Putting Words in Paul’s Mouth: “Women: Shut Up!”

November 18, 2013 in Theology · 11 comments

shhh

1 Corinthians 14.34-35 reads:

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.

Here Paul writes in unambiguous terms a dictum applicable not just to a single church, but to “the churches,” repeating his injunction twice: women should remain silent, they aren’t allowed to speak, and then, in case you’re still looking for a way around this rule, he reminds us that “it is disgraceful” for women to speak in church.

I can’t imagine how Paul could be any more clear. Reading the text at face value, there’s simply no room for interpreting away his command. But despite this clarity, few Christians actually follow Paul’s command. We try to explain it away as a cultural artifact, perhaps addressing a specific situation such as the problems caused by a group of unruly wives in Corinth. An across-the-board prohibition against women speaking in the church? Surely not!

But there’s another issue involving this text that has an enormous bearing on how we understand it. First, it isn’t at all clear where these two verses actually belong in the text. Depending on which manuscript tradition you study, these verse appear either after v. 33 or after v. 40. Interestingly enough, there’s roughly equal manuscript support for each reading. It’s not so much a careful scholarly assessment as it is an accident of history that they appear where they do in our modern Bibles.

Here’s the two spots where they show up:

33For God is not a God of disorder but of peace — as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. 34Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35If 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. 36Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? 37If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. 38But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored. 39Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way. 34Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35If 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. 1Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.

Evangelical scholar Gordon Fee, in his 1987 commentary on 1 Corinthians, raised more than a few conservative eyebrows when he proposed that the best explanation for this “moving” text was that these verses aren’t actually original to Paul’s letter — that they are in fact a later addition. These verses work equally well — and equally poorly — in both locations, something unlikely to be true if they were a part of Paul’s original text.

Fee argued that an early scribe wrote these verses in the margins of the letter and later copyists incorporated them into the main body of text. Fee also noted that such an occurrence resolves the tension with Paul’s earlier guidance in favor of women speaking in church in the form of prophecy. If these verses were a later addition, then Paul wasn’t at all opposed to women speaking in church.

Since Fee’s conjecture in 1987, scholars have discovered manuscript support that lends weight to the argument. Though not conclusive — we still don’t have a manuscript that entirely omits these verses — the evidence against their originality continues to mount.

Minuscule  88

Minuscule 88 is a Greek manuscript from the 12th century. In this manuscript, 1 Cor. 14.36 comes directly after v. 33, while our text in question, vs. 34-35, comes after v. 40. However, vs. 34-35 are separated from the main text by a double slash. These slashes correspond with a smaller double slash that appears earlier on the page at the end of v. 33 and also in the right margin of v. 33. It seems that the scribe wrote vs. 33-40 and omitted vs. 34-35, and then realized that omission only after he had already begun to write v. 36. To correct this error he added them in after v. 40 and made note of where they should be inserted into the text with the double slashes at v. 33. Why would he do this? The most likely explanation is that he was copying from a text that didn’t contain vs. 34-35 at all. He realized too late that the manuscript he was copying from contained a non-traditional reading, so he “fixed” it by adding the missing verses and marking where they should go. Conclusive evidence that vs. 34-35 aren’t original? No. But a tantalizing piece of the puzzle that points towards the existence of a manuscript without these verses.

ms88-1cor14-gr

detail from ms. 88

ms88-1cor14-eng

ms. 88 with English text and original scribal annotations

Codex Fuldensis

Codex Fuldensis was meticulously compiled by the Italian Bishop Victor of Capua in the mid-sixth century and is one of the earliest Latin manuscripts of the New Testament. In Fuldensis, following 1 Cor. 14.33 is a marking that redirects the reader to the bottom margin where vs. 36-40 are written out. It seems likely that the scribe, probably under the direct guidance of Victor, was correcting his original text and designated a replacement text, possibly based on manuscripts that we no longer have. He’s essentially saying that vs. 36-40 are supposed to directly follow after verse 33 and over-write vs. 34-35.

Codex Fuldensis

detail from Codex Fuldensis

Fuldensis with English text

Codex Fuldensis with English text and original scribal annotations

Codex Vaticanus

Codex Vaticanus is one of the oldest manuscripts of the entire Bible — from the mid 4th century — and is one of the best Greek texts available to us. In the left margin of 1 Corinthians 14 are two dots aligned with verse 33 and a horizontal bar between verses 33 and 34. Similar markings appear throughout the text of Vaticanus that correspond to known textual issues. The scribe is marking where he is aware of a “problem” with the text. In this case, the only potential issue that we are aware of in regards to these verses is that they might not have been part of the original text. It is likely that the scribe of Vaticanus was aware of differing manuscript traditions — some of which omitted these verses entirely — and is making a notation of the existence of these textual variants.

vaticanus-1cor14-gr

detail from Codex Vaticanus

vaticanus-1cor14-eng

Vaticanus with English text and original scribal annotations

This is only an abbreviated overview of one side of the discussion. There continues to be a lively scholarly debate about these verses that has yet to reach a consensus — and given the paucity of resources, may never reach a consensus. But this lack of clarity shouldn’t leave us simply scratching our heads. Rather, it should cause us to ask important questions about the role of women in the church, about how we interpret and understand the Bible and ultimately about how we understand God.

What authority do we give to questionable texts? When do we allow the guidance of the Holy Spirit to overrule seemingly explicit commands in the Bible? In the face of uncertainty, to which side should we give the benefit of the doubt? What weight do we give tradition in the understanding of textual challenges? Are we willing to reevaluate long-held theological positions in light of new textual evidence?

And in 1 Corinthians, did Paul simply write this?

For God is not a God of disorder but of peace — as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way. Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand…

Further Reading

11 comments… read them below or add one

Tim November 18, 2013 at 9:01 pm

Dan, this is the first clear explanation I’ve read that makes the subject accessible to us lay people. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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Dan November 19, 2013 at 8:14 am

Thank you for your thank you! It’s tough topic to write about without getting bogged down in the details, because ultimately it’s the details are what’s important…so it’s good to hear that I at least came close to making sense of it all!

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dgregoryburns November 18, 2013 at 10:07 pm

Awesome! Informed! Explained! Thank you Dan!

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Dan November 19, 2013 at 8:30 am

Thanks!

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Bronwyn Lea November 18, 2013 at 11:06 pm

This is fascinating! I am currently re reading David instone-brewer’s book on divorce and re marriage in the bible, where he shares how his studies of 1st century Judaism changed his understanding of what Jesus was teaching on marriage, given the rabbinic discussions of the day. His argument makes SO much sense theologically, and redempto-historically, and his conclusions seem to me to match God’s character in application (truth and grace both abounding.) why this diatribe? To say that modern biblical scholarship IS adding value to our search to seek out the deep things of God and ask better questions. I think your posts does just that: raises excellent questions. Thank you.

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Dan November 19, 2013 at 8:30 am

Thanks for that insight. I’ll have to check out Instone-Brewer’s book, it sounds interesting. I think that the further we are removed from the Biblical texts, both chronologically and culturally, the more imperative it becomes to properly orient ourselves to the messages they contain. This doesn’t mean that they don’t contain timeless truths, but it does mean that, as you say, we need to carefully consider the best available scholarship in order to better understand those truths.

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Angie November 19, 2013 at 8:28 pm

Interesting & has me wondering if there is a Bible version available with the additions/deletions marked. This passage clearly is why men have enforced this practice in some churches. But another verse says we are neither male nor female in the Holy Spirit & women were speakers/leaders in other places in the Bible. Giftedness is determined by God, though, not men.

I know a single older woman who walked by an abandoned country church each day & one day she was led to start a church back up there. She still serves there as pastor (I think non-denominational) & has believers in that neighborhood going there that wouldn’t have gone elsewhere. If this passage were adhered to, these folks wouldn’t be joined as a Christian faith community.

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Dan November 19, 2013 at 9:23 pm

I’m not aware of any translations that clearly make note of this issue other than the full edition of the NET Bible (which comes down in favor of them being a marginal addition, but one made by Paul himself). Part of the problem is that it is still an open issue among most scholars — they aren’t certain that these verses are a later addition in the same way they are virtually certain that the longer ending of Mark or the pericope adulterae are additions. Those passages are usually clearly marked with brackets or italics or some such annotation. But how should we mark passages, or verses or words where there’s ongoing debate and discussion? And good luck publishing a Bible that edits and even removes what is held by many to be absolutely sacred and perfect Scripture!

Sadly, this passage and others continue to be used to suppress and silence women … women who otherwise might make great contributions to the Body of Christ.

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friendly reader November 22, 2013 at 8:43 am

The NRSV puts this sections in parentheses and footnotes that different authorities place it after different verses. Ditto on other additions like the endings of Mark or the woman caught in adultery. Maybe this is why many Evangelicals hate it as a translation?

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Dan November 22, 2013 at 8:45 pm

The NRSV is just noting that section — vs. 33b through 36 — is a parenthetical comment by Paul, not that vs. 34-35 are in doubt. And the note after v. 35 merely says “Other ancient authorities put verses 34-35 after verse 40”. Evangelicals dislike the NRSV for many reasons, but I don’t think this is one of them.

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friendly reader November 23, 2013 at 9:34 pm

Hmm, you’re right. I may be reading into it that I grew up knowing this was a later addition. I grew up in a church with female pastors, and I didn’t learn about the various proof texts against women talking until I stayed with my grandfather, whose church was LCMS.

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