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Jots & Tittles

In Matthew 5, Jesus talks of the importance of little things, things as small as the dot over an i.   Lynne Truss in her 2004 best seller makes the same point in the title of her book,” Eats, Shoots and Leaves”.  Is this a statement about a murderous dinner guest?  Or, sans comma, could it describe the diet of a panda?   

Those English majors among us could probably call up many sentences that can be altered by the use of a simple punctuation mark, such as the statement: “A woman without her man is nothing.”   With the addition of a couple of punctuation marks, it has the opposite meaning.  “A woman: without her, man is nothing.”    

As Adventist we are familiar with the importance of the lowly comma in Luke 23:43.  Should it be “Verily I say unto you, today you will be with me in paradise” or “Verily I say unto you today, you will be with me in paradise.”  One statement indicates the thief would join Jesus in heaven that very day.  With the comma moved, the assurance remains, but the timing is changed.    When we point this out to people, we educate them as to the lack of punctuation marks in the early Greek manuscripts. 

I would like to suggest that the addition of a couple of punctuation marks in chapter 14 in the book of 1 Corinthians would not only solve a sticky feminist dilemma, it would give clarity and sense to the entire passage.  In addition it would vindicate Paul as a great defender and supporter of the role of women in the church.   Because of the lack of punctuation in this passage, the apostle has often been given the totally undeserved reputation of not being a friend of women when in fact the opposite is true.

The writings of Paul are often seen as portraying a negative view of women.  His writings have been used by the church fathers to support the view that women are to be in subjection to men and that this is according to the will of God.   True, he was born in the first century A.D. when the prevailing Jewish culture was that women were legally minors and not expected to participate in life outside the home.

But Paul did have certain things going in his behalf.  He was not born or raised in Palestine.  Although his mother was a Jew, his father was a Roman citizen and he was raised in the Roman city of Tarsus.  As a youth, he would have had the benefit of open association with women.  As citizens, Roman women, unlike their Greek and Palestine counterparts did associate openly with men and were included in social gatherings.

And while Paul insists that his theology was formed by many years spent alone in the desert in personal study of the Hebrew Scriptures, he was acculturated into the Christian faith by those who had seen and known Jesus personally.  

The New Testament has many passages that indicate Paul was very comfortable in the presence of women. He enjoyed their company and he respected and treated them as equals.   Paul had a close and endearing friendship with Pricilla and her husband, living with and working alongside them, mentioning her name first in his correspondence. 

After their first meeting in Corinth, the couple accompanied Paul for a time, finally settling down in Ephesus.  While there a man named Apollos arrived from Alexandria, Egypt.  He is described as eloquent, well- versed in Scriptures and an enthusiastic preacher.  It was Pricilla and her husband who took him aside and instructed him more fully in the Way of God.   From Ephesus, it appears the couple returned to Rome and planted a church there .  Paul acknowledges their work in Romans 16 saying, “Greet Pricilla and Aquila, who worked with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life.  Greet also the church that meets in their house.” (Romans 16:3-5)

The book of Romans was carried to Rome by another woman friend of Paul – Phoebe.  “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a minister of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you.  She has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.”  (Romans 16:1.2)

In this chapter he mentions other women he respected as church workers such as Mary, Tryhanea and Tryhosa.   Junia, he acknowledges as an apostle, meaning that she had known the risen Lord and been commissioned by him.   From her, Paul no doubt leaned of Jesus’ attitude and behavior toward women first hand. 

In Acts 16, Paul arrives in the city of Phillipi and when Sabbath came he went “outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; there we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.” (verse 13 ) Openly and in public Paul carried on a conversation with the women.   It is there he meets Lydia, a tradeswoman from the city of Thyatira.  She is obviously quite well to do and is not dependent on a husband.  “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” (verse 14)  And when she and her household were baptized, she invited Paul and his group to stay in her home during his visit there.  An educated, wealthy woman would not have time for a biased and prejudiced Jewish man. 

In the book of Galatians, one of Paul’s earliest writings, he makes this foundational statement:  “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

I believe that most of the “texts” that are used negatively toward women are the result of years of misinterpretation by the generations after Paul who reverted to patriarchical behavior and brought hierarchical systems of government (Babylon) into the church. While most of the problem texts can be resolved by context and careful exegesis, one text especially is easily resolved simply by punctuation alone.     

Paul in responding to a letter sent to him from the church in Corinth begins chapter seven by saying:  “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote.” (Cor. 7:1) In the Revised Standard Version, the next sentence is placed in quotation marks, indicating that it is one of the questions being posed to him:  “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.”   Paul refutes this erroneous thinking by affirming marriage, even going so far as to say, that married women have conjugal rights, and decisions concerning sexual activity are to be shared equally.  (Cor. 7:4)

One by one Paul takes up the questions the church has asked in their letter to him.  In chapter 11 the question is raised:  should women wear a veil when they are publicly praying and preaching?   Paul says woman’s hair itself is a covering, but he knows of no such custom in other churches, so leaves it up to them to make up their own minds.  But the question itself presupposes that women are speaking out in church services.    When asked about speaking in tongues, the question again assumes that both men and women are publically praying and preaching.   In fact Paul wishes that all would prophesy as this activity builds up the church.  “For you can all prophesy one by one so that all may learn and all be encouraged.”(1 Cor. 14:31)

Now we come to the “problem text.”     The larger context is that the apostle Paul is supportive of the work of women in general and approves their vocations as church workers and ministers.   The immediate context is that Paul is aware of and approving of women praying and prophesying in church.  The internal context of the “problem text” indicates that this obviously is a quotation from the letter Paul has received as there is an appeal to “the law” for authority.   Finally by using quotation marks around the two verses, 34 and 35, the subsequent verse 36 now makes logical sense. 

Quoting from the letter sent to Paul, 1 Corinthians 14: 34, 35 records, “Women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law says.  If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home.  For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”

Paul then responds to this question in an explosive manner reminiscent of his response to Peter’s withdrawal from table fellowship at Galatia.  “WHAT!?!? “  Paul says incredulously.  “Did the word of God originate with you?   Or are you the only ones it has reached?”   Paul is aghast that they would even raise the question.  Paul then goes on to affirm that ANYONE  who claims to be a prophet or have spiritual power – Anyone – be they male or female – should acknowledge his counsel.  Bottom line:  “Be eager to prophesy, do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order.”  







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