Friday, January 24, 2014

Ecstatic Women Prophetesses at Corinth

Here's another reflection and post on my trip to Greece. When I was visiting the museum at Corinth, I came across this piece of a Neo-Attic relief found in the area of the Propylaia around the 1st century AD. It is a fantastic rendition of a woman prophetess with her head uncovered in an ecstatic trance. Here is the photo: 

Photo taken by Max Lee at the Corinth Museum © 2014

   In the above portrait, the woman prophetess is in ecstasy where her mind and spirit is being taken over by a daemon or deity. Generally Roman women were not allowed to speak in public. Public discourse was mostly reserved for men, especially in the town halls or theater where matters of civic concern were being debated. In fact, Valerius Maximus records an instance when a Roman noblewoman Carfania attempted to litigate her own lawsuit publicly before a Praetor and was ridiculed for her impudence (Memorable Deeds and Sayings 8.3.2; Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows, 177). 
    But there was only one time when a woman could speak in public: when she was prophecying. Why? Because the deity or daemon was one who was speaking and not the woman herself. The woman's mind was disengaged. She instead was simply a mouthpiece of the gods. Lucan in Pharasalia narrates an example of prophetic possession: "Apollo genuinely possessed her at last. He forced his way into her heart, masterful as ever, driving out her private thoughts and draining her body of all that was human, so that he could possess her wholly..." (V.120-225). 
    The relief provides several points of insight into Paul's correspondence with Corinth. For one thing, when a person was speaking in tongues, their minds needed to be engaged (1 Cor 14:14-15). When the Spirit speaks to and through a prophet, the spirits of the prophets need to be subject to the prophets (14:32). When Paul asked that some women prophetesses at Corinth to remain silent (14:33-34), he was not telling them to be silent because they were women per say. He was not mandating an eternal edict silencing women from teaching and prophecying. What Paul found problematic was that they were probably prophecying according to pagan practice, and treated the Spirit of God as something which possesses you like a daemon did. Paul was trying to teach the Corinthians that their past ways of relating to God will not do. When the Spirit inspires, unlike pagan cultic practice, their minds should remain engaged. Their spirits are subject to their own control. God does not take over the minds of the prophet or prophetess. Instead the prophet(ess) - in mind and spirit - is present and sober in the utterance. 
    If anything, this understanding of Spirit influence (not possession) was liberating for the Christian women prophetesses who acted not as ecstatic mouthpieces of the gods but as persons in deep communion with Christ through whom the Spirit spoke. Anywhere else in the Roman world, women were not allowed to speak or teach in public. But in the church, where the Spirit inspires (but not possesses), women prophetically challenged the congregation as long as they did not treat Spirit-inspiration as daemonic-possession. 
    This also offers some insight into Paul's cryptic remark that women should wear veils over their head "because of angels" (11:10). As the relief shows, an uncovered head is a ritualistic invitation for the god, daemon, or angel to seize the woman. Paul did not want Christian prophecy to be mistaken with this pagan practice and so in accordance with Roman conventions for proper dress, women kept their veils on. Women could prophesy without having to remove them.

Postscript 06/13/14: Exegetical Exercise: 1) Read the above post.  2) Go to the bible dictionaries/encyclopedias in the reference section of the university library and learn more about pagan practice of prophecy beyond my post 3) Interpret 1 Cor 14:29-33 drawing insight from your background study. In other words: how does understanding how prophecy was practiced in the Greco-Roman world help you to understand Paul's message/exhortations in 1 Cor 14:29-33? 4) Be sure to consult at least one academic commentary on your biblical text from the reference section

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