I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard both men and women in the church say—about women in leadership or women’s ordination issues—something to the effect of,  “It’s just impossible to ignore certain Scripture passages” (the “certain Scripture passages” being taken to mean a blanket rejection of women in leadership by the apostle Paul).

But what if at least one of these Scripture passages were the result of a mere mistake—just the result of some random reader’s freewheeling notes in the margins of the apostle Paul’s original manuscript that were then erroneously copied in to future manuscripts? The prospect invites some comical imagination in the vein of Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” about how an error of this sort could have occurred; but Kate Cooper’s Band of Angels: The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women makes a convincing case for this possibility.

The passage in question is the admonition in 1 Corinthians (often and possibly mistakenly attributed to Paul) that women “should be silent” in church (1 Cor. 14:34—35)—on the surface at least, a misogynist’s dream:

As in all the congregations of the Lord’s people, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

It turns out that ancient scholars had as much trouble with this passage as many of us do today, for the primary reason that only three chapters before, the apostle Paul, in another controversial passage, has taken as given that women speak in church when they “prophesy” in church:

The head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head (1 Cor. 11:3—5).

Here it is clear that Paul is not in any way against women prophesying (in other words, speaking) in church, only that when women do so, they should cover their heads (this as a way of distinguishing female prophets in the church from female prophets in the temple cults of Paul’s day); and, Paul’s irritable tone around headship here is a direct response to a conflict brewing among the Corinthians that heavily involves women, as evidenced by the source of the conflict, which is about domestic food rituals.

For Paul, Cooper instructs, the overriding concern is church unity in the face of Christ’s imminent return. When he writes, Paul has every expectation that he and his fellow Christians will witness Christ’s return in their own time, and this certainty colors Paul’s approach to congregational matters. No, Paul when it comes to women is not a women’s libber (obviously); nor is he a chauvinist; in fact, as Cooper shows, Paul’s reliance on a number of wealthy women patrons for support and Paul’s close working relationships with women show he is very comfortable with women in church leadership, sharing equally in the labor at hand with their male counterparts.

Which brings us back to this problematic passage in 1 Corinthians 14 that along with 1 Timothy 2:11—14 has been used to justify centuries of institutional church bigotry. Here is Cooper:

The early manuscripts show that already in antiquity scholars were worried about these verses. They appear in only some of Paul’s text, which means that certain copyists suspected they were not by Paul and tried to correct the mistake by omitting them. Many modern scholars believe the verses were originally a marginal note made by an early reader. On this hypothesis, later copyists mistook the note for a part of Paul’s text that an earlier copyist had missed, and then added it in, in the margin. It is certainly possible that the passage was the irritated comment of an early reader who thought that Paul had been too encouraging to women, or who was worried that Paul’s encouragement could be taken as an excuse for women getting out of hand.

Just how plausible is it that 1 Cor. 14:34—35 is not Paul’s own hand but rather the marginalia of a later reader with his or her own agenda? I put this question to my very own husband, who, while not without a bias (in light of the fact that his wife is an ordained minister) is a European historian whose research pursuits have taken him into the realm of ancient manuscripts and their evolution and tranference by later readers. His answer? Marginalia that over time becomes part of a text is actually very common; so it is indeed plausible that this kind of copying error (whether intentional or accidental) could have happened to Paul’s original manuscript.

Which may also help to explain the other favorite proof text of misogynists, 1 Timothy 2:11—14:

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing.

By the second century when 1 Timothy would have been written, the church was coming to terms with the realization that the apostle Paul had been wrong about at least one thing: Christ had, contrary to Paul’s assumptions, yet to return. By the second century, Cooper argues, we see a proto-institutional church coming into shape and attempting to establish “some kind of provisional order while…waiting” for Christ’s return. The writer of 1 Timothy is thus concerned to place women within this developing order, which increasingly is family-centric; (whereas first-century Christians along with Paul were much less concerned with a family focus because of Christ’s perceived imminent return, in the second century we see an increasing effort to assert the importance of these family roles, which at least for ancient women was heavily involved with childbearing.)

This all begs the question: what do we do with the plausibility that the institutional church has based centuries of chauvinism on erroneous changes to Paul’s original manuscript? And what do we do with the fact that a second-century writer of 1 Timothy had his own agenda to keep women in their place, so to speak, by essentially putting his own words into the mouth of the apostle Paul before him?

At the least, I think it means we take care not to let these passages perpetuate further chauvinism in the church in a day and age when the rest of the world has woken up to the fact that a woman in leadership is as competent as the man next to her. (Lest there is doubt about this last statement, see the above picture taken of Kabul, Afganistan’s new Police Chief.)



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