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.

And so on the basis of a combination of evidence—several manuscripts that shuffle the verses around, the immediate literary context, and the context within 1Corinthians as a whole—it appears that Paul did not write 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. One would have to assume, then, that these verses are a scribal alteration of the text, originally made, perhaps, as a marginal note and then eventually, at an early stage of the copying of 1 Corinthians, placed in the text itself. The alteration was no doubt made by a scribe who was concerned to emphasize that women should have no public role in the church, that they should be silent and subservient to their husbands. This view then came to be incorporated into the text itself, by means of a textual alteration.

We might consider briefly several other textual changes of a similar sort. One occurs in a passage I have already mentioned, Romans 16, in which Paul speaks of a woman, Junia, and a man who was presumably her husband, Andronicus, both of whom he calls "foremost among the apostles" (v. 7). This is a significant verse, because it is the only place in the New Testament in which a woman is referred to as an apostle. Interpreters have been so impressed by the passage that a large number of them have insisted that it cannot mean what it says, and so have translated the verse as referring not to a woman named Junia but to a man named Junias, who along with his companion Andronicus is praised as an apostle. The problem with this translation is that whereas Junia was a common name for a woman, there is no evidence in the ancient world for "Junias" as a man's name. Paul is referring to a woman named Junia, even though in some modern English Bibles (you may want to check your own!) translators continue to refer to this female apostle as if she were a man named Junias.

Some scribes also had difficulty with ascribing apostleship to this otherwise unknown woman, and so made a very slight change in the text to circumvent the problem. In some of our manuscripts, rather than saying "Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives and fellow prisoners, who are foremost among the apostles," the text is now changed so as to be more readily translated: "Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives; and also greet my fellow prisoners who are foremost among the apostles." With this textual change, no longer does one need to worry about a woman being cited among the apostolic band of men!

A similar change was made by some scribes who copied the book of Acts. In chapter 17 we learn that Paul and his missionary companion Silas spent time in Thessalonica preaching the gospel of Christ to the Jews of the local synagogue. We are told in verse 4 that the pair made some important converts: "And some of them were persuaded and joined with Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the pious Greeks, along with a large number of prominent women."

The idea of women being prominent—let alone prominent converts—was too much for some scribes, and so the text came to be changed in some manuscripts, so that now we are told: "And some of them were persuaded and joined with Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the pious Greeks, along with a large number of wives of prominent men." Now it is the men who are prominent, not the wives who converted.

Among Paul's companions in the book of Acts were a husband and wife named Aquila and Priscilla; sometimes when they are mentioned, the author gives the wife's name first, as if she had some kind of special prominence either in the relationship or in the Christian mission (as happens in Romans 16:3 as well, where she is called Prisca). Not surprisingly, scribes occasionally took umbrage at this sequencing and reversed it, so that the man was given his due by having his name mentioned first: Aquila and Priscilla rather than Priscilla and Aquila.

In short, there were debates in the early centuries of the church over the role of women, and on occasion these debates spilled over into the textual transmission of the New Testament itself, as scribes sometimes changed their texts in order to make them coincide more closely with the scribes' own sense of the (limited) role of women in the church.

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