There is no shortage of possibilities that have already been offered and argued concerning this problem. The purpose of this essay is not to add to that list. Without additional information coming to light, it seems clear that the full range of alternative interpretations has already been shared. At this point, we will endeavor to “weed through” the explanations, highlight the arguments for and against each and then attempt a determination based upon those arguments.
It’s helpful at this point to realize that the primary interpretive challenge is to locate the best understanding that permits women to pray and prophecy according to 11:5. Again, as was just mentioned, we are working with the assumption that Paul would not have contradicted himself in such a glaring manner (and especially in such proximity). So the question remains, what exactly did Paul mean when he said that “women should remain silent in the churches. They are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission as the law says?”
The explanations are listed in no particular order.
- Paul is quoting opponents in Corinth who are maintaining a traditionalist perspective. According to this argument, Paul understands that when he affirmed women’s right and responsibilities to share their spiritual gifts in 11:5, he is doing so in contradiction with some traditionalists in Corinth—particularly among the Jewish Christians. In this case, he is quoting and responding, as was his habit. The quote is 14:34-35, and his response is found in 14:36, “Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached?” Of particular note is that in this instance is that the pronouns are masculine. With that being said, Paul’s retort makes a little more sense: “Or was it from you (men) that the word of God came? Or are you (men) the only ones it has reached?” In this case, Paul would be clearly arguing against, presumed traditional Jewish Christians who believe that the women should have no role in the assembly.
However, one of the main difficulties of this interpretation is that there is no actual indication that 14:26 is addressed only to men. That the Greek uses a masculine gender pronoun does not necessarily preclude Paul from including women in the discussion. Also, according to D.A. Carson, this argument does not meet Paul’s standard criteria and pattern for providing a quotation of and a subsequent defense. Specifically, Carson states that this would be the longest quotation from Paul’s opponents in the letter with the shortest response. With Paul’s writings, there is simply no example or precedent for a quotation with such a detailed argument. According to Carson, when Paul quotes an opponent it is usually short and then followed by a “sustained qualification,” and Paul’s response is unambiguous in the context.
- The text is simply a concession by Paul, in order to accommodate cultural mores and/or rabbinic practices. Paul was simply following the normally accepted practices of the synagogues, where women did not take an active role, so that he would not offend any of the Jewish Christians that were worshipping in Corinth. While their native Greek counterparts may not have been disturbed by a woman’s voice in the assembly, Jewish decorum and cultural etiquette created difficulties for female involvement. To further this point it is important to note that at no time did Paul (in this text or in 1 Timothy 2:8ff) ever state or imply that it was sinful for a woman to speak; he specifically says that it is shameful. In this regard, it can be argued that Paul sees this issue similarly to head-covering in chapter 11—a matter of honor and shame.
While this argument is viable and these evidence are noteworthy, they are not without difficulty. In 14:34, Paul uses the weight of the Law to reinforce his point (though strangely for him, he does fail to offer any specific quote). Would Paul make references to the Law to support a claim that is in opposition to what he has just previously written? This seems unlikely. Also, when Paul does refer to the Law it is in relation, not to his honor and shame argument, but instead that women should be in submission.
- Paul is arguing that women are not to participate in the judging of the prophets. In this instance, his prohibition is specific and limited to prophecy (and perhaps speaking in tongues). In fact, the wider context of the passage seems to be pointing in this direction. More specifically, Paul is admonishing the Corinthian church to maintain order in the worship, particularly when it comes to their members sharing their spiritual gifts of prophecy and tongues. Paul directs them to ensure that there are interpreters present and other prophets available to weigh what is said (14:28-29). It would stand to reason that when Paul prohibits women from speaking, the specific context would be instrumental in a proper interpretation. Thus, the prohibition is aimed at (and limited to) women who would seek to interpret tongues and/or weigh prophecies shared with the church.
It would seem that Paul was allowing women to prophecy (11:5) but not permitting them to weigh the prophecy because this would involve them in a teaching function in the assembly. And in accordance with Paul’s direction in 1 Timothy 2:12, it is clear that women are not permitted to teach or exercise authority over men. Also, women are not allowed to ask questions during this time because that may be perceived as judging.
However, there are difficulties with this interpretation. First, it is problematic to conclude that prophesying, which Paul allows in 11:5, would not be considered teaching (presumably because it is done under the auspices of spiritual giftedness), while the weighing of prophecies would be considered teaching or having authority (which would also be a manifestation of the gift of prophecy). At best, that conclusion is troublesome. Second, in order to connect the judging or weighing in 14:29 to what Paul states in 14:34, one must skip past 14:33a, which can be viewed as presenting a closure to the discussion—and 14:33b then would be the beginning of a new topic, sentence or line of thinking. Thirdly, the verb lalelo (to speak) is also deserving of consideration. This interpretive choice inherently defines lalelo to include only speech that involves weighing or judging. Not only is this not the dominant definition, it is entirely inconsistent with the manner in which Paul has been using the word.
- Paul is specifically censuring the incessant shouting and wailing of women that were known to be a part of Greco-Roman cults in Corinth. The internal evidence alone indicate strong influences of pagan cults in the Corinthian church. Making this connection to those same influences in this regard is not difficult. And it is possible that lalelo (to speak) may simply refer to unintelligible speech or babbling.
However, this having been said, the context does not necessarily agree with this assessment of labels. Instead, it seems that the context argues for intelligible speech. And again, this is not the normal definition of the word. Other than asking questions (14:35), there is absolutely no textual evidence which would suggest that any women were being disruptive. Nevertheless, assume that Kroeger’s assertions are accurate; and Paul was responding to a group of women who transferred their pagan rituals from their previous religious practices into the church assembly. This still fails to explain why Paul would enjoin this directive to all the “churches of the saints.” Are we to conclude that cultic babbling and wailing was also a troublesome point of contention in the churches in Jerusalem?
- Paul is prohibiting all public speaking, whether inspired or uninspired, by women that would cause them to exercise any leadership in the assembly. This interpretive approach is likely the most common among the fundamentalist “branch” of evangelicals. This is particularly true within the mainstream Churches of Christ. In a modern context, this prohibition is extended to include all forms of audible communication so that women are not allowed to ask questions, lead prayer, lead in singing (in any fashion), read Scripture or share any spiritual gift.
Of course, one need not look far to find difficulty with this interpretive approach. To take such the censuring to such an extreme, either invalidates Paul’s previous comments in 11:5 or renders Paul as inconsistent and contradictory—condemning what he just affirmed and encouraged. Any value with this interpretation rests solely on the extent to which it can be reconciled with 11:5.
- The text in question, 14:34-35 is a post-Pauline, scribal interpolation. Early in the
textual history of 1 Corinthians a scribe added a marginal gloss to the text so that it may be harmonized with 1 Timothy 2:8-15. At a later date, the text was placed in its current location. The Western manuscript provides evidence that some scribes inserted the marginal gloss after verse 40 (at the end of the chapter); which would make sense to place it at the end of the chapter if it was being included after the text was already written. It seems clear that at some point a scribe decided to insert the two verses into their current location, and in the process created a multitude of interpretive dilemmas that have yet been resolved. There are three specific pieces of evidence supporting this interpretation. First, it is in direct contradiction to 11:5; and explaining the contradiction requires, at best, biblical gymnastics. Second, the two verses interrupt the flow of the context. Third, the phrase “as the Law also says,” is foreign to Paul.
While this interpretation is argued well by its defenders and has ample evidence in favor of it, there is no textual tradition that supports the claim for these verses not being original. Every manuscript available today includes these verses.