1 Corinthians Series, Bible study lesson 1
by Reta Halteman Finger
Have you watched the PBS show, “Finding Your Roots”? Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. researches genealogies of various people, using old records and DNA analysis. In one of last month’s episodes, Gates met with a Hispanic woman whose DNA shows that she is about ten percent Jewish. Why? Some of her ancestors were Jews living in Spain during the Catholic Inquisition beginning around 1492. Jews either had to leave or convert to Catholicism. This woman is descended in part from Jews who converted and later emigrated to South America as nominal Catholics—even if they did rebelliously turn their saint statues toward the wall!
For Christian feminists who read this website, no matter how little we know about the Bible, or how much we’ve been hurt by oppressive interpretations of it, or how quaint it seems compared to our world today, we still have some “Bible DNA” in our roots. At some level, we are “People of the Book,” an appellation applied to Christians, Jews, and Muslims, each with scripture they privilege above all others.
As a feminist Bible professor (now mostly retired), I was asked to write a bi-weekly Bible study for this website. I admit biblical study is one of my passions. I never planned to get a Ph.D.— it seemed too elitist. I just never knew enough, so I had to keep taking courses! These ancient texts draw me not only because their living words speak deeply to my spirit, but because they encompass so many other fields of learning:
- History—an account of the People of Yahweh from “the beginning,” sometimes majestic, sometimes miserable, petty, and violent. Our roots indeed!
- Literature—soaring poetry and praise, persuasive oracles, accumulated wisdom in aphorisms and word-pictures.
- Cultural anthropology—why didn’t those people behave as we do today? Where are the women?
- Archeology—what are the material remains of our heritage?
- Economics—tales of the 99% crushed under the heels of the 1%.
- Science—can biblical theology connect to evolution? To earth’s ecology?
- Politics—how does the Empire of Jesus challenge the empires of this world?
But when such ancient and complex texts are revered as sacred scripture, we also need the science of interpretation. Scholars call it hermeneutics. Put simply, it asks two questions of a text: (a) What DID the text mean? (b) In light of that, what DOES the text mean today? Answers will vary.
Beginning with 1 Corinthians
To start, I’ll do a series on the Apostle Paul’s letter we call First Corinthians. It may not be the best place to start because it implies that readers already know a lot about the larger biblical context. But it is the source of my most recent writing project, and it contains texts about women that are familiar to Christian feminists. Texts like 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and 14:34-36 give Paul a bad name—sexist, patriarchal, bossy, and quite unlike Jesus, who accepted and liked women.
Later I’ll say more about the women prophets of chapter 11. But for now we can observe that these two texts directly contradict each other. In 14:34-36 women must be silent during the assemblies and ask their husbands at home if they have questions. Chapter 11 asks women to wear something on their heads while speaking in the assembly through prophecy and prayer.
Most New Testament scholars think Paul did write the instructions in 11:2-16, though they will describe it as “labored and convoluted” (Richard Hays), “the most obscure part of the letter (David Lull), or that Paul’s “argument is inarticulate, incomprehensible, and inconsistent” (Jouette Basler). But few believe Paul instructed women to be silent (the chapter 14 passage). Besides the difficulty of correlating it with chapter 11, we know that Paul had a number of women co-workers who were also house church leaders, even a “prominent” female apostle (Romans 16:7).
Further, this paragraph (1 Cor. 14:34-36) breaks the flow of Paul’s discussion about using spiritual gifts in worship. Some early manuscripts place this paragraph at the end of the chapter, implying that copyists were not sure where to include it. A previous reader may have added it as a gloss in the margin. Its tone echoes that of 1 Timothy, a letter 90 percent of scholars think was written at least a generation after Paul. I would concur with this.
But the feminist organization, Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE), would likely insist Paul did write this. With a more Reformed evangelical orientation, they have done some creative work to show that the “speaking” of these women really means the nonsensical ululation adopted from former pagan religions. Or that it was the Corinthian men who wanted women’s silence, and Paul was quoting them. Though I appreciate CBE for many reasons, I am not so protective of scripture. It may be inspired, but it is also written and transmitted by human beings with human limitations.
Next time we will situate 1 Corinthians in the cultural context of the first-century Roman Empire. Without a historical context, many texts get misinterpreted.
Questions for further reflection:
1. How extensive is your “Bible DNA”?
2. How do you understand biblical inspiration?
3. Which fields of learning described above are closest to your areas of interest?
4. How much do you read and study the Bible—by yourself or in a group?