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Syncretism and the Peacock Angel

August 18, 2014
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For some time now the onslaught of the Islamic State against anyone they deem as non-Muslim (including quite a lot of people whom everyone else thinks of as Muslims) has dominated the news. One of the hardest-hit groups is the obscure Yazidi sect which has been singled out by the Islamic State as not merely non-Muslim but as devil-worshipping. While there are a number of things that could be said about this matter the one that is on-topic for this blog is the mechanism by which the Islamic State decided that the Yazidis worship the devil and the mechanism by which most Western news sources have decided otherwise.

The mechanism by which the Islamic State (and, unfortunately, many other Muslims throughout history) has decided that the Yazidis worship the devil is fairly straightforward. The Islamic State has taken both Islam and the Yazidi religion seriously: it has accepted as a base premise that both religions describe real beings. It has also taken a rather obvious move for a state that describes itself first and foremost as “Islamic” and has decided that where Islam and the Yazidi religion differ Islam is correct. One of the central Yazidi figures is Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel, and the similarities between large parts of the story of Melek Taus and the story of the Islam devil, Shaitan, are strong enough that many non-Muslim non-Yazidi scholars believe that Melek Taus’ story borrows heavily from the Muslim story of Shaitan. If both Islam and the Yazidis worship real beings and Islam describes these beings more correctly then it would be fairly hard to avoid the conclusion that the Yazidis worship Shaitan.

However, most Westerner reporters deny this. This is probably an attempt at a neutral stance but it actually isn’t neutral. A perfectly neutral stance would be to say, “Yazidis worship a figure who the hardline Salafis of the Islamic State believe is the devil.” This tells us what both parties believe without stating whether either party is right or wrong. Instead, the reports I have read have all taken pains to tell us that the Islamic State is wrong. There are three possibilities if the Islamic State is wrong:

  • There is no devil and therefore Melek Taus is definitely not the devil.
  • There is no Melek Taus (only a figment of the Yazidi imagination) and so Melek Taus cannot be anything except his own imaginary self. Any attempt to identify him in another frame of reference is pointless.
  • There is both a Melek Taus and a devil but the differences between the two are substantial enough that they must be identified as separate figures[1].

Only the last statement avoids stating that one of these religions is just plain wrong. However, it introduces a whole host of other issues since Melek Taus inhabits a universe of a very different structure than that of Shaitan – one would really need to make up a new religion to accommodate both figures without completely altering them[2].

If this were all, this article would be an extremely pedantic slam on Western media sources (which are not generally known for great reporting on religion anyway). However, what is more interesting is that the principle that causes the Islamic State to identify Melek Taus as the devil is frequently celebrated when it leads towards religious reconciliation. After all, what is happening is syncretism.

Syncretism is simple: one person takes two religions and identifies figures in each religion with figures in the other religion. Syncretism is actually incredibly old (there is some evidence to suggest that ancient Egypt dealt with neighbors who assumed that the Egyptian pantheon was the same as their own just under different names[3]) although for some reason many of its modern proponents believe they are breaking new ground. In many cases modern Western syncretists deal only with gods – they find a few monotheisms and identify all of the gods as the same god and ask why everyone has to disagree. The minor figures (angels, demons, the devil, etc.) get kicked to the wayside because attempting to syncretize them is too difficult.

However, as the Melek Taus example suggests, real syncretism can be quite hard. (Real syncretism indicates syncretism that starts from the premise that both syncretized religions are describing real beings and that the task is to match these beings up.) Syncretists inevitably run across serious disagreements between religions. The response of the syncretist to these disagreements places them in one of two camps: the “we’re basically right” camp and the new religion camp.

The first camp is where most ancient syncretists and the Islamic State belong (along with certain modern Christians who identify the gods of other religions as demonic figures in Christianity). In this camp when two religions differ in their accounts of a religious figure, one religion always wins. So, for instance, when ancient Greeks described the Persian gods they did so from the perspective that they understood the gods better than the Persians and so while the Persians might have additional stories about particular gods (and perhaps even extra unrecognized gods[4]) if the Greeks and Persians said irreconcilable things about a deity (for instance, if they claimed different things about the marital status of the goddess of wisdom) the Greek version won.

The second camp is the province of most modern Western syncretists although at least one religion (Baha’i) has sprung up via this route. In this case if two religions disagree neither is assumed to be right. Instead the syncretist either invents an entirely new answer or picks whichever of the existing answers they prefer (to be fair this preference may be a very rational one). The primary issue with this is that it doesn’t bring two religions together but creates a third.

Many syncretists hope for a third camp wherein all disagreements between two religions can be harmonized without picking and choosing. Unfortunately, this requires a world in which there are no substantial disagreements between religions. While some syncretists attempt to make disagreements between religions insubstantial by declaring one or another part of a religion to be primary and letting all other parts fade into the background this is actually a more aggressive form of new-religion syncretism: instead of creating a single new, syncretistic religion, three new religions are created – a new version of each of the old religions and a syncretized new one.

The short version of what I have said here is that syncretism doesn’t lead to real reconciliation. Indeed, syncretism is much like something practiced by orthodox Christians, Muslims, Baha’is, and Mormons: the incorporation of prior established religious ideas into a new faith. If this actually worked as advertised then all Jews would have become Christians and then all Christians would have become Muslims (since each of these religions offers explanations for the previous ones). (In point of fact, syncretism exists along a continuous scale and drawing a line here and saying that incorporating prior religious traditions into a new faith is not syncretism is somewhat arbitrary.)

Not only does syncretism not work as advertised but it can actually be quite dangerous. If I believe that all your religious figures are real and attempt to fit them within my framework there is no guarantee that I’ll decide they are all good or bad in the same way that you did. While it sounds nice to say that everyone should take everyone else’s religious beliefs seriously our society actually functions along a model in which we treat belief (the act of believing something) seriously but the actual beliefs someone has as completely unrelated to the real world.

 
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Hiatus

July 23, 2014
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I’m sorry to do this but I’m announcing a one-month hiatus. Posts will resume August 18th.

There are several reasons for this.

1) I’m behind. I’m posting a notice about no Monday post on Wednesday evening.

2) Really, really behind. In theory this blog operates as follows: each week I write an article. Each week I also post an article I wrote several weeks before, then looked at and re-wrote several days after I wrote it. This draft-and-revise cycle is what makes this all work. My rough drafts are choppy and poorly-organized. But guess what? We haven’t had a decent article buffer in two years (oddly the same time as I started a job as a full-time biology professor). This summer I hoped to catch up and get an article buffer that wasn’t merely enough to give me space to breathe and write some good articles but enough to let me hit mid-terms this fall and not have to write any articles for a week or two without panicking. Instead we’ve been working on a -1 week buffer: instead of each article getting drafted, then revised, then posted I post articles the minute I write them, sometimes at midnight because I’ve stayed up late to write them. I’ve actually eaten through the tiny buffer I had as I’ve taken weekends away or entertained summer visitors.

3) Given #2 most of this summer’s articles have been rough drafts. They’ve been terrible. They’ve been rushed, they’ve been improperly written, and I haven’t had time to think through the sort of ideas I like to write about. Instead I’ve rushed off articles on something and I haven’t liked them.

I would like to write good articles. I’d like to write articles that don’t feel like chores. So I need a month to write some buffer. I may even need to change the update schedule permanently but I don’t want to do anything too drastic yet. So I’ll see you in August, hopefully with articles that I feel are a much better quality.

I Am Anxious that the Machine Hates Me

July 14, 2014
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Last week I talked about anxiety and whether Christians can be anxious or must be insufferably cheerful at all times. (Hint: I decided against option two.) However, anxiety is incredibly important to Protestantism. If everyone were laid back there would never have been a Reformation. This is true for a number of reasons[1] but the one that has left permanent impressions on all of subsequent Protestantism is Martin Luther’s great anxiety about salvation. If Luther had been a bit more relaxed and a bit less worried that he might fail to work hard enough for God he probably wouldn’t have poured through the Scriptures to find answers and when he found that he didn’t need to earn his way into heaven he wouldn’t have been nearly so excited about it. This goes even further: one of the standard evangelical models of conversion is to pull a mini-Luther[2] and become desperately anxious about how sinful one is, fear that God hates one, and then find out that actually Jesus can take care of that and it’s not necessary to be so stressed. This model definitely works for some people but the anxiety has always struck me as a bit odd.

Sure, maybe people outside the church could have weird phobias about God smiting them but the odd bit is how many people inside the church seem to think that the natural state of humanity should be to huddle in a corner with one’s arms covering one’s head in a hopeless attempt to ward off divine wrath. Some time ago I was involved in a long, meandering argument with a man who considered himself a Calvinist (although Calvin would probably have thrown up if asked to claim him as a disciple) and at one point this man became aware that I did not hold to his rather rigid and simplistic understanding of perseverance of the saints. Specifically, he became aware that I did not believe that God was obligated to save me from the fires of Hell on the basis of a confession I had made when I was a child but that I thought that some more current data might be relevant as well[3]. He asked me a question: how did I prevent myself from gibbering in terror constantly since I did not know with 100% certainty that I was saved? (The snarky but correct answer is that I do not believe in epistemologies that promise certainty about much of anything.) This question seemed frankly unbalanced to me. Perhaps if I had just finished slicing open my forty-second infant while chanting prayers to the evil one I might be overcome by such dread but I found the idea that a Christian attempting to live a faithful life might suddenly be overcome by terror that God would damn them to be simply strange. The actual answer I gave him was something rather simple along the lines of, “I believe that the Lord Who brought me out of darkness intends to finish the job.”

There are many odd things about this conversation but one of them is that the person who asked me this question was chock full of Christian clichés. If anyone was ever likely to ask about your personal relationship with Jesus it was this man. And yet the God presented in this question isn’t really a person.

Take a friendship. You have a personal relationship with your friends. You know who your friends are. Sometimes your friends are not as nice to you as they should be. Sometimes they have a bad day and snap at you or tell some of your personal business to someone you want kept out of it or whatever. They’re still your friend. You can actually tell the difference between a friend on a bad day and an enemy pretty easily. However, in the constant-fear-of-accidental-damnation model God is apparently incapable of doing this. It’s as if God is a simple machine which flips states between “save” and “damn” based on instantaneous changes in your behavior.

Ok, so maybe this model is broken but what about works-righteousness in general? There’s an impression in many evangelical circles that works-righteousness should be an endless stress-fest but most of the works-righteous seem not to think so. In fact this article began life in a conversation with a friend of mine about how he had visited a mosque to prepare for a class on Islam and noticed that while the imam preached entirely in a works-righteousness theme his congregation seemed quite unworried that they were going to miss the cut.

Again, personhood comes to the rescue. If you believe that God demands perfection then works-righteousness is a pretty hopeless task. (For the record I agree with both of those statements.) If you attempted works-righteousness and only works-righteousness then you should spend your life in fear. And yet, again, this assumes that there is no personal element. If a friend of mine were running a charity and I volunteered there I would assume that they wanted me to succeed. I would assume that when I messed up my effort in general would be counted and that the fact that I volunteered at all would be seen as evidence that I was on their side.

The view I get when people describe this God Who should make you anxious is of a God Who basically hates you. He doesn’t hate your sin, He hates you. He’s the boss who wants to fire you but needs an excuse and so you live in terror that you might slip up and provide that excuse. He is, oddly, not a personal God Who loves you and went to great effort to bring you salvation.

The problem with this is that it feels like yanking the supports out from under some good evangelism (and perhaps lending aid to works-righteousness). However the simple fact is that very few people in the modern West live in constant fear of God’s wrath (and many of those who do are Christians, oddly enough). If we insist that people should be in constant fear and yet they aren’t it’s worth asking why. It’s also worth asking whether we should try to sell them on being afraid (sometimes people are blasé about things they really should be terrified of) or whether we should examine our own ideas to see if we are saying something strange. In this case I’m afraid that we are in some ways saying something strange and that many people will hear a Christian who insists that they should be afraid of God saying that God is not a very nice sort of being at all. And, of course, many Christians have internalized a not very nice sort of God to their own detriment.

So, let’s take a Christian cliché seriously. Let’s relate to Jesus like a person. Let’s assume that God is capable of drawing the distinctions that we can draw and work from there. God may indeed be much scarier than many of us wish but let’s not get to that conclusion by assuming that God acts like someone Who actually hates us.

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Do Not Worry About Tomorrow

July 6, 2014
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Many of my friends are worried about the future. Some are getting out of grad school and finding it hard to get a permanent job (or any job at all). Some have children on the way and job instability. Mostly, in fact, my friends are worried about their jobs in the future: whether they will have a job in the future, whether they will get a pay cut in the future, or whether the job they are taking and moving for will pan out. Since many of these friends are also Christians they also face another threat: the friend who comes along and says, “Don’t worry about all that, God has it under control.” One of my friends recently had a job-hunting disappointment only to be told by her roommate, “Oh, I just listened to a great sermon that will really cheer you up.” My friend seemed to think this wasn’t very helpful.

This is a rather interesting phenomenon. On one hand I completely agree with my friends. When you are worried and anxious about major life decisions, or have hit a dead end and see no clear way through and someone tells you to be happy because that’s what God wants from you I totally understand why you might want to punch that person in the teeth. They are being incredibly annoying and while I’m sure someone out there disagrees I find a general consensus on this issue. On the other hand aren’t my friends (and myself at more anxious times in my life) wrong? The title of this article looks suspiciously like the sorts of phrases I have labeled as irritating and yet it is a quote from Matthew 6:34 where Jesus says, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” So who is wrong? Are those who offer “spiritual” responses to allay worry being bad friends or are those who brush them off being bad Christians? (Or, of course, is it that everyone is wrong?)

I’ll start on fairly safe ground: offering “help” that you know is annoying is a bad thing. If you know that your friend will not be comforted by your words but irritated then your words should not be uttered unless the goal is to be irritating. Sometimes it is acceptable to be irritating – sometimes people need to face things they don’t want to – but it’s probably not necessary to confront someone with what you suspect is a lack of faith immediately after they suffer disappointment. In fact, that looks suspiciously like kicking someone when they are down. “So, didn’t get that job, eh? Worried that you aren’t worth all that much? Well, consider this: you’re also a bad Christian!” I don’t really see this as the way of Jesus.

This is a small comment on the larger theme though. If timing and tone are the only issues those can be fixed: address someone after they’ve had some time, speak with them about how they might be happier if they weren’t so anxious, and point out that this isn’t God’s intent for one’s life. But should that even be done? Are those who are anxious wrong to be anxious?

I would say no (in part). In a lot of evangelical circles people are thought to be wrong when they are anxious but this is paired with a passivity about God’s work in our lives. If God wants us to be active participants in His work in our lives then the picture is somewhat different. It may be helpful to imagine this difference using the analogy of a child and parent in a canoe. If the parent is steering the child doesn’t really have anything to worry about. However, if the parent has decided to let the child learn to steer and the child is steering the child does have reason for concern. While the parent will presumably not allow the child to get into serious trouble the child can steer wrong and perhaps learn a lesson that involves wading around in the water getting the canoe unstuck. If we are active participants in God’s work in our lives, if God is letting us steer to learn how to do it, then we have a reason to worry that we might get it wrong. This is especially true when we think about the world that we live in – it is very easy for Christians to make mistakes that will really mess up their lives. If you don’t believe me try shooting up heroin and see if you get a free pass on addiction because you only made that mistake once. (Or just go antagonize some unfriendly biker gang and see if they give free passes on that behavior.)

In fact, when we frame decisions about the future in terms of responsibility most Christians suddenly become much less sure that God will make everything alright if the human beings don’t live up to their end of the deal. Not many people would say that if someone refuses to discharge their responsibilities that God will be obliged to cover for them. But don’t my friends with children (or children on the way) have a responsibility to find jobs that will support these children? Don’t my single friends have a responsibility to support themselves and even give back to those less fortunate? (And where did those less fortunate come from anyway?)

Ultimately, there is room to be anxious and concerned in the Christian life without automatically failing some test of faith. Are we doing the right thing? Are we listening to God’s guidance? Are we being stubborn or lazy or proud or otherwise sinful and getting in the way of God’s plan? (There’s also no guarantee that God’s plan for us is always exactly what we’d choose without a clear idea of the endgame. Try talking someone into going into surgery without explaining how getting cut open will ultimately make them healthier.) However, contrary to that there’s this issue that Jesus himself delivers a long discourse on not worrying.

There are two comments to make about this. The first is simple: Jesus also delivers long, worried monologues. When praying in Gethsemane and famously asking God to “take this cup from me” Jesus was clearly not calm, cool, and collected. He knew what needed to be done, he knew that it would be terribly hard, and his knowledge that what was coming was necessary did not make the hardship “all right” emotionally. That’s why we have this prayer – because even Jesus found life stressful. (Of course perspective is also needed: I don’t know anyone who is walking into certain death. This is why I say that it is OK to be anxious only in part.)

The second comment is that Jesus’ own “do not worry” discourse is a rather different beast than the standard evangelical response. Or perhaps it is what the evangelical response wishes it were: a message of hope. Jesus doesn’t merely say, “Don’t worry and trust in God,” but “God loves you and cares for you.” The discourse acknowledges that people do need the things they worry about but also that God knows this. Instead of brushing aside worry Jesus confronts it and says that God is taking care of it. This is perhaps a far better model of how we should handle the worry of others: to lift the worrier up and promise love and support rather than denigrating the worries and accusing the worrier.

Women in Paul: Friends, Family, and Perhaps Co-Workers

July 1, 2014
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Paul greets a lot of people in his epistles. Some of them he greets at the beginning of letters but most of them are greeted in an end section devoted to final words and personal notes. To be more specific Paul greets five people at the beginning of his letters: Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (in their eponymous Epistles) and Apphia and Archippus along with Philemon. He greets another thirty-two people at the end of his letters[1]. Paul’s letters also hold greetings from people who are with him. Sosthenes, Timothy, and Silas are all included in introductory material in one or more letters. Another twenty-one individuals send personal greetings at the end of letters. (Priscilla and Aquila manage to be on both the giving and receiving end of greetings in different letters.) Finally, Paul mentions people who are of interest to the church he writes to – people who they may know, people who may be coming to see them, or people otherwise involved in the life of the global church in a way that impinges upon the particular community Paul is writing to. Twenty-one people are mentioned this way in the final greetings section of various letters and another three (Chloe, Crispus, and Gaius) are mentioned in the beginning of 1 Corinthians (along with Stephanas who is already counted in this list for other mentions).

In total, seventy-six individuals are mentioned in the opening or closing sections of Paul’s letters. At least fifteen of these individuals are women. In one case the gender of the individual (Junia/Junias) is contested but if we exclude this person from the count one in five of these individuals are women. The breakdown is more interesting than this, though. One-third of all the women Paul greets in his lengthy end greetings are women. Women “lose out” mostly in the “people mentioned in passing” category which includes only one women, Phoebe. However, some of the people mentioned in passing are not mentioned for good reasons. Demas is mentioned a lot but in one case it is because he has deserted Paul. Similarly, Alexander the metalworker is mentioned to warn people about him. Many of the people Paul mentions in this category appear to be his own traveling companions who we might expect to be men for any number of reasons.

Unfortunately, simply breaking down the categories doesn’t get us much further. One might expect that frequent mentions and greetings sent from a person indicate good things about them but Demas fits both of these categories and yet is last mentioned as deserting Paul. Frequent mentions do tell us something: that these people were active in the early church. However, that is sometimes literally what it tells us: they were physically active and traveled a lot, allowing them to send greetings from several locations and be greeted at (or mentioned to) several other locations. Some more data can be mined from the rather more obvious instances: Timothy is clearly a very important person given how frequently he is mentioned in all ways in Pauline Epistles. Priscilla and Aquila are probably important as well as they show up sending and receiving greetings. Most of the other people who get mentioned are already known to be important from other sources (like Luke).

Thankfully, Paul often introduces people with short descriptions. (I will be skipping the contended description of Phoebe here because I will treat it separately later.) Several women do not get useful descriptions: Apphia our sister, Julia, the sister of Nereus (which is her entire description), and Claudia. Others don’t get described usefully deliberately but things that are said about them tell us important details. Apparently some people from Chloe’s household alerted Paul to the trouble in Corinth which tells us that Chloe is either the head of a household (perhaps like Lydia in Acts) or that she is the person with the most pull as far as Paul’s ministry is concerned (e.g., her husband might be the real head of household but a non-believer). Nympha has a church meeting at her house. It’s unclear what her role within this church is but it is important that she supports the church in this way. (The options range from her running a church in her house to simply providing space because she has the largest house.)

Other descriptions are not particularly noteworthy for a first-century woman. Rufus’ mother has been like a mother to Paul. This is very kind (and perhaps risky given the sort of trouble Paul got himself into) but completely inside the norms of both Jewish and Roman culture.

A few descriptions are more noteworthy. (A reminder that I am skipping the two most hotly-debated women of Romans 16 so that I can give them more room in a later article.) These are Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis, all of whom “worked hard”. Whatever they are doing it is rather obviously related to the church and important enough that they are publicly commended for it. Moreover, their commendations are mixed in with those of the men. Perhaps Paul assumed that no one would really think these women were doing the same sort of thing as men for other reasons (much as if I thanked the firefighters and the doctors for their help in a disaster – you would not assume that the firefighters were doing surgery alongside the doctors). Maybe Paul knew that everyone already knew these people and wouldn’t hear him wrong. However, Paul doesn’t seem to be on guard against egalitarian readings of his words in the way that some of his later interpreters are.

Finally, there is the dispute between Euodia and Syntyche.   Paul addresses someone (his “true companion”) and asks them to help resolve this dispute. Given only this we might assume that Euodia and Syntyche were having a dispute about worldly matters that was producing nuclear levels of fallout in the community but Paul goes on to describe these women. They are, he says, people who have contended at his side for the cause of the gospel. He then compares their work to that of Clement and “the rest of my co-workers”. Any sort of plain reading of this text would indicate that Euodia and Syntyche were doing work like that of Silas, Titus, Timothy, and Paul himself (although presumably on a smaller scale since they are only mentioned once).

Indeed, if one were merely to read Paul’s comments to and about specific women in his Epistles one would almost certainly conclude that Paul saw no barriers to women participating in the life of the church in all ways. The impression gathered from this evidence is of a church with a number of important females figures including evangelists, heads of households, and possibly church leaders. Now, of course there are other texts as well and it is important to read them all. But the point of this “backwards reading” is to confront the texts in a different order and see if they line up the same way when we do. In this case it seems that if Paul did not mean for women to hold positions of authority in the church that was either rather low on his priority list (he makes little effort when addressing these women to denote their roles as specifically feminine) or that there was some other iron-clad understanding in the churches sufficient to block any misunderstanding. (This despite the fact that the Pauline corpus attests to misunderstandings in the churches about absolutely everything.)

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Women in Paul: A Plan of Study

June 23, 2014
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Paul’s views on women are obviously quite contentious. Part of this is that any issue of Biblical interpretation that will restrict some large group of people from doing something will be contentious. However, the other obvious reason is that Paul is not nearly as clear as we would like him to be. This can sometimes be obscured by carefully reading only a few choice passages but Paul himself does not treat the issue of women’s roles in society and the church in any sort of sustained manner and he does not appear to be particularly concerned about placing passages that might be interpreted to be in opposition quite close to one another. So, for instance, in 1 Corinthians 14 Paul says that women should stay silent in the churches. This command is frequently interpreted to mean that women should not speak publicly in churches but in 1 Corinthians 11 Paul has laid down rules for dress for women who speak publicly in a church service. Presumably Paul expects the reader of 1 Corinthians 14 to have shortly before read 1 Corinthians 11 (I doubt he anticipates Bible Studies that take a week to cover a chapter) and to understand the advice in 1 Corinthians 14 to be understood in light of what he has already established in the same letter. This is actually one of the clearer instances of Paul’s lack of clarity. In other areas he establishes rules that he then appears to ignore when he greets individuals and describes their role in the early Christian community. For a modern reader this can be confusing but the odds are pretty good that for Paul’s original audience it wasn’t. There are two possible reasons for this.

The first reason that Paul may have been clearer to a first-century audience is that they shared his cultural context. We have to piece together the world Paul lived in a little but at a time but for Paul’s first-century audience the role of women in Jewish and pagan societies would have been much easier to deduce even for, say, a pagan who knew no Jews personally. If Paul is referencing ideas present in his own society these passages may be very obscure to us but clear to his orginal audience.

The second reason Paul might have been more understandable to his original audience is that Paul was known to them. We must piece together Paul’s own actions from his letters (and Acts) but for a church that had been started by Paul Paul’s actions would have been well-known and would have been part of the context for interpreting his letters.

What this means is that while we argue about things like what Phoebe was actually doing as a διακονος in Cenchrea the Romans who read this letter were probably pretty clear on this. When Paul wrote that women should be silent in the churches it is probable that his Corinthian audience understood that phrase by referencing it to how Paul had actually conducted his services.

This gets us to a gameplan for studying women in Paul. Most of the time we approach this issue by handling a few key texts that address women in general first. These verses certainly match how we would like Paul to write: a few rules (preferably clear), on a given topic. In fact, many of us would like Paul to sort his material by category not by recipient. In part because this is what has been done before I plan on doing the opposite. Instead, I would like to build towards this material. If we lacked half-a-dozen verses in the New Testament (the “key” verses in this debate) what would we have about women in the Bible? If you were a first-century reader of Paul who had also met Paul what might you assume he thought about the roles of women given how he behaved? It will only be after this that I will treat the general rules.

In addition, I will attempt to treat sections that are in the same book together. While I assume that most of Paul’s original audience knew more about him than the contents of a single letter it seems beyond question that material in a single letter should be used to interpret other material in that letter.

Women in Paul: Opening Remarks

June 16, 2014
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It has been quite a while since I have written my last article on Women in the Bible. Part of this is that my attention drifted to other matters. However, part of this is that women in Paul (the next topic in the series) is a tough slog. Relatively few people write about women in the Old Testament. More write about women in the gospels. However, the greatest controversies are over women in the Pauline corpus. In the Old Testament women and men have different commands given to them but few Christians consider that binding. In the gospels there are effectively no gendered commands (except, being extremely technical, the commands against divorce which are phrased about men divorcing their wives). In Paul there is advice and there are commands aimed specifically at women with different advice and commands aimed at men. This is the heart of the storm with books written on single passages. Inevitably, I am writing this section more for completeness than in hope I can offer much new. In fact, if I were only to write these articles to be read in isolation I would not even bother – I cannot spend a year pouring through every interpretation of every passage and every obscure text that might provide useful context. However, I think that the sweep of Scripture is often ignored and that it is worth tracing the work I have done all the way to the end, to illustrate how I think Paul’s work fits into what comes before it.

The other reason that the Pauline corpus is tough is that it contains a variety of information. In the materials usually attributed to Paul (which is what I will treat) there are references to women that say nothing new about women (for instance, they may state that men are attracted to women), commands about how women should dress, commands about how women should act in church, commands relevant to marriage, greetings to individual women that may or may not shed light on what those women are doing in the life of the church, and discussions about how women should be treated by men and by children. In some of these references it is possible to talk about women without further distinction. In other cases women are divided up by age, marital status, and the presence or absence of children (for instance, when discussing who should go on the church’s list of widows). However, this mass of information begs the question: what does it mean to discuss “women in the Bible” anyway?

One possibility is that we are simply going to discuss every single female in the Bible. I sometimes veer in this direction because of my love for data but if this were my only goal I would be unfocused at best. In this case what I really wish to investigate is the idea of a gendered Christianity – that the practice of Christianity looks different for men and women. This is not a simple binary thing: religions exist on a scale from those that see maleness and femaleness as a passing byproduct of a physical body that makes no difference at all to those that actually separate out gods and assign men to worship some set of deities and women to worship another. Christianity has never gone all that far down the highly-gendered end but questions about whether the practice of Christianity grants certain rights to (or demands certain responsibilities of) one gender persist. So, in some odd way our investigation of women in the Bible is actually an investigation of women in relation to men[1].

The other issue to be addressed (and I have addressed it elsewhere as well) is that we have a tendency to bundle claims about women into familiar categories. Does Paul affirm a 1950s model of womanhood or a modern feminist one? Perhaps neither – perhaps Paul says one thing about women’s role in the church, another about roles in marriage, and maybe another thing again about women interacting with men who are not their husbands in society at large. Perhaps Paul’s categories are simply different than ours. In fact, this is quite probable. This is especially likely if Paul is paying any head to cultural trends around him. Does he hold out a vision for X but only ask for Y from some congregants because the world is not ready to allow X? (For instance, I suspect that Paul would view our world where women can live on their own safely as a wonderful step forward but even if he imagined such a world in the first century it would have been pointless to give advice as if it already existed.) Paul may also divide other aspects of the world up very differently than we do. Paul’s world had far fewer people who held jobs outside the home and far more families where all members old enough to work would help farm the family’s land. Paul’s world didn’t have a prolonged childhood – young boys would be out learning trades at an age when more socially-conservatives Americans expect children to be under their mother’s care. Paul’s world also had issues that have dropped off our radar almost entirely. While we still deal with domestic violence our society has agreed that it is an evil and criminal thing. Paul’s world hadn’t. We assume that marriages come about by the consent of both parties. In Paul’s world most marriages would have been arranged and it is quite possible that neither party really consented. Indeed, even powerful men might end up arranging marriages for themselves for economic or political reasons and not love. Simultaneously, monogamy in our modern form was not widely expected in Paul’s world. While Romans officially practiced monogamy it was only official marriage that was mono. A married Roman man who visited prostitutes or raped his female slaves would have been acting well within cultural norms (touching someone else’s wife was a different issues – although Roman histories suggest that upper class Roman women behaved as badly as their husbands in a lot of cases).

All of this should give us pause before approaching Paul. We may come in with a set of answers wanting to know only which set is right but find that Paul isn’t dealing with either our questions or our answers. Perhaps he’s laying the groundwork for something that we think is obvious now (like “don’t beat your wife”) or perhaps he’s addressing a question in a way that doesn’t fit into our categories. In either case we may find Paul more rewarding when he does the unexpected.

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