Doctor Science Knows

Friday, November 03, 2006

Feminism in unexpected places

Also: Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians and the importance of punctuation.

I don't actually know how I ended up here, but I recently came across an article by an Evangelical that I would say has a strongly feminist conclusion, though this guy doesn't seem to be particularly liberal in any other way. He's just a careful scholar who pays close attention to the text.

The text in question is from Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 11. Paul is writing about the question of what kind of head-coverings are appropriate in Christian services.

In the King James Version, the verses read:
4 Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head.
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.
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.
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.
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.
10 For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.
11 Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.
12 For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.
13 Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?
14 Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?
15 But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.

(You can compare various translations of this passage at Bible Gateway).

In my youthful Catholic education, I was taught that verse 10 meant that women should wear head-coverings in church lest the angels be tempted by their beauty -- which made no sense to my youthful mind, because one of the high points of dressing for Mass in those pre-Vatican II days was choosing which pretty veil I would wear.

Everyone who grew up in the 60s heard verse 14 quoted a *lot*, by people who truly believed it was unnatural for men to have long hair. It doesn't take much thinking, though, to see that the argument is patently bogus. If "nature" teaches anything, it's that human beings (especially men) have varying amounts of hair, which naturally grows to varying lengths.

Nonetheless, the traditional Christian interpretation is that long hair in a man is bad, while for a woman it is a "glory" -- though a glory that should be covered in Church. I myself have thought that this passage reflects Paul's messed-up-ness about sex: long hair is intrinsically (one might even say "naturally") sexy, and for a man to deliberately try to look sexy is bad, while for a woman it is good.

Then I came across a discussion of 1 Cor 11 which cited a novel interpretation. Evangelical scholar William Welty, following the turn-of-the-previous-century work of Katharine Bushnell, has done a word-by-word analysis of the "hair" passages and argues that Paul's intended meaning is almost the opposite of the traditional interpretation. So in Welty's translation v. 10 becomes:
The woman ought to have authority over her own head because of her [guardian] angels
-- that is, the woman's own conscience should be her guide. This is a pretty feminist conclusion, especially given that Welty doesn't seem to call himself a feminist, and he's certainly no leftist. But he is part of the non-fundamentalist Evangelical tradition, and I am not surprised to see that he got his M.Div. at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, also the alma mater of Mark Noll, perhaps the leading intellectual among American Evangelicals right now.

As an aside, it's a sign of how much fundamentalists miss out that Noll, who taught for years at staunchly Evangelical Wheaton College, has now moved to Notre Dame to take up George Marsden's chair in History. Even 50 years ago it would have been unthinkable for America's greatest Evangelical scholar to teach at her greatest Catholic university, but the net result of this kind of religiously tolerant cross-pollination is great intellectual growth for all participants. Fundamentalists won't let themselves play in that pool, so they can't get the benefits.

Back to the Bible. Welty reads verses 13-15 as statements, not rhetorical questions:
13 It is proper for a woman to pray to God without head coverings.
14 Nature in no way teaches on the one hand that if a man has hair it puts him to shame
15 nor does it teach on the other that a woman's hair is her glory. All of this is true because hair is given as a substitute for man-made coverings.

You'd think it would be hard to get this translation and the KJV from the same Greek original, but you have to realize that all the earliest copies of the New Testament had no punctuation, and indeed no spaces between words -- here's a sample page from the Codex Sinaiticus, one of the oldest and most important surviving examples, to give you an idea what it looks like.

The people at asked linguist Alexander Lehrman for his opinion of Welty's translation, and he says:
As far as I can tell, Welty is quite correct in treating verse 13 as an assertion, not a question (although that is not at all necessary: it may well be a rhetorical question). He is absolutely correct in interpreting verse 14 to mean "Nature itself does not teach you...," etc. The Greek verb komao does not mean "to have LONG hair," it means merely "to have hair (on one's head)." So the King James version represents a great distortion of the original, as does Waltke's interpretation. Most importantly, Welty's (i.e., Bushnell's) interpretation of verse 10 as something like "woman must have authority over her (own) head" is perfectly correct.

What we have here, then, is at least a few scholars who are translating the Bible verses to mean pretty much the opposite of their traditional interpretation. How could they be correct? I mean, this text has been read carefully for over 1800 years, how could the traditional reading be that far wrong?

I won't talk about the obvious "that's why we call it the Patriarchy" factors, but will just point out the crucial aspect of punctuation.

Punctuation is a replacement for breath, for the voice. At this point we're all familiar with online communication, and how useful emoticons can be to convey tone and facial expressions in a cold stream of text. Punctuation is Emoticons 1.0, the first step in adding back the human feeling plain text lacks.

So how could people read clearly and accurately before punctuation? My guess is: aloud. Punctuation came in (900 CE, many hundreds of years after the New Testament was written) when enough people were used to reading texts by themselves, silently; before then most texts were intended to be read aloud, and read by someone who knew how it was supposed to sound.

I assume that when Paul wrote his Letter to the Corinthians he read it aloud -- he is very likely to have dictated it to a secretary or scribe. The trusted messenger he sent with the Letter to Corinth would have heard the letter aloud when Paul was working on it. In Corinth that messenger would have read the Letter aloud to the congregation there, probably more than once, and he would have known what kind of tone or emotion Paul intended in each line. When the Letter was copied and redistributed, those copies would have been read carried to various congregations and read aloud there by people who had heard the Letter read in Corinth, and so on through the world and years.

When you see a page like the Codex Sinaiticus (above) with the words all run together in a mass, it's not intended to be read silently, by a single person sitting alone. It's meant to be read aloud by someone who has already heard it read, who needs to be reminded of the exact wording but not of every detail of the presentation. It's like the difference between the text of Shakespeare's plays and Shaw's. Shakespeare included very few descriptions of actors, set, action, or props, not because he didn't think about such things but because he didn't have to. He knew what the play looked like, and so did the people working with him, they just needed to be reminded of the words. Shaw, though, wrote very detailed introductory descriptive paragraphs for his scenes, because he knew his plays would be put on by people he would never speak to, and he'd have to give them detailed descriptions when Shakespeare could get away with waving his hands "like this".

But though it's possible to transmit para-textual meaning -- emotion, sarcasm, asides -- without textual evidence like punctuation or emoticons, it's fragile: it depends on the ease with which all the messengers in the chain of readers can "get into" the emotion you're trying to convey. If Welty et al. are right about Paul's original meaning, then I guess that interpretation was lost fairly early on, because it was just too hard for generation after generation of (male) readers to say, "the woman should make up her own mind". A leader like Paul or Jesus can only push an idea so far, after that it depends on the ability of his followers to accurately hear what he's saying and pass it along.

I seem to have undergone a bit of topic drift here. To summarize:

1. St. Paul: possibly not as sexist as he's drawn.
2. Evangelicals: can read the Bible in critical and novel ways.
3. Reading the Bible: not as simple as all that.
4. Punctuation: your friend.
5. Feminism: all over the place.

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  • Not to nitpick, but Lehrman (while a respected scholar of Indo-European studies and Russian) is not a New Testament Greek expert per se. Which is not to say that I (a humble student of philology) question his conclusions, quite the contrary, I find myself inclined to agree with him. A hard core NT expert would be a much better witness for the defense is all I'm trying to say.
    KJV is indeed a pretty unreliable translation. For one, it is too literal and completely disregards idiomatic usage. I find TNIV or RSV much more reliable.

    I mean, this text has been read carefully for over 1800 years, how could the traditional reading be that far wrong?
    Makes you wonder, doesn't it? :o) I, for one, am amazed at the number of articles and books published every year in the field of Bible studies. Even after all those centuries, we still have so much to learn.

    before then most texts were intended to be read aloud, and read by someone who knew how it was supposed to sound.
    Absolutely. One crucial thing to remember is that mass literacy is a relatively modern thing - for most of history, many people had to have everything read to them. Emperors and kings, businessmen and military readers all had secretaries and scribes.

    If Welty et al. are right about Paul's original meaning, then I guess that interpretation was lost fairly early on
    Just a side note: I've been reading James Kugel recently and his findings about the thin and fragile line between textual composition and interpretation astonish me. Maybe the meaning wasn't lost as much as it fell of the truck er cart. Wouldn't be the first time.

    Needless to say, great post, dear Doctor.

    By Blogger bulbul, at 8:01 PM  

  • bulbul -- thanks for your comments. What do you recommend by Kugel?

    Yes, I agree that it would be nice for a hard-core NT expert to give an opinion on this -- I hope the citation gets passed around enough that one will.

    By Blogger Doctor Science, at 8:09 PM  

  • Another book you might take a look at is The New Eve in Christ, by a British Biblical language scholar named Mary Hayter. Published back in 1987, and goes over a lot of the same translation issues you've outlined here. She does a lot of very close readings of various passages, the oldest surviving versions, and what choices translators made.

    IIRC, she found a pretty consistent pattern of translators choosing the most loaded or stern or punitive possible interpretation every time they came across a passage that had something to do with rules for women's behavior, even if they'd just translated the same word or phrase completely neutrally two chapters back. She found a couple of key words and phrases in Paul, particularly, that had unbelievably tortured, and harsh, meanings in his translated letters even though they appeared verbatim up to a dozen other times throughout the NT. The other dozen, gender-neutral-context times, they meant one thing; in Paul and only in Paul, they meant something else altogether.

    I'm not in the least an NT expert and I have zero grounding in the languages of the original texts, so the best I can say of the book is that it seemed to my layperson's eyes pretty solidly researched. Definitely worth looking at.

    By Blogger Jacqueline, at 2:00 PM  

  • Jacqueline:

    Thanks for the book rec, it sounds like it's worth the hassle of Inter Library Loan, so off I go!

    By Blogger Doctor Science, at 8:28 PM  

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