Tuesday, 6 November 2012

The women bishops debate again: Galatians 3.28 Part One

I stumbled across the piece by Stephen Cottrell (Bishop of Chelmsford, and generally speaking someone I rather like) for the Archbishop of Canterbury's "Enough Waiting" campaign, which is aiming to get the legislation on the consecration of women as bishops through the General Synod meeting in two weeks time.His main point is to expound Galatian 3.28 as one of the
climatic passages [of the Bible] – the one through which we then interpret many others 
Now this verse came up in the discussion group here in College yesterday evening, and I promised to blog about some of what we discussed, since it seemed pretty interesting and challenging stuff. But, as I come to think of it, there's so much here that it probably needs several blogs to go through it in anything like a thorough manner.

So here's the first installment.

Bishop Stephen reads Galatians 3.28:

"There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, for you are all one person in Jesus Christ."

I haven't been able to track down the translation from which he's reading.

[Update 18/6/13: I've just found out that this is the reading of the New English Bible]

Although it's not a bad translation, it's not perfect, so I offer my own, extremely literal translation:

"neither exists Judaean nor Hellene, neither exists slave nor free, not exists male and female; all for you one are in Christ Jesus."

OK, that's pretty much gibberish in English, even if Yoda had been saying it. We need to supply auxiliary verbs, change the double negative construction, use more familiar terms and rearrange some words:

"there does not exist Jew nor Greek, does not exist slave or free, does not exist male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."

Which just goes to show what a tricky job translation can be!

But what difference does it make? Well I think a few things stand out.

Firstly, the point that "there is no such thing/does not exist" as these three dualities. the Greek word used is stronger than the simple "there is" of the AV(KJV), and also used by NIV; even the "there is no longer" of NRSV doesn't quite get it. So the vast majority of Anglicans hearing or reading this passage won't appreciate what's going on here. There is an ontological claim being made - i.e. a claim about what does and doesn't exist at the level of true reality. This is reinforced by Bishop Stephen's translation saying, reasonably enough in terms of the Greek, "you are all one person" - in reality, there is only one Christian (i.e. Jesus) and our separateness is just an illusion (!).

Now it should be fairly obvious that in the first Christians' and our daily lives, these dualities and our separateness haven't just evaporated. So Paul isn't making a practical point about daily life here, he's talking about deep theological realities. Thus at the level of secular equality between men and women, this verse gives us no help at all - it is irrelevant. But then let's all hope that the Church is trying to be theological, rather than simply playing at gender politics.

What Gal. 3.28 does relate to is the change made by our baptism, as verse 27 makes clear "... for whoever is baptized into Christ has put on Christ..." Opponents of the consecration of women point out that Galatians 3.28 is about our baptismal status, and therefore says nothing about ordination.

But this depends on your view of what ordination is. For the Archbishop of Canterbury, ordained ministry is derived from the fact that all Christians are a "priestly people" by virtue of their baptism. Thus ordination does relate directly to baptism. This view of what ordained ministry is is a common one, and on this reading Gal. 3.28 is applicable to the debate.

On the other hand, it might be held that the priestly role of Christ is derived from being " a priest for ever according to the order of Melchizedek." ( Heb 5.6 NRSV, cf v.10). Since Melchizedek was not of Israel (Gen.14.18), this priesthood is independent of the priesthood of all believers. Both priesthoods meet in Christ, but they are not identical. On this understanding of ordained ministry, also widely held, Gal. 3.28 is not applicable to the debate.

See how difficult it is to rely on one verse to back up a theological viewpoint? I'm not the first to make this point (see Bishop Tom Wright on this passage) and doubtless won't be the last.

That's before we even get onto the other point which some translations obscure: the transition from "neither...nor" to "not...and" when it comes to "male and female."

Why this should be the case, I honestly don't know. Tom Wright has an explanation which seems to me plausible. I've seen this change given as grounds for believing that this phrase is a later interpolation (though sadly I can't track this down at the moment). I think that's unlikely (although it is odd that male/female occur nowhere else in Galatians), but in any case, it's in the canonical text, and whenever it was written, by whomever, we must not simply take it out. That would be to re-write the Bible to say what we want, rather than letting the Bible change us.

Whatever the explanation for the change, I think it shows that there is rather more going on in this passage than is imagined in the straightforward proof-texting approach of Bishop Stephen and so many others in favour of the consecration of women. The whole of scripture must be read in the light of the whole - this is the Anglican way: Article XX "it is not lawful for the Church to ... expound one place in Scripture, that it be repugnant to another."

Both sides can make arguments from scripture; neither should rely on single verses taken out of context.

To be continued...

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