Did the Apostle Paul Really Tell Women to “Sit Down and Be Quiet in Church”?

The apostle Paul is blamed for many of the controversies affecting modern Christian belief and practice. Did he, for example, support the institution of slavery as some have insisted? Did he condemn homosexuality? Did he reject Judaism as a failed religion? Was he a misogynist who looked upon women as second-class human beings? Centuries of Christian teaching and tradition based on the New Testament letters attributed to Paul have resulted in answers to these questions that in many cases would have astounded the apostle.

Fortunately, this essay asks a question that is fairly easy to answer. In short, no, Paul was not a misogynist and did not tell women to sit down and be quiet in church. But before rushing to your Bibles to look up passages you swore contained instructions to the contrary, we need to examine how Biblical scholars have come to understand both Paul and the texts attributed to him in the New Testament. First, let’s first look at those offending passages, ostensibly written by Paul, that you were going to look up anyway.

The first is found in one of Paul’s letters to the Christ-believers in the city of Corinth. First Corinthians, chapter 14, verses 34-35 read: “Women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also 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.” Seems clear enough. How can we deny what appears to be obvious? Before we address that question, let’s look at the next passage.

The second passage that relates to the silence of women in the churches is found in the first letter addressed to Timothy, a Christian missionary. First Timothy, chapter 2, verses 11-12 read: “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” Seems to be in perfect agreement with what was written in 1 Corinthians above.

At first blush, these passages would appear to indicate that Paul wanted to issue a gag order on women in churches who felt motivated to ask questions, make comments, or even teach. The later church certainly understood Paul this way which is why it felt wholly justified in restricting church teaching, administration, and oversight to men. But was this really Paul’s position?

There are two important presumptions in modern Biblical studies that need to be understood before we can proceed to deal with these verses. The first is that most New Testament scholars do not recognize the authenticity of all of the letters traditionally attributed to Paul in the New Testament. This may come as a surprise to some readers but as many as six of the thirteen letters seemingly written by Paul are, in fact, forgeries, that is, letters written by someone else claiming to be Paul. Yes, the unfortunate fact is that in a book that purports to present the truth there are documents that are based on lies. First Timothy is just such a forged document. How can we tell? More on that in a moment.

Secondly, we need to understand the way in which written documents were transmitted in the ancient world. There were no printing presses to assure standardization and quality control guaranteeing that each edition of a text was identical to the original. Documents were painstakingly replicated one at a time by hand. Those educated enough to read and write were few in number in the ancient world, perhaps no more than ten percent of the population. Fewer still were the number of professional scribes whom one might hire (at great cost) to replicate a text at one’s request. Since the early Jesus-movement was composed largely, though not exclusively, of believers from the poorer strata of society, trained scribes were hard to come by. So early churches relied on those few educated believers who, though amateurs, agreed to make copies of certain documents for the purposes of retention and sharing.

In the process of copying early Christian documents (such as Paul’s letters) in order to pass them down from one generation to the next only to be recopied again, corruptions occurred in the transmission. These were basically of two types. Errors we might today call “typos” appear in virtually every ancient Christian manuscript so much so that specialists claim there are more such errors than there are words in the New Testament. These are usually easily accounted for, however. But a second type of textual corruption also occurred: deliberate scribal alterations to texts usually made for a number of reasons, usually to bring them more into line with the theological outlook of the scribe and his community. The passage in First Corinthians is just such a textual amendment known in scholarly circles as an “interpolation.”

For those who remain skeptical, I offer the following evidence in support of what has been suggested above. Note that we cannot be comprehensive in such a short essay but additional evidence can easily be found in the scholarly literature.

The falsification of 1 Timothy is intimately tied in with that of the letter to Titus, also in the New Testament. Both share many words and phrases that are identical to one another but are not found anywhere else in the letters of Paul. Compare for example 1 Timothy 1:2 and Titus 1:4.

Both letters also contain verses emulating a type of literary genre popular in non-Christian, Greco-Roman literature called “household codes,” rules of behavior for woman, children, and slaves (other examples can be found in Ephesians 5:21-6:9 and Colossians 3:18-4:1, two letters also likely forged in Paul’s name, and 1 Peter 2:18-3:7, a letter probably forged in the name of Peter). These codes do not appear in the authentic letters of Paul.

Singular uses of words and phrases by both 1 and 2 Timothy also give evidence to a literary relationship between them. The usual explanation for these similarities is that one author is copying or borrowing from the other. In fact, many experts agree that all three letters, known collectively as the Pastoral Epistles, were written by the same author though not Paul. These letters are later creations more concerned with issues of hierarchical leadership within the church including the appropriate qualifications for bishops (overseers), deacons, and presbyters (elders). These were not formalized positions with articulated responsibilities in the time of Paul.

In short, the Pastorals reflect a church situation later than Paul, a time when Jesus’s teachings had been elevated to the status of “scripture” and the charismatic, spirit-led church was becoming institutionalized. For these and other reasons, 1 Timothy is considered a forgery by most scholars. We can therefore dismiss as a statement by Paul anything in 1 Timothy about women not being permitted to speak or teach or exercise authority over men.

As for 1 Corinthians, there is no question that this letter was written by Paul. It is considered one of the seven undisputed letters authentically authored by the apostle. So what about the passage in 1 Corinthians ordering women to keep silent? To answer this question, it is important to consider this passage not only in the context of the letter as a whole but also in relation to what Paul says about women in the other undisputed letters.

Within 1 Corinthians itself, several chapters earlier, Paul provides guidance for women prophets and their behavior in church: “Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head…Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?” (11:5, 13). Regardless of the social customs driving Paul’s insistence on head coverings for women, these instructions would not be necessary if Paul did not accept that women prophesied and prayed aloud in church (else, how would anyone know what they were doing?).

Additionally, remove those verses in 1 Corinthians commanding women’s silence and that section of the letter reads more fluently (try it!). In fact, in the manuscript tradition, these particular verses appear in various places in the letter, indicating they were not present in the earliest manuscripts. Also, note the parallels between these instructions over women’s silence and those given in 1 Timothy. Many scholars accept that the words silencing women in 1 Corinthians were actually drawn from 1 Timothy.

As for overall context within the Pauline collection of letters, it is easy to recognize the respect and admiration Paul has for women who helped spread the gospel (aloud) by examining the closing chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Here, Paul lauds the efforts of no less than nine women including Phoebe, both a deacon and Paul’s benefactor, Prisca, who risked her life for Paul, Junia, herself an apostle, and the unnamed mother of Rufus whom, Paul says, “was a mother to me also.” These hardly seem to be women Paul would instruct to shut up and sit down!

But how, then, did such a passage enter into the letter of 1 Corinthians? Richard Pervo informs us that “for ancient texts in general, the presence of some interpolations (additions inserted into the text) are rather the norm than rare and isolated exceptions. Copyists saw themselves as free, even obliged to alter texts, including not only changes of words and phrases, but also the insertion of additions” (The Making of Paul: Constructions of the Apostle in Early Christianity, page 46). For these and other reasons, we may feel confident in regarding 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 as one of these interpolations.

In summary, there is no reason to suppose that the historical Paul saw women as other than partners in his effort to spread his gospel to the Gentile world. While Paul was not a proto-liberationist (he lived in and absorbed much from his patriarchal world), he did teach that in Christ, “there is no male and female” (Galatians 3:28). Paul apparently was not referring exclusively to a spiritual status of equality but at the very least to an elevated and verbal role for women in his growing communities of Christ-believing Gentiles.

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