NT Wright on I Timothy 2

I have just shamelessly copied and pasted NT Wright's reflections on I Timothy 2 for those who are just interested in this passage, and do not wish to read his longer reflection here. After all, what is the internet but us all copying furiously off one another?

For your consideration.... Janet


I leave completely aside for today the question of who wrote 1 Timothy. It is more different from the rest of Paul than any of the other letters, including the other Pastorals and 2 Thessalonians. But I do not discount it for that reason; many of us write in many different styles according to occasion and audience, and though that doesn’t remove all the problems it ought to contextualize them. What matters, and matters vitally in a great many debates, is of course what the passage says. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I suggest that it is this passage far and away above all others which has been the sheet-anchor for those who want to deny women a place in the ordained ministry of the church, with full responsibilties for preaching, presiding at the Eucharist, and exercising leadership within congregations and indeed dioceses.

Once again the matter is of course very vexed and much fought over, and I have not read more than a fraction of the enormous literature that has been produced on the passage. I simply give my opinion for what it is worth. And once again I am drawing here on what I have said in my recent popular-level commentary on the passage. This time I acknowledge the help of another old friend, Christopher Bryan of the University of the South at Sewanee, whose sensitive work on the classical context is as always very stimulating.

When people say that the Bible enshrines patriarchal ideas and attitudes, this passage, particularly verse 12, is often held up as the prime example. Women mustn’t be teachers, the verse seems to say; they mustn’t hold any authority over men; they must keep silent. That, at least, is how many translations put it. This, as I say, is the main passage that people quote when they want to suggest that the New Testament forbids the ordination of women. I was once reading these verses in a church service and a woman near the front exploded in anger, to the consternation of the rest of the congregation (even though some agreed with her). The whole passage seems to be saying that women are second-class citizens at every level. They aren’t even allowed to dress prettily. They are the daughters of Eve, and she was the original troublemaker. The best thing for them to do is to get on and have children, and to behave themselves and keep quiet.

Well, that’s how most people read the passage in our culture until quite recently. I fully acknowledge that the very different reading I’m going to suggest may sound to begin with as though I’m simply trying to make things easier, to tailor this bit of Paul to fit our culture. But there is good, solid scholarship behind what I’m going to say, and I genuinely believe it may be the right interpretation.

When you look at strip cartoons, ‘B’ grade movies, and ‘Z’ grade novels and poems, you pick up a standard view of how ‘everyone imagines’ men and women behave. Men are macho, loud-mouthed, arrogant thugs, always fighting and wanting their own way. Women are simpering, empty-headed creatures, with nothing to think about except clothes and jewellery. There are ‘Christian’ versions of this, too: the men must make the decisions, run the show, always be in the lead, telling everyone what to do; women must stay at home and bring up the children. If you start looking for a biblical back-up for this view, well, what about Genesis 3? Adam would never have sinned if Eve hadn’t given in first. Eve has her punishment, and it’s pain in childbearing (Genesis 3.16).

Well, you don’t have to embrace every aspect of the women’s liberation movement to find that interpretation hard to swallow. Not only does it stick in our throat as a way of treating half the human race; it doesn’t fit with what we see in the rest of the New Testament, in the passages we’ve already glanced at.

The key to the present passage, then, is to recognise that it is commanding that women, too, should be allowed to study and learn, and should not be restrained from doing so (verse 11). They are to be ‘in full submission’; this is often taken to mean ‘to the men’, or ‘to their husbands’, but it is equally likely that it refers to their attitude, as learners, of submission to God or to the gospel – which of course would be true for men as well. Then the crucial verse 12 need not be read as ‘I do not allow a woman to teach or hold authority over a man’ – the translation which has caused so much difficulty in recent years. It can equally mean (and in context this makes much more sense): ‘I don’t mean to imply that I’m now setting up women as the new authority over men in the same way that previously men held authority over women.’ Why might Paul need to say this?

There are some signs in the letter that it was originally sent to Timothy while he was in Ephesus. And one of the main things we know about religion in Ephesus is that the main religion – the biggest Temple, the most famous shrine – was a female-only cult. The Temple of Artemis (that’s her Greek name; the Romans called her Diana) was a massive structure which dominated the area; and, as befitted worshippers of a female deity, the priests were all women. They ruled the show and kept the men in their place.

Now if you were writing a letter to someone in a small, new religious movement with a base in Ephesus, and wanted to say that because of the gospel of Jesus the old ways of organising male and female roles had to be rethought from top to bottom, with one feature of that being that the women were to be encouraged to study and learn and take a leadership role, you might well want to avoid giving the wrong impression. Was the apostle saying, people might wonder, that women should be trained up so that Christianity would gradually become a cult like that of Artemis, where women did the leading and kept the men in line? That, it seems to me, is what verse 12 is denying. The word I’ve translated ‘try to dictate to them’ is unusual, but seems to have the overtones of ‘being bossy’ or ‘seizing control’. Paul is saying, like Jesus in Luke 10, that women must have the space and leisure to study and learn in their own way, not in order that they may muscle in and take over the leadership as in the Artemis-cult, but so that men and women alike can develop whatever gifts of learning, teaching and leadership God is giving them.

What’s the point of the other bits of the passage, then?

The first verse (8) is clear: the men must give themselves to devout prayer, and must not follow the normal stereotypes of ‘male’ behaviour: no anger or arguing. Then verses 9 and 10 follow, making the same point about the women. They must be set free from their stereotype, that of fussing all the time about hair-dos, jewellry, and fancy clothes – but they must be set free, not in order that they can be dowdy, unobtrusive little mice, but so that they can make a creative contribution to the wider society. The phrase ‘good works’ in verse 10 sounds pretty bland to us, but it’s one of the regular ways people used to refer to the social obligation to spend time and money on people less fortunate than oneself, to be a benefactor of the town through helping public works, the arts, and so on.

Why then does Paul finish off with the explanation about Adam and Eve? Remember that his basic point is to insist that women, too, must be allowed to learn and study as Christians, and not be kept in unlettered, uneducated boredom and drudgery. Well, the story of Adam and Eve makes the point well: look what happened when Eve was deceived. Women need to learn just as much as men do. Adam, after all, sinned quite deliberately; he knew what he was doing, and that it was wrong, and went ahead deliberately. The Old Testament is very stern about that kind of action.

And what about the bit about childbirth? Paul doesn’t see it as a punishment. Rather, he offers an assurance that, though childbirth is indeed difficult, painful and dangerous, often the most testing moment in a woman’s life, this is not a curse which must be taken as a sign of God’s displeasure. God’s salvation is promised to all, women and men, who follow Jesus in faith, love, holiness and prudence. And that salvation is promised to those who contribute to God’s creation through childbearing, just as it is to everyone else. Becoming a mother is hard enough, God knows, without pretending it’s somehow an evil thing. Let’s not leave any more unexploded bombs and mines around for people to blow their minds with. Let’s read this text as I believe it was intended, as a way of building up God’s church, men and women, women and men alike. And, just as Paul was concerned to apply this in one particular situation, so we must think and pray carefully about where our own cultures, prejudices and angers are taking us, and make sure we conform, not to any of the different stereotypes the world offers, but to the healing, liberating, humanizing message of the gospel of Jesus.

How then would I translate the passage to bring all this out? As follows:

So this is what I want: the men should pray in every place, lifting up holy hands, with no anger or disputing. 9In the same way the women, too, should clothe themselves in an appropriate manner, modestly and sensibly. They should not go in for elaborate hair-styles, or gold, or pearls, or expensive clothes; 10instead, as is appropriate for women who profess to be godly, they should adorn themselves with good works. 11They must be allowed to study undisturbed, in full submission to God. 12I’m not saying that women should teach men, or try to dictate to them; they should be left undisturbed. 13Adam was created first, you see, and then Eve; 14and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived, and fell into trespass. 15She will, however, be kept safe through the process of childbirth, if she continues in faith, love and holiness with prudence.

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