Epistles and the Damage Done by Poor Translation

Of all the genres of Biblical literature, perhaps the most abused or misused through history has been the epistles.  Epistles are also known as letters.  Most were written by the apostle Paul (see Acts 9 for his conversion story and most of the rest of Acts for the story of his ministry.)  Some were written by Peter and John.  

Some epistles were written to particular congregations, while others were meant to be circulated to more than one group.  In both cases, the letters were intended to give theological underpinnings to particular issues within the early congregations of Christ followers.  Remember that interplay we've mentioned several times -- faithful reading of scripture seeks to discern normative (those "eternally relevant" theological truths) from narrative (those "historically particular" circumstances).  Read the first entry in this series for a bit more on that.  

This week, Pastor Aaron highlighted two problematic verses in Paul's letter to the church in Corinth: 1 Cor. 14:34-35.  

When we read any of these Biblical letters, we start by remembering we're hearing one side of a conversation.  We often must infer what is happening on the other side (sometimes the author alludes to it, but it's not always clear and sometimes altogether absent).  In Ch. 14 of this letter, Paul is addressing an apparent problem of disorderliness in worship, especially regarding people's outspoken words of prophecy and use of other languages ("tongues.")  While we could spend time on each of those topics (and it's a worthwhile endeavor!) our point here is to discern Paul's main point -- bringing order to chaos.  And yet in vv. 34-35, Paul seems to shift his point directly at whether or not women should be allowed to speak aloud in worship gatherings.  

Now hang on a sec.  Does this align with the greater point he's making?  Even if one tries to make the argument that women "must have been" contributing to the disorder, one would have to address the numerous other places in 1) Paul's letters, 2) this particular letter, and 3) even in this chapter of this letter, where Paul is address the entire congregation and all of their speaking aloud.  Not just the men, but all of them.  

It turns out that some manuscripts of this letter do not even contain vv. 34-35.  So one text critical theory is that while Christianity was evolving in Gentile communities, a scribe making copies of this letter could well have included vv.34-35 to "make sense" of what Paul had originally written.  Had this scribe's point of view been that women should remain silent in worship, adding that point within Paul's discourse about speaking aloud in worship would be a fitting place.  And it would explain why "Paul's" focus shifts so unexpectedly from everyone to just the women.  

This manuscript evidence, in addition to the respect which Paul clearly shows for women in church leadership elsewhere in this letter and others, leads an informed reader of Paul to avoid causing unnecessary damage and reading too much into those verse.  That would be the very least we should do.  It is more likely still to ascribe it to a later addition altogether.  

Phew...that's a lot more than some people bargain for when they open their Bibles.  But fear not!  Many scholars have done good work for you.  Here are a couple of tips to remember as you read the epistles:  

1) Read thoroughly and intelligently.  "How?" you might ask.  It really starts with reading slowly, in community if you can, and taking the time to simply notice.  Especially when you read passages numerous times, you'll start seeing things you didn't see before.  

2) Study, and remember to read the notes.  Many Bibles, and certainly study Bibles, have footnotes and references that inform you of things like manuscript variants, like this one in 1 Cor. 14.  As you read, include reading the notes.  If you want to dig even deeper, there are tools for that, too.

3) Remember the different between "eternally relevant" and "historically particular."  Paul wrote into particular circumstances that don't always apply to us, but he undergirded his writing with theological truth that does apply.  Start learning to see the difference.  

4) Interpret scripture with scripture, especially in light of the Christ event (life, death, and resurrection.)  Any informed reader of Paul simply cannot write off women's role in congregations, including speaking aloud and leading (e.g. the apostle Junia).  Moreover, seen through the lens of how Jesus included women as disciples, it's obvious that any degraded of women's place in the fellowship of believers simply doesn't align with the New Testament.  

5) Worship Jesus Christ, not the Bible.  This might seem obvious, but it can be all too tempting to rely more on the Bible than on the Holy Spirit, our Counselor and Advocate (John 14:26), when we want to know what to believe or how to live.  All scripture points to Jesus, and thus must be understood through Jesus.  

One last word on women's role in the Church.  Much damage has been done over the course of history, degrading and hurting women, as though they were not equally made in God's image.  We believe it is time to turn away from that thinking and back to this fundamental truth:  "in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you (plural "you all") have been brought to fullness." (Colossians 2:9-10 NIV)

For reflection:
1) How does today's exposition on 1 Cor. 14:34-35 make you feel?  

2) If you were raised in the Church, what were you led to understand about the role of women in the Church?

3)  For women: this message is a reminder of the potential for you to bear great responsibility in the Church.  How does that make you feel?

4) For men: this message is a reminder of the potential of relinquishing some responsibility in the Church to women.  How does this make you feel?

5) Do you have remaining questions about Paul, this letter or passage, or other issues that arise in any of the letters?

Many blessings,
MM


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