Examining the authenticity of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35…

Part 2: A Study Into Histo-Cultural and Literary Context

Print Article

Author's Bias | Interpretation: conservative | Inclination: dispensational | Seminary: none

To better understand Paul's epistles and the role of women, it is vitally important to understand the cultural context of the first century church, the historical context of the author Paul, and the literary context of his letter to the Corinthians. How does this help one understand Paul's directive in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35?

The First Century Church

During the first century, early Christianity started out in homes, and archeologists have noted that the dining room of a first century Graeco-Roman home measured 10 x 14 meters, which can accommodate about 20 people. Such home meetings were usually hosted by wealthy households or patrons, led by both men and women leaders, and overseen by itinerate apostles as exemplified by the New Testament evidence:

Lydia of Philippi (Acts 16:12-15, 40)

and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia, a Roman colony; and we were staying in this city for some days. And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to a riverside, where we were supposing that there would be a place of prayer; and we sat down and began speaking to the women who had assembled. A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household had been baptized, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house and stay." And she prevailed upon us. (Acts 16:12-15)

They went out of the prison and entered the house of Lydia, and when they saw the brethren, they encouraged them and departed. (Acts 16:40)

Titus Justus and Crispus (Acts 18:7-8)

Then he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God, whose house was next to the synagogue. Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with all his household, and many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized. (Acts 18:7-9)

Phoebe (Rom 16:1-2)

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea; that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a helper of many, and of myself as well. (Rom 16:1-2)

Stephanas (1 Cor 16:15-16)

Now I urge you, brethren (you know the household of Stephanas, that they were the first fruits of Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves for ministry to the saints), that you also be in subjection to such men and to everyone who helps in the work and labors. (1 Cor 16:15-16)

Nympha of Laodicea (Col 4:15)

Greet the brethren who are in Laodicea and also Nympha and the church that is in her house. (Col 4:15)

Apphia and Archippus (Philemon 1:1-2)

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved {brother} and fellow worker, and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: (Phil 1:1-2)

The organization of these small groups was informal yet a transition was taking place, which was reflected in the various terms used by the apostles to address the early patrons and leaders.

Elders (presbuteros) (Act 14:23)

When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:23)

he who leads (proistemi) (Rom 12:8)

or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness. (Rom 12:8)

Servant (diakonos) helper (prostatis) (Rom 16:1-2)

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea; that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a helper of many, and of myself as well. (Rom 16:1-2)

Administrations (kubernesis) (1 Cor 12:28)

And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. (1 Cor 12:28)

Have charge over you (proistemi) (1 Thess 5:12)

But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, (1 Thess 5:12)

Overseers and deacons (episkopoi kai diakonos) (Phil 1:1)

Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons: (Phil 1:1)

These small private household groups coalesced into larger public city congregations, which were led by chosen bishops / pastors who represented the next generation of leaders after the apostles. Because of Roman persecution of Christians, which started after the crucifixion of Jesus to about 310 AD with varying severity and in different regions of the Roman empire, Christian worship meetings became secretive and met in hidden places such as the catacombs. By 300 AD, the transition to exclusive male leadership was well established when basilicas were constructed and symbolized the public space for Christian worship.

The Role of Women in First Century Greek Society

First century Greek women did not have much independence or legal rights. Girls submitted to the authority of their father, and stayed at home with mother learning household skills and jobs such as cooking, sewing, and weaving. Academic education was often at home as well.

Marriage was arranged, and girls usually married in their teens to men around 30 years of age. Once married, young women submitted to their husbands and spent most of her time in the home. The public role of women and the work they did depended on their status in Greek society. There were 3 classes of women:

1. Prostitutes and Slaves.

The lowest class of women was prostitutes and slaves. They were often single and poor (widows, foreigners, captives from wars, or unwanted girls) and worked in brothels. Because many were not citizens of Greece, they did not have any legal protections or restrictions confining them to the home as a housewife. As a "buyable woman," they were free to move about society, which promoted the idea that women in public were adulterous. Slaves were at the mercy of their masters.

2. Hetaerae (Hetaira).

This next class of women was Greek courtesans, which were prostitutes who also provided social and intellectual companionship to men. While prostitutes provided sexual services, hetaerae were also educated and skilled in performing arts (i.e. music, dance, etc). Thus they also moved freely within society and attended cultural events. Focused on pleasing men and making one love her, hetaerae desired to become a mistress or a concubine. And while Greeks were largely monogamous, some concubines did succeed in marriage. This class of women was popular, loved, and praised by men.

3. Wives.

Women achieved the most respect managing a household, but most marriages were not based on love. Wives of wealthy men had slaves to assist them in the management and duties of the home, which included making clothes for all, preparing food, and caring for the children. They rarely left the home as they could afford a slave to go out in public.

While men were culturally perceived as sexually aggressive, a woman's sexuality was considered more as property, devoted to one husband, and confined to the privacy of their home. This signaled her sexual exclusiveness and preserved the honor of her husband.

If a married woman left the confines of her home too often, her public appearances made her vulnerable to advances by other men, charges of neglecting her home, and a perception of being a gossip or adulterer. All of which brought shame to her husband.

Less respectable were wives of less affluent men who could not afford slaves. Thus, in addition to managing the household, they sometimes had to work in the fields harvesting or in the market buying and selling; they played a large part in the agrarian economy.

So while women were discouraged from being in public, there was one public duty expected of them. Women played an important role in funerals, because they were responsible for preparing the dead body and lead the funeral procession with food and drink to the gravesite.

An examination of some of the ancient texts authored in and around the period of the first century provides additional insight into cultural perceptions and expectations of respectable women in Greek society.

The semi-mythical scientist Pythagoras, who died about 500 BC, had a huge influence on Greek thought. His work was one of history's earliest attempts at reconciling rational science and religious mysticism for the purpose of benefiting mankind. Established in southern Italy, Pythagoras founded a religious and scientific community that promoted the use of mathematics to analyze and explain natural phenomenon. These Pythagorean communities grew, spread, and settled in the Italian mainland, Sicily, and Greece.

One group of ancient texts is a collection of letters and works, believed to be authored by women of a Pythagorean community in Southern Italy including the wife and daughters of Pythagoras, that reflect upon the roles of women in particular their duties, their chastity, and their response to their husband's mistress. While these manuscripts are dated around third or second century BC, they reflected a thought on female roles held during that time and into the first and second century AD. Because of this subject matter, there is debate whether the texts were original or composed by men at different times and places.

In general a woman must be good and orderly-and this no one can become without virtue... A woman's greatest virtue is chastity. Because of this quality she is able to honor and to cherish her own particular husband.

Now some people think that it is not appropriate for a woman to be a philosopher, just as a woman should not be a cavalry officer or a politician ... I agree that men should be generals and city officials and politicians, and women should keep house and stay inside and receive and take care of their husbands. But I believe that courage, justice, and intelligence are qualities that men and women have in common... Courage and intelligence are more appropriately male qualities because of the strength of men's bodies and the power of their minds. Chastity is more appropriately female.

Accordingly a woman must learn about chastity and realize what she must do quantitatively and qualitatively to be able to obtain this womanly virtue. I believe that there are five qualifications: 1) the sanctity of her marriage bed, 2) the cleanliness of her body, 3) the manner in which she chooses to leave her house, 4) her refusal to participate in secret cults or Cybeline ritual, 5) her readiness and moderation in sacrificing to the gods.

Of these the most important quality for chastity is to be pure in respect to her marriage bed, and for her not to have affairs with men from other households. If she breaks the law in this way she wrongs the gods of her family and provides her family and home not with its own offspring but with bastards. She wrongs the true gods, the gods to whom she swore to join with her own ancestors and her relatives in the sharing of life and the begetting of children according to law. She wrongs her own fatherland, because she does not abide by its established rules ... She should also consider the following: that there is no means of atoning for this sin; no way she can approach the shrines or the altars of the gods as a pure woman, beloved of god ... The greatest glory a free-born woman can have-her foremost honor-is the witness her own children will give to her chastity towards her husband, the stamp of likeness they bear to the father whose seed produced them ...

As far as adornment of her body is concerned, the same arguments apply. She should be dressed in white, natural, plain. Her clothes should not be transparent or ornate. She should not put on silken material, but moderate, white-colored clothes. In this way she will avoid being over-dressed or luxurious or made-up, and not give other women cause to be uncomfortably envious. She should not wear gold or emeralds at all; these are expensive and arrogant towards other women in the village. She should not apply imported or artificial coloring to her face-with her own natural coloring, by washing only with water, she can ornament herself with modesty ...

Women of importance leave the house to sacrifice to the leading divinity of the community on behalf of themselves and their husbands and their households. They do not leave home at night nor in the evening, but at midday, to attend a religious festival or to make some purchase, accompanied by a single female servant or decorously escorted by two servants at most. They make modest sacrifices to the gods also, according to their means. They keep away from secret cults and Cybeline orgies in their homes. For public law prevents women from participating in these rites, particularly because these forms of worship encourage drunkenness and ecstasy. The mistress of the house and head of the household should be chaste and untouched in all respects.

Aristotle, a Greek philosopher who studied under Plato and later founded his own school, was a brilliant man who is believed to have conceived and established many scientific subjects as systematic disciplines. His work was developed and expanded on by later students and had a large influence on Greek society.

In one of his works during 350 BC, Politics, part XIII, Aristotle makes a comment about a woman's role:

For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority, and the child has, but it is immature. So it must necessarily be supposed to be with the moral virtues also; all should partake of them, but only in such manner and degree as is required by each for the fulfillment of his duty. Hence the ruler ought to have moral virtue in perfection, for his function, taken absolutely, demands a master artificer, and rational principle is such an artificer; the subjects, oil the other hand, require only that measure of virtue which is proper to each of them. Clearly, then, moral virtue belongs to all of them; but the temperance of a man and of a woman, or the courage and justice of a man and of a woman, are not, as Socrates maintained, the same; the courage of a man is shown in commanding, of a woman in obeying. And this holds of all other virtues, as will be more clearly seen if we look at them in detail, for those who say generally that virtue consists in a good disposition of the soul, or in doing rightly, or the like, only deceive themselves. Far better than such definitions is their mode of speaking, who, like Gorgias, enumerate the virtues. All classes must be deemed to have their special attributes; as the poet says of women,

"Silence is a woman's glory,

but this is not equally the glory of man."

Plutarch, a Greek author who lived during the first century church, wrote of many famous Greek and Roman men highlighting qualities that he believed defined virtuous and good. His writings were popular and widely read. Here are some excerpts on his advice to a bride and groom.

Now you two have been brought up together in philosophy, and so, by way of a wedding present for you both, I have made and am sending you a summary of what you have often heard. I have put things down briefly and side by side, to make them easier to remember. I pray that the Muses may stand by Aphrodite and help her! For they know that it is no more important for a lyre or a lute to be properly tuned than it is for the proper care of marriage and family life to be set to harmony by reason, mutual adjustment, and philosophy. Indeed, the ancients gave Hermes a place at the side of Aphrodite, indicating that in the pleasures of love reason is especially valuable; and they also gave a place to Persuasion and to the Graces, so that married people should have what they want from each other through persuasion and not by quarrelling and fighting with each other.

1. Solon advised the bride to eat a quince before getting into bed with her husband, and by this, I think, he meant that from the very beginning the pleasures coming from the lips and the voice should be harmonious and delightful.

2. In Boeotia after they have veiled the bride they put a garland of asparagus on her head, this being a plant with very rough spines and yet with an extremely pleasant taste. So the bride will make gentle and sweet her partnership with her husband if he does not shrink from her and get angry with her when in the early stages she is difficult and disagreeable. The people who cannot put up with girlish tantrums at the beginning are just like those who because unripe grapes are sour leave the bunches of ripe grapes for others to eat. Many newly married women, too, who get angry with their husbands in the first days find themselves in the position of people who put up with being stung by the bees, but never reach out for the honey comb.

9. When the moon is a long way from the sun, she looks large and bright to us; but when she comes near she fades away and hides. With a good wife it is just the opposite; she ought to be most conspicuous when she is with her husband, and to stay at home and hide herself when he is not there.

11. When music is played in two parts, it is the bass part which carries the melody. So in a good and wise household, while every activity is carried on by husband and wife in agreement with each other, it will still be evident that it is the husband who leads and makes the final choice.

18. A young Spartan girl was once asked whether she had yet started making advances to her husband. She replied: 'I don't to him; he does to me.' This, I think, is how a married woman ought to behave-not to shrink away or object when her husband starts to make love, but not herself to be the one to start either. In the one case she is being over-eager like a prostitute, in the other she is being cold and lacking in affection.

19. A wife ought not to make friends of her own, but to enjoy her husband's friends together with him. And the first and best friends are the gods in whom her husband believes and to shut her door to all magic ceremonies and foreign superstitions. For no god can be pleased by stealthy and surreptitious rites performed by a woman.

20. Man and woman are joined together physically so that the woman may take and blend together elements derived from each and so give birth to a child which is common to them both, so that neither of the two can tell or distinguish what in particular is his or hers. It is very right too that married people should have the same kind of partnership in property. They should put everything they have into a common fund; neither of the two should think of one part as belonging to him and the other as not belonging; instead each should think of it all as his own, and none of it as not belonging to him.

27. The economical woman ought not to neglect cleanliness and the wife who is devoted to her husband should also show a cheerful disposition; for economy ceases to please when it is combined with dirt, as does the most proper behavior in a wife when combined with an austere manner.

34. It should be the same with married people-a mutual blending of bodies, property, friends and relations. Indeed what the Roman lawgiver had in mind, when he prohibited an exchange of gifts between man and wife, was not to deprive them of anything, but to make them feel that everything belonged to both of them together.

35. In the African city of Leptis there is an old custom that on the day after her marriage the bride sends to her husband's mother and asks her for a pot. She does not give it and says that she hasn't got one, the idea being that the bride should recognize from the beginning a step-motherly attitude in her mother-in-law and, if something worse happens later on, should not be angry or resentful. A wife ought to realize what the position is and try to do her best about it. Her mother-in-law is jealous of her because her son loves her. And the only way of dealing with this is for her to win her husband's affection for herself and at the same time not to detract from or lessen his affection for his mother.

39. At all times and in all places wives and husbands should try to avoid quarrelling with each other, but they ought to be especially careful of this when they are together in bed. There was a woman in labor who, when the pains were on her, kept saying to those who were trying to get her to bed 'What's the good of going to bed? It was by going to bed that I got this.' But it is not easy to escape the disagreements, harsh words and anger that may arise in bed except just then and there.

48. But it is a finer thing still for a man to hear his wife say 'My dear husband, "but to me you are" guide, philosopher and teacher in all that is most beautiful and most divine.' In the first place these studies will take away a woman's appetite for stupid and irrational pursuits. A woman who is studying geometry will be ashamed to go dancing and one who is charmed by the words of Plato or Xenophon is not going to pay any attention to magic incantations. For if they do not receive the seed of a good education and do not develop this education in company with their husbands they will, left to themselves, conceive a lot of ridiculous ideas and unworthy aims and emotions.

Jewish authors during the first century church shared similar sentiments about women as their Hellenistic counterparts.

"Market-places and council-halls and law-courts and gatherings and meetings where a large number of people are assembled, and open-air life with full scope for discussion and action — all these are suitable to men both in war and in peace. The women are best suited to the indoor life which never strays from the house, within which the middle door is taken by the maidens as their boundary, and the outer door by those who have reached full womanhood." (Philo, Jewish philosopher)

"A woman, then, should not be a busybody, meddling with matters outside her household concerns, but should seek a life of seclusion. She should not show herself off like a vagrant in the streets before the eyes of other men, except when she has to go to the temple, and even then she should take pains to go, not when the market is full, but when most people have gone home, and so like a freeborn lady worthy of the name, with everything quiet around her, make her oblations and offer her prayers to avert the evil and gain the good." (Philo, Jewish philosopher)

"Women are inferior to men in every way." (Josephus, Jewish historian)

"A silent wife is a gift from the Lord." (Sirach, apocryphal author)

The person and author of the Epistles the Apostle Paul

Prior to his conversion and ultimately the Christian missionary to the Gentiles, the Apostle Paul was known as Saul. The Bible provides little biographical information; however, Paul indicated that he grew up in Tarsus (Acts 21:29), which in 42 BC was granted the status of a "free city" by the Roman general Mark Antony. Tarsus, self-governing as a city-state and free of paying tribute to Rome, was still part of the Roman Empire and flourished in its coastal and intercontinental location with vibrant land and sea commerce.

Unique among the apostles, Paul was a Jew, a citizen of Tarsus, and a citizen of Rome (Acts 22:25-28). Paul's Roman citizenship is rather significant, because he was "born free" which meant that his father was a Roman citizen. Roman citizenship was rarely granted to Jews. While it could be purchased (for huge sums), Roman citizenship was often used as a reward to those who served the Roman Empire with distinction. In other instances, it was given when one was freed from slavery.

While Jews did not have a good relationship with Rome, who sought to bring about new beliefs and lifestyles, Paul was not ashamed of his Jewish ancestry (Rom 11:1, Phil 3:5). As a descendant of the tribe of Benjamin, Paul's original name Saul was the same name of Israel's first king who arose from the same tribe.

Of the various groups of Jews, Paul belonged to the Pharisees (Acts 23:6) who were the most theologically conservative. His religious training took place in Jerusalem with Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Gamaliel, grandson of the renown and perhaps greatest Jewish rabbi Hillel, was a revered rabbi ("my master") in his own right who earned the title Rabban ("our master, our great one"). As a respected leader within the Sanhedrin, which his wise speech demonstrated (Acts 5:34-39), Jewish tradition portrays Gamaliel as devoted to God and the Law and stressing the importance of repentance more than works. Benefiting from one of the best teachers of the time, Paul developed an understanding of the Old Testament, which would enable him to clearly and logically explain Christian doctrine in light of the Old Testament and in particular with regard to the Mosaic Law.

As the fervent Pharisee Saul, Paul in his younger years began his vigorous persecution in Jerusalem of Jews who believed in Jesus Christ (Acts 8:3). He would later regret his "ignorance of unbelief" and consider himself as "the foremost of sinners" (1 Cor 15:9, Phil 3:6, Gal 1:13, 1 Tim 1:13-15).

After his conversion on the road to Damascus while on a mission to root out this new heretical Jewish sect, the Bible does not say when Saul's name was changed to Paul or whether God gave Saul his new name or whether Saul adopted it. After several years of seclusion, Paul emerged as a passionate missionary for Jesus Christ.

Sought by Barnabas to assist him in caring for the Gentile believers at Antioch, the Antioch church grew spiritually strong and sent Barnabas and Paul out on to their first successful missionary journey.

Confronted with the issue of Judaism existing within the church and separating Gentile from Jewish believers, Barnabas and Paul went to the Jerusalem church to discuss this with its elders. In the ensuing discussions, Paul's logical arguments convinced the Jerusalem church to free the Gentiles from Jewish regulations and swept away the class division between Jewish and Gentile believer; however, Paul's counter cultural positions and public rebuking against Jewish regulations (Gal 2:12-14) strained relationships with his Jewish Christian brethren.

On his second missionary journey, Paul visited Corinth (Acts 18:1-18) and established the Corinthian church, which was comprised of Jews, Greeks, and other Gentiles. After a stay of approximately 1-1/2 years, Paul left to visit Jerusalem.

Early into his third missionary journey, while he was still in Ephesus, Paul heard of the spread of immorality and dissension within the Corinthian church from members of Chloe's household, which prompted him to write 1 Corinthians. An earlier letter to the Corinthians, mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5:9 was misunderstood and was later lost. Three members of the church, Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (1 Cor 16:17) also met with Paul seeking advice on certain points regarding issues such as marriage, food sacrificed to idols, spiritual gifts, and charitable collections.

Paul's letters reflect a man of great faith, courage, and principle. He was serving during a time when the first century church was transitioning from private home meetings to larger public assemblies. And while Greek culture held women in low esteem, Paul encouraged them to learn and participate in worship.

With this background, how does one understand Paul's prohibition, "Let the women keep silent in the churches?" Was Paul's conviction in Jesus Christ so weak that he would succumb to the cultural norm of holding women in low esteem?

Series: Examining the authenticity of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35…
Part 1: A Peek Into the Discipline of Lower Criticism

Series: Examining the authenticity of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35…
Part 3: A Look at What Prophesy Means

Related subject:

Topical Index: The Church>New Testament>Organization and Officiers of the Church>Role of Women

Related verses:

Scripture Index: Epistles of Paul>1 Corinthians

Copyright © 2005 All rights to this material are reserved. We encourage you to print the material for personal and non-profit use or link to this site. If you find this article to be a blessing, please share the link so that it may rise in search engine rankings.