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. (1Tim 2:8-15 RSV)
I devoted the previous entry to this blog to “observations concerning the very real damage that unsophisticated or self-serving biblical interpretation can do to people” on the example of the so-called “Curse of Ham.” The damage done by wrong-headed biblical interpretation in that case was and is, of course, to black people. A range of other biblical texts, in the hands of careless or selfishly-motivated interpreters, have done and still do similar damage to other groups of people, and even to creation and the public good. Hopefully, an examination of several of these texts, and, more importantly, of the poor hermeneutical practices that render them dangerous, will help readers to be better biblical interpreters and will provide them with resources for correcting such abuse of scripture as they encounter it.
According to an interpretation with an ancient pedigree, the passage from 1 Timothy cited above describes unequivocally and categorically the proper status of women in God’s order: they are to be submission (even silent); they may not hold positions of authority over men; these strictures result from the role Eve played in the Garden of Eden fiasco. In the background, of course, is the twofold “curse” placed upon Eve (Gen 3:16) involving pain in childbirth (cf. 1 Tim 2:15) and hierarchical gender relations (1 Tim 2:12).
Christians – from Roman Catholic officialdom to American Evangelicals – base their views on issues such as women in ministry and the proper model for Christian marriage on this strict, “literal” interpretation of this passage. Closer examination – of the wording of the text, of its context in scripture, and of its context in history and culture – suggests, however, that this interpretation need not, and indeed, should not prevail.
First, the author (Paul or one of Paul’s disciples, if, as many modern scholars think, the Pastoral Epistles are “Deutero-Pauline”) twice explicitly states that he is describing his personal wishes (v 8 – Βούλομαι boulomai “I wish”) and values (v 12 – οὐκ ἐπιτρέπω ouk epitrepō “I do not turn to” in the sense of “I do not turn over to”), implying that these wishes and desires do not reflect a divine mandate. On occasion elsewhere, Paul makes this distinction between his thinking and divine mandate explicit (cf. 1 Cor 7:12). This observation, in turn, raises the question of the nature of the Bible, of biblical authority, and of the authority of biblical authors. Readers of the Bible must remember that, although we refer to the Bible, as a whole, as the word of God, it contains many statements that should not and cannot be understood as statements of God’s will. Further, the authority of the prophets (cf. Jeremiah’s hesitancy to denounce Hananiah without the divine mandate to do so – Jer 27-28; or Amos’ efforts to divert God from the plan to punish Israel – Amos 7-8) and of Paul was not a personal characteristic, i.e., they were not personally authoritative in and of themselves. Unless upon divine instruction and inspiration, the words of biblical authors carry no more authority than the words of any other person. Paul, in fact, typically based his claims to authority on tradition (cf. 1 Cor 11:23; 15:1, 3) and biblical interpretation (Rom 1:17; 2:24; 3:4, 10; 4:17, etc.).
Second, this text expresses an attitude toward women that does not comport with scripture taken as a whole. It describes Miriam (Exod 15:20), Huldah (2 Kgs 22:14), Noadiah (Neh 6:14), Anna (Luke 2:36), and the four anonymous daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9) as prophetesses. Deborah was a judge, exercising authority over Barak (Judg 4:6-9). The first to bring the Good News of the resurrection of Jesus, the first evangelists, were women. Prisca taught the Gospel message to Apollos (Acts 18:26) and Phoebe was a deaconess (Rom 16:1). In his letters, Paul sent greetings to scores of women whom he hailed as co-workers in Christ.
Indeed, an interpretation that regards the perpetuation of the curse upon Eve as an element of the Gospel entirely misapprehends the Gospel, itself. Paul wrote, “Christ redeems us from the curse of the law” (Gal 3:13), a recognition that enable him to assert just a few verses later that, therefore, “…in Christ…there is neither Jew nor Greek…slave nor free…male nor female…” (Gal 3:27-8). In other words, while the fallen state of humanity may involve hierarchical gender relations, a redeemed humanity will enjoy restoration to the original harmonious equality between the genders. Disciples of Jesus Christ should not enforce the curse but participate with God in Christ lifting the curse.
Third, of course, one must take historical and cultural factors into account. First Timothy dates to a period and a place in which a casual observer would probably assume that a well-dressed, bejeweled, well-coiffed, vocal woman was a prostitute or mystery religion priestess. Indeed, some in the churches Paul founded across the eastern Mediterranean probably came from such backgrounds. Everything that I have already said notwithstanding, one can understand why it would have been important, even in the symbolic mode of dress, to distance one’s self from such pasts. In fact, if the passage before us continues to speak a positive word to Christians, and I believe that it does, it is probably on this point. Even our symbolical statements of who we are, as in how we dress and the vocabulary we use, stand under the claim of God. We should be careful not to undermine our confession through our style of dress and manner of comportment.
Finally, many of the conservative, Evangelical Christians, including Baptists in the South, who insist on the strict interpretation of the “silent and submissive” interpretation of this Timothy passage, do not employ a consistent hermeneutic. They take “literally” the components of this passage with which they are comfortable; but ignore or explain away the rest. If this passage calls for “silent and submissive” women, it also calls for women to dress frumpily, to wear their hair simply, and to eschew jewelry. Understood “literally,” this text calls for Christian women to be silent, submissive, and plain. I find it somewhat hypocritical for male evangelicals who insist on the “silent and submissive” interpretation not also to insist that their wives be as plain as possible. I suspect an ulterior motive – the will to dominate instead of the determination to serve as the lowliest.
I hope that readers of the Bible will see the importance of taking in the full biblical panorama. A snapshot cannot convey the breadth and grandeur. Readings of the Bible designed to limit God’s grace do damage. The Bible is not the problem.
Note: It is summer. I am busy with family visits and household chores in addition to my regular schedule of editing and writing. Until September, I will be making blog entries irregularly, but I will not be entirely quiet and come fall, I will return to a normal weekly (or nearly so) schedule.