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Women in the Pauline Assembly: To Prophesy, But Not To Speak? by Robert J. Karris from 'Women Priests'

Women in the Pauline Assembly: To Prophesy, But Not To Speak?

by Robert J. Karris

from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 205-208.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

Robert J. Karris, OFM, received his Th. D. from Harvard Divinity School in New Testament Studies. He was at the time Associate Professor of New Testament Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, as well as editor of four biblical series and the New Testament book review editor for Catholic Biblical Quarterly.

This sentence is the tip of an exegetical iceberg. The iceberg is the question of how 1 Cor 14:34-35 is related to 1 Cor 11:5. In 1 Cor 11:5 women pray and prophesy in the assembly; in 1 Cor 14:34-35 they are forbidden to speak in the assembly. Some scholars solve this apparent contradiction by arguing that 1 Cor 14:34-35 is a later interpolation and consequently non-Pauline.(1) The Declaration accepts the authenticity of 1 Cor 14:34-35 (and 1 Timothy) and solves the apparent contradiction by distinguishing between women’s rights to prophesy and to teach in the assembly. It argues that the former right is granted whereas the latter is not.

Perhaps the contours of this exegetical iceberg will become more visible if we spell out the relevant Scripture passages:

1 Cor 11:5: “but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head—it is the same as if her head were shaven.”

1 Cor 14:33b-36: ·’As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. What! Did the word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones it has reached?"

1 Tim 2:11-12: “Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent.”

Now that I have charted the waters we must traverse in commenting on this sentence from the Declaration, I will follow the Declaration’s lead and focus on the verb “to speak,” lalein in Greek.(2) It would seem that since 1 Cor 14:34-35 is genuinely Pauline and not interpolated, lalein might be interpreted via its context in chapter 14. Within that context lalein occurs in verses 2,3,4,5,6,9, 11 , 1 3, 1 8, 19, 21,23,27,28,29,39. With the exception of verses 3,11,28 and 29 lalein occurs with “in tongues” and means “to speak in tongues.” Although William Orr/James Walther (3) suggest that lalein in 12 Cor 14:34-35 be interpreted as “speaking in tongues,” I doubt whether that is the meaning. lalein would seem to mean “to speak in tongues” only when “in tongues” accompanies and specifies it. In any case, the context of the passage gives no clear proof that lalein means to teach officially in the Christian assembly.

Besides context, the wording of the passage itself might help us understand the meaning of lalein. If we grant that both verses of 1 Cor 14:34-35 refer to the same situation, it seems that the occurrence of lalein in verse 35 helps one to interpret its occurrence in verse 34. In other words, lalein refers to the asking of questions within the assembly and does not refer to authoritative teaching. (4)

If one explores other passages in the Pauline correspondence where lalein occurs, one arrives at the following conclusion. Lalein only approximates “to speak” as the official function of teaching in the Christian assembly when it has an object which specifes it and gives it such a pregnant meaning. See, for example, 1 Thess 2:2: “but though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to speak to you the gospel of God in the face of great opposition.” Contrast 1 Tim 5:13: “Besides that, they (young widows) learn to be idlers, gadding about from house to house, and not only idlers but gossips and busybodies, speaking what they should not.” In 1 Cor 14:34-35 lalein has no object to specify it and consequently does not have the pregnant meaning of “to teach officially.”(5)

In sum, it seems to me that in 1 Cor 14:34-35 lalein means to ask a question. Further, it does not seem patent that lalein in 1 Cor 14:34-35 refers to the official function of teaching in the Christian assembly. Consequently, it does not seem that this passage prohibits women from engaging in the official function of teaching in the Christian assembly.

Before concluding this essay, I would like to devote some space to 1 Tim 2:12, the third Pauline text to which the Declaration refers. Perhaps the Declaration viewed this passage as a sound parallel to help one interpret the difficult 1 Cor 14:34-35. But before 1 Tim 2:12 can qualify as an interpretive parallel to 1 Cor 14:34-35, two criteria have to be met: 1) the vocabulary and literary contexts should be similar; 2) the historical situations should be similar. Criterion one is not quite met. Although 1 Tim 2:12 uses didaskein (“to teach”). (6) Let us see whether criterion two is met.

What is the situation behind 1 Tim 2:12? 1 Tim 2:8-15 seems to be instructions for men and women on conduct during worship. The injunctions for women in 1 Tim 2:9-12 have parallels in similar exhortatory materials in 1 Peter 3:1-6 and 1 Clement 1:3; 21:7.7 An examination of these parallels shows that didaskein is unique to 1 Tim 2:12 and may have been introduced by the author into traditional exhortatory material because of his polemical situation. Further investigation of the author’s situation would intimate that women had been won over to the heretics’ side and were creating problems for the church.’ Within this situation the prohibition of teaching may have connotations of “false” teaching.(9) Briefly put, behind the prohibition of 1 Tim 2:12 seems to lie a problem created by female false teachers. To stamp out this abuse, the author enjoins that women should not teach in the assembly.(10)

The situation behind 1 Tim 2:12 seems to be quite different from that of 1 Cor 14:34-35. Whatever the problems within the Corinthian community— and there were many—it does not seem that female false teachers were one of them. The two situations seem too disparate for one to use 1 Tim 2 12 as an interpretive parallel to fathom the difficult 1 Cor 14:34-35. Moreover, as we observed above, it seems that lalein in 1 Cor 14:34-35 bears the meaning of “to ask a question” and cannot be construed to mean “to teach.”


1. For a listing of scholars and the arguments which they marshall for the non-Pauline character of 1 Cor 14:33b-36 (34-35), see Wm. O. Walker Jr., “ 1 Corinthians 11 :2- 16 and Paul’s Views Regarding Women,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 94 (March, 1975), pp. 94-110 (95 n. 6). 1 Tim 2:12, the other Pauline passage referred to here by the Declaration, fits into these scholars’ solution in this wise. The Pastoral Epistles, to which 1 Timothy belongs, are not written by Paul and stem from the end of the first century A.D. The rare verb “to permit” in 1 Cor 14:34 can be explained as derived from 1 Tim 2:12 where “to permit” also occurs. This observation and others lead scholars to date both passages from the same time—the end of the first Christian century. In what follows I will not pursue further the thorny question of whether 1 Cor 14:34-35 and 1 Tim 2:12 are Pauline or not. For the sake of this brief article, I will presuppose, along with the Declaration, that Paul wrote both 1 Cor 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy.

2. The Declaration refers to “exegetes.” Rather than align lists of exegetes against lists of exegetes, I have decided to provide a study of the term lalein in 1 Cor 14:34-35 and in the Pauline corpus.

3. 1 Corinthians: A New Translation, Introduction with a Study of the Life of Paul, Notes, and Commentary. Anchor Bible (Garden City: Doubleday, 1976), p. 313.

4. See Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology trans. John Richard de Witt (Grand Rapids Eerdmans, 1975), p 462 n. 105 In speaking of lalein in 1 Cor 14:34, Ridderbos remarks: “One can still consider whether this is intended in the sense of ‘to teach,’ as in Tit. 2:1. But v. 35 points in another direction.”

5. This conclusion is arrived at from a concordance study of the occurrences of lalein in the Pauline corpus. It does not seem necessary or advantageous to list all those occurrences here. The samples given above are deemed representative.

6. See note 1. above where the occurrence of the rare Greek word for “to permit” in both passages was noticed.

7. For non-Christian parallels see Martin Dibelius/lJans Conzelmann, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles. Hermeneia, trans. Philip Buttolph and Adela Yarbro (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972), pp. 46-47.

8. See 1 Tim 4:3; 5:11-15; 2 Tim 3:6-7.

9. On the methodology being employed here to argue for the author’s insertion of didaskein into traditional material, see my article, “The Background and Significance of the Polemic of the Pastoral Epistles,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 92 (Decembcr, 1973), pp. 549-564, esp. pp. 550,551 n. 10, and 563 n. 58. For a plausible setting for such female false teachers within the first century A.D., see J. Massyngberde Ford, New Testament Studies, Vol. 17 (1970/71), pp. 338-346, esp. pp. 343-344. For an argument similar to the one developed here, see David M. Scholer, “Exegesis: 1 Timothy 2:8-15,” Daughters of Sarah, Vol. 1, No. 4 (May, 1975), pp. 7-8: “. . . the context of the Pastoral Epistles suggests that the heresy Paul is opposing here was centered on women in particular (see I Timothy 4:3; 5:11-15; 2 Timothy 3:6-7). I conclude that the admonition of 1 Timothy 2:11-12 is directed against the usurpation by women involved in false teaching” (p. 8).

10. It is characteristic of the author of the Pastorals that he most frequently argues by assertion and injunction. See my article cited above, “Background,” esp. pp. 549-550.

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