On the Textual Reliability of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35

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Explaining the Bible

Before I talk about the issues with 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, I want to give a brief bit of information on the overall reliability of the text of the Bible.

One of the fundamental truths about the text of the Bible is that we don’t have a 100% complete copy of the original text.

However, a second fundamental truth about the text of the Bible is that we have so many partial copies that are so old that we can reconstruct the original with an extremely high level of confidence.

How do we do that? We use a process called textual criticism.

Let me illustrate:

Let’s say you play the game of telephone 100 times with 100 different groups of intelligent adults. Let’s say you play the game using an original statement that everyone in each group thinks is important. That is, the people really care about the accuracy of the original statement. In such a case, you are likely to get a high degree of accuracy when it comes to the transmission, but you will still find some errors.

Now, let’s say that the person who started the game has forgotten what the original statement was and all we have is the 100 final statements that were written down by the people at the end of each game.

Here’s what you have:

  • 60 groups ended up with, “When Abraham Lincoln died, the United States swore in Andrew Johnson as President.”
  • 20 groups ended up with, “When Abraham Lincoln died, the United States swore in Johnson as President.”
  • 10 groups ended up with, “After Abraham Lincoln died, the United States swore in Andrew Johnson as President.”
  • 5 groups had, “When Lincoln died, the United States swore in Andrew Johnson as President.”
  • 3 group had, “When Abraham Lincoln died, the US swore in Johnson as President.”
  • 2 groups had, “When Abraham Lincoln was shot, the United States made Johnson President.”

This accurately describes the kind of variations we have in the different texts of the New Testament, and if you apply a few simple rules, you can begin to put together what the original statement probably was.

The most fundamental rule is this: Which statement can most logically lead to the existence of all the others? In this case, even though the top statement has 60 groups that support it, the statement supported by 5 groups is likely the original, because people who care about this subject are far more likely to add the word Abraham before the word Lincoln than they are to remove it. Also, each of the other changes can be easily explained by starting with the statement of the 5 groups.

Scholars employ a few rules based on this one:

  • When transferring information, people who care are more likely to simplify something difficult than to make difficult something simple.
  • When copying information, people are more likely to accidentally leave something out than to accidentally put something in.
  • When copying important information, people are more likely to intentionally add something explanatory than to remove something undesirable.

There is one other rule that is a bit complicated, but if there is a section of text that stays intact but moves around in the various copies, that section of text is likely not original.

That’s the case with 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.

There is one strong textual tradition that puts those two verses after verse 33, but there is another strong textual tradition that puts those same two verses after our verse 40. Nearly all the ancient texts from the Eastern church tradition have the text after our verse 33, but nearly all the ancient Western texts have these verses after our verse 40.

The question for scholars is this: which placement explains the other one? If the verses were originally in one spot, what would make a scribe shift the verses intact to the other spot, and then what would make all the other scribes following that scribe in making the same mistake?

One possibility is that these two verses were originally in neither spot, that Paul didn’t actually write them in the original letter to the Corinthians. Does that explain anything?

Well, interestingly enough, Paul wrote something very similar in 1 Timothy 2:11-12. If you compare 1 Timothy 2:11-12 with 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, you can see the similarities immediately. However, where 1 Timothy has Paul advocating for the women to be respectful students, the passage in 1 Corinthians seems to tell women simply to keep their mouths shut and to never say anything when the church is gathered. Given the ancient world’s distrust of women, it’s easy to see how someone familiar with 1 Timothy might interpret it to be saying the same thing as 1 Corinthians.

In other words, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 sounds a lot like the words of someone who didn’t really understand 1 Timothy 2:11-12.

Additionally, it is well established that ancient copyists weren’t just making copies for public consumption. Frequently, they were making their own personal notes in their copies just like we make personal notes in our Bibles today, and in a very few cases, those marginal notes actually ended up in the text of Scripture itself. (See 1 John 5:7-8 in the KJV and compare to any modern translation like the NIV, and read the footnotes)

Finally, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 simply doesn’t fit in with the rest of 1 Corinthians 14 (the whole chapter is talking about tongues and prophecy, not gender roles); it doesn’t fit in with chapter 11 where women are encouraged to pray or prophesy in the gathered assembly so long as they look like women; and it demonstrates some curious linguistics in the original language that don’t fit the grammar and syntax of the rest of the book.

Therefore, I have very little confidence that it is something Paul wrote. If Paul did write it, I would have to interpret it in light of 1 Corinthians 11 and the softer tone of 1 Timothy 2 to mean effectively the same thing as 1 Timothy 2, but based on the textual evidence and the internal evidence, I conclude that it wasn’t original.

What’s my theory for how it made it into our text? Well, I think that some early copyist of the letter to Corinth was familiar with 1 Timothy but didn’t have a copy at hand. In the margins of his copy of 1 Corinthians, he wrote down his paraphrase of what 1 Timothy 2 said, and early on, some copyists put it in the spot after verse 33 while others thought it fit better after our verse 40.

What difference does it make?

Understanding all this is important for the following reasons:

  1. You need to know that you can trust the text of the Bible. Yes, I just spent a bunch of words writing about how these two verses probably shouldn’t be in the Bible, but the only reason I can say such a thing is that a giant amount of archaeological and scientific study has shown the incredible accuracy of the rest of 1 Corinthians! These two verses are questionable because the rest of 1 Corinthians is not! Every now and then, some research shows up that helps us refine our understanding of the Bible text, and every time that research shows up, we should thank God that he is using modern science to help us get closer to the original content of his Holy Word!
  2. You need to know that God doesn’t want to prevent women from ministering and using their gifts in the context of Christian worship. They are not singled out as people who must keep their mouths shut. Yes, there are passages about women being submissive to men and being respectfully quiet during times of instruction, and those are important to understand, but God is not laying down a blanket prohibition against any woman ever speaking in the context of worship.
  3. You need to know that I care about Biblical accuracy. The question I ask people all the time is this: What does the Bible actually say? I’m convinced that if something is taught in the Bible it should be followed wholeheartedly, and I’m convinced of that so much that I desperately want to know what actually is in the Bible as opposed to what people think the Bible says or what some historically accepted version of the Bible once said!

If you want to interact on this topic or to ask me any questions about it, I warmly welcome them!

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