Kenneth E Bailey on 1 Corinthians 14:33-35

Thu, 25/01/2007 - 16:01 -- James Oakley

Bailey’s article can be found here: Significant because of the respect Bailey is increasingly commanding in Britain. Bailey has worked for 40 years in the Middle East, mainly in Syria. He has extensively studied contemporary Middle Eastern culture with a view to shedding light on the cultural background to the teaching of the New Testament.

Also N T Wright claims his own indebtedness to Bailey for the interpretation he adopts in his paper (see previous post).

Bailey argues as follows:

1. The silence enjoined is relative not absolute, in the light of chapter 11 and in the light of the other commands to be silent in chapter 14.
2. We can reconstruct Corinth easily. It was a multi-cultural town, with many languages. The common language was Greek. “The men were naturally ‘out and about’ more than the women and thus were more likely to be at ease in that common language. It follows that in church the women could perhaps not easily follow what was being said and so would begin to ask questions or lose interest and start ‘chatting’.”
3. This is documented in an analogous situation – 4th century Antioch. One of Chrysostom’s sermons complains at the way in which the women’s chit-chat stopped people hearing what is going on.
4. Therefore, consistent with the concerns of the whole chapter, it is disorderly speech that is prohibited, not each and every instance of a woman’s speech.
5. Verse 37 is sometimes seen as identifying what Paul has just said as a command of the Lord Jesus. But verses 37-40 exactly mirror the 5 sections of the preceding chapters (11-14). In that analysis, the “command of the Lord” refers specifically to chapter 13, not to the immediately preceding instruction.

Analysis and Response
Step 5 is an interesting discussion. However, it doesn’t materially affect what Paul says in verses 33-35, only whether this can be regarded as a “command of the Lord”. But, as Paul is the Lord’s apostle, the authority of verses 33-35 isn’t affected by this either way. So we will focus on steps 1-4.

Suppose, for a moment, that we don’t have the cultural reconstruction offered by Bailey. Paul wishes to ensure the worship at Corinth is orderly. He therefore wants idle, irrelevant-to-proceedings chit-chat curbed. To say that “women should be silent in the churches”, because anything else is “shameful” is a strange way to say it. It is open to vast misinterpretation. And to silence all women and no men because some / most women (and doubtless some men) were chattering is profoundly unjust.
(ii) The cultural reconstruction is therefore necessary if the interpretation is not to disintegrate and flounder immediately. The questions, then, are: (a) How much of the cultural reconstruction can we be sure of, and (b) Does that amount of reconstruction mean that what the Corinthians would understand is what Bailey advocates?
(iii) We do know that Corinth was a multi-cultural city, because of its strategic location as a port joining two different seas. However, he doesn’t cite any sources for his thesis that the majority of the men would speak Greek, and the majority of women would not. It would seem that this detail is conjecture – even though it is indispensable for his argument as a whole.
(iv) Likewise, for the detail of women chattering in the church assembly because they are bored and unable to understand any of the proceedings, no sources are cited except the Chrysostom. It may be that 4th Century Antioch was very different from 1st Century Corinth but, granting the similarity for the sake of argument, Chrysostom’s extract deserves further examination.

Here is the section from Chyrsostom in its context; I have italicised the portion that Bailey quotes. (PNF, Volume 12, Page 435)

Great modesty and great propriety does the blessed Paul require of women, and that not only
with respect to their dress and appearance: he proceeds even to regulate their speech. And what says he? “Let the woman learn in silence”; that is, let her not speak at all in the church; which rule he has also given in his Epistle to the Corinthians, where he says, “It is a shame for women to speak in the church” (1 Cor. xiv. 35.); and the reason is, that the law has made them subject to men. And again elsewhere, “And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home.” (Ibid.) Then indeed the women, from such teaching, kept silence; but now there is apt to be great noise among them, much clamor and talking, and nowhere so much as in this place. They may all be seen here talking more than in the market, or at the bath. For, as if they came hither for recreation, they are all engaged in conversing upon unprofitable subjects. Thus all is confusion, and they seem not to understand, that unless they are quiet, they cannot learn anything that is useful. For when our discourse strains against the talking, and no one minds what is said, what good can it do to them? To such a degree should women be silent, that they are not allowed to speak not only about worldly matters, but not even about spiritual things, in the church. This is order, this is modesty, this will adorn her more than any garments. Thus clothed, she will be able to offer her prayers in the manner most becoming.

(Taken from a sermon on 1 Timothy 2:11-15)

Chrysostom is comparing the teaching in 1 Timothy 2 to that found in 1 Corinthians 14, and finds the two are consistent. The command on women in 1 Timothy 2, not to teach, is the same as that found in 1 Corinthians 14, not to speak in church. The reason given for this command in 1 Corinthians 14 is that the Law says so – by which Paul means that the Law makes women subject to men.

What response did 1 Corinthians 14 get? In Corinth, the church obeyed Paul’s teaching. Chrysostom mourns the fact that, in Antioch in his day, things look very different. There is so much talking that it seems it’s general recreational chat. Distinguish between recreational chat and spiritual matters – both are unfitting for them. Neither the women, nor anybody else, will learn anything in that kind of chaos.

Two comments need making in relation to Bailey’s thesis:

(a) Bailey is quoting Chrysostom’s description of 4th century Antioch to make a point that is exactly opposite to the point Chrysostom himself was making. Chryosostom wanted to stress Paul’s restrictions on women’s ministry for all generations and places; he lamented that Paul’s instructions weren’t being followed in his own day. Chrysostom can only be called on to support Bailey’s thesis if he is cited without regard to the wider context of his homily.
(b) Other than “recreational chatter”, there is not much correspondence between Chrysostom’s description of Antioch and Bailey’s of Corinth. Specifically, in Bailey’s Corinth the women do not understand the language of the assembly, and so are bored. In Chrysostom’s Antioch, the women can understand everything that is said, but come to church without the intention to listen and learn appropriately. (The only thing preventing them from learning is the fact they don’t listen, which implies the language is no barrier).

(v) Bailey doesn’t comment on Paul’s own justification for what he says, namely “as the Law says”. Carson and Grudem have both shown that Paul never uses “the law” to refer to his own teaching. They join Chysostom in seeing this as referring to the Genesis pattern of creation, with Law as Torah or Pentateuch here. Finding an Old Testament prohibition on women chattering in a mixed assembly when they don’t understand the sophisticated language would be a challenge. Nevertheless, it would be uncharitable to assume Bailey would not be able to produce such an example, were he invited.

In summary, Bailey’s thesis relies heavily on his historical reconstruction, such that without that reconstruction the thesis has no ground. That reconstruction is conjectured, but the only historical evidence given is from Chrysostom, who is describing a materially different situation to make an opposed point to Bailey.

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