Did Paul Call for Women’s Silence? (Series Part 3, Finale)

There is yet another problematic passage in the Corinthian correspondence besides the 1 Corinthians 11 passage that we have considered. It is the passage people have used to argue that Paul sanctions an exclusively male church leadership: 1 Corinthians 14:33 – 36, reproduced below:

For God is not a God of disorder but of peace – as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. 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 enquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?

Scholars have observed that this passage gives off a First-Century Jewish synagogue undertone, and, of course, Christianity was essentially a sect of Judaism at the time. A typical synagogue meeting would have men and women seated in different sections, and women were not allowed to speak in those services. Married women could not even ask questions of their husbands during service because of the seating arrangement; apparently, they had to wait until they got home. 

Camps of Exegetes

For a long time, little progress was made in understanding this passage. Traditionally, attempts to understand this passage fall into three categories:

  1. Some argue that the text is authentically Pauline—that is, Paul did write that stuff calling for women to be silent in the churches. However, since Paul takes women’s church participation for granted earlier in the same Corinthian letter (see 11:3-16), this party of exegetes splinters into fractions. Some claim that the passage does not quite belong to its present location and that Paul wrote it in an earlier now-lost letter to the Corinthians. Others within this group claim that Paul wrote the piece in the current letter but not in its present location. Robert Allison observes that these options posit “a theory of intervening development in Paul’s thinking” (28) to address the incompatibilities with other portions of 1 Corinthians.
  2. The second class of exegetes maintains that 1 Corinthians 14:33-36 is Pauline but was intended to be limited in its application—perhaps, it applies only to that church in Corinth. This view is perhaps the most familiar way many lay churchgoers “resolve” the passage in their minds.
  3. The last camp of exegetes denies the passage’s authenticity, claiming that a later reader of Paul interpolated the letter with this passage.

As Allison shows, however, none of these approaches is satisfactory, even though some have become quite influential, having “acquired a kind of canonicity from longevity and repetition” (28). 

While this passage has several technical difficulties, I shall focus on a few relevant ones. First, I want to briefly demonstrate why the ubiquitous idea mentioned in point (2) above is invalid before suggesting a promising solution in the same spirit as in Part 2.

As mentioned en passant, one of the difficulties with this passage is that it contains ideas contradictory to well-established Pauline doctrines. The 1 Corinthians 14 passage jarringly contravenes the statement Paul expressed to the Galatians that “nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). In 1 Corinthians 11 that we already dwelt on, Paul took it for granted that women should vocally participate in church services. The issues were about whether women should vocally participate with their heads covered. There was no hint of silence at all. Indeed, every exegete of the passage under consideration must address these inconsistencies.

Disruptive Women Chatter?

Hans Windisch (1881 – 1935), a German scholar, proposed an exegetical approach that attempted to resolve the issue by restricting the reach of Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 14 to “disruptive, ‘unauthorized’ talking women during the worship service” (Allison, 36). His idea remains very influential today even though it has virtually nothing in the text supporting it. Windisch’s idea was likely deemed valuable for providing a way for women to participate in church services—a doubtlessly noble conclusion. Exegetically, however, his view is deficient.

Nothing in the text at all suggests that a subset of the Corinthian women was disruptive and was the target of Paul’s directive. On the contrary, the language does not prevaricate, saying “women must be silent in the churches” and even appealing to “the law” as an authenticating source of the directive. Furthermore, as Allison points out (36), the proposal has a sexist dimension—”Why should it be taken for granted that only women were likely to indulge in disruptive ‘chatter’ in the service?” In the Greco-Roman world, there is no convincing reason to take disruptive “chatter” as a female issue (36). The opposite is far more likely. Allison writes, “in the public, social and political life of late antiquity, talking was also, even predominantly, a male occupation. It played a major role in establishing and maintaining men’s status and honor in their communities. For women, on the other hand, talking in public, mixed company was considered shameful” (36).

There also are textual problems with Windisch’s proposal. There is no conceptual continuity between the passage under consideration and its immediate context. Whereas the larger context of 1 Corinthians 14 enjoins tongues-speakers and prophets to take turns using their gifts for orderliness—a directive that meant that someone would be temporarily silent while another spoke—the same is not true for the women. They were to be permanently silent, “for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” Hence, there is a sharp discontinuity here. Allison writes concerning women’s silence (38): “It is not for the sake of persons allowed the exercise of spiritual gifts in the service so that all of them may exercise those gifts in orderly fashion, as in the preceding context. On the contrary, it singles out a segment of the congregation who are not allowed the exercise of spiritual gifts, ostensibly so that one particular group (the male ecstatics) may exercise their gifts.” It is interesting to note Allison’s observation that the directive only benefitted the men in that church. But, of course, this was the same observation that Lucy Peppiatt made as we saw earlier. 

Unexpected Change in Reference

Flanagan and Snyder also point out some difficulties with the passage. The third (of four) challenging observations they make about the text concerns how it argues from the Torah (217). This appeal to the law is bizarre for Paul. In their words (217), ‘it is stunning to hear Paul arguing in this fashion from the law, the same Paul for whom “the power of sin is the law” (15:56).’ It is as though Paul were cheating here when he appeals to the Torah in this way.

Furthermore, Flanagan and Snyder also observe a rather intriguing detail in verse 36, reproduced below, along with the immediate context: 

34Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak but should be subordinate, as the law also says. 35If there is something they want to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. 36Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?

The relevant point concerns the words italicized in verse 36. The Greek word (monous) translated as “only ones” is masculine. Paul is here talking to the men in a context that refers to women. One would expect verse 36 to continue to refer to women, but it does not. Why might that be?

A Plausible Solution

Like Lucy Peppiatt, Flanagan and Snyder argue that 1 Corinthians 14:34-36 is best understood as containing Corinthians’ quotes that Paul would then characteristically summarily dismiss. Specifically, only verse 36 is Paul’s. With a minor interpretive move, Flanagan and Snyder’s reading of 14:34-35 read thus (219):

The women (you say) should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If 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.

The above portion would be what the Corinthian men claim, something other than what Paul teaches. Indeed, the rest of 14:36-40 would then be Paul’s response to the Corinthian view that seeks to silence women. It is worth reminding readers that when 1 Corinthians was written, quotation marks, as a literary device, were not yet invented. So if this theory is right, then the Corinthians would have had no problem knowing that verses 34 and 35 contain their own ideas, not Paul’s.

The strength of this interpretive approach lies in the fact that it answers the salient issues. First, it is consistent with Paul’s “neither male nor female” baptismal formula. Second, this approach resolves the tension with 1 Corinthians 11, which allows women to pray and prophecy—vocally participate in a church’s service. Third, the approach shows Paul consistently resists Corinthian male church dominance. Paul refutes the male theology of derivation in chapter 11 as much as he fights the attempt to silence the women here. 

Works Cited

Allison, R. W. (1988). Let Women be Silent in the Churches (1 Cor. 14.33b-36): What Did Paul Really Say, and What Did It Mean? Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 10(32), 27–60. https://doi.org/10.1177/0142064X8801003203

Flanagan, N. M., & Hunter Snyder, E. (1981). Did Paul Put Down Women in 1 Cor 14: 34-36? Biblical Theology Bulletin, 11(1), 10–12. https://doi.org/10.1177/014610798101100103

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