Epp starts the book by talking about textual criticism, the means by which scholars look at the oldest texts we have and study their language and variations, and the problems such criticism poses for exegetical certainty. For example, everyone here is familiar with 1 Corinthians 14:34-35:
34 the women should be quiet during the meeting. They are not allowed to talk. Instead, they need to get under control, just as the Law says. 35 If they want to learn something, they should ask their husbands at home. It is disgraceful for a woman to talk during the meeting.
Pretty clear, right? But let’s zoom out a little and see what we find when we include it in context:
31 You can all prophesy one at a time so that everyone can learn and be encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are under the control of the prophets. 33 God isn’t a God of disorder but of peace.
(Like in all the churches of God’s people, 34 the women should be quiet during the meeting. They are not allowed to talk. Instead, they need to get under control, just as the Law says. 35 If they want to learn something, they should ask their husbands at home. It is disgraceful for a woman to talk during the meeting. 36 Did the word of God originate with you? Has it come only to you?)
37 If anyone thinks that they are prophets or “spiritual people,” then let them recognize that what I’m writing to you is the Lord’s command. 38 If someone doesn’t recognize this, they aren’t recognized. 39 So then, brothers and sisters, use your ambition to try to get the gift of prophecy, but don’t prevent speaking in tongues. 40 Everything should be done with dignity and in proper order.
The parentheses, which Epp includes in his treatment of these paragraphs, kind of give it away: One of these paragraphs is not like the other two. You could read from verse 33a to verse 37 without any trouble, as if verses 33b-36 didn’t exist. That’s interesting enough, but by itself doesn’t prove that verses 33b-35 or 36 are later additions to the text.
But Epp goes on to point out that not every text of 1 Corinthians place verses 34-35 between 33 and 36; some place it after verse 40. So this text is a little more mobile than your typical Pauline text. Also, though every text of 1 Corinthians 14 we have includes this passage, at least two of our earliest versions (Codex Fuldensis, dated to 547, and Codex Vaticanus, dated to the 300s) include scribal notations also found with such passages as John’s story of the woman caught in adultery, a well known case of textual variation. As Epp puts it:
This combination of literary analysis and text-critical assessment has moved a sizable group of scholars to view the passage on “silent women” as a later intrusion into 1 Corinthians and most likely one never written by Paul. (19)
So what does this mean? What do we do if one of the key passages governing gender roles in conservative and fundamentalist churches turns out to be a later, non-Pauline addition? After all, it’s still in our Bibles, and – at least theoretically – Paul is not of greater importance than any other biblical writer (though we Protestants certainly seem to prefer him to, say, James).
But the point is not to simply dismiss pieces of the Bible we don’t like; the point is to recognize that the Bible itself – not any particular passage but the very nature of the texts we have – rejects our attempts to flatten it into a cut-and-paste set of rules for 21st century life and worship.
Consider, for example, Jesus’ teachings on divorce in the synaptic gospels. Here they are:
2 Some Pharisees came and, trying to test him, they asked, “Does the Law allow a man to divorce his wife?”
3 Jesus answered, “What did Moses command you?”
4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a divorce certificate and to divorce his wife.”
5 Jesus said to them, “He wrote this commandment for you because of your unyielding hearts.6 At the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female. 7 Because of this, a man should leave his father and mother and be joined together with his wife,8 and the two will be one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9 Therefore, humans must not pull apart what God has put together.”
10 Inside the house, the disciples asked him again about this. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if a wife divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
3 Some Pharisees came to him. In order to test him, they said, “Does the Law allow a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?”
4 Jesus answered, “Haven’t you read that at the beginning the creator ‘made them male and female?’ 5 And God said, ‘Because of this a man should leave his father and mother and be joined together with his wife, and the two will be one flesh.’ 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore, humans must not pull apart what God has put together.”
7 The Pharisees said to him, “Then why did Moses command us to ‘give a divorce certificate and divorce her?’”
8 Jesus replied, “Moses allowed you to divorce your wives because your hearts are unyielding. But it wasn’t that way from the beginning. 9 I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
18 Any man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and a man who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.
So we see the basic disagreement between Mark and Matthew/Luke about whether women are included in the prohibition against divorce, never mind the differences in length, language and even sentence order (Mark opens the conversation with the question about Moses, while Matthew pushes it to the end).
But, Epp points out, these passages represent decisions by translators, who have chosen for us from variations in each of them. In fact, when adding up all of the different versions of these three passages, scholars actually know of 20 –twenty! – different teachings of Jesus on divorce!
So what are we to do with this? Never mind Christian Smith’s notion that pervasive interpretive pluralism defeats biblicism, we have pervasive textual pluralism. The problem isn’t any longer that the plurality of interpretations calls into question our ability to find objective truth in the biblical text, but that the plurality of biblical texts calls into question that ability.
And while it may be true, as the apologists claim, that none of these variations affects the core doctrines of Christianity, you tell me whether 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and the divorce teachings of Jesys are important texts many Christians in the 21st century.
The fact is, the Bible you hold in your hands is already the product of hundreds, if not thousands, of judgment calls, in which a committee of translators chooses one from several or even numerous possible variants. They range in importance from the number of the mark of the Beast (666 or 616) to which versions of Jeremiah or Acts to use. Sometimes those calls are clear cut and objective, other times not so much. But by the time it gets to you, it bears the imprimatur of being the inspired, infallible, even inerrant word of God.
Which isn’t to say it isn’t the inspired word of God – but what kind of word is it?
Epp argues the more variants we find of a given text, the more evidence we have that the text was wrestled with, debated and adapted to answer the pressing questions of the early church. Which explains, for example, why so many of the textual anomalies revolve around gender – from the passage in 1 Corinthians to the question of Paul’s authorship of the decidedly anti-woman 1 Timothy to the odd case of the apostle Junia in Romans 16, the subject of Epp’s book.
As Epp puts it, “The greater the ambiguity in the variant readings of a given variation unit, the more clearly we are able to grasp the concerns of the early church” (12).
I get that this can be scary, but I would argue this is in fact quite liberating (which isn’t to say that freedom isn’t scary). The struggle with difficult questions is as old as the Bible itself – and the very texts that form the Bible show evidence of being adapted to fit the circumstances of unique communities wrestling with specific problems.
So in our day, as in theirs – with questions about gender and sexuality troubling individuals, roiling congregations and splitting denominations – we are given the task to carefully, prayerfully adapt these texts to our own situation. As in the early church, this will lead to different emphases and different conclusions, both among each other and different from those reached by the earliest Christians writing and editing in their own culture and context.
That’s a different way of reading and using the Bible – but it’s the way the Bible itself seems to require.