I continue to read Samuel Terrien’s Till the Heart Sings which is a biblical reflection on gender.
People have often considered the Apostle Paul anti-woman. His convoluted and culturally influenced attempts to deal with issues between men and women in his congregations give this impression. Terrien only partly defends Paul on this. He calls Paul a “half-liberated legalist” (p. 163).
In the process Terrien brings up some fascinating points.
He takes up the opinion of some of the church fathers that Paul was married and traveled with his wife. But he says 1 Corinthians 7:8 tells decisively against this. However, Paul had not taken a vow of celibacy. As a Jewish Pharisee and teacher, he had once been married. During his ministry he was either widowed or separated.
Terrien translates the passage in I Corinthians 7:1 that we have heard as “it is good for a man not to touch a woman” as “it is good for a man not to be embraced by a woman”, meaning a prostitute.
This leads to the remarkable statement in vs. 3-4 that wives and husbands have no “autonomous freedom” over their own bodies. Of course that statement is anathema for individualistic feminists today. But it does speak in terms of an absolute equality between husband and wife. Paul is pragmatically dealing with the temptation of prostitution, which was a reality for both men and women in 1st century Corinth.
Terrien does not make much of the apocalyptic background of Paul’s instructions–that Paul gives these instruction in light of the “impending distress” (v. 26). But he does say that the common understanding of v. 9 that it is better to marry than to burn with passion is wrong. He thinks that really means that it is better to marry than to burn in fires of judgment.
He does not think Paul’s statement that women should keep silent in the assemblies (14:34) is a big problem. It all has to do with the abuse of spiritual gifts at Corinth. Paul inserted chapter 13, the hymn to love, in the midst of this discussion because people were being unloving in the way they used spiritual gifts. So he tells the man who speaks in tongues out of order to keep silent (14:26-33). In like manner, he says women in the same circumstance should keep silent.
More of a problem for Terrien is Paul’s attempt to articulate a pecking order where Christ is the head of man and man is the head of woman in 1 Corinthians 11:3 ff.. This runs counter to Paul’s own principal that in Christ there is neither male nor female (Galatians 3:28). Terrien picks apart Paul’s interpretation of Genesis in 1 Corinthians 11:7 where man is the glory of God and woman is the glory of man. Genesis never says that man is the glory of God. Terrien thinks Paul may be misconstruing a word in the Aramaic Targum. In any case, Paul’s interpretation is unjustified.
Nevertheless, Terrien defends Paul against the idea that he was a sexual stick in the mud.
First of all, Terrien is of the opinion that when Paul spoke of homosexual acts in Romans 1:26-27, he was not talking about sexual morality but repudiating a practice that involved prostitution and orgies as a part of pagan nature worship .
But, more than that, Paul seems prudish to us because we misinterpret his contrast of flesh and spirit. In Paul’s Hellenistic context “flesh” had to do with egocentricity more than sensuality or sexuality. Paul was not about the transformation of animal sensuality into angelic spirituality. Paul was about the transformation of people, including women, from being self centered to being Christ centered.
A final point is that, though the turning away from ego brought about a oneness of God’s people, it did not abolish human and biological distinctions. Solidarity did not mean sameness. This is why Paul could make pragmatic distinctions between men and women. It is a tricky thing to do without discrimination, though. Terrien says that Paul did not completely succeed.