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If some of this material looks familiar to some of you, this, and post on Monday and Tuesday are reworkings of three I did in March/April on “Paul and Misogyny.” I am remixing the studies of the three passages (see below) within the Creation, Fall, Redemption, New Creation framework, with special focus on the creation and new creation themes. The occasion is a “synchroblog,” organized by Rachel Held Evans on Male/Female Mutuality, June 4-10, 2012.
On Thursday, June 7, I am off to serve as a Spiritual Director on a UEC (Cursillo) Weekend and thus the rush to get these three old/new posts out in just three days. If you need an extra two days to read this one, well… you’ve got it! Enjoy!
In the first post on male/female mutuality, I used the image of the story of God, told from a height of 30,000 feet to get at the larger narrative, the big picture/story of God. In the first two posts I maintained that mutuality, not complementarity was intended from the beginning of creation. I wrote that his must then mean: men and women were, from the beginning, charged to reshape creation to suit their human but God-directed purposes together, with leadership in any given situation based on giftedness, not gender.
This is what I mean by mutuality; women and men, working together, relying on each other’s wisdom and expertise, to the glory of God. In the first two posts I demonstrated how better exegesis, taking in more fully the historical and literary contexts of the text yields an understanding of I Corinthians 14:34-38 and Ephesians 5:21 and following. This falls right in line with the imperative of Jesus that if a person is a gifted teacher then the opportunity to fully utilize that gift, even if the gifted one is a woman, shall not be taken away from her (Luke 10:42).
Which leaves I Timothy 2:8-15…
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
It is not very often that I experience a 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 with it!
Yet, here is such a text. This is 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, give birth to and take care of babies, through which they will be saved!
Who Is Paul?
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 (Galatians 3)
- allowed as how women should pray and prophesy (I Corinthians 11)
- dismissed out of hand the proposal that women be silenced as the Jews had done as contrary to the express teachings of Christ Jesus (in I Corinthians 14) [link to post one]
- sent the Deaconess Phoebe with a letter to a community so that she could read the letter aloud in their house churches (in Romans 16)
- called the woman, Junia an esteemed apostle (in Romans 16)
- apparently considered it no shame that Priscilla, a woman, patiently taught Apollos, a man, (in Acts 18) about the way of Christ since the coming of the Holy Spirit
- subverted the household codes of the Romans by declaring that king Jesus was in charge, not the paterfamilias (Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3) [link to 2nd post]…
How could such a man write instructions to Timothy which are so at odds with his own previous teaching and practice?
Digging into the Contextual Details
Context is all-important, we have said. In this case, the issue is historical context. 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 their contexts had changed. So what context might help us understand the above passage?
Answer: Paul did not mean what we have always assumed he meant. We have assumed he was talking again about worship settings in I Timothy. In the context of Timothy’s mission in Asia, Paul was talking about what we would call “seminary classes.”
If we were to assume Paul was referring here to worship settings as he does in I Corinthians, then what he tells Timothy would lead us to think the man had endured a stroke and suffered a severe personality change for the worse or, as many have assumed, that someone other than Paul wrote this letter. That view is unnecessary to understanding this text.
Retelling the Story
If we accept, rather, the long story of Paul in which he was acquitted of all charges in AD 62 after nearly two years under house arrest in Rome, then we may allow that the Paul behind I Timothy and Titus did all he could to get back out on the road, building support for a fourth journey, this one to Spain. Off went Paul in AD 62, from Rome to Crete, then to the west coast of Greece and back to Macedonia as he had promised.
As the background to this letter, we must assume that in the midst of all that activity, Paul got a letter from Ephesus where the community had been expanding but where they were desperately in need of apostolic assistance. There were quarrels. They needed trained teachers and they needed someone in authority to judge whether what some teachers were saying was true to the gospel. Paul could not return to Ephesus but he did send Timothy as his apostolic representative.
So, the purpose for Timothy’s trip to Ephesus was the evaluation of the situation and training of teachers, both male and female. And yes, we must also assume from I Corinthians 11 and 14, that to forbid women to teach and prophesy would be to defy the clear teaching of King Jesus: “The office of rabbi will not be taken away from women again!”
What does Timothy find in Ephesus? A mess. Those who have taken my long course, A Year in the Bible may remember in the last term several discussions about an early proto-gnosticism, a kind of dualistic Greek/Jewish mystical religion which has had many Jewish adherents. Although we have no name for this group we know quite a bit about it. Paul was probably weighing in against it in Colossians and it shows up badly in several of the letters to the churches of Asia in Revelation, chapter 2 as “Nicolaitans,” “teachings of Balaam” and “Jezebel and her children.” This proto-gnostic group also gets push-back in I, II and III John and in the gospel of John.
The Christian community in Ephesus had clearly made contact with this group (perhaps because it had some deceptively similar doctrines to Christianity) and some of the proto-gnostic leaders had apparently come over into the Ephesian house churches to teach.
More has come to light about this group, including the following:
- they were primarily a female-led cult at least 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 deceived
- that Eve had been created before Adam
- that Eve had gotten special good knowledge from the serpent in the garden
- they were also dualists who believed the flesh was evil but the spirit good
- it was therefore wicked to trap spirits in flesh by bearing children
Now, with all this in mind, imagine young Timothy who has been sent to Ephesus to sort out the messes which had been made as various groups had infiltrated the young churches of Asia.
Timothy, acting as Paul’s representative, was supposed to find out who was teaching what, correct the false teachers or expel them if they would 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 was struggling with this ministry when he tried to set up new instruction classes for new elders and for those who had agreed to take correction. Various men and women had wanted to be considered for these positions and some of those who had been teaching falsehood had agreed to be retrained.
So Timothy puts together what we would call 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 holding forth, two of his students, both women, wearing shear clothing with pearls in their braided hair, stand up and shout Timothy down!
They cry out:
“No! No! You lie! Eve was not deceived! Adam was deceived by the creator-God! Only Eve, who was created first, gained wisdom from the serpent! You lie! You teach falsehood! No! Down with you! No!”
All bedlam ensues with much confusion and it takes ol’ Tim a while to restore order. Eventually, perhaps with assistance from some of the older men and women in the Ephesian leadership, he gets back on track until he gets to the part of the story where Eve gives birth to children and especially to Seth, in whom she hopes God’s promises of redemption (Genesis 3:15) will be fulfilled!
Again, the two women in gold with pearl braids just go crazy on him, shrieking about how horrid it is to trap sparks of pure light in muddy, hairy, filthy human bodies! Again, they shout Timothy down, there is much confusion and dissension. Eventually the class is dismissed for the day and postponed until another time.
So Timothy writes to Paul…
…and so Paul gets a desperate message from his protegé.
Paul’s Letter in the New Story
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, 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 Tim’s failed seminary classes. In as diffident language as Paul can muster, recognizing how discouraged his young emissary is already, Paul writes (my fill-in-the blanks-paraphrase is below):
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, they should adorn themselves sensibly in apparel that does not draw men’s thoughts to their more basic desires, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire. 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; just as I did under Gamaliel!) learn in silence, with all submissiveness. I would permit no woman to teach who overthrows the authority of her teacher! She is to keep silent.
(Especially when what she thinks she knows is actually in error!)
For in fact, 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 at all wrong with any woman since Eve having children. And in fact, Eve’s salvation did come through the child she bore, although after many generations!
If these women repent of these behaviors as you say one of them has done, and then if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty, she may still sit at your feet.
The Telltale Greek Word
The most telling Greek word in this passage, the one which suggests Paul is writing about a truly extreme situation, is the one which I translated in my paraphrase above as “overthrows the authority” This is a pretty fair translation of the strange word which Paul uses here. It does not mean as it is usually translated in I Timothy in our English Bibles, “have authority;” it means wrestle away authority. Although the scene I paint above is just out of my own well-informed imagination it does explain why Paul would use such a strong term for something he would never permit, nor would you, nor would I!
Paul insists that every person who learns from Timothy must do so “in silence.” This did not mean the person could not ask questions or that the rabbi and student never discussed the issues or the lessons. The silence refers to the respect given to the teacher while the teacher is speaking. We would say, “Do not interrupt!”
Like Jesus and Mary
Paul calls for the same posture and attitude with which Mary of Bethany learned from Jesus in the “men’s part” of her house! Jesus told Mary and Martha, “Mary is right in her choice and her vocation of rabbi will not be taken away from her!” But Mary did not interrupt nor overthrow the authority of her teacher.
(To see a more detailed discussion – pages and pages – of this and some other similar texts cited, please visit Glenn Miller’s web site [link here] @christianthinktank.com and look for Jesus and women in Women in the Heart of God.)
So what was Timothy doing? Choosing and training teachers in accordance with the instructions of Jesus: both male and female. And what was Paul gently urging his representative to do? Never let anyone overthrow his teaching. And if someone tries to do so, they must not be allowed to teach in the churches because those who are fit to teach attend to their teachers with deference and respect.
To which we might reply, “Well, duh!”
A Conclusion on Paul and Mutuality
For centuries Christians have lived with two different apostle Pauls:
- the one who worked with many women, who held these co-workers in high esteem, who once sent a woman to read his newest letter to a distant church, who gave a woman, with her husband, responsibility for teaching men the things they had not known and the same Paul who declared the artificial differences which had placed women under the authority of men to be null and void because of the cross and empty tomb of King Jesus
- and the Paul who insisted that women have no authority over men, never be allowed to teach men, must cover their heads in worship as a sign of subservience to men and, in contradiction to remarks made in the same letter, must always remain silent in worship, neither praying nor prophesying but rather asking knowledgeable male superiors their questions in the privacy of their homes.
In fact, there is credible, biblical evidence for only one Paul, the one who got the message about women and men being mutual partners in every area of life as a signpost of the new creation from his Savior Jesus very early on and never forgot it. Careless and less-than-rigorous translation and exegesis has obscured this single apostle for almost two millennia.
Should we be surprised that these meanings have been so long obscured? Can the general Christian view of something be so wrong for so long? We know it has been so in other matters. Sex and the female gender were always problems for early Christian (male) leaders with their gnostic and dualistic tendencies. For over a thousand years the Roman Church held that sexual intercourse was the original sin of Adam and Eve! So, creation was to unfold through an activity which is itself sinful? Oh, the pleasure is sinful? How ridiculous.
Yet ours is a time of change when many things lost are being found and many “precious” little monsters like bible-legitimated misogyny are and must be left by the wayside. We do not need to 2) lump Paul: that is, adopt a spirit of rebellion against the apostle; 3) deny Paul: claim Paul never wrote these letters (why would we?); 4) dismiss Paul: because what Paul wrote then on these matters is not out of date now nor was it ever; 5) walk away from Paul: thinking that Christianity is a hopelessly out of date relic of a sad, bygone era… …and walk away from God’s new creation coming? Why?
We can, rather, 1) love and respect Paul: we can hear the apostle, clearly and unencumbered, a man who was all about male/female mutuality as the way it was from the beginning of creation, restored in Christ Jesus’ new creation, for all of us citizens of the kingdom, women and men to work out together now, with fear, trembling, grace and joy!
And that is much, much better.
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1 Back to Post As opposed to the shorter story of Paul in which he was under house arrest, tried and convicted and executed around AD 62. In the long story of Paul, he and at least Luke went to Spain in about AD 62-3 and returned in AD 64, getting as far as Troas in Asia before he was arrested and taken again to Rome in chains as a purveyor of an illicito religio (an illegal religion). In the long story, Paul was beheaded on the Ostian Road in AD 65 or 66.