Sunday, June 25, 2006

Diving into difficult texts

Frantically preparing for Sri Lanka - hence the lack of blogging recently. We're also doing a series on 1 Timothy at church, preparing for which is enabling me to finish lectures on the later period of Paul's life.

This Sunday we're doing 1 Timothy 2 and tackling head-on what this means for women in ministry.

It is fascinating to see how scholars on both sides construct their arguments - either that Paul's prohibition is temporary and linked to the false teaching in Ephesus or that Paul's prohibition is permanent and based on creation principles laid down in Genesis 1-3. I favour the former view for reasons that seem all-too obvious to me (but I would say that, wouldn't I?)

One key bone of contention is whether 1 Timothy 2 has to be read and interpreted in the light of other NT texts that are deemed to be more normative - for example Galatians 3:28 - or whether 1 Timothy 2 is itself normative for understanding other apparently more permissive cases.

I have always worked on the principle that we must somehow account for Paul's practice - hints and examples of which are layered through the whole Pauline corpus and can be read only to mean that Paul's team of co-workers (those who preached, led and supported his work) contained both men and women operating equally. One has only to look at Romans 16, Philippians 4:2f, 1 Corinthians 11. Add to this 2 Timothy 2:2 where Paul clearly means faithful people entrusted with the teaching to pass on to others, the fact that Timothy himself was taught by his mother and grandmother (2 Timothy 1:5f) and that Priscilla seems to take the lead in training up Apollos in Acts 18:24-28 (by virtue of the fact that she's named first - unusual in first century texts about husbands and wives).

So my view is that Paul's prohibition in 1 Timothy 2 is temporary and called for because women (possibly wives - the words could mean either) were unduly influenced by a heresy that appears to have been derived from the female cults all over Ephesus which, when mixed with esoteric Jewish readings of Genesis 1-3, led to a teaching that suggested Eve was Adam's mother as well as his wife and which taught the women of the city to trust Diana, the goddess who was mid-wife at her twin brother, Apollo's, birth when they were in labour. No wonder Paul said what he did.

His aim throughout 1 Timothy is that people learn the true Christian message, are mentored in the faith by those further along in the Christian life than they are, before they assume a role as teachers, mentors and leaders in the Ephesian house churches. This applied as much to men as women but Paul needed to highlight the particular problem of women because of their role in spreading the false teaching. This seems to be the implication of 2 Timothy 2:2

The clincher for this, it seems to me, is the reference to young widows going from house-to-house (1 Timothy 5:13) and talking of things they shouldn't be talking of - ie spreading false teaching. The word rendered 'gossip' doesn't mean tittle-tattle but rather nonsense or foolishness - a word close in meaning to the way Paul describes the false teaching in 1:6f; 4:7; 6:3f. They are idle purveyors of false teaching, as Gordon Fee puts it in his excellent commentary. And possibly that false teaching centred in their talk on how to approach giving birth - do we hang on to ancient superstitions or allow our new faith in Jesus to sweep them away?

And this is before you get the unusual Greek vocabulary of the passage - notably the word 'authentein' (meaning authority but used elsewhere with the sense of illegitimate or usurping authority, even murder in some Greek plays!) and the present tense of the verb 'permit' which suggests a temporary rather than permanent state of affairs. One excellent study of the passage by Richard and Catherine Clark Kroeger suggests that the primal deity of Ephesus was a female god called Authentia - does that have a bearing on Paul's choice of words?

One of the problems of this whole discussion, of course, is whether we believe there is an enduring creation ordinance that means women are permanently subordinate to men - at home, in church and in the world. If you believe that, then taking the English of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 at face value is the obvious thing to do. If you don't, then you need to look behind the English and ask searching question about what Paul could possibly mean in the light of his usual practice and the particular circumstances in Ephesus.

No prizes for guessing which view I take on that question! As with a number of these things, the debate over this text would be better if people recognised that their interpretations were driven by their underlying view of the world as well as by their understanding of a set of a words in a particular context. It is this that makes New Testament studies so important and such fun.

No comments: