Today is one of those days in which saying after the scripture reading is done, “this is the word of God,” leaves me and others a little bit queasy, for others it leaves them feeling a little justified and they want to yell out “see I told you so, it’s right there in scripture.” And still others want to yell out even while I’m doing the reading to tell me to stop. This is one of the passages we find in the Bible with which many in the church don’t want to have to deal or even admit is there. So, for example, this passage is not included in the lectionary, which are the recommended readings for each Sunday of the year. But we don’t have to go very far in order to to find churches that still use this, and other passages, especially from 1 Timothy, which we will get to in a bit, to justify denying women not only ordination but even leadership positions in the church, and so I think that in the mainline churches ignore these passages at our own peril.
Today’s sermon is going to be a little different than what I normally try to do which is to try and make the scripture applicable, so that we might learn something from it and live that out in our lives. I know that I do not always accomplish that goal, but that is what I at least try to do most of the time. I’m not going to do that today, because I am going to try and unpack this passage, to provide some background and some perspective on this passage.
Originally today was to be the conclusion of our sermon series on women in the Bible as we concluded with this passage. But when I sat down to write the sermon I ended up with 15 pages, and that was without even talking about all the things I could address. A normal sermon is usually around 8 pages, so rather than trying to edit out a huge chunk I decided to spread this issue over two weeks, although at the end of today’s message some of you may want to say you know exactly which parts I could have taken out. I’ve never done this before so we’ll see how it works. So if you want to hear some good illustrations, be uplifted and look at how to apply the scripture to your life, please come back next week.
Now maybe since today we are giving our third graders their bibles and honoring our graduating seniors I should instead be giving some uplifting message, but I think today is important because of those events since it will give them, and us, the beginning to understand that there are some things in scripture with which we are going to disagree and to also understand that some things have changed over time, and to recognize the lens through which we read scripture has as much to do with our understanding of scripture as the words on the page do. So, for example, if we were to read the passages found in scripture that relate to slavery and we did so two hundred years ago, we would read them very differently than we do today. Our understanding and interpretation of those passages, and the lens through which we read them, has changed radically in the last few centuries.
Now I think Paul is one of the great misunderstood people in the history of the church, and a lot of that has to do with how Paul’s words have been used throughout the history of the church to hurt and suppress people. In The Good Book, by the Rev. Peter Gomes, which was hugely influential in my accepting the call to the ministry, Gomes quotes another black theologian who said “Paul never met a status quo he didn’t like.” (p. 89) Adam Hamilton, who is the minister of the largest Methodist church in the country, recounted a time when he was stopped by a teen girl one day while he was walking down the hall and she asked him what he was going to be preaching on that Sunday, and he said he was doing something on Paul, and she replied, “uh.” When he asked her what that was for, she said, “I don’t want to hear about Paul, he’s a misogynist.”
These are both statements with which I would have originally agreed, but the more I read Paul and the more I come to understand Paul the more I see that he was not someone who normally supported the status quo, not to say that he was not a man of his own time, because he was, but that in many, many ways he was a true radical. But his texts have been used to support the status quo, or maybe better put, as Peter Gomes says “scripture is invariably used to support the status quo, no matter what the status quo, despite the revolutionary origins and implications of scripture itself.” (p. 47) and that is certainly true for Paul. We don’t have the time to go into who Paul was, but in two weeks, after we celebrate Pentecost next week, we will begin a series looking at who Paul is. Some have claimed, and I think rightly so, that besides for Jesus that Paul is the most important person for the formation of Christianity, just in scripture this is true as 13 of the 27 books in the New Testament claim to be written by Paul, and others are about him or reference him, so in two weeks we’ll try and understand Paul and some of his writings.
Now there are some scholars who believe that this passage was not actually written by Paul, but was instead added by a scribe later. This is called an interpolation, which simply means that a later text was added to an earlier text. If you were looking at the bulletin insert from this morning, you may have noticed that the passage we read was in parenthesis, which indicates that the translators of the New Revised Standard Version do not believe it is authentic, but they also don’t want to remove it and so they try and give some indication that marks it as different. Now you may be asking how do translators decide if something is authentic or not? Well I’m glad you asked.
There are numerous things they take into consideration, but the first and most important thing is whether the passage is always found in the different manuscripts we have that are used for translations and always found in the same place. Now it should be noted that for most of scripture there is little debate about whether it is authentic or not, although sometimes there are differences in words used, and good translations will make note of this, but there are some passages that are found in different locations within a text, and there are even some that are found in different books and not in the book we know the passage from. If there is question of whether the passage is an interpolation, the second thing scholars look for is whether the texts before and after are impacted by the passage, that is would they be easier or harder to understand if the passage was removed. And the final thing is to look at whether the passage matches the rest of the document, or other writings by the same person, or if it stands in stark contrast. By those standards, today’s passage fails on all three accounts.
The first problem is that the passage is found in some manuscripts where we find it now when reading 1 Corinthians, but in other manuscripts it is found after verse 40. When translators find this occurring they have to try and figure out not only why this is occurring, with one of the immediate questions being whether it is original to the text, but also to try and figure out where the passage might originally have occurred. In this particular instance, the majority of scholars believe that these sentences probably came in as a margin notation made by a scribe at some point and it was then added into the text by other scribes.
Now just because it was a margin notation does not mean that it is not authentic, because often margin notations are made because when a scribe was copying a document they made a mistake and skipped some lines and so they get added back in on the margin. But, as I said, the majority of scholars who don’t that is what happened here. Instead they believe that a scribe made a margin notation based on a summary of 1 Timothy 2:8-15, the main portion of which says “Let a woman learn in silence and full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent” (11-12).
Even though 1 Timothy claims to be written by Paul, and therefore might give substantial support to today’s passage being authentic, there is almost universal agreement among scholars, both conservative and liberal, that 1 Timothy was not in fact written by Paul. When I say near universal agreement, best guess is that more than 90% of scholars who study these texts for a living believe this was not written by Paul, and again in a few weeks when we look at Paul we will look specifically at how and why letters might be attributed to Paul that were not in fact written by him. So what some scholars speculate is that as a scribe was copying this letter and saw that Paul was writing about order in the church, they thought that clearly women speaking brings disorder to worship, and so made this margin notation referencing the 1 Timothy passage and then it got added into the text when later scribes copied it, but since it was just in the margin they weren’t sure where the passage was supposed to go and so it’s been added in at two different places.
The second point that translators look at is whether the passages before it and after it would make more sense if the passage was not there. I have included some verses before the passage and after it in the insert so you can see this, or if you have your Bible with you today I invite you to turn to the passage so you can see it there. Paul is talking about prophecy, and he says “you can all prophesy” with no distinction made about gender as long as they follow the rules for order in worship. This understanding that it is both men and women matches exactly to an earlier passage in chapter 11 in which Paul specifically addresses women prophesying and praying in church, with which he has no problem, as long as they have their heads covered. This is actually one of Paul’s radical claims, since only married women of the right order had the right to cover their heads, but Paul gives this right to all the women in the church, which is an equalizing move among the women, as well as how they would be viewed by men in the congregation.
Then this passage comes in, which tells women to be quiet, then immediately Paul goes back to talking about those who claim to be a prophet and that they need to follow his commands. If you are looking at the insert or in your Bible you will see that if you remove this section, which is in parenthesis, not only does it not make the passage more difficult to understand, but that it in fact makes it easier. It makes more sense without it there then it does with it there, which again makes some scholars believe it is not original to the text, or perhaps it has been moved, which might say that it should come after verse 40 as a new thought.
There is one other possibility that could be used to argue that the passage is in fact authentic to Paul. One of the biggest problems in looking at the ancient Greek manuscripts in order to do a translation of the New Testament is the fact that no punctuation is used, not even periods, as well as the fact that the words tend to run together, and so translators have to decide what punctuation should be used. For centuries, people have believed that in 1 Corinthians Paul wrote that “all things are lawful” and later in the letter that “it is good for a man not to touch a woman.”
But, most scholars now believe that Paul didn’t actually say this, instead he is quoting something that was written to him or relayed to him that members of the Corinthian church were saying. So these are not Paul’s words, but instead he is quoting what they are saying in order to reply to them, usually to refute them. Most translations now show these two phrases, along with some others, in quotations. The Corinthian community would, of course, have understood this because they were part of the conversation, which is what we to remember is that these letters represent a dialogue, often an ongoing dialogue, of which we have only one side.
So some have proposed that the same thing should be done for today’s passage, that Paul is not saying that women should be quiet, but instead is quoting this as something being said in the Corinthian community to which he is responding, not in affirmation but instead in rebuke. So, what some scholars propose is that verses 34 and 35 should be in quotes, and then verse 36 is Paul’s response. If we want these words to be authentic to Paul this might be a reasonable conclusion to make for several reasons.
The first is that we know that things like this were certainly said in synagogues, and therefore can assume that they were also said in some churches. The Talmud, which is a collection of rabbinic teachings says it is “a shame for a woman to let her voice be heard among men.” And Rabbi Eliezer, who was a contemporary of Paul, is recorded as saying, “Let the words of the law be burned, rather than that they should be delivered by women.”
If today’s passage is a statement that Paul is quoting, rather than saying himself, it would also clear up one of the more troubling aspects of the passage in which it is claimed that the “law” says these things, but the problem is that nowhere from Genesis to Malachi is there any law which forbids women from speaking in church. There are certainly rules and laws which put women in a subordinate position, but nothing about their speaking in church. The other problem is that whenever Paul does reference the law he always specifically stipulates what law he is talking about, which is not done here.
If this is a quotation, then the rebuke which follows in verse 36 also begins to make more sense. Traditionally this has been seen as a rebuke against the women who are now being told to be quiet, although that is difficult interpretation to see based on what is actually said. What makes more sense is that the rebuke is not to the women, but instead to the men who are making such a claim. When the passage is read in that light, it actually begins to make more sense. But it still doesn’t make much sense with what comes before or after since it seems like an interruption of what Paul had been talking about.
The final problem in seeing this as authentic to Paul is to understand it in relation to many other statements that he has made about women, not only in 1 Corinthians, but in his other letters as well. The one passage that people who want to object to this passage want to hold up is his statement in Galatians chapter 3 verse 28, where Paul says that in Christ “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” for we are all one in Christ Jesus. That’s a great passage, but the problem is that there is not a sort of hierarchy of passages so that one has preeminence and all others get judged against it. Doing that with the Galatians passage is no different than those who do the same thing with passage from 1 Timothy.
This is one of the great dangers when we don’t read scripture with integrity. Instead, each passage must be taken into context with the entirety of Paul’s writings, and in particular with what he has already said in 1 Corinthians, which includes instructions for women on how to pray and prophesy in church, as well as how prophets, all prophets not just male or female, are to deal with their revelations while in worship. These statements would all seem to indicate that Paul does not in fact have any problem with women speaking in church, as long as they follow the rules and are orderly, the same as the men in the congregation, which would seem to indicate that this passage is either a quote, which Paul then rebukes, or is not in fact original to the text but was added in later, and therefore needs to be interpreted and understood in that light.
It is clear that there were women speaking and doing things in church which at least some people were upset about, otherwise there would be no need for anyone, including Paul, to issue any instructions or restrictions on this behavior. We also know from numerous sources, Paul being one of the most important, but certainly not the only one, that women played important roles in the early church. In his letter to the Romans, Paul makes reference to several women, including Phoebe, who is called a deacon, and to Junia, who is said to be “prominent among the apostles.” Because some translators have had a problem with a woman being called prominent with the apostles, her name has often been changed to a male name, a male name it should be noted that didn’t actually exist, in order to try and solve this problem.
I’m assuming you can already guess what my opinion is on this passage, not only with what I have just said, but with what I’ve already said as we looked at women in the Bible. But I would still say that in order to deal with this passage with integrity we must ask, even knowing all the stuff I just dumped on you, what if this is authentic to Paul and he actually did say that women should be quiet while in church. What does that mean for us today? Does it mean the same thing in a 21st century context as it did in a 1st century context, or can we see it and interpret it differently today? That is what we will look at next week.
Clearly today’s passage has impacted the church for nearly two thousand years, and still impacts us today, so how do we approach scripture with integrity, even scriptures with which we disagree? We have looked at the lives of several women who have changed the law, changed the faith and changed our reality, including Mary Magdalene who is called the Apostle to the Apostles. How do we reconcile their witness, along with the witness of other women in the faith, with some of the injunctions that we read in scripture?
Reading scripture is hard, it is difficult and it is also life changing and life giving. When we shy away from difficult texts then we short our faith and we short the witness of scripture, but when we refuse to see the text as a living document that still speaks to us today because God still speaks to us today, because the Spirit still speaks to us today, because Jesus is still with us today, then we also do scripture and our faith an injustice, so I hope you will continue with us on this path as we seek God’s wisdom and knowledge and guidance in our lives. May it be so my sisters and brothers. Amen.