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European Electronic Journal for Feminist Exegesis

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Shelly Matthews

A feminist Analysis of the Veiling Passage (1 Corinthians 11:2–16):
Who really cares that Paul was not a Gender Egalitarian after all?


Dieser Artikel spürt den methodologischen Problemen jener neutestamentlichen Forschung nach, die darauf besteht, dass sich in Korinther 11,2–11 und Galater 3,28 keine Gleichberechtigungskämpfe der frühen Christusgläubigen spiegeln. Es wird aufgezeigt, dass die antike androzentrische Ideologie, die sich in diesen Texten äußert, nicht als eine allgemeingültige verstanden werden sollte, sondern dass es plausibel ist, die Geschichte der korinthischen Prophetinnen als eine Geschichte des Widerstands gegen diese antike Ideologie zu verstehen. Insofern unbedeckte Häupter von Frauen mit geschorenen oder sehr kurz geschnittenen Haaren verglichen werden, untergräbt die Praxis des Entschleierns nicht nur eine Gendernorm, sondern ebenso Normen, die mit den Kategorien von Status, Klasse und womöglich Ethnizität zusammenhängen.


While feminist approaches to reconstructing the history of earliest Christianity are welcome in some venues, an avoidance of this work still pervades the guild as a whole. One reason for this avoidance is the repeated dismissal in mainstream scholarship of claims that egalitarian struggles were integral to the ancient assemblies that gathered in the name of Jesus. Feminist scholarship making these claims is often derided as anachronistic, undisciplined, and situated in the realm of fantasy rather than reason. [1]

This essay challenges a particular strand of biblical scholarship soberly pronouncing that no historical claims concerning egalitarian struggles and/or utopian strivings can be made. While considering a number of ancient texts which feminists have identified as somehow subverting hegemonic patriarchal systems of domination, I focus particularly on the veiling passage in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, and the related proclamation of “no male and female” in the pre-Pauline baptismal formula preserved at Galatians 3:28. [2]

The argument proceeds as follows: First, it exposes muddled assumptions about gender fixity and fluidity that underlie recent scholarship about the ideology of ancient androgyny. Second, it calls into question both scholarship that depicts ancient androcentric ideologies as having offered no foothold for resistance, and that assumes contemporary egalitarian struggles serve as an unproblematic standard against which to measure the ancients. Finally, it suggests that the best historical readings of 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 – best in the sense of providing the most explanatory value concerning historical agents in Corinth – are those that account not merely for the rationale undergirding Paul’s insistence on veiling, but also recognize and account for the obvious and sustained resistance to veiling on the part of women who pray and prophesy in the assemblies in Corinth. In conclusion, I offer new insight into the ways the unveiled women in Corinth may have troubled not only the gender binary proclaimed to have been abolished through Christ (Galatians 3:28c), but other social hierarchies as well.

Though more recent scholarship on the question is also considered, this essay engages especially with two important works of Dale Martin: one, a chapter devoted to the veiling question in Martin’s monograph The Corinthian Body, and two, Martin’s essay on Galatians 3:28, originally published in Norwegian in 2002, but most well known through its inclusion as a chapter in his collection of essays, Sex and the Single Savior, published in 2006. [3] Focus on these writings, some twenty years after their publication, is taken up here because Martin’s work is widely read and often cited, and – in most instances – justifiably so, owing to its wide-ranging significance to the field of biblical studies. Yet, to my knowledge, no one has as of yet provided a formal feminist critique of his arguments under examination here.


Fluidity and Fixity: On Sliding Scales and Anchored Flesh


The dominant paradigm for studies of gender and sexuality in New Testament materials for the past twenty years has held that ancient notions of gender were both fluid and hierarchical. This view, often articulated with reference to Thomas Laqueur’s “one-sex” model of the human body in antiquity, holds that the gender of a human being was predicated not on an essential biological core, but on social status, with (asexual and elite) masculinity at the high end of the sliding scale of a gender continuum, and an opposite version of femininity at the bottom. [4] As Benjamin Dunning summarizes this current of thinking on the sexed body in the ancient world:

“The fundamental issue at stake here turns out to be not so much about the sex/gender distinction per se as about a distinctly ancient logic of sexual difference – one that conceptualizes this difference not in terms of an ontological and incommensurable binary, but rather on a single sliding scale, oriented toward maleness and deeply rooted in the variables of status.” [5]    

A related consensus, generated especially with regard to the pronouncement of “no male and female” in Galatians 3:28c, has held that in such an androcentric society, where notions of the ideal human are pegged so closely to an elite form of maleness, androgyny is not conceptualized as the blending of masculine and feminine characteristics in equal measure, but rather as a state of being in which the lower female characteristics are swallowed up, thus producing “a unity in masculinity.” [6]

In his discussion of the problem of veiling in Corinth, Dale Martin embraces Laqueur’s “one-sex model,” setting up his argument by citing the following words from Laqueur’s study: “In a public world that was overwhelmingly male, the one-sex model displayed what was already massively evident in culture more generally: man is the measure of all things, and woman does not exist as an ontologically distinct category.” [7] Yet, we might ask whether Martin is truly and fully at home in the one-sex body, and the sliding-scale model of gender, he claims to embrace.

Though Martin signals through his citation of Laqueur noted above that he will hold to an understanding of men and women as belonging to the same ontological category in Paul’s thinking, there is some slippage in his language as the argument proceeds. Does Paul in fact imagine women to be ontologically indistinct from men? Perhaps, but Martin’s insistence that femaleness is ontologically inferior to maleness is intertwined with his argument that Corinthian women are trapped within this lower substance, such that it is impossible for them to rise above it in this world. According to Martin, Paul insists on the hierarchy of male over female because physiological differences are fixed within women’s and men’s bodies until the future resurrection: “The stuff of female nature is differently constituted from that of male nature. Women’s bodies are different from men’s—not just. . . in that they have different ‘parts,’ but in that the very substance, the matter that makes up their bodies, is constitutionally different.” [8] In spite of his earlier embrace of a “sliding scale” model of gender, his explanation for the dangers faced by Corinthian prophesying women is that the very femaleness of their bodies is fixed and immovable: “The assumption that women were more endangered by surrounding forces. . .was a physiological fact, anchored in the very nature of female flesh.” [9] And more pointedly, in what seems to be a direct contradiction of Laqueur’s claim that in the ancient world, “woman does not exist as an ontologically distinct category,” [10] Martin explains Paul’s lack of egalitarianism by noting that Paul can “subscribe to eschatological androgynous statements without believing that Christian women are equal to Christian men ontologically.” [11]

In short, in Martin’s understanding of the Pauline world, Laqueur’s model of the sliding gender scale, moving across a one-sexed body, sits somehow amidst women prophets who are anchored to their inferior female flesh and unable to rise above it. While the issue here is sex and gender, rather than race and ethnicity, the argument appears to be caught in a version of the rhetorical obfuscation that occurs around notions of fixity and fluidity pertaining to identity questions.  As Denise Buell has noted, while racial and ethnic discourses often employ appeals to fixity – some “essence” of flesh and blood inherent to a particular social group – discussions of what constitutes a racial or ethnic group is always in flux and under negotiation. [12] Buell, building on the work of Ann Stoler and Gerd Baumann, moves away from adjudicating the question of whether race/ethnicity was fixed or fluid, to the task of analyzing the rhetorical interplay within these two modes of asserting identity. [13] Taking up that task of assessing the interplay of fixity and fluidity with respect to the question of sex and gender in Martin’s analysis, we see, on the one hand, a processual discourse employed to emphasize fluidity and transformation on a sliding scale as inherent in the ancient sex/gender distinction.  On the other hand, this processual discourse coexists with the rhetoric of an essentializing given, the ontological difference assumed to be anchored in the female bodies of women in Corinth.  


Framing Egalitarian Struggles in Androcentric Societies: Then and Now


In embracing the model of androcentric androgyny as the framework for understanding Galatians 3:28 and 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, both Lone Fatum and Dale Martin move from describing this model to sober pronouncements that because of this ideology, it is impossible for ancients to have read Gal. 3:28c in an egalitarian or utopian manner. Fatum argues that the pervasiveness of the ideology of an asexual and androcentric androgyny makes it simply impossible to speak of “equal rights of Christian women in freedom and solidarity with Christian men” in the Corinthian congregation. She concludes that questioning the ideology is an exercise in futility: 

“. . . it is no use questioning the social and practical implications [of Galatians 3:28c] for Christian women. . . . If the Jewish androcentric limitation so closely associated with the Pauline background is maintained, and if it is further acknowledged how far this limitation has been intensified by Paul’s dualistically ascetic attitude to social life in general but to sexuality in particular, then it will be quite clear that v. 28c. offers no basis from which it is possible to ask for the social consequences to Christian women as women.[14]

Dale Martin embraces Fatum’s line of argument in his essay on Galatians 3:28, hailing her as one of the “more radical feminist scholars.” [15] As his own argument pertaining to veiling in his Corinthians monograph unfolds, the insistence that Paul was not a gender egalitarian runs through the chapter like a pulse: “Androgyny does not imply equality” [16]; “Neither Paul’s androgynous statement in Galatians 3:28, nor his admission of women to important positions within his churches demonstrates that he was a gender egalitarian”; [17] “Paul clearly does not believe that women are equal.” [18] Though Martin allows that, in Paul’s view, women might eventually transcend their inferior nature in a future resurrection, he insists that Paul had no capacity to think such a thought with respect to his present: “Paul cannot consider the female equal to the male and for the present he cannot consider women equal to men, due to the hierarchy of physiology.” [19]

It may be noted again that Martin’s insistence that Paul simply cannot imagine women becoming equal to men (until after the resurrection) is premised on a gender fixity that belies the fluidity of the one-sex model, which Martin has embraced for the ancient world. If gender is conceived on a sliding scale and this ideology of gender fluidity is widespread, why couldn’t Paul imagine the sliding from femaleness to maleness taking place before the general resurrection, as at least some Jesus followers, along with others in the culture, seem to have done? [20]

A larger objection to this line of argumentation is that it reads the ancient ideology of androcentric androgyny in a totalizing way. The problems with assuming that human subjectivities are molded by prevailing ideologies with such comprehensiveness in any given society will be addressed in further detail below. But for the moment, let us consider the ancient ideology of androcentric androgyny, even in its harshest and most uncompromising form. Let us imagine that some early Jesus believers who proclaimed the baptismal formula, and then chose to pray or prophecy with their heads unveiled, understood themselves to be embracing androcentric androgyny. Let us acknowledge that this form of androgyny was predicated on terms that many in the contemporary world would not accept, particularly pertaining to the renunciation of sexual pleasure for both men and women, and the denunciation of childbearing.

Let us acknowledge further that many of the texts, which feminists have examined for signs of egalitarian struggle, beyond those linked to Pauline sphere, are not “liberative” in a straightforward and uncomplicated way. Consider, for instance the extracanonical traditions concerning Mary Magdalene, in which she frequently speaks and acts in authoritative, intelligent ways, but always in narratives with androcentric frames. [21] Still it remains that texts such as Galatians 3:28, the Gospel of Mary, and even the infamous saying preserved in the Gospel of Thomas 114, by allowing that wo/men could indeed slide up the scale on the gender continuum and become more masculine – which is to say, more human, according to this ideology – are holding out a vision of community that includes a measure of equality. [22] 

While opportunities for women’s agency and voice exist, if in extremely compromised ways, under the terms of ancient androcentric ideology, we turn now to consider more fully the problem of assuming that all participants in the Corinthian Christ community lived in full alignment with it. Such a reading strategy assumes that all Jesus believers, like all their ancient contemporaries, experienced this gender ideology as having no tensive elements, no inner contradictions, no instability, and thus that lived historical experience conformed perfectly to this dominant ideology. Blanket statements such as “Paul cannot think in this way,” or “it is not possible to ask,” stand at odds with more sophisticated feminist work which reads historical texts precisely for the cracks, fissures, and instabilities which suggest struggles among historical agents about how to live out – or against – a prevailing ideology.

Recent challenges to totalizing views of ancient gender ideologies and their embodiment in early Jesus believing assemblies include the work of Tat-Siong Benny Liew, who employs a post-colonial, Asian American hermeneutical lens to analyze the complexity of Paul’s resistance to colonization and racialization one the one hand, and his projection of abjection onto women and other sexual deviants in Corinth on the other. [23]  Melanie Johnson-Debaufre and Laura Nasrallah employ a feminist and postcolonial framework to argue for a multiple and complex response to dominant ideology, noting that Paul’s letters “inscribe a variety of communities that were engaged in negotiating, contesting, and colluding in the context of empire.” [24]  Joseph Marchal, engaging with the signature work of Judith Butler and Jack (Judith) Halberstam on the meaning of gender, sex and embodiment, reminds of the perpetually unstable nature of gender.  With respect to Paul’s arguments for gender hierarchy in Corinth, and the performance of gender among resisting Corinthian women, Marchal argues: “Norms of gender, sexuality and embodiment are powerful, but people are not ultimately determined by them. Similarly, calls to imitate such scripts can always be heeded in unexpected ways, ways that fail to conform to a norm, but still rework the norm.” [25] Liew, Johnson-DeBaufre, Nasrallah, and Marchal add important nuance to the myriad of ways communities addressed by Paul along with Paul himself, might live against a dominant ideology. Marchal in particular will be called upon again below, as we theorize resistance in Corinth by wo/men unveiled and/or with shaved or close cropped hair.

Yet, even before the introduction of postcolonial and queer hermeneutical approaches to biblical scholarship, feminist work pre-dating the arguments of Martin and Fatum had already assessed the implications of ancient androcentric ideology with more sophistication and nuance, and considerably less fatalism. For example, Elizabeth Castelli concluded her assessment of the infamous saying in the Gospel of Thomas 114, in which Jesus promises to “make Mary male,” by identifying it not as an instance in which “early Christian discourses escaped the confines of patriarchy,” but still, as a “moment of slippage,” as a space “where the self-evidency of gender conventions and the relationships for which they were foundational might have been thought otherwise.” [26] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, in her program of feminist historical reconstruction, highlighted the importance, and legitimacy of reconstructing a historical world “different from the androcentric world construction of the text.” [27] Martin and Fatum, while agreeing with these feminists about the prevailing ancient ideology as androcentric, do not analyze the workings of that ideology with comparable nuance in their historical reconstructions.

A further and related problem pertains to assumptions about how present day notions of equality and egalitarianism operate and how ancient egalitarian strivings should be measured by comparison. To illustrate this point, I turn to the recent work of Benjamin Dunning, who also engages with the lines of argumentation pertaining to androcentric androgyny and the Pauline epistles outlined above. Dunning’s work on sexual difference in early Christian thinking departs from the fatalism of Fatum and Martin with respect to ancient androcentrism in large part. In the introduction to his work, he rejects Martin’s view that there are no conceptual resources in ancient androcentric and misogynist texts for queer theo-ethical constructive projects such as Martin champions throughout Sex and the Single Savior. [28] His readings of these ancient texts identify both dominant ideologies of sexual difference as well as the sorts of slippage and rhetorical incoherence that suggest counter voices. For instance, his concluding chapter on Tertullian’s reading of virginity in Adam-Christ and Eve-Mary typologies imagines the unveiled virgins of Carthage subverting Tertullian’s arguments for a naturalized gender hierarchy. [29]

I take issue here only with his introductory analysis of the implications of androcentric androgyny for reading Paul and Paul’s legacy. [30] Dunning embraces the view outlined above that dominant Christian scripts of androgyny are assertions of male primacy, and thus that Paul’s arguments concerning gender in Galatians and Corinthians fundamentally cohere. He then reflects on the sober implications of androcentric androgyny not just for the Pauline epistles, but also for the broader Pauline legacy:

“[T]he thesis of Fatum, Boyarin and others (regarding the masculinist implications of the ancient androgyne myth in connection to Galatians 3:28) also poses problems for “egalitarian,” readings of subsequent early Christian texts.  If these scholars are correct, then even the putative radicalism of a text such as the Acts of Paul must still be understood within an overarching framework of androcentrism. . . .. Indeed, on this reading, no aspect of the tensions in play in the Pauline text, or its legacy can be straightforwardly and unproblematically designated as “egalitarian” or “liberative” in a contemporary sense.” [31]

By faulting the ancient ideology of androcentric androgyny for not being “straightforwardly and unproblematically egalitarian or liberative in a contemporary sense,” Dunning suggests that in our current situation, egalitarianism and liberation are straightforward ideals that might be measured in obvious and uncontested ways. But of course, struggles to achieve fair and just societies are ongoing, and debates about how such a society would be constituted demonstrate the complexity of our ideals, and the difficulty of extracting them from existing ideologies of power and domination. [32]

Martin and Fatum assume that ancient androcentric societies excluded egalitarian strivings in an absolute way. Dunning assumes that ancient utopian struggles are complicated and compromised, in contrast to their straightforward and unproblematic modern counterparts. Taken together, these positions subject the ancient world to particularly high standards for what constitutes egalitarian strivings and utopian ideals, while assuming that such high standards have been currently met.

At this point it may be noted that my arguments pertaining to Pauline literature share common space with arguments made by Mary Ann Beavis with respect to egalitarianism and utopia in Jesus scholarship. [33]  Beavis takes issue especially with two articles by John Elliot in which social science models are employed to argue that the Jesus movement was not egalitarian in any aspect. [34] Elliott rails against scholarship on early Christian assemblies which sees hierarchical and egalitarian structures operating concurrently within them, offering up a colloquial joke about the impossibility of being “a little bit pregnant” to provide insight into his own social science model:

“From a sociological perspective, hierarchy and egalitarianism are mutually exclusive. Organizations that are hierarchical are, by definition, the opposite of those that are ‘egalitarian.’ Social groups can be one or the other but not simultaneously. Imagining a group to be predominately hierarchical but a little bit egalitarian. . . is like imaging a virgin to be a little bit pregnant.” [35] 

Elliot impugns those who see the Jesus movement as egalitarian as employing “flawed reasoning and an anachronistic, ethnocentric and ideologically-driven reading of the New Testament,” while offering up his own (presumably ideology-free) vision of “equal access to grace, forgiveness, and mercy of God effected by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ,” as the “only way in which it is conceivable . . . to speak of equality in the early church.” [36] 

Taking Elliot to task, Beavis challenges the assumption that if androcentric, patriarchal, hierarchical characteristics are present within an ancient society, then the search for egalitarian impulses in these societies must be dismissed as nothing but anachronistic, wishful thinking. 

Like Elliot, she turns to the social sciences to support her argument, but she does not reach Elliot’s all-or-nothing conclusion. Instead, she builds on the work of the anthropologist Susan Kent, who has developed a nuanced cross-cultural classification system for measuring gender equality in living cultures, based on observing a number of societies in which neither egalitarianism nor hierarchy with respect to gender are embraced in absolute ways. Kent notes that “there is no society that is absolutely egalitarian; rather there are only societies which are more, less, or equally egalitarian as others. [37] Building on Kent, Mary Ann Beavis proposes that in the ancient world as well, ideas and practices of egalitarianism and hierarchy could “operate together in a range of permutations and combinations.” [38]

With this more multi-layered model of egalitarian ideals and utopian strivings in hand, we turn to the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:2–16.  


What Were Those Women Thinking?


The best historical readings of 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 – best, in terms of providing the most explanatory value concerning the historical parties in question – are those that do not merely account for the rationale undergirding Paul’s insistence on veiling, but also recognize and account for the sustained and vehement resistance to veiling on the part of the Corinthian women prophets. [39] In arguing for a community-centered reading that attempts to account for the Corinthian women prophets’ refusal to veil, this essay aligns with a number of feminist projects to de-center Paul in the interpretation of his epistles. Most recently, for instance, Melanie Johnson DeBaufre and Laura Nasrallah have argued that Paul should be recognized as “one among many” in the Corinthian assembly, that the letters should be considered “as sites of debate, contestation, and resistance rather than as articulations of one individual’s vision and heroic community-building efforts.” They note further that such a re-centering is possible because the letters are rhetorical, and so obviously dialogic. [40]

Were the world of contemporary biblical scholarship unproblematically and straightforwardly egalitarian and liberative, perhaps such an argument would go without saying, owing to this feminist work. Yet, the rationale for a dialogic approach to the letters continues to need to be articulated owing to the force of the “Paul-centered habit” [41] among Pauline scholars, including not only the vast majority who identify with Paul’s theology and thus seek to advocate for it, but also among those who openly eschew a theological agenda. 

Among those who focus on understanding Paul’s rationale in arguing for female veiling, there has been a remarkable refusal to ask further why Corinthian women prophets might have resisted his directives. The Paul-centered habit requires only that one account for Paul’s rationale in arguing for covered heads. Those who venture an explanation for why they do not consider the perspective of the Corinthian wo/men tend to fall back on the view that such reconstructive work relies on speculation or guesswork in ways that elaborating the rationale for Paul’s views does not. [42]       

Once again because it has been so influential, and in this instance because it is wonderfully illustrative of the problem, I turn to Dale Martin’s chapter on veiling from the Corinthian Body. Here Martin offers up a wide-ranging array of evidence for why the dominant ideology of Paul’s world would lead him to argue that a woman’s head should be veiled while praying and prophesying, beginning with the argument that “a good place to begin an analysis of various ancient meanings of veiling is the classical Greek wedding.” [43]  From classical Greek weddings, he proceeds to Homeric epic, to ancient cosmology, to the veiling rituals of modern wedding ceremonies “in Egypt, Morocco, the Zulus, Melanesia, Alaska, Korea, Manchuria, Russia, China and Burma;” [44] then to the veiling practices of some Muslim societies, including Afghanistan and North Yemen; then to the anthropologist Edmund Leach’s observations concerning Buddhist and Hindu assumptions with respect to relationships between hair and genitals; then circling back to ancient Greek medical writings (including Soranus and Galen); then to discussions of Plutarch and Tertullian on veiling, and also to some consideration of Hellenistic Jewish angelologies. This whirl-wind tour between disciplines, across centuries, and around the globe is undertaken in the service of bolstering Martin’s anthropologically focused argument that Paul insists on women veiling in assemblies because he regards the female sexuality of unveiled women to endanger the social order. [45]

Yet in spite of this vast and divergent array of sources cited to make the case for Paul’s own reason for wanting veils in ceremonial space, Martin demurs on the question of why the Corinthian women prophets preferred not to veil, noting his hesitation “to speculate about the point of view of the Corinthian women prophets themselves. . . Paul’s rhetoric, which is, after all, all we possess – gives us very little, if anything, to go on as regards how the women would have construed their own activity.” [46] 




I conclude, to the contrary, that Paul’s rhetoric, along with other exegetical tools, does make it possible to say something about these women and their rationale for refusing to veil during prayer and prophecy in the assemblies. In offering here a reconstruction of the conflict in Corinth, and of the wo/men prophet’s interest in the question of veiling, I accept the three following arguments from Antoinette Clark Wire’s Corinthian Women Prophets as broadly persuasive. First, the women’s reason for unveiling could not have been trivial, in view of Paul’s attempt to answer their position with appeals to tradition and allusions to scripture. As Wire notes:

“If women prayed and prophesied uncovered because the custom of covering their heads was strange, or inconvenient, or seemed inappropriate in their home-based gatherings, it would have been counterproductive for Paul to make a cause célèbre of it. . . . The theological weight of Paul’s argument makes it likely that these women chose to do so for some purpose with social consequences and theological justification.” [47]

Second, Paul’s argument in 11:2–16 is not the final word on the subject in Corinth, and Paul himself anticipates resistance to his view, as indicated in 11:16a through the conditional sentence, “if anyone thinks they can win out on this [or, “if anyone wants to be victory-loving,” Εἰ δέ τις δοκεῖ φιλόνεικος εἶναι. . .], we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.” [48] Third, the Corinthian women prophets understand baptism into the Christ community as abolishing gender hierarchy of male over female, in so far as “the new creation in Christ . . . reverses the old creation story [of Genesis 1:27–28].” [49]

Wire’s argument pointing to a reversal of the created hierarchy in Christ’s new creation as rationale for the women prophet’s unveiled prayer and prophecy receives indirect support from the arguments of Jason BeDuhn on the role of angels in the creation of a two-gendered humanity according to Hellenistic Jewish myth. [50] BeDuhn provides an elegant and convincing argument that Paul’s cryptic reference to “the angels” in 11:10b owes to an anthropogony in which gender difference and subordination of women are explained by the mediating role of the angels in the creation of humans. BeDuhn understands Paul both to recognize this gender imbalance as owing to the created order, and to insist that this gender imbalance cannot be overcome until a future resurrection in Christ. While BeDuhn focuses solely on understanding Paul’s position on the questions of gender hierarchy, veiling, and the timing of the reversal of created order, it perfectly coheres with Wire’s proposal concerning the view of the Corinthian women prophets. Reading BeDuhn and Wire together, we see that both Paul and the women agree that gender hierarchy was established in creation, and that it is abolished as part of the Christ event. The conflict turns on the question of timing, with the Corinthian prophets understanding it as commencing with baptism into Christ, while Paul argues for a complete abolishment of the flesh (and its constraints) only in a future resurrection. [51]

As to the question of whether the Corinthian women have no choice but to understand their unveiled heads as an embrace of androcentric androgyny, I return to Joseph Marchal’s challenge to this assumption in view of the performativity of gender, and the insight that female masculinity need not be understood as an imitation of maleness. Honing in on Paul’s argument in 11.5b, that for wo/men to pray and prophecy uncovered is for them to be like the woman whose head is shorn, Marchal proposes that the Corinthian women prophets’ “shaving-esque practice,” is a form of female masculinity, and as such “suggests gender repetitions, combinations and citations besides androgyny, forms of action and identification that do not foreclose the variety of roles played by females, forms that offer other routes for considering how gendered and embodied scripts can operate differently and repeat subversively.” [52] 

I would supplement Marchal’s arguments concerning the subversive potential of the shaving-esque practices of these prophets by reminding that the practice of unveiling – in so far as it is likened to shaven heads or shortly cropped hair – subverts not only a scripted gender norm, but also troubles the closely related, even intertwined, categories of status/class. [53] To take up a practice that marks her as “one and same as the woman whose head is shorn (11:5b: ἓν γάρ ἐστιν καὶ τὸ αὐτὸ τῇ ἐξυρημένῃ)” is a dramatic challenge to conventional norms of propriety. Ancient sources indicate that a woman’s closely cropped hair may be regarded as an assumption of masculinity. [54] Shaving of the head may signal a woman’s voluntary break with a man through divorce or renunciation of engagement; or it may serve as a signal of widowhood. [55] But further, and at least as provocatively, a forcibly shaved head signals shame, sometimes associated with a convicted adulteress, sometimes with a menial slave.” [56] Therefore we might imagine that the unveiled women in the Corinthian assembly are troubling not just the male/female binary of an early Christian baptismal formula, but also the slave/free binary, and – in as much as race/ethnicity are constructed in relation to status perhaps categories of Jew, Greek, Barbarian, and Scythian as well (cf. the direction taken in the deutero-Pauline Colossians 3:11). In so doing, they might call into question other evaluative binaries by which persons perceive themselves to be measured in Corinth: those of foolishness and wisdom; honor and shame, strength and weakness, wealth and impoverishment, royalty and refuse, etc. Thus, perhaps ironically, we might say that the wo/men addressed in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, who refuse to veil, might understand themselves to be performing the reversal of values Paul has championed so eloquently in 1 Corinthians 1– 4 (cf. esp.1:18–31; 4:8–13). Perhaps the women, like Paul in the first four chapters of the epistle, do indeed affirm that “God chose what is low and despised in the world . . . to bring to nothing things that are (1 Corinthians 1:28).”  Perhaps the common agreement of Paul and the Corinthian women on this principle of God’s foolish reordering (1 Corinthians 1–4) is one of the reasons he anticipates that his arguments in 11:2–16 – arguments based on established hierarchies and shaming rhetoric – will be met with a contentious counter response. Indeed, the opportunity to formulate such a counter response might have been relished by those who in deliberative matters were disposed to be φιλόνεικοι – lovers of victory. [57]  

[1] For an examination of this phenomenon with regard to Jesus scholarship, see Mary Ann Beavis, “Christian Origins, Egalitarianism, and Utopia,” JFSR 23.2 (2007), 27­–49.  For my previous reflection on this process with respect to the Acts of Thecla, see Shelly Matthews, Thinking of Thecla:  Issues in Feminist Historiography, JFSR 17 (2001), 39–55.

[2] For a turn-of-the-century survey of feminist exegesis of Paul, also with special focus on 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 and Galatians 3:28, see Angela Standhartinger, “Die Frau muss Vollmacht haben auf ihrem Haupt (1 Korinther 11,10). Zur Geschichte und Gegenwart feministischer Paulusauslegungen.” Lectio Difficilior 2 (2002). While I assume the traditional exegetical view that Paul’s directives to be “covered” (κατακαλύπτεσθαι) refer to the wearing of veils, I also acknowledge the importance of arguments pertaining to hair length or style to this pericope. Therefore I follow Cynthia Thompson in considering both veils and hairstyles to be relevant here, rather than deciding that either veils or hairstyles must be considered the primary issue (Cynthia L. Thompson, “Hairstyles, Head-Coverings, and St. Paul: Portraits from Roman Corinth,” BA 51:2 (1988), 99–115). Arguments that Paul’s chief concern in this passage is hair-style or length, include Judith M. Gundry-Volf, “Gender and Creation in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16: A Study in Paul’s Theological Method,” in Evangelium, Schriftauslegung, Kirche: Festschrift für Peter Stuhlmacher zum 65. Geburtstag, ed. Jostein Ådna, Scott J. Hafemann and Ottfried Hofius (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck&Ruprecht, 1997), 151; Marlis Gielen, “Beten und Prophezeien mit unverhüllten Kopf? Die Kontroverse zwischen Paulus und der korinthischen Gemeinde um die Wahrung der Geschlechtsrollensymbolik,” ZNW 90 (1999), 231–37.

[3]Dale B. Martin, “Prophylactic Veils,” in The Corinthian Body (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 229–49; idem, “The Queer History of Galatians 3:28: ‘No Male and Female,’” in Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 77–90;  originally published as “’Ikke mannlig og kvinnelig’: Likestilling, androgyny og kjønnosverskridelse hos Paulus” in Naturlig sex? Seksualitet og kjønn I den kristne antikken, ed. Halvor Moxnes, Jostein Børtnes and Dag Østein Endsojø (Oslo: Gyldendal, 2002), 99–125.

[4] Thomas W. Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990). Laqueur held that the “one-sex” model – by which men and women are assumed to share the same type of genitals, different only in being located in different parts of the body owing to various levels of bodily heat – was predominant in antiquity; and further that the notion of two distinctly-sexed human bodies, either male or female, was a much more recent invention, not widely embraced until sometime in the modern period. The ubiquity of the one-sex model in antiquity has been subject to thorough critique by many classicists, and resoundingly refuted by Helen King, The One-Sex Body on Trial: the Classical and Early Modern Evidence (Farnham, Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2013). Yet, insofar as  early Christian texts identify women as imperfect men, and posit “becoming male,” as an ideal (see Gospel of Thomas 114; cf. Acts of Thecla 25, 40) the one-sex model may still provide analytical insight. Note King’s assessment of the adaptability of one-sex and two-sex models, according to rhetorical exigency: “If the male is the goal, the female must be inadequate: but if reproduction is the goal, both sexes are equally necessary.  So ‘one-sex’ statements that identified women as ‘deformed’ men could become ‘two-sex’ claims for each sex having its own specific, and divinely ordained, role in the process of generation” (The One-Sex Body on Trial, 48).

[5] Benjamin H. Dunning, Specters of Paul: Sexual Difference in Early Christian Thought (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 18. Dunning is surely correct in this assessment of the state of the field in 2011. As evidence of the widespread agreement on the “sliding scale” model of gender in antiquity, he cites Stephen D. Moore, God’s Beauty Parlor: And Other Queer Spaces in and Around the Bible (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001); Colleen M. Conway, “’Behold the Man!’: Masculine Christology and the Fourth Gospel,” in New Testament Masculinities, ed. Stephen Moore and Janice Capel Anderson, Semeia Studies 45 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), 163–80, esp. 164–65; eadem, Behold the Man: Jesus and Greco-Roman Masculinity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008); Stephanie L. Cobb, Dying to be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008); Virginia Burrus, “Mapping as Metamorphosis: Initial Reflections on Gender and Ancient Religious Discourses,” in Mapping Gender in Ancient Religious Discourses, ed. Todd C. Penner and Caroline Vander Stichele, (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 1–10. Compare also the sophisticated model of the intersections of status, gender, public and private spheres in patriarchal Greek Democracy in Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation (Boston: Beacon, 1992), 105–20.    

[6] Martin, “Queer History,” 82–84, 86; Dennis Ronald MacDonald, “Corinthian Veils and Gnostic Androgynes,” in Images of the Feminine is Gnosticism , ed. Karen King (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988), 276–92.  Compare also Daniel Boyarin, “Gender,” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, ed. Mark C. Taylor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 117–35. Feminist scholars of gnostic texts, writing in the 80’s and 90’s, also recognized the androcentric nature of androgyny in these texts. See for instance, Ingrid Saelid Gilhuis, “Male and Female Symbolism in the Gnostic Apocryphon of John,” Temenos 19 (1983) 33–43; cf. Elisabeth Castelli, “’I Will Make Mary Male’: Pieties of the Body and Gender Transformation of Christian Women in Late Antiquity,” in Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity, ed. Julia Epstein and Kristina Staub (New York: Routledge, 1991), 29–49.

[7] Laqueur, Making Sex, 62; cited in Martin, Corinthian Body, 230. See also the embrace of Laqueur’s model in Martin, “Queer History,” 83–84.

[8] Martin, Corinthian Body, 249, my emphasis.

[9] Ibid., 242, my emphasis.

[10] Ibid., 230.

[11] Ibid, 231–32.

[12] Denise K. Buell, Why this New Race: Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 6–13. 

[13] Ann L. Stoler, “Racial Histories and their Regimes of Truth,” Political Power and Social Theory 11 (1997), 183–206.  Gerd Baumann, The Multicultural Riddle: Rethinking National, Ethnic, and Religious Identities (New York: Routledge, 1999).

[14] Lone Fatum, “Image of God and Glory of Man: Women in the Pauline Congregations,” in The Image of God and Gender Models in Judeo-Christian Tradition, ed. Kari Elisabeth Børresen (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 50–133, esp. 64–65 (my emphasis); Martin disagrees with Fatum’s singling out of Judaism as particularly androcentric while otherwise embracing her argument (“Queer History,” 218, n. 29). For a similar argument against any crack in ancient androcentric ideology, see also Lone Fatum, “Brotherhood in Christ: A gender hermeneutical reading of 1 Thessalonians,” in Constructing Early Christian Families: Family as social reality and metaphor, ed. Halvor Moxnes (London: Routledge, 1999), 183–96.

[15] Martin, “Queer History,” 83–84. Fatum’s arguments, alongside the scholarship of Wayne Meeks and Dennis MacDonald, are discussed by Martin under the heading “The ‘Third Wave’ Challenge.”

[16] Martin, Corinthian Body, 230.

[17] Ibid., 231.

[18] Ibid., 232.

[19] Ibid., 249.

[20] Early Christian texts which suggest the possibility of gender fluidity include Gospel of Thomas, 22, 46, 114; the Acts of Thecla 25, 40; Galatians 3:28.  As one example of the broader cultural recognition that “maleness” could be, at least exceptionally, possessed by a woman, note Philo’s assessment that the empress Livia achieved maleness with respect to her powers of reason (Philo, Legat. 319–20).

[21] Important work on the Gospel of Mary and other Magdalene traditions includes Jane Schaberg, The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament (New York: Continuum, 2004), 121–203; Ann Graham Brock, Mary Magdalene, the First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority, Harvard Theological Studies (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003); and Karen L. King, “Gender Contestation as Political Critique: Four Cases from Ancient Christianity,” in Doing Gender – Doing Religion, ed., Ute E. Eisen, Christine Gerber and Angela Standhartinger, WUNT 302 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013),75–98, esp. 81–84.

[22] The reassurance in the Gospel of Thomas 114b that Jesus will “make Mary male,” grates in the modern ear, but in order to hear the relatively good news for Mary here, one only needs to compare this Jesus saying to the counsel of Peter to which it responds: “Simon Peter said to them, “Let Mary leave us, because women are not worthy of the Life.” (Gospel of Thomas 114a).

[23] Tat-Siong Benny Liew, “Redressing Bodies in Corinth: Racial/Ethnic Politics and Religious Difference in the Context of Empire,” in idem, What is Asian American Biblical Hermeneutics: Reading the New Testament, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008), 75–97, esp. 90–96.

[24] Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre and Laura S. Nasrallah, “Beyond the Heroic Paul: Toward a Feminist and Decolonizing Approach to the Letters of Paul,” in The Colonized Apostle: Paul Through Postcolonial Eyes, ed. Christopher D. Stanley (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011), 161–74, here 168.

[25] Joseph A. Marchal, “Female Masculinity in Corinth?: Bodily Citations and the Drag of History,” Neot 48.1 (2014), 93–113, esp. 101. Consider also Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990). Jack (Judith) Halberstam, Female Masculinity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998).

[26] Castelli, “I Will Make Mary Male,” 47. See also the balanced evaluation of androcentric androgyny in Kari Vogt, “‘Becoming Male’: A Gnostic and Early Christian Metaphor,” in The Image of God: Gender Models in Judaeo-Christian Tradition, ed. Kari Elisabeth Børresen (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 170–86, esp. 182–83.

[27] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation (Boston: Beacon, 1992), 79–101.

[28] Dunning, Specters, 4. 

[29] Dunning, Specters, 124–50.

[30] Dunning, Specters, 5–9.

[31] Ibid., 169, n. 34, his emphasis.

[32] For one analysis of the dilemmas of attempting to live outside of the hierarchy of gender in the contemporary world, see Boyarin, “Gender.” Or, consider the discussion of problematic assumptions pertaining to power in nonfeminist utopian fiction in 19th century Britain and the United States in Elisabeth A. Castellis, “The Ekklēsia of Women and/as Utopian Space: Locating the Work of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in Feminist Utopian Thought,” in On the Cutting Edge: The Study of Women in Biblical Worlds, ed. Jane Schaberg, Alice Bach, and Esther Fuchs (New York: Continuum, 2004), 36–52, esp. 37–42.

[33] Beavis, “Christian Origins, Egalitarianism, and Utopia.”

[34] John H. Elliott, “Jesus was not an Egalitarian: A Critique of an Anachronistic and Idealist Theory,” BTB 32.2 (2002), 75–91. Idem, “The Jesus Movement was not Egalitarian but Family-Oriented,” BibInt 11.2 (2003), 173–210.  

[35] Elliott, “The Jesus Movement,” 188, his emphasis.

[36] Elliot, “Jesus was not an Egalitarian,” 89.

[37] Susan Kent, “Egalitarianism, Equality, and Equitable Power,” in Manifesting Power: Gender and the Interpretation of Power in Archaeology, ed. Tracy L. Sweely (London: Routledge, 1999), 30–48, esp. 36–41.

[38] Beavis, “Christian Origins,” 42. The recognition in postcolonial studies that struggles against domination by minoritized subjects are often intertwined with reproduction of that domination on the part of one minoritized subject against another also offers insight into further permutations and combinations of hierarchy and egalitarianism.  See here, for example, Liew, “Redressing Bodies in Corinth.”

[39] On this point, see Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said, 33: “Although a critical feminist reconstructive approach recognizes the provisionality and multiplicity of knowledge as particular, situated and ‘embodied,’ it does not abandon the claim to relative objectivity and historical validity of its reconstructions. The objectivity and adequacy of such critical feminist historical reconstructions must be assessed in terms of whether and how much they can make present the historical losers and their arguments.” Cf. ibid., 89–90.

For understanding one social group that resists Paul’s directives here as the “Corinthian Women Prophets,” I am indebted to the work of Antoinette Wire, The Corinthian Women Prophets: A Reconstruction Through Paul’s Rhetoric (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990). Wire’s work is taken up in more detail below.

[40] Johnson-DeBaufre and Nasrallah, “Beyond the Heroic Paul,” 162. For other articulations of the rationale for decenter Paul, see Wire, Corinthian Women Prophets; Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “Paul and the Politics of Interpretation,” in Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation,ed. Richard A. Horsley (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000), 40–51; Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, “Rethinking Authorship in the Letters of Paul: Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s Model of Pauline Theology,” in Walk in the Ways of Wisdom: Essays in Honor of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, ed., Shelly Matthews, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, and Melanie Johnson-DeBauftre (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2003), 318–33. Cf. also arguments framing Paul as a “plural subject” or “collective author” in Elsa Tamez, The Amnesty of Grace: Justification by Faith from a Latin American Perspective, trans. Sharon H. Ringe (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993), 48–49; Luise Schottroff, “Auf dem Weg zu einer feministischen Rekonstruktion der Geschichte des frühen Christentums,” in Feministische Exegese: Forschungserträge zur Bibel aus der Perspektive von Frauen, eds., Silvia Schroer and Marie-Theres Wacker (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft 1995), 207.    

[41] Johnson-DeBaufre and Nasrallah, “Beyond the Heroic Paul.”

[42] For instance, Todd Penner and Caroline Vander Stichele focus centrally on Paul’s rhetorical aims in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 so that they might direct attention to Paul “as a founder seeking to shape, maintain, and . . . enforce a strongly boundaried Christian identity,” while dismissing reconstruction of the views of the Corinthian community as “largely hypothetical.”  See “Paul and the Rhetoric of Gender,” in Her Master’s Tools? Feminist and Postcolonial Engagements of Historical-Critical Discourse, ed. Todd Penner and Caroline Vander Stichele (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005), 287–310, esp. 291.

[43] Martin, Corinthian Body, 233.

[44] Ibid., 235.

[45] Ibid., 245. Here, furthermore, Martin reads Paul’s rhetoric as automatically effective: “whether Paul is concerned that angels will be offended by a breach of the natural hierarchy or that they will lust after the women, or both, what he wants to accomplish is accomplished by his rhetoric: the women are threatened into submission” (p. 245, my emphasis).

[46] Ibid, p. 300, n. 73, my emphasis.

[47] Ibid., Corinthian Women Prophets, 123.

[48] Consider Ibid., 129: “The phrase . . . could be read . . .more literally, ‘if any think they are victory-lovers’ This suggests Paul could be picking up a positive self-designation of the women and using it ironically.  This is supported by the fact that in every other instance of this kind . . . his challenges take up what seem to be their positive self-designations.”

[49] Ibid., 126.

[50] Jason David BeDuhn, “‘Because of the Angels’: Unveiling Paul’s Anthropology in 1 Corinthians 11,” JBL 118 (1999), 295–320.

[51] Cf. 1 Corinthians 15:49: καὶ καθὼς ἐφορέσαμεν τὴν εἰκόνα τοῦ χοϊκοῦ, φορέσομεν καὶ τὴν εἰκόνα τοῦ ἐπουρανίου (and as we have borne the image of the one from dust, so also we shall bear the image of the one from heaven), and the discussion of BeDuhn, “Because of the Angels,” 318.

[52] Marchal, “Female Masculinity,” 105.

[53] For a more sustained analysis of the significance of 1 Corinthians 11:5b, see Shelly Matthews, “To Be One and the Same as the Woman Whose Head is Shaven (1 Corinthians 11:5b): Resisting the Violence of 1 Corinthians from the Bottom of the Kyriarchal Pyramid,” in Sacred Scripture and Sexaul Abuse, ed. Amy Kalmanofsky (forthcoming).

[54] Acts of Thecla 25; Lucian dial. Het. 5.3. On Lucian’s Megilla/Megillos, see Bernadette J. Brooten, Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 51–53.

[55] Also included among the reasons wo/men chose to shave or crop hair are mourning rites, and in order to demonstrate the completion of a Nazarite vow.  For an important discussion of shaving rites in ritual contexts in the Hebrew Bible, see discussion of Saul M. Olyan, “What Do Shaving Rites Accomplish and What Do They Signal in Biblical Ritual Contexts?”  JBL 117.4 (1998), 611–22. For the argument that when Paul speaks of women with shaved heads, he has in view Corinthian women who have taken Nazirite vows, see Abel Isaksson Marriage and Ministry in the New Temple (Lund: Gleerup, 1965), 160–72.

[56]Shaving of the adulterous wo/man: Tacitus speaks admiringly of the tribes in Germany for their practice of shaving adulterous wo/men: “[in cases of adultery] punishment is prompt and is the husband’s prerogative: her hair close-cropped, stripped of her clothes, her husband drives her from his house in the presence of his relatives and pursues her with a lash through the length of the village (Germania 19.2); Dio Chrysostom heralds a female law-giver from the island of Cyprus for establishing that wo/men guilty of adultery should have their hair cut off and be made harlots (Orationes 64.3). Compare also the ritual treatment of the hair of the woman charged with adultery in Numbers 5:18.     

Attestation of slave-shaving practices: In the Hebrew Bible provisions are given for how an Israelite male may take up a slave captive as a concubine or wife, which include the shaving of the head (Deuteronomy 21:12–13); though they are not identified as slaves, Plutarch describes a comparable marriage ritual among the Spartans under Lycurgus, by which women were forcibly carried off, had their heads shaved, and then were left in a dark room to await a bride-groom (Lycurgus 15.30); Herodotus speaks of the use of a slave’s head to send messages between political agents contemplating revolt, through a process of shaving and tattooing messages on the head (5.35); Apuleius describes servile workers in a flour mill as having branded foreheads and half-shaved heads [capillum semirasi], (Metamorphoses 9.12); stowaways on a ship in Petronius’ Satyricon, wanting to disguise themselves as slaves who have been punished, have their heads shaved and branded (Satyricon 103); Lucian’s mention of a fugitive wife who travels with shorn hair in the company of three fugitive slaves, also with shorn heads, suggests associations between cropped heads and slavery (Fugitivi 27).

[57] Because virtually all of the scholarship reviewed here on 1 Corinthians 11:2–11 assumes that this passage is not an interpolation, I have, for the sake of argument, also treated these verses as authentically Pauline. Another means to account for the discrepancy between 1 Corinthians 1–4 and 11:2–11 with respect to established hierarchies is to recognize the latter as a non-Pauline interpolation. For such an argument, see Christopher Mount, “1 Corinthians, 11.3–16: Spirit Possession and Authority in a Non-Pauline interpolation,” JBL 124 (2005), 313–40; Christopher Mount, “Religions Experience, the Religion of Paul, and Women in Pauline Churches,” in Women and Gender in Ancient Religions (ed. Stephen P. Ahearne-Kroll et. al. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 323–47.


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Shelly Matthews received her Doctor of Theology degree from the Harvard Divinity School in 1997. Since 2011 she has been on the faculty of the Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth Texas, USA, teaching courses in New Testament and early Christianity. She is currently working on a feminist biblical theology of resurrection.

© Shelly Matthews, 2015, lectio@theol.unibe.ch, ISSN 1661-3317

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