Women speaking

A fresco from Pompeii

A fresco from Pompeii

When should women be allowed to speak? In what circumstances is it acceptable? It’s an issue with which men have wrestled for a long while…

In a fascinating talk, the classicist Prof Mary Beard, seeks to put this question into the context of Ancient Greek and Roman attitudes towards women. After discussing the occasions where men talk about women she concludes that:

Women, in other words, may in extreme circumstances publicly defend their own sectional interests, but not speak for men or the community as a whole. In general, as one second-century AD guru put it, ‘a woman should as modestly guard against exposing her voice to outsiders as she would guard against stripping off her clothes.’

Beard goes on to say that this was to do with Roman understandings of what defined what it was to be a woman:

public speaking and oratory were not merely things that ancient women didn’t do: they were exclusive practices and skills that defined masculinity as a gender.

This is the context into which Paul and the other early Christians were living, which perhaps provides a better understanding for some of the statements in the New Testament letters. I think that it highlights how radical Paul was being when he writes “every woman who prays or prophesies…” (1 Corinthians 11:5). This is particularly the case as, in his major, highly-regarded commentary on 1 Corinthians, Thiselton (p826) argues that ‘prophesies’ is better translated as ‘prophetic speech’, which:

may include applied theological teaching, encouragement, and exhortation to build the church, not merely (if at all) ad hoc cries of an expressive, diagnostic, or tactical nature, delivered as “spontaneous” mini-messages. The latter debase and trivialize the great tradition of the term in the biblical writings as something altogether more serious, sustained and reflective.

Thiselton commentarySo, we miss the radical nature of Paul simply assuming that women will pray and utter prophetic speech, and hurtle on to “…with her head uncovered dishonours her head” (1 Corinthians 11:5). Which, as Thiselton (p828) points out in Roman culture, for women “the wearing of appropriate head covering (such as a hood) denoted respect and respectability.”

This understanding of Roman culture also helps explain statements of Paul like: “Women should remain silent in the churches.” (1 Corinthians 14:34). Given that Paul has just been assuming that women will pray or prophecy this is obviously more complicated than the usual translation would allow. Thiselton (p1153) suggests “should allow for silence” as a better translation. Reviewing the evidence, Thiselton suggests that these verses are about the “abuse of speech” (p1156). He links this to 1 Corinthians 14:29: “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said” and argues (p1160) that wives were ‘weighing carefully’ the words of their husbands, and so bringing shame and disgrace to them (exactly the sort of thing that Beard talks about). This also makes the most sense of 1 Corinthians 14:35: “If they want to enquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church”

The real problem has been, as Beard goes on to talk about, that the general assumptions of the Greek and Roman world are the ones that have formed the foundation to the misogyny in modern Western world. Hopefully instead we can participate in the radical equality of Paul (Galatians 3:28):

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.


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