Posted by: vicholdsforth | January 22, 2010

A Theology of Woman (Part 2: Cultural notes for 1 Timothy 2)

We finished part 1 concluding that 1 Tim 2:11-12 should be understood as a time-bound, local directive.  I believe the texts examined in part 1 are sufficient to support this conclusion, but a look at the situation in Ephesus (1:3) not only bolsters the case, but makes for some interesting reading, as well.

The women of Ephesus were instructed to “quietly receive instruction” (1 Tim 2:11).  While this seems regressive to those of us who live in a society in which girls are guaranteed access to education, it was, in that culture, nothing short of revolutionary.  First-century Middle Eastern girls were seldom afforded the privilege of education.  To properly understand the ramifications of this instruction, it is helpful to think of this mandate in terms of the girls of Afghanistan having the opportunity to attend school for the first time in a generation after the overthrow of the Taliban.  Boys, by the way, were expected to receive their instruction “quietly,” too, as a sign of respect for their teacher.  We should not infer that boys were allowed to ask and answer questions while the girls participated only as onlookers.

Women are further admonished to “not to teach or exercise authority over a man.” (2:12)  One clue that tells us this is a time-bound injunction is Paul’s choice of the present-active-indicative verb tense, i.e., “I am not presently allowing,” as opposed to the imperative, “I do not now nor ever allow.”  Paul was a lawyer; we can be confident that if he meant this as a permanent injunction, he would have taken advantage of the clarity of the future-active-indicative verb tense.

It is important to note also that Paul bypassed the two more common, and neutral, words for the exercise of authority, exousiazo and kyrieuo, in favor of the lesser-used authenteo, which, for his first-century readers, carried a distinctly sinister connotation.  Authenteo suggests “domination,” “conspiring to murder,” or “misrepresentation.”  Are there any clues that explain why Paul would do this?  The text gives us two:  If we glance ahead to verse 15, we notice a rather peculiar reference to childbirth.  What on earth might childbirth have to do with teaching, authority, or salvation?  The answer lies in Acts 19:23-41:  the Artemis cult.  The Artemis Temple was to Ephesus what Disney World is to Orlando.  Pilgrims, tourists, and merchants came from all over the known world to visit her (even then) centuries-old temple, or make money hawking their wares to worshippers and tourists.

When we understand some of the distinctives of this cult, the apparent contradictions of this passage with regard to other of Paul’s writings (e.g., Rom 16:1-2) are much easier to explain, and enhance our confidence that this particular set of instructions is context-specific.  The Artemis cult held that women were superior to men, and maintained that Artemis appeared on the scene first, her male consort second.  This idea influenced the Gnostics to venerate Eve.  They taught that Eve, not Adam, came first, and moreover, that she introduced knowledge, rather than sin, to mankind.  Women were very powerful in the Artemis cult, and they used this power in a manipulative manner over men.

It is likely that it was this lying, manipulative authority wielded by women and generally acceptable in Ephesian culture that Paul had in mind when he chose authenteo.  And when Paul explained in verses 13 & 14, “For Adam was formed first, then Eve.  And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner,” he was directly refuting these two specific heresies, not implying that women are inherently flawed or meant to be permanently subjugated.  Until the women of Ephesus received instruction, they were not fit to teach or lead; not because of their gender, but because their heretical views had not yet been replaced by the truth.

This brings us back to the reference to childbearing, which inextricably ties this passage to its cultural context.  The Greek word sothaysetai, translated “saved” in most English versions, may also be rendered “kept safe.”  The Greek preposition dia, rendered through in this verse, has the same multiple meanings as its English counterpart.  Thus, dia can mean “during the process of.”  Artemis was also goddess of women in childbirth.  Women could call out to her during childbirth in the hopes that she would either ease their pain, or shoot them with one of her silver arrows and bring a mercifully quick end to their suffering.  This is not a nearly incomprehensible reference to Gen 3:15, as some commentators have asserted.  Rather, Paul here is simply redirecting the attention of these women from Artemis to the Lord.  To paraphrase, verse 15 might say, “Women don’t need to call out to Artemis during childbirth anymore.  The Lord will keep them safe.”



  1. It is rough to talk to KJV only believers and convince them that Paul is not saying what they think he is saying. As verse 12 reads, But I suffer not (do not allow or do not permit) a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. Now, I agree that this not a universal injuction because we have a women (Priscilla) in the scriptures doing that very thing. And I do believe that Priscilla being a God fearing woman would have never done such a thing if there was a hard and fast law or commandment of God against it. It just seems like to me that salvation for women has become a series of ‘good works’; submission, childbearing, conservative dress, etc. The church has made issues such as these salvific for women………is that what you are seeing?

    • I think pretty much any virtue can be transformed into a works-heavy theology. All the uniquely feminine things you mentioned, plus a host of gender-neutral behaviors like “quiet times,” tithing, church attendance, Scripture memorization…you name it. I had a professor at Wheaton who used to like to say, “The Devil doesn’t have to get you to believe the wrong things. He just has to get you to get the right things out of balance.” There’s an awful lot of wisdom in that! I think one red flag that things have gotten out of balance is when people begin to use these as a means by which to judge or refuse to fellowship with other believers. That suggests to me that they’re no longer identifying with Christ, but rather with some pet doctrine.

  2. This post helps me understand a portion of Scripture that has bewildered me, for years. It’s like getting a breath of fresh air, after being submerged in a murky sea! It gives me a sense of peace, to finally comprehend what Paul was really saying.

  3. Wow, Debbie, I’m humbled. Thanks so much for sharing that. It’s precisely why I started blogging.

  4. “It is rough to talk to KJV only believers and convince them that Paul is not saying what they think he is saying.”

    Such people would do well to study the history of the KJV. They would find that King Jimmie’s authorizaton of the KJV was a purely calculated political move, designed to create and strengthen the idea that he was the Pope of Anglicanism. Thus, translators were directly told in certian cases how they were required, by the king, to render certain words.

    The translation of the word “ekklesia” in the NT was rendered “congregation” by both Luther and Tyndale. The Puritans had been pressing for this word to be translated properly in modern Anglican Bibles as well. To blunt their claims, King Jimmie required that the translators render it, improperly (as any Greek scholar will tell you) as “church.” Etymologically, church is connotive of a building and priests, while congregation captures the proper sense of ekklesia–a people. But rendering “ekklesia” as “congretation” would have been dangerously egalitarian, so King Jimmie forced the translators to use the Roman Catholic rendering of “church.” You can still find the directive to do so on the internet. The result is that unfortunately modern translations have followed suit merely by tradition.

    As well, translators knew they were to translate certain ecclesiastical passages in the KJV in such a way as to give as much authority as possible to the Anglican heirarchy and the king.

    My point: this makes the KJV highly questionable, because it brings into serious question the impartiality of the scholars who translated it. Today, if something like this were to occur, scholars would place that translation in the same category as the Jehova Witness’s New World Translation, or the Seventh-day Adventists’ Clear Word: sectarian and flawed. But many Christians today seem to think that because it is “authorized,” that means it is God’s true translation.

    On the other hand, the Elizabethan prose sure are pretty.

    • Brent, thanks for this! I try not to leave people with the feeling that if they don’t know Greek, they can’t really understand their New Testament; but I have noticed that the English translations seem a bit heavy-handed in their treatment of authority. Now I know it wasn’t just my imagination!

  5. Wow! I had no idea that any translation had such powerful bias.

    • Yes. Many Christians have the idea that translation is just a matter of decoding word-by-word…sort of like Ralphie and his Red Ryder decoder pin. Americans are especially prone to this assumption because so few of us have studied a second language. I hate to leave anyone with the feeling that they can’t read and study their Bible without a working knowledge of Greek, but the bottom line is everyone is biased, and translating from one language to another can be fraught with linguistic difficulties. I think it’s far more helpful to acknowledge our biases rather than try to pretend that they don’t exist.

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