Traditionally, two short passages in the New Testament have been used by the church to silence and deactivate half the assembly. Those would be 1 Timothy 2:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-36. Jon Zens (with a goodly number of others) believes these verses have been wrongly interpreted and wrongly applied. He makes a good case for his position in the newly released What’s With Paul and Women? Unlocking the Cultural Background to 1 Timothy 2. While diving head first into the original language and technical aspects of interpretation, he also illuminates the cultural factors at work in Ephesus during the time Timothy spent with the church there.
This is a short, fascinating, and enlightening read. I’ve never been a big feminist. I’ve always felt I and other women I know have been treated well by the males (well the normal ones) around us, as well as by society in general. Well, we live in the modern world, in the United States. Of course we’ve been treated well. I was ready to accept the strictures placed on women by the church, or at least the churches I’ve been involved in. They didn’t amount to much and were laxly enforced, if at all. But my experience isn’t the same as that encountered by many women, and reading some of the injustices in Jon’s book really made me mad.
And reading 1 Cortinthians 14:34-36 made me mad, too, and I always knew in the back of my mind that there was something there I wasn’t “getting,” so I’d push it to the back of the shelf until God saw fit to clue me in as to what was going on there. The main part of What’s With Paul is concerned with linguistic technicalities and cultural factors in Ephesus, but the insults in 1 Corinthians actually bothered me more, so that’s what I’m going to talk about. Here’s the whole passage:
Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church. What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only? If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord. But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant.
(1Co 14:34-38 KJV)
In 1 Corinthians, Paul is responding to a letter (which we don’t have) that he had received from the church in Corinth. We know this from things he says in the letter. He also has a habit of quoting the letter before giving his response. Since quotation marks (and other punctuation) hadn’t yet been invented, and since we don’t have the original letter that sparked the exchange, it’s hard for us to tell where this is happening. We have to rely on the context and on our knowledge of the sorts of things Paul is likely (or unlikely) to say. This occurs in numerous places in 1 Corinthians, but I didn’t think about that when reading the above passage. Fortunately, other people have thought of it, and Jon has included their insight in his book.
The bit about the woman’s voice being shameful ‘as the law also says’ is mysterious because, if you’ve read the Old Testament, you know that the Law says nothing of the sort. That’s the key. It isn’t in the Old Testament, but in the Rabbonical writings called the Talmud. To the Jews of that day, the Talmud, not the scriptures, constituted the law. The Talmud is absolutely vicious toward women. Hateful, condescending, and demeaning. That was the law written by the Rabbis that superseded the writings of Moses and the prophets and made them of none effect. (Jesus complained about that, you’ll remember.)
The whole thing is also weird because it seems inconsistent with Paul’s general attitude toward the women he mentions in particular in other places. He never says anything remotely resembling this kind of insulting language anywhere else in his writings. Jesus certainly doesn’t. He sends the woman at the well off to evangelize her town and commends her work to his (male) disciples, saying others (she) have sown and they will now enter into the labors of the others as reapers of the harvest. The other apostles likewise never say anything like this. Not in the Old Testament, the sayings of Jesus, the sayings of the other apostles, or elsewhere in Paul’s attitude or speech–what’s going on here? Try reading it like this:
Corinthian letter: “The law says, ‘Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.’ But our women insist in speaking up, prophesying, making a shameful display clean contrary to the law. Tell them to shut up!”
Paul: “What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only? If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord. But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant.”
And that’s just one of the appendices. The main body of the book deals with the strictures imposed on women based on the 1 Timothy 2 passage. It also addresses several other areas where the ‘place’ of women is addressed. Rarely can I say that I find nothing with which to disagree in a book–but hey, it’s a short book. Lots of good stuff here. I find Jon Zens convincing and thorough. Check out the book and let me know what you think of it.