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Thursday, 26 August 2010

1 Corinthians 14:34-35: an interpolation? Part VII, So What?

We have looked both at the manuscript evidence and the record of church history in order to answer the question,
Is 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 an interpolation?
The apparent answer, in both cases, is No.

But does it really make any difference?

It didn't made any difference 1800 years ago when Tertullian first quoted this passage. Even then, heretics were going ahead and ordaining woman preachers, maugre 1 Corinthians 14 and maugre 1 Timothy 2. And so they continue to do to this day. 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is sufficient to keep women from serving as bishops, so shepherdess-ordainers who accept it as Scripture must weasel their way out of its prohibitions, regardless of what they think of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.

But how about those who hold to the traditional interpretation and application of 1 Timothy 2--does it make any difference to them if 1 Cor 14:34-35 is really Scripture or not? For most such people, it really doesn't. They accept 1 Timothy 2 and apply it as if 1 Cor 14 never existed. Certain it is that their women would consider it no sin to whisper a question to their husbands, nor a command to their children, while sitting in the assembly. I know of some women who actually come close to literally applying this passage--but even they speak freely during the church service, provided they're in the sheltered confines of the church nursery. And even in the auditorium, they think nothing of lifting up their voices in song along with the rest of the congregation. For all practical purposes, most Christians live as though 14:34-35 were a marginal note in Paul's autograph of his first letter to the Corinthians that was removed once it was joined to 2 Timothy in a single volume.

Does it make any difference to anybody whether or not 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is removed from the English Bible? As one who believes in both the divine inspiration and profitable applicability of every word of Scripture, I maintain that it does.

Post-Reformation Christians are known for rejecting all the books of Maccabees--yeah, the Apocrypha entire--on the basis of one verse, 2 Maccabees 12:44--
For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should have risen again, it had been superfluous and vain to pray for the dead.
Prayer for the dead--heresy! Therefore the Apocrypha cannot be inspired Scripture. It's a massive interpolation, as it were, wedged in between the Testaments.

There are some problems with this view. First of all, what Paul wrote in the very next chapter after the famous passage under review differs very little. 1 Cor. 15:29--
Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?
So far all the manuscripts agree. And the church fathers, who were so unanimous in accepting 1 Cor. 14:34-35 as Scripture? Well, they were just as lief to look to the currently rejected books for answers on this topic as to those universally considered canonical.

Ambrose, for example, had all 14 chapters in his copy of Daniel--and he specifically called 'scripture' those parts now rejected. In deciding what the Bible teaches about the afterlife, he turned to 4 Esdras, an apocryphal book that Jerome included in the Vulgate, but which never even existed in the Septuagint. And the story of Susanna in the apocryphal section of Daniel was the source of a lot of controversy. Julius Africanus denied its canonicity on the basis that Daniel could not possibly have written it; Origen, in response, defended it as inspired Scripture whose origin was just hard to explain. Furthermore, he was convinced that the reason it wasn't in any Hebrew copies was that the Hebrew elders had deliberately taken it out--the very sort of argument advanced by those who now defend Acts 8:37 as inspired, preserved Scripture.

So what are we to do? If 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 isn't an interpolation, then how do we know that The Story of Susanna isn't either? On what grounds do we reject IV Esdras and 2 Maccabees? Whatever we find universally present in the earliest Greek manuscripts, and universally accepted by the patristic writers, is immune from rejection as canonical--or so the theory goes, but only for the New Testament.

Leading the Post-Reformation Christians, Luther referred to the apocryphal sections of the Old Testament as 'wildflowers' that needed to be uprooted from the canon and transplanted in a special garden adjacent, so as to be of benefit to the reader, but not to serve as a final appeal to authority. And thus the Apocrypha continued to be translated, along with the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek Scriptures, all the way up to their revision for publication in the King James Bible of 1611. And how were the Apocryphal scriptures distinguished from the sacred canon? Well, the litmus test was whether or not they were included in the Hebrew Bible.

And thus it is to this day. On the sole basis of its inclusion in the Hebrew Bible, 1 Samuel 13:1 escapes condemnation as an interpolation. Better to wrest it all out of its true shape than to admit it was never in the original text. But why? Would it not be better by far to be guided by common sense as well as rabbinical tradition? If its absence in multiple Greek copies was finally enough to banish the 'na' of Manasseh to the margin, what forbids us from using the same rationale to remove an attempted Who's Who on the Israeli Throne entry for King Saul?

It's high time that Bible translators started practicing their textual criticism on a level field of play. What's good in the New Testament ought to be good enough in the Old. If it took great caution to follow the minority reading of Codex Alexandrinus at Judges 18:30, where was that caution at Revelation 5:9? If the Masoretic Text was so wrong in omitting Joshua 21:36-37, how could it be so right in adding 1 Samuel 13:1?

It appears (e.g. in the TNIV) that Bible Translators have already begun the process of moving 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 to the bottom margin, where it will join the nun in Judges 18:30. Let them do so--what difference, after all, does it make for most anyone who reads it? But while they're at it, there are a whole lot of verses in the Old Testament far more deserving of the same treatment.

Is or is not 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 an interpolation? There is yet one hypothesis which I haven't yet brought forward, which answers the question with a resounding YES.

Remember this hypothesis?

1. After having penned First Corinthians, Paul went back over it and added this comment as an explanatory note in the margin--much as do people today who pen letters on lined paper. When Paul's Epistles were collected into a single book, the marginal note was left out.

Well, it's wrong on two counts.

In the first place, Paul didn't pen the letter, he only signed it:
The salutation of me Paul with mine own hand. --16:21
And, Paul would no more have included such an audacious passage in his margin than in his text.

We don't know who wrote the letter for Paul, but it seems to have been his co-author Sosthenes. The only other mention of Sosthenes in the Bible is in Acts 18:17, where he is mentioned as the ruler of the Corinthian synagogue who got beat up in court--literally. Aha, obviously Sosthenes is now traveling with Paul as a fellow missionary, and Paul has enrolled his help in sending a letter back home. The letter had already gone overlong, so there wasn't any room for individual greetings (on this web page, Rendel Harris provides evidence that all of the epistles ended "at the bottom of the page"; this accounts for the somewhat "oh, and one more thing--and another--and one more" nature of some epistles)*. Sosthenes, however, was able to fit in one personal message--but he had to put it in the margin of ch. 14. For an example of this sort of thing, observe this postscript to Origin's letter to Julius Africanus, referenced above:
My lord and dear brother Ambrosius, who has written this at my dictation, and has, in looking over it, corrected as he pleased, salutes you. His faithful spouse, Marcella, and her children, also salute you. Also Anicetus. Do you salute our dear father Apollinarius, and all our friends.
Sosthenes, remember, is a former synagogue ruler. He knows the teachings of the rabbis about the need for silent women. He was used to them being excluded from the life of the synagogue. He fondly remembers how much more orderly things were back in the day, before his parishioners found liberty in Christ. So, as co-author, he feels quite free to go back over the letter after Paul is done dictating it, and adds a few choice comments in the margin. Off goes the letter to Corinth, and the church listens with stunned silence as it is read to them. They go to work implementing the commands in the letter, and the congregation becomes much more orderly as a result.

At this point we hear no more of Sosthenes. Apparently he went back to Corinth and helped implement what Paul and he had commanded in the letter.

Comes news back to Paul, and he realizes that they were over-reacting to his epistle in some areas, and under-reacting in others. He writes back that they should receive back the repentant member, but stop being yoked with unbelievers. He rebukes them for scoffing at the requirements in his letters, and reminds them that he really does mean what he wrote. He hurriedly wraps up this second letter--another one of record length--mentioning his intention to clear up the rest of the problems when he gets there himself. But before he can, the record ends--we hear no more of the Corinthian church from the pages of Scripture.

Why then, despite the virtually unanimous external evidence, do I reject 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 as Scripture? Well, because I subject it to the same test by which I reject any apocryphal passage, maugre the manuscripts, maugre the church fathers: it doesn't fit with the general teachings of the rest of the Bible, and the rest of the Bible is better off without it. Let's look at a few points:

1) It claims to be quoting the law, but nowhere in prior Scripture is there any mention that women have to be under submission in a way that forbids them speaking in an assembly. One has to look to the Talmud for such a teaching, and the Talmud has no place in the Christian canon.

2) It makes something shameful that is not shameful. What could possibly be shameful about women singing the ladies' parts of a congregational song? How can it not be shameful for a woman to compose a song (careful here--several such are in the canon), but shameful for a woman to sing it in front of anyone? Absolute silence mandated upon all Christian women is totally foreign to Paul's Corinthian depiction of the body of Christ, where every part plays a vital role. It doesn't even fit the teaching of the chapter it is in, where both men and women are to sit in silence until the person who has something to say is done speaking.

3) It puts a ridiculous demand on women. How is a woman to pray, or ask for prayer, without speaking out in the assembly? How is she to play the catechumen at the baptismal font, without confessing with her mouth? And what of the widows, who have no husband to ask at home? What about Lydia of Philippi, who, possibly along with Nympha of Colosse, is the spiritual leader of her home? What of Priscilla, whose husband may well have questions to ask of her? There is nothing of divine inspiration here-; nothing of practical applicability. To find anything of either, we must wrest it like the Masoretes wrested 1 Samuel 13:1, to the point where we may as well have dispensed with it entirely. Women can no more fulfill what these verses demand than men or women can keep all of what Paul elsewhere darkly refers to as 'the law'. Whoever penned these verses fits the grim profile of those of whom Paul warned Timothy only a chapter earlier than his only other mention of the silence of women:
Desiring to be teachers of the law; understanding neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm.
So, I read 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 as apocrypha: not as the canonical teaching of Paul, but as the misguided instructions of a neophyte that, like other uninspired, apocryphal writings, was universally accepted as authoritative by the early church.

Let those who argue for the canonicity of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 continue to read it in their Bibles. But I dare them to actually try applying it. And while they are at it, they may as well take up praying for the dead.

Now, what became of Sosthenes' marginal note in Paul's letter? Well, he probably saw to it that it was always included in copies of the letter that were made available to other churches. It's a wonder if any copies at all emerged without it, and scribes who passed on the copies of the autograph dutifully included it--some moving it out of the margin into one spot, some into another--but evidence, however tangential, has nonetheless come down through the centuries of an awareness that 14:34-35 did not represent the teaching of Paul in his First Epistle to the Corinthians. An awareness I hope will increase, so that those of us who believe and apply 1 Timothy 2:11-12 don't overshoot the mark by clumsily trying to believe and apply 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 as well.

*Nowadays, we purchase legal pads or spiral bound notebooks in which to pen our thoughts. Back in the Apostle's day, what they used were rolls of papyrus. Rather than tearing a sheet off the pad or out of the notebook, the author used a knife to cut off the written-on papyrus and roll it up into a scroll of its own. Thus it was most economical of space to end an epistle at the bottom of a column--or what we would think of now as the end of a page. Since scrolls were typically only written on the inside surface, that left the outer surface for addresses, delivery instructions, and, later on, a summary of the contents for ease of identification by the owner. The scroll would then be sealed shut with wax to keep it from being read until it was delivered.



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I deleted my comment about a link that is now dead. The opposing view could be summarised as follows:
    This verse fits just fine with the teaching in Timothy. The problem is not women speaking per se, but women speaking out of turn, in a way that violates biblical submission. Women are not being forbidden to speak in church, only to speak out. They are always welcome to respond to any invitation given by the bishop opening the floor specifically or generally.

  3. There's one other possible interpretation I've run across: that what Paul is dealing with here is a local law, not the Torah or Talmud. Women are forbidden to speak up in public assemblies in Corinth, therefore, to prevent bringing shame upon the church there, he enjoins the women to keep quiet in the public meetings.
    A possible interpretation, but rather speculative, and subject to further research.


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