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.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Rediscovering treasure

I've been busy this week sorting my thoughts for Sri Lanka. I now have 26 lectures outlined; all I have to do is write them - that's next week's task!

In the meantime we're kicking off a series in 1 Timothy on Sunday evening which (by coincidence) raises fascinating issues of Pauline chronology which I will be covering in lecture 20 - just when did he write the pastorals (if he indeed did write them and they weren't composed after his death by those who continued to carry the torch for him - Luke, for instance)?

In the course of my reading, I turned to John Robinson's Redating the New Testament. This was the first work of serious academic theology I ever read. It was recommended to me by my then rector, Hugh Sylvester, back in 1978/79. It had an enormous impact on me. I remember feeling that two aspects of my life - my Christian faith and my love of history - were brought together by a writer of immense skill and historical imagination.

Reading Robinson's words again reminds me just what a good and sadly neglected book this is. His arguments are still compelling, 30 years after the book first appeared. It strikes me that scholars of all hues have found its thesis too difficult to integrate into their view of NT history and so it has been sidelined and ignored. Very few works seem to engage with it at all

It deserves better. His case that the whole New Testament was written prior to 70AD is certainly controversial but it's made with such gracious and clear-headed logic that it needs to be reckoned with in a way that most NT scholars shy away from.

When we know so little for certain about the history of the period from 33 (the resurrection) to the fall of Jerusalem in 70, it seems reckless to be so dogmatic about what can and can't have happened in those 37 years. It seems equally cavalier to dismiss as entirely untrustworthy the only narrative source we have, claiming to come from and cover those years (namely Acts - Paul Barnett in his recent book The Birth of Christianity - the first Twenty Years makes a good case for taking Acts seriously alongside Paul's letters as a source of reliable information)

And it seems overly dogmatic (as Robinson points out) to assert that Paul couldn't have written certain letters that bear his name on purely linguistic grounds. We have such a small corpus of writing from him that saying what is characteristically Pauline and what isn't, is tricky. We also don't know enough about his writing practices - how much did he dictate and how much leave to his secretaries to fashion his ideas into words for particular audiences? It's possible that because the pastorals are more personal, they are more not less reflective of Paul's normal turn of phrase.

Anyway, if you're looking for a good academic theology tome to take to the beach along with Dan brown this summer, I strongly recommend Robinson's Redating the New Testament.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Speaking and listening

It's Pentecost. We celebrate this as the birthday of the church, the coming of the Holy Spirit and rightly so.

Yet at its heart, the Acts 2 account is about God speaking to the world. The commotion of the early verses drew a crowd which is the focus for most of the chapter, the audience for Peter's explanation of what's going on and what it means.

God propelled his people out of their comfort zone - at some stage the disciples left the upper room where they felt safe and ended up in the temple where the opponents to Jesus had their base - so that people from all over the world could hear God's story in their own language (with Galilean accents!)

I wonder what would happen if God visited us in our churches in such a way that we had to take our singing and speaking out of our buildings and into the street - not because it appeared to be a good strategy and we'd got the PA organised, sought permission from the council to hold an open-air meeting, but simply because our buildings couldn't contain us in our excitement at encountering God.

Well, Joel did say 'you old men will dream dreams...'

Friday, June 02, 2006

Ending the week with a rush

I've finished going through my Galatians manuscript - most of my editor's comments improved things, though I ignored/disputed one or two - and my notes on Ecclesiastes are posted on the church website ( - just click on the sermon notes tab and it's there under the title Qoheleth - wit and wisdom among the people of God)

And I've prepared for Sunday (pretty much)

All this clears the decks for street pastoring tonight and street pastor training tomorrow.

Isn't life a blast!

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Writer's pride

I was right about my editor's red-biro-marked copy of my Galatians manuscript. It's very depressing for two reasons. One is he's made a lot of suggestions and the other is that he has tiny, spidery handwriting that I find hard to decipher!

Many of his suggestions are making the text clearer and easier to read. But some are subtly changing the sense of things. I find myself bristling with a sort of writerly angst that changing a word or phrase is going to materially and substantially alter the meaning of what I've written.

So I have been very gingerly working through the suggestions made and questions raised, weighing each one carefully and then accepting most of them - editing usually improves things in my experience.

But seeing so much of one's writing crossed out, reworded or, even worse, underlined with a comment 'not clear what this means' inserted in the margin is a sobering sight for a writer. I'd chosen the words so carefully (mostly), thought what I was saying was crystal clear - as well as brimful of insight and wisdom - and feel my hackles rising as I consider so many changes.

Ah the writer's pride... Get over it!

I'm a third of the way through, so I should have it finished next week - given that I've got to fit it in with preparation for Sri Lanka - though because I'm using Galatians as the basis for one day, editing the book is good preparation in itself - reminding me what I think of Paul's most wonderful and passionate piece of writing.

passing on the news...

'Neighbour...I've got so much to tell you in so little time'

Editors were wonderful. It's the best gig I've been to this year. The playing was tight. Tom Smith's voice was angelic. And the lights were out of this world. It ws a flawless performance of passion and energy. If they are not a serious contender for biggest British band of 2006 then there's no justice.

The line's from Someone Says on the Back Room - a song of aggressive longing, fractured relationships and loss of community. 'If no one can help you/then how can I?'

My notes on Ecclesiastes are almost finished and I've just got back my Galatians manuscript with my editor's red biro all over it - it looks rather depressing but I'm sure he's been kind!

We had a very productive breakfast meeting yesterday thinking about a foyer in Bromley. I thought foyer's were yesterday's coming thing, but the good people at Broomleigh and Oasis made a powerful case for having one as a landmark project that puts the needs of homeless young people at the centre of our attention.

I hope something comes of it