What does 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 really say?

While it is not this site's aim to stir the controversy pot, we believe that those seeking unbiased understanding on the subject will find the following details quite helpful.  Upon understanding the contextual background behind the verses, the subject takes on a new color and leaves the stark black and white contrast behind.  With this said, we will objectively look at what the text says and the background behind it.  We will not explore the conservative or liberal talking points.

Reading in Context

The two verses we will be covering are 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 which appear to be a similitude,1 so they should be read and understood in the larger context of 14:20-40.  Let's first notice that this section clearly distinguishes between the men (underlined) and women:

1 Corinthians 14:20-40, Brothers, do not be children in your thinking, but in evil be babes, and in your thinking be perfect... prophesying is not for unbelievers but for those who believe.  If then all the assembly comes together in one place, and... all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an unlearned one comes in, he is reproved by all, he is discerned by all.  And so the secrets of his heart are revealed. And so, falling down on his face, he shall worship Elohim, declaring that Elohim is truly among you.  What then is it, brothers? Whenever you come together, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all be done for upbuilding.  If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret.  And if there is no interpreter, let him be silent in an assembly, and let him speak to himself and to Elohim.  And let two or three prophets speak, and let the others discern.  And if there should be a revelation to another who sits by, let the first be silent.  For you are all able to prophesy one by one, so that all learn and all be encouraged.  And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.  For Elohim is not Elohim of disorder but of peace, as in all the assemblies of the set-apart ones. 
(Let your women be silent in the assemblies, for they are not allowed to speak, but let them subject themselves, as the Torah also says.  And if they wish to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home, for it is improper for women to speak in an assembly...)
If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge what I write to you, that they are a command of the Master.  And if anyone is ignorant, let him be ignorant.  So, then, brothers, earnestly seek to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.  Let all be done decently and in order.

In relation to this study, there are five highlights we can glean from the above passage:

  1. The assembly should allow ample opportunity for all the brethren to edify the body
  2. The brothers edified the body by offering psalms, teachings, and spiritual gifts (i.e. prophecy, revelation, and tongues)
  3. The mutual edification time (which usually followed the teaching and/or reading of the Torah) included dialogue with Q&A
  4. The women were not to engage and participate in the body dialogue
  5. During the dialogue session, the brethren were not to talk over each other, but take turns when speaking

If we read the above passage without the italicized similitude, we can see a clear theme of 'order' vs. 'disorder'.  Stuck right in the middle of these verses Paul adds in the women's role in this.  In short, Paul states that the "command of the Master" is that the women keep silent in the corporate dialogue to avoid disorder, and if anyone wishes to be argumentative, they can just be ignorant.

Notice further, there is a clear parallel in these verses:

 

The Synagogue Blueprint

This pattern is typical in the synagogue.  There was hierarchy in leadership, but in no way do we see this limiting the dialogue of men.  The meetings were open-participatory in that all the men had opportunity to build up the congregation, ask questions, and debate ideas.2  Understanding this point is probably the least understood aspect of this teaching, but brings the most understanding. 

What we commonly call the 'early church', was initially comprised of believing Jews and Israelites (the house of Judah and the house of Israel) in the diaspora.  In fact, many of Paul's letters were written with the diaspora Israelites (called Gentiles) in mind.3  While house assemblies were common in the first century for new/small groups, believers often met in synagogues4 and carried on many of the synagogue ways of meeting.  Followers of The Way (Messianics/Christians) did not create a new thing called 'church', but continued meeting as they had with a new understanding of Yehovah's gift of life in Yeshua.

In turn the synagogue seems to have been adopted as the model for the earliest Christian churches.Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish social life in the days of Christ, pg. 258
Not only were the original Christians all Jewish, but for several centuries Judeo-Christians and even some gentile Christians referred to their houses of worship as synagogues. In Hebrew the Jewish house of prayer was, and still is, called Beit or Beth Knesset, which means simply "house of assembly." Under Hellenistic influence, this became "synagogue," a Greek word meaning "assembly."Bargil Pixner, Church of the Apostles Found on Mt. Zion, Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol.XVI, No. 3, May/June 1990, pp. 23-24.

In regard to Corinth, we know that some, if not all, believers met in the Corinthian5 synagogue:6

Act 18:1-11,  And after this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth.  And he found a certain Jew named Aqulas, born in Pontos, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla – because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome – and he came to them... And he was reasoning in the synagogue every Sabbath, and won over both Jews and Greeks... And having left there he came to the house of a certain man named Justus, who worshipped Elohim, whose house was next to the synagogue.  And Crispus, the president of the synagogue, did believe in the Master with all his household. And many of the Corinthians, hearing, believed and were immersed.  And the Master spoke to Paul in the night by a vision, “Do not be afraid, but speak, and do not be silent, because I am with you, and no one shall attack you to do you evil, because I have much people in this city.”  And he remained a year and six months, teaching the Word of Yehovah among them. 

Further, as in many Orthodox synagogues today, the men were separated7 from the women (by a partition, balcony, room, or separate meeting time).8  It was thought that families were together all week and this allowed a time of separation to focus solely on Yehovah without the attractions and distractions of the opposite sex.  This is opposite to the way most churches think today, but it appears to be at the root of the 1 Corinthian passage.  When we read the teaching with this in mind, it takes on a new, fuller meaning.  Philo describes this separation in the synagogue at Therapeutae (Egypt):

This common sanctuary in which they meet every seventh day is a double enclosure, one portion set apart for the use of the men, the other for the women. For women too regularly make part of the audience with the same ardour and the same sense of their calling. The wall between the two chambers rises up from the ground to three or four cubits [five to six feet] built in the form of a breast work, while the space above up to the roof is left open. This arrangement serves two purposes; the modesty becoming to the female sex is preserved, while the women sitting within ear-shot can easily follow what is said since there is nothing to obstruct the voice of the speaker . Philo, On the Contemplative Life 30-33

Since the women were physically divided from the men, they were not able to lean over and whisper to their husbands as in most assemblies today.  Therefore, to avoid unnecessary ‘chatter’ coming from the women's area, and to show respect to God's design (11:3), women were instructed to 'hold their peace' until they had opportunity to discuss with their husbands at home.  The women were not to engage in the public debate and dialogue (of spiritual matters) with the men that they could not see on the other side of the synagogue. 

 

What Does This Mean to Me?

How does this relate to the 21st century western(ized) assembly?  The same as it did 2,000 years ago.  The text says that women are not to speak-forth in the assembly - this is pretty clear.  It is Yehovah's desire that the men should be actively involved in the upbuilding dialogue of the meeting.  With this said, it is this author's opinion that the exact way this is applied should be left to each individual's assembly because of our common family seating arrangement and the possibility that a husband may not attend or believe.  Since most churches today do not separate by genders, it is acceptable for a woman to talk to her own husband sitting next to her.  

If there is a corporate dialogue session, a woman should not bypass her 'own husband ' and directly dialogue/debate with the other husbands in the corporate meeting.  If a woman has a question(s), she should wait and discuss with her 'own husband at home,' for it is every husband's role to discuss spiritual matters with his own wife.  A somewhat hidden aspect here is that this practice encourages each husband to engage more frequently in the meetings so that he is able to dialogue with his own wife at home (i.e. be the spiritual leader of his home). 

1 Timothy 2:11-12 speaks further on this topic, revealing that the reason behind Yehovah's instruction is because Eve was deceived and Adam wasn't.  The reason Yehovah established this 'order' goes back to the very beginning (the garden of Eden), and is not specific to any one particular culture.  The topic at hand is independent and unrelated to a woman's ability and intellect, for in many cases a woman may have more understanding and sensitivity in spiritual matters than her husband.  With this said, a woman may find it hard to 'hold her peace', but should do so in order to respect/build up her husband, and the role Yehovah gave to men and women after the fall.  As a man is still to labor (Genesis 3:17-19), and a woman still endures pain in childbearing, Yehovah's design for order still remains (Genesis 3:16; 1 Corinthians 11:3).  

As with any application (halakha), there will be disagreement between assemblies.  Most westernized assemblies find it acceptable for women to play a more active role when assembling as long as they are 'under authority'.  While we fully encourage each assembly to find what is an acceptable application in their own assembly, we should not minimize the intent and design Yehovah has set forth.

Let us remember, the issue being addressed here is not the sound of a woman's voice, the issue is respecting Divine order, and speaking in turn (keeping order).  It is a 'command of Yehovah' for harmonious dialogue within His divine order; men with men, women with women, and husbands with wives.  Let all be done decently and in order.


1 A similitude is text that is inserted (in the midst of a theme) because it adds clarity and often shares root commonality.  This is often done with the use of parenthesis as seen above; (Let your women...).

2
Peter dialogues and reasons with the people outside the temple (Acts 2:37-38); Paul dialogues in the synagogues (Acts 17:1-3, 17; 18:4, 19), in the marketplace (17:17), in the school of Tyrannus (19:8-9), and in the church at Troas (20:7-9).  It is worth mentioning that Paul defended himself by saying his accusers did not find him 'dialoguing' in the temple or synagogue of that city (Acts 24:12).


3
 The term 'Gentile', which is common today, was not invented till about 200AD.  The correct word is "nations" and often carries a spiritual meaning (e.g. 'worldly') rather than a physical one, but for familiarity of the reader we offer it here.


4
 The book of Acts records Paul and Apollos collectively speaking in the synagogue twelve times:

  1st Trip 2nd Trip 3rd Trip 4th Trip
Damascus (9:20) Salamis (13:5)
Antioch in Pisidia (13:14-41)
Antioch in Pisidia (13:44-48)
Iconium (14:1)
Thessalonica (17:1-4)
Berea (17:10-12)
Athens (17:17)
Corinth (18:4)
Ephesus (18:19)
Achaia (18:26-28)
Ephesus (19:8/20:20-21)
Rome (28:17-29)

5 It is unclear whether Corinth had more than one synagogue at this time.  Acts 18:8 names Crispus as "the ruler of the synagogue" while Acts 18:17 names Sosthenes as "the ruler of the synagogue".  In the Greek, this either speaks of (1) more than one synagogue, (2) a succession of rulers, or (3) is speaking about the 'bench of three' rulers present in every synagogue.  However, the Aramaic has "Sosthenes an Elder of the synagogue" which could put him in a different 'position' and likely limit this to only one Corinthian synagogue.  Notice further that the Aramaic is missing the definite article "the" and has "an", likely inferring a plurality of "elders".  A ruler of the synagogue was one who 'ruled/judged' on matters in the assembly.

6
The picture inscription says “[syna]gogue of the Hebr[ews]”.  This came off a Corinthian synagogue, but it is usually dated a few centuries after Paul's writings so it is debatable whether it came off the actual synagogue Paul visited.


7
The archaeological and literary evidence is not conclusive enough to emphatically declare how widespread this practice of separation was.  We know it was practiced in some synagogues and also appears to be the case with Corinth as the passage suggests.


8
The dividing wall or curtain is called m'chitzah in Hebrew (syaga in Aramaic), and is alluded to when addressing the Ephesus church.  Ephesians 2:14, "For he is our peace, the one who made both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility".  It is further alluded to in Galatians 3:28 that there is "There is neither Jew nor Greek [divided at the Temple], ...neither male nor female".  With these allusions to the Ephesians and Galatians, we can safely assert that these fellowships were in the practice of having a curtain/wall separating the sexes or were at least familiar with them.


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