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#61 - 1Co 14:33b-36 - "Shall we excise it from Scripture?"
by Robert Nguyen Cramer
This BibleTexts website administrator has very much enjoyed questions and insights that have been emailed to him ever since this site was launched in September of 1996. On this page I share with BibleTexts browsers a few of the questions, insights, and responses, so that we all can further learn from and with each other.
Question/insight #61a: The admonition ascribed to Paul that women should keep silent in church is one of the things most people remember about Paul. And yet we have Phoebe of Cenchreae, Prisca, Aquila, Crispus and Sosthenes... Paul was not without his female followers, and they appear to play an important part in his early Churches.
I'm still convinced that Paul never wrote 1Co 14:33b-36 and that it was added to his genuine writings later in the first century or in the first quarter of the second century. In consideration of his other writings and the history of his churches, it just doesn't make sense. For more details, see especially:
Question/insight #61b: "Meaning what? Shall we excise it from Scripture?"
Response #61b: No, unless earlier documents surface that conclusively demonstrate that that passage was not in Paul's original writings. We don't need to remove any books from the canon that was passed on to us. In fairness to the original writers of those books, we need to explore each book as honestly and critically as possible, to ensure that we are reading what they wrote and reading it as they intended it to be understood. Of course, revelation is an ongoing instrument of the Holy Spirit, and an honest pursuit of what were the truly original texts of the writers and the truly original words of Jesus would never be in conflict with the Holy Spirit.
As an example, Dr. Helmut Koester has argued quite convincingly that the last chapter of Romans was written to the church in Ephesus as a letter of introduction for Phoebe, who was "probably the president of the Christian community in Cenchreae," where she was also a preaching deacon. (You can explore his explanation at http://www.bibletexts.com/terms/women01.htm.)
I would not propose that we create a 67th book of the Bible to accommodate this. We just need to read the texts honestly and intelligently. After all, it is not the texts that are "the way, the truth, and the life." Our risen Lord and Savior Christ Jesus is the one who is our way of salvation. Thankfully, many followers and writers over the centuries have helped us know Christ, but even the earliest Christian workers and writers sometimes differed in their understanding and articulation of the message. (On this point, see http://www.bibletexts.com/qa/qa059.htm.)
In his excellent Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Revised Edition (United Bible Societies, 1992), Dr. Bruce Metzger documents many passages in the New Testament that have been added, omitted, or changed in the centuries since the original documents were first written. As new documents are found, our body of knowledge enables us to reexamine our earlier assumptions and conclusions. Such openness and honesty is always salutary, even if it is not always comfortable for ourselves or others. It is certainly exhilarating. And it makes us even more dependent upon the Holy Spirit's guidance.
Question/insight #61c, by J. Christian Jensen, Timonium, MD:
Even if Paul did not write 1 Co 14:33b-36, the passage remains a part of our inspired scriptures, in its place in the canonical first letter of Paul to the Corinthians. Whether or nor Paul wrote the pericope is irrelevant for its "authority."
Be that as it may, I am convinced that Paul did write the pericope, and that it does make sense.
The problem arises only when the pericope is extracted from its context in Paul's letter, and is translated and interpreted by itself as forbidding Christian women to speak in their religious gatherings. If the pericope is read within the total context of Paul's letter, it is evident that Paul is forbidding his Christian community to impose this rule upon Christian Gentile women. This understanding does not involve changing a single word in the text. It does require a very careful reading of the entire letter, paying close attention to Paul's rhetorical style, which I recommend to all. Some preliminaries.
First, it is not 1 Cor 14:33b-36 that is the inspired word of God but 1 Cor 14:33b-36 in its context within the canonical Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians. In the same way, it is not the words, "There is no God," in Psa 10:4; 14:1; and 53:1, that are the inspired word of God, but rather those words in their context within each Psalm, and within the canonical book of Psalms.
Second, most who use this pericope to assert that women are forbidden to speak in church stop reading at verse 36, when verses 37-40 continue Paul's argument, and are essential for understanding the pericope.
Third, in written Greek in Paul's time and long thereafter, there are no spaces between words, no quotation marks, no commas, no periods, no separation between paragraphs. Each page is a block of letters. When the scribe came to the end of a line he moved on to the next line even when in the middle of a word. So with 1 Cor 14:33-40 the original looked something like the following very literal rendering in English of the Greek word order:
TFORNOTISOFTUMULTTHEGODBUTOFPEACEASINALLTHECHURCH ESOFTHESAINTSTHEWOMENINTHECHURCHESLETBESILENTNOTF ORITISPERMITTEDTOTHEMTOSPEAKBUTLETTHEMBESUBJECTA SALSOTHELAWSAYSBUTIFANYTHINGTOLEARNTHEYWISHATHOM ETHEOWNHUSBANDSLETTHEMQUESTIONASHAMEFORITISFORAW OMANTOSPEAKINACHURCHORFROMYOUTHEWORDOFGODWENTF ORTHORTOYOUONLYDIDITREACHIFANYONETHINKSAPROPHETTOB EORASPIRITUALPERSONLETHIMCLEARLYKNOWTHINGSWHICHIWR ITETOYOUTHATOFLORDTHEYAREACOMMANDMENTBUTIFANYONEI SIGNORANTLETHIMBEIGNORANTSOASBROTHERSANDSISTERSOFM EBEYOUEAGERTOPROPHESYANDTHETOSPEAKFORBIDNOTINTON GUESALLTHINGSANDBECOMINGLYANDACCORDINGTOORDERLETB EDONENOWIMAKEKNOWNTOYOUBROTHERSANDSISTERSTHEGOO
The point here is to note that divisions between the words, the paragraph divisions, and the punctuation marks, especially where the quotation marks go, in our New Testaments are decisions made by the translator, not part of the inspired text. And all translation is interpretation. There is no such thing as "objective" translation.
Now some points about Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians. First, note that in chapter 11, women are clearly speaking in church, both leading prayers and teaching. Note also that Paul does not ask what women are doing speaking in church, or remind the Corinthians that this is forbidden. Rather, Paul asserts that when married women offer a public prayer or share a prophetic insight during a religious gathering, they must wear their hair done up in a proper "do" as was proper for married women in Corinthian society. Similarly, Paul wants Christian men to wear their hair cropped short, as would a proper Greek gentleman. (The Greek word often translated "unveiled" here actually means "disheveled.")
Next note that throughout the letter Paul is responding to concerns and questions about problems in the Corinthian community that Paul has learned about from Cloe's people (1:11) or from a letter that some in the Corinthian community had written to Paul (7:1). In responding to these questions and concerns and in offering corrections Paul's practice is to quote an argument or a teaching that is wrong or being abused, then to make his correction. If one sits down and reads the entire letter from start to finish, one finds that examples abound.
In 1:12, Paul quotes the Corinthians: "I follow Paul, ..." "I follow Apollos, ..." "I follow Cephas, ..." "I follow Christ, ..." To which Paul responds, "Is Christ divided?"
In 6:12, Paul quotes the Corinthians: "Everything is permissible for me," to which Paul responds, "but not everything is beneficial." Paul then repeats the quote, "everything is permissible for me" to which Paul responds, "but I will not be mastered by anything." In v 13, the Corinthians say, "Food for the stomach and the stomach for food," to which Paul responds "but God will destroy them both."
In 7:1, Paul quotes the Corinthians: "It is good for a man not to marry." To which Paul responds, "But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband."
In 8:1, Paul quotes the Corinthians: "We all possess knowledge." To which Paul responds, "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up."
In 10:23, Paul again quotes the Corinthians: "Everything is permissible." To which Paul responds, "But not everything is beneficial." Paul repeats the quote again, and responds. "But not everything is constructive."
So too, in 1 Cor 33b-35, Paul quotes an argument raised by some in the Corinthian Community: "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 husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church."
Note that in Paul's and the Corinthians' Greek Bibles, the Greek word here translated as "congregation" and "church" is also used of the gatherings and assemblies of Jewish people for worship, and for their gatherings in synagogues. Also, the Greek word translated here "saints" is also used of gatherings of Jewish people as the holy people of God. Finally note the words, "as the Law says." Paul is quoting Jewish Christians, probably missionaries from Judea or Galilee, who seek to impose their interpretations of Torah upon Paul's Gentile Christian community, in the same way that other Jewish Christians insist that Gentile Christians be circumcised and follow Jewish dietary proscriptions, "as the Law requires."
As we would expect, Paul will have none of this. Paul's scornful response begins in v 36:
"Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?"
"If anybody thinks that he is a prophet or that he is spiritually gifted let him acknowledge that what I write to you is the Lord's command. Anyone who ignores this is to be ignored."
Finally we have Paul's command to the Corinthian Christians regarding speaking in their religious gatherings,
"Therefore my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy. Do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way."
As I have said, the above does not change a single word of the inspired text. It does however move quotation marks and change paragraph divisions so that the meaning is consistent with the entire inspired context of Paul's letter to the Corinthians, and Paul's inspired message in other authentic letters. The burden of proof falls upon those who insist on translating, punctuating and reading this text in an oppressive way to insist upon women's subjection and subordination.
This can only be done if one lifts the pericope from its inspired context, and imposes an interpretation and a meaning that is contrary to and contradictory to the inspired message of Paul's letter. I suspect that Paul in heaven demands an accounting from each who has had a part in this, given the abuse he has taken because of those who distort him to support their own oppressive agendas. It is no different than insisting that God does not exist since the very words, "There is no God," occur three times in the Bible.
And as Paul says, those who insist otherwise "are to be ignored."
Response #61c, by Robert Nguyen Cramer: Thanks for the detailed explanation of your interpretation of 1Co 14:33b-36. Arguments similar to yours have been put forth previously, but yours are the most thorough and most persuasive I have read.
My sincere desire is that my understanding of the scriptures be both very honest and also genuinely inspired, and I welcome all available facts and inspiration that may support, reverse, modify, or simply refine my currently held conclusions to enable/ensure them to be truthful. I will continue to openly consider and reconsider what you've written.
I readily confess that your explanation is what I would like to believe, but there are some further problems. In 1Ti 2:11,12 we read other words attributed to Paul, saying, "Women should listen and learn quietly and submissively. I do not let women teach men or have authority over them. Let them listen quietly." (NAB) Here there is no potentially corrective follow-up statement, as in 1Co 14:36, "What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only?" 1Ti 2:11,12 is presented as Paul's teachings.
Considering the similarity between 1Co 14:35 and 1Ti 2:11,12, some of the conclusions we may draw are the following:
1. Paul wrote all of both letters and he intended to convey the same teaching in both letters, OR
2. Paul wrote 1Co 14:35 with the meaning you ascribe to him; AND he did not write 1 Timothy, and the writer of 1 Timothy added 1Ti 2:11,12 to provide a chauvinistic revisionist spin for 1Co 14:35, OR
3. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians but not 1 Timothy, and around 115 AD, the writer of 1 Timothy or someone associated with him added the 1Co 14:33b-36 pericope, to lend further authority to a later (or more culturally acceptable) teaching to restrict women.
Even Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, O.P., in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary (edited by Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J, and Roland E. Murphy, O.Carm., Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990) comments on verses 34-35 as follows (pages 811-812):
These verses are not a Corinthian slogan, as some have argued..., but a post-Pauline interpolation... Not only is the appeal to the law (possibly Gen 3:16) un-Pauline, but the verses contradict 11:5. The injunctions reflect the misogynism of 1 Tim 2:11-14 and probably stem from the same circle. Some mss. place these verses after 40.
Regarding 1Ti 2:11,12, Robert A. Wild, S.J., comments (Ibid., page 897):
1 Cor 14:33b-35, a probable early addition to the original text of 1 Cor, is close in language and sentiment to this text. The author of the Pastorals speaks explicitly only of women's behavior at Christian worship but may intend a more general application...
I still find "interpolation" arguments such as those in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary and in some other commentaries* to be quite convincing, but I will continue to ponder what you've written.
*[Hanz Conzelmann's excellent commentary on this pericope can be read at http://www.bibletexts.com/versecom/1co14v33.htm.]
We may not always arrive at the same conclusions (at least not at the same time!), but the integrity of our mutual love of God and of our mutual desire to let our thoughts, lives, and words be obedient instruments of the Holy Spirit put us on the same path -- the same way, truth, and life, which is Christ.
Question/insight #61d, by J. Christian Jensen, Timonium, MD: Amen! Amen!
Response #61d, by Robert Nguyen Cramer: Would it be okay for me to share your commentary on 1 Cor 14:33b-36 with others via the Bibletexts.com website? Would you prefer me to refer to you by name? If so, what would be the full name by which I should recognize you?
Question/insight #61e, by J. Christian Jensen, Timonium, MD: You may. As for my name, please credit the accounts to "J. Christian Jensen, Timonium, MD." ...What I have written, ...I learned it in seminary decades ago.
Copyright 1996-2002 Robert Nguyen Cramer