Sunday, January 24, 2010

Euripides & St. Peter: Feminist & Weaker Sexist?

In this post, I want to get us examining (re-examining perhaps) a word that Euripides and then St. Peter used in reference to women. First, however, I would like to look at what readers of Euripides have said about him and his "feminism." And then could we conjecture about Peter's view of women?  Finally, shall we compare how the two men use the one word?

Euripides is the Greek playwright. And the Peter I'm interested in is the Jewish disciple of Jesus writing in Greek nearly five hundred years later -- the one who's called Saint Peter.

Of Euripides, much has been written with respect to his views on women.  For example, historian F. A. Wright, in his Feminism in Greek Literature from Homer to Aristotle, says this:
“Euripides and Plato are almost the only [male] authors who show any true appreciation of a woman's real qualities, and to Euripides and Plato, Aristotle, by the whole trend of his [sexist, bigoted] prejudices, was opposed.”
Likewise, English professor Louis Markos, in his From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics, says this:
“The 'sentimental' Euripides is a self-conscious artist who cannot ignore his own age to sweep his reader off to a mythic neverland.  He was keenly aware of the injustices of his day--the brutalities of war, the subjugation of women, the ill treatment of foreigners and illegitimate children--and he projected these contemporary issues and struggles back into the legendary settings of his tragedies, rather as Arthur Miller's The Crucible projects the dangers of McCarthyism back into the 'legendary' days of Puritan New England.  That the plays of Euripides make their points without sinking into polemic or allegory is a tribute to the complex and subtle artistry of their maker.  They are a tribute as well to his insight into human nature and his gift for giving dramatic voice to the mental anguish and internal rage of the dispossessed.”
In addition, Anne Carson, a Greek classicist and translator of several of Euripides's works, says this of the nature of the playwright:
“He was also concerned with people as people--with what it's like to be a human being in a family, in a fantasy, in a longing, in a mistake.”
And Ann Nyland, a Greek classicist and translator of the New Testament, finds the Greek words of Euripides to be helpful in understanding the words of the writers of the gospels, Acts, the epistles, and Revelation -- especially as the words that figure in the often-ignored “case of gender (mis)translation and anything pertaining to women” in much Bible translation.

Now, has anyone said about St. Peter that he showed “true appreciation of a woman's real qualities” and that he “was keenly aware of the injustices of his day--the brutalities of war, the subjugation of women, the ill treatment of foreigners and illegitimate children”?

Well, maybe.

Suzanne McCarthy posted recently that Peter Leithart is suggesting what she calls “an unusual interpretation” of I Peter 3:7 in Leithart's blog post.  The interpretation is that St. Peter is perhaps less sexist than his fellows and his predecessors.  In fact, St Peter may even favor women -- promoting them from a more sexist Judaism to a more feminist Christianity.

The phrase so unusually interpreted is ὡς ἀσθενεστέρῳ σκεύει.  It can be transliterated hos asthenestero skeuei, and it has been often translated as “as weaker vessels.”  St. Peter's word that Leithart keys in on is σκεύει / skeuei /.  Leithart interprets it as “temple” vessels for the “New [Christian Church, not-old-Jewish Tabernacle] Covenant.”  Christian wives, as such “vessels,” are now by St. Peter included in the “service.”

From here, I'd like us to compare how the “feminist” Euripides used the word σκεύει / skeuei / with how the perhaps “weaker-sexist” St. Peter used it.

The main objection in comparing how the two men used the word is their contexts and their time.  Euripides writes during a life time of world war nearly 500 years before St. Peter writes during the days of a fairly stable empire.  So to overcome the objection, I want to look at an author who is a likely contemporary of Peter.  I want to show that Chariton, writing the first-century novel Callirhoe, uses the word in question the way Euripides did some centuries earlier.

Here's from the translation by G. P. Gould:
“That is why I [Callirhoe, the beautiful woman protagonist of the novel] have been handed over like a mere chattel [σκεῦος, / skeuos /] to I know not whom...”
Elsewhere in the novel written in the first century (when St. Peter wrote his letter), there is this:
“, a royal abundance of funeral offerings, first the gold and silver of the dowry, a beautiful array of garments [κάλλος καὶ κόσμος / kallos kai kosmos /] (for Hermocrates had contributed much from the spoils of the war), and the gifts of relatives and friends. Last of all followed the wealth of Chaereas...”
What I am trying to show is how the word σκεῦος, / skeuos / relates to women.  It has to do with material goods, which Gould translates “mere chattel.”  The second quote given is to show the war context and specific examples of the sorts of σκεῦος, / skeuos /, imagined by a novel's author and by his readers.

Now, we can turn to Euripides.  In the play, The Suppliant Women, we read the following conversation between two characters.  The English translation is by E. P. Coleridge (and we wish Carson had translated this play too); but watch for the Greek word of Euripides, which is reinserted within the brackets below:
Iphis -- Why do you deck yourself in that apparel?
[σκευῇ / skeue / δὲ τῇδε τοῦ χάριν κοσμεῖς / kosmeis / δέμας]    
[[UPDATE -- I just found Michael Wodhull's 1888 rendering, a more literal translation of this line above as:
"But on what account Thy person with that habit hast thou graced?"]]

Evadne -- This robe conveys a strange meaning, father.

Iphis -- You have no look of mourning for your lord.

Evadne -- No, the reason why I am decked in this way is new, perhaps.

Iphis -- Do you then appear before a funeral-pyre?

Evadne -- Yes, for here it is I come to take the prize of victory.

Iphis -- What victory do you mean? I want to learn this from you.

Evadne -- A victory over all women on whom the sun looks down.
Here, the characters of Euripides understand the word σκευῇ /skeue/ to refer to material goods, and in this case to “apparel.” [[or something like a worn “habit.”]]

In comparing Euripides's (and Chariton's) use of the word σκευῇ /skeue/ with St. Peter's use of it, we are left with questions:
Is St. Peter instructing married men to look at their wives as “weaker vessels” or perhaps as “fragile and feeble material goods”?
And if St. Peter is using the word in the same way other writers have used it, then does this make St. Peter more of a feminist or even some sort of “weaker” sexist?
Or, given the Bible as some "God-inspired" text that surely somehow favors men and women equally and always, should we just stop asking these sorts of questions?


Anonymous said...

Some thoughts about the phrase “weaker vessel”. More modern translations than KJV of 1 Peter 3:7 say something like: “husbands, in the same way,live together with your wives, according to knowledge that she is the weaker vessel and give honor to her as a joint heir to the grace of life so your prayers won’t be hindered”. To me, this makes more sense. That said, I read that evidence suggests that 1 Peter was written to jewish christains rather than gentiles. After all, Peter was known as the apostle to the jews and Paul the apostle to the gentiles. With this in mind, I was wondering what the term “weaker vessel” would mean to a formerly jewish audience. I found that a man named R. Yonatan taught:

“The Creator does not test frail vessels, which He could not even tap once before they would break. Whom does He test? Beautiful, sturdy vessels that, even if He taps them several times, they will not break. Thus, the Holy One does not test wicked people, but rather the righteous, as it is written (Tehillim 11:5), “God tests the righteous.”

R. Yonatan was a first century rabbi who was taught by Hillel (the same guy who taught Paul and was a contemporary of Jesus and Peter). The term “fragile vessel” can also be a translation of the greek in 1 Peter 3:7 instead of “weaker vessel”. R. Yonatan used the term “fragile vessel” to refer to people who were unbelievers or weak believers. Personally, I think Peter is using this same phrase to describe UNBELIEVING WIVES. In the previous verses, it is widely believed that Peter is referring to christain wives with unbelieving husbands as well as slaves with unbelieving masters. Why would he be referring to something different when he is referring to husbands and their attitudes toward their wives? While “weaker vessel” can refer to physically weakness, I don’t believe so when the whole chapter is taken into consideration. So, I believe Peter is referring to unbelieving wives with the phrase “weaker vessel”. In other words, the wife is weaker due to unbelief or lack of faith. Also, the phrase “according to knowledge” never sounded right either. Knowledge according to what? Christain beliefs, gentile beliefs, jewish beliefs? Even though the rabbis denigrated women, they did believe that women had a higher level of “binah”. Binah is described as wisdom,intelligence or discernment about spiritual matters. Another word used for binah is the greek work gnosis which means knowledge (the same word in 1 Peter 3:7). Maybe the phrase “according to knowledge” means “according to binah” in jewish thought. The wife is a fragile vessel acording to binah because she lacks the spiritual discernment of a christain believer. Of course, I’m not saying women are spiritually inferior to men in general, but in the case of an unbelieving wife, she lacks the appropriate knowledge. I think Peter is telling husbands to keep in mind that their wives lack knowledge of the christain religion, but the husbands should still treat their wives with the same respect they would show a christain wife.

J. K. Gayle said...

Anonymous - Thanks for sharing the possibility that "binah" is the intent of the I Peter use of "skeue." It's certainly in a direction different from Chariton's and Euripides's uses of the Greek word, isn't it? Wouldn't it have to be much more a metaphor, then, in I Peter?