Paul, a First Century Jew

The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. 35 If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.

1 Corinthians 14:34-35 (NASB)

Women are to keep silent in the churches – The problem is that we think of Paul as a modern day Christian, and we read his letters from a modern day Christian paradigm. But the fact is that Paul was a 1st century Jew with a 1st century Judaic paradigm and worldview. And if we aren’t 1st century Jews with that same Hebraic worldview, then interpreting his letters is going to be difficult, especially when we only have Paul’s side of the story and have no idea what the questions were or problems facing the congregations. But for some reason, we read his letters and think we’ve got it all figured out. And so, if you’re a conservative Christian church, then women aren’t allowed to speak or hold positions of authority.

But if we were to look at this in a historical, Hebraic context, our perceptions might change. The first thing to note is that there is some sort of problem going on in the synagogue of Corinth. Yes, that’s right, I said synagogue, not church. The word church does not stem from Hebrew or Greek, and history reveals that 1st century Christians were merely a sect of Judaism attending synagogues. This begins our understanding of the text in a historical context. Paul went to the synagogues because there were no separated establishments called churches quite yet (Acts 9:20; Acts 13:5, 14).

So there’s an obvious problem about women asking questions (or attempting to learn) in the congregation of Corinth. And Paul asserts that the women are to subject themselves and are not permitted to speak as says the law. Which law says this? It’s not in the Torah. There is no such law in the Torah that says women can’t speak in the church. So what’s going on? Maybe he’s referring to a law about women being subject to the husband? But there’s no Torah commandment for that either. I’m not sure which law Paul is referring to here, maybe a law from the Talmud (Oral Law)?

In context this verse reveals that women were desiring to learn in the setting of a synagogue. What happens when one desires to learn? That person begins asking a lot of questions. This is what must have been disrupting the setting. Think about the historical context again. Only men attended a Torah school where they learned the commandments of God. A synagogue is where men went to debate Scripture and expound on applications and connections throughout Scripture. At this point in time, unlearned women were starting to attend these congregations and probably asking a lot of questions and desiring to learn more. This may have prevented the intense study of the men, so Paul suggests that the women learn more from their husbands in the quite of their home so as not to disrupt the congregation.

This instruction from Paul becomes a stepping stone for women’s study and learning, not an absolute to diminish women’s roles in the community.

It’s interesting to note that Jewish women had greater rights than any Christian woman in western civilizations until the recent last century when Christian nations finally caught up.

Women had the right to buy, sell, and own property, and make their own contracts, rights which women in Christian countries (including the USA) did not have until about 100 years ago.  In fact, Proverbs 31,10-31, which is read at Jewish weddings, speaks repeatedly of business acumen as a trait to be prized in women (v.  11, 13, 16, and 18 especially).

Women have the right to be consulted with regard to their marriage.  Marital sex is regarded as the woman’s right, and not the man’s.  Men do not have the right to beat or mistreat their wives, a right that was recognized by law in many Christian countries until a few hundred years ago. (http://www.mechon-mamre.org/jewfaq/women.htm)

So Paul, a Pharisee (Acts 23:6), is attempting to keep the congregation moving forward in debating intense Scriptural points while also helping women to learn and grow in the Word as well. But this was a specific point written in a specific letter to a specific group of people… as guidance for a specific problem. It was not an absolute, and it definitely wasn’t a part of God’s intended laws written in the Torah.

It’s important for us to remember that the Bible was not written by modern-day Christians for modern-day Christians. It was given by YHVH, and written by Israelites to present themselves as a light to the Gentiles. It was written by Jews about a Jewish Messiah who came to redeem Israel (Matthew 15:24). Paul was a benefactor of a deep historic tie to the God of Israel, and he lived according to that worldview.

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