Sexual Identity in Corinth

by Cathie and Dick Clark Kroeger

First century Corinth was caught in the web of a sexual identity crisis. The confusion was manifested in the art and literary forms of the day as well as in the actual practices. Lively debates went on about the relative merits of homosexuality and heterosexuality.

Deeply entrenched in Greek society, homophilia was considered highly chic by the Roman intelligentsia. Most of the poetry in the ancient world had been written to persons of the same sex, though Virgil, under the influence of Augustus' stern morality, presented a healthy and positive picture of heterosexual love. Others viewed it as an aggression, a disease, or madness. The lyric poets extolled the virtues of the domina, a woman of loose morals, usually someone else's wife. Indeed, Ovid depicts half the fun of the conquest as being that of outwitting the husband. Juvenal and Petronius portrayed sexually aggressive females and sometime impotent males.

Marie Delacourt has identified some fifteen vase paintings depicting bearded men in feminine attire and women disguised as men (Hermaphrodite, 1958, p. 22) Both statuary and paintings reveal hermaphrodites with the attributes of both sexes. Torn by tremendous upheavals throughout the Roman Empire, individuals were asking, 'Who am I as a sexual human being?'; 'With whom can I establish a significant relationship?'

Although we cannot know the precise question which elicited Paul's response as recorded in 1Corinthians 11:1-16, it is obvious that he is speaking in these verses to an identity crisis. He brought an answer rooted in Jesus Christ, God's Son, in whom all human beings may find meaning for themselves and for one another.

Paul's answer is a complex one, perhaps best understood by peeling it off in layers like an onion. The most outer level is obviously the veiling of women. Careful scrutiny of the passage cited below demonstrates that it might be more accurately be described as a discussion of appropriate attire and hairstyle for both men and women.

Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head (her husband) - it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her wear a veil. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man . . . Judge for yourselves; is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that for a man to wear long hair it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair it is her pride? For her hair is given to her for a covering. (1 Corinthians 11:4-7)

While Paul affirms that 'in Jesus Christ there is neither male nor female' (Galatians 3:28), he is calling for a differentiation in their personal appearance at worship services. This becomes comprehensible when one understands the importance of sex reversal or exchange of sex roles in many ancient religions.

Most frequently, this sex reversal took the form of assuming the garb of the opposite sex during religious observances. This practice, found in many of the surrounding cults, had been clearly forbidden in the Hebrew Bible (Deuteronomy 22:5) In the Greco-Roman world, there is more evidence of men assuming women's garb than the other way around. Paul's words appear to be a directive against such pagan activities, for he tells the men to pray bareheaded although Jewish men covered their heads with prayer shawls, and the priests wore turbans on their heads when they served in the temple (Exodus 39:28)

Among the Gentiles matters were different. 'It is more usual for women to go forth in public with their heads covered and men with their heads uncovered,' Plutarch wrote of the Romans (Roman Questions, 267a) Corinth, a Roman colony on Greek soil, had become increasingly Greek in its traditions, including stricter veiling and seclusion of women. The Corinthians hadimbibed deeply of Greek religion and had carved two images of Dionysus (the Roman Bacchus) out of the tree from which King Pentheus, dressed as a woman, was said to have been dragged and dismembered by frenzied female adherents of the god. Those who had read Euripides' Bacchae will recall that Tiresias and Cadmus also donned women's vestments before joining the rites. Clothing exchange was quite widespread in Dionysiac religion, and Philostratus reports that the sage Apollonius of Tyana rebuked the Athenian men at a festival thus:

No one bears a helmet, but disguised as female harlequins . . . they shine in shame alone. Nay more, I hear that you turn yourselves into winds, and wave your skirts, and pretend that you are ships bellying their sails aloft (Life of Apollonius, IV, xxi)

At certain religious events women also shaved their heads, and men assumed veils or long, flowing hair and golden hairnets. Though the earlier Greeks engaged in the Trojan War are described as 'long-haired Achaeans,' by the first century of our era a shaven head on a woman and long tresses on a man were viewed as sexual inversions. Hebrew heroes, such as Samson, Absalom, and the Nazirites, had also maintained long hair with no suspicion of effeminacy, but this was no longer true in the New Testament period. For example, artistic representations of Dionysus became less masculine and developed softened features and lengthened hair 'that renders it difficult at times to distinguish a head of Dionysus from one of Ariadne' (Farnell, Cults of the Greek City States, V, p. 278) The god himself was becoming sexually ambivalent and was called 'sham man,'' ''in feminine form,' 'male-female,' and 'double-natured.' 'And if the faithful who took part in the Bacchic train wore the krokotos, the saffron-colored feminine veil, it was to imitate the god himself, who was in this late era often interpreted as a sign of softness and debauchery' (Delacourt, Hermaphrodite, p. 39)

Sex reversal was also a significant factor in the worship of Aphrodite (the Roman Venus), whose temple dominated the Corinthian acropolis. Within stood an enormous statue of the goddess in her Asian form, clad in armor, the male accoutrements of war. In many other places her sexuality was ambivalent. 'There is in Cyprus a statue of her bearded, but with female dress, with the sceptre and signs of the male nature, and they think the same goddess is both male and female. Aristophanes calls her Aphroditos' (Macrobius, Sat., 3.8) Women sometimes shaved their heads to honor an image of Aphrodite having 'both male and female organs' (Scholiast, <Iliad, II, 280)

Even the pagan philosophers of the era were dismayed by the confusion of sexual lines, and Epictetus wrote: 'Therefore we ought to preserve the marks God has given us; we ought not to give them up, nor, as far as we can prevent it, confuse the sexes which have been thus distinguished' (quoted by Grant, Hellenistic Religions, p. 155)

Against such blurring of sexual differentiations the Apostle Paul speaks out: it is good to be a man, it is good to be a woman. He defined sexual identity in terms of God's loving creation of men's and women's need for one another. To repudiate or to obliterate the identity God has bestowed on us as sexual beings is a 'disgrace,' a remnant of the pagan religion the Corinthians had so recently left (1 Corinthians 12:2)

Not only was the veil a distinctively feminine article of clothing, but it also indicated the claims of husband and home. Indeed, the absence of a wife's veil was proper cause for a divorce in Hebrew tradition. The Hellenized Jew Philo called it a 'symbol of modesty' (Special Laws, III, 56) But Greek women 'driven [in Euripides' words] from the shuttle and the loom by Dionysus' discarded their veils and hailed the god as Lusios Liberator. Certain of his rites still held an influence over some of the members of the Corinthian congregation: drunkenness (1Corinthians 11:21), pagan feasts (10:20-22), madness (14:23), and promiscuity (5:1). This is scarcely surprising, as Corinth was a major center of the cult.

Bacchus/Dionysus was immensely popular with women, especially as the worship of him provided the cloistered Greek wife an opportunity to leave her home under divine compulsion and afforded a vent for sex hostility. Virgil describes a queen who tried to use a Bacchic revel to arouse public opinion against her husband: 'Evoe, Bacchus,' she shrieks . . . 'Ho, mothers of Latium, give ear, where'er ye be! If in your loyal hearts still lives affection for unhappy Amata, if care for a mother's rights still stings in your souls, doff the fillets from your hair, join the revels with me' (Aeneid, VII, 384ff.)

The veil and orderly tresses, by contrast, indicated propriety and harmony with husband and home; their removal the reverse. But Paul stresses unity rather than hostility. While several of the ancient religions offered temporary release from the marriage tie, this was not true of Christianity. The Christian individual retained his/her sexual identity, and commitment to one's spouse was an integral part of the Apostle's perception of the church. In the Christian community, where the incorporation of both sexes into the same worship service was something of an innovation, neither man nor woman was independent of the other.

We come then to the second level of our onion peeling. Here we find a positive affirmation of Christian marriage in particular and of heterosexual relationships in general. Paul spoke to a deep-seated hatred and fear of women prevalent in Greek society. The mythology is full of menacing maternal figures both human and divine. Medea killed her children. Hera, the mother-goddess, visited mortals with death and madness. A young man complained to Socrates that he preferred the ferocity of beasts to that of his mother (Xenophon, Oeconomicus, III, 12-13) Philip Slater emotionally and sexually deprived, tended to vent her hostilities especially on the male child.

The generalized fear of women was coupled with the more specific aversion to female reproductive organs, especially those of the mature woman.

O God, you have married men to living engines of death. You have married them to women. Why? To perpetuate the human race? Then women were the wrong means. You should have let us donate a sum of gold or silver or copper to your holy temples, and buy our children from you. At least, we would have had value for our money and at home a life of liberty and no plague of women. (Euripides, Hippolytus: tr. Corrigan, p. 94)

Apollo expressed resentment of the mother's status as child-bearer:

The mother is no parent of that which is called her child, but only nurse of the newly-planted seed that grows. The parent is he who mounts. A stranger she preserves a stranger's seed, if no god interfere (Aeschylus, Eumenides; tr. Lattimore, II, 660-63)

So great was the repugnance that in the initiation of certain mystery religions, men crawled through a stone tunnel to effect a 'new birth' not dependent on women. It is thought that this marked distaste for women and their sexuality was, at least in part, responsible for the pederasty (homosexual love of boys) which permeated Greek life and thought.

Paul addresses himself to the initial point of difficulty: the dependence of men on women in the birth process.

I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God . . . For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man . . . Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God (1 Corinthians 11:3, 8-12)

He points out that originally woman was brought forth from man; indeed he is the source of woman-kind. For the Greek kephalos meant both 'head'' and 'source' (as in the English 'headwaters' of a river) The beginning lies in man rather than in woman, and there is a cycle: woman from man and man from woman. Neither need fear the other, for they are of a common substance. There is an interdependence in the economy of God; the woman is quite as dependent on man for her origin as is man on the woman. And the source of both is ultimately in God.

Paul speaks also to the alienation and estrangement of the sexes as it existed in Greek society. Socrates once questioned a man:

'Is there anyone to whom you commit more affairs of importance than you commit to your wife?'

'There is not.'

'Is there anyone with whom you talk less?'

'There are few or none, I confess.'

(Xenophon, Oeconomicus, III, 12-13)

Another reported that he married a girl who had been raised 'seeing, hearing, and saying as little as possible,' but that after he had 'tamed and domesticated' her enough (note the animal terminology frequent in Greek literature about women), he was able to discourse with her about her domestic duties (ibid., VII, 5) Men and women did not eat together or share the same sleeping quarters; and men spent most of their waking hours outside the house where the wife was confined. While conversation was discouraged between husband and wife, brilliant courtesans, known as hetairai afforded better company. An older man made every effort to improve the mind and virtue of his boy-favorite, but the wife was kept in ignorance and solitude. By contrast, Paul encouraged the wife to ask questions and the husband to discuss the things of God with her (1 Corinthians 14:35); for if one member is deficient, the whole body suffers (12:25, 26) He rejected the segregation of men from women in both worship and the home (11:11), gave full equality of sexual rights in marriage, and insisted that each partner meet the erotic needs of the other (7:3-5)

Perhaps the most perplexing to the nascent church were the theological and philosophical arguments marshaled to justify and indeed perpetrate the practice of homosexuality in the ancient world. Aristotle held that a woman was inferior to a man in both virtue and courage and therefore could not be a fit companion (Politics, 1253b-1260b) In a literary debate the judge declared an Athenian who favored homophilia to be the victor over a Corinthian who endorsed heterosexuality:

Therefore let marriage be for all, but let the love of boys remain alone the privilege of the wise, for a perfect virtue is absolutely unthinkable in women. But be not angry, my dear Charicles, if the crown belongs to Athens and not to Corinth (Lucian, Erotes, quoted in Licht, Sexual Life in Ancient Greece, p. 491)

Plato on several occasions affirmed the greater nobility of what was indeed a spiritualized institution:

But the offspring of the heavenly Aphrodite is derived from another in whose birth the female has no part - she is from the male only; this is that love which is of youths, and the goddess, being older, there is nothing of wantonness in her. Those who are inspired by this love turn to the male and delight in him who is the more valiant and intelligent nature (Symposium, 181c, d)

Which is God's best? For Christians in a sexually preoccupied city, there must be clarification.

As the justification for homosexuality lay in the inferiority of women, so Paul's answer lay in the assertion that she was a special creation to meet man's need for spiritual, emotional, and physical partnership. A man, indeed, ought not to have his head veiled, for he is an image and glory of God; but woman is a glory of man . . . And man was not created for woman, but woman for man. Both male and female were created in God's image, and both were essential to his plan (Genesis 5:1,2) The creation of man, a marvelous creature 'in the image and glory of God' brought forth the statement that it was 'not good' that man should be alone. As his final, crowning creative act, God made woman to complete the fulfillment of his purpose.

To say that woman is the glory of man is far from detrimental, nor does it imply that she is a mere 'reflection of a reflection'. Glory is that which enhances a person's worth, substance or honor; and the Greeks prized glory more than riches, comfort, or life itself. It is woman to whom God has given the power to uplift man, to bring out the best in him. She is the 'fit companion' rather than another male. A relationship which is limited exclusively to persons of one sex is less than a total manifestation of God's image and defrauds the body of Christ.

At the very heart of our passage lies a consideration of the relationship between husband and wife.

I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God . . . Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a woman ought to have authority over [a veil on] her head, because of the angels.

This text is often applied to marriage as a proof-text for who should be the greatest - a consideration which Jesus discouraged. Marriage is not a power struggle. Part of the syllogism is that God is head of Christ, who proceeded forth from the Father but is equal to him in power, goodness, and love.

Other scripture passages also embody head-and-body imagery as it applies to Christ and his church. Ephesians 4:15-16 stresses coordination and communication, and in Ephesians 1:22-23 the church is called the 'fullness' (abundance, completion, fulfillment) of the one who fills all. 1 Corinthians 12:21 shows the need of the head for other parts of the body, for head and body cannot be severed so long as life shall last. Colossians 1:15-18 calls Christ 'the first born of creation . . . the head of the body, the Church . . . the beginning, the first born from the dead'; for the head is that part of the body which is usually born first. The beautiful picture of Ephesians 5 likewise reveals Christ's initial action in seeking, wooing, and redeeming the church. The head-body simile is introduced by a concept of mutual subjection (5:21) and reaches its height in demonstrating how highly Christ prized the church and what he was willing to suffer that he might present to himself a 'glorious' bride, called into existence to be his completion and fulfillment. Even so was woman, the glory of man, made on his account a being worthy of love, dignity and honor.

Because a woman is God's special gift to the man, she should have authority over her head (i.e., her husband) Although translators are fond of altering the meaning (cf. RSV and RSV margin), the Greek is quite simple: 'a woman should have power over her head'. The same vocabulary, 'have power over', is used for Christ's power and that of the angels of the Apocalypse (Matthew 9:6; Mark 2; Luke 5:34; Revelation 11:6; 14:13) and Paul has already spoken of the power which the wife should have over the husband:

The husband should give to his wife her conjugal right and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does. (1 Corinthians 7:3-4)

Contrary to heathen tradition, the Christian wife had an equal right to demand the her husband forsake all extramarital unions and commit himself wholly to her. The sacred tie was to be respected by both husband and wife.

Often the outside world failed to understand this. The charge of promiscuity was hurled frequently against Christians, especially in their observance of the Lord's supper. It is significant that this teaching in 1 Corinthians 11 does immediately precede a discussion of order at the Eucharist. Angeloi, the word for 'angels', also means 'messengers', and may well refer to those who might visit the service and carry home a message about the activities. It was important that they understand the Christian concept of marriage and sexuality. The veil, already a symbol of the wife's commitment, might also remind the husband of his - to the edification of the onlookers.

But the message is for us as well as the Corinthians. Although it was apparently addressed originally to male questioners, the answer includes us all. God has given each one of us full personhood, and we are stewards accountable to him for all that we are as spiritual, emotional, and sexual beings. We do not exist alone but must respond to one another in the fellowship of the redeemed. It is good that there are differentiations of a sexual nature, for they may draw us closer to one another. And the unifying principle is a person, even Jesus Christ.