Women Keep Silent!
I Timothy 2:11-15 & I Corinthians 14:34-35
“What just happened?”
These were the words a man asked my husband one Sunday after I preached.
“What do you mean?” my husband asked.
“What was that?” the man said.
“What was what?” my husband asked.
“She’s a female! Women aren’t allowed to preach,” the man said.
I will never forget how his words made me feel. As women, we face this all the time.
I love the story in Luke, where he paints the contrasting picture of two sisters, one who is busy serving, and the other, who is sitting at the feet of Jesus.
Martha is cross and makes her way over to Jesus. “Don’t you care? Tell Mary to help me!”
“Martha, Martha, you’re troubled about many things: and Mary has chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”
Luke’s foot note of Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus was intentional. In ancient Near East culture, students learned at the feet of the rabbi. In Acts chapter 22, Paul says he learned at the feet of Gamaliel. We see here that Mary was occupying a male space in the house, and yet, Jesus didn’t rebuke her. A space reserved for disciples who were studying to be Torah scholars, so that they could become Torah teachers. Mary was in training to be a teacher herself. This was a radical and revolutionary thing that Jesus was doing. He was inviting women to be a part of the ministry.
In the New Testament, women played a vital part in ministry and held titles. In Acts 21, the four daughters of Philip are called prophetesses. In Acts 9, Tabitha is called a deaconess. In Romans16, Pheobe is called a deaconess. She was chosen by Paul to deliver the letter that he wrote to the church at Rome. This was momentous, as the one to deliver the letter often read it aloud to the members and answered any questions on it. In Romans 16, Adronicus and Junia were called female apostles. In Acts 18, Pricilla was a teacher to the learned Apollos; and in Philippians, Euodia and Syntyche were called Paul’s co-workers.
It was Mary Magdalene and a group of women to whom Jesus first appeared after His resurrection. He commanded them, “Go tell the disciples the good news,” He had risen. If the definition of an apostle is “Having seen the risen Lord,” then, there were female apostles before there were male apostles, and Mary Magdalene and the others were apostles to the apostles.
In regards to women, two passages have been taken from two letters written by the apostle Paul and have been used to shame, blame, and name all women as ‘a deficient form of a man’ and in some cases exclude them from ministry based on gender alone. So, let’s look at these two passages in their cultural context.
I Timothy 2:11-15
The church at Ephesus
Ephesus was a wealthy city and the capital of the Roman empire. There was a huge temple (twice the size of the Parthenon) that was devoted to the goddess Artemis. A female only cult, where the women were believed to be superior to the men and to possess secret divine knowledge. Men would engage in ritualistic sex with the priestesses in exchange for illumination and salvation. There were thousands of priestesses in Ephesus and they wore gold and pearl plated hairstyles and costly apparel to show their piety to the goddess Artemis, who was the goddess of fertility, childbirth, and wealth, and was believed to save women from dying during childbirth. Artemis was worshipped and called the “Queen of Heaven,” “Savior,” and “Mother Goddess of all living things.” The cult followers were known for their allegiance and would chant “Great is Artemis!” for hours, like in Acts 19.
Now that you know the cultural context, let’s read what Paul wrote in I Timothy 2:11-15. “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.”
There are two words we need to look at.
The first is “learn.” It comes from the Greek word mathētḗs, and it means, disciple, student, pupil, (Strong’s G3101).
The second is “silence.” It comes from the Greek word hesuchazo, and it means, quiet, quietly, or in quiet fashion (Strong’s G2271). This word relates to a God-produced calmness and not speechlessness as translation by the translators.
Many Greek and New Testament scholars today agree that this verse was mistranslated and could rightly be translated using the words “disciple” and “quietness.” Some scholars believe that the women were interrupting the service to ask questions, and Paul was instructing them to study in quietness.
Paul is actually saying that women should be allowed to learn and should not be restrained from doing so. Paul was addressing a problem in the church that perhaps had something to do with the Christian women who were once priestesses of Artemis (hence, Paul’s reason for addressing the plating of hair with gold and pearls and the wearing of costly apparel only a few verses earlier). And perhaps, these women were jumping in and taking roles from them who were trained and authorized teachers without first having the proper knowledge of the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Maybe what Paul meant by “usurping authority” was “Pump the brakes ladies! This isn’t the Temple of Artemis. You need to learn before you teach, so not to mix the cultish worship practices of Artemis with the worship practices of the One True God.”
Then Paul goes into, “For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.”
Chapter one of I Timothy starts out with Paul addressing false doctrines. We know that the Hebrew Bible calls Eve the “Mother of all living” and not Artemis. Perhaps Paul is reminding them of that. Some rabbis believe that since Adam didn’t instruct Eve properly on the forbidden tree, that his failure to teach her properly led to her deception. Thus, explaining Paul’s reason for placing the blame solely on Adam in Romans 5.
But what does Paul mean when he says, “She shall be saved in childbearing?” Notice, he said “she” as in singular. “She shall be saved.” Perhaps Paul was setting the record straight and reminding the Greek Christians by using Creation as their reference point, that Eve was the “Mother of all Living” and that through a woman, one women, i.e. Mary, the promise of the Redeemer came into the world, and that Artemis, whose temple was just up the street has nothing to do with salvation or the gospel.
I Corinthians 14:34-35
The church at Corinth
The city of Corinth was entrenched in worship to the gods of Greek mythology and the Emperor cult. Corinth housed one of three temples built for the Greek god Apollo, who was the god of prophecy, healing, music, and light, and the twin brother of the goddess Artemis. Given the Greek influence at the time it is no surprise that, like Ephesus, temple prostitutes and cultish worship haunt the backdrop of the richest city in ancient Greece, located on the narrow isthmus that connects southern Greece to the mainland.
Paul was writing to the Corinthian church because he had received a report from the house of Chloe that there were divisions among them, and he wanted them all to speak the same thing (chapter 1:10). There were at least 15 problems, of which included incest, prostitution, celibacy within marriage, divorce, lawsuits, idolatry, women praying and prophesying in immodest ways, speaking in tongues, inequality in the communal meal, denials of the bodily resurrection of Jesus and of Christians.
In I Corinthians 14:34-35, Paul instructs, “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”
What law was Paul referring to? There is no law in the Hebrew Bible that restricts woman from speaking. Perhaps Paul was speaking of the Roman law, where he wrote in Romans chapter 13 to obey the law of the land, which at that time, prohibited women from attempting anything in private or public that belonged to man as his function. The Roman law prohibited women from asking questions in public assemblies or interrupting the speaker when they had questions, but men could interrupt and ask questions. Not to mention, the Greek Christians would not have known the Hebrew law. It would make sense then that Paul was referencing the Roman law, since the Greek Christians and Jewish Christians in Corinth would both have been familiar with that.
At first glance, Paul seems to talk out of both sides of his mouth. One minute, he promotes women in the churches, and the next minute, it appears he doesn’t. An example of this is when he permits women to pray and prophecy in chapter 11:5, then seemingly forbids them in chapter 14. Another is when he writes to the churches at Galatia, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is no male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus,” but then writes to Timothy at Ephesus and says, “Let woman learn in silence with all subjection.”
It’s important to know that first century believers did not actually have church buildings. They held church mostly in houses, like mentioned in Acts chapter 2, where it says they went from house to house breaking bread and fellowshipping. This continued until about the early 200’s, when the first church building appeared.
If speechless is what Paul meant, then does “women keep silence” only apply to the married females? Because Paul tells the church, If they have any questions to ask their husbands at home. In one way, it would be probable that since they were holding church services in houses, that it was the expectation of the married women to keep the little ones silent, so not to interrupt.
The actual Greek reads “Let the women keep silence” as “Let them hold their peace,” which was what the men were told to do just a few verses earlier. (Strong’s NT 4601).
N.T. Wright, a Greek New Testament scholar brings up the point that Ken Bailey makes, that is, in the middle East many religions then and now, separate men and women during worship service. However, this is not limited to the Middle East. Some Christian churches practice this today, like the church my parents attended while in California (my mom sat on one side of the sanctuary and my dad sat on the other.) N.T. Wright also brings up another point that Ken Bailey makes, equally important, which is, the worship service would most likely have been held in the proper language of the culture, which would have been the classical language, and not in the local dialect which the women spoke. Thus, making it difficult for the women to understand what was being said in the worship service, leading to boredom and chatter in the women’s section, until the women were asked to stop talking. Perhaps, it was the same with Paul. He wasn’t restricting the women from learning, he was telling them to learn in silence or to study in quietness, and if they have questions to ask their husbands later, so not to turn the service into a Q&A session.
The very fact that Paul uses the word “learn” indicates that women were encouraged to have the ledger and to study. Women were to be able to learn and study as Christians. There is also evidence that suggest that verses 34-36 were later added and were a non-Pauline interpolation. This means that someone stuck them in later into the transcript. N.T. Wright as well as other scholars agree that there is actual manuscript evidence of these verses coming and going in different copies of the text at different stages. Paul had written these words but in the margins and someone injected them after verse 33, because they were not sure where Paul intended for them to go, which is why scholars believe there is a break in the flow of the chapter, and why these verses feel so out of place.
The Magna Carta of Human Freedom
So now what? Paul tells the Corinthians to 'earnestly desire the best gifts.' Remember Mary? What is that thing God has called you to do, that you have yet to pursue? It’s okay to want it. It’s okay to step into your purpose. It’s okay to be bold.
Paul writes the Magna Carta of Human Freedom when he pens Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is no male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
This verse echoes Joel’s prophecy in the Hebrew scripture that God would pour out His spirit upon all flesh, and that both men and women would prophecy. We see this fulfilled in Acts when Peter stands up to preach on the Day of Pentecost, and how does he begin? He begins by pointing back to the prophet Joel when he says, this is that. Why does Peter begin this way? Because both men and women are praying and prophesying in the streets, and he's confirming women’s place in ministry alongside men in the New Testament Church. How profound is that? The first message to the church begins with the affirmation that God is no respecter of persons. The ground is level at the foot of the cross.
So ladies, be of good courage. Do all in your heart that God has called you to do.