A Window into the Past: Women, Greco-Roman Society, and The Pastorals (pt. v:1 Cor 14:33b-35)

1 Cor. 14: 33b-35

vv.33b-35. Within two chapters Paul* has gone from allowing women to prophesy and pray in church as long as they wore a symbol of authority—a head covering—to saying that women should not speak in church.  What is the cultural situation behind Paul’s statement?  Keener observes that although “Women had made serious gains in terms of public speaking in Roman culture…some Romans and many Greeks still frowned on it, potentially introducing cultural conflict in the church again.  Some would consider women’s speech in gender-mixed company ‘shameful’ (14:35), just like public display of wives’ uncovered hair (11:5-6)” (118).  Keener suggests that Paul, who had submitted to ‘the law” before (1 Cor. 9:20) is doing so here in order to not cause offense, “Wifely submission remained an ideal in his day…especially in terms of behavior to avoid shaming ones husband (14;35; cf. 11:5-6) (Keener 118).

In Greek society, Greek women were “…discouraged from saying anything in public.  Plutarch says that the virtuous woman ‘ought to be modest and guarded about saying anything in the hearing of outsiders’ (Advice to Bride and Groom, 31); again, ‘a woman ought to do her talking either to her husband or through her husband’ (ibid., 32)” (Morris 197).  And, according to Morris, “The Jews regarded it as a sin to teach a woman, and the position was not much better elsewhere” (198).  As the Gospel was the message of true freedom and liberation for women, women of the ancient society would be learning in the setting of the church.  Since the majority of women were not as educated as men, it is plausible to assume that they were asking many questions.  Keener writes,

…many hearers resented questions considered rude, inappropriate, or unlearned; these risked slowing other learners down.  It is possible, although not certain, the women were more apt to ask unlearned questions.  Although Judean boys learned to recite the law growing up (m. ‘Abbot 5:21), the privilege was rarer among girls even in regions where some are attested.  Literate men may have outnumbered literate women five to one, and even among aristocratic Greeks and Romans, where education was most widely available, a woman’s education usually ended by her mid-teens (Keener 119).

On the same note, Keener observes that husbands though their wives incapable of understanding “intellectual ideas” (119).  Referring to Plutarch, Keener writes,

…Plutarch notes that he is exceptional in advising a groom that his bride can learn (but then adds his own sexist twist, arguing that women if left to themselves produce only base passions; Bride 48, Mor. 145BE)….Because of conversions often followed household (cf. 1:16; 16:15) most of the wives Paul addresses would in fact have husbands who had heard the teaching and prophecies (although clearly this was not always the case; 7:12-16; cf. 1 Pet 3:1) (119).

Therefore, Paul is not necessarily abiding by a subjugating law that does not allow women, specifically wives, to never speak in Church, but is constituting an orderliness to the gathering.  In light of his society and how that society had been treating women, Paul addressed the situation with seemliness and proper conduct, but in the freedom of Christ.

And, remember, what’s important here is this (and I’m quoting Sarah Ruden at length):

But whatever the exact standards of anyone involved here, modern readers tend to come at [this] passage in 1 Corinthians from the wrong angle. It would not have been remarkable that women were forbidden to speak among the Christians. It’s remarkable that they were speaking in the first place. It’s remarkable that they were even there, in an ekklesia, perhaps for all kinds of worship and deliberation, and that their questions needed answers, if not on the spot. Paul’s negativity–even his typical snapping about authority–is extremely modest against the polytheistic background (Paul Among the People, 81).

Women were THERE. Women were SPEAKING, ASKING questions, and being HEARD. Let’s not miss the gem here.

*I’m going with the tradition understanding that Paul wrote _all_ of Corinthians even this. I’m aware of the many arguments for and against Pauline authorship here (some considering it to be a gloss, added by a redactor later in time). 

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