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?). Could he be 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.
Editor’s note: At the author’s request, this article was revised on Aug. 3, 2021, from the version originally published. This is the second of a two-part series. Part one is available here. A version of this article first appeared in The Anxious Bench blog. It is used with permission.
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, where she specializes in medieval history, women’s history, and church history. She is the author of The Making of Biblical Womanhood, serves as the president of the Conference on Faith and History and is a member of Christians for Biblical Equality.