Aphrodite, goddess of love.
If you’re not familiar with Greek mythology, Aphrodite is probably one of the more important figures in the pantheon. Both Ares and Hephaestus are her lovers, and she is the primary figure involved in many well-known conflicts, such as The Trojan War. By the time that Paul was writing his letters to the Corinthians, Aphrodite was being worshiped as Venus, and there were two major celebrations in her honor in Athens and Corinth. Athens is the patron city of Athena, so the primary celebration was held in Corinth, where there had been a temple dedicated to her (which was destroyed in 44 B.C.). One of the few things we know about Aphrodite’s cult was that worshipers honored her by engaging in sexual intercourse with temple prostitutes. By the time Paul was alive, the temple had been destroyed, but the prostitution continued.
The interesting thing to note about this form of prostitution?
The women shaved their heads.
So, that explains that whole bit about head coverings from I Corinthians 11. Women cutting their hair short, in Corinth, meant identifying with the Aphrodite prostitutes. I’m not exactly sure why this was a problem outside of the general understanding that Corinth was a particularly hedonistic and decadent church. But, it might have been particularly troubling because temple workers — like the Vestal virgins and the Hetaera– were allowed autonomy and independence in Roman society: they did not answer to anyone or anything besides their civic duties. This could explain the connection between “head coverings” and “symbol of authority,” since whose authority a woman was associated with was an important part of her identity in Roman culture.
But, the head covering isn’t really the important part of the passage from I Corinthians 11.
But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God . . . For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man . . . Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.
I Corinthians 11:3-12
Did you catch that?
So man is now born of woman.
Jesus changed everything, and this is a common pattern we see all through Paul’s writing. Paul, as probably one of the best-educated biblical scholars who had converted to Christianity, spent much of his time in his letters re-examining the Law and the Prophets through the advent of Christ. This passage beautifully highlights that transformation. Almost everything people believed and understood about women was based in the idea that men carried anything needed to bear a child (like Aphrodite being born from Uranus’ castrated manhood that was cast into the sea). Women were receptacles. When Jesus was born of a virgin, that changed how anyone understood what God had told the deceiver in Genesis– that there would be enmity between him and the seed of the woman. That was . . . just not possible. Women did not possess seed.
And, then suddenly, in the Lord, man is not independent of woman, and that is from God.
Why have we missed exactly how radical a statement this is? Why is it, that so often when we go to this passage, all we see is that “woman was created for man,” and then stop there? Why don’t we keep going to see exactly how Paul is about to completely upend everything? That what he is about to say revolutionizes everything they thought they knew about women? He says that Christ is the head of the man, and the man the head of the woman, but why don’t we think of this as one glorious circle that ends in Nevertheless, so now man, the Christ, is born of woman?
Why don’t we look at how Jesus came to earth, and when he became the leader of his ragtag group of fishermen and tax collectors, that he said that the first shall be last, and that he spent his time washing feet? Why do we look at the word “head” and say commander and not servant?
This passage is beautiful, because it’s really about how much we need each other. In fact, the chapter before it and what follows this passage are a testament to community and people being able to rely on and trust each other. The church in Corinth was neglecting that– when they celebrated communion, some brought enough wine to get drunk when other people in their church were starving, and then did not share with the least of these, their own brothers and sisters. Paul is speaking to an audience that doesn’t seem to understand what it meant to love thy neighbor, and that is what he spends his time focusing on: teaching them what the “unity of the body” should look like. If there’s a word that sums up I Corinthians 11, it’s unity, a body of believers acting as one. He’s teaching them about a place where men cannot be independent of women.
We need each other.
Women are half the people on this planet, and we have diverse gifts, abilities, skills, and talents that we are eager to contribute. Every woman, like every man, has her own unique perspective that can enrich and deepen our communal experiences, especially in our churches. By ignoring, dismissing, and actively silencing half of our church, we are really doing damage to ourselves. There are passages, like those dealing with the spiritual gifts, that make absolutely zero reference to these gifts being limited to genders, and women in the early church were allowed to practice teaching (Priscilla, who taught Apollos), prophesying (all four of Philip’s daughters), generosity (the women who financed Jesus’ ministry), and leadership (women like Junia, who was “outstanding among the apostles”).
Imagine what our Church could look like today without women.
Jesus would not have been born; he would not have been fully human. The Incarnation is one of the most important parts of our theology– what would it be like if Jesus was more mystical, more divine, and less real?
His earthly ministry would not have been as effective. His disciples might have had to keep fishing, and Jesus might have been limited to teaching near Nazareth as he worked with Joseph in carpentry.
The story of his Resurrection would have been highly suspect; his disciples could have been easily accused of protecting their own interests, and the Pharisees would have had an easier time dismissing the Resurrection.
Paul’s letter, one of the best treatises ever composed on the nature of Grace and Law, might not have been delivered to Rome.
Without Priscilla, Apollos might have continued teaching an incorrect approach to the gospel, and the early church would have been deeply and bitterly divided.
Without Lydia, the Gospel might not have spread into Asia Minor and Europe with the swiftness it did, since she was one of the earliest and best-loved converts. Her ministry was so important she was one of only two people raised from the dead in the Book of Acts.
Without Junia, Paul may not have been able to continue his ministry. He needed her to do for him what he could not.
And I could go on.
But yet, that is exactly what we’re trying to do today. Most of our Church is stumbling along without women– outright forbidding them from contributing in any meaningful way. Instead of opening its arms to women, like Jesus did with the woman at the well, or the woman begging for crumbs, or the woman with the issue of blood, or his own mother on the Cross, the Church bars us– slams its doors shut against us.
What happened to the teaching that there is no male nor female?
What happened to man is not independent of woman?