As in all the congregations of the saints, 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. Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?”
[I Corinthians 14:33b-36, NASB]
Did Paul hate women? Did Paul want to keep women down?
I have always struggled with how to teach Paul. He was clearly the brilliant intellect who saw better than anyone else the implications of a new covenant in a crucified, risen and conquering King Jesus. Paul proclaimed the new creation and the restoration of human gender equality which we find in Genesis 1:26-30! Yet he was also the guy who seemed bound and determined to maintain male dominance of all leadership roles in the assemblies of the new people of God. Why? Which Paul should I teach? In my work on Paul and his writing, my compromise has always been to say about him what I must say about myself:
God is very patient with me because I am not finished yet; I am not all I was meant to be, not all I will someday become.
Change can take a long time during this life! And I have always assumed Paul was like I am, that he had better principles than he knew how to live out in practice. Sure, in principle, when the kingdom is fully revealed, there will be no difference in status or worth between men and women. In practice, though, I just figured Paul could not pull off that equality! I figured he could not abide what he experienced as the lack of gravitas he encountered in actual women and so he told them to go home, be quiet and raise children until they somehow gained social sense and knowledge and could practice their equal status with men.
That is how I have seen Paul. And to do so I admit I have had to think very little of most of the women of Paul’s time. Clearly, there were women in that time who were little more than dependant children in adult bodies but by no means all were so (Acts 16:14-15). Many were able to take up mantles of leadership.
Ah, so have I been wrong about both Paul and mid-first-century women? What if Paul was ready, willing and engaged in ministry with women who were full participants in their society and in the spread of the kingdom? But how could that be, given Paul’s insistence in this passage — in contradiction to what he has written in this same letter, chapter 11, verses 5-ff — that women be completely silent and not even be allowed to ask questions in the assembly?
In many ways this passage has always been easier to deal with than the last (see the post, Breakthrough on Paul and Women Part One). For 1 Timothy to be genuinely Pauline and for it to fit with the thrilling declaration of equality in Galatians 3 and all the indications of Paul’s active partnerships with women in ministry, the context of I Timothy must be utterly different than we have ever thought it was. In this case, however the argument for a new framing is much less theoretical and is based more on what we find in the detail and flow of the passage, not as we can reliably find it in the English translations but as it is in a Greek New Testament.
Do you know much about such things? I have been learning more in recent months about it all with the help of a friend. He first put me onto Glenn Miller’s web site, and he dug around and found a site which displays one of the oldest and deemed most reliable scrolls we have of the New Testament books, the Codex Siniaticus, a 1600 year-old medium of prepared animal skin. Once we had been tipped to this issue by Glenn Miller, we went to the photos of 1 Corinthians in Codex Siniaticus and then back to the modern Greek New Testament.
We were looking for a “particle;” a mini-word; a single letter which performs several vital functions in written Koine Greek. It seems that in a world where there were no lower case letters, no separation between written words and no punctuation marks, those who wrote in Greek had developed a way to mark off phrases or sentences which they meant to convey as quotes, as words or ideas which another had written or spoken. Paul was a writer who consistently used this particle, essentially the Greek letter Eta: it makes the sound “ae” and it looks like a modern capital “H.” This Eta (see Figure 1: look below and to the left of the orphan “A”) is the very first letter of I Corinthians 14:36:
In many other situations this same particle was used to write both “either” and “or.” Paul used it frequently in that way as well. However, when the particle appears singly and directly at the beginning of a passage, it indicates disagreement with what immediately precedes it!
- See the large block of text in Figure 2? This block contains I Corinthians 14: 34-35. Now notice how the block ends with an alpha (an “A” and the final letter of the word ekklesia [church]). Then a new text block begins with our “H” (seen in greater detail in Figure 1). Miller suggests in such cases we should read the particle as “What!?” or as in our modern slang, “Not!”
Examples from Paul:
Romans 2:3-4: So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?
Not! Do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?
Another: Romans 9:20-21: But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, `Why did you make me like this?’”
Not! Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?
And earlier, in I Corinthians, chapter 6:8-9: Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers.
What!? Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God?
Can you find this language in our English Bibles? Sometimes you will find some indication of this “disjunction conjunction” particle in some English translations but just as often, you will not. In I Corinthians 14:33-36, then, in accordance with the same use of the particle as in I Corinthians 6:8-9 the English translation should read (as it did in my wife’s third grade Bible) an old RSV:
33For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.
As in all the churches of the saints, 34women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. 35If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.
36Not! Did the word of God originate with you or are you the only ones it has reached?”
[I Corinthians 14:33-36 RSV]
After the Not! rebuke then, Paul asks, essentially, “Where did you get your interpretation of Torah? Who made you the interpreter of the law or the arbiter of what should happen in the churches I have founded?”
Do you see what happened here? Remember the context of this letter; three men have come from Corinth to Paul in Ephesus. They have brought a letter with comments and questions from the Corinthian Christians and they have also shared with Paul their own views on the problems which are making for confusion and chaos in the Corinthian house churches. Now, in I Corinthians, Paul is writing a response to all their questions and issues. Verse 33a, therefore, is the conclusion of the previous thought and Paul begins his response to the next subject by quoting back to them a proposal, probably copied verbatim from the letter Paul has received from the Corinthian congregation.
The Corinthian proposal, then, is what we have in vs. 33b-35.
The Corinthian proposal concerns the solving of a perceived problem. It aims at “solving” the “decency and order problem,” that their services had been a bit disorderly and even chaotic. But this proposal is based on a reactionary view, probably the view of one or more former Pharisees like Paul himself, but ones who pine for the days when the women were all seated behind the synagogue rail where they could sing the psalms with the men early in the worship service but who, when it came time for the serious discussion of Torah, were never a part of the conversation! Now, in the Christian assemblies that old railing was gone and the women got to ask their “foolish” questions, slowing down to a crawl what used to be fine, serious and weighty discussions, or so this person or group of people at Corinth believed.
And what does Paul write with respect to this proposal? “So who died and made you God!?” Paul dismisses this interpretation of Torah, this suggestion for how the churches should behave, out of hand!
Get the picture? Everything we have always assumed that Paul had written to proscribe female participation he did not say and he did not write. The Paul of Galatians 3:26-29 was, after all, consistently the supporter of women in ministry and as participants in the full and co-equal life of the community with men! Where, oh where has our misogynistic apostle Paul gone!? Into the dungheap of the shallow interpretations of difficult passages!
It is, according to my calendar, AD 2012. Paul dictated this letter in approximately AD 54, almost one thousand, nine hundred, sixty years ago! Why have good, clear readings of I Timothy, I Corinthians and Romans 16, not to mention Luke 10 (Mary and Martha) taken so long to surface? Why have we not had them all along?
If we need to ask, then we do not understand our own history very well. At some point, the forces of reaction, so evident in the proposal made in I Corinthians 14:33b-35 (which Paul soundly rejected!) have come to dominate Christian practice. We know there was at least one female bishop in the churches (at Rome!) as late as the 5th century, AD, yet after that time and for 1500 years, some men saw to it that the old curse from Genesis 3 was re-imposed on both men and women.
And as to texts like this one, well… They have been kept obscure for a specific purpose. They have been primary ammunition in the war on women’s full humanity within the Christian family in nearly every branch. How hard it must be to blindly deny what all creation has been shouting for centuries, what has been raised in all the world to a high-pitched scream in our time:
Women and men were meant to care-fully manage all creation together!
The dance of the male/female bi-unitary balance is essential to the just and abundant development of all things! As Paul states so beautifully in chapter 11, men and women are inseparably linked. Yes! Men and women need each other in every endeavor, in all the ministries of created living, even in church! The evil suppression of this information has done untold damage to us all. Too strong? I think not.
Only by a suppression of evidence have we been denied the wise stories of Mary of Bethany; Priscilla, the apostle; Phoebe, the deaconess; Junia the apostle; the fifth century Episcopa (Bishop) Theodora and many others. We have the writings of the “church fathers;” why not of the “church mothers”? Moreover, only with generations of supreme effort have millions upon millions of women ever since been denied their true vocations, including the teaching vocation which the Lord himself said would not be taken from them (Luke 10)! For centuries, men as well have been denied the wise and authoritative fellowship of gracious female partners in the unfolding, the very management of creation itself!
Creation and everything in it has suffered from this distortion of God’s design. Do we wonder at the world’s penchant for perpetual violence as a primary tool for problem-solving? How did the Iriquois Confederation of Native American nations keep peace between their member tribes and others for a thousand years before Europeans and Africans came in numbers to North America? The Iriquois women’s co-equal council had a veto over war! It is said that when the British came to parley with representatives of the Iriquois, those Native Americans, meeting the British reps for the first time were clearly upset. When asked why, the Iriquois asked, “Where are your women?” The British had never thought of such a thing as including women in considerations of matters of state. The churches had taught them otherwise for over a thousand years.
And Paul. The reputation of the apostle has been sacrificed on the altar of “keeping women in their place,” hasn’t it? The apostle has been misread regularly and firmly in churches which have held to the authority of the Scriptures until we have all become quite used to reading these texts not at all as they are meant to be heard.
Do I see a conspiracy here? Yes, if you mean the demonic one. The enemy has always been the destroyer of humanity by whatever means. So I doubt there was ever an actual human conspiracy to degrade, devalue and suppress women and their worthy contributions. (Of course, I have been wrong before.)
Prejudice may be defined as what we think in ignorance before we know better. And yet, as the short duet from the musical South Pacific has it, prejudice is and really must be “carefully taught.”
So now that we really do know better, where shall we take this news and what shall we do with it?
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1 Back to Post Where it looks like I have inserted “Not!” I have simply substituted the word for “What!” which does appear in the old Revised Standard Version right where the particle appears in the Greek, unlike in the New American Standard Bible, which I quoted at the top of this post. Imagine that! The NASB translates the particle as “or” and attaches it to the beginning of the next clause! The NASB, so well known for its devotion to a word-for-word literal translation used essentially the same Greek text as the basis for its work as did the translation teams for the RSV. Yet the RSV translators at least included the “What!” in their English text even if they did not know why the “disjunctive conjunctive” was there. The NASB, the NIV and many others do not even try to put the “Eta” where the text indicates it belongs.
2 Back to Post It is not completely clear that I Corinthians 14:33b is a part of the Corinthian proposal. It may be a final line in the previous discussion. If the organization of the block of text in Codex Sinaiticus is any indication, (only vs. 34-35 are included in the text block in Figure 2.) then the Corinthian proposal should be limited to those 2 verses and should not be thought to include any part of verse 33.