Earlier this autumn a headline in The Telegraph proclaimed: ‘Bible passage used to stop women become ordained “added later”, academic claims’. The academic in question is Dr Philip Payne, who in the October 2017 issue of New Testament Studies argues that 1 Corinthians 14.34 (“Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate”) was not part of Paul’s original text. He claims that a symbol, called a distigme-obelos which appears next to the passage shows that the writer, known as ‘scribe B’, believed it was added later. He says that scribes used these symbols to identify added text, which did not appear in the original.
Although I am a member of the scholarly society which publishes New Testament Studies, I am not an expert on the distigme-obelos. However, what may not be realised by the general public is that many scholars have questioned the authenticity of 1 Cor 14.34-36. One such scholar is Gordon Fee, a distinguished American Pentecostal New Testament scholar, in his 2014 revision of his outstanding commentary on 1 Corinthians, devoted 12 pages to arguing on textual (not theological) grounds that these verses are a ‘marginal gloss’ added by an anti-feminist Christian scribe, which in some manuscripts appear immediately after 1 Cor 14.33 – and in other manuscripts appear after 1 Cor 14.30. Fee writes:
If in fact these sentences originated with Paul in this letter, then one is faced with the only ‘displacement’ of this magnitude in the roughly twelve-century copying tradition of the entire New Testament; there is simply nothing else even remotely like it anywhere else in that history of transmission.
It has long been noticed that the passage in its present position does not fit the general flow of Paul’s thought – interestingly in the NRSV the section is put in brackets. Furthermore, the passage appears to contradict what Paul wrote earlier in 1 Cor 11.3-11 where he allows women to “pray” and “prophesy” [GNB “proclaim God’s message”]. Although it is true that we have no ancient New Testament manuscript which omits these words, nonetheless there are clearly reasons for doubting whether Paul wrote these words.
Yet even if we do accept that this passage belongs to the original text and is written by the Apostle Paul, almost certainly these words are not to be understood as a universal prohibition on women speaking in church. We have to realise that in the early churches, men and women probably did not sit together; rather, as is still the custom in Jewish synagogues today, men and women were separated. Furthermore, if public worship was conducted in the main formal language of the day – in Corinth, obviously, mainstream Greek – many women might not have been able to grasp what was being said, for being less educated than the men they might have only understood local dialects. Maybe, it has been suggested, the women, not understanding what was being said, started calling out to their husbands to explain what had been said. Alternatively, they might have got bored and begun to talk amongst themselves. Significantly, the word translated as “speak” (lalein) was never used for preaching or teaching; rather it was normally used for chattering. Interestingly in 1 Cor 12-14 the word is used for speaking in tongues – and there are some who think Paul was ticking off the women for interrupting the service by speaking in tongues!
Another point to consider is that the GNB is misleading when it says, “they must not be in charge” (1 Cor 14.34): literally, Paul says that they must ‘submit’ (hupotasso) – or as the NRSV translates, ‘be subordinate’. The question arises to whom or to what must they submit? According to Ben Witherington, “women are not being commanded to submit to their husbands, but to the principle of order”. Furthermore, Witherington argues that the law to which Paul refers is Job 29.21 which speaks of “the silence of respect for a teacher, the silence of someone who is a learner”.
This is a complex and obscure passage, and scholars have had a field day with widely differing interpretations. The general view is that, if this passage is authentic, then it must be understood as addressing a particular situation, rather than giving general guidance for Christians everywhere. We cannot deduce from this passage that women must keep silence in church today. Certainly, it cannot be interpreted as a ban on women’s ordination or a ban on women preaching today. The general thrust of Scripture is that women, where appropriately gifted, may and should exercise ministry within the church.