Scriptures: 1 Corinthians 14:34-37; 1 Timothy 2:11-15 & 1 Peter 3:1-6
It is evident that Paul’s letters to Corinth relate to specific problems within that Christian Community. We know for sure that he was answering questions (1 Corinthians 7:1). But without knowing the questions we are at a disadvantage to fully appreciate the answers. His letters to Timothy are different, as they are of a personal nature. As a father would admonish his son, Paul wrote to Timothy and perhaps the letters were never intended for public reading. Peter wrote to confirm Paul and emphasise the virtues of a Christian woman.
Whatever the reasons behind these letters to Corinth, Ephesus, Galatia, in them the Apostles made some serious assertions about women. Apostles or not, the ‘Ethos’ for the First-Century Christian woman must be addressed. And I pray that I do it respectfully and honestly.
In this article I will present my dilemma with trying to make sense of Paul’s comments on women. If you follow my blogs, you will know, I like studying various laws; ancient and religious. But to fully appreciate where Paul was going with his ‘Women must be silent, as states the Law,’ comment (1 Corinthians 14:34), I had to delve into new sets of Laws, Roman Law and Natural Law. These laws were new to me, and I had to do a lot of reading so that I did not arrive at any false conclusions.
When Paul mentioned, women should remain in silence according to ‘The Law,’ which Law was he referring to? Moses’s Law, Jewish Talmudic Law, Roman Law, Natural Law, which Law?
Scripture Reference: 1 Corinthians 14:34-37
In his letters to the Corinthians, Paul addresses the chaos that was occurring during their church meetings. It appears from his comments that some females were contributing much to this chaos. His solution to the problem was that all the women be silent and not speak, because that is what the Law says. Which left me wondering, which Law was he referring to? Because of the obscurity of this passage, I will begin with a process of elimination. The first Law I am going to eliminate is Talmudic Law. Even though Talmudic Law applies to Paul’s other comment about women ‘learning’ in silence. I covered that in my article on Timothy. Deuteronomy 4:10 says, “Gather the people (not gender specific) and let them hear my words, that they may ‘learn’ (instruction, if you received instruction, you could give instruction) from me.” That puts paid to the Talmud’s position on “Men come to learn, women come to hear.”
According to Deuteronomy everyone came to hear and to learn. Women were equals in hearing and learning (receiving instruction). If you are like me, you would have enjoyed watching the 1983 movie, Yentl. The movie was about a young woman’s desire to learn. In the movie, Barbara Streisand had to essentially pretend to be a boy to learn Talmud in Eastern Europe. Perhaps she should have just quoted Deuteronomy 4:10 to her teachers.
There is another reference in Talmud to the woman’s voice being too provocative which I will also eliminate in this instance, as I do not consider it relevant. I do not think Paul would have meant for women to be silent because of their enticing voices. Not all women have such voices. I know many a man who would prefer deafness rather than hear his wife’s nagging voice 😊 I am also going to rule out Moses’s Law because there is nothing said in there that forbids a woman to speak or to remain in silence. There are too many high-profile women in the Hebrew Scriptures to even contemplate such a thing. It is possible however, that it was implied in a cultural sense, but it was not written down.
With the Talmudic and Mosaic Law out of the way, I will now deal with Natural Law. I was surprised to find Natural Law written into Roman Law. And to be perfectly honest with you, I never took it seriously as a ‘thing’ but apparently it is. Wikipedia summarises ius naturale lex naturalis (Natural Law) as Laws relating to Nature and they also relate to religious morality. But here lies the problem, how humans perceive what is natural/nature is vastly different and, in many instances, it is a cultural phenomenon. Women in some cultures go topless, it is natural for them. In other cultures, being natural is for the woman to cover her breasts with more than one layer of clothing.
To understand Paul, we must understand him in a first-century Roman context. On more than one occasion he wrote about this Natural Law. And now that you are made aware of it, you will see it all over the place. He referred to Jews as being ‘Jews by nature,’ the natural olive tree and the wild grafted branches. In 1 Corinthians 11:14, he says, “Does not nature itself teach you?” To which I always replied, “What do you mean?” That was until now. Now I understand it as sets of laws that were established in ancient times, simply by observing nature. It is a difficult concept to grasp in modern times because as I mentioned earlier, cultures perceive what is and is not natural in diverse ways.
Violating Natural Law also brought about shame. It was a shame for a man to have long hair, or a woman to go with her head uncovered. It was a shame for a man to cover his head. It was about what was normal and what was considered abnormal. Yet for Samson, his hair was his anointing, different time, distinct cultural expectation. And as we know from the Hebrew Scriptures, it was considered very sacred for everyone to cover their heads. And the High Priest was commanded by God to cover his head with a turban (Exodus 28:4).
But under Roman Law, if a woman was seen with her head uncovered, it meant she was caught in adultery and being publicly shamed. As we can see Paul used the Natural aspects of Roman Law to teach Christians how to function. And it did not always agree with the Hebrew text as in Samson and the High Priest. There is one other aspect of Roman Law I would like to mention and that is, that women were considered the weaker of the sexes, and Peter mentioned this in 1 Peter 3:7 which I will deal with a little later. Peter like Paul was very much about keeping the Church safe and not rocking the Roman boat.
A lot of what Paul and even Peter referred to in their comments was Roman Law with elements of Natural Law. I found the book, Roman Wives Roman Widows by Bruce W. Winter so beneficial. Please get yourself a copy, it will assist greatly in understanding what the first-century Christian woman experienced under Roman rule. The Romans were big on regulating female morality and conduct by legislating for them. And every one of the commands mentioned in Paul’s ethos for women can be attributed to Roman Law. From how a woman dressed, wore her hair, her submission to her husband, and her responsibility as a child bearer. It was all Roman Law.
I will quickly list the favourable and not so favourable attributes of a Roman woman. If she was a submissive wife, a child bearer, covered her head, wore modest apparel, and had a gentle, quiet spirit she was favourable. If she wore revealing and costly clothing, braided her hair, wore gold, pearls, purple and went unveiled she was considered not so favourable. Much of these outward appearances related to whether a woman was a virgin, a wife, or a prostitute. But not altogether, because as historians discovered, this period also gave rise to the ‘New Woman.’ The New Woman cared little about what people thought of her. She enjoyed many freedoms, and her sexuality was just one of them. She wore makeup, had high brows and rosy, red cheeks. She flaunted her beauty and her wealth everywhere she went.
We see a typical example of the New Woman in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, where a young man was caught in adultery with his father’s wife (1 Corinthians 5:1-5). According to Roman Scholars this New Woman preferred younger men and younger men preferred her. Prompting the likes of Plutarch to warn men if they did not lift their game and be a bit more cheerful, that their wives would simply find pleasures elsewhere. Bang smack in the middle of this feminine revolution was Corinth, the la-de-da city of affluence and influence. It is no wonder that it was there that Paul experienced the full extent of the ‘New Woman’ revolution.
There is so much more in Roman Law that relates to what the Apostles wrote. Many laws were passed to ensure women got married and had children. There were incentives for families who did the right thing by the authorities and penalties for those who did not. If a woman did not conduct herself well in public, her male (head or handler) could be fined, as he was responsible for her. We might cringe at the fact that every Roman woman had to have a male head who was answerable for her. But consider a twenty-first century wedding, where the celebrant asks, “Who gives this woman to this man?” And with that just like a chattel, she is transferred from one man to another.
Lastly, I want to deal with Peter’s comment, which really threw a spanner in the works for me. I hold Peter in extremely high esteem, higher than Paul. So, what did Peter say that threw me? He essentially quoted Roman Law but reverted it back to Old Testament Scriptures by referring to Sarah, Abraham’s wife. In 1 Peter 3:1-6, Peter essentially confirmed Paul’s ethos of a first-century Christian woman by saying, “Hey, yeah sure, Paul is quoting Roman Law, which we all have to abide by, but we have examples of the likes of Sarah and other Holy woman in the Scriptures, Holy women’s examples that we should follow.”
Peter called for the conduct of a Christian woman in such a way that by her behaviour she would draw others to God. He also mentioned the hair arranging, jewellery and fancy clothes. We could be fooled for thinking he is reading from a Roman script, but he mentioned Holy woman of old, such as Sarah. I personally would not go as far as calling any man, Lord. And it was only that one time that Sarah did this (Genesis 18:12), and in all honesty we know little else about Sarah. Perhaps, Peter knew more from folklore and tradition. However, it is clear to me that the Apostles likened Roman Law to aspects of God’s Law as set out in the Hebrew Scriptures.
In concluding, based on the studies I conducted to find out which Law Paul was referring to, when he stated, ‘Women should be silent according to the Law,’ he was predominantly referring to Roman Law. I discovered that the Roman’s were prolific legislators especially when it came to the behaviour of their women. The Empire had reached a crisis with crippling birth rates and the rise of the New Woman who decided she could stand alone and needed no man. Introduced Roman Laws were meant to keep society decent, marriages intact and a steady birth rate. There were incentives for those who complied and fines for those who did not. The Apostles, Paul and Peter used Roman Law to keep the churches safe, and the Christians from drawing unnecessary attention to themselves, especially the women. It was Peter in the end that made the connection that this was not just Roman Law, but it was compatible with Hebrew women of old. Peter used Sarah as an example.
The word ‘silent’ is really an unfortunate one and contradicts Paul’s other writings where women were free to pray, sing and prophesy. Peter used the word, quietness instead, and this is more suited to the situation in Corinth. Romans preferred the women to ask their male heads at home if they needed clarification on something and not cause a ruckus in a public place. Quietness does not mean silence. In Roman terms quietness was understood as not being loud, disruptive, and boisterous. Quietness together with gentleness were seen as good virtues for a every woman to possess. I will leave you with a quote from Roman Wives Roman Widows (p.86), “Most of these practices (known from ancient times) are also forbidden by our laws. But ours contain an additional proviso that such offenders shall be punished by the supervisors of the woman.” Plutarch. In light of the punishment imposed by Roman authorities, we can better appreciate Paul and Peter’s ethos for the first-century Christian woman.
En.wikipedia.org. n.d. Natural law – Wikipedia. [online] Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_law> [Accessed 15 February 2022].
Grubbs, J., 2005. Women and the law in the Roman Empire. London: Routledge.
Neusner, J., 2005. The Babylonian Talmud. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers.
n.d. The Holy Bible Authorized King James Version. Nashville: Collins World.
Shelton, J., 1998. As the Romans did. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
Winter, B., 2003. Roman wives, Roman widows. Grand Rapids, Mich. [u.a.]: Eerdmans.
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