Paul’s Reputation as Sexist

Paul’s reputation as sexist rests on two passages attributed to him. The first is 1 Corinthians 14:34-35: “. . . 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.” The second is 1 Timothy 2:11-12: “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” What could be clearer?

The problem is that these two passages contradict some other things that Paul wrote—Galatians 3:27-28, for example: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” The implications of these words for the freedom and equality of all Christians, regardless of gender, seem clear enough. The second passage is 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, where Paul instructs the Corinthians on the proper way to pray and preach (“prophesy”) in the Christian assembly. In what appears to be a casual, offhand remark he says that a woman “who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head” (v. 5). This comment clearly states that women can preach in the Christian assembly as long as their heads are covered. So how do we deal with this contradiction?

First, we should note that the verses in 1 Corinthians 14 seem to have suffered a dislocation. In some ancient manuscripts these verses follow verse 33, but in others they follow verse 40 and have a parenthetical quality. This dislocation suggests that verses 34-35 were added to the original text of 1 Corinthians, perhaps to bring it into line with 1 Timothy 2. If so, the later “Pauline” tradition is correcting the earlier tradition, which comes directly from Paul himself.

However, there is another possibility. In 1 Corinthians Paul is, among other things, answering questions the Corinthian Christians had about issues such as eating meat offered to idols, or the exact limits of the freedom they have in Christ. It is possible that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is Paul’s quotation of the assertion the Corinthians had made that “women should be silent in church,” along with their reasons for this prohibition. Since this contradicts what Paul had said in chapter 11, he dismisses the position taken by the Corinthians with the sarcastic comment found in verse 36: “Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?” In other words, the silencing of women comes from the (male) leaders of this church, not Paul.

This post originally appeared as Endnote 60 in “This is the Word of the Lord”: How the Bible Became Text and Why It Matters by Bill Thomason.

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