"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Veiling as a sign of equality?

In my last post, I mentioned reading Paul Among the People by Sarah Ruden, and talked about hair and veiling and Paul's instructions for women in the church to cover their heads.  A few of you offered your thoughts and interpretations you have heard. This is what Sarah Ruden had to say about this matter in her book.

Respectable Greek and Roman women traditionally wore concealing veils in public. Marriage and widowhood were the chief things that a veil signaled.  (For a Roman woman, "to get married" and "to veil oneself" were exactly the same word.)  The veil held great symbolism:it reminded everyone that all freeborn women, women with families to protect them, were supposed to enter adulthood already married, and that they were supposed to stay chastely married or else chastely widowed until the end of their lives.  The veil was the flag of female virtue, status, and society.  In the port city of Corinth, with its batteries of prostitution - including the sacred prostitutes of the temple of Aphrodite - the distinction between veiled and unveiled women would have been even more critical.
But on the other hand, society was changing fast: slaves ... gaining more status and security in households and settling down more often with slave partners; slaves being freed; divorce proliferating...- any or all of these things could have made the veil a matter of controversy. Women not entitled to the veil may have wanted it, and women entitled to the veil may not have wanted it.  Bruce Winter puts the emphasis on a new type of married, divorced, or widowed Roman woman on the scene in the first century A.D., more keen on showing off her elaborate hairstyle than on constantly wearing an old-fashioned veil. 


At the very least, there must have been among the Christians women with pasts.  Would not bareheadedness, the lack of a "symbol of authority" on their heads, have galled them? They were entitled to be there - but the norms of the time said that they had to be there in the outfits of degraded, vulnerable beings. It was against the custom and perhaps even against the law for them to be veiled.  At Greek religious festivals, "women's police" would circulate, making sure not only that respectable women were not flashily or revealingly dressed, but probably also that other women did not take on the exclusive, prestigious symbols of a matron or widow.  In Rome also, dress was regulated in detail: for example, any married woman found to have committed adultery would lose forever the right to wear a floor-length, heavily bordered stola and a veil.  Any woman who had ever been a prostitute was of course not allowed to wear them either.

I think Paul's rule aimed toward an outrageous equality. All Christian women were to cover their heads in church, without distinction of beauty, wealth, respectability - or of privilege so great as to allow toying with traditional appearances.  The most hurtful thing about bareheaded, gorgeously coiffed wives might not have been their frivolity but rather their thoughtless flaunting of styles that meant degradation to some of their sisters - as if a suburban matron attended an inner-city mission church in hip boots, a miniskirt, and a blond wig.  Perhaps the new decree made independent women of uncertain status, or even slave women, honorary wives in this setting.  If the women complied ... you could have looked at a congregation and not necessarily been able to tell who was an honored wife and mother and who had been forced, or maybe was still being forced, to service twenty or thirty men a day.

(pgs. 85-88)

What do you think?

Monday, July 15, 2013

On Veiling and Hair and Paul

I have a relatively new Facebook friend and she's Jewish - my first Jewish friend! I met her on a HuffPo link. I liked one of her comments, and she requested me as a friend just like that!  I'm not sure how she'd label herself (if she would), but she told me that as a married woman she doesn't wear "trousers," but wears skirts that cover her knees, blouses that cover the elbows and she covers her hair in public.  She said single women don't cover their hair, but married women do in her community.  She also pointed out that her husband does modest things for her like not swimming in gender-mixed places.

I say all that because I was reading Paul Among the People by Sarah Ruden. She said she really did not like Paul because he sounded so misogynistic and homophobic, but as a scholar in classical languages, she started reading Paul in light of his contemporaries.  The book is "the apostle reinterpreted and reimagined in his own time."  She quotes Bible passages attributed to Paul, and compares them to other literature and known historical contexts of Paul's time.

One thing that really took my attention was about hair. It made me think, "Oh wow, the Middle East really hasn't evolved much from this thinking," and I don't mean that in a derogatory way because, likely, they have evolved, but they just still hold onto the traditions. That's more what I mean. I recall hearing people talk how in some places in, say, the Levant tribes do what they have done for centuries. And in many ways, I find that wonderful because there is something to be said for holding onto your culture and not letting social media or all this dang stuff available in the world make you lose something precious.

(I'm probably not saying that right, but I know what I mean in my own mind.)

So the subject was women's hair. More specifically she was talking about that passage concerning women in church covering their heads. From time to time I see a Christian group that practices this here, but despite my rather strict upbringing, it's one thing we never did in the Baptist churches I'm familiar with.  (Women didn't even have to have particularly long hair thankfully, since mine really doesn't grow long without growing into a shrub).  I have heard Muslims declare "See, you all are supposed to do what our women do...you just cherrypick that out and don't obey. You should be wearing hijab as well."  (Have you heard this, too?)

So I was going to write what she said about the veil, but figured first I'd ask for interpretations that you have heard regarding this passage. The main one I recall is that it was cultural and that our hair is our natural covering so we don't have to worry about veiling in the 20th century.

Instead of writing her thoughts on the veil, here is what she said about hair:

"Paul does not write of 'nature' (verse 14) by accident. The ancients believed that it was female hair's nature to inflame men, almost like breasts or genitals: men experienced women's hair as powerfully, inescapably erotic, in a way that makes our hair-care product companies look like an accounting textbook."  (pg. 88)

Then she quotes erotic passages from Ovid and Apuleius about hair and continues, "Notice the implicit association between hair on display and actual nakedness. This wouldn't make much sense unless both signaled sexual availability and both were thought of as automatically bringing on male desire."  (pg. 91)

What are your thoughts on hair, veiling, Paul's words on the subject, interpretations you've heard, what your church teaches on this matter, the fact that I added a new friend on Facebook based on a HuffPo link comment?  Anything?