Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians contains some disheartening passages with respect to women. In particular, 1 Cor 11:2-16 and 1 Cor 14:33b-36 are the ones that have caused the most trouble. These verses are problematic not only because of what they appear to say, but because they seem somewhat incoherent. The former presents three arguments, yet the footnotes in the NRSV make clear that translators have had to torture the middle one to bring it in line with the others. The latter contradicts what Paul has said elsewhere in the same letter, namely it says that women should be silent in church when he’s already said twice that women do not have to be silent in church.
What gives? Paul may be many things, but he’s rarely incoherent or self-contradictory. Thus, as I read these passages again this week, it struck me that something is wrong with the way we interpret them.
Consider two things about Paul’s writing. The first has to do with his style: he often quotes arguments and then rebuts them. This is seen clearly in 1 Cor 6:12-13:
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.
Keep in mind that Koine Greek had no quotation marks. The only way we know that Paul has quoted someone else’s argument, unless he says so explicitly, is by context.
The second is that, apart from his letter to the Romans, Paul always writes to address specific issues in a church. In 1 Corinthians, he says he’s writing “that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you… For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you…” (1 Cor 1:10-11). This is the theme of the entire letter. Yes, he addresses some other issues, including a situation of sexual immorality among the members (1 Cor 5), spiritual gifts and the nature of the church as one body (1 Cor 12), and the nature of Christian love (1 Cor 13). Yet each of these can be seen in the context of the letter as a whole as arguing for unity in the Corinthian church.
It is noteworthy that 1 Cor 11 as a chapter goes on to discuss abuses at the Lord’s Supper, and corrective measures to be taken. Again, this is in the context of division within the church (vv. 18-21).
Some scholars have suggested that the three arguments about women that begin the chapter are in fact quotes of what Paul has heard from members of the church in Corinth. This has been dismissed by other scholars because, aside from a few short instances in 1 Cor 6, Paul has not done so in this letter without specifically identifying such arguments. Similarly, many scholars agree that it seems likely that the opening salvo in 1 Cor 14 is actually a quote he has heard from Corinth, but they dismiss this as improbable because he has not done so elsewhere.
Yet the result is a letter that, on these two issues, makes Paul virtually unintelligible. Particularly in the second, why would he tell women to be silent in church when he’s already discussed and approved of them teaching and prophesying in church? It’s nonsensical. Which begs the question: what if Paul did quote other arguments in both places? Read with that in mind, the issues of logic and style in the two passages quickly resolve themselves. Knowing what I do of Paul, I find it inconceivable that the illogical reading is the correct one.
Here, then, are my renditions of the two passages, which I offer as true to Paul’s style and his well-recognized ability to argue a point effectively. I’m no Greek scholar, but I have taken advantage of the ambiguity of certain conjunctions, and I have used the alternate translation noted in the NRSV.
I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you. And I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ.
[But some of you say,] “Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man.”
[Others say,] “For this reason a woman ought to have freedom of her head, because of the angels. For in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. And just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God.”
[Still others say,] “Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.”
Now, if you are disposed to be contentious— [Let me be clear:] We have no such custom, nor do the churches of God. (1 Cor 11:2-16)
[Some of you have said,] “As in all the churches of the saints, 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.”
So, did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached? Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized. (1 Cor 14:33b-38)
In this last paragraph, “did the word of God originate with you?” the Greek uses the masculine version of the pronoun “you.” Clearly this accusation is not addressed to the women of Corinth! It seems far more likely that it addresses those who have voiced such an opinion.
Viewed in this way, the 1 Cor 11 passage seeks not to criticize the church because women have their hair uncovered, but to resolve a dispute about that issue by stating emphatically that there’s no such tradition, so quit arguing about it. Likewise, the 1 Cor 14 passage seeks to silence those stirring up controversy over the obviously-prominent role women had in the Corinthian church.
Both are consistent with what we know of Paul, who partnered with both men and women in spreading the Gospel, and whose friend Priscilla became a church leader first in Corinth and later in Rome.
This is not the place to discuss 1 Timothy, which was written by a different writer, though attributed to Paul. It, too, contains some passages that many women find troubling, but it was written decades after Paul’s death and addresses a different time and context.
Ephesians is another matter entirely, and one which deserves a blog post of its own. Suffice it to say for the moment that the most repeated command in that letter’s passage on marriage is that husbands treat their wives with agape, the love of God, an observation that sheds further light on the opening admonition in 1 Cor 11:3.
The goal of this post is to reconsider these two problematic passages in 1 Corinthians with a rational approach that expects Paul to use the effective rhetoric for which he is so well known, and which our current translations fail to deliver. Admittedly, this leads to the conclusion that Paul is actually arguing the opposite of what many traditionalists think he’s arguing. You’re welcome to disagree with me. But it bothers me to be satisfied that Paul was having an off day when he wrote this one, and thus produced not one but two passages that don’t make much sense, and both on the same general topic.