Sunday, August 13, 2006

Paul's Radical Ethics

There are lots of accusations and misinterpretations of the writings of Paul the Apostle. Part of the problem is that when we read Paul's letters we only have half of a conversation. Sometimes we can reconstruct parts of the other half, sometimes we can't. Often we're so unfamiliar with the socio-historical context in which Paul was writing that we think certain passages make one point, when in fact they are saying something completely different. There are lots of examples of this, and I could hold forth at some length about them. One main point on which Paul is often quite misunderstood is his position on the place of women - both within the church and within the home. Paul is often accused of (or applauded for) enshrining the patriarchal social system of his day in Scripture. This is only possible if we remain unfamiliar with Paul's context. Again, examples abound, but I have one in mind.

In 1 Corinthians 7:3-4. Verse 3 and the first half of verse 4 would've presented no problems to Paul's readers. Verse 3: "The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise the wife also to her husband." No problem so far - Jewish ethicists recognized that husbands and wives had responsibilities to meet one another's physical needs (indeed, Jewish tradition even exhorted men to sleep with their wives at least two to three times a week). So then, v.4: "The wife is not the master of her own body, but rather her husband [is]." Again, no problem so far - husbands have authority over their wives. Paul's audience - men as well as women - would've been nodding in agreement so far. But then we come to the latter half: "but likewise, the husband is also not master of his own body, but his wife [is]." What?!? Wives have authority over their husbands?! (Note that the verb for "to be master" in v.4 is exousiazo; the noun meaning "authority" is exousia). This is a radical notion - the idea that women have authority over the bodies of their husbands equal to that of their husbands over them. This would've been scandalous. It should be noted that the grammar of the verse prohibits any varying of degrees of authority here - the word homoios, "likewise," serves to equate - the husband has authority over his wife, "and also likewise" (homoios de kai) the wife has authority over her husband.

At any rate, I could keep going at some length - about how Ephesians 5:21 and following is often misinterpreted, and so on. But the demands of home life are exerting themselves. Perhaps later in the day I'll come back.

No comments: