We have been discussing the role of women in the church, and the unfair "nostalgia" that many churches use as a lens with which to justify the treatment of women. In part one, we uncovered the true origins of the role of women today: the Victorian era. In Part two, we watched how that evolved into the fundamentalist movement in the 20th century. Last week, in part three, we started to discuss what scripture actually says by looking at the Hebrew, and how the concept of Bible inerrancy makes it difficult to challenge our cultural blinders in understanding scripture. This week, we are going to take a closer look at what the Bible says about women by exploring the scriptures typical used as justification against female leadership. We are diving into real Bible study, drawing on cultural anthropology, textual criticism, ancient history, and literary criticism. This series has been a crash coarse in a deeper way to read the Bible. Let's get into it!
Another problematic passage that seemingly bars women from roles of leadership that cannot be taken at face value is the infamous 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Those who maintain a literalistic interpretive framework in all aspects of the Bible are hard-pressed to maintain consistency here—especially with the childbearing part. Regardless, their view continues to influence many, if not most, Protestant traditions today, if even subconsciously.
For reference, here is the passage:
11 A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. 12 But I do not allow a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. 13 For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. 14 And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a wrongdoer. 15 But women will be preserved through childbirth—if they continue in faith, love, and sanctity, with moderation.
Something unexpected crept up in my research of this passage, which is the way in which the word used for “authority” has been translated. Before we dive head first into that, if there’s one point that needs to be driven home for the serious student of the Bible, it’s the importance of the historical and cultural context in which a particular passage is written. Beyond the trope of “descriptive or prescriptive” (because this passage seems rather prescriptive), if we fail to remember that all of Scripture is situated in a particular context with a setting, characters, a time in history, educational standards, an understanding of science and the world, cultural customs (like patriarchy and slavery) in the Ancient Near East, we do ourselves and the people we teach an incredibly misguided disservice.
The Greek word used for “exercise authority over” here is authentein which is a hapax legomena (only occurs once) —and not just in Pauline writings, not just in the New Testament, but in all of Scripture, including the Septuagint. The ramifications for this fact cannot possibly be overstated.
if we fail to remember that all of Scripture is situated in a particular context with a setting, characters, a time in history, educational standards, an understanding of science and the world, cultural customs (like patriarchy and slavery) in the Ancient Near East, we do ourselves and the people we teach an incredibly misguided disservice.
Prior to World War II, the translation of the authentein here in 1 Timothy 2 wasn’t “exercise authority over” but phrases and words like “to dominate” or “usurp” were used instead. Groothius too differentiates authentein to mean something other than “exercise authority over” but rather explains it as something which “included a substantially negative element (i.e. ‘dominate, take control by forceful aggression, instigate trouble.’) Therefore it seems forced and unreasonable to view 1 Timothy 2:12 as denying women the ordinary appropriate exercise of authority.”
In the cases of those that appeared pre-World War II, such as those in Old Latin (2nd-4th cent. A.D.), the Latin Vulgate, (4th-5th), Geneva (1560 edition), Bishops, and the KJV, they used the terms “usurp” or “to dominate”. Why the difficulty in translating authentein, and why the change? Again, it must be noted that this term only occurs this one time in the entire New Testament, though its cognates are merely found twice elsewhere in the deuterocanonical works. Once occurs in the Wisdom of Solomon 12:6, a noun, meaning “murderer,” and referring to child sacrifices. The other occurs in 3 Maccabees 2:28-29 as a noun, meaning “original” or “authentic.” This is significant because one cannot gloss over such an enigmatic word, especially since there are other words Paul could have used to express “to exercise authority over.” Bellville points out that “within the semantic domain of ‘exercise authority’...biblical lexicographers have twelve entries of ‘rule’ and forty-seven entries for ‘govern.’ Yet Paul picked none of these. The obvious reason is that authentein carried a nuance that was particularly suited to the Ephesian situation.” Linda L. Belville explains Ephesian women were highly “influenced by the cult of Artemis, in which the female was exalted and considered superior to the male.” This understanding also sheds light on the ostensibly random statement that Adam was created first and the woman was deceived. The cult taught that Artemis was created first and then her male consort, while “the true story was just the opposite. For Adam was formed first, then Eve (1 Tim. 2:13). And Eve was deceived to boot (1 Tim. 2:14)—hardly a basis on which to claim superiority.” Moreover, the Greek conjunction gar which is translated as “for” in the beginning of verse 13 is generally taken to indicate causation, when in fact, gar typically introduces an explanation for what precedes. Bellville argues throughout the chapter that the women are not to teach men in a domineering fashion (as in the case of the cult of Artemis, where women were superior and exercised their superiority), not that women are not permitted to teach men. She says, “If the sense in 1 Timothy 2:12 is that women are not permitted to teach men in a domineering fashion, then 1 Timothy 2:13 would provide the explanation: that Eve was created as Adams’s partner (Gen. 2:24) and not his boss.” Another hermeneutical error, Bellville points out, is the seemingly random application and omission of taking passages literally. She says, “those who argue for creation-fall dictums in 1 Timothy 2:13-14 stop short of including ‘women will be saved through childbearing’ in 1 Timothy 2:15. To do so, though, lacks hermeneutical integrity. Either all three statements are normative or all three are not.” Finally, Bellville summarizes her points as thus:
The women at Ephesus (perhaps encouraged by the false teachers) were trying to gain an advantage over the men in the congregation by teaching in a dictatorial fashion. The men in response became angry and disputed what the women were doing...It also fits the grammatical flow of 1 Timothy 2:11-12: “Let a woman learn in a quiet and submissive fashion. I do not, however, permit her to teach with the intent to dominate a man. She must be gentle in her demeanor.”
The overly simplistic hermeneutical approach advocated by Fundamentalists in which the plainest sense is the truest sense can, and does, cause severe problems. The grievous reality is that despite modern-day Evangelicals’ general rejection of militant, male-dominant, separatist habits, their interpretive framework and respective attitudes of women’s capacities and their subsequent roles remains at large, both overtly and subconsciously.
Though few people doubt the significance history and culture has on a person’s understanding, not many are aware the grip Fundamentalist roots have on them when they interpret difficult and controversial passages.
Furthermore, ideals from the Victorian era are still alive and well in churches, where they advocate the “biblical” mandate that women are to stay home with the children, tend to household affairs, and remain the meek, subordinate that God divinely ordained (cursed) women to be. Rather than use the gifts the Holy Spirit graciously endows on each believer, women are taught to restrain themselves, uniquely temper gifts that cultural norms deemed only appropriate for men, and stay in their place, which is simultaneously a Victorian and Fundamentalist thought.
The Victorian ideal and role for wives to stay home, raise the children, and tend to household affairs while the husbands go out and work is not -- and never has been -- a biblical norm or standard, it was simply a product of time.
In 21st century America, women are granted most of the same opportunities as their male counterparts in nearly every aspect, including receiving an education, holding executive positions in businesses, shape laws in Congress, teach in universities, and yet when this same well-educated, leader of a woman walks through the church doors, in most American churches, she’s taught her leadership or teaching gifts have no place here unless among the other women and the children.
Church leaders may dismiss and sometimes condemn this freedom a woman has to live up to her God-given potential (as the men have been able to all along) as a product of secular culture and that changing cultures ought not to influence our theology. Only progressives do that, right? However, the Fundamentalist movement drew on culture to influence its theology and hermeneutics. As a response to culture vis-à-vis higher criticism and liberal theology, its response was to hunker down and hold to a literalistic interpretation of Scripture as a whole, which led to dispensational premillennialism. Our culture dictates how we understand information, there’s no way to get around that.
Although Christians like to think that they are capable of reading the Bible how it was intended without being swayed by one’s specific time and place in history, it is wholly impossible. Which is why, it is imperative to understand how believers in the past interpreted Scripture and the context in which each particular book was written. To think we are capable of such a feat of reading and understanding in a vacuum is, simply put, arrogant and foolish. Maybe you are thinking: “So what, Alicia? So what if it is? What harm am I really doing by not digging deeper into history and reading things in the context of the chapter, of the book, as the whole corpus? Who has time for that? How much does it matter?”
Although Christians like to think that they are capable of reading the Bible how it was intended without being influenced or swayed by one’s specific time and place in history, it is wholly impossible, which is why it is imperative to understand how believers in the past interpreted Scripture and the context in which each particular book was written.
It matters. The whole of Christendom risks losing the voice of half of their followers if we oversimplify scriptures on women, and rely on our current cultural assumptions. It matters. Ask any person who’s had scripture thrown at them as a weapon. As anyone who has been marginalized by Biblical interpretation. Ask any woman who feels called by God to lead, to speak, to move beyond the confines of her home or children, to share the gospel.