Buried Talents: “Women should remain silent” (The First Century woman)

In light of the questions we asked in the last post, we should consider the very real possibility that Paul’s command was caused by temporary cultural circumstances that no longer apply.

There is considerable support from history that First Century Jewish and Grecian women were very uneducated and lived extremely sheltered lives. This was especially so among the Jews, who formed the core of most congregations in the church’s early history. The questioning of a teacher by such women would have been ignorant and a burden on the time of the men. Thus, the women had to be brought to a better understanding by some means other than remedial instruction before the entire congregation.

Also in support of this view is the phrase, “If she should learn anything … ” (KJV. The NIV incorrectly translates “inquire about” rather than “learn.”) This language seems to be a reference to the extreme lack of education and degradation of women of the day. Few women could read or write and few could have profitably participated in the Socratic debates that characterized teaching in ancient Greece and Judea.

Thus, Paul begins with an “if.” He does not assume that the woman will choose to learn anything. This is not due to Paul’s sexism, but a simple recognition of the degraded state of women in those days. In fact, Paul’s encouraging of the education of women put him well out in front of society (which took nearly 2,000 years to catch up with Paul!), although very much in step with Jesus.

Similarly, the asking of questions of a teacher could often become a confrontation. In a society where submissive women did not provoke confrontations with men (especially before an audience) such as the First Century Roman Empire, no Christian woman would have been considered moral or honoring God if she engaged in a debate with the teacher before the congregation (all or a part). “Silence” therefore refers only to the asking of questions — or more precisely, to engaging in Socratic-style debating with the teacher.

Jewish women

The ignorance of women in the First Century was not unique to the Jews, but the Jews of that time took special care to keep their women ignorant. There was a saying that wives should only be taught enough of the Torah (the Law) to know the penalty for adultery! And there was no exaggeration in the saying.

This conclusion is buttressed by history:

In Jewish law a woman was not a person; she was a thing. She was entirely at the disposal [of] her father or of her husband. A woman was forbidden to learn the law; to instruct a woman in the law was to cast pearls before swine. Women had no part in the Synagogue service; they were shut apart in a section of the Synagogue, or in a gallery, where they could not be seen, and were allowed no share in the service. A man came to the Synagogue to learn; but, at the most, a woman came to hear. In the Synagogue the lesson from Scripture was read by members of the congregation; but not by women, for that would have been to lessen “the honour of the congregation.” It was absolutely forbidden for a woman to teach in a school; she might not even teach the youngest children. A woman was exempt from the stated demand of the Law. It was not obligatory on her to attend the sacred feasts and festivals. Women, slaves and children were classed together. … Rabbi Jose ben Johanan is quoted as saying, “ … Everyone that talketh much with a woman causes evil to himself, and desists from the works of the Law, and his end is that he inherits Gehenna.”

William Barclay, The Letters to Timothy, Titus and Philemon—The Daily Study Bible (Westminster Press, Philadelphia, Pa., 2nd ed. 1960), page 77. Barclay also notes that among the Jews, a strict follower of the Jewish Talmud would not even speak to his own sister in public.

That Paul had the Jews especially in mind is evidenced by his exclamation at the end of the paragraph, “Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?” Certainly the word of God originated with the Jews. It had reached many other nations, but in the church’s early history, the other churches were largely either Jewish or had a large Jewish component. Thus, the “disgrace” referred to by Paul was particularly in the eyes of the Jewish members of the congregation, the people from whom the word of God originated.

It would seem, therefore, that there is ample evidence in the text that Paul had concluded that preservation of unity and fellowship with the Jewish members and congregations demanded that women take a submissive role in certain church services.

Grecian women

Corinth was a very cosmopolitan city, being a major port and a Roman colony. Corinth had been destroyed by the Romans and then rebuilt as a colony. But the city was squarely in the middle of Greece, and all north-south land traffic had to go through Corinth. Moreover, Corinth was an important east-west port city, making it one of the Empire’s premier commercial centers. By the First Century, Corinthian culture was predominantly Greek, but highly mixed.

Due to its wealth and vigorous trade, Corinth had also become notoriously immoral. The city worshipped Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and her temple had 1,000 temple prostitutes who plied their trade on the streets of the city. Immorality was not only common, it was considered a religious duty!

Osburn quotes the Grecian historian Plutarch, a near contemporary of Paul, wrote in Conjugal Precepts 31:

Not only the arm but the voice of a modest woman ought to be kept from the public, and she should feel shame at being heard, as at being stripped. … She should speak either to, or through, her husband.

Barclay comments,

The respectable Greek woman lived a very confined life. She lived in her own quarters into which no one but her husband came. She did not even appear at meals. She never at any time appeared on the street alone: she never went to any public assembly, still less did she ever speak or take any active part in such an assembly. The fact is that if in a Greek town Christian women had taken an active and a speaking and a teaching part in the work of the Christian Church, the Church would inevitably have gained the reputation of being the resort of loose and immoral women.

The risk of being considered immoral was, therefore, very real. Moreover, to appease the sensibilities of the various levels of society, especially the Jews, strict rules would have to be followed. Thus, the silence commanded is the avoidance of such speech as might open the women to charges of moral laxity as measured by the culture of the community. Thus, the direct addressing of a man, where a woman engages in conversation or debate with someone else’s husband, would be a violation of propriety. This conclusion is supported by Paul’s statement that such speech is “disgraceful.”

Everett Ferguson concedes the low estate of Jewish women of this age but points out, “There were plenty of priestesses in Greco-Roman religions, and one historian of ancient Rome, Carcopino, describes a women’s emancipation movement in Rome in the first century.”

Ferguson misses some key points. First, the fact that there was an emancipation movement for women plainly tells us that women felt the need to be emancipated. Moreover, there is no evidence that the movement succeeded. Recall the Women’s Suffrage Movement of the early 20th Century. Women actually prevailed, gaining the right to vote, and yet continued to suffer severe discrimination for decades thereafter. If a successful emancipation movement doesn’t necessarily grant women equal legal rights, plainly a failed emancipation movement hardly proves that women were emancipated.

Finally, the fact that women could serve as priestesses in pagan religions doesn’t indicate emancipation in their roles as housewives — or even as priestesses. In fact, many of the priestesses were little more than prostitutes, certainly not an elevated status.

“Own”

Notice the word “own” in 14:35. The KJV fails to translate idios (“own”), but most modern translations do. Wives are to ask their own husbands at home.

Strong’s Dictionary translates idios as “pertaining to self, i.e. one’s own; by implication, private or separate.” Thus, the meaning is not just that the wife should ask her husband at home, but that she should ask her own husband — and not someone else’s husband!

The command is thus a prohibition on conversation between a woman and another woman’s husband. And this makes perfect sense. It would have been unseemly in First Century society for married women to speak freely to married men. Such consorting would have opened the church up to accusations of unchastity.

Summary

In context, and taking into account the emphasis on a woman speaking to her own husband, the command is a prohibition on speaking to another woman’s husband. It is, therefore, a command founded on the appearance of immorality in a society where women were not permitted to speak in public to men other than their own husbands. Paul’s command is therefore a reference to local cultural standards.

The sense of Paul’s teaching can be seen in an example from the mission field:

My mother used to compare the situation in Corinth to the one she and my father faced in northern China. Back in the 1920s when they were first to bring God’s message to that forgotten area, they found women with bound feet who seldom left their homes and who, unlike the men, had never in their whole lives attended a public meeting or a class. They had never been told as little girls, “Now you just sit still and listen to the teacher.” Their only concept of an assembly was a family feast where everyone talked at once.

When these women came to my parents’ church and gathered on the women’s side of the sanctuary, they thought this was a chance to catch up on the news with their neighbors and to ask questions about the story of Jesus they were hearing. Needless to say, along with babies crying and toddlers running about, the women’s section got rather noisy! Add to that the temptation for the women to shout questions to their husbands across the aisle, and you can imagine the chaos. As my mother patiently tried to tell the women that they should listen first and chitchat or ask questions later, she would mutter under her breath, “Just like Corinth; it just couldn’t be more like Corinth.”

Kari Torjesen Malcolm, Women at the Crossroads (Downers Grove, IL; InterVarsity, 1982), pages 73-74, as quoted by John Temple Bristow, What Paul Really Said About Women (San Francisco, CA; HarperCollins, 1991), page 64.

N. T. Wright gives a similar explanation –
In the Middle East, [Ken Bailey] says, it was taken for granted that men and women would sit apart in church, as still happens today in some circles. Equally important, the service would be held (in Lebanon, say, or Syria, or Egypt), in formal or classical Arabic, which the men would all know but which many of the women would not, since the women would only speak a local dialect or patois. Again, we may disapprove of such an arrangement, but one of the things you learn in real pastoral work as opposed to ivory-tower academic theorizing is that you simply can’t take a community all the way from where it currently is to where you would ideally like it to be in a single flying leap. Anyway, the result would be that during the sermon in particular, the women, not understanding what was going on, would begin to get bored and talk among themselves. As Bailey describes the scene in such a church, the level of talking from the women’s side would steadily rise in volume, until the minister would have to say loudly, ‘Will the women please be quiet!’, whereupon the talking would die down, but only for a few minutes. Then, at some point, the minister would again have to ask the women to be quiet; and he would often add that if they wanted to know what was being said, they should ask their husbands to explain it to them when they got home.
Avatar of Jay Guin

About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
This entry was posted in Role of Women, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

0 Responses to Buried Talents: “Women should remain silent” (The First Century woman)

  1. Alan says:

    we should consider the very real possibility that Paul’s command was caused by temporary cultural circumstances that no longer apply

    We shouldn't have to keep going over this point. Paul gave his reasons in the parallel passage, 1 Tim 2:11-14. And those reasons had nothing to do with cultural circumstances. The reason had nothing to do with the place of women in Jewish culture. It had nothing to do with the place of women in Corinthian culture. Let's take Paul at his word. He told us the real reasons. Let's stop trying to make up alternatives. We have Paul's own words (inspired by the Holy Spirit) so we don't need to discuss theories from men like Barclay and Wright and others. Paul answered the question for us.

  2. Kyle says:

    Alan,

    We should still deal with this, there is much room for interpretation…plus I enjoy it. For one, Paul says, "And Adam was not the one decieved; it was the woman who was decieved and became a sinner."

    Not to disagree with Paul's interpretation of Scripture….but that doesn't seem to be a correct interpretation of the Genesis account. Gen. 3: 6, "Also gave some to her husband who was with her." If Adam was with her, then Adam was just as decieved as Eve was.
    Also, since Adam was the first one told not to eat the fruit, it was his responsibility to clearly educate Eve (After all God never said not to even touch the tree..where did she get that idea from). There is failure on both of their parts.
    Lastly Romans 5, Paul writes, "just as sin entered the world through one man"…. weird how in one verse sin enters through Adam and in another Eve is the sinner. There is inconsistency here.

    And what does Paul mean by "she will be saved through childbearing." I've read a number of commentators no one is 100% certain…and those who are are lying…or just haven't thought it through well enough.

    There are inconsistencies with Paul's face value reasoning. And we cannot presume that the Bible was written in a cultural void. It plays a part regardless of whether it is clearly stated or not.

  3. Jay Guin says:

    Alan wrote,

    Paul gave his reasons in the parallel passage, 1 Tim 2:11-14. And those reasons had nothing to do with cultural circumstances.

    It's not true. First, 1 Tim was written decades after 1 Cor 14. It's not like the Corinthians could have pulled out their Bibles and figured Paul out from 1 Tim!

    Second, in 1 Tim 2, Paul explains his commands that women not usurp authority or teach men. He says nothing about women being silent.

    Some translations translate hesuchios "silent" but that's error. "Sigao" is the word translated "silent" in 1 Cor 14. In 1 Tim 2:11-12, Paul uses "hesuchios" which is the very same word translated "peaceable" in 1 Tim 2:2. It does not mean "not speaking." It means peaceable, which fits the context nicely, as it's in contrast to "usurp authority" (which we'll be getting to later).

    Hence, we can't take Paul's reasoning for entirely different commands in 1 Tim 2 and apply them to 1 Cor 14.

    But Paul did give his reasons in 1 Cor 14, which I'll be dealing with in future posts. Why not let Paul's explanation in 1 Cor 14 be sufficient?

    The reason Paul gives, which is surely true, is that "they must be in submission as the Law says." 14:34. Which leaves us with the central question: just what does the law say about women being silent? How does being silent constitute being in submission?

  4. Alan says:

    Second, in 1 Tim 2, Paul explains his commands that women not usurp authority or teach men. He says nothing about women being silent.

    1 Tim 2:11-12 (RSV)
    11 Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness.
    12 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent.

    NIV, HCSB, and others agree.

    Paul didn't offer the explanation to the Corinthians. But he did call on their prophets to confirm that it was a command of God. The fact remains that he did explain the reason in 1 Tim 2, and that explanation was inspired by the Holy Spirit. So we have the explanation, and we don't need to come up with a new one.

  5. Nick Gill says:

    I guess unmarried women are out of luck in the whole "seeking to be baptized" department.

    Since it is sinful for a woman to speak to any man save her own husband according to Alan's reading of 1 Tim 2 and 1 Cor 14, she would have to repent of the sin of asking to be baptized BEFORE she could be baptized. And since we know that repentance includes not being able to profit from one's prior sins, she is completely out of luck.

  6. Nick Gill says:

    You've really got to help me understand on what grounds we assume that Paul meant peaceable when talking about our lives, but silent when talking about women.

    Because that sounds (AT BEST) like circular reasoning.

    He must have meant silent because he was talking about women. Women must be silent because Paul must have meant silent, even though in the same passage he clearly DOESN'T mean silent.

    We cannot act like 5000 years of female subjugation does not stand behind the translation of Scripture. Some people seem surprised that men might honestly believe that translations might be in error due to such a sin.

  7. Alan says:

    Nick and Jay,

    I don't think any of the three of us has sufficient credentials as a Greek scholar to take those teams of translators to task for translating that word as "silent." But to offer another data point, here is what Thayer says of the word:

    Thayer Definition:
    1) quietness
    1a) description of the life of one who stays at home doing his own work, and does not officiously meddle with the affairs of others
    2) silence

    And Strong:
    Feminine of G2272; (as noun) stillness, that is, desistance from bustle or language: – quietness, silence.

    We've always ridiculed the JW's for having to make their own translation to support their peculiar doctrine. Let's not go down that path.

  8. Nick Gill says:

    Alan,

    You're going to have to help us understand when a scholar is acceptable and when we should ignore them. Just within this string, you've said we don't need to discuss scholarly opinions because we have Scripture AND that we're not scholarly enough to understand Scripture.

    Practical (as opposed to theoretical) female equality is hardly a "peculiar doctrine." I don't have to manipulate Genesis 1 & 2 or Galatians 3:28 to prove it.

    I understand your warning, but point to the JWs is like saying, "Hitler used trains to transport people, so we shouldn't do it either." It won't help solve the problem, and neither has ridiculing the JWs.

    Also, I am not advocating interpretation primarily on the basis of word study, but I still think that we need to look at the different passages where it is used.

    Those are:

    Acts 22:2
    1 Tim 2:2
    1 Tim 2:11
    1 Tim 2:12
    1 Thess 3:12
    1 Pet 3:4

    Each one of these passages can be clearly translated with the word "stillness" or "quietness" or "peacefulness." Therefore, the burden of proof should remain on the one who would use a tertiary definition when

    A) the primary definition fits the situation perfectly, and
    B) there is another word (like sigao) which the author often uses, whose primary definition more closely fits the idea we think is being communicated.

    Conclusion: When Paul (or Luke) means "Shut up" he uses 'sigao'. When Paul means "peacefulness" he uses 'hesuchia'.

  9. Alan says:

    Nick,

    You are confusing Strongs #2271 with Strongs #2272. Both Strongs and Thayer's lexicons distinguish between the definitions of those words. But I'll ignore that.

    There isn't a hair's breadth of difference between "quiet" and "silent". By far most translations have chosen one or the other of those two words. Can you point to even one major translation that has used "stillness" or "peacefulness" to translate that word in 1 Tim 2:11-12?

    I really don't think this conversation is constructive. 2 Tim 2:23-24 and Rom 14:22 probably should have come into play a long time ago.

  10. In one sense, this comment may seem off point, but I don't believe it is.

    Jesus' fundamental command to us was to love one another as he loved us — in fact, this is the only phrase that Jesus verbally describes as "my command." (John 13:34 and 15:12).

    How does compelling women to remain silent is the assembly comply with that command?

    What man would tolerate being told they were not allowed to speak in an assembly?

    I've really grown weary of such legalistic arguments in the name of Jesus. This is not why he died on the cross.

    I recognize the inevitability of the discussion, but I'm still weary of it.

Leave a Reply