Interpreting Rhetoric on Silence

There’s a scene in Forrest Gump where an older woman asks Tom Hank’s character this question: “Are you crazy? Or just plain stupid?” – it’s an interesting sort of question to ask. In general – we expect questions that begin with words like who, what, why, when, where, how, and are … but “or” isn’t exactly a question word. It seems to be there more for effect than for trying to get a serious answer. We see a similar construction in this verses:

“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored.Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.”

The first question these passages raise is “Which law says that women must remain in submission, be silent, and are not allowed to speak?” There’s not one verse that says as much in the Old Testament – which is the written law (a.k.a. Law of Moses.) Some construe Genesis 3:16b “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” to mean that but it doesn’t match what Paul is referring to: (1) a law, (2) teaches submission of a wife to her husband, and (3) that teaches that women are to be silent for it is disgraceful for them to speak. “Submit” and “submission” are two words that used twice as often in the New Testament as they are in the old. There’s no verse that matches or is similar to that which Paul has referred to. That just leaves the oral law which does instruct women to be silent  and forbids women from singing, but surprisingly one on submission seems to be lacking. There’s no instruction that says that a husband gets a tie-breaking vote or to make the decisions as the leader of the family, there’s no instruction that a wife must submit to her husband’s leadership in the oral or written laws; this teaching exists in a modern interpretation of the New Testament alone. Even then, we can’t be sure that Paul had it mind that ancient husbands were the ones with a tie-breaking vote and decision-making authority and that their wives could not question them on anything ever. This section could very easily be a quote from the letter that the Corinthians had written to Paul, which he copied in order to refute with the points in the next section.

Then we have the two “or” questions. Let’s consider them: “Or did the word of God originate from you?” The origin of the word of God can only be God – a better turn of phrase to our ears might be: “Or do you think that you are God?” This sentence seems to a rhetorical question rather than something that Paul expects them to answer back. “Or are you the only people it has reached?” is the second question. God’s word has been transmitted through both male and female judges as well as male and female prophets and prophetesses to both men and women. Both of the questions are designed to make a point: (1) the Corinthian men are not God and (2) that they are not the only ones who interact with God’s word. If they refuse to listen to women, they’re refusing to listen to the Word of God when women speak it. If the previous section were a commandment, meant to be taken literally, then these two rhetorical points that seem to contradict it are out of place.

Earlier in the same letter, Paul says: “For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged … But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort…If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command…Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.” (Fair warning: these verses are out of order.)

So here we have two sections of the same chapter – one that forbids women from speaking and one that insists that women can and must speak. The only real way to make two conflicting thoughts make sense is to say that Paul is chastising the church for having done something they shouldn’t have and is correcting them with the right thing that they should do. But it doesn’t seem that Paul’s forbidding women to speak and replacing it with the instruction that women are to be silent. overall, the passage seems to be promoting that women should speak. It’s the instruction to be silent that Paul’s blowing out of the water. Connect this with the section about women and prophesying in chapter 11 and it’s looking doubtful that Paul wants women to be completely silent.

But what about the other verse that teaches that women ought to remain silent? 1 Timothy 2:11-15 says: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”

Here, “a woman” could be translated to mean “a wife” or “the woman” from the Greek. Paul also says: “I do not permit (or am not now permitting) … ” – not “the Lord forever forbids”. There is a particular situation in Ephesus that is worth considering. Acts 19 tells us of the popularity and devotion to the goddess Artemis and the riot that broke out there because of Paul. At one point … “The city clerk quieted the crowd and said: “Fellow Ephesians, doesn’t all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven? Therefore, since these facts are undeniable, you ought to calm down and not do anything rash. You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess.”

Artemis (or Diana, as she was known to the Romans) was one of the most widely worshiped goddesses in the ancient world and Ephesus was the capital city where that worship took place. One legend says that Athenian girls were expected to serve the goddess for one year. The Temple of Artemis in Ephesus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It contained sculptured representation of young women (korai) as well as temple prostitutes (hierodules called megabyzae.) On important occasions, priestesses would officiate over holidays. Since Artemis was the goddess of fertility, virginity, the hunt, wild animals, and a few other things – there was plenty of occasions to celebrate her. Women played an active part in the worship of Artemis.

Perhaps that’s why Paul felt that it was important to nod to childbearing – but it is inconsistent to say to the Corinthians that they can speak only to forbid the Ephesians from speaking. I think it’s important to realize the two contexts of the disruptions we’re seeing here in these churches to understand the nature of the silence that Paul is requesting. In the Ephesian church, high-ranking women who converted from Artemis worship were natural leaders and teachers and used to being seen as an authority. They were interrupting the worship service to ask questions as they were anxious to learn anything and everything they could. Sometimes they were overzealous to begin teaching in their new-found faith that they could mix up the details about various teachings.

Whereas the Corinthian women were disruptive because they were somewhat loud. Where I work – it’s usually quiet … until two groups of people meet up or a line begins to form. I hear the decibels noticeably go up as people begin to try to talk over each other. Since in the ancient world, men could meet up just anywhere and catch up, they didn’t have as much to say. Women, on the other hand, didn’t have as much freedom, so they could only catch up with each other in the only place where they were all at at the same time – such as worship meetings. The odd thing is – this word “silent” is translated quite harshly when used to refer to women, the same words is translated to “settle down” when used to refer to men. It seems to me that “settle down” or “use inside voices” might be a better, more consistent interpretation across the board.

It’s not in just *what* was said, but *how* the speaker said it that informed the original hearers as to the meaning of the words being said. These texts would have been read aloud to it’s hearers, it’s reader would have been trained to understand which words he should read as something emphasized, something slowed down, something with a high tone – these things can indicate that the meaning of the words are not necessarily what they would seem to be on paper.

Why, someone who says: “It’s a lovely day.” Could say it to mean just the opposite – when it’s raining cats and dogs. Or they could really mean it – that spring is in the air and things just couldn’t get more pleasant. Or they could mean that they’ve had a terrible, rotten day with horrible luck. When it comes to reading all text in Scripture literally, we miss where rhetorical techniques would have been obviously used to let the hearers know what something really meant. We read into scripture things the original hearers never saw. We make it say things that it was never meant to say – our understanding become full of error.

One thing we can do is to rediscover the importance of rhetoric in ancient communication and always consider the context as well as the rhetoric used in any given teaching.


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