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2018-12-01

Note of the Day (Galatians 3:28, part 2)

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Galatians 3:28, continued

This is the second of three daily notes on Galatians 3:28 and the declaration that “in (Christ) there is no male and female”.

  1. The background and significance of the statement
  2. The logical consequences and possible interpretation(s), and
  3. Comparison with the Pauline teaching in 1 Cor 11:3ff; 14:34-35, etc

For the first topic, cf. yesterday’s note.

2. The consequences and possible interpretation/application

In the previous discussion of the declaration in Gal 3:28 (cf. the prior note, along with Part 3 of the series “Women in the Church”), I pointed out the connection with the creation narrative in Genesis, and that the believer’s new identity in Christ essentially represents a “new creation”. This means that the old created order has been transcended and/or transformed, including the social and biological distinction of “male and female”. Any proper interpretation of Gal 3:28 is made more difficult by the fact that, of the three distinctions—Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female—Paul really only discusses the first extensively in his letters. He says relatively little about the elimination of socio-economic (slave/free) distinctions, and even less about the socio-biological (gender-based) distinction. His instruction in 1 Cor 11:2-16; 14:34-35 (not to mention 1 Tim 2:11-15) suggests that he was not inclined to pursue the declaration of Gal 3:28c to what might seem its natural fulfillment—the elimination of sexual/gender distinction in Christian life and worship. Some commentators consider Paul to be inconsistent in this regard, and I will discuss this point in the next day’s note. It is perhaps significant that, in the passages parallel to Gal 3:27-281 Cor 12:13 and Col 3:9-11—there is no mention of the male/female distinction.

There were, however, other early Christians who did apply Gal 3:28c (and/or its underlying thought) more thoroughly from a religious standpoint. We find this, especially, among the Gnostic groups and writings from the 2nd and 3rd centuries (cf. my articles on “Gnosticism” and “Women in Gnosticism“). For example, in the so-called “Tripartite (Three-Part) Tractate” from Nag Hammadi [NH I.5], there is a similar declaration, blending (it would seem) Gal 3:28 and Col 3:11, but with a decidedly Gnostic interpretation:

“For when we confessed the kingdom which is in Christ, we escaped from the whole multiplicity of forms and from inequality and change. For the end will receive a unitary existence just as the beginning, where there is no male nor female, nor slave and free, nor circumcision and uncircumcision, neither angel nor man, but Christ is all in all.” [132, lines 16-28] (transl. by Harold W. Attridge and Dieter Mueller, NHL p. 95 [italics mine])

This particular interpretation, very much of a piece with Gnostic thought of the period, seems to recognize a tradition, well-known from ancient myth and religion, that humankind originally—and in its ideal/pristine state—was essentially sexless or androgynous (i.e. male-female). In the Greco-Roman world, this tradition is most famous from the myth narrated by Plato in his Symposium 189D-193D. That it was known by Greek-speaking Jews at the time of the New Testament, is attested by Philo of Alexandria (On the Contemplative Life §63; On the Creation §§134ff, 151-2); a similar idea is preserved in Rabbinic tradition as well (Genesis Rabbah 8:1). We should not, however, confuse the myth with the way that myth was used by Gnostics and other early Christians. Its primary purpose was to affirm an ascetic (and mystic) ideal—human beings (that is, believers or gnostics) must transcend the bounds of the material world, as defined largely in terms of sexuality and (physical/biological) generation. This is perhaps best expressed in the Gnostic (Valentinian?) writing, the so-called Gospel of Philip, which makes heavy use of sexual (nuptial) motifs to describe salvation (and Christian/Gnostic identity) in terms of a re-union of male/female back into an original unity (cf. my earlier survey of this work).

One might be inclined to dismiss such apparently heterodox emphases out of hand, were it not for two important facts: (1) there is an extra-canonical saying of Jesus along these lines, and (2) there were strong ascetic and mystical tendencies in Christianity even in the early period of the New Testament. With regard to the first point, a saying ascribed to Jesus (i.e. a Jesus tradition), dating from at least the early 2nd century, has been preserved in two (or three) separate sources (note the common elements [italics mine]):

2 Clement 12:2 Gospel of Thomas log. §22 “Gospel of the Egyptians”
Clem. Alex. Miscellanies [Stromateis] 3.92-93
For when the Lord himself was asked by someone when his kingdom would come, he said: “When the two shall be one, and the outside as the inside, and the male with the female neither male nor female.” (transl. Kirsopp Lake, LOEB edition) When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male be not male nor the female female…then you will enter [the Kingdom].” (transl. Thomas O. Lambdin, NHL p. 121) …when Salome asked when the things she had asked about would become known, the Lord replied: “When you trample on the shameful garment and when the two become one and the male with the female is neither male nor female.” (transl. Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Scriptures [Oxford: 2003], p. 16)

The form of the saying in 2 Clement 12 is more likely to be authentic (the others showing more obvious “Gnostic” coloring); the author gives a relatively straightforward interpretation in vv. 3-5:

  • “the two are one” = “when we speak with one another in truth, and there is but one soul in two bodies…”
  • “the outside like the inside” = “i.e., just as your body is visible, so let your soul be apparent in your good works”
  • “the male with the female neither male nor female” = “when a brother sees a sister he should have no thought of her as female, nor she of him as male”

This interpretation reflects a fairly conventional (and orthodox) ethical approach. The last point brings out something of the ascetic emphasis shared by Gnostics, as well as other early Christians—believers (men and women) should interact without any sexuality (esp. sexual desire) being present and active. Paul generally shared this ascetic outlook, though he did not go nearly so far as most Gnostic groups. Especially instructive is his guidance regarding marriage and sexuality in 1 Corinthians 7 (cf. below). Regardless of whether the saying in 2 Clement 12, etc (or anything like it) actually comes from Jesus, it raises some interesting questions in light of Galatians 3:28. How should believers—men and women—interact as believers in Christ? How far should believers continue to identify or think of themselves specifically as “male” or “female”? Paul offers relatively little instruction in this regard; however, there are three areas which effectively counterbalance the approach taken by other early Christians (and Gnostics):

1. Marriage and the family unit—In the undisputed letters of Paul, his teaching regarding the place and importance of marriage is surprisingly slight. Apart from the use of marital imagery for the purpose of illustration (Rom 7:2ff; 2 Cor 11:2; Gal 4:27, etc), his direct instruction is virtually limited to the discussion in 1 Corinthians 7, which may be summarized as follows:

  • Some believers in Corinth were of the mind that sexual contact should be avoided (v. 1ff), even for those who are currently married
  • Paul argues that husbands and wives should not deny each other (vv. 2-4), except on a temporary basis, for the purpose of prayer (vv. 5-6)
  • Those who were married when they came to faith should remain so (general prohibition of divorce), even if one is currently married to a non-believer (vv. 10-16)
  • Similarly, those who are engaged, or for whom there are plans for marriage, they may fulfill the obligation now that they are believers, without fear of sin (i.e. marriage itself is acceptable and not sinful) (vv. 28, 36-39)
  • However, Paul makes clear his preference that believers remain single and unmarried (vv. 6-9, 26-27, 28b-35, 38, 40); this is often glossed over or mitigated by commentators today who wish to emphasize marriage as the accepted norm for Christians

The situation (or, at least the emphasis) is somewhat different in the letters where Pauline authorship is questioned; there we find sections which affirm specific and traditional (gender) roles in the family and marriage bond—Col 3:18-19ff; Eph 5:22-33; 1 Tim 2:11-15; (3:11); Tit 2:4-5. Compare these passages with the seemingly more egalitarian (reciprocal) language used in 1 Cor 7:2-4ff. Even so, regardless of the authorship of Ephesians (and/or Colossians), that Eph 5:22ff reflects genuine Pauline teaching would seem to be confirmed by 1 Cor 11:3-10; and similarly 1 Cor 14:34-35 in the case of 1 Tim 2:11ff.

2. Respect for social custom and convention—It was a point of considerable importance for Paul that the newly-founded Christian communities do nothing which might cause offense or bring scandal (unnecessarily) in the eyes of outside observers. This emphasis runs through much of the ethical and practical instruction in 1 Corinthians and Romans, and can be glimpsed variously in the other letters as well. Though he does not specifically state it, I believe this has a significant impact on his concern for preserving gender roles and distinctions in the Church (in spite of Gal 3:28c). If we had more information regarding the situation he addresses in 1 Cor 11:2-16 (the use of headcovering for women who speak/preach publicly in the meeting), we might have a clearer example of this principle at work. Similar concern for social (and religious) custom may also underlie the controversial instruction in 1 Cor 14:34-35.

3. Roles in the (organized) congregation and public worship—This has been the subject of various articles and notes in the current series Women in the Church. The key passages which indicate restrictions on the participation of women in the congregation, or which define specific (and/or subordinate) roles, are:

These references, however, should also be compared with passages where Paul refers to women as ministers, co-workers, or otherwise as leading figures in the churches, without any apparent distinction—Rom 16:1-7ff; 1 Cor 16:19 (also 2 Tim 4:19); Phil 4:2-3; Col 4:15; and, with regard to the congregation and worship meeting, note the overall context of 1 Cor 11-14.

A strong argument could be made that the Pauline concern to preserve socio-religious custom and order in the congregation, which includes the preservation of traditional gender-distinction, in many ways violates the very substance of the declaration in Gal 3:28c. Paul has, in fact, been charged with inconsistency in this regard, that his practical instruction and ministry methods are at odds with the ideal expressed in Gal 3:27-28. This will be explored in the next daily note.

Women in Gnosticism

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This supplemental article deals more directly with the question of women and female imagery in the Gnostic writings and teachings from the early centuries A.D. Due to the complexity and sensitivity of this subject (cf. the discussion in Part 9, and also my article on Gnosticism), I felt it worth devoting a separate short article to explore it further. While it is not possible to say whether, or to what extent, women had greater freedom of participation among the supposed Gnostic groups (described by Irenaeus, et al), when reading the actual writings which survive—primarily in the collection of texts from Nag Hammadi [NH]—one is struck by certain language and imagery that is often quite different from what we find in the New Testament and early Church Fathers, and which makes significant use of female symbolism. I would isolate four main aspects or components to Gnostic thought in this regard, which may also be grouped together in related pairs:

  • (1) Inclusion of female disciples alongside the male
    (2) The goal for the disciple to “transcend” the duality/multiplicity of the created order (male-female), reuniting that which has been separated
  • (1) The process of creation/fall, described in the mythological (and sexual) language of birth/generation/propagation, involving the interaction of male and female powers
    (2) Birth and sexual imagery is also applied to the believer (gnostic), at the intellectual and spiritual level, who ultimately seeks to transcend these powers and return to the Eternal Father

I begin the discussion with reference to the the role of female disciples of Jesus in the Gnostic traditions, and two in particular—Mary Magdalene and Salome.

We know from Mark 15:40-41 par and Luke 8:1-3 that a number of women followed along with Jesus and the other disciples; they served and ministered in their own way, though there is no indication that they were ever sent out to preach and work miracles (Mark 6:6b-13 par; Luke 10:1-12). Some of these women made the last journey to Jerusalem with Jesus and were standing by watching at his death; Mary Magdalene and Salome are mentioned prominently among them in Mark 15:40 par. All four Gospels attest to the core tradition that women were the first to see the empty tomb, hear the Angelic announcement of the resurrection, and see/meet the risen Jesus (Mark 16:1-8, [9-11]; Matt 28:1-10; Luke 24:1-11, 22-24; John 20:1-2, 11-18). Though the names and combinations of women differ slightly, Mary Magdalene appears in all the accounts; this is rather remarkable (and absolutely reliable), considering the fact that she otherwise scarcely appears at all in Gospel tradition, nor in the New Testament (apart from Luke 8:2-3). She does, however, play a larger role in Gnostic traditions; her position, along with Salome, is due to several factors:

  • She experienced the reality of the resurrection before any other (male) disciples
  • According to Gospel tradition, the men were unwilling to accept her witness (i.e., revelation through the women)
  • She received direct communication (revelation) from Jesus which other disciples were (or may not have been) privy to
  • Her intimate relationship to Jesus, suggested by John 20:11-18 (and/or underlying traditions)

In several Gnostic texts, Mary (and/or Salome) is counted among the closest disciples of Jesus, to whom he gives special teaching and insight. There are three illustrative passages from the so-called Gospel of Thomas—a collection of more than 100 sayings by Jesus (many similar to those in the canonical Gospels), probably dating from the early 2nd century, preserved in Coptic (from Nag Hammadi, NH II.2) as well in several Greek fragments. Here are the passages, listed by logion (saying) number and NHL reference:

Log. §§21-22 [37]—Two partially related sayings are joined together. The first (21) begins with a question by Mary: “Whom are Your disciples like?” Jesus responds with an agricultural illustration similar to a number in the Synoptic Gospels: “They are like children who have settled in a field which is not theirs…” (italics mine). There is a definite gnostic (and Gnostic) sense to this saying—the field is the fallen (material) world in which the disciple (the Soul) is trapped. There is danger and testing until the time of the harvest, which is probably to be understood in negative terms, as a warning—i.e., do not let yourselves be caught up in the way of the world, lest you be plucked away by those (powers) which belong to it. The second saying (22) is again similar to several in the Synoptics, in Jesus’ use of children to illustrate entrance into the Kingdom of God (Mark 10:14-15 par; Matt 18:3-4). Jesus states that infants being suckled “are like those who enter the Kingdom”. When the disciples ask if they will, or should, enter the Kingdom as children, Jesus responds:

“When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female… then you will enter [the Kingdom].”

There are two main points to Jesus’ instruction here, which again has a very gnostic sound to it: (1) the need to transcend the dualistic character of the created order (which includes gender distinction and sexuality), and (2) the importance of interpreting the material, conventional aspects of the world in an intellectual and spiritual sense. A similar saying by Jesus is attested in at least two other early sources (early/mid-2nd century)—2 Clement 12 and the so-called “Gospel of the Egyptians” (for more detail, cf. my note on Galatians 3:28).

Log. §61 [43]—A curious (and provocative) episode involving Salome is narrated here, a kind of mini-dialogue with Jesus, which seems to build upon an earlier (authentic?) saying:

(Saying): “Two will rest on a bed: the one will die, and the other will live” (cf. Matt 24:40-41 par)
Salome: “Who are You, man, that You {…} have come up on my couch and eaten from my table?”
Jesus: “I am He who exists from the Undivided. I was given some of the things of My father.”
Salome: “I am Your disciple.”
(Saying): “Therefore I say, if he is <undivided>, he will be filled with light, but if he is divided, he will be filled with darkness.”

The concluding saying, perhaps also inspired from Synoptic tradition (cf. Matt 6:22-23 par), is more decidedly Gnostic (cf. below), and probably is intended here as a kind of commentary or interpretation on the first saying. In between is the mini-scene with Salome, which might suggest the conversion of a sinful woman (a prostitute?), along the lines associated with Mary Magdalene in later tradition (blending Lk 7:36-50 and 8:2). However, in the immediate context, it more likely symbolizes Jesus’ rescue of the disciple from the divided material world, back to the undivided Eternal light.

Log. §114 [50]—This saying concludes the Gospel and well reflects the uniquely Gnostic use of women (and Mary Magdalene) in their traditions. It begins with a very ‘orthodox’ (in the worst sense) and sexist-sounding declaration by Simon Peter: “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life”. To which Jesus responds:

“I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

This gender-based language is strange (and repellent) from our standpoint today, and can be easily misunderstood. The statement really is another way of approaching the same issue addressed in §22 (cf. above)—that the disciple must transcend the fallen material condition of the world, which is bound by dualistic categories, including male-female (i.e. gender distinction and sexuality). Gnostics, like many other Christians of the 2nd century, espoused a strong ascetic ideal, which involved celibacy and the renunciation of sexuality, marriage and childbearing. All such gender-based distinctions are to be reinterpreted spiritually. For women, to become “like a man” is different terminology for bridging the same gulf, based on the male-dominated mindset of the period (cf. below).

To see how some of these themes play out in other Gnostic writings, I offer here a brief survey of three specific texts, followed by a concluding note.

The Dialogue of the Savior [NH III.5]

Mary (Mariam) is among the disciples (along with Matthew and Judas) who ask questions of Jesus [126, 131-2, 134-5, 137, 139, 140ff], and, at one point, is marked as having special insight—”(she) spoke this word as a woman who knew the All” [139.10]. However, it is important to realize that the three disciples in the dialogue, even more so than in the Gospel of Thomas (cf. above), essentially symbolize the Soul of the believer (gnostic), who is brought to saving knowledge of his/her true (spiritual and religious) identity by the Redeemer Jesus. Several passages are worth citing:

  • It is said that the disciple(s)—i.e. the divine Soul—will rule over the powers/archons of the world, transcending the material condition, described in evocative symbolic language: “when you remove envy from you, then you will clothe yourselves with the light and enter into the bridal chamber” [138.15ff]
  • This imagery of “clothing oneself” draws upon early Christian metaphor, especially connected with the ritual of Baptism (Gal 3:27; cf. also Rom 13:12-14; 1 Cor 15:53-54; 2 Cor 5:2ff; Col 3:10ff; Eph 4:24). Similarly here—disciples (gnostics, the Soul) are to strip themselves of the earthly/material and “clothe themselves” with garments of light (i.e. reveal the divine light) [143.20]
  • The recognition of one’s true identity (the light) frees one from bondage to the fallen material world and eliminates the distinctions associated with it, often described in gender-specific terms (male-female)—”Pray in the place where there is no woman”, “Destroy the works of womanhood”, “The works of womanhood will dissolve” [144-146] (cf. above on Gosp. Thom. §114).
The (First) Apocalypse of James [NH V.3]

This text offers a relatively clear presentation of Gnostic symbolism, describing the return of the Soul to the pre-existent Father. “Femaleness” is specifically tied to the generation/propagation of the powers and the universe (the created world) [24.25]. Twelve hebdomads (sevens)—that is, the archons or powers—are parallel to the Twelve disciples. James is instructed on how to transcend the powers and return to Him (the Father). We also read of women (seven or four?) who have been Jesus’ disciples [38-41], especially Salome and Mary (Mariam)—on these two, cf. above. Here, again, the inclusion of women is necessary to symbolize the transcending of the material condition, marked by gender-distinction—i.e. the ascent of the Soul: “the perishable has gone up to the imperishable, and the female element has attained to this male element” [41.15].

The Gospel of Philip [NH II.3]

The Gospel of Philip is one of the best known texts from Nag Hammadi, often attributed to Valentinian Gnostics and dated to mid-3rd century. The work abounds with male-female and sexual imagery, which is interpreted and applied spiritually, according to Gnostic principles. The basic principle involves the resolution of duality back to the original unity [53.15ff]. Much use is made of the Genesis Creation account to illustrate this. The (apparent) multiplicity in creation is marked by names (Gen 2:19-20), which are necessary in order to teach the Truth. The envious Powers took the names and bound Man (to the worldly order of things). Jesus came to undo this, bringing saving knowledge out of this condition, as described pictorially in the episode of Jesus at the dye-works of Levi: the 72 colors come out all white by Jesus [63.25]. Or, stated another way, “The children of the bridal chamber have just one name” [72.20]. A distinctly Gnostic view of this process of salvation is detailed in 56-58: the Soul is a precious thing which came to be in a contemptible body [56.25]—the light/spirit in the flesh (invisible in the visible) was rescued by Christ and will ‘rise’. This essentially involves a docetic view of Christ [57-58]. For the purposes of our discussion here, the following images should be noted:

  • Believers are begotten spiritually, symbolized by the kiss [58-59]
  • Three women walked with Jesus, all named Mary—his mother, her sister, and Mary Magdalene (his companion/lover) [59.5-10]
  • The true Mother is Wisdom (Sophia) [59.25-30; 63.20]
  • Mary was Jesus’ companion, whom he loved [63-64], parallel to Mary the mother (Wisdom)—Jesus’ relationship with Mary symbolizes the wisdom/understanding which the other disciples still lack

Especially significant is the nuptial imagery—marriage and the “bridal chamber”—used prominently in the second half of the text. For believers (gnostics), it is all to be realized spiritually, connected with the symbolism of the baptism rite and chrism (anointing)—light/fire (soul/spirit) come into being in the water [67]. This bridal chamber belongs to the “free men and virgins”. The ritual (baptism/bridal-chamber) symbolizes the spiritual (re)union of that which was divided (just as Eve was separated from Adam). The Divine joined with the man Jesus to effect this reunion [68-71]. True marriage (and sexual intercourse) is not fleshly—but “husband and wife” symbolize Spirit uniting with Spirit [82]. The bridal chamber remains hidden in the current order of creation [84.15-20]. “If anyone becomes a son of the bridal chamber, he will receive the light” [86.5].

Conclusion

Whatever oddities and/or errors one may find in these Gnostic writings, there is a certain appeal (for many modern readers at least) in their extensive use of female types and symbols. The use of the figure of Mary Magdalene, in particular, has caught the fancy of the popular imagination, and well demonstrates, I think, how little the ancient Gnostic way of thinking relates to the modern. I believe the examples cited above show clearly enough two main points: (1) how and why characters such as Mary and Salome functioned, as disciples receiving special insight (revelation) from Jesus, and (2) that the inclusion of female disciples was essential to Gnostic symbolism and interpretation. It is not a matter of merely recording historical traditions about Mary and Jesus (cf. Lk 8:2; Jn 20:11-18); rather, any core traditions have undergone an elaborate (and often radical) re-interpretation. The outlines of this process can be glimpsed in the surviving pieces of the writing known as the Gospel of Mary (Coptic version in the Berlin Gnostic codex, along with another Greek fragment), dated perhaps as early as the latter part of the 2nd century. A Gnostic revelation regarding salvation, i.e. of the Soul from the powers of the world, is couched in the context of Mary’s post-resurrection announcement to the disciples (Peter, Levi, etc)—cf. Lk 24:10ff; [Mark 16:10f]; John 20:18. As in the Synoptic narrative, many of the disciples are unwilling to accept Mary’s word (“I at least do not believe that the Savior said this… Did he really speak with a woman without our knowledge… Did he prefer her to us?”). Peter, at first wants to hear Mary (“Sister, we know that the Savior loved you… tell us the words… which you remember, which you know but we do not…”), but, upon listening to her, doubts that she brings genuine revelation. It is the disciple Levi who offers (the pro-Gnostic) support for Mary’s words:

“…I see you [i.e. Peter] contending against the woman like the adversaries (do). But if the Savior has made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. This is why he loved her more than us. Rather let us be ashamed and put on the perfect man and acquire him for ourselves as he commanded us, and preach the gospel…”

How far did these Gnostic groups go in the inclusion of women as equals, such as the text itself suggests? This is difficult to say, as we have very little direct evidence on the matter, one way or the other. There is at least one Gnostic writing which was addressed to a female believer—Ptolemy’s letter to Flora, surviving only in fragments, preserved in book 33 of the Panarion by Epiphanius. It deals primarily with a specific (Gnostic) approach to the Old Testament Scriptures. What is particularly worth noting, however, is the nuanced, relatively sophisticated (and semi-critical) treatment of the material. Flora must have been an educated and religiously astute person, who, one may assume, wished to know more about such questions, from the “Gnostic” point of view. It is to be regretted that more such writings—whether Orthodox or Gnostic—from this period have not come down to us.

The quotations and short extracts of Gnostic writings, included above, are taken from The Nag Hammadi Library [NHL], ed. James M. Robinson (Brill: 1978), translating from the Coptic:
“The Gospel of Thomas”, transl. by Thomas O. Lambdin, pp. 117-30
“The Gospel of Philip”, transl. by Wesley W. Isenberg, pp. 131-51
“The Dialogue of the Savior”, transl. by Harold W. Attridge, pp. 229-38
“The First Apocalypse of James”, transl. by Douglas M. Parrott, pp. 242-8
“The Gospel of Mary”, transl. by Douglas M. Parrott, pp. 471-4