Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy. A Book Discussion. (Index here)
Part II: Looking to Scripture (The Biblical Texts)
Chapter 9 – Learning in the Assemblies: 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. By Craig S. Keener.
Dr. Keener’s essay focuses on these two peculiar verses found near the end of chapter 14 in 1 Corinthians:
34 women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. 35 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. (NRSV)
This instruction comes at the end of a lengthy passage where Paul has been discussing orderly worship and it includes women prophesying in church. Paul cannot be talking about absolute silence otherwise he has just contradicted all he has just written. So what is the presenting problem and context of the passage? Dr. Keener points to several interpretations.
First, there is the interpretation that Paul was quoting a letter he had received from the Corinthians and refuting it with the following verse:
36 Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?
Keener does not give a detailed refutation of this perspective and instead refers readers to his book Paul, Women and Wives. J. Lee Grady, in his book 10 Lies the Church Tells Women, says manuscripts contain what is called a “grave accent” just after verse 35 and that this indicates that what came before is a quotation. (63) He is citing a video series by theologian Kenneth Bailey who I greatly respect. Yet I have seen an article by Bailey where he argues something similar to where Keener ends up. Keener cites in his book some grammatical issues with this passage but most notably he maintains that everywhere else Paul engages an imaginary interlocutor he uses rhetorical devices that are absent here. (75-76) Keener is not persuaded.
Second, there is the interpretation that men and women were seated separately in worship services and women unfamiliar with being in public settings did not know who to conduct themselves. They would disrupt the proceedings to ask husbands questions and thus disrupt worship. Keener finds this proposal weak because synagogues probably were not segregated at this time. Furthermore, they were more likely to have been meeting in homes, which would not have created this problem.
Third, some have questioned whether the passage was written by Paul. Someone may have added it later. Early Western texts have these verses in different location. Keener writes the “The earliest evidence, including from the church fathers, treats 14:34-35 as a unit distinct from the context.” (162) However, as Keener points out, the passage is in all the early manuscripts, even if it is unsettled about where it belongs. The seeming incongruence of the passage could explain the problem early scribes had with where to place it. Keener thinks the passage is part of the original text.
Fourth, some have suggested that this passage is prohibiting women teachers in keeping with 1 Timothy 2:11-12. However, 1 Timothy had not yet been written and nothing about teaching is mentioned anywhere near this passage. That makes this interpretation highly unlikely.
Fifth, some have suggested that Paul is prohibiting women from judging prophecy, going back a few verses to verses 29-30:
29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30 If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent.
But as Keener observes “one is hard-pressed to see why restricting women from judging prophecies in Corinth would thereby restrict women from teaching (yet not prophesying or praying) then or today.” (163) The fact is that there is nothing in verse 34-35 that shows that Paul has this in mind. Further, where does Paul ever suggest that judging prophecies is of some higher degree of authority than prophesying itself? He doesn’t.
Keener believes the answer is found in the verses themselves. The presenting issue is not all speech but a specific type of speech, namely asking questions. Keener also observes that there is something shameful about what is going on with these woman inquisitors. What are these questions and what is shameful about them?
Keener points out that it was normal for people to interrupt a rabbi or teacher in such settings with questions of clarification or to challenge particular points. However, two concerns may have been involved here. First, for many conservative Roman and Greek men, the behavior of women challenging a male speaker may have been highly offensive. This type of behavior could discredit the believers in the eyes of the community. Second, most women simply did not have the education of most men. Many would likely have asked elementary questions that only distracted from the instruction instead of contributing to it, thus making themselves a nuisance to the community. Keener suggests that these were the presenting issues Paul was addressing. "The law" was likely civil law about women's behavior in public settings is his estimation. The issue is not about gender but about “...propriety and learning – neither of which need restrain women’s voices in the church today.” (171)
What also should not be lost in this discussion is the astonishing instruction of Paul that husbands should teach their wives! As we saw in Chapter 7, the Jewish tradition was to give minimal instruction to women partly because it would take them away from the economic duties of the household and partly because it was wasted effort to teach women. Paul is including women as full disciples.
Keener's interpretation does seem to address the various issues involved with the text. I haven't personally read much about Kenneth Bailey's take on this and would like to know more.
Craig S. Keener received his M.A. and M.Div from the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary and Ph.D. from Duke University. He is professor of New Testament at Eastern Seminary and ordained in the National Baptist Convention, USA. He has written twelve books, including The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament; Paul, Women and Wives; And Marries Another: Divorce and Remarriage in the Teaching of the New Testament; Black Man’s Religion; and commentaries on Matthew, John and Revelation. Craig and his wife, Medine, who teaches history, were married as this volume was being written.
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