The Praying Androgynes of Corinth

This is the fifth installment of a series of posts inspired by the legislators of Indiana who apparently believe that the Bible condemns love between people of the same gender.  Among critical biblical scholars, this matter was largely settled more than a decade ago.  Some parts of this series originally appeared in The Fourth R.  To subscribe, visit the website of the Westar Institute. SP


The Praying Androgynes of Corinth

Someone posted an old picture of my family on Facebook the other day.  It was taken on a Sunday morning in (I think) 1963.  What I noticed was something you might also remember about that time, if you are old enough—the fact that all the females were wearing hats.  My mother, looking young in her early thirties, and my sisters, ages 4 and 6, too—they’re all wearing hats.  It was because we were coming from church.  Back then, all women and girls wore hats to church.  The hats were a vestige of an older idea that women were to wear a veil in church.  The hats originally had veils; the veils disappeared, but the hats stayed.  The whole practice was based on a passage in one of Paul’s letters, First Corinthians, in which the apostle says, “any woman who prays or prophecies with her head unveiled dishonors her head” (1 Cor 11:4).  Why?  Because woman was made from man, not man from woman; and woman was created for man, not man for woman (1 Cor 11:8-9).  Or if that doesn’t convince you, Paul says, “because of the angels” (1 Cor 11:10).  It never made much sense.  But… it’s in the Bible, so wear the damn hat.

It turns out, though, that it never really made much sense because Christians had been misreading this passage for centuries.  Read it for yourself sometime in context (1 Cor 11:2-15).  You’ll quickly see what Robin Scroggs saw: the passage isn’t about women, but both women and men.  If you were to read it in Greek, you would notice what Jerome Murphy O’Connor noticed: the word for veil isn’t actually present in this passage.  Paul speaks not of veiled or unveiled women, but of “covered” or “uncovered” men and women.  Then, if you read carefully all the way to the end of the passage, you might notice that the covering Paul is talking about is not a veil, but hair.  Read verses 14-15, Paul’s summary of the argument.  Clear, no?  It’s not that women were praying and prophesying without a veil, but that women and men were wearing their hair in an unusual way.  Men were wearing their hair long, not cropped short, as was the custom.  Women, whose hair was normally long, were wearing it down—not using it as a “covering.”  Paul is referring to the convention of women wearing their hair up, in a bun or often in an elaborate weave, not down and flowing.  All of this was embarrassing to Paul.  Long hair on men might have signaled that they were male prostitutes.  Long flowing hair on women, too, suggested sexual license.  What will people think?  It’s not a good argument, but it is a common one.

But the reasons for Paul’s embarrassment don’t explain why the Corinthian prophets were wearing their hair long and down around the shoulders.  I assume they weren’t running a brothel on the side.  The explanation lies in a belief, now long forgotten, that was fairly common among ancient Jews, including those who followed Jesus.  It was that when the end of the world came, everything would go back to the beginning, to Paradise, Eden.  Time would circle back and God would restore the perfection that was lost when Adam sinned.  Now, of course, it wasn’t just Adam who sinned in the Garden, but Adam and Eve.  And that’s important, for many believed that the splitting of Adam into male and female was the beginning of the end.  Had Adam remained as he was created, “in the image of God,” the whole history of sin and fallen-ness could have been avoided.  Now, here is where the idea gets interesting.  Many Jews read Genesis 1:27, where Adam is created “in the image of God,” with an emphasis on the words that come next: “male and female He created them.”  “Them?”  But there was only one person then—Adam.  So, there were versions of this text in the ancient world that actually read “male and female He created him.”  Adam was originally created both male and female.  He was, like God, androgynous.  When God would finally turn back the clock to restore in all of us the image of God lost when Adam sinned, we would all become as Adam once was, androgynous. 

What has this to do with the Corinthian prophets?  The great Yale scholar of early Christianity, Wayne Meeks, believed that this was the idea that motivated the Corinthian prophets, both male and female.  When they prayed or prophesied they wore their hair in a manner that was neither male nor female.  Add a non-descript tunic and you have prophets who are to all appearances no longer male and female, but androgynes, like Adam, praying and prophesying in the image of God.

Bizarre?  Not really.  In the history of religion priestly gender bending is actually fairly common.  Just look around you for good examples.  Male and female clergy dress exactly the same today.  In churches where women cannot serve as priests, the priests wear vestments that look a lot like dresses.  Protestant ministers wear robes modeled on academic gowns.  Never noticed that?  You would notice if it were not so.  Can you imagine the reaction if the Pope were to appear in a three-piece suit?  Now that would be bizarre.

Why this sacred androgyny?  What does it mean?  I think it symbolizes a human desire to transcend gendered existence.  That includes roles and conventions about how men and women are to act, how power is divvied up, and yes, sex.  We are animals, after all, and all animals like to procreate.  We all have desires.  And are they not beautiful, are they not good?  Surely.  And yet, sex is often also an expression of power and violence.  This also comes all too naturally, especially to the male half of the species.

The earliest known Christian statement of faith (arguably, that is) is a baptismal creed embedded in one of Paul’s early letters.  It declares that in Christ “there is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female” (Galatians 3:28).  In the new community they were forming there would no longer be ethnic, class, or gender distinctions.  The very categories “male” and “female” were to disappear.  Meeks believed that the Corinthian prophets knew this tradition well, and tried to live it out, at least in worship.  In the community that used the Gospel of Matthew, men were giving it even more dramatic expression.  There are men, it says, who have “made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 19:12), meaning they had actually emasculated themselves for a higher ideal that took them beyond gender.

Many people today think that Christianity should be associated with a strong defense of traditional gender roles.  Men are to be men and women are to be women.  But many of the earliest followers of Jesus saw gendered existence as fundamentally flawed.  They saw the distinction between male and female as the excuse for inequality and violence on a par with slavery and racism.  They even took an oath in baptism to no longer abide by its strictures.  I believe the proper term for this today is “Queer”—the “Q” in GLBTIQ.  The term is [post]modern, but the commitment to flout traditional gender roles and to embrace difference, and finally, to see something more deeply human in every person…this is ancient wisdom. 

Queer Christianity didn’t last very long.  Paul’s discomfort with it must have been widely shared.  The praying androgynes of Corinth eventually fell under a veil of modesty and were forgotten.  Perhaps it’s time to remember them, their queer creed, and their queer wisdom.

Note: The essay by Wayne Meeks referred to in this post originally appeared as “The Image of the Androgyne: Some Uses of a Symbol in Earliest Christianity,” in the journal History of Religion in 1974 (vol. 13, pp. 165-209).  Among the many scholars I encounter, most still declare it to be one of the finest pieces of scholarship they’ve ever read.