Friday, 31 July 2009

The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians: Chapter Eleven

Or in other words: the chapter (half chapter) about women's hair.

This is always going to be a controversial chapter ("the head of the woman is the man"?), but it's also going to be difficult to understand. So I figure now would be a good time to do a verse-by-verse analysis of it. I'm going to take 1 Cor. 11:1-15 (in the King James Version), since after that Paul starts talking about the sacrament/the Lord's supper. So here we go:

1 Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.

Fairly obvious there. Paul is enjoining the people of Corinth to listen to what he says, as he is following the teachings of Christ. It's an interesting comment on prophetic authority, but not relevant to this discussion.

2 Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.

This is Paul starting off nice. He's saying "Well done, you're still doing what I said". Interestingly, there's a mention of ordinances, which is rather a blow to any "grace only" churches who also want to use this chapter to decide their women's manner of dress, but apart from that, there's not much controversy here.

3 But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.

Oh, Paul. And you were doing so well.

Here we have three clauses, all linked. He's talking about headship, which isn't really well defined here. We read that "the head of Christ is God", which, unless we're feeling Trinitarian, must be a statement that Christ follows God's (the Father's) counsel. And equally, the head of every man is Christ -- men follow Christ's counsel. But the head of the woman is the man. Does this mean that a woman has to obey "the man of the house" in all things? That's certainly how it's often taken. But let's come back to it later on.

4 Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head.

Okay. Now we have to decide how we're using the word "head". Do we mean that wearing a hat while praying is insulting to the upper portion of a man's body, or do we mean that it's insulting to Christ ("the head of every man is Christ")? I can't see the former making the blindest bit of sense. But why is this? Why does Christ care what we wear on our heads? Let's look at verse 5.

5 But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.

Every woman who prays with her head uncovered dishonours her head -- and the head of the woman is the man. If we assume we're talking about her "head" being (as tradition would have it) her father or husband, why would not wearing a hat dishonour your husband? Look at the next clause. Not covering her head is the same as if her head had been shaved -- a very dishonourable thing, since no woman at the time would do that.

At the time. We're only five verses in, and this is already sounding less like commandment. It seems to me that Paul is talking here about customs, not commands. It's dishonourable for a woman to have her head uncovered not because God says so, but because it looks like she's dishonoured in some way.

6 For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.

If it be a shame. That's a rhetorical if, I think -- Paul is saying that since they see shaven heads as dishonourable, a woman not covering her hair in prayer is equivalent to that. Why? I don't know. But he's not discussing commandments, just customs.

7 For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.

And just as we sort out that issue, another one appears. Man is the image and glory of God. Image we can understand easily, since man was made in God's image. Glory? Perhaps an answer can be found in latter-day scriptures, such as Moses 1:39:

For behold, this is my work and my glory - to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.

God's glory is in his posterity -- his spirit children -- achieving their full potential in eternal life. What, then is "the glory of the man"? Does it mean that a woman is no more than a trophy on her husband's arm? For my money, no -- it means that through woman can man's posterity come to be and attain the same glory. It's a reference, in fact, to the destiny of all mankind.

But perhaps I'm making mountains out of molehills? Perhaps, but I've read ahead. I know what's coming.

8 For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man.
9 Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.

Two verses together, because they run right into each other. This is a reference to the Eden story again, as already touched on in the previous verse. Man was made in God's image, and Woman was made from Man -- and for him, according to the Bible. Paul is clarifying his reasons for calling the woman the glory of the man, but not the reverse. As a Jew, he knows full well the scriptures explaining that God planned both male and female from the beginning (check Genesis 1:26-27, particularly the use of the plural), but for the purposes of symbolism, the God-Christ, Christ-Man, Man-Woman series needs to stay intact.

10 For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.

This is a very interesting verse which has no footnotes. It seems to state two reasons for the woman to "have power on her head": because woman was created out of and "for" man ("for this cause"), and "because of the angels" (whatever that may mean). I can interpret it several ways.

1) If 'on' is a mis-reading, then it may be that a woman ought to have power over her own head and hair, which would imply that there was a movement against women covering their hair as a cause for Paul's letter. But this isn't because of either of the reasons.

2) Alternately, it may be saying that men (the head of the woman, you recall) should have power given to him because he was the first created. That could be "for this cause", but I'm having trouble making it "because of the angels".

3) Most interestingly, a woman should have power given to her ("on her head" -- remember that ordinances such as the gift of the Holy Ghost or healing were performed by the laying of hands on the head). This would be because she is the "glory" of the man -- that is, because she bears his children -- and "because of the angels".

What is that line about angels? According to modern revelation, angels are human beings who are either a) pre-mortal spirits, b) post-mortal spirits, or c) post-mortal resurrected beings (and generally the last). While I can't see any reason for the dead to care if women are given power, the pre-mortal spirits most certainly do. These are the spirit children of our Heavenly Father who are to be incarnated as our own children. "Because of the angels" means the same thing as "for this cause" -- a woman is given "power on her head" for the sake of her children.

What this power is, exactly, I don't know.
EDIT: An alternate explanation for "because of the angels" has occured to me -- it might be a corruption of "by cause of", that is to say, from, or given by. That leaves the majority of my conclusions intact, but means that the power in question would be given by angels. Still no thoughts on what it is, though.

11 Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.

This is what I was referring to in my comments on verse 7; it's one of the strongest evidences of an understanding of eternal marriage in the Bible. It indicates that woman and man are sealed together in God's eyes -- "and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven"(Matt. 16:19).

12 For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.

As the "nevertheless" in verse 11 shows, these verses are also Paul backpedalling furiously over the preceeding verses. He's made his point about the power given to women (I wish we had the text of the Corinthian letter which sparked this!), and now he's trying to get back to the topic of hair. This is a final reference to the Eden story, and Paul is continuing his habit of setting up pairs: as the woman is of the man, so is the man by the woman. In other words: woman came out of man, and in the same way, man comes out of woman (through birth).

Paul does seem to be establishing a heirarchy here, but it's not the simple one some people would have us believe. It does look like he believed that in some sense, a woman was subordinate to her husband -- this came from the Eden narrative, the creation of woman after man. She bears his children, while he bears the responsibility for Heavenly Father's other children. But a woman is not subject to her father; there's no indication of that at all. In fact, the only parental bond Paul mentions, other than that of Heavenly Father to mankind, is an implication that a man is subject to his mother. So I would imagine Paul's heirarchy to run like this:

God has headship over Christ.
Christ has headship over a husband and father.
The husband and father has headship over his wife.
The wife and mother has headship over her children -- explicitely male, but since there's no other place for them, likely female as well.

This is not a game of power and control -- it is an issue of spheres of influence. What Paul is saying is that men are the outward facing part of the family. They tend to the Church, and they care for their wives. They have the authority to counsel their wives on religious matters, because they are the family's first contact with the world. However, within the family, the woman is supreme. She has the responsibility for the religious teaching of her children, and an undefined "power" which isn't stated to be shared with her husband. At the same time, she has the responsibility to aid her husband in his righteous labours.

Is this cultural? Well, it sounds a lot like what I know of Roman and Hebrew culture at that time, so it may well be. On the other hand...

By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. (The Family: A Proclamation To The World)

The Family Proclamation isn't footnoted, and Paul is pretty obtuse in his approach to this issue, so I think this is an example of two separate prophets receiving the same counsel. That passage from the Family Proclamation sums up 1 Cor. 11:7-12 far faster than I ever could.

13 Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?

We're back to hair here, and Paul seems to have finally closed the argument. He says "is it comely", and that is a cultural issue. He's not saying "is it comely to God", but "judge in yourselves." This is a commentary to the Corinthians, not to us.

14 Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?

This is the first mention of long hair on men; it seems designed simply to set up the next verse (and the last one we'll look at), which reads:

15 But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.

A woman's long hair is a glory to her. This doesn't fit in with the last use of glory, referring to children, so it has to be a simple aesthetic statement: the Corinthians like long hair on women, but not on men. He also says that it is a "covering". In the context of earlier verses, this is most likely a reference to shaving the head, and how it is dishonourable to women to do so -- in Corinthian culture.

1 Corinthians 11 is an easy chapter of the Bible to misunderstand. At first glance it says that women should cover their heads so they don't shame their husbands or fathers, who exercise control over them. On analysis, however, it is a fascinating exploration of Paul's understanding of the roles of men and women, and the glorious purpose of all mankind, which is eternal life in the presence of the Father. It is also a window on 1st century culture and customs in Corinth, one of the early strongholds of Christianity.

"Hypocrisy" and the law

'No regrets' over euthanasia aid

This is a news article from the BBC about a man who took his terminally ill partner to Switzerland to, well, be killed -- voluntary euthanasia, or assisted suicide. This is, as it happens, illegal in the United Kingdom, since "he said I could kill him" isn't a legal defence.

It's not illegal in Switzerland, where, as the article says, you can find "the Zurich base of euthanasia organisation Dignitas". So Mister Reginald Cutkelvin could have made his own way to Switzerland to be voluntarily killed without anyone getting into legal problems.

Except, presumably, he couldn't. He needed help getting there. Which makes Alan Rees an accomplice to something which is still illegal in the UK. So now there's shock over him being arrested. Yep.

But that's all background. What really shocked me was a comment by Michael Irwin. This is the ex-GP who travelled to the Isle of Mann back in 2005 in order to euthanise a friend. He didn't manage to, but he was still struck off the medical register for it. And this is the paraphrased quote from him:

Dr Michael Irwin, the struck-off GP who helped the couple, said he hoped to be prosecuted to highlight the "hypocrisy" where the wealthy could pay to travel to Switzerland's Dignitas clinic for euthanasia but the poor could not.

As it happens, I absolutely agree. It is completely hypocritical that the rich are allowed to go and get euthanised but the poor are not. The reason it's hypocritical is that the whole thing is illegal. The rich shouldn't be allowed to.

Perhaps this is different hypocrisy to what Irwin was thinking of, but since when did "he snuck off to a different country to do something that's illegal here" become a compliment? It isn't for anything else. Making use of a "tax haven" is grounds for prosecution. I don't even want to talk about "sex tourism". So why is it admirable for someone to seek assissted suicide overseas?