Posted in Mutuality

Mutual Marriage: It’s all Eve’s fault? (1 Timothy 2)

Photo by Dennis Jarvis from Flickr

Photo by Dennis Jarvis from Flickr

Since I dealt with the order of creation in my last post, I’ll address 1 Timothy 2:8-15. This passage is perhaps the most challenging, controversial, and divisive passage of scripture on this topic of men and women and is used by many to defend hierarchical marriage. I do not expect to settle the issue to anyone’s satisfaction, even my own. I have yet to find two theologians who agree on every nuance of this passage. I believe anyone who claims to have the definitive explanation on this one is fatally arrogant or selling something…or both.

One of the things that so many people forget when studying the Bible is that while it was written “for” us it was not written “to” us. The culture and historical setting of each part of the Bible informs and illuminates the topic at hand. This is particularly true with the letters of Paul, especially the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus) which were written to address specific problems in an existing church. To ignore that historical context is to miss Paul’s point entirely. Paul wrote this particular letter to Timothy to advise him how to deal with false teaching in the church at Ephesus. So any interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:8-15 must take into account the problems that were being addressed.

So what exactly were these false teachings? Paul doesn’t say specifically, so we must do a little detective work. First, from the letter itself we can surmise that there were arguments (2:8), problems with immodesty (2:9-10), issues of leadership (3:1-13), pagan myths including a prohibition against marriage (4:1-7), issues with the behavior of widows, particularly young women (5:3-16), and greed (6:3-10). Let’s put those clues in our handy-dandy notebook.

Secondly, let’s look closer at the Greek text itself. In 2:12 Paul uses a verb tense that according to Ben Witherington basically means “I am not now permitting” and is never used to imply a permanent ban. Also according to Witherington, Paul uses a very peculiar Greek word for “authority” that has a disputed meaning but certainly seems to refer to improper or illegitimate authority, not authority in general. We also have the curious fact that Paul transitions from the plural “women” in 2:8-10 to the singular “a woman” or “the woman” in 2:11-12. Things that make you go, “hmmm…”

Next, what was going on in the city of Ephesus? Well, the city was renowned throughout the world as the center of worship for the Greek goddess Artemis(Roman: Diana). The temple there was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Artemis was portrayed as a wild, uncontrollable huntress and an avowed virgin. While the goddess was connected to fertility and the safe delivery of children (the name Artemis means “safe”, “saved”, or “delivered”), she was said to have murdered children once they were born. Artemis was also closely related to Cybele, a mother goddess who was considered the source of all living creatures. The worship of Artemis was female-dominated, with priestesses served by castrated male servants. The plot thickens.

Finally, what was going on in the larger Roman world? As Scot McKnight discusses in his book The Blue Parakeet, there was a trend in the first century Roman Empire toward a “New Roman Woman”. Using the writings of Petronius and Juvenal, McKnight outlines this New Roman Woman as immodest, sexually provocative, and prone to interrupting public discourse to interject her own opinions. Are we having an “aha! moment” yet?

Based on the evidence above, I believe we can reconstruct a picture of the problems in Ephesus. This was likely a church where a few unqualified women (or perhaps just one) were presuming to take on the authority to teach. Those whom Paul is addressing in Ephesus were influenced by the worship of Artemis and trying to bring some of those pagan myths into the church without first being taught correct Christian doctrine. Paul is saying these women should not be allowed to teach or have authority until they have been sufficiently educated as he discusses in verse 11. Elsewhere Paul commends women such as Phoebe, Priscilla, and Junia for their service in leadership and teaching roles, so it would be paradoxical to think his ban here is global and permanent.

So why does Paul reference the creation story in this context? Why is the order of creation raised in 2:13-14? I agree with Gilbert Bilezikian and Craig Keener that the issue is not simply creation order, but education. In the creation story, Eve was not yet created when God gave Adam the warning against eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eve’s misquoting of God’s command displays a poor understanding of it. Paul is not saying that Eve was deceived because she was subordinate or morally inferior due to the order of creation, but she was more susceptible to deception because she did not receive God’s warning first hand. Her mis-quoting of God’s command may be an indication of this. Obviously, there is more to this than can be addressed here, but the point is that Paul is using Eve as an illustration of someone who was deceived because they were insufficiently informed, the same problem they were experiencing at the church in Ephesus.

Before I close, I want to address the cryptic verse 15 about childbearing. This verse is notoriously hard to decipher and there are a number of popular interpretations. The most backward, IMHO, is the implication that women are saved through fulfilling their role as mothers. I won’t even dignify that position with a response. A more common idea is that women will be saved through “the childbirth”, meaning the birth of Christ. While that is a true statement, I don’t think that interpretation is the best fit for the context. I prefer Craig Keener’s interpretation of this verse as another reference to the curse of Genesis in relationship to the worship of Artemis. The curse warns of pain during childbirth. Paul is teaching that the women of the Ephesian church do not need to rely on Artemis to be “safe” during childbirth, but that by faith God will protect them, despite Eve’s mistake.

What do you think? How should we apply Paul’s instructions in our modern context?

Further study:
The Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight
Paul, Women and Wives by Craig Keener

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About Bob Mitton

Bob Mitton is an application development manager and teaching pastor at Central Church (Madison Heights, Michigan). He is co-founder of Permanent Passionate Partnership.