The Big “But”

I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist. The pitch was just hanging there, and I had to swing. But, it at least got you to read this far, so maybe it worked on some level!

This post is the fourth in a series exploring a Biblical understanding of women within the Kingdom of God. We’ve explored from the Garden of Eden through the growth of the Christian movement as described by the Gospels and Acts. In case you need to catch up on where we are, here are the links to those posts:

The feedback I’ve received on this study has been overwhelmingly positive. I truly appreciate everyone that has reached out to me with thoughts, criticisms, and encouragement.

However, every study of this topic ultimately has to deal with a couple of big “Buts:” specifically 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2. Both of these “buts” come from the letters attributed to Paul. Both contain what appear to be pretty clear-cut restrictions on women. So what do we make of these passages, and how do they apply to the church today? This post will deal with 1 Corinthians 14. My next post will tackle the “biggest but,” 1 Timothy 2.

Let me start by saying that proof-texting is a problematic exercise from the outset. It’s essential to look at the overall picture painted by the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) to develop a comprehensive and holistic view on a given topic.  Any singling out specific passages as authoritative on a stand-alone basis is incorrect if they don’t fit within the overall picture. Context matters. From my previous posts, we saw that Paul recognized, relied upon, and praised powerful, Spirit-filled women in his letters. Some of these women held positions of leadership and authority. So, how do we reconcile these two passages with the overall views of the Bible? Let’s take a closer look at this big “but.”

Two Rabbis and a Lutheran Walk Into a Classroom in Jerusalem

My first semester at Jerusalem University College exposed me to quite a few new concepts and ideas. JUC’s faculty is intentionally diverse. Everyone on the faculty is a recognized expert in their field. Many of them are Jewish. I am genuinely grateful for their perspectives and expertise. Even though I might not always agree with them theologically, they made me think and see things in a new light.

During my first semester, one of my courses was Text Studies in Midrash, Mishnah, and Gemara: The Shared Heritage of Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity. Now that’s a course title! Taught by a conservative Jewish rabbi, this course explored how the Hebrew Bible’s interpretations compared and contrasted between the New Testament writers and Jewish rabbis of the same period. If you’ve never studied rabbinic interpretive techniques, you’re in for a real trip. There were times I would find myself thinking, “Rabbi So-and-so is smoking crack!” Then we’d turn to the New Testament and see the writers using the exact same methods, coming to equally wild conclusions. I am convinced that Christianity would be much healthier if we took the time to understand the Jewish world behind the New Testament. But that’s a post for another time.

Our primary research paper for this class was to pick a passage in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) referenced and interpreted in the New Testament. We then had to find rabbinic interpretations of the scripture from the same period to compare and contrast.

I keep a mental list of passages and Biblical concepts about which I have questions. Incidentally, that list continues to get longer, not shorter. So, I had many options that I was kicking around for this paper. The paper wasn’t due until the end of the semester, so I had some time to think about it.

A few weeks later, I was sitting in my Hebrew class (taught by an Orthodox Jewish rabbi). Our professor tended to get easily sidetracked on any variety of topics—these were often equally (and sometimes more) interesting than the Hebrew lesson of the day. In that particular day’s excursion, the professor expounded upon gender-specific obligations for studying Torah within Orthodox Judaism. 

He said, “My wife does not have the same obligation to study Torah that I do as a Jewish man. She is allowed to study Torah—and she does—but she is not obligated to study it like I am.”

His comment surprised me. I’d never heard anything like this before. Was the study of the scriptures gender-based? I immediately thought of one of Paul’s problematic passages in the New Testament:

Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

1 Corinthians 14:34-35, NRSV

I’ve always been troubled by this passage because of Paul’s justification: “as the law also says.” Where precisely does “the law” (Torah) say this?

If your Bible has footnotes, it might cross-reference this verse with either Genesis 3:16 or Numbers 12:1-16. The very fact that different translations cross-reference different verses should tell you that there are some issues here. I’ve already discussed Genesis 2 and 3 in a previous post, so I’m not rehashing it here. I will only say that if Paul is referencing Genesis 3:16, it’s a poor exegesis of the Genesis account to come to that conclusion. It’s also inconsistent with Acts and his other letters. Furthermore, it reflects a poor understanding of the Kingdom of God—which I don’t think fits with Paul’s theology.

Translations that mention Numbers 12 are, in my opinion, equally off. In this story, Moses’s siblings (Aaron and Miriam) take issue with him taking a “Cushite wife.” God isn’t thrilled with this family intervention and puts everyone in their place. Miriam is afflicted with a temporary skin disease for her role in the affair. Aaron gets off with a verbal warning. In some sense, the punishments seem unbalanced. Was Miriam any more guilty than Aaron? The text does not give that impression. Then why was Miriam given physical discipline and Aaron not? The answer may lie in Aaron’s role as high priest. He is responsible for all the necessary sacrifices for the people. If Aaron were afflicted with the same skin disease, he could not fulfill his priestly duties, and the entire nation would be at risk. With that in mind, I argue that Miriam’s punishment is a warning to both of them. Regardless, this passage doesn’t seem to fit Paul’s argument either.

Incidentally, the rabbinic literature views this situation very differently. Rabbinic literature doesn’t interpret this as Moses taking a second wife. They connect several passages to determine that Moses was abstaining from sexual relations with his original wife to maintain a ritually pure state to meet with God on-demand. In effect, the rabbis taught that Moses made the personal choice to become celibate—apparently without consulting his wife. Miriam and Aaron’s intervention was to correct a brewing marital problem between Moses and his wife. Paul likely knew these traditions, providing further evidence that this isn’t the Torah passage that Paul references.

But, I digress. In light of my Hebrew professor’s statement, my immediate thought was that Paul might be referring to some rabbinic tradition. Perhaps Paul makes this statement because women did not study the scriptures to the same degree as men. I thought this could be an excellent topic for the paper!

So, I went to meet with my Rabbinics professor to propose my topic. Our conversation went something like this:

“So, I’m thinking of writing my paper on 1 Corinthians 14:34 where Paul says that women should be silent in the churches because that’s what Torah says,” I said, “But I can’t find anywhere in Torah that says that. I thought there might be something in Rabbinic litera—”

“Wait,” he said, “Paul said what?”

“He said women should be silent in the churches because that’s what Torah says,” I replied.

He reached for my Bible and said, “Let me see that!”

I handed him my Bible opened to the passage and read it.

Shaking his head, he said, “This is really strange. I have no idea what Paul’s referring to. There’s nothing in Torah that says this there’s nothing in the early rabbinic literature that says this either. On top of that, we know from archaeology that this wasn’t the case in synagogues either. This is just weird! No. You can’t write your paper on this. What other ideas do you have?”

Well, so much for removing this question from my list.

The following semester, I took a course on Hermeneutics of Old Testament Texts in Jewish and Christian Traditions—another class with a long title. In many ways, this course was the follow-on to my Rabbinic Midrash class. It focused on how the early church fathers interpreted the Old Testament as compared to their rabbinic counterparts. A patristics scholar taught the course. She was also an ordained Lutheran pastor. A native of Germany, she was equally conversant in Hebrew, Greek, English, and Latin. Her lectures were often a mix of all five—sometimes in the same sentence.

After class one afternoon, I asked her about this passage in 1 Corinthians. I recounted my conversation from the previous semester and asked for her perspective.

In her soft-spoken, German accent she said, “You are correct, Torah does not state this. It would help if you considered this passage in its context. Paul is not talking about Torah. Here when he uses the word nomos, he is talking about Roman civil law or customs.”

Now we were getting somewhere! You see, Paul has one word in Greek that he uses for all sorts of “laws.” That word is nomos (νόμος). It’s the word the Greek translation of the Old Testament (aka the Septuagint or LXX) uses for Torah. Unfortunately, Paul has a single word at his disposal, whether he’s talking about Torah, Roman law, “the law of sin and death,” or any of the other myriad of ways Paul uses it. The fact that New Testament Greek seems to be so word-poor in this area has been the source of incredible frustration, misunderstanding, antisemitism, and downright lousy theology for centuries.

But Is it a Sin?

There’s another often-overlooked clue in the text. In verse 35, Paul says, “For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” Some versions say “disgraceful.” Note what Paul doesn’t say. He doesn’t say it’s sinful. In the patriarchal context of the Pater Familias, the honor of the family was of prime importance. To do something considered dishonorable by society could have economic, political, and social consequences for the entire family, the Pater Familias. Therefore, in this context, Paul seems to be concerned with how the church’s activities might upset the social applecart. If the community was seeking to spread the Gospel to their non-Christian friends and neighbors, they needed to be wise about how they acted. Paul seems to be making a cultural concession here for the good of the greater mission of the church.

Incidentally, earlier in 1 Corinthians, Paul acknowledges that women were praying and prophesying within the church assemblies. What we seem to forget is that he has absolutely no issue with it! He only asks that they do it with their heads covered—in keeping with cultural/social norms. Again, be mindful of how you represent the Gospel of Jesus to unbelievers.

Bridging the Culture Gap

So how do we apply this passage within the modern church? Do we take this as a universal commandment for all time, or is it a cultural accommodation for a specific time and place? Paul’s overarching concern is the spread of the Gospel. He makes this point clear earlier in this letter to the church at Corinth:

For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the Gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

1 Corinthians 9:12-23

By the way, did you notice the different ways that Paul uses the word “law” in this passage? It can be really annoying (and confusing). But I digress. Paul was a master at threading the cultural complexities of his day to proclaim the Good News of Jesus the Messiah. He adapts the practicalities of his ministry without sacrificing the core message.

I think that’s a good measure for God’s people today. What are we willing to do to share the Good News of Jesus? How do we maintain the message while adapting to the practical considerations of our culture?

Years ago, the late missionary ‘Tex’ Williams told me a story about preaching in the small rural villages of South Africa. These villages maintained many ancient cultural customs of their tribes. One such tradition was that the men and women all went topless. Did he ask the women to put on more modest attire before preaching the Gospel? Of course not. The Good News of Jesus crosses cultural divides and dress codes.

Most of my readers live in Western culture. That culture is rapidly losing its patriarchal traits—some would argue not fast or far enough. Women as equals with men—even challenging men—is not shameful. In many ways, it’s encouraged. We value the diversity of opinions and recognize the strength that comes from listening, dialoguing, and challenging each other—regardless of our sex. To force the church back into Patriarchy damages our witness to the Good News of Jesus. Paul makes clear that the Gospel is for all and that all are one in Christ Jesus—regardless of sex, race, social standing, or occupation.

Isn’t it time the church remembers Paul’s strategy? “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”

It’s OK if this makes you uncomfortable. It took Paul some time to process the Gospel. I would encourage you to see how the Holy Spirit is working through the Spirit-filled women in your assemblies. Seek out their wisdom. Value their prophetic voice. Consider reading some of the fantastic female Biblical authors and scholars. After you’ve done that, tell me if you really think that God isn’t calling them out of the patriarchal shadows of the church.

8 thoughts

  1. Thanks for this very interesting series. I have always found it interesting that the Bible never tells us explicitly how to interpret itself. We’ve made a lot of rules that are very different from the way New Testament writers interpreted their Scriptures. This past year I read Richard Hayes book, Echoes of scripture in the gospels as well as Minding the gap, a book about second temple Judaism by a Rice professor. Very eye-opening for a lay person like me. I had known Paul and Peter would get an F on their exegesis paper in traditional seminary


    • Thanks, Alan! Paul definitely does some “fearless” exegesis. I’m going to deal with one of those in my next post.

      I think the Bible leaves a lot of the practical interpretation (i.e., “how then should we live…”) open. I think that’s part of what Jesus tells Peter with the whole “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven” speech. In some sense, I find that terrifying, but in another, it’s quite liberating.


      • Yes Jesus’ standard of John 7:24 that we must make a righteous judgement is sometimes is a bar too high. There are days I’d rather just take my 10 simple rules for life instead.

        Looking forward to Timothy.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Rob; Thank you so much for this thread. I’m already looking forward to Timothy. I find your revelation of the Jewish Rabbinic tradition and interpret ions very informing. When I asked my former Jewish neighbor (who passed away several years ago) about those, she was just astonished that a christian would even know about them. It opened up a lot of discussions over the years as we would visit. This study has broadened my thinking and I appreciate all of your hard work,


  3. Pingback: The Biggest “But” | Stepping into the Jordan

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