Shall Women Be Silent?
Our purpose here is to explain why 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 doesn’t mean that women should forever be silent in church. The scripture appears to forbid women speaking in church but today it is common practice. To prevent encouraging people from picking and choosing which scriptures to believe and which to reject, it is critically important to deal with passages like this one. Let’s start by getting a little background on why Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthians.
Paul spent eighteen months in Corinth on his second missionary journey. He wrote 1 Corinthians around 55 AD during his third missionary journey while he was living and teaching in Ephesus. We know that there were problems in the Corinthian church from 1 Corinthians 1:11 where Paul says,
“11 For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you.” NASB
We also know a letter came from Corinth bringing a list of questions because Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:1
“Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me:”
This is important because it is likely that the first six chapters of 1 Corinthians address the concerns raised by Chloe’s people and try to correct misunderstandings from his first letter. Chapters 7 through 16 address the questions raised in the letter to Paul from the Corinthians.
In most of chapter 14 of 1 Corinthians, Paul is writing about the orderly use of spiritual gifts. To whom is he speaking?
26 What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.
31 For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. NIV
Obviously, Paul is speaking to all the people, men and women. Then all of a sudden we have verses 34 and 35:
34 Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. 35 And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church. NKJV
Doesn’t it seem strange that Paul would say this immediately after calling on all to contribute? If you read back through previous verses and even when you read whole chapters, you will find that over and over everyone is included in participation.
The fact that Paul seems to contradict everything he has been teaching is a clue that something is wrong with the traditional translation.
If we remember that Paul is responding to questions asked him, a clear case can be made for considering this a quotation from the letter written to him. When you carefully read 1 Corinthians, you will find the letter is also referred to in 7:1, 25, 36, 39; 8:1 and 9:3.
Further evidence of a problem is that nowhere in the first five books of the Old Testament, which are known as the Law of Moses, does it tell a woman to be silent in an assembly. In fact, nowhere in the whole Old Testament do we find such words. Therefore, we must assume that the reference is to the Talmud (Jewish Oral Law) not the Bible. Remember, the New Testament was in the process of being written at this time so any reference to scripture would be to the Old Testament.
Surprisingly, the King James version comes closest to Paul’s intent by translating verse 36, “What! Came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only?” The modern translations tend to leave out the “What!” Should it be there? Let’s see!
The word translated “what” is “è” in Greek. It is a disjunctive pronoun. Disjunctive means it contradicts or opposes what has just been said. In the second half of the verse even King James translates “è” as “Or” instead of “what.” (“Or are you the only people it has reached?) It would be an improvement to say, “What! Are you the only people it has reached?”
When the Greek word “e” is translated “Or,” we don’t realize that Paul is making a strong statement against the words that silence women. Some translations don’t even say “Or.” In The New International Version verse 36 says, “Did the word of God originate with you?” NIV
By leaving out the disjunctive pronoun, the context is changed and the meaning is made unclear. The King James use of “What?” with a question mark is certainly better than “Or,” but a better translation would be something like “NO!” or “Nonsense!”
36 Or did the word of God come originally from you? Or was it you only that it reached? 37 “If anyone thinks they’re a prophet or spiritual, they are to realize that what I’m writing to you is the Lord’s commandment! 38 But if anyone is mistaken about this, then they are certainly mistaken!” NKJV 
Paul is angry with their words. Because the Corinthians have made a statement that contradicts all he has taught them, he asks if they are the ones who wrote the scriptures, if they are the only ones who have heard the word.
Paul is saying that what he is teaching is a “commandment of the Lord.” If we do not understand that Paul is referring to his own teaching and not the words in the letter from part of the Corinthian church that is found in verses 34 and 35, it can be very confusing.
Paul is using strong language to oppose teaching that is not scriptural. He is saying that if you are so mistaken or ignorant of God’s Word that you do not recognize that my teaching is from the Lord and you replace it with an untrue statement based on Jewish tradition rather than the Word of God, you are truly ignorant and entirely mistaken.
In every commonly used English Bible, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 has been translated as though Paul were making a statement of what he believed. Most Bibles do not even say the authorship of these words is in question. What Paul intended by including quotes in his letter was to say that silencing women was not God’s will and anyone who thought it was, was ignorant of God and His Word. Instead, the quotation has been used for just the opposite purpose, and Christians have taught that women should be silent.
When words seem to contradict the overall message, take the time to find out why. Train your mind to remember that 99.9% of the time, when you see the words he, him, his, himself or man and men in the scripture, they don’t refer to males only.
Many of the passages that have been used to limit women are not easy to translate but this is not one of them. It is unacceptable that translators have not corrected their work. Women today are rejecting limitations. Poorly translated scriptures that put women in second class status cause many to reject the faith or minimize the authority of the Word. As believers we must follow the admonition to, “Study to show yourselves approved. . .” 2 Timothy 2:15. God loves us and He’ll help!
 Others from Corinth not Chloe’s people. Chloe’s people probably refers to the group (church) that met in Chloe’s house. The early Christians of Corinth were struggling with divisions, rivalries and disagreements, and it was “Chloe’s people” who sought out Paul to let him know about these problems in Corinth. This message from “Chloe’s people” prompted Paul to write the First Letter to the Corinthians, within which he urged unity.
 The Talmud is a collection of ancient rabbinic writings on Jewish oral law and tradition—not the Bible. The idea that the language in the quotation resembles known Jewish oral law is supported by these scholars, cf. S. Aalen, “A Rabbinic Formula in 1 Cor. 14,34”, in F. Cross (ed.) Studia Evangelica, II-III. Papers, Berlin, 1964, pp. 513-25; Holmes, op.cit., p. 235.
 Other examples where the use of a disjunctive pronoun in 1 Corinthians 14 is found are: 1 Corinthians 6:3 and 15; 9:6,8,10; 10:22; 11:20; 14:36.
 J. B. Phillips in his translation of the New Testament makes these verses very clear:
36-38 Do I see you questioning my instructions? Are you beginning to imagine that the Word of God originated in your church, or that you have a monopoly of God’s truth? If any of your number thinks himself a true preacher and a spiritually-minded man, let him recognize that what I have written is by divine command! As for those who don’t know it, well, we may just leave them in ignorance.
You said- “The fact that Paul seems to contradict everything he has been teaching is a clue that something is wrong with the traditional translation.”
I think “as the law also says” is the key piece of evidence that lets us know those words didn’t come from Paul, because Paul never quoted the Talmud to prove a point. If he did here, it would be the one and only time.
My preferred view is just as you said- he was quoting the Corinthian’s original letter to him back to them.
However- there is another piece to this puzzle: there is an issue with the Greek text in verses 34-35. Some early manuscripts place them after verse 40. Many other ancient manuscripts have them in the usual spot, but have markings from the scribes to indicate it is questionable whether they should be there.
I’m generally not a fan of cutting verses out of the Bible, especially as a means of solving my problem texts. But it’s ineresting to note that people have struggled with verses 34-35 since at least the 2nd century. Everyone recognizes something is amiss here, we just can’t decide for sure what it is.
The shame is that we don’t get even commentary in our English translations that questions the validity or points out clearly that this is probably a quote from a letter Paul has received and that he absolutely does not agree. It is high time the translators made it clear that this is not a Christian point of view! Thanks for your excellent comment.
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From a slightly different angle, my grandfather was a well-known pastor in Europe many years ago. He was part Jewish and very interested in their culture. He also wrote a commentary and so tried to spend a lot of time in Israel as well as learning fluent Hebrew to try to understand the Bible better. His take on this passage was simple. Sometimes the women and children were at the back of the assembly and would yell out questions to the men during the service, causing some disruption, so they were asked to wait till they got home to ask questions. It had nothing to do with whether the women were allowed to be speakers or take part in the worship itself. In other words, your conclusion is the same, just from a bit of a different angle. Thank your for helping to bring awareness to the equality. In Christ there is no…..male or female………
There are many scriptures that regularly get taken out of context and I think we have to be open to that all the time. For example, “Study to show yourself approved unto God.” People think that means we are to study the Bible, as in studying in school. But the word ‘study’ simply means to ‘be diligent’ or ‘make sure that’. So, “Make sure you live in such a way that God approves.” Nothing wrong with ‘studying’ the Bible, but in those days not everyone had one and not everyone was a scholar like we are today, so they were just admonished to live right.
Thanks for your comments Sunflower. I was given that same explanation by a pastor, about the women yelling out and being disruptive in the meetings, when I asked about that passage some years ago. It may or may not be true, though I’ve not come across any academic or historical proof of that theory.
The problem is that this passage, when wrongly understood and combined with other New Testament passages about women, has been historically used up to the present day to oppress women in the church system. We need to provide all Christian women with a deeper understanding of what Paul was teaching, along with word studies, such as Pat has provided here. It’s when women (and men) are adequately equipped on these matters they can both take a stand for truth and encourage others who are being oppressed.
So, what Pat has provided here is more than ‘a bit of a different angle’. It’s cultural and language knowledge accrued over many years of praying and learning, and information vitally needed right across the Body of Christ if women are to step into the fullness of all God calls them to be. We are blessed at Ishshah’s Story to have Pat’s teaching skills and understanding of such passages available to us.
Thankyou for being part of this important conversation!
Sunflower, In our course “She Shall be Called Woman” we mention the division of men and women but it always bothered me that for women to ask their husband, they had to have one and that left out both those who were never married and widows. Also, this was a gentile congregation and I’m not aware of evidence that they were divided in the way of those with primarily Jewish roots. You might be interested in looking at the course. It is on the Women for the Nations website and is the first lesson in session 3. http://www.womenforthenations.org
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Maybe the women without husbands were mixed in with the men because they didn’t have children to take care of, like the baby rooms in church. I know the passage has been used to oppress women, but it doesn’t need to be that way, even if some of the wives were in back nursing their wee ones. It doesn’t mean they were all divided.
I think that if we have a good attitude, we can understand that and not let it worry us, but if someone has a wrong attitude, they will find something to get their knickers in a knot about anyway. I like to always go back to what Jesus said, and he said for us not to Lord it over each other, period. That’s good enough for me and very clear.
While I agree that we should not argue unnecessarily, the fact that the problem is a grammatical mistranslation that completely changes what Paul intended is not trivial, it is critical. Therefore my “knickers are in a knot” and I want to make it very clear that no matter how the congregation was seated, Paul was quoting from a letter he had received that made a statement that was totally false and he was correcting them.
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Thanks much! The translations need to be corrected. It is ridiculous when the scholarship is there refuse to correct even the very clear translation errors!
Excellent article, Pat– I’ve shared it on FB so some of the younger women will get a chance to see it.
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