My professional career as a lawyer has influenced the way that I read the Bible. Lawyers investigate human behavior like scientists investigate the natural world, looking for the explanation that best fits all the available data. What happens when we apply that approach to the puzzle of 1 Corinthians 14:34–35? These verses say, “The women should be silent in the assemblies. For it is not permitted to them to speak but they should be put in subjection as also the Law says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home, for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in an assembly” (author’s translation).
These verses from 1 Corinthians have at least five puzzling features. The first is that they appear to be in conflict with chapter 11 of the same letter, where Paul regulates how men and women pray and prophesy. But these verses say that women must keep silent in the church assembly.
Second, they appear to be in conflict with chapter 12 and with chapter 14 all the way up to verse 33. In chapter 12, Paul is saying that spiritual gifts are given to all believers and that all should use them. He makes no distinction between gifts given to men and gifts given to women. These gifts include ones which may be exercised in the assembled church, such as prophecy, speaking in tongues, or a message of wisdom. This discussion continues through chapter 14. Consider verse 29: “Two or three prophets should speak and the others should discern.” We know that prophets include women, so the two or three prophets who speak could include women. And the others who do the discerning, the weighing up of what is said, may also include women. So, women may be both giving prophecies and evaluating them. It is clear that women are speaking in the Corinthian assembly, and they are encouraged to do so in an orderly way, because it is their Christian duty to use their gifts to build up the body of Christ.
Third, consider the first reason given for women’s silence, which is in 1 Cor. 14:34: “For it is not permitted to them to speak, but they should be put in subjection, as also the Law says.” When Paul refers to the Law, he means what Christians usually call the Old Testament. So, what statement in the Old Testament is being referred to here? Which verse says that women are not permitted to speak or that they should be put in subjection? There isn’t anything in the Old Testament that says that. What’s going on? Has Paul made a mistake?
This issue becomes even more uncomfortable when we recognize the historical context. There is evidence of a misconception among Greek-speaking Jews in the first century that there was indeed a Scripture about woman being subordinate, as apparently cited in 1 Cor. 14:34. Such a belief can be seen in the Jewish historian Josephus, writing about 95–100 AD (Against Apion 2.25): “for, says the Scripture, ‘A woman is inferior to her husband in all things.’ Let her therefore, be obedient to him.” Strangely, verse 34 seems to reflect this misconception.
Anyone familiar with the quality of Paul’s writing, and more especially anyone who regards the New Testament as God’s Word, must view with surprise and discomfort a text where Paul apparently refers to an Old Testament Scripture which does not exist, but which some Jews of his day mistakenly believed to exist. This instance is unique in Paul’s letters.
The fourth puzzling feature is in the second reason given for women’s silence in 1 Cor. 14:35: “If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home, for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in an assembly.” This reason directly reflects the prevailing culture. In Greek and Roman public assemblies, women were not allowed to speak. This would be regarded as disgraceful. But it doesn’t make any sense for Paul to say that these cultural rules should be applied in this way. He’s already considered in chapter 11 what was honorable or disgraceful in the culture, and there he permitted women to pray and prophesy and did not require them to be silent.
Fifth, there are theories which propose that Paul does not really mean that women should be silent. He means only that a certain kind of speaking by women is prohibited. Some say the ban is on women asking questions, others that it is on women’s noisy or disruptive chatter, or on women speaking in tongues, or on women evaluating prophecies, or on women failing to conform to the proper order of worship, or on women teaching falsely, or on women making an uneducated contribution. All these theories run up against the feature that silence is commanded in unqualified terms and this unqualified ban is stated three times (“women should be silent,” “it is not permitted to them to speak,” “it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in an assembly”). Each such phrase, even on its own, indicates a complete ban on women’s speaking in the assembly. And the forcefulness of the complete ban is intensified by the rhetorical use of repetition. To make the same point three times in different ways was a common device in both Jewish and Greco-Roman discourse for expressing maximal emphasis. The combination of unqualified words and threefold repetition is an extreme difficulty for all proposals that only a particular kind of speaking is being prohibited. That is not what the words convey.
What to Do?
So, what should we do with 1 Cor. 14:34–35? Assuming these verses are authentic, no one has yet found a satisfactory solution for these five puzzles.
When I researched these verses for my book, Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts, I was surprised to learn that there is historical manuscript evidence which strongly suggests that these two verses are not an authentic part of Paul’s letter. Part of the evidence is that surviving manuscripts have the words of what we call verses 34–35 in two different positions. In most manuscripts they appear after verse 33. In some they appear after what we call verse 40.
What solution best fits all the available evidence? If they are authentic, no one has come up with a convincing explanation of why they appear in two different places in the manuscripts. I conclude in my book that these verses were probably added into Paul’s letter (see chapter 10 for discussion of the evidence and the competing theories).
You may wonder: How could that happen? How could these out-of-context words get added into copies of Paul’s letter?
Silence Added—But How and Why?
In the early decades after Paul’s martyrdom in Rome (about 67 AD), his letters were collected and copied. Circumstances had changed since Paul had written his first letter to the Corinthians (about 55 AD). The assemblies of Christians were larger and had greater public visibility. Paul had laid down a clear principle in 1 Cor. 10:31–11:1 that believers should not give unnecessary offense but should be imitators of Christ, who always put others’ interests before his own. Within chapters 11–14 Paul had shown how this principle of unselfish love for others should be applied in orderly worship. For example, those who might otherwise exercise too freely their gift of speaking in tongues should consider the negative effect on inquirers who might come into the assembly and should restrain themselves (14:23–28). Paul had also written elsewhere about this same principle of loving self-restraint for the purpose of making the Christian gospel more attractive to outsiders (Titus 2:5, 9–10). Outsiders who came into the assembly would be unlikely to receive the good news of Christ if they were shocked by a lack of decorum.
In a more public setting, women’s silence could therefore be seen as a necessary restriction, with an evangelistic motive. Paul had imposed a restriction on some women at Ephesus when circumstances required (1 Tim. 2:11–12). In the newly visible public assemblies of the church, where women’s public speaking would cause offense to unbelievers, it would have made sense to extend the Ephesian restriction so as to ban speaking by women “in the assemblies.” This would have appeared as a wise and loving strategy for diminishing social friction in a patriarchal culture. It would make it easier for outsiders to receive the Christian message.
It appears probable that in the latter part of the first century, when Paul’s letters were being collected and copied, a Greek-speaking Jewish Christian considered it important to write a comment in the margin, explaining that women should be silent in the assemblies in order to avoid disgrace in the eyes of outsiders. This would have been motivated by loyalty to the principles Paul had laid down, and by love and concern for outsiders.
If women were going to be silent, this would mean that they could not even ask questions. Aware of Paul’s teaching that women, not just men, should learn (as in 1 Tim. 2:11), he included the suggestion that, if there was anything they desired to learn, they should ask their husbands at home.
When copyists saw something written in the margin, they had a decision to make: was this just someone’s comment, or was it part of the main text, which had been written in the margin because the previous copyist had initially left it out by mistake? If it belonged in the main text, there should be a mark showing where to insert it, but such marks could wear off, or otherwise become invisible or smudged. If in doubt, scribes would tend to include the words in the main text, rather than miss anything.
Living in a patriarchal culture where women rarely spoke in public, scribes may not have been troubled by any appearance of inconsistency. They may readily have assumed that the words they saw in the margin were Paul’s words, motivated by a concern for not alienating outsiders and being an application of the Lord’s command to love, similar to that in 1 Cor. 14:23–28.
If this is right, it explains why the words appear in different places in the manuscripts. If verses 34–35 originated as an early marginal comment, written to give guidance on how to apply Paul’s principles to the new situation, there was no editing mark showing where the words should be inserted into the main text. So, scribes had to decide where to put them. It wasn’t clear where the words belonged. Thus, some opted for one position, some for the other.
At the least, our Bibles should have a footnote along the lines of: “Manuscript evidence indicates that verses 34 and 35 may be a later addition, not original to Paul, and should be omitted.” Better, verses 34–35 should be placed in italics or in a footnote, together with an explanation that the nature of the discrepancies in the manuscripts suggests that they are of doubtful authenticity.
Those who regard verses 34–35 as an inauthentic addition to the text of Paul’s letter sometimes think of the addition as a power grab by a man who wanted to enforce patriarchal culture on the church. I think it is more likely that it was a well-intentioned effort to apply our Lord’s principle of love to a new situation.
Editor’s Note: This article features analysis from Andrew Bartlett’s book, Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts. In her review,Laura Spicer Martin writes that Bartlett’s book provides a thorough and fair critique of the complementarian and egalitarian viewpoints on several key passages.
This article appears in “Freedom to Flourish: Aligning Christian Faith and Women’s Equality with Humanitarian Work,” the Summer 2020 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.
Andrew Bartlett is a keynote speaker at “Men, Women, and God: Theology and Its Impact,” CBE’s online conference September 10–11, 2021. Learn more here.