Thursday, February 28, 2019

A reading of 1 Corinthians 14:33b-34a

1 Corinthians 14:33b-34a is one of the “hard texts” of the New Testament. The RSV translates it as:

As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches.

Besides the fact that this is a hard saying, a textual difficulty is that earlier in the letter, at 11:5, Paul has no objection to women prophesying or praying (it seems very likely that praying would be out loud), though it has been suggested that this was outside of a liturgical context. Nor does later Church practice prohibit women from joining in vocal prayer during the liturgy.

I assume that the second "the churches" means "the churches of Corinth", while the first "the churches" refers to the churches more generally. And yesterday at our Department Bible study, I was struck by the fact that the “As” (Greek hōs) that begins the text can be read as “In the manner of”. On that reading, the first sentence of the hard text does not say that women should keep silent in the Corinthian churches. Rather, it says that women should keep silent in the Corinthian churches in the way and to the extent to which they keep silent in the other churches. In other words, women should only speak up in Corinthian liturgies at the points at which women speak up in non-Corinthian liturgies. This is compatible with women having various speaking roles—but only as long as they have these roles in “all the churches of the saints.”

(Note, however, that some versions punctuate differently, and make “As in all the churches of the saints” qualify what came earlier rather than what comes afterwards. My reading requires the RSV’s punctuation. Of course, the original has no punctuation.)

On this reading, the first sentence of the text is an application of a principle of liturgical uniformity between the churches, and Paul could equally well have said the same thing about the men. But the text suggests to me that there was some particular problem, which we can only speculate about, that specifically involved disorderly liturgical participation by Corinthian women, in addition to other problems of disorderly participation that Paul discusses earlier in the chapter.

The difficulty for my reading is the next sentence, however:

For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. (1 Cor. 14:34b, RSV)

I would want to read this with “speak” restricted to the kinds of speech not found in the other churches. Perhaps in the other churches, there was no “chatting in the pews”, or socializing during the liturgy (Mowczko in a very nice summary of interpretations notes that this is St. John Chrystostom’s interpretation).

Another interpretation is that “the law” here is Roman law or Corinthian custom (though I don’t know that in Koine Greek “nomos” can still cover custom, like it can in classical Greek), so that Paul is reprising a motif of noting that the Corinthians are behaving badly even by their own cultural standards.

I don’t know that my reading is right. I think it is a little bit more natural to read the Greek as having a complete prohibition on women speaking, but my reading seems to be grammatically permissible, and one must balance naturalness of language with consistency in a text (in this case, consistency with 11:5). And in the case of a Biblical text, I also want an interpretation compatible with divine inspiration.


Aron Wall said...

Some scholars think these verses were not part of the original text, see here for more info.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I'm finding myself more sympathetic now to Chrysostom's idea that Paul is talking of idle chatter. I think about how I would tell a child to be quiet and not talk in church, without this excluding their participation in vocal prayer.

scott said...

This video Josh Rasmussen posted on Facebook presents an interesting hypothesis.