Bareheaded Corinthian Women
by Jack Hoehn | 2 November 2018 |
Shouldn’t Christian women just admit that they are born to lives of subservience? Paul has written things to the church in Corinth difficult to accept. But if Paul said it, and I understand it, doesn’t that settle it? Let’s journey with Jack to Corinth to see if we do understand it.
No previous inscription in stone, no graffiti scratched on a plastered wall or a potsherd, no clay hieroglyph from an Assyrian/Babylonian library of thousands of tablets, no scrap of papyrus or piece of parchment from Alexandria or Pergamos ever had said anything like this before. It is absolutely unique in the annals of human history for any man or any woman to ever write down a proclamation like this:
“In the end—and in the Lord
—woman is not otherwise than man,
and man is not otherwise than woman;
and though woman came from man,
so does everyman come from a woman
—and everything comes from God.”
(1 Corinthians 11:12)
Here we have, according to historian Thomas Cahill, “the only clarion affirmation of sexual equality in the whole of the Bible—and the first one ever to be made in any of the many literatures of our planet.”
So, I went to Corinth
Because how could the man commanded by Christ Jesus to be the founder of a Christian religion suitable for the world, the most influential theologian explaining what God was doing through Jesus, the one who saw in this new kind of humanity the breakdown of every pre-existing barrier, every social dividing wall, every distinction be they racial, economic, or gender—how could that Paul have written this?
“Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off…” (1 Corinthians 11:5,6)
And how is gender equality in Christ demonstrated by this kernel of wisdom?
“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:34,35)
I wanted to see what Christians in the largest city in Greece (yes, larger than Athens), the richest city in Asia (yes, richer than Ephesus), as womanizing as any sailors’ port of call, as Romanized as Julius Caesar could make it, as Greek religioned as the Oracle at Delphi–had done to deserve such problematic and disturbing verses. They seem so out of character with Paul’s teaching other places, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”(Galatians 3:28)
Did this “equality in Christ” mean we Gentiles can be as good as Jews if we get ourselves circumcised? Did this mean we Christian slaveholders can keep our slaves toiling for us, if we treat them kindly? Did this mean women can be in the church as long as they wear the burka or veil, remain in submission to their men, and only speak when spoken to?
So, I went to Corinth. And I went to Athens, and Delphi, and Thessalonica, and Philippi, and Neapolis and Tyros, Assos, Pergamon, Smyrna, Ephesus, Colossae (and not to leave all of you out, dear fellow church members, I also went to Laodicea). I walked from three to six miles a day, and rode for hours in an air-conditioned bus where Luke, Silas, Timothy, Lydia, Priscilla, Chloe, Phoebe, and Paul had walked for hours and days and weeks.
Paul at least walked for thousands of miles to bring the cultures of his day to their knees by what he called “gospel.” But what Tacitus called “a most mischievous superstition,” one that frankly put his 1st-century Roman culture of white wealthy entitled male dominance in jeopardy.
Breaking Down Social Barriers
Paul’s Jesus was breaking down all the social barriers in his Greco-Roman world. In Turkey’s Istanbul Archeological Museum, I saw the stone inscription from Jerusalem’s temple marking the barrier wall at the court of the Gentiles. (Why was this in Turkey? The Ottoman Empire controlled and pillaged treasures to Istanbul from Jerusalem, just as the Germans and English later pillaged ancient archeological treasures from Turkey to Berlin and London!) In stone-cut Greek letters it states, “No outsider shall enter the protective enclosure around the sanctuary. And whoever is caught will only have himself to blame for the ensuing death.”
This temple barrier wall is reference for all the human barriers and impositions of position and rank, putting winners on top and losers on the bottom. Women only in their court. Gentiles only in their court. Common circumcised males only up to the altar. Regular priests only at the alter and holy place. Only the high priest in the Most Holy Place, and only once a year. These divisions are what Christ came to abolish. The barrier curtain of the holy to Most Holy was torn from top to bottom at his death. The female and gentile and slave barriers were removed by Christ. Read again the gravity and earth-shaking importance of this new egalitarian view of humanity that Paul presents:
“He himself is our peace…
has made the two groups one…destroyed the barrier,
the dividing wall of hostility… to create in himself one new humanity…
thus making peace… to reconcile… he put to death their hostility…
peace to you who were far away…
peace to those… near.”
The Delphi Oracle
Women in Greek and Roman culture were not citizens; only males could be citizens. No votes, and it was considered improper for women to speak up in public. In religion there were female gods, like Athena and her pet owl, but female humans were classed lower than slave in value in Athens. Females, however, were permitted to serve the gods, so one ancient writer claimed that over 1,000 females, often slaves sometimes donated by wealthy male owners after they tired of them, were then available in ancient Corinth to serve Aphrodite as temple prostitutes available for the males, often sailors on long journeys, seeking the “comforts of religion” for an agreed fee. (Sadly, there were also resident temple boys, juvenile boy slaves available for sexual abuse by men on the same mercantile terms.)
In Greece’s mountains, all of volcanic origin, was a fissure that brought up from the depths of the earth toxic gases and fumes. This was Delphi (originally Pythos) and claimed to be “the umbilicus of the world (omphalos)” and a passage to the gods of darkness and death. This fissure could be made use of by female prophetesses who had a hidden tunnel from a temple where they would suddenly appear by the fissure, holding their breath, until forced to breathe and become intoxicated by the fumes. It was a deadly profession and required at least 3 women at all times, as anyone of them doing it repeatedly would not live long. They were called pythia ( perhaps after the python or ancient serpent behind idolatry) and would at times mumble or call out incoherent words that could be interpreted by a priest (safely away from the fumes to remain coherent) who would then answer the questions placed by worshipers wealthy enough to make substantial offerings to the gods (and their human representatives).
The ancient ruling classes all went to Delphi to hear what the gods had to say through these female prophetesses. They could shout out in public whatever they felt like shouting, and people fawned on them.
I saw the limestone building blocks (still partly covered by marble) of ancient Corinth, this leading city of the ancient world. Paul first went to the Jewish synagogue, as the Jews always had first chance to learn more about their God as revealed by His Son. I stood before and then sat upon the “judgment seat” (bema) where a Roman proconsul Gallio was asked to punish Paul for religious tumult. He declined. The city treasurer’s name Erastus is still carved into a stone plaque showing his contribution to the city. Erastus became a supporter of the early Christian church. And many women joined from all social classes. Women were free to speak, to exhort or prophesy, and to administer Pauline churches. In Corinth, Priscilla taught evangelist Apollos. Chloe corresponded with Paul on the state of the church in Corinth when he was away. Phoebe was a woman deacon at a branch in the port of Corinth, Cenchreae.
But other women, perhaps freed from servitude, became “filled with the Spirit,” liberated and upgraded from no-class to equality, became ecstatic excited prophets. They felt they were Pythia now, and as the Oracle prophetesses in excitement shouted out, they began to have unknown tongues that permitted them to speak out in public for the first time.
Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 14 that brothers and sisters are speaking in unknown tongues. OK, it feels good, and sure let’s all do it once in a while, but where is the Oracle priest to interpret what the Pythia (female prophetess semi-conscious) is mumbling? I’d prefer you to speak five intelligible words, rather than 10,000 words of glossolalia.
Sisters, stop thinking like children…grow up. If anyone speaks in a tongue, two, or at most three, should speak, one at a time and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker, male or female, should keep quiet in the church. Women feeling called to burst out in church with an ecstatic utterance, please keep quiet. Wives should discuss these things with their husbands at home, before letting it all out in the meeting.
Mark Fairchild suggests: “It seems that the church at Corinth was influenced by how prophecy was conducted at the Delphic Oracle. At Delphi, the young virgin prophetess (pythia) entered into a prophetic trance and spoke in a strange language (glossolalia – speaking in tongues). In Corinth, women took the prerogative to speak for God (prophecy) and they also spoke in tongues (as in Delphi). Paul realizes the dangers of such practices. Christian prophecy is not a matter of entering into alternate states of consciousness in order to imagine a prophecy from God. Because of the abuse of this kind of “prophecy” Paul instructs women to keep quiet. “Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only?” (1 Cor 12:36).”
Female Hats, Male Headship?
This leaves us with male versus female head covering. And with the so called “male headship.” This has God as boss of Jesus, and Jesus as boss of men, and men as boss of women, and women as boss of children, and as one little boy proclaimed, “Well, I’m the boss of Satan!”
This interpretation doesn’t seem to fit well with the theology of Paul. There is equality in the new humanity in the Lord, the breaking down of dividing walls, the welcoming of rich with poor, slave with free, male with female, all one in Christ. There have been many attempts to explain, or even excise as later introductions those anti-equality verses from scripture. Many Christians agree it just doesn’t feel right.
But perhaps we have been reading the verses wrong. Let’s look at Corinthians again. Our Bible’s “1 Corinthians” is likely the 2nd letter Paul wrote to Corinth. We don’t have the first letter preserved, but its presence is alluded to in the one we have. But it is clear that Paul is answering a letter sent him by believers in Corinth, and addressing their issues with allusions both to their letter and his previous letter.
In 1 Corinthians 1, he quotes what they were saying: “One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
Then he answers it: “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name.”
In 1 Corinthians 4, he quotes what they were saying: “Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign—and that without us!”
And then he counters their arrogance with a more Christian attitude.
In 1 Corinthians 5, he again quotes what they told him: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife.”
And then he discusses sexual immorality.
Then he quotes himself from his previous letter: “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—”
And then he explains what he meant by that. They had misunderstood him.
1 Corinthians 6, he again quotes what he has read is happening in Corinth: “One brother takes another to court—and this in front of unbelievers! You have lawsuits among you… you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters.”
Then he gives advice about lawsuits.
Cutting the Gordian Knot
Alexander the Macedonian Greek who became “The Great” was challenged to solve a puzzle of an intricate knot said to be impossible to untie. He is said to have just taken his sword and with a might stroke unraveled the rope with one deep slice.
One of the more plausible explanations for what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 11 is to understand that the discordant ideas in verses 3-10 are not Paul’s ideas, but he is just quoting them again as he has done so many times before in this conversational letter. Some men, challenged by the newly exercised equality of not only Jew and Gentile, not only of free and slave, rich and poor, but also by their wives and slave girls, had developed their version of male headship.
Paul, then, is first quoting their ideas, and then answering them. This would read something like this, just adding to the text some missing quotation marks and question marks:
1 Corinthians 11:2-10: What Corinthian Men Were Teaching
I am happy that you have remembered the teachings I left you. But you want me to know that: “The head of every man is Christ, and the head of every woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God? That a man with a hat on when praying or preaching dishonors his noble head? But a woman praying or preaching without a hat dishonors the man who is her head? If women won’t cover their heads they should be shaved bald, for that is the same as not covering their head when praying or preaching? Men should not cover their heads, since men are in the image and glory of God [who has no hat] but women should cover their heads since they are the glory of men [who do wear hats]? For the first man wasn’t born, but the first woman came from a man? Man wasn’t created for a woman, but a woman was made for the man? Because of this a woman should have some sign of man’s authority on her head? Because of the angels????”
1 Corinthians 11:11-16: What Paul Replies
But I say to you, in the Lord, women are not that different from men, and men are not that different from women!
Though the first woman came from a man, every man since has come from a woman
—and everything male and female comes from God.
You judge, isn’t it OK for a woman to pray bareheaded?
It doesn’t seem natural [in that culture] for a man to have long hair
but for a woman her hair is her glory, so she really doesn’t need a hat to cover that glory.
If that upsets you, it sure doesn’t bother us, and other churches of God have no problems with it.
2,000 Years Wrong?
Jack, Jack, so you possibly, perhaps, maybe could read Paul’s letter to Corinthian women that way, but are you telling me that for 2,000 years the general Christian (male) understanding that has prohibited women priests and pastors, and kept women wearing head coverings (even until today in some mosques and cathedrals) could possibly be wrong? How could the majority opinion of the Christian church be wrong for 2,000 years? Isn’t this just modern “feminism” speaking?
Well, my dear Seventh-day Adventist, could I ask you how could the majority Christian opinion, for at least 1,800 years, on which DAY to worship God could be wrong?
How could the majority 2,000-year-old Christian opinion on an ever-burning, never-relenting, eternally-punishing HELL be wrong?
How could the majority unchallenged Christian opinion, for at least 1,500 years, on the primacy of the BISHOP OF ROME in the Christian church be wrong?
How could the majority understanding of Bible texts that speak of “going to be with the Lord” as being a conscious spirit in heaven as soon as you die, waiting for some future body to be resurrected, be wrong? I mean, even Billy Graham’s family think he’s up there harping or preaching to the angels as a spirit instead of unconsciously SLEEPING IN THE GRAVE waiting for the resurrection.
Could the majority Christian interpretation of 1 Corinthians on WOMEN for the last 2,000 years be wrong? It happens.
That’s why God sends his people John Wycliffe, Jan Huss, Martin Luther, William Miller, James White (and that other person so closely associated with him) to correct long-term errors.
The Corinthians had a lot of problems. Paul lists many of them, and then responds in a pastoral way trying to correct their errors. Perhaps what we have traditionally read as Paul’s ideas are just his recounting of their mistakes.
Yes, Adventists had a woman pythia (prophetess) in our church. She spoke out in public on behalf of God. She did not mumble or speak in unknown tongues. But she did say this about ancient opinions, doctrines and beliefs:
“There is no excuse for anyone in taking the position
that there is no more truth to be revealed,
and that all our expositions of Scripture are without an error.
The fact that certain doctrines have been held
as truth for many years by our people,
is not a proof that our ideas are infallible.
Age will not make error into truth, and truth can afford to be fair.
No true doctrine will lose anything by close investigation.” 
 Thomas Cahill, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, The World Before and After Jesus, p 142, Anchor Books, Random House, New York, 2001.
 In October Deanne and I joined the “Christian Sites in Greece and Turkey” tour conducted by Tutku Tours, sponsored by the Biblical Archeology Review magazine, with Dr. Mark Fairchild, a Christian archeologist from Huntington University in Indiana as our leader.
 Jack Hoehn has discussed the New Testament condemnation of this kind of male child abuse here, https://atoday.org/adventism-tomorrow-part-3-against-all-abuse-for-all-love/.
 This fixture is used in 2 Corinthians 5:10, reminding we must all stand before the bema (judgment platform) of Christ.
 Romans 16:23; 2 Timothy 4:20; Acts 19:22.
 Mark R. Fairchild, Ph.D., Professor & Chair Dept. Bible & Religion, Huntington University, Huntington, IN 46750.
 Lucy Peppiatt presented this way of understanding Corinthians in her discussion of her book, Women and Worship at Corinth, 2015.
 My paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 11.
 Ellen G. White, Counsels to Writers and Editors, page 35.