1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women: Cultural and Historical Background...

Ancient Codex.jpg

One of the first things that we must understand about this text before we look into the cultural and historical background is just exactly what is going on here.

What is the problem that Paul is addressing with this prohibition of women (married women with believing husbands) speaking in the church?

So again, as we will do throughout this series, we look first at the text itself.

33For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.   

    As in all the churches of the saints, 34the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. (ESV)

The ESV here does a good job illuminating for us the problem that Paul is addressing. The issue here is not that these women (a particular subset of the women at the church in Corinth) were teaching, preaching, gossiping, or talking to men that were not their husbands (although these have all been suggestions made by scholars and church leaders alike). What does the text say?

35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. (ESV, emphasis mine)

The text appears to imply that Paul is taking issue with these (married) women asking questions in the public worship/assembly.

Now for most of us this is an entirely foreign idea. This is because when we think about the public assembly (a.k.a. Sunday morning or whenever else you might have a "worship service") the sermon or message is rarely (if ever) interactive.

In other words, the one delivering the message/sermon gets up and gives a lecture/sermon with little or no engagement with the members of the congregation. There is certainly not (in my experience) a time for engaging questions during the sermon. 

But what we have to recognize is that our worship services, especially around the idea of preaching/teaching is much different than what we would have found in the church in Corinth to which Paul gives this prohibition to the married women with believing husbands.

To understand why this (married women asking questions in the public assembly) would be a problem it is important for us to understand three seperate yet interconnected elements of the historical and cultural background of this passage and the world in which they lived: The value/prominance of women, the education (or lack thereof) of women and the predominant teaching style of the day. 

VALUE AND PROMINENCE OF WOMEN IN THE 1ST CENTURY GREEK AND ROMAN WORLD

To learn about the prominence and value (or lack thereof) of women in the 1st century we will look at four men who are rough contemporaries of the New Testament. Plutarch (46-120AD), Philo of Alexandria (20BC-50AD),  Josephus (c. 37-100AD), and Cicero (106-43BC) help us to understand the prevailing views of women and their abiliities to learn.

Cicero writes

"Our ancestors, in their wisdom, considered that all women, because of their innate weakness, should be under the control of guardians."

Philo of Alexandria writes:

 Market-places and council-halls and law-courts and gatherings and meetings, where a large number of people are assembled, and open-air life with full scope for discussion and action – all these are suitable to men in both war and peace. The women are best suited to the indoor life which never strays from the house.... Organized communities are of two sorts, the greater which we call cities and the smaller which we call households. Both of these have their governors; the government of the greater is assigned to men under the name of statesmanship, that of the lesser, known as household management, to women (Special Laws 3.169-70).

Josephus, when talking about the role of women (especially in marriage) writes:

"But, then, what are our laws about marriage? That law owns no other mixture of sexes but that which nature hath appointed, of a man with his wife, and that this be used only for the procreation of children. But it abhors the mixture of a male with a male; and if any one do that, death is its punishment. It commands us also, when we marry, not to have regard to portion, nor to take a woman by violence, nor to persuade her deceitfully and knavishly; but to demand her in marriage of him who hath power to dispose of her, and is fit to give her away by the nearness of his kindred; for, says the Scripture, "A woman is inferior to her husband in all things." (Against Apion, Book 2.25)

(By the way that quote from Scripture is found nowhere in Scripture.)

Plutarch has some of the following advice for married women...

...a virtuous woman ought to be most visible in her husband's company, and to stay in the house and hide herself when he is away.

A wife ought not to make friends of her own, but to enjoy her husband's friends in common with him.

Not only the arm of the virtuous woman, but her speech as well, ought to be not for the public, and she ought to be modest and guarded about saying anything in the hearing of outsiders, since it is an exposure of herself; for in her talk can be seen her feelings, character, and disposition.

Not exactly a picture of women that would go over very well in 21st century America you think?

EDUCATION OF WOMEN IN THE 1ST CENTURY ROMAN AND GREEK WORLD

As we have seen in some of the quotations just mentioned one of (if not the primary) role of women was to give birth to children and manage the household. Women in the first century Gentile world were typically educated (whether formally in schools or at home is of some historical debate) until their arrival at the age of marriage. For Greeks this was typically 14 and for Romans it was 16-18. Men on the other hand were educated well into their 20's and married around the age of 30. It was important for a man to be well educated in order to be a fully functioning citizen, for women, who obviously had a different place in life and in society, this formal education was not nearly as important.

STYLE OF TEACHING IN THE 1ST CENTURY ROMAN AND GREEK WORLD

The most influential individual on the nature of teaching in the first century Greco-Roman world was none other than Socrates (469-399BC). His style of teaching came to be known as the Socratic Method.

(Side note: I like the Socratic method as a teacher. I fully employ the first two of these three elements of his method and understand the value of all three for teaching. This is not a slight to Socrates, but it is an excellent window into the cultural background of this passage, as we will see shortly.)

There are three elements to the Socratic method of teaching.

(1) Learning is directed primarily by a balance of question and debate.

(2) The goal was to strengthen your position or understanding of an issue or topic by engaging with people of other views and perspectives.

(3) Only advanced were allowed to ask questions and debate with the teacher.

By the way, this is not even a purely Gentile idea. We see something almost identical in the rules for participation in the Jewish Sanhedrin (Tosefta Sanhedrin 7:10) as well as in the writings of others like Plutarch (On Listening to Lectures)

So now we must come back to the text itself to reframe what we have observed thus far...

33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.   

    As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. (ESV, emphasis mine)

The problem here is that these (married) women are asking questions in the assembly and are therefore being disruptive and doing what is "shameful".

Certainly the problem for Paul is not that they want to learn!! The issue therefore must be the way in which they are going about learning.

Remember the third rule of the Socratic method: Only the advanced students are allowed to ask questions and debate with the teacher.

In the eyes of the present culture in the 1st century and also in formal education who would be the advanced students and who would be the novices? The obvious answer is that the men would be considered the advanced students, and the women the novices.

Therefore, it would be inappropriate or "shameful" (we'll look more closely at this term in the next post) for a (married) woman to publicly ask a question of the teacher.

ISN'T THIS SEXIST OR AT LEAST DEGRADING TO MARRIED WOMEN?

In our culture this passage could certainly be understood that way. But here is what I think Paul is doing...

The asking of questions by these married women in the public assembly (a cultural "no-no") was having two damaging effects: (1) These women weren't learning and (2) their was division/conflict in the congregation. So here, Paul has negotiated a culturally-sensitive while still innovative solution. These women will choose to submit to the cultural expectations of their day, and their husbands will be responsible for their spiritual development and growth at home. The tension in the congregation has been relieved and the woman's attempt to learn has also been made successful. 

The idea that husbands would be concerned about and willing to help in the education of their wives (in any fashion) was extremely progressive for the culture in which Paul writes this letter. This is not a "backwards" solution that holds men up as superior and women as inferior and unimportant. Instead, this solution keeps the peace in the community of faith and values the desire of these women to learn alongside their husbands. 

SUMMARY

So, in this post we have seen that the issue occuring here in Corinth is not that women are attempting to lead or to take over, but that they are violating the cultural boundaries in their approach to learning. This helps us make sense of the immediate context:

33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. (ESV)

And it also helps us make sense of the larger context (all of 1 Corinthians 14) which revolves around the idea of public speech being beneficial for the congregation instead of a distraction or source of confusion or offense.

There is much more to cover in this passage as we press on in the next post with a couple of translation questions about the terms "silent", "submission", and "shameful". Stay tuned...