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The gift of gab: are women to keep silent in the churches?

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The gift of gab

— Are women to keep silent in the churches? —

Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary

λαλεω

The verb λαλεω (laleo; hence our English words "echolalia" and "glossolalia") means to talk or converse but irrespective of the content of what is said and emphasizing the bringing forth of speech and the social element of conversation and talk. It's used 294 times in the New Testament, see full concordance.

Our verb λαλεω (laleo) is contrasted by the verb επω (epo), which means to say or tell, with a stronger emphasis on the actual message or topic, and the verb λεγω (lego), meaning to speak or convey, with the emphasis on the transfer of information (information is known by the noun λογος, that is Logos or Word), irrespective of the way in which this happens, albeit mostly by verbal presentation.

The gift of gab

Speech is an amazing thing, and for a formal language to develop, people across vast areas must first agree on what to call things — actually, people must first agree that agreeing would be beneficial; a language can only develop in the convention of people understanding its eventual benefit.

Speech depends on convention and convention is the foundation of all human progress. Speech and later writing are truly amazing marvels of information technology. It allowed ideas to be conveyed, shared and finally stored indefinitely and it's why the Psalmist could cry out in grateful astonishment, "You will not allow Your Holy One [the Word] to undergo decay!" (Psalm 16:10, 49:9, Acts 2:27-31, 13:35). Speech also allowed for disagreements to be established, which in turn allowed for a much broader diversity in conviction.

The "theology" of Israel differed from that of the surrounding nations in that the Jews worshipped a deity called Information, and recognized information technology as a holy endeavor and free conversation as a form of worship. In stead of demanding a forced polarization upon some narrow religious creed, they maintained that broad human convention allows ultimate psycho-diversity and is a city for everyone to live in and to live in peace, security and ultimately in the presence of the Creator (Psalm 87:3, Hebrews 12:22, Revelation 21:2).

Talk, trade and horsing around

The opposite of our verb λαλεω (laleo) is to be mute (Matthew 15:31, Mark 7:35, Luke 1:20), and by extension anti-social (Mark 9:17). The opposite of επω (epo) is to be quiet (as when one listens to someone else speaking, or when one thinks). The opposite of λεγω (lego) is to be an airhead, and by extension disintegrated (or as the prophet says, "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge"; Hosea 4:6). In John 12:49, Jesus says that the Father commanded him what to say (επω, epo) and what to talk about (λαλεω, laleo).

Where our verb λαλεω (laleo) comes from isn't directly clear, but it probably has to do with the Sanskrit verb lolati, meaning to move to and fro. This ancient root also helped form the German verb lullen (in English "to lull" and the noun "lullaby"), meaning the same. In Dutch, however, the crude verb lullen most fittingly came to denote to talk or talk nonsense, whereas the even cruder noun lul is slang for the membrum virile, which indeed at times moves to and fro. This Dutch word lul, in fact, in turn derived from the name of a tall tubular drinking vessel, which may have stemmed from the Yiddish לול (lul), meaning shaft (1 Kings 6:8). In English we likewise "dick" around, which comes from to "putz" around, which comes from the Yiddish or rather the German noun putz, which originally denoted fineries of the kind that required lots of polishing (same movement), which, for obvious reasons, allowed this word too to become used as slang for the male member.

All this seems to suggest that our verb is charged with a legacy not simply of talking, but rather both of (1) verbal seed-spreading, and (2) the collective exchange of (small) talk that leads to social bonding — which is actually the primary function of speech in modern societies.

Spinning yarns and weaving flying carpets

Note the striking parallel between our verb λαλεω (laleo), meaning to talk socially, and the Hebrew verb ערב ('arab), which means to criss-cross (the kind of behavior that is essential to international trade). From the latter verb comes the name Arabia, which belonged to the broad culture to Israel's south-east, and which was strongly instrumental in the development of Israel (to give a hint: Midian was a kingdom in Arabia — Exodus 2:16 see Exodus 18:24). Also note the unmistakable similarity between the ethnonyms Arab (ערבי) and Hebrew (עברי). It's also this distinction between to talk (social exchange) and to speak (actual information) that lies at the heart of Jesus' enigmatic statement to the Canaanite (or merchant/trader) woman at the well: "You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews" (John 4:22). Paul's evenly enigmatic statement that he "went to Arabia" right after his conversion might in fact contain a colloquial expression that means "to talk about everything with everybody" (Galatians 1:17; in the previous verse he says, "I didn't start preaching right away, but first I went...").

Ergo, the verb λαλεω (laleo) does not simply refer to the physical act of speaking but rather to the social bonding that comes from chatting, conversing and discussing. Hence Jesus wasn't simply speaking at his audience, he was talking and thus bonding with them (Matthew 9:18, 12:46, 17:5), even though the subject of what he was discussing was probably indeed the Word of God (John 3:34, 6:63). Abraham, likewise, didn't hear a sudden voice boom from heaven but experienced the Lord continuous talking and bonding with him (Luke 1:55), although he indeed was visited by the Word of God (Genesis 15:1). Likewise the abiding shepherds — who, by the way, were obviously the same as Matthew's magi; the rabbis who governed the Jewish community back in Babylon — neither gave nor were given clear instructions, but rather enjoyed prolonged conversations with various characters, indeed all centered on the Word of God (Luke 2:17-23).

Upon arrest, one should not so much expect the momentum for a scholarly discourse but rather a bonding conversation with one's captors (Mark 13:11). "Good talking" isn't about delivering all the right things to a candid world, but about enthusing people to join the conversation (Matthew 12:34). The first apostles weren't taking turns declaring wisdoms but were jointly talking about them (Acts 4:31). The abundance of a man's heart doesn't make him an academic wunderkind but rather someone whose conversation inspires people to jump right in (Luke 6:45). And when Jesus expelled demons from people, they may have said things (λεγω, lego) but Jesus would let them talk (λαλεω, laleo; Luke 4:41).

From our verb λαλεω (laleo) derive:

  • Together with the particle of negation α (a), meaning not or without: the adjective αλαλητος (), meaning to un-talk, or to express without the use of words. It's been estimated that only 7% of human communication is carried by words (and the rest by non-verbal elements). This word is about that. It's used in Romans 8:26 only, where it describes the non-verbal communications of the Holy Spirit.
  • Also combined with α (a): the similar but essentially different adjective αλαλος (alalos), which describes an inability to talk; speechless. This word occurs three times, but only in the enigmatic scene where Jesus heals the demoniac boy right after the transfiguration (Mark 7:37, 9:17 and 9:25). The boy obviously wasn't merely tongue-tied but rather suffered from a more generally anti-social spirit which kept him from verbally interacting with others.
  • Together with the preposition δια (dia), meaning through: the verb διαλαλεω (dialaleo), meaning to talk-through; to talk at length or exhaustively (Luke 1:65 and 6:11 only).
  • Together with the preposition εκ (ek), meaning out, from or of: the verb εκλαλεω (eklaleo), meaning to speak-out; to disclose, expose or explain (Acts 23:22 only). From this word comes:
    • Again combined with the negating α (a): the adjective ανεκλαλητος (aneklaletos), meaning "untalkaboutable" or "not verbally expressible" or "indescribable". This idea is also expressed in our English saying, "there are no words for this", but should be distinguished from "inexpressible" (as is used by the NIV and NAS). This word is used in 1 Peter 1:8 only, where it describes a quality of joy which is certainly expressible but simply not in words.
  • Together with of the preposition κατα (kata), meaning down or against: the verb καταλαλεο (katalaleo), meaning to talk down or to disparage; not merely to say something bad about someone but rather to engage in and entertain a full-fledged conversation that explores people's proposed vices. With this kind of talk it's often not the actual information that is shared (whether true or not) but rather the generating and cultivating of a poisonous energy that makes it impossible for anybody to function properly. This verb describes behavior that is heavily condemned in the New Testament and is used 5 times in three verses, see full concordance, and from it derive in turn:
    • The noun καταλαλια (katalalia), meaning down-talk; gossip or slander (2 Corinthians 12:20 and 1 Peter 2:1 only).
    • The noun καταλαλος (katalalos), meaning down-talker; someone who engages in down-talk (Romans 1:30 only).
  • The noun λαλια (lalia) meaning speech in the sense of the manner in which one talks; what we would call someone's dialect or tone of voice. In John 4:42, the Samaritans tell the woman that they believed Jesus because they themselves have heard, and not because of her earlier excited and doubtlessly enticing report (that is: they first believed because of how she was talking rather than what she was saying). Speech in the sense of a lot of words and their meaning is covered by the word ρημα (rhema). Our noun λαλια (lalia) is used 4 times; see full concordance
  • Together with the adverb μογις (mogis), meaning difficultly or painfully: the adjective μογιλαλος (mogilalos), meaning speech-impeded (Mark 7:32 only).
  • Together with the prefix προς (pros), which describes a motion toward: the verb προσλαλεω (proslaleo), which evidently describes talking with the particular objective of getting closer to someone; to have a conversation in order to get to know each other better (Acts 13:43 and 28:20 only).
  • Together with the preposition συν (sun), meaning together or with: the verb συλλαλεω (sullaleo), which describes a conversation between parties, of which at least one consist of multiple persons: for instance two guys together talking with one third person; to convene. This verb is used 6 times; see full concordance.

Are women to keep silent in the churches?

Paul's much discussed assertion that women aren't allowed to "talk" in churches (1 Corinthians 14:34-35) has nothing to do with women in general (in Christ there are no genders — Galatians 3:28) but specifically the situation in Corinth. The Corinthians evidently had asked Paul's advice on specific situations and problems, and in his letters Paul specifically discussed these situations. The particular women Paul was talking about were probably causing chaos among the men, and the situation was destabilizing domestic life (see 1 Corinthians 7:2). With the Great Jewish Revolt brewing, social unrest could trigger a stampede and that in turn Rome's murderous retaliations. Much of Paul's writing was aimed at preventing this (Romans 12:18, 13:1-4, Titus 3:1). He obviously failed, and in 66 AD the revolt broke out. In 70 AD Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed, a massive number of Jewish people were tortured to death, and the rest was made homeless for the next nineteen centuries.

In societies that are not as modern as ours, a man who is publically disrespected by his wife is automatically disrespected by everybody else. For guys respect is the most important social commodity, which translates directly to pecking order, income, safety, security and the right to self-determination. Most guys will go far to defend their respectability, and prefer being feared over being disrespected — which is why guys revert to violence as a means to regain their victim's respect. This is also the reason why guys tend to lose focus when women are in the room, and find more importance in appearing powerful than in yielding to reason and finding truth.

Even today sensible wives don't correct or challenge their husbands in front of all the neighbors, especially not when the debate is heated and the stakes are high. A study group should be about learning and not about defending or improving one's social status. Modern Bible studies too can get very emotional and intimate, and participants with challenged marriages might find their lives derailed rather than strengthened. Today, however, no one should be refused access to the greater debate on account of gender (or social clout, income, eye color, and what have you), and church leaders should be diligent to facilitate all.

The core principle of the gospel of Jesus Christ is freedom, and freedom can't be regulated (that's the point of freedom). What can be regulated, and what must be regulated, is whatever might restrict people's freedom. The marrow of the gospel lies not in rules and regulations (or methodologies, or even dogmas, liturgies, rituals, rites and all that), but in the freedom that these things are designed to guarantee. In time, ultimately, freedom will be absolute and the need for religions and any other regulatory institutions will have been transcended (Revelation 21:22). In the first century, women were still extensions of their husbands, and that demanded a certain sensitivity of church leaders. In our modern world, men and women have equal social status, and that demands a similar sensitivity. But ultimately, Paul's remark dealt with social structures and preserving the peace, and not at all with intellectual qualities or even the sexes in an absolute sense.