Lucy Peppiatt on 1 Cor. 11 and 14

Lucy Peppiatt’s Women and Worship at Corinth (Eugene: Cascade, 2015) is a very good book. I don’t say this because I agree with the conclusions, although I do; I don’t even say it because Lucy is a good friend and a former student of mine, although she is; I say it because her book is comprehensively researched and carefully argued, and that combination is what makes a book ‘good’ in the academic world I inhabit.

Lucy treats three difficult texts in 1 Corinthians: 11:2-16; 14:20-25; and 14:34-36. She proposes that they may be best read by assuming that in each case Paul is in part quoting his opponents’ views back at them. For this argument, she draws gratefully on Douglas Campbell’s major recent work on Romans, and his extensive investigations into the nature of rhetorical arguments in the world in which Paul wrote his letters. I confess to remaining unconvinced by Doug’s arguments on Romans, but his research on rhetoric is solid, and Lucy’s deployment of it here seems – to me at least – far stronger.

Why? Three reasons, roughly in order of significance: 1. the texts in question are self-contradictory unless we invoke some argument like this; 2. we know that Paul is quoting the Corinthians’ views back at them in other places in 1 Cor., which makes an extension of this principle plausible; 3. Lucy’s reconstruction of the basic theological argument of 1 Cor. – that it is cruciform, and God has reversed the standard power hierarchies of the world – make readings of the gender texts which suggest Paul is here reinforcing hierarchies implausible.

Lucy’s research is thorough; I do not know if she has read every scholarly commentary on 1 Corinthians, but (admittedly as a non-specialist) I cannot think of one (in English, at least) that she has not read and interacted with; she works extensively with scholarly essays and journal articles also.  As she points out, the sort of ‘rhetorical’ conclusion she is offering here has been proposed before in relation to each of the three texts, but no-one has used Campbell’s work on rhetorical pointers to suggest that the three texts share common literary features which allow us to identify Corinthian quotations within them. Previous work argued that the logic could be sorted out here or there if we imagined an act of quotation; Lucy argues that there is textual evidence of an act of quotation in each case.

Her case is not confined to identifying Corinthian quotations: she holds the three ‘headship’ clauses of 1 Cor 11:3 to be Paul’s own, and investigates carefully the (endlessly-debated) question of the meaning of kephale, for instance. That said, the rhetorical arguments are her real advance over earlier interpreters, or so it seems to me.

Lucy gives us a reading of the texts that is centred on the cross, and the re-ordered society that the church should be under its crucified Head. In this society, ministry is based on gift and calling, not on gender, and the powerful gifts of God’s Spirit are normal and necessary for the building up of the Body. I am no New Testament scholar, and would not presume to judge the detailed points of the argument; but this reconstruction is theologically convincing, and fits well with the broader themes of the epistle, and of the Pauline corpus more generally, for me to be convinced by it.

2 Comments

  1. Daniel Roberts
    May 25, 2015

    1 Cor. 11 is always a bit of a difficult set of passages to address it seems…I tend to ultimately avoid discussions like these as they typically lead people away from Christ. Other than that, I am ashamed at how many women think it to be an intolerable burden to wear a head-covering…

    • T Freeman
      Aug 12, 2015

      Daniel,

      You should read this book. She has very strong arguments, which are highlighted by the weaknesses of alternative readings, which most scholars who hold a traditional view, will concede.

      Also, as someone who has long been puzzled by Paul (seemingly) contradicting himself on three occasions in the same letter, this book was the most illuminating bit of scholarly work I’ve ever read. Truly a great work.

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