by Thomas L. Thompson
from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp 209-211.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions
(Thomas L. Thompson did graduate study in theology, Bible and religion at Oxford and Tuebingen Universities and received his Ph. D. from Temple University. The author of several books and articles on the Old Testament and related topics, including The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives, he was at the time writing a book on the literary structures of Genesis.)
Thc Declarations attempt to defend Pauls prohibition of women teaching in church (I Cor 14:34-35) by stressing Pauls argument that such prohibition was derived from the divine plan of creation is a quite peculiar case of special pleading: it attempts to propose a distinction in Pauls disciplinary exhortations between commands which are probably inspired by the customs of the period, and, as such, reversible (such as the obligation to wear veils), and other regulations which might be somehow understood as culturally transcendent, as part of a divine plan, and consequently beyond the disciplinary power of the church to change.
This argument is peculiar in that the divine plan theory of Paul, which the Declaration has chosen to cite (I Cor 11:7), is not directly related to Pauls prohibition of women speaking in the assemblies (I Cor 14:34-35), which is based more simply on obedience, the law (v. 34), and by what Paul perceives as the shamefulness of it (v. 35). That is, Paul forbids women to teach for reasons which are most readily understood as culturally and historically susceptible. I Cor 11:7the proof text cited by the Declarationis directly related, however, to Pauls insistence that women be veiled (I Cor 11:215)! The very prohibition which the Declaration considers to have been culturally determined, and therefore in theory reversible, is a prohibition which Paul understood as related to ecclesiological typology (I Cor 11:3) and as based on what he understood as womans subordinate place in creation.
Limited even to the categories of argument offered by the Declaration, one must conclude that the prohibition of teaching is both contingent and theoretically reversible, and that the requirement of veils has a somewhat more lasting character. However, the presuppositions from which the arguments of the Declaration proceed are hardly more sound than the arguments. If one accepts that Pauls discipline is in any way culturally and historically contingent, as the Declaration doesand one mustis it theologically legitimate to claim that the criteria for discerning the degree and actuality of contingency lie in what Pauls historically inf7uenced understanding and theology propose as based in law, mores, or Scripture? Are not just such criteria profoundly determined by both Pauls individual personality and inclination, and, more globally, the thought world of the first century?
The historical limitations of this aspect of Pauls theology, and of the Declarations dependence on it, are very apparent in a comparison of I Cor 7 with what the Declaration proposes as a text relating to a divine plan of creation in Gen 2:18-24. The proposal of this text as somehow supporting in an ontological or theological way some essential subordination of the female to the male is ironic, since the basic literal meaning of the text centers itself around a narrative episode which stresses the complete likeness and equality of men and women. That Paul understood Genesis priority as superiority, and that the priests of the Sacred Congregation understand Pauls superiority as irreversible hegemony, are merely a most obvious example of historically contingent changes in theology, caused by culturally inherent biases against women.
It ought not be assumed that the cultural milieu of the author of Gen 2-3 was unbiased against women, though it is possible to argue that the author, whether a man or a woman, was sensitive to this kind of question. It is obvious that the narrator of the garden story saw more clearly than either Paul or the authors of the present Declaration, that the subordinate position of women in society was a fact illustrative of human alienation and hardly good or desirable. In terms of creation, however, both the biblical creation narrative (Gen 1) and the Garden Story (Gen 2-3) stress the unity of the sexes.
The author of Gen I has God cause the waters and the earth to develop vegetation, fish, fowl, and animals in their various forms and species (Gen 1:11,20,24), but humanity is created more directly, and not according to species or kinds, but in the form (or image) of God (Gen 1:26). It is not found in Genesis, as in Paul, that the male alone was made in the image of God, but it was humanity, male and female (Gen 1:27).
The Garden Story of Gen 2-3 allows a different manner of presenting this same understanding of the essential equality of men and women. That the author is fully aware of the male-centeredness of his or her contemporary society is clear from the aetiology of Gen 3:16 with its ironic perception of human alienation. Yet, the alienation and subordination of women is seen here precisely as a given which defines the evil of society and humanization. Not only is the creation of man and woman out of the original human in the Garden Story not understood as the cause of such subordination and alienation, but all of the elements which are used in this episode are arranged with the very opposite intention. The essential issue of the episode in Gen 2:18-24 (1) is that the human (ha-adam), which has been placed in the garden, is lonely. God decides to overcome this lack by making another creature to help the human, a creature just like the human. In the vivid mode of the narrative, God then sets about forming other creatures in the same way that he had formed the human. Each of these creatures in turn God brings to the human, but with only incomplete success. The human names all of the animals and birds, but none of them were really like the human, nor fit to help it. Undaunted by this failure, God then tries a different way. If what is wanted is a creature like or equal to the human, then creation must proceed by separation, following the principle of like from like. God takes a bone from the human and out of that makes woman. When he takes the woman to the human to be identifed, the human approves with a series of sayings which affirm the likeness and identity of men and women: like comes from like: bone from bone, flesh from flesh, woman (issah) from man (is-). This identity is exemplified in marriage (here not understood as hierarchical as in Paul) where the two become one. The ultimate expression of equality is unity reestablished.
It is important to keep in mind, when comparing the narratives in Gen I and Gen 2-3, Pauls prohibitions, and the present Declaration, that all four are profoundly influenced by their historical and cultural contexts. All are written from a point of departure in male-centered societies. The culture of the authors of Genesis and of Paul might even be described as patriarchal though misogyny is not as pervasive in early Israelite society as it is in Pauls or that of the authors of the present Declaration. In fact, it is this lack of misogyny in Gen I and Gen 2-3 which gives these narratives a sensitivity which is lacking in the others and ought to be instructive to the Church, if it is to reexamine its practice in a society and culture no longer patriarchal in order to rid itself of its inherited cultural burden of misogyny and prejudice This burden, vast and still pervasive, had already been perceived as evil by our own tradition more than 2500 years ago.
1. For much of the following interpretation, I am indebted to Dr. Dorothy Irvin.
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