When it comes to the question of women in Christian leadership, 1 Corinthians 34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15 are used to show God’s disfavor of women having such roles. In light of both the whole New Testament and of all of Paul’s extant writings, we know that these passages are contradictory; they at least seem so without looking deeper into the social contexts or possible translation issues. Some scholars even propose that 1 Timothy is not written by Paul, and therefore not genuine. However, in this article we will explore some possible reasons for Paul having written 1 Corinthians 14:34-36, even though he acknowledged females praying and prophesying in chapter 11.
1 Corinthians 14:34b-35 states: “women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church” (NIV 1984).
Why would Paul say this when he commended many women who had house churches? These include Mary (mother of Mark), Nympha, Priscilla (with Aquila), and Apphia; these house churches did not follow sexist synagogue rules. Also, Mary, Jesus’ mother, prayed with the other disciples; women apparently spoke at Pentecost (even though “men” are mentioned, the text states that the Holy Spirit rested on all who were there, and Peter quotes Joel concerning women prophesying as well as men); and Tabitha was a disciple. Considering that Paul writes of women praying and prophesying in church earlier in the same letter, why would he then write verses 34-35?
One explanation is that these verses were added later—called an interpolation–and there is a possibility of this. These verses are commonly found at the end of the chapter in various manuscripts and seem to have been added by scribes early on (but later than Paul). However, since no early manuscripts have been found that do not entirely omit the verses, the interpolation explanation remains only a hypothesis. Another thing to consider, however, is the command for women, or wives, to ask explanations of their husbands at home later. At this time, there were many more women in the church than men, so were they to ask their unbelieving husbands about Christian truth?
Another explanation, which is highly possible and thought by many to be most likely, is that Paul is quoting from a letter (or stating an argument) from the Judaizers. Judaizers wanted traditional oral law enforced in other ways and places as well (they wanted males to be circumcised), and these verses are very similar to the actual Jewish oral law prohibiting women to speak during services. Considering how the law is cited in this passage, which would be highly out of character for Paul, the explanation that those verses are a quote makes perfect sense. Also, verse 36 is a rebuke: “Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?” Is Paul rebuking the Judaizers for trying to silence women, when Paul already acknowledged that women can speak and prophesy in church (11:5), and when Paul so often commended the women co-workers, deacons, and even ministers or apostles that he knew and worked with? It seems so.
But why don’t we know for sure that verses 34-35 are a quote? Quotation marks of any kind were not used in these ancient writings. However, it is accepted by many NT scholars that 1 Corinthians has many quotes within it, though not all agree that 34-35 is a quote. One of the scholars who does believe that it is a quote from Jewish oral law, however, is Neal Flanagan, a Catholic. He has written that since it is a quote and that Paul rebukes those who would silence women, it is then a text that reaffirms 1 Corinthians 11:5 as well as Galatians 3:28. Katherine Bushnell, a conservative scholar, would agree: “She buttressed her argument by saying that it was not like Paul to use the laws and traditions of the Jews ‘as a final authority on a matter of controversy in the church. He spent a large share of energy battling against these very “traditions” of the Jews, as did his Master, Jesus Christ’” (Schmidt 188-189).
While the quotation theory seems like a very good explanation, not all those who dismiss the direct but contradictory message of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 agree with it. Another explanation is provided C.S. Cowles, here. She provides a word study showing that some women were being referred to, not all women; that the “silence” was that of voluntary restraint; and that the “speak” referred to—and there are 30 different Greek words for “speak”—has the meaning of “talk” or “chatter.” Paul wasn’t saying that women could not pray or prophesy, only that the women who were talking during service needed to not be disruptive. She defends the use of the word “law” as Paul’s way of appealing to social convention. Regarding the admonition for wives to consult with their husbands at home, Cowles believes that the women had felt free to ask questions during service since the early services were not formal, but quite social, and it had gotten out of hand. She does not try to explain why women with husbands are the only ones referred to here, or address the related criticism of them having to possibly rely on unbelieving husbands.
Thank you for reading, and coming up next in this series will be views on 1 Timothy 2:11-1.
Sources and recommended reading: Question of Veils in India; Women in Ancient Israel; A Woman’s Place? Leadership in the Church; Veiled and Silenced: How Culture Shaped Sexist Theology(Alvin J. Schmidt); Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible. Image source: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1171414.
This is part five in a series on Christian views and treatment of women. The link for part four, on Paul’s co-workers, has already been provided. Please also see a review of aspects of the Samaritan woman’s story (“the woman at the well”), here, and overviews of how women were treated at the time of Christ–the first covering the cultures affecting Israel, and the second covering views generally held of women inside Israel.