Rethinking Women’s Silence (1 Cor 14:34-35) in Light of the Socio-Historical Milieu of Corinth

The Apostle Paul’s charge to the Corinthian assembly “Let your women keep silent in the church” (1 Cor 14:34) could very well top the list of the most taken out of context passages by Evangelical interpreters. Recent Biblical scholarship has demonstrated that there is significant cultural and historical baggage that must be unpacked before contemporary readers can rightly apply the communication expressed in the so-called “First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthian Church.” I maintain that an understanding of the broader socio-historical milieu of glossolalia or “ecstatic utterances” in the Greco-Roman cults, which formed the background for the phenomenon that occurred in the Corinthian assembly, is needed, for contemporary readers to situate this verse in its proper context. Drawing from works such as Kenneth E. Bailey’s Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (2011), Lucy Peppiatt’s Women and Worship at Corinth: Paul’s Rhetorical Arguments in 1 Corinthians (2015), and Cynthia Long Westfall’s Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ (2016), I contend that the apostolic imperative concerning women’s silence in the assembly is tied directly to the prohibition against glossolalia in the absence of an interpreter, located just four verses earlier “but if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in the church” (1 Cor 14:28). Finally, the implications of this understanding will be compared against the apostolic directive to Timothy “Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence” (1 Tim 2:11–12), with the goal of allowing the socio-historical milieu to inform our understanding of this hotly debated topic.

NB: The material presented in this paper comes from research I’ve been conducting over the past 4 years on glossolalia in the Corinthian assembly that will be published next year under the provisional title Tongues in the New Testament and Early Christian Context.

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