(1Co 14:33b-37 ESV) 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. 36 Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord.
Let’s start with v. 35: “If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home.” Oddly, the ESV translators failed to translate a word in the original Greek: idios, meaning “own.” Hence, the NIV more precisely translates,
(1Co 14:35 NIV) If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
The NASB translates the word as well, as do the Complete Jewish Bible, NKJV, and Holman CSB. There is no doubt about the authenticity of idios. The only reason to omit it is to assume that “own husband” has the same meaning as “husband.” But it doesn’t. Both in Greek and in English, “own” emphasizes the relationship, implying “and not someone else’s husband.” Thayer’s defines it as “of what is one’s own as opposed to belonging to another.”
In short, Paul’s point regarding a woman asking her husband at home, is that she should ask her own husband as opposed to someone else’s husband! And that gives us part of the reason for Paul’s command: in the local culture, it was considered immoral in this setting for women to speak to someone else’s husband, as we covered in the last post.
This is not about the inferiority or foolishness of women. It’s about the appearance of immorality that arises when a married woman speaks to another woman’s husband outside of her own home — in the ancient world.
Gunē and anēr
In v. 35, “husbands” following “own” is anēr. And in Greek, the word is utterly ambiguous as to whether “husband” or “man” is meant. Only context determines, and obviously in this passage, “husbands” is the correct translation.
Each time you see “woman” in the translation, it translates gunē. Just like anēr, the word is completely ambiguous as to whether “woman” or “wife” is meant. Again, context controls.
Well, the context is women asking their husbands at home. Plainly, these are married women — wives — asking their husbands. No one else could. And so the translation should be —
(1Co 14:33b-37 ESV) As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the [wives] 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 [wife] to speak in church. 36 Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord.
Now, translated this way, it suddenly makes sense why Paul might refer to Gen 2, because it’s about the ideal relationship between husbands and wives, not men and women.
Reflect on that for a moment. Does Paul really intend to say that “women … should be in submission” to men? All women? To all men? Regarding just what? Is this what you teach your daughters?
Many argue that Paul is only referring to the relationship of men and women in church, but he justifies his position based on the Law — and there was no church under the Law of Moses. This theory really makes no sense on close observation. In fact, for the Law to apply, the rule has to be of broad, universal application — or else how could it apply under both the Law and in the present age?
I’m not aware of any other theory that passes this obvious test.
“If there is anything they desire to learn”
The ESV translation is nearly literal. More literal is the NASB: “If they desire to learn anything.” Many other translations soften the language:
(1Co 14:35 NIV) If they want to inquire about something …
(1Co 14:35 NET) If they want to find out about something …
But the Greek word means “learn.” Paul does not assume that the women want to learn — not due to his sexism but due to the uneducated state of the typical Corinthian wife, as shown in the prior post.
“Or was it from you that the word of God came?”
It’s surprising how many commentators fail to give this text its obvious meaning. The word of God came from the Jews. There were Jewish members in the congregation. The Jews are one ethnic group in which it was considered immoral for women to speak to a man not their husband. Paul is speaking of being sensitive to Jewish concerns. Why else refer to the word of God coming from the Jews?
“Or are you the only ones it has reached?”
“You” evidently means the Corinthian church, in contrast to the churches in Jerusalem, Antioch, and other earlier congregations, nearly all of which were primarily or entirely Jewish.
There is also an implication that the rule in Jerusalem, etc. should also be the rule in Corinth. But this is because the Greek and Jewish congregations had to wrestle with similar standards of female morality.
It is true, of course, that not all Jewish or Grecian women were uneducated or uninterested in learning. The scriptures themselves give the examples of Lydia (a single woman) and Priscilla (a married woman). It has always been true, even in the most oppressive cultures, that there are women who rise above cultural expectations. But we should not let the exceptional cases be used to argue that there were no ordinary cases.
History is, of course, biased toward exceptional people. It was an exceptional woman who becomes the first European convert. It was the exceptional woman who taught Apollos a better understanding of Jesus. It was exceptional women who were the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection.
But the First Century Roman Empire was a male-dominated culture, in which most women found themselves required to be submissive housewives, isolated from all men other than their husbands and the slaves, or slaves, or prostitutes.
And although Paul recognized the reality of the oppressed state of women, as he had opportunity, he elevated their status. After all, it was Paul who called Junia “an apostle,” and it was Paul who converted Lydia and her household, even though she was a single woman. And it was Paul who insisted that women should learn, contrary to his training and traditions as a rabbi.