1 Corinthians 14:34-35: disorderly or chattering women?

The Claim

‘First, some interpreters have proposed that Paul is not really prohibiting women from praying and prophesying in the assembly. Rather, he is addressing a specific local problem at Corinth and restricting certain kinds of disruptive speech, such as chattering and asking questions (v. 35a).

(A variant on this explanation is Ben Witherington’s suggestion that the women thought of Christian prophets on the analogy of the Delphic Oracle, which prophesied in response to particular questions about the personal life of the seeker [Witherington, 287].)’[1]

The Facts

This suggestion is rejected strongly even by some egalitarian scholars:

The most commonly held view is that which sees the problem as some form of disruptive speech.9  Support is found in v. 35, that if the women wish to team anything, they should ask their own husbands at home.

Various scenarios are proposed: that the setting was something like the Jewish synagogue, with women on one side and men on the other and the women shouting out disruptive questions about what was being said in a prophecy or tongue; or that they were asking questions of men other than their own husbands; or that they were simply “chattering”10 so loudly that it had a disruptive effect.

The biggest difficulty with this view is that it assumes a “church service” of a more “orderly” sort than the rest of this argument presupposes. If the basic problem is with their “all speaking in tongues” in some way one may assume on the basis of 11:5 that this also included the women; furthermore, in such disarray how can mere “chatter” have a disruptive effect? The suggestion that the early house churches assumed a synagogue practice is pure speculation; it seems remote at best.’[2]

Egalitarian Richard Hays likewise rejects it:

‘The difficulty with this explanation is that it fails to reckon with the categorical declaration that it is “shameful” for women to speak in church at all (v. 35b) and with the clear statement that this rule is for “the churches” at large, not just for a particular problem at Corinth.’[3]

The typical argument (that the Greek word for ‘speak’ here is a word which actually means ‘chatter’), is rejected by lexical and textual commentators.[4] Egalitarian Marion Soards likewise rejects it:

‘Some suggest that he opposes only idle chatter or gossip. However, the verb to speak (Gk. lalein) is not, as some commentators suggest, equivalent with “to chatter.” The verb does not name an activity that is distinct from other sensible speech or prayer or prophecy. Through the rest of chapter 14 “to speak” clearly and consistently refers to inspired speech (see vv. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, 11, 13, 18, 19, 21, 23, 27, 28, 29, 39). The vocabulary employed in these verses does not distinguish this reference from all other mentions of speaking in this and other chapters.’[5]

Egalitarian Gordon Fee also rejects the claim that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is a prohibition only on one kind of speech, such as disorderly speaking:

The first reason for the rule comes in the form of a prohibition: “They are not permitted to speak.”  What kind of speaking is intended depends on one’s view, both of authorship and, if authentic, of its place in the present argument. The only internal suggestion is that of v. 35, that they should ask questions at home if they wish to learn.

If authentic, this unqualified use of the verb seems to tell against the probability that only a single form of speech is prohibited.

Elsewhere Paul has said “speak in tongues” when that is in view, and when he means “discern” he says “discern,” not “speak”. Again, as with the opening “rule,” the plain sense of the sentence is an absolute prohibition of all speaking in the assembly.’[6]

The fanciful idea that men and women were separated in 1st century synagogues has long been refuted by archaeological evidence demonstrating that no such seating arrangements were made:

‘Nor did we find any evidence of a women’s gallery. By now it is widely accepted among scholars that synagogues from the early centuries of the Common Era did not have a separate women’s section.’[7]

Egalitarian Craig Keener is one of a number of egalitarians who points this out:

‘Others have suggested that the church services were segregated by gender like the synagogues, thus rendering any communication between the sexes disruptive; but this view is refuted both by the architecture of synagogues in this period (Brooten) and that of homes like that in which the Corinthian church met.’[8]

[1] Hays, ‘First Corinthians’, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, p. 247 (1997).

[2] Fee (egalitarian), ‘The First Epistle to the Corinthians‘, p. 703 (1987).

[3] Hays, ‘First Corinthians’, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, p. 247 (1997).

[4]The widespread notion that whereas 11:2–16 speaks of prophetic speech, the use of λαλεῖν refers to chatter in these verses ignores first-century lexicographical evidence and the context of discussion in 14:27–40.  Deluz writes: “Paul, then, is not forbidding women to undertake ‘ministry of the word’; he is forbidding them to indulge in feminine chatter which was becoming a considerable nuisance.”384 Moffatt asserts, “Keep quiet means even more than a prohibition of chattering. Worship is not to be turned into discussion groups.…”385  This view seems to have gained currency from Heinrici, who, together with Héring, cannot imagine Paul’s silencing “inspired” or “liturgical” speech, but can see him as calling to order “ordinary members of the congregation.”386 C. and R. Kroeger argue that Paul forbids either “chatter” or, at the other end of the spectrum, “frenzied shouting.”387 C. K. Barrett, however, soundly dismisses the faulty lexicography to which such interpretations of λαλεῖν often appeal. The meaning to chatter does occur in classical Greek of the earlier centuries, “but in the NT and in Paul the verb normally does not have this meaning, and it is used throughout chapter 14 (vv. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, 11, 13, 18, 19, 21, 23, 27, 28, 29, 39) in the sense of inspired speech.”388  Fiorenza’s argument that 11:2–16 refers to women as such, but 14:33b–36 refers only to married women is also possible (especially since γυναῖκες may mean married women, or wives, as well as women) but remains speculative and not perhaps the most obvious explanation if no contradiction between 11:2–16 and 14:33b–36 arises from a contextual exegesis.389’, Thiselton (complementarian), ‘The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A commentary on the Greek text’, p. 1157 (2000).

[5] Soards, ‘1 Corinthians’, New International Bible Commentary, pp. 305-306 (1999).

[6] Fee (egalitarian), ‘The First Epistle to the Corinthians‘, pp. 706-707 (1987).

[7] Weiss, ‘The Sepphoris Synagogue Mosaic’, Biblical Archaeology Review (26.05), (2000).

[8] Keener, ‘Man and Woman’, in Hawthorne, Martin, & Reid, ‘Dictionary of Paul and his letters’, p. 590 (1993).

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