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1 Corinthians 14:34-36 – The Silencing of Women

Summary

In the context of a discussion about orderly worship and in apparent contradiction to his own allowance in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 for women to prophesy, Paul dictates that women should be silent in the churches. Debate persists about what precisely is being forbidden here as well as whether the words were written by Paul or by an editor of the letter.

Analysis

Near the end of Paul's recommendations for orderly worship, three verses direct women to be silent in the churches. In some manuscripts, these verses appear in chapter 14 after verse 40; in most manuscripts, they appear as verses 34-36. The fact that the verses float in the manuscript tradition is an indication that they may not have been in the earliest manuscripts of the letter, or that the advice was recognized early on as not transferrable to a different audience than that specific community situation Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians. Paul himself was not consistently dismissive of women's leadership in the church, even in this letter. In 1 Corinthians 11, he gives women prophets directions about their head covering while they prophesy. These are directions they would not need if they were meant to be silent at all times.

If Paul actually wrote these verses, the best explanation for them is that they are deeply tied to the context for which they were first written and finally inextricable from it. A few verses earlier in 1 Corinthians, Paul had said about those wanting to speak in tongues in worship, "if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church" (1 Corinthians 14:28), and about those who might be given a revelation after prophets spoke, he says, "If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent" (1 Corinthians 14:30). Tongues without interpretation were disruptive and unintelligible. Prophets were to speak and then to be silent as others were given words to speak.

We do not know for sure whether or how the speech of the Corinthian women seemed to Paul to be disruptive, unintelligible, or monopolizing. However, similarities in the exhortations to silence point either to (a) the last having been shaped by an editor as a reflection of the first two, or (b) all these exhortations being inspired by a single concern to promote an orderly, comprehensible, and shared experience of worship in the Corinthian church.

1 Corinthians 14:34-36

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 anything they desire to know, 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?)

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10 February 2011

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