Did Scribes Edit Women Out of the Bible?

Early scribes altered certain New Testament texts to downplay women's role in the church.

Reprinted from "Misquoting Jesus" with permission of HarperSanFrancisco.

One of the most important passages in the contemporary discussion of the role of women in the church is found in 1 Corinthians 14. As represented in most of our modern English translations, the passage reads as follows.

33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, 34 let the women keep silent. For it is not permitted for them to speak, but to be in subjection, just as the law says. 35 But if they wish to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. 36 What! Did the word go forth only from you, or has it reached you alone?

The passage appears to be a clear and straightforward injunction for women not to speak (let alone teach!) in the church, very much like the passage from 1 Timothy 2. As we have seen, however, most scholars are convinced that Paul did not write the 1 Timothy passage, because it occurs in a letter that appears to have been written instead by a second-generation follower of Paul in his name. No one doubts, however, that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians.

But there are doubts about this passage. For as it turns out, the verses in question (vv. 34-35) are shuffled around in some of our important textual witnesses. In three Greek manuscripts and a couple of Latin witnesses, they are found not here, after verse 33, but later, after verse 40. That has led some scholars to surmise that the verses were not written by Paul but originated as a kind of marginal note added by a scribe, possibly under the influence of 1 Timothy 2. The note was then inserted in different places of the text by various scribes—some placing the note after verse 33 and others inserting it after verse 40.


There are good reasons for thinking that Paul did not originally write these verses. For one thing, they do not fit well into their immediate context. In this part of 1 Corinthians 14, Paul is addressing the issue of prophecy in the church, and is giving instructions to Christian prophets concerning how they are to behave during the Christian services of worship. This is the theme of verses 26-33, and it is the theme again of verses 36-40. If one removes verses 34-35 from their context, the passage seems to flow seamlessly as a discussion of the role of Christian prophets. The discussion of women appears, then, as intrusive in its immediate context, breaking into instructions that Paul is giving about a different matter.

Not only do the verses seem intrusive in the context of chapter 14, they also appear anomalous with what Paul explicitly says elsewhere in 1 Corinthians. For earlier in the book, as we have already noticed, Paul gives instructions to women speaking in the church: according to chapter 11, when they pray and prophesy—activities that were always done aloud in the Christian services of worship—they are to be sure to wear veils on their heads (11:2-16). In this passage, which no one doubts Paul wrote, it is clear that Paul understands that women both can and do speak in church. In the disputed passage of chapter 14, however, it is equally clear that "Paul" forbids women from speaking at all. It is difficult to reconcile these two views—either Paul allowed women to speak (with covered heads, chapter 11) or not (chapter 14). As it seems unreasonable to think that Paul would flat out contradict himself within the short space of three chapters, it appears that the verses in question do not derive from Paul.

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