Spiritually Gifted Men Were the Problem (Series Part 2)

Paul Quotes the Corinthians

As emphasized earlier, we have much-needed data missing from the Corinthian correspondence. Scholars have presented several possible explanations, but not one satisfactorily answers the text’s questions. Each explanatory schema answers a few questions while neglecting the rest. In truth, we may only be able to fully understand the text if archaeology comes to the rescue once more. 

One exegetical approach I find convincing is a rhetorical reading of 1 Corinthians 11 that posits that Paul quotes his opponents to argue against their positions. This idea is not all that strange or ad hoc. There is a consensus that Paul does employ such a form of argumentation in various places in the same letter. Virtually all modern English translations have the phrases believed to be Corinthian in quotation marks—a literary device invented about 1700 years after Paul penned the letters. Below are some examples:

‘All things are lawful for me’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful for me’, but I will not be dominated by anything. ‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’, and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body—1 Corinthians 6:12, 13 NRSV

Some scholars believe that the Corinthian phrase in this passage may also include the “and God will destroy both one and the other” piece. Following is another example:

“Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is well for a man not to touch a woman.'”—1 Corinthians 7:1.

Two points are worth mentioning here. First, we see again that Paul is, at least in part, responding to a now-lost letter the Corinthians wrote to him. Second, “It is well for a man not to touch a woman” being a Corinthian idea is evident from the way Paul proceeds in the rest of the chapter to correct how strict adherence to such a rule would undermine the community.

At this point, one may wonder why Paul does not clarify that these “Corinthian slogans” are not his. While this seems a fair question, I can hazard two responses. First, it could be that Paul did not think it polemically helpful to take that approach – after all, his goal was to win the Corinthian church over. Second, and more likely the case, these slogans might have been influenced by Paul’s teaching. The Corinthians might have misunderstood (or misapplied) the actual teaching of Paul, and Paul, seeing their effort to follow his instruction, might have chosen to be subtle in his response. For instance, the idea in 1 Corinthians 7:1 could have derived from a Pauline teaching of Jesus’ teaching recorded in Matthew 19:10-12. (We have argued elsewhere that the content of Matthew 19 influences 1 Corinthians 7.) If this is the case, then Paul could not be more explicit about divorcing himself from the Corinthians’ views because the views would have originated from him—albeit in a different form and for another use. 

Below are some other instances of Corinthian phrases in the letter:

“Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”—1 Corinthians 8:1

Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists’, and that ‘there is no God but one.'”—1 Corinthians 8:4

 “‘All things are lawful’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful’, but not all things build up.”—1 Corinthians 10:23

There are other instances where Paul quotes the Corinthians in this letter, but these cases need to be more broadly agreed on. Admittedly, all the examples above only contain short phrases. Indeed, the only question raised against reading 1 Corinthians 11 as having Corinthian ideas is that these ideas will be much longer. But as Peppiatt observes, “this refutation is not particularly decisive” (68). She further points out that the presence of short phrases in the letter could be why we should expect and read the chapter as containing Corinthian ideas (68).

There needs to be more data on the Corinthian correspondence for definitive works. The situation being what it is, every scholar who works on this text endeavors to reconstruct how things could have been in the Corinthian church. Crucially, scholars assume that the central problem with the Corinthian church is certain women abusing their newfound freedom in Christ to disrupt public services. Peppiatt, however, breaks away from that quotidian scholarly practice. She believes that it is much more likely that the central problem of that church was men—spiritually gifted men, at that.

One only needs to have basic knowledge of the structure of the Greco-Roman world to see that Peppiatt’s proposal is far more likely. In that world, women were inferior, and they knew it. Aristotle even gave the world a philosophical argument for the inferiority of women. Poor women were only marginally superior to enslaved people. Men ruled that world with near-absolute power. Since Paul only stayed in Corinth for less than two years and Christianity was very young and despised, it is more likely that the Corinthian church would acquiesce to cultural practices over time. Indeed, as we showed earlier, a few things in 1 Corinthians 11 strongly suggest men-made theologies. With no precedence in the Hebrew Bible, the fact that a belief developed that required non-uniform responses to tending to one’s heads: women covering theirs while men uncover theirs, angels asymmetrically policing women’s infractions but not the men’s even though men’s offense would be more significant, and Christ being the head of man and man being the head of the woman but the woman is the head of nothing all strongly suggest that men, not women, were behind this theology of repression. Peppiatt concludes that it is much easier to imagine “a group of powerful and spiritually gifted men, who in Paul’s absence implemented teaching and practices that reinforced a hierarchical view of men and women based on a creation theology of derivation” (69). She is right.

Lucy Peppiatt’s Rhetorical Reading

Paul begins this section with praise for all the harsh words he had for the Corinthian church. This observation has confounded exegetes down the ages. Some scholars do not believe that Paul is sincerely praising the church—what’s there to praise them for? This was a divided church with misplaced values and priorities. Lucy Peppiatt, however, believes that Paul indeed honestly praises the church both for remembering him and for holding on to the traditions that he gave them, even if they didn’t maintain the teaching as soundly as he would have preferred (85). 

She points out an intriguing detail in Paul’s language (86). Paul begins verse 3 thus, “But I want you to know….” When Paul strongly disagrees with that church, he usually phrases his rebuke differently, “do you not know that…” (see 1 Corinthians 3:16; 5:6; 6:2,3, 9, 15-16, 19, 9:13, 24). This weak way of introducing a corrective suggests that Paul indeed taught the church that “the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man” (1 Corinthians 11:3). The point of the teaching seems lost on the Corinthians as they made a hierarchical theology of derivation out of it. We do not know the original formula that Paul taught, but Peppiatt speculates that the initial teaching might not have had “and the head of Christ is God” in it, which would have made its abuse easier (86-87). So, Paul later writing that “But I want you to know that…the head of Christ is God” may be correcting an abused (incomplete?) formula. The fact that the Christ/God couplet appears at the end, rather than the beginning of the formula, may also strengthen the proposal that Paul is correcting a misunderstood idea here. It seems more natural for the verse to read, “the head of Christ is God, and the head of man is Christ, and the head of woman is man. To avoid any further confusion on Paul’s view of the origin of women, he would soon write that “everything comes from God” (11:12). Hence, both men and women come from God. Peppiatt writes: “I suggest that what Paul is doing in this chapter, and indeed, through the whole of the letter, is reframing his original teaching, partly for the sake of clarity, but more importantly because it had been used for the glorification of men and the oppression and exclusion of women” (96).

Peppiatt further suggests that verses 4-5, reproduced below, are not Paul’s but amount to him “quoting” the Corinthians. These verses are the results of what that church had done with Paul’s teaching about heads:

Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered disgraces his head. But any woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered disgraces her head, for it is one and the same thing as having a shaved head.  —1 Corinthians 11:4, 5

We should note, as Peppiatt does, that “It is possible that the Corinthians are referring here both to hair length and head coverings” (98). One strength of this proposal is that it explains the rather Greco-Roman culture-specific details. Indeed, Peppiatt believes “that verse 6 is in fact the voice of Paul mimicking the Corinthian threat in order to expose the underlying absurdity, and possibly even aggression of their argument” (99). She claims that Paul here offers a reductio ad absurdum argument (99):

He is taking their argument to its logical, shocking conclusion. If you force women to wear head coverings, and they refuse to comply, you might as well shave their heads. If this is the Corinthians’ argument, Paul exposes the abusive nature of it, and the coercion behind it. If you refuse to cover your head, you are behaving like a prostitute, so you should have your head shaved. But if you do have your head shaved, then you will be known to be a prostitute, so you should cover your head.

If this was the case, then Paul would be showing the Corinthians how non-Christ-like their stance on the matter was. 

Besides, Peppiatt also proposes that we read verses 7-10 as originating from the Corinthians:

A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels.

If we accept her proposal, it will solve many issues with this section of the letter. First, it resolves the misappropriation of the Genesis creation narrative used to justify women’s subjugation. As mentioned earlier, it is pretty challenging to believe that Paul would misquote such a core and elementary passage of the Hebrew Bible. Peppiatt’s proposal may also shed light on the problematic angels of the passage. The spiritually gifted Corinthian men may have specifically invoked angelic presence as a policing threat to the women and to get the women to comply in fear. It could have been a move to silence them. Whatever else the case might have been, Peppiatt concludes “that it is a Corinthian Christological and anthropological heresy” (101). We know it is a heresy because Paul immediately refutes their theology, as we showed in Part 1.

There is an interesting detail that we did not cover earlier. In verses 14-15, Paul asks:

Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair it is her glory? For long hair is given to her instead of a covering. (NIV)

We already noted how Paul altered the language of “glory” here. Whereas verse 7 says that the woman is the glory of man, verse 15 claims that the woman’s hair is her glory. Once again, there will be no tensions here if we accept Peppiatt’s proposal because verse 7 would be Corinthian while verse 15 would be Pauline. But the interesting point to cover here is Paul’s use of “nature” in this portion of the letter. No scholarly consensus on what Paul meant, and the term occurs once in the entire letter. However, whatever Paul meant by that term must be how the Corinthians understood the word—and this may very well be like the Stoics’ use of it. In any case, the appeal to “nature” here is not in the same sense that a modern theologian would use the term. Some scholars suggest that the Corinthians might have used “the nature of things” in their correspondence with Paul to bolster their argument. If that is the case, then Paul would be borrowing a Corinthian line of reasoning against them.

Finally, we should briefly consider how Paul ends this section:

If anyone intends to quarrel about this, we have no other practice, nor do the churches of God. —1 Corinthians 11:16

On Peppiatt’s reading, this verse is a strong condemnation of the requirement of head coverings for women. It is worth pointing out that the fact that Paul expects some to “quarrel” or disagree with his view suggests how divisive the church was and how some members preferred their theology of derivation. They wanted women silenced. Paul’s emphatic reference to no other practice in the churches of God, coming right after he dismantles the Corinthian arguments for head covering, further exonerates Peppiatt’s reading. Indeed, most churches today do not require a head covering for women.

Lucy Peppiatt’s book is a well-researched and argued work. These blog entries are no substitutes for reading the book. Let us suppose, however, that someone reads the work and remains unconvinced. Then what? Returning to this passage’s traditional reading cannot be an option. As already demonstrated, if we approach this letter section assuming that every idea therein is Paul’s, we cannot avoid the various bizarre conclusions. And as we just mentioned, the church carries on today like Peppiatt is correct. Frankly, I think she is. A man may very well be the head of a woman. The problem is that we are still determining what that means, but we do know what it does not. We do know that this passage does not teach that women are inferior.

Work Cited

Peppiatt, Lucy. Women and Worship at Corinth: Paul’s Rhetorical Arguments in 1 Corinthians, 1st ed., The Lutterworth Press, 2015. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvz0hc8w.6. Accessed 2 Jan. 2023.

You may also like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *