1 Corinthians 14:34-35: Let [Your] Women Keep Silent: Part One

Last week, my mother sent me the link to a video about Silent Women from a biblical commentator that I had never heard of but whose reasoning about the passage of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 was sound.  She had received it from one of the more feminist people who had traveled to the Feast of Tabernacles with us in Suriname last year, and given that I have a reputation among many of the women I know as a generally fair-minded man when it comes to issues of feminism in the Bible, my mother decided to pass along the video to me with a request for my thoughts on the matter.  I thought that the commentator made some good points and that it was worth me discussing in fuller detail, which my mother requested as well.  As I commented earlier [1] when bringing up this passage as an example of the responsa literature of Paul, there is much that can be said about this passage and I intend now to say a good deal about this passage.

I do so with some caution, as 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is a good example of the sort of false dilemmas that often exist when it comes to interpreting the Bible.  On the one hand, this passage is seen by many as being a statement of Paul’s own beliefs about the place of women within the congregation and as a proof text that prevents women from participating in various parts of the congregational liturgy, including songleading, giving prayers, and giving sermonettes and sermons, as it is done according to the traditions of the Church of God.  On the other hand, many feminists, some of whom I happen to know, chafe against these restrictions and are prone to see Paul’s statements as being some sort of sexist or even troglodyte statement that does not deserve to be respected in our contemporary modern times.  Yet there is another way of interpreting this passage, namely as stating the beliefs of some (perhaps many) men among the congregation in Corinth who did not want women to participate in the services whom Paul had to respond to in the context.  If we see it this third way, we need not view the Bible, or various unpopular parts of it, as being subject to the culture of our times, but we can see the behavior of Paul and others as addressing the thoughts of their time and our own according to the eternal standards of justice and godliness that are only ever approached and never reached by humankind in this life.

What does 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 say?  According to the New King James Version, it reads as follows:  “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says.  And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.”  It should be noted that the NU-Text, which represents the Alexandrian text, heavily influenced by Hellenism, omits the [your] and makes the statement read as Paul’s general hostility against women speaking at all, not merely in Corinth.  The word used to keep silent, the Greek σιγάτωσαν, also means to keep secret, and given the context of 1 Corinthians as a whole it cannot mean to forbid women from prophesying in services, which was, and is, a public matter of worship, for 1 Corinthians 11:5, which reads:  “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved.”  Again, since prayer and prophesying in the context of the congregation has always been public, this verse assumes that women are in fact going to be able to serve in such functions within the congregation and that their behavior should be done in such a way as to avoid giving dishonor to their heads (namely their husband or father).  

Nevertheless, despite the fact that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 cannot mean that Paul forbids women to take an active role in public worship service, since he has already previously commented on how women are to pray and prophesy within the congregations with their head covered so that their speaking is recognized as being honorable and respectful, this verse is often viewed as a proof-text against women speaking in congregations.  A rather straightforward literature search found several such uses in writings [2].  Indeed, this statement is viewed as such a definitive statement that women are not to participate in services in speaking roles that few people bother to even investigate further into the NT practice to verify that this was in fact the case.  And without attacking it as an illegitimate verse, its presence is certainly evidence that just as is the case today, the place of women within the religious services of early Christianity was a contentious one.  Then, as now, there was the fear that reducing hierarchies of sex, class, and ethnicity would lead to a general breakdown of order and decency within society as well as within the Church, and then, as now, the Church was in the uncomfortable position of being in favor of justice and equality of believers in the eyes of God while maintaining respect and order and decency and decorum, which have always been in short supply in times of crisis and in contentious matters.

How, then, are we to view this passage?  There are several ways that we can view it.  We can view it as a straightforward and authoritative expression of Paul’s beliefs in the proper role and place of women in the congregation, as has frequently been done, and then we will have to see to what extent this accords with Paul’s actual practice as well as what is said in “the law” concerning the place and role of women.  We can view it as an emotional statement on the part of Paul relating to the particular women of Corinth or as a statement that springs from Paul’s supposed sexist bias or as an interpolation from someone hostile to a public view of women in congregations and therefore as one that has no standing or authority for contemporary believers.  Or we can view that this passage as representing the thoughts of some men within the congregation of Corinth and today that Paul had to deal with as a minister seeking to preserve order within congregations while also seeking to further the justice and godliness of God concerning His people.

There is an additional way to see understand this verse by punctuating it differently.  According to an interlinear version of the Greek New Testament, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 reads as follows:  “Ὡς (As) ἐν (in) πάσαις (all) ταῖς (the) ἐκκλησίαις (churches) τῶν (of the) ἁγίων (saints)34αἱ (the)γυναῖκες (women) ἐν (in) ταῖς (the) ἐκκλησίαις (churches) σιγάτωσαν (let them be silent). οὐ (Not)γὰρ (for) ἐπιτρέπεται (it is allowed) αὐταῖς (to them) λαλεῖν (to speak), ἀλλὰ (but)ὑποτασσέσθωσαν (to be in submission), καθὼς (as) καὶ (also) ὁ (the) νόμος (law) λέγει (says). ”  If we move one punctuation mark, the one between let them be silent and not, the passage reads as follows:  As in all the churches of the saints, let the women in the churches not be silent.  It is allowed to them to speak, but to be in submission, as the law also says.”  With this reading of the Greek, we are in full agreement with the previous permission to women to prophesy within congregations so long as their heads are covered to show that they are in submission and are not seeking to rebel against the authority within households or congregations.  With this reading, there is no question that women are permitted to speak, but also a clear recognition of the order that congregations are to have, which would fit the flow of the passage as a whole [3].

How, then, will we proceed?  First, let us take a brief historical survey of the place of women within the system of biblical religion in both the Hebrew scriptures and in the New Testament.  Did women have a public role within worship and leadership in ancient Israel as well as within the early church?  Next, let us look at the question of how women were viewed in the late Second Temple Judaism of the time, and how Christianity changed the place of women in public worship.  Finally, let us look at the implications of these concerns for believers today.  I should note, in the interests of fairness, that we have a different view of women as part of the church if we only see them in light of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and if we see them in light of what the whole Bible says even if we view 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 as expressing the will of God through the authoritative view of Paul.  But is this necessary?

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2019/02/09/paul-in-1-corinthians-a-case-study-of-the-genre-of-responsa/

[2] See, for example:

https://www.ucg.org/vertical-thought/the-honorable-role-of-men

https://www.ucg.org/world-news-and-prophecy/in-briefworld-news-review-should-women-preach-no-say-southern-baptists

https://www.ucg.org/vertical-thought/the-honorable-role-of-women

https://www.ucg.org/united-news/the-high-calling-of-women-in-the-church

https://www.ucg.org/sermons/the-new-testament-on-women

[3] Thanks to a reader for pointing out the Greek text and the question of punctuation after the post was initially published, thus adding yet another possible interpretation of the passage.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, History, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to 1 Corinthians 14:34-35: Let [Your] Women Keep Silent: Part One

  1. Pingback: 1 Corinthians 14:34-35: Let [Your] Women Keep Silent: Part Two | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: 1 Corinthians 14:34-35: Let [Your] Women Keep Silent: Part Three | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: 1 Corinthians 14:34-35: Let [Your] Women Keep Silent: Part Four | Edge Induced Cohesion

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s