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Only Speakers Can Quiet Down: Re-reading 1 Corinthians 14:33-35

August 21, 2013

As you may know, 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 is a notoriously difficult passage to translate and interpret. Not only the subject matter but even the rendering of the sentences is difficult. Even the effort to add English punctuation to the original Greek hits home the reality that translation involves interpretation. Our theological premises may well guide our decisions about where to put the dashes and commas and periods.

For example: Look at the way verses 33-34a are rendered in the recent English Standard and New International Versions:

ESV of 33-34a

For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches.

NIV of 33-34a

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.

Is this an exhortation for all churches in all times and places? The punctuation in the ESV would lean readers harder in that direction than the NIV. Are there theological and cultural premises guiding either translation in this decision? Will the surrounding verses help us to make sense of this?

Some will suggest that the plain reading of this text is obvious–it prohibits women from speaking in all churches for all time–and that anyone who questions that is simply caving to cultural pressures. Granted we are all encultured readers, however, we are still confronted by the fact that the text of 1 Corinthians itself leads us to question that so called “plain reading”. If in chapter 11 Paul gave instructions which would allow women to prophesy (within norms of decorum that would communicate interdependence and modesty), then it should at least strike us as odd if Paul is now saying, “wait, on second thought, forget it”.

Furthermore, if in chapter 14 Paul is restricting women from prophecy, it would be the first indication that any spiritual gift was labeled for one gender rather than the other. So on the basis of the text alone we are motivated at least to inquire whether the silence asked for in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is for all women in all situations past or future, or whether it might refer to a certain kind of speech in a particular situation.

When we go to the Greek text with these questions–Is there a certain kind of speech being prohibited, and is there a particular reason given?–we find that it does have answers: The women being told to “keep quiet” are the ones asking questions during the sharing of prophecy, and the reason for this is that their speaking, or more specifically their questioning, is “a shame”. The shame here is not the vocal female participation per se. Otherwise chapter 11, which fits the women with head coverings precisely so they can prophesy without shame, would make little sense.

Let’s turn to the passage and see. We begin with a recognition of its proper structure.

As noted above, not all translations agree even about what the sentences are here. In regard to verse 33-34a, I think the ESV’s rendering redundant. We would expect the second mention of ekklesia to be in the singular if indeed this was meant as a combined thought. It makes better sense to read verse 33 as an interjection (as seen in the NIV above), and to recognize verse 34 as a third situational instruction to go with two given in verses 28 and 30.

Now let’s pay closer attention to these three instructions, then, and see if the fuller context bears our reading out. In the Greek and English below, I’ll show each of the three instructions to “keep quiet”, colouring the prohibition bold black, the type of speech or speaker in bold blue, and the further specification of the speaking situation in bold red. They don’t parallel each other in layout, but they do in content. In each case there is an instruction to silence, a type of speaker being instructed, and a specification indicated:

28 ἐὰν δὲ μὴ ᾖ διερμηνευτής σιγάτω ἐν ἐκκλησίᾳ ἑαυτῷ δὲ λαλείτω καὶ τῷ θεῷ

28 but if there be no interpreter let him [the one speaking in tongues] keep quiet in the church and to himself  let him speak to God
30 ἐὰν δὲ ἄλλῳ ἀποκαλυφθῇ καθημένῳ ὁ πρῶτος σιγάτω

30 but if [something] be revealed to another that sits by, let the first [one prophesying] keep quiet
34-35 αἱ γυναῖκες ὑμῶν ἐν ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις σιγάτωσαν οὐ γὰρ ἐπιτέτραπται αὐταῖς λαλεῖν ἀλλ᾽ ὑποτάσσεσθαι, καθὼς καὶ ὁ νόμος λέγει εἰ δέ τι μαθεῖν θέλουσιν ἐν οἴκῳ τοὺς ἰδίους ἄνδρας ἐπερωτάτωσαν αἰσχρὸν γάρ ἐστιν γυναιξὶν ἐν ἐκκλησίᾳ λαλεῖν

34-35 the women of you in the churches let them keep quiet for it is not permitted for them to speak but to be in submission as also the law says and if they wish to learn anything let them ask their men at home for it is a shame for women in the church to speak.

Although an interjection disrupts the flow in verse 33, these instructions do belong together. Looking closely at these three instructions to silence, then, we note something important: In the first two cases the people who must σιγάω (“keep quiet” or “remain silent”) are persons who are allowed to speak but who are under certain circumstances to then keep quiet.

Astute readers will notice, however, that I’ve passed over two other possible explanations for the silence in verse 34, both of which would be more far-reaching and less circumstantial. One is that there could be a law or universal mandate regarding the submissive silence of women to which Paul is referring. Some extrapolate this from Genesis 1 or 2, but I simply don’t see it. Besides, we should not overlook the fact that Paul has just explicitly referenced a “law” in verse 21, quoting Isaiah 28’s warning about being a bad listener.

The second explanation I’m passing over is the one that says speaking women are generally just a shame. Is Paul taking on a debatable cultural observation and ascribing to it the impetus of a universal divine command? This is theoretically possible, since Paul accepted some of the cultural norms around honour and disgrace in chapter 11, but it is also not necessarily the case, since Paul rejects many of those norms elsewhere in the letter. Besides, as already mentioned, chapter 11 gives us reason to doubt that Paul thinks women speaking is always and self-evidently a shame.

No, I think it is more sensible to take the clause about making inquiries as a further specification of which women Paul means to keep quiet, and when. The scene is not hard to imagine, given what we know of the context, and the ramifications are not out of step with the full biblical witness. It seems the Corinth women are enjoying a relatively new-found liberty not only to speak in the corporate worship but also to pursue education, and are exhibiting a disruptive over-eagerness to ask questions during the corporate worship gathering Paul is addressing. In Paul’s view the time and the place for that education is the home.

Thus the implication is that the culturally more educated men will begin to empower the women at home, keeping the uninformed questions (along with uninterpreted tongues and uninterrupted prophesying) to a minimum in the corporate worship.

Reading the passage like this does, of course, require some interpretive explanation. But if you’ll return with me to the NIV text for a moment you’ll see that only a minor (and, I think, legitimate) alteration of the English punctuation is needed to have this stand out more clearly in the “plain reading” of the text itself. First, the NIV of verses 33-35:

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 inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

Now, with only three changes in the NIV’s punctuation (namely a colon after “churches”, a comma after “as the law says”, and a period after “something”), here’s a modestly but I think meaningfully clarified reading of those same verses:

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 inquire about something. They should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

I have by no means resolved this still thorny passage (although we might be further helped by a clarifying “as such” after the last “speak”), but I must say that when it came time for me to preach this to for my congregation, it was this rendering I found to be most readable, exegetically viable, and canonically coherent. However, I am sincere when I say I submit it to your scrutiny.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 22, 2013 8:10 pm

    Excellent work and good suggestions. A charitable attempt to read this passage as part of its context. I’m going to differ with you on some details of the Greek, though, largely from a rhetoric and discourse-grammar perspective. I’m not sure 14:33b-35 is actually part of this context. You did well to identify the handling of prophecy in the assembly as the topic of the chapter. But it isn’t the topic in these verses, except for 14:33a.

    I’m going to side with the ESV on the first half-verse. Given what has gone before it, 14:33a looks to wrap up the thread of argument that starts the chapter. More locally, it caps Paul’s presentation starting in 14:26, in which he pitches his solution to the disorder of the Corinthian assemblies. Because everyone comes wanting to share something of their own, and not everyone can productively do so, Paul asks that only two or three (of a kind?) should share at a given meeting, and only what is generally edifying. Tongues are ruled out unless they can be immediately interpreted. And when prophets speak, it is a time for discernment, judgment/evaluation, and interpretation of what is said (all diakrinō). Rather than being a matter of personal speaking privilege, the question is what is being revealed—so of course, if God moves someone else to speak what has been revealed to them, it’s obviously their turn to speak. Why take turns? Because God is not a God of unruly disorder, but of people getting along together, which is 14:33a. Paul is acting as God’s “peacekeeper.”

    The problem with what comes next is that it isn’t about prophecy at all, nor is it about who God is moving to speak in the assembly. It’s a blanket denial of personal speaking privilege, on the basis of gender. From its discourse characteristics, 14:33b-35 seems like a single persuasive unit, oriented solidly around this proscription of female speech in the assembly. As I see it, there are five parts here. First, in 33b, we have an adverbial dative clause that serves to establish precedent and authority. This is confusing; there’s no discourse marker to signal anything new here, so it does seem like it ought to go with 14:33a, except that it doesn’t make sense as a modifier for any of the verbs in 14:31-33a. Second, in 34a, we have a simple sentence (subject, verb, dative phrase) expressing the injunction against female speech. The dative clause of the first part lines up with the dative prepositional phrase here, both using the plural of ekklēsia to define context: “As in all of the assemblies … the women in the assemblies ….” Third, in the remainder of 34, we have a supporting justification for this prohibition, marked with gar (34b), that provides alternative positive behavior with alla (34c) and then references a legal prohibition (34d). I do like your use of a colon (perhaps a semicolon?) between 34a and 34b-d, as it demonstrates that the remainder of this verse serves as a clarification of its opening. Fourth, in 35a, there is a conditional, marked off by de. While I’ve seen a lot of emphatic fronting in Greek, I’ve never seen a conditional where the “if” clause comes at the end, so this isn’t part of 34. Finally, in 35b, there’s another supporting justification against female speech in the assembly, marked with gar. I might set this off from 35a with a dash. And then in 36, Paul chimes back in with something about prophecy coming from God rather than being a province of a specific group, which highlights the incongruity of this little interlude.

  2. August 22, 2013 8:13 pm

    Ultimately, I can’t follow your justification on the basis of sigaō because 28 and 30 also run their conditionals in the right order, which your coloring helps illustrate. This verb isn’t even part of the conditional in 35; sigaō in 34a is flatly imperative. Nor is the conditional in 35 of the same kind as 28 and 30; both earlier conditionals are subjunctives, specific hypothetical situations, and they involve conflicts between speakers. 35a is a present general condition, specified on the basis of the conflict between gender and place. 33b-34 leaves no situations in which women are ever permitted to speak in the assembly, and 35 backs this by permitting them to speak to their husbands while in their homes, because it is shameful for them to speak at all in the assembly. I see no way to nuance that.

    Of course, I also see no reason to accept it.

  3. August 23, 2013 10:07 pm

    Thanks Matt, I’m going to have to look all that over again and get back. Appreciate it.

  4. August 24, 2013 6:10 pm

    No problem, Jon. Besides, it’s the most attention I’ve been able to give to anything serious in months! (Moving and selling a house is a killer.) Thanks for the opportunity to look closer at this passage—this little piece is so much cleaner an example than dealing with chapter 11.

    I’ve long been meaning to attempt some redaction analysis of 1 Cor. as a whole. Once upon a time, fresh off of Romans, I started out trying to deal with it as diatribe, just to have some way to deal with what appear to be conflicts—but it’s nothing like so clean. I keep hitting these spots that seem to have been edited by a later reader of the text, likely one that thought of it as a text rather than an oral address. But demonstrating such a hunch consistently is a lot of work! Besides which, one needs extra layers of ablative respectability to get such an idea past the objection of personal bias.

    While I *am* a wild-eyed and crazy liberal, I don’t just want to jump on the bandwagon and declare that Paul couldn’t possibly have said something like this, so it must be an insertion. I’d like it to make sense in context. I’d like Paul saying it to make sense, even as a counter-example for the audience. It’s always worth making the effort at a charitable reading, especially sensitive to language and context. There’s so much nuance possible. I just can’t figure out why this neat little piece is here, and what it’s doing in the larger argument. It’s the little ways it doesn’t fit, even though it’s obviously been crafted using jits surroundings, that bug me.

    Nestle-Aland notes that 34 and 35 are also transposed at the end of the chapter in the Western diglots, and used to note Straatman’s conjecture that they aren’t original. Wallace, of course, would like to slam the lid on any such conjecture (and there are several), but he’s got no ammo but defense of the status quo. There’s plenty of development of the Pauline corpus about which we have no manuscript evidence—but it must have happened, because these letters to different places were certainly not originally bound together with later pseudonymous writings and Hebrews. Still, we have the text we have, and these words can’t be erased. Have to do something with them!

  5. August 25, 2013 3:00 pm

    Thanks again Matt. Its a conundrum passage if every there was one. So even before addressing the textual decision, I guess my first response was going to be something like this:

    My reading stems first of all from the fact that I was set to preach the passage to my evangelical church–a church equipped with NIVs, NLTs, NASBs, NRSVs and KJVs and also expecting to accept the text in front of it. I don’t presume that we are infallible in this, just that I wanted to proclaim the text as it has come to us in our tradition today, looking for how we could accept it as something provided and illumined for us in some sensible way. If I could not, that would be another story, but here was a reading I felt made some credible sense–even if it may push a little bit on the author or redactor’s initial range of meaning.

    Let me explain that. Flipping back and forth in the letter, and then also reading it closely with those verses around it, it seems that although vv. 28 and 30 had no structural equivalence and were even held apart from vv. 34-35 by vv. 33, they did seem to shed light on it in a way the epistle itself is begging for more loudly in retrospect than it might have at the time.

    But if I’m getting you right, you are saying it looks to you like vv. 34-35 are the interlude (so that 36 picks up where 33 lets off) and that vv. 34-35 are giving a flat imperative to female silence for which we are not offered further specification. Rather, what we get in the Greek are some conditional phrases which can not be used add specification regarding WHICH women should be silent, but can only give justification as to WHY. (If so, then it is the force of that “can not” and “can only” which I will need to investigate further.)

    I would need to look into this some more. You may be right. But say you are: Doesn’t that leave us having to iron out an apparent intratextual contradiction about female speech? We could iron it out by having one chapter rule out the other, or by no accepting this as authentic, or by asking if the passage allows us to qualify the speech under consideration. Obviously I went looking for the latter and felt maybe it was there. The mention of women asking questions jumps off the page in a way even the original author might not have needed to make as abundantly clear at that time. If it sounds like I’m adding something, I’d say it is in emphasis, not in content–and this for reasons that are canonically consistent and theologically coherent. Reasons we are pushed to look for by the confusion of the text itself.

    I am sincerely trying to work this out and to be responsible. What do you think? Am I doing too much of an end-around on the shape of the sentences themselves?

  6. August 27, 2013 3:38 pm

    Thank you for explaining your situation. I do sympathize! And I agree: we always remain confronted by the text that has been transmitted to us. No interpretation saves us from that. Only changing the text would, and I’m not egotistical enough to propose that.

    You’ve wrestled well and faithfully with the text, per your responsibility. I’ve attempted to do the same. I don’t agree that the way you’ve harmonized the text works with the shape of the Greek as I read it; being obliged to deal with it myself, I would choose to leave vv. 33b-35 sticking out like a sore thumb, even emphasizing that rather than smoothing over it.

    That’s because it isn’t my job to iron out the contradiction. It is not our job to make scripture better than it is. Only to declare the best we can from it. If scripture provides us with a contradiction of authorial and editorial views, we must say that it does, and look to the gospel as we understand it—and more locally the best of our understanding of the author and their larger argument—to speak a reliable word in fulfillment of our responsibilities.

    But then, I’m a Lutheran, and of a group more willing to make the distinction that it is not every word of the Bible, but the Word that is the gospel, that is our proclamation.

  7. October 19, 2013 5:29 pm

    You guys need to put a search widget up in the sidebar so we can find past articles that we would like to refer to make the search easier. Just a suggestion :-).

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