When an rather obscure argument about a finer point of textual criticism (the study of differences in early manuscripts of the NT) makes it into the mainstream media, then you might be forgiven for thinking that something odd or rather interesting is going on. That’s what happened last week; in Thought for the Day on 25th September, James Jones (former bishop of Liverpool) was reflecting on Angela Merkel’s achievement as a female leader, and cited US scholar Philip Payne’s ‘discovery’ that the verses in 1 Cor 14 prohibiting women from speaking
could have been added by someone else in order to keep women out of leadership. If this is true, it is a knock on the head to the idea that St Paul was some sort of misogynist.
The text in question is 1 Cor 14.34–35:
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.
Philip Payne is a very interesting person who has been writing in this area for some time, and is best known for his substantial book Man and Woman: One in Christ. Not everyone finds the volume convincing, but it is very thorough, and should be an essential part of the library for anyone studying this issue seriously. Payne is particularly interesting, since for many years he believed that men should be the ones who exercised authority, but changed his mind after decades immersed in the key texts.
Payne has published his findings in the latest edition of New Testament Studies which is the premier academic journal in the discipline. Rather unusually, he has raised funds to make his article available free to all and you can read it for yourself, (if you are so inclined). In addition, Payne has offered a summary of his argument in a more accessible form as a guest post on the blog of Scot McKnight.
This summary of six groundbreaking discoveries from my New Testament Studies 63 (October, 2017) article about the oldest Bible in Greek, Codex Vaticanus, henceforth “Vaticanus,” dated AD 325–350, highlights their implications for the reliability of the transmission of the Greek New Testament and for the equal standing of man and woman:
- Scribe B, who penned Vaticanus’s entire New Testament and Old Testament Prophets, was extraordinarily faithful in preserving the text of its exemplars, namely the manuscripts from which Vaticanus was copied.
- The entire text of all four Gospels in Vaticanus is even earlier than the text of Bodmer Papyrus 75, henceforth P75, written AD 175–225 and containing most of Luke 3 through John 15.
- The entire text of the epistles in the second oldest Bible, Codex Sinaiticus, dated AD 350–360, is arguably at least as old as the text of P32, dated ca. AD 200.
- The two-dot symbol (the technical term is “distigme”) marking the location of textual variants throughout Vaticanus also occurs in the fourth to fifth century LXX G.
- Scribe B left a gap following seven two-dot+bar symbols at the exact point of a multi-word later addition.
- Scribe B marked 1 Corinthians 14:34–35, the only Bible passage commanding women to be silent in the churches, as a later addition.
In other words, Payne believes that he has found scribal evidence from the actual markings on the manuscripts to support the view that these verses were known to be an early addition to what Paul first wrote. It is interesting that Scot McKnight (who has been a vocal supporter in the US context of women’s ministry) hosted his comments, but Larry Hurtado (former Professor of NT in Edinburgh) is also impressed:
Over the last couple of decades Payne has been involved in adding to this acute observations about certain scribal features of Codex Vaticanus in particular, which he argues (cogently to my mind) are evidence that the copyist/scribe of this manuscript knew of some significant textual variants, and marked these places in the margins. The mark he/she used resembles the German umlaut, two dots horizontally placed in the margins. Payne’s new article is really about these scribal marks, backing up his earlier publications on the subject with an impressively thorough analysis of the data.
It is worth noting that Hurtado uses ‘he/she’, since there is evidence that women were involved in scribal transcription, not least because their care and attention to detail was appreciated.
However, not everyone has been persuaded. The contributors to a major blog in this area, Evangelical Textual Criticism, have mostly been sceptical, even though Payne has entered an extensive correspondence with them. (Do look at the two posts on this here and here, and especially the comments, even if just for the cross cultural experience; there is a certain degree of obsessiveness required if you are going to be a textual critic.) Peter Head, who now teaches at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford, has helpfully summarised the nub of the sceptical view for me:
I don’t think the length of the bars or their distance from anything is of any significance whatsoever. These are written by hand! I think the bars and the gaps are two systems marking the same thing – a pause in the thought of the text. In the case of the gaps these are the product of the scribe (in an unknown relation to his textual exemplar and interpretive tradition). In the case of the bars these are a later addition to the text not the part of the initial production (evidence for this is that occasionally they are independent of the gaps).
The double dots mark textual variation in the 16th century. Textual variation is not random so occasionally long additions occur at the end of sentences/paragraphs. No big deal, no intrinsic relation between the double dots and the paragraphoi and the spaces – three systems of textual analysis occasionally interacting with each other by co-incidence. I don’t think the length of the bars or their distance from anything is of any significance whatsoever.
An underlying criticism here is that Payne has a case to prove—that these verses don’t fit with his theological perspective about men and women—and so he is looking for evidence to support his case, and over-interprets these marginal markings in order to do so. I think a counter-argument could be made by the suspicious: that many of the writers on Evangelical Textual Criticism have the opposite case that they are concerned to defend, and so are going to be overly dismissive. On all sides, it is always a challenge to consider the evidence objectively and set aside (or at least be aware of potential confirmation bias) our own views.
This might be the point to step back and ask ‘Why is this an issue at all?’ The reason is that these two verses, 1 Cor 14.34–35, are some of the oddest in Paul’s letters and have raised issues amongst scholars for many years. Larry Hurtado gives a helpful summary:
The newspaper story focuses on the view espoused in Payne’s article that vv. 34-35 are an interpolation inserted into some copies of 1 Corinthians, probably originating as some reader’s marginal note, and then incorporated into the copy-stream at some early point. But, actually, for a number of years now an increasing number of scholars have reached this basic conclusion. Indeed, in his article Payne points to the numerous scholars who agree that vv. 34-35 are not an original part of Paul’s letter. For example, note Gordon D. Fee’s judgment in his commentary: The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 705-8.
There are several reasons for this judgment. The verses seem to go against practically everything else in Paul’s uncontested letters pertaining to women’s involvement in the churches. E.g., in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul refers to women praying and/or prophesying in church, requiring only that they have their heads suitably covered (likely with hair). As well (and a rather telling matter in text-critical terms), in some witnesses these verses appear, not where we have them in most Bibles, but instead following v. 40. Such a multiple location for a body of text usually means that it has been inserted by various copyists, who made different choices about where to do so.
So there is already text-critical evidence that raises a question over these verses; they appear to contradict what Paul says in the immediately surrounding verses; and in addition (as Payne points out in his book) the language in these two verses is quite distinct from his style elsewhere in 1 Corinthians. The TNIV translation of the following verses highlights the issue nicely:
Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? If any think they are prophets or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. Those who ignore this 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.
In verse 39, the TNIV translates adelphoi by ‘brothers and sisters’, since everything else that Paul writes, in addressing the whole church in Corinth, makes it impossible to believe that this single term addresses the male members only. (It is just worth pointing out that it is not possible to prophesy without speaking.)
The contradictions here have generated a range of different solutions. Some will say that Paul is basically contradictory and incoherent, so why should we worry? I am not sure that is a persuasive approach. Others see these texts as having controlling significance, and should serve as an interpretive filter for reading everything else Paul says—but as Hurtado points out, that is simply not possible given that he appears to be going out of his way to encourage women to participate in ‘verbal’ ministries three chapters earlier. The person who asserts (in 1 Cor 7.4) that husbands and wives equally and symmetrically exercise authority over each other in marriage can hardly be described as a ‘misogynist’. Many years ago, Michael Green argued that ‘speaking’ in 34 was about chit-chat; the gathered meeting was not the place for tittle-tattle and gossip. Lucy Peppiatt Crawley suggests that something more complex is going on here; as Paul appears to do elsewhere, in vv 34–35 he is actually quoting those who object to women’s participation, and in v 36 (‘Did the word of God originate with you?’) he is actually rebuking them in order to defend women’s participation. This idea is supported by Payne’s observation that the phrase ‘as the law says’ is highly uncharacteristic of Paul; nowhere else does Paul offer such general comments, and when he does cite the law, he gives the text. Many people were surprised when Gordon Fee argued that these verses were not part of Paul’s letter, since as an evangelical he was committed to taking the canonical text as a whole very seriously. Anthony Thiselton has 16 pages on the issues in his commentary, and is not very sympathetic to Fee—but he notes that many of these arguments have been around for 40 years or more, and that Payne has been making proposals in this area for 20 years. Thiselton things the concerns here are ones that can be found elsewhere in Paul’s discussion—that silence is essential for learning and listening to what God is saying, and that the exercise of the gifts of the Spirit should not be disrupted inappropriately.
For me, I think the jury is still out on Payne’s specific argument. It is very technical, and I would need to spend more time looking at the detail. But whatever we do we these particular verses, we have to do Paul (and the formation of the canon) credit and read these verses in the context of the rest of the letter. They cannot mean that women should say nothing in the assembly, or that any of the gifts of speech that the Spirit gives to all (without gender differentiation) in chapter 12 are forbidden to women, without making Paul contradict himself within a few verses.
Additional Note: Richard Fellows has offered a fascinating statistical analysis of Philip Payne’s measurements of the bars (paragraphoi) and dots (distigmoi) on the Vaticanus manuscript, and thereby raised questions about their statistical significance—thus giving some objective statistical support to Peter Head’s objections mentioned above. But he also concludes his piece by making two important observations about this discussion:
We can also conclude that online discussion can make much faster progress then peer reviewed journals. The blog posts and comments on the ETC blog have advanced the debate, in large part because Philip Payne and others have been so willing to share their ideas and data. He has also exchanged multiple emails with me. If only all scholars were as willing to engage in online and offline discussion!
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