Roman policy regarding independently wealthy women shifted during the Second Punic Wars when a law was passed in 215 BCE to restrict female property ownership and wealth.
As I shared previously, the mindset contributing to such restrictions was revealed in a speech by Cato the Elder that was recorded by the first century Roman historian Livy, echoes of which made its way into New Testament texts.
It is not surprising to me that Paul – an educated Roman citizen who would have been very familiar with Livy and Hellenistic Jewish/Roman views about women – could have been so concerned that Christians in Corinth were imposing pagan Roman restrictions on women that he quoted the Roman worldview in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 just to counter it.
“What!” Paul continued indignantly after stating the Roman view of women, “Did the word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones it has reached? If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. So, my brethren, earnestly desire to prophesy and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order.”
For those skeptical that Paul’s indignation should be translated this way (“What!”), just check 1 Corinthians 11:22 to see a similar usage (KJV or NRSV). (There are several theories about what is going on in 1 Corinthians 14, and Marg Mowczko provides a good overview here.)
When verses 34-35 are read as a quotation, which is what Talbert argued in 1987 (his article in “The Unfettered Word” (edited by Robison B. James), Paul certainly could be using them to distinguish between Roman patriarchy (women be silent) and Christian behavior (What? Did the word of God originate with you?). He is quoting the Roman worldview to counter it with the Christian worldview.
Roman women were supposed to be silent and submissive (just see Cato’s speech in part 1).
Roman women were not supposed to be publicly prophesying and speaking in tongues alongside men the way Paul depicts women as doing in the early church (what all of 1 Corinthians 14 is really about, and what Paul clearly shows women doing in 1 Corinthians 11).
In other words, Sarah Bessey is right. Patriarchy isn’t God’s dream for humanity; patriarchy was the dream of non-Christian Rome.
As a historian, I know the Roman view of women (as reflected in 1 Corinthians 14) is just one of many, many examples of patriarchy in the ancient world. Indeed, patriarchy is a constant in world history.
From “The Ramayana” in ancient India to the “Epic of Gilgamesh” in ancient Sumeria, texts from early civilizations reveal the gender hierarchies that privileged men (especially men of certain classes) and subordinated women.
As Gerda Lerner argued in her monumental study, “The Creation of Patriarchy,” male dominance over women is rooted in the historical development of civilizations. It is a power structure created and maintained by human labor.
The Roman system that elevated men and subordinated women fits perfectly in the framework of human history.
That’s what makes the New Testament so revolutionary. While we get echoes of human patriarchy in the New Testament, especially as the early church tries to make sense of its place in a very pagan world, we get a whole lot more of passages subverting traditional gender roles and emphasizing women as leaders.
Beth Moore, one of the greatest students of biblical text and teachers of biblical truth in the modern church, made the right point in her Twitter response to Owen Strachan:
“What I plead for Is to grapple with the entire text from Mt 1 thru Rev 22 on ever matter concerning women. To grapple with Paul’s words in 1 Tim/1 Cor 14 as authoritative, God-breathed!- alongside other words Paul wrote, equally inspired & make sense of the many women he served alongside. Above all else, we must search the attitudes & practices of Christ Jesus himself toward women.”
1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is actually not a difficult passage. It fits in beautifully with human history.
The most difficult passage in the New Testament to explain, historically speaking, is the end of Galatians 3:
“For you are all children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
This is what is radical. This is what makes Christianity so different from the rest of human history. This is what sets both men and women free.
I find it ironic we spend so much time today fighting to make Christianity look like the things of this world instead of fighting to make it like the world Jesus showed us was possible.
Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Instead of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 as God’s dream for humanity, doesn’t the world of Galatians 3 seem more like Jesus?
Patriarchy may be a part of Christian history, but that doesn’t make it Christian.
Beth Allison Barr is an associate dean in the Baylor Graduate School, an associate professor of history at Baylor University and a resident scholar at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion.