Sunday, October 4, 2009

St. Paul and Joshua and woman's equality

There was probably no moment in early Christianity where women were totally included as equals with men. Christianity was born and developed in the context of patriarchal social structures in both the Jewish and Hellenistic worlds. But there were radical ideas floating around in early Christianity that suggested that gender hierarchy had been dissolved through baptism into Christ for a new humanity beyond gender. This is expressed in the baptismal formula used by St. Paul in Galatians 3:27-8: "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." This baptismal formula was not invented by Paul, but belonged to the Hellenistic Jewish-Christian church that he joined upon his conversion.
--Rosemary Radford Ruether, "St. Paul, Friend or Enemy of Women?"

Paul's conversion was radical and sudden but gradual as well.  It seems to have fits and starts.  And when he writes to advise others, the Jew and the Greek, Paul sometimes makes it sound like conversion is a thing done before time in heaven or a thing to be done once and for all in eternity future or a process in the here and now.

The important thing, to me, is that there was conversion, and advocacy of profound change in oneself.  Paul works through his ideas but more importantly his personal experiences with things like slavery and man-over-woman hierarchy and Jew-over-goyish-ethnic arrogance.  He also, very profoundly, works through his epistemology, his hermeneutics too, away from objective Aristotelian logic (i.e., phallologentrism) toward personal subjectivities.  His starts to become the sort of inside-out being that Joshua Mashiach (aka Jesus Christ) preaches in the Sermon on the Mount.

"Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus," he wrote to people in Aristotle's and Alexander's Macedonia.  "He, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men."

And Paul's own mind was this:  "But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith:"

If you read this Greek letter in Paul's Greek, you start to get a sense of just how scandalous it is.  I've quoted Paul in the King James Version, which loses much.  What the translators make "dung" is something like "dog shit" and "dogs" to Paul's fellow Jews are unclean and "shit" to his contemporary Greek friends is just nasty.

I don't think anyone has better understood Paul than C.S. Lewis and George Steiner, both of whom confess they don't understand Paul well.  Both are literary critics.  Lewis is an outsider to Judaism and to Jews (although he marries a Jewish American who helps him some).  And Steiner is a Jew.  Here's what Lewis and Steiner say about Paul (as they're saying similar things, not about Aristotle, but about the Joshua that KJV Bible readers have called Jesus), Lewis first, then Steiner:
He [i.e., Jesus or Joshua] uses paradox, proverb, exaggeration, parable, irony; even (I mean no irreverence) the "wisecrack". He utters maxims which, like popular proverbs, if rigorously taken, may seem to contradict one another. His teaching therefore cannot be grasped by the intellect alone, cannot be ‘got up’ as if it were a ‘subject’. If we try to do that with it, we shall find Him the most elusive of teachers. He hardly ever gave a straight answer to a straight question. He will not be, in the way we want, ‘pinned down’. The attempt is (again I mean no irreverence) like trying to bottle a sunbeam.
Descending lower, we find a somewhat similar difficulty with St. Paul. I cannot be the only reader who has wondered why God, having given him so many gifts, withheld from him (what would to us seem so necessary for the first Christian theologian [albeit a formidable Jew]) that of lucidity and orderly exposition. (C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, page 113)
Jesus' discourse in parables, his statements of withdrawal from statement--of which the episode in which he writes in the dust and effaces his writing is the emblematic instance--give to linguistic verticality, to the containment of silence in language, a particular impetus. As do the constantly polysemic, stratified techniques of semantic motions in the Pauline Epistles. It is these parables and indirect communications, at once more internalized and open-ended than are the codes of classical rhetoric, which beget the seeming contradiction of enigmatic clarity, the "comprehendit imcomprehensible esse" celebrated in Anselm's Proslogion. In turn, from these dramatizations of manifold sense, evolve the instruments of allegory, of analogy, of simile, of tropes and concealments in Western literature (though here also there are obvious and indispensible classical sources). (George Steiner, Grammars of Creation, page 75)
Maybe the only other thing to add here, is that there is another insider Jew who says similar things about Paul's writings.  I'm talking about Joshua's apprentice Shimon called Kefa or Petros or Rock.  In Greek to the Jews, Peter is trying to get his readers to understand the difficult commands of his Master Teacher as he writes on the difficulties of understanding Paul.  That some, with good reason perhaps, conjecture that this writer is someone just trying to sound like Peter makes no difference.  The point is that Paul has become like Jesus, demanding profound changes in thinking and in experience (something Aristotle never demanded of himself):
ὁ ἀγαπητὸς ἡμῶν ἀδελφὸς Παῦλος κατὰ τὴν δοθεῖσαν αὐτῷ σοφίαν ἔγραψεν ὑμῖν ὡς καὶ ἐν πάσαις ἐπιστολαῖς [Παῦλου] λαλῶν ἐν αὐταῖς περὶ τούτων ἐν αἷς ἐστιν δυσνόητά τινα ἃ οἱ ἀμαθεῖς καὶ ἀστήρικτοι στρεβλοῦσιν ὡς καὶ τὰς λοιπὰς γραφὰς πρὸς τὴν ἰδίαν αὐτῶν ἀπώλειαν
So to sum up, I've been trying to show a little history.  First how Paul and Aristotle are so alike:  Paul's approaches to men (vs women), to logic (vs rhetoric and dialectic and such), and to elitist centricism (vs feminisms and pluralisms and multiculuralisms) seem suspiciously like Aristotle's phallogocentrism.  Now this:  Paul's encounters with a Jew named Joshua and his apprentices began to unravel much of the Aristotelian(-like) system.  The conversion was a process, a profound inside-out change, and still is.


J. L. Watts said...

Dr. Gayle, concerning Paul's gradual conversion, I have to agree. Several times, Paul spoke of 'being saved' as a process and a path, not something far in the distant past. Perhaps, because so many do not have translations which read as such or theologies that allow for such, that is why people cannot see Paul's development.

J. K. Gayle said...

Thank you, Mr. Watts. The straightforward linear form of narrative (i.e., of telling and of understand one's story) is something we in the West inherit fairly directly from Aristotle. I mention him again here because Saul's / Paul's story is so very different from that and is, in fact, told in the NT so very differently. Paul himself gives snippets of his repentance, his profound change, in his letters. And Luke writes of it much. And Peter of it some. Jewish (and especially multicultural and plural Jewish) story telling has analogy in the twenty-first century, I think, as we look to the likes of scientists such as (the Jewish) Albert Einstein. Einstein looks at "light," for example, not only as "particle," but also as "wave," and as "field." There are multiple ways of understanding and of communicating and of talking about "light." So with Paul and his conversion: a "thing," a "process," and a "relationship."