I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; also that women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire but by good deeds, as befits women who profess religion. Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.”
I Timothy 2:8-15
What would it take to get a dormant blogger to pick up his proverbial pen after months of silence? In this case it has taken something quite new and wonderful.
It is not very often that I experience a real breakthrough in biblical studies. Perhaps that is because I do not have very many “problem passages,” texts where I think I know what a text says but I disagree!
Yet, here is such a text: I Timothy 2:8-15! The passage where we all “know” Paul the apostle instructs Timothy to forbid women from teaching because Adam was created before Eve, because Eve was deceived first (before Adam) and because women have better things to do, that is, to give birth to and to take care of babies!
I simply do not know of a single Bible passage which I have ever found as difficult as this one. Even if my problem is that I am reading Paul 2000 years after the fact, I have never been able to see how the same man who taught there is complete equality in Christ between men and women in Galatians 3, who allowed as how women should pray and prophesy in I Corinthians 11, the man who sent the Deaconess Phoebe with a letter to a community so that she could read the letter aloud in the house churches, who called Junia a fellow apostle (both in Romans 16) and who apparently considered it no shame that Priscilla, a woman, patiently taught Apollos, a man, (Acts 18) about the way of Christ since the coming of the Holy Spirit… How could such a man write instructions to Timothy which are so at odds with his own previous teaching and practice? (Many have assumed the letter must be written by someone other than Paul! Some solutions are worse than the problems they solve!)
Answer: Paul did not write such instructions. In my delighted opinion, Paul did not mean what we have always assumed he meant by the words we read in translation in this passage!
Anyone who has ever taken classes from me knows the importance of context in reading the Bible. Every bible book was called forth by an occasion and was continually preserved and re-copied because it continued to speak powerfully to new generations even when the contexts had changed. So what context might help us to understand the above passage in a new way?
Those who have taken A Year in the Bible from me may remember in the final term several discussions about an early proto-gnosticism, a kind of dualistic Greek/Jewish mystical religion which seems to have drawn push-back from Paul in Colossians and outright opposition from John in the Revelation, I, II and III John and in the Gospel of John. More has come to light about this group, including the following:
- they were a female-led cult in some places, including the province of Asia
- their teachers were mostly women who doubled as cultic prostitutes
- these leaders dressed in gaudy, suggestive clothing when they taught
- the group had adopted a cock-eyed creation story, a twisted gnostic version of the Genesis tradition
- they believed Adam and not Eve had been first deceived
- that Eve had been created before Adam
- that Eve had gotten special knowledge from the serpent in the garden
- they believed the flesh was evil and the spirit was good
- and it was therefore wicked to trap spirits in flesh by bearing children
Now, with this in mind, imagine young Timothy who has been sent to Ephesus to sort out the messes which have been made as various groups have infiltrated the young churches of Asia. Timothy, acting as Paul’s representative, is supposed to find out who is teaching what, correct the false teachers or expel them if they will not take correction and choose and train new elders to teach and preach in the house churches of Ephesus.
Now imagine the apparently timid Timothy is struggling with this ministry as he tries to set up new instruction classes for new elders and for those who have agreed to take correction. Various men and women want to be considered for these positions and some of those who had been teaching falsehood have agreed to be retrained.
So Timothy puts together a class. He gathers these people and begins to teach them from his understanding of Torah, beginning with the traditions of Israel from Genesis. Then suddenly, during class, as Timothy is speaking, two of the candidates, both women wearing slit skirts, stand up and shout Timothy down! They cry:
“No! No! You lie! Eve was not deceived! Adam was deceived by the creator-God! Eve was created first! She alone gained heavenly wisdom from the serpent! You lie! You teach falsehood! No, no!”
An argument ensues with much shouting and confusion and it takes ol’ Tim a while to restore order. Eventually, perhaps with some assistance from some of the older men and women, Timothy gets back on track until he gets to the part where Eve gives birth to children and especially to Seth, in whom she hopes God’s promises of redemption will be fulfilled.
Again, the two women, hair braided with pearls and gold beads, just go crazy on him, shrieking about how horrid it is to trap sparks of pure spiritual light in muddy, hairy, filthy human bodies! Again, they shout Timothy down, there is much confusion and dissension, and eventually the class is dismissed for the day and postponed until another time.
And so Paul gets a desperate letter from his protegé.
Then Paul writes back. Can we see why, for the first time in any letter, Paul adds “mercy” to “grace and peace” in his greeting? After many words of reminder and encouragement, quite a bit about folly, dissent and discord in contrast to the orderliness and soundness of the gospel message and the life which proceeds from it, Paul finally comes to the sensitive subject of Timothy’s failed seminary classes. In as gentle and formal language as Paul can muster, recognizing how discouraged his young emissary is already, Paul writes:
It is my desire, Tim, that in every place people should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling.
Also, anyone, male or female, who wants to be a teacher in the churches must behave modestly. If women, then they should adorn themselves sensibly in apparel that does not draw men’s thoughts to the more basic desires, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly details.
Those women you select to be teachers must be known for their good deeds, as befits women who claim to have a true faith. Let a woman, just as much as a man, learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman (or man) to teach who overthrows the authority of the teacher! She is to keep silent, especially when she has been told she is in error!
For, according to the scriptures, Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not first deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. And in fact there is nothing wrong with a woman like Eve having children! In fact, Eve’s salvation did come through the child she bore, though after many generations!
If these women repent of these behaviors and views as you say one of them has done, and then if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty, she may still learn in silence.
“Overthrow the authority” is a pretty fair translation of the strange word which is used in this passage for what Paul allows no woman or man to do. Essentially, Paul is describing the circumstance of “sit at the feet.” This was a Jewish idiom for how one trained to be a rabbi. Paul/Saul had “sat at the feet” of the great rabbi, Gamaliel. That was what Mary of Bethany was doing when Martha became so upset that Mary was with Jesus in the men’s part of their house (Luke 10). But Jesus told them both: Mary is right in her choice and her vocation of rabbi will not be taken away from her!
To see a detailed discussion — pages and pages — on this work, visit www.christianthinktank.com, Glenn Miller’s site and look for his “Women in the Heart of God.”
My free paraphrase, above, assumes some things. Namely, that Paul had no problem with female teachers any more than Jesus did and that the problem under discussion is rebellion, not women as teachers. The same Greek words in this passage can speak to either context!
So how is Paul doing now in your estimation? I have more from Miller on another supposed misogynistic passage but enough for now.