Kingdom of God. Often scorned and even beaten, he devoted his life to challenging the power structures of the Roman Empire. Those most drawn to his teaching were the socially ostracized including slaves and women.
In an ugly twist of irony, today, Paul’s writings are often used uphold privilege, justify oppression, and demean women. Some argue this is a consequence of edited texts or even pseudepigrapha. I tend to think it reveals just how quickly we turn to a spirit of power when find ourselves experiencing nothing with no idea how to heal.
1 Corinthians 11
At one point on his revolutionary travels, Paul spent a year and a half in the Greek port city of Corinth. After establishing a network of churches there, he moved on to spread his message in other places. As time when on, attempts to embody Paul’s message resulted in an array of conflicts. Paul, hoping to offer clarification and guidance, wrote at least three letters to the Corinthians, two of which appear in the Bible.
In the first of these letters Paul references the order of creation while talking about how women should present themselves while leading worship. Notice, that is very different than saying that men should prophesy and women should not. Rather, it is strongly pro-women leading. Paul just wants to make sure that how they lead does not cause confusion. Specifically, he wants them to cover their heads. But why?
What Does Head Mean?
Paul begins his argument by stirring up a firestorm to modern ears: “But there is one thing I want you to know: The head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” But what happens when we dig into and reflect on what Paul actually says?
There are three meanings for the Greek word, head:
- the cranium
- one in authority
- a source or origin, like a lake being the head of the river
So one viable translation is: “The cranium of every man is Christ, the cranium of woman is man, and the cranium of Christ is God.” This is non-sensical.
That said, translating head as an authority is illogical. Created first cannot indicate the order of importance, as both of the creation myths begin with simpler forms of life and move towards increasing complexity. If what came first was most important then animals would be more important than people, plants more important than animals, and the barren earth and sky would be most important of all.
This means the only sensical and logical reading is head as the source. This certainly fits with the order of creation where Eve is taken from the adam to make Adam and Eve. It also meshes with Paul’s later argument: “But among the Lord’s people, women are not independent of men, and men are not independent of women. For although the first woman came from man, every other man was born from a woman, and everything comes from God.”
Rather than establishing a hierarchy, Paul highlights human interconnectedness and how everything links back to the ultimate divine source. This is important to Paul’s broader argument that woman are liberated in the Kingdom of God.
Head Coverings in Roman Society
That said, Paul’s request that women cover their heads seems really strange until you understand something about the Leges Juliae, a series of laws instituted by Caesar Augustus around 17 BCE. The laws react to social changes that began around 44 BCE when, for the first time, elite Roman women gained the right to own property. They could also divorce their husbands, and in some cases, even regain a part of the original dowry.
This gave these women an entirely new level of independence. In response, a new class of Roman women emerged who embraced more open sexuality and did not shy from infidelity. Essentially, they started acting like their husbands had for generations. To demonstrate this independence, they took off the traditional wedding veil (which covered their head) and donned more suggestive and ornamental clothing.
Caesar Augustus feared this new freedom would undermine the familial foundation of the Roman upper class as, even those women who did marry, increasingly put off having children or would abort a pregnancy that did occur. The Leges Juliae, named after his daughter, incentivized marriage and childbearing and disincentivized singleness. They also made adultery a crime. One punishment for women included head shaving.
Head Coverings In The Church
Going back to 1 Corinthians, women in the church are taking positions of leadership. They are praying and prophesying. While the broader culture would object, Paul encourages it. Paul wants women to take positions of leadership in the church.
At the same time, he realizes that when they pray and prophecy with their heads uncovered, they simultaneously make a cultural statement of their sexual availability to men other than their husbands. Were they unfaithful? There is no way of knowing. It is quite possible that, like other issues that Paul addresses in Corinth, this is just another example of Christians appropriating a cultural symbol of liberation, not thinking through the ramification of the message it communicates to broader society. This causes confusion about the kind of liberation Paul proclaims and that is the issue he’s addressing.
The Order of Creation in the Church
So how does all that tie into the order of creation?
In the midst of his argument Paul writes: “For the first man didn’t come from woman, but the first woman came from man. And man was not made for woman, but woman was made for man.”
As we discovered last week, this is not a statement of subjugation. Rather, the original adam, lacking a coequal relationship, could not adequately image divinity. The adam lacked reciprocal love that overflowed to the rest of creation. So God took the adam and made Adam and Eve. One highlighted the masculine and the other the feminine, and when they come together, they discover something about themselves and more accurately image the divine nature both individually and together. According to 1 Corinthians 11, this happens both in marriage and in the context of church leadership.
In other words, Paul, following the creative lead of the divine, brings order to creation by declaring that everything belongs. Sadly, broken Christianity all too often casts women back into the nothing and in doing so, disorders creation.
This week involves a great deal of scholarly substance. These are some of the sources that helped me sort through what Paul intends to say.
Book: The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan
Borg and Crossan are brilliant theologians from differing Christian traditions who combine their wisdom and insights to invite the whole church to see the Bible differently. In this book, they outline the transformation in Paul’s letters and how he seems to move from radical revolutionary to one who supports the continuation of empire.
Book: Paul Through Medeterainan Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians by Kenneth Bailey
Kenneth Bailey is one of my favorite scholars. He explores both the cultural and long-lost literary techniques of ancient authors to bring clarity to texts that often confuse modern readers.
Book: Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities by Bruce Winter
This is the best work I know of exploring the social and cultural dynamics that help make sense of the context Paul wrote into. Without this framework I do not know how you can accurately read those portions of the New Testament.
Paul invites us to learn from both the masculine and feminine. Which have you not heard as much from recently? How might you add more balance?
After a week in the world of Paul we dive back into the Genesis creation myths and explore where things went wrong.
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