St Paul: Non-Authorship Based Upon Treatment of Women

As a continuation from the previous post, "The Questioned Authorship of St Paul Questioned," another argument utilized by Dr. Bart Ehrman in suggesting that the pastoral epistles (e.g., 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus) are not authored by St Paul is the treatment of women in 1 Timothy 2 as contrasted with that of 1 Corinthians 11. If the apostle affirms the speaking of women in 1 Corinthians 11 in the assembly then he cannot have authored the apparent anti-women writings inherent in 1 Timothy 2.

At 1 Corinthians 11 we discover the following: "Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head" (1 Cor. 11:4, 5). Here, in this undisputed Pauline letter, the apostle affirms that women, in the assembly, both pray and prophesy (proclaim the word of God in some fashion). Yet, in the first letter to Timothy, we find the following: "I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent." (1 Tim. 2:12). The two passages appear contradictory.

The author of 1 Timothy grants his reason why a woman is to keep silent in the assembly: "For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty." (1 Tim. 2:13, 14, 15) A prima facie reading, divorced from historical context, might lead one to consider that the author considers women as secondary to men and should assume subservience. But there is much to consider here before conceding those notions.

Dr. Ehrman notes the presence of an apparent anti-women rant at 1 Corinthians 14:34-35: "women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church." If the apostle merely means to indicate that women should not disrupt worship, by asking questions, whether out loud or to others sitting nearby, then he could have used the appropriate language. The apostle here seems to contradict his own teaching at 1 Corinthians 11:5. Some ancient manuscripts place verses 34 and 35 after verse 40: "but all things should be done decently and in order." Most scholars, then, tend to consider these two verses later (originally marginal) additions that are (unwarrantedly) interposed into the canonical text: these are not the words of St Paul.

If, however, verse 35 grants us a proper clue as to rightly interpreting verse 34, with regard to these women asking questions, then this proscription of women speaking does, indeed, refer to them interrupting a message (or, possibly, a prophetic message).1 Oddly enough, though, "the Law" does not command a woman to obey or be submissive to her husband;2 which fact, again, causes one to question the Pauline integrity of these statements. I agree that these verses are suspect at best.3 But is there not a method of interpreting 1 Timothy 2 in conjunction with the women-affirming message of 1 Corinthians 11 and maintain Pauline authorship of the pastoral epistles?

Prior to informing pastor Timothy that he is not permitting (present active indicative: "I am not presently permitting") a woman (or a wife) to teach or to assume authority over a man (or a husband) (1 Tim. 2:12), the author writes, "Let a woman learn in silence with full submission" (1 Tim. 2:11). That the author, in his first- (or, in the opinion of some, even second-) century context, wants a woman to learn is a radical idea bar none. Women are not permitted an adequate education in the first century, as are men, and their public witness (or socio-politico voice) is not valid. For the author to suggest that women are, in a Christian context, to receive an adequate education is to introduce a revolutionary attitude toward the equality and rights of all women.

That the author notes the woman should learn "in silence" is not to suggest that she "keep her mouth shut." Rather, as noted by Dr. Craig Keener, silence is "an appropriate way to learn except when one had a thorough knowledge of the subject."4 Since learning Christian doctrine is a new concept and practice for first-century women, learning "in silence" is appropriate, and such is also appropriate for men who are learning the same. These women pupils must learn before they can teach.

But does not our author explicitly state that he is not permitting women to teach nor to assume authority over men (1 Tim. 2:12)? Women, then, may learn but not teach. Is that not true? Well, if this is true, then we have an emphatic contradiction within the Christian scriptures; which, if I may insist, is a far grander problem than whether the pastoral epistles are Pauline forgeries. As already noted, during the era in which Jesus walks the earth, though women are viewed as second-class citizens, their social witness not counted as valid, we greatly wonder why God arranges the events of Jesus' resurrection being witnessed first by women whose witness is generally discounted or suspect at best (cf. Matt. 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-10; John 20:1-2).

Women, unduly marginalized and counted as property, without a proper "voice" in their society, are the first to discover the most significant aspect to the life and ministry of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, not to mention the crowning element of the salvation and justification of humanity. These are among the same women, mind you, who contribute financially to Jesus during His pre-resurrection ministry (Luke 8:1-3): the women Scripture declares as those "who had followed him from Galilee" (cf. Luke 23:49, emphasis added), the Greek word "followed," συνακολουθοῦσαι, often referring to following Jesus as a disciple (besides His main Twelve, Jesus has many other disciples, cf. Luke 10:1; John 4:1-2; 6:66). Women, from God's perspective, are equal to men.



We also find in Paul's own letter to the believers gathered together in Rome the presence of Junia, a prominent apostle5 (Rom. 16:7); deaconess Phoebe (Rom. 16:1, 2), who hand-delivers Paul's letter to the Romans, who reads the letter to the church and answers any questions6 that might be posed; Prisca (Rom. 16:3), or, better, Priscilla, a co-worker of Paul in the ministry, responsible for teaching7 male and female converts (cf. Acts 18:26). If the apostle Paul authors 1 Timothy, and I maintain the ancient tradition that he does, then how might we understand his affirming views of women in ministry -- even pulpit ministry -- with what we find in the second chapter?

The key to properly interpreting Paul at 1 Timothy 2:12 actually begins at 1 Timothy 2:9. In Timothy's provenance of Ephesus there exists a cult that believes Eve is the "Great Mother" -- an incarnation of the goddess. "They also associated Adam with the goddess' love, Attis, and taught that he received the gift of life from her. In addition, the gnostics who worshiped Eve also revered the snake, and they believed that she and the serpent shared a mystical union."8 The apostle must address these concepts (that cannot be adopted) with which the believers in that area are quite familiar.

Add to this the fact that women throughout the Roman Empire are "gaining economic independence, assuming greater roles in the public sector, and overthrowing traditional sexual [and gender] taboos and domestic arrangements (including practicing contraception and abortion),"9 these new Roman women are beginning the attempt at establishing and maintaining authority over men.

But St Paul already instructs us, at Galatians 3:28, that in Christ we are all equal: no one has immediate authority over the other (cf. Matt. 20:25). So the apostle demands that Christian women will not assume authority of the men, just as men are not to assume ultimate authority over women, or other believers (cf. Matt. 20:25; 1 Pet. 5:3). But when St Paul states, "I permit no woman to teach," such harkens back to the previous verse: "Let a woman learn in silence with full submission." In other words, the proscription of verse 12 corroborates with verse 11: the woman is not supposed to be teaching while she is learning. First she is to learn and then she may teach.

Dr. Craig Keener highlights a point that is most helpful:
What is most significant about the wording of this passage, however, is that Paul does not assume Timothy already knows this rule. Had this rule been established and universal, is it possible that Timothy, who had worked many years with Paul, would not have known it already? Paul often reminds readers of traditions they should know by saying, "You know," or "Do you not know?" or "According to the traditions which I delivered to you." [The apostle does not do so here and we are correct to ask why.]10
This adds to the weight of cultural relevance: Paul is not universally forbidding women from ministry but is addressing a pressing cultural problem among women in Ephesus.11 The apostle then pens some rather peculiar words regarding Adam being formed first, and then Eve, and that Eve was deceived and became a transgressor (1 Tim. 2:13, 14). He concludes: "Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty." (1 Tim. 2:15) J. Lee Grady, regarding the gnostic-like cult of Eve in Ephesus (cf. 1 Tim. 6:20: the phrase "what is falsely called knowledge" is most likely a reference to rife gnosticism) mentioned above, i.e., that taught the fables that Eve gave birth to Adam, that Adam was deceived, and that Eve was enlightened, helps us understand the words of Paul here:

  • "It was Adam who was first created" (v. 13). In other words, Eve was not created first, nor was she a "goddess mother." [The gnostic idea that she gave life to Adam is a myth and cannot be adopted by the Christian.]
  • "It was not Adam who was deceived" (v. 14). Some gnostics believed that Adam was the "bad guy" in the story because he didn't want to join Eve at first when she listened to the serpent. But Paul dispelled this notion.
  • "But the woman, being quite deceived, fell into transgression" (v. 14). Paul made it clear here that Eve was not "enlightened" when she listened to [the Ephesian-revered serpent12] the devil. She made a sinful choice.13

Once historical context is introduced, we avoid excess, as well as misunderstanding and misinterpretation. If the new Roman women intend to establish and maintain authority over men in the new era, and Christians, and especially Christian women, wonder as to the validity of their claims, the apostle contradicts their myths regarding authority, sin, creation and so-called enlightenment (especially gnostic claims).

Incidentally, the notion of the woman being "saved through childbearing" (1 Tim. 2:15) is explained as follows: In the Ephesus cult, the belief is that the false goddess protects her devotees from dying while giving birth. The death rate from giving birth to children in this century is rather high. In a sense, then, Paul is using a cultural custom and turning it on its head: Through Christ and by grace through faith in Christ shall a woman be "saved" through childbearing -- not any false god. The "salvation" referred to here is a deliverance from danger and not saving from sin.

These passages, when read through the lens of historical context, do not present an anti-women perspective that seeks to keep them submissive to men and restricted from teaching (or preaching, i.e., proclaiming, prophesying, speaking) Christian doctrine. We need not, then, concede to a mythic second-century author for the pastorals due to a notion that the so-imagined non-Pauline author contradicts the women-affirming position of St Paul.

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1 "The explanation that seems most worthy of consideration takes its cue from the evidence of verse 35. The words 'if they want to inquire about something' appear to point to a certain kind of speaking that was proving itself as disruptive within Corinthian worship as the unrestrained exercise of other kinds of speech and that was associated in this particular congregation with women." See James A. Davis, "1 Corinthians," in The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary, eds. Gary M. Burge and Andrew E. Hill (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2012), 1303.

2 Ibid.

3 Though textual scholars and critics maintain that these two verses are apocryphal, e.g., Wayne Meeks, Hans Conzelmann, Robin Scroggs, F.F. Bruce, Gordon Fee; Craig S. Keener offers his reasons why the position, to him, appears weak. See Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women, and Wives: Marriage and Women's Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 204), 74-88.

4 Keener, 107. "Some teachers purportedly even required long periods of silence from their pupils [both male and female], probably as a form of moral discipline."

5 The translation "prominent among the apostles" is not quite exact enough: "the evidence in the early church is that everyone translated this expression as 'prominent apostles' among the first generation of Christians." See Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 180.

6 The single female deacon of the Church, Phoebe, is commended by the apostle Paul to those in Rome (Rom. 16:1-2). The Greek word for deacon, διάκονον, is the same word used at 1 Timothy 3:8, an office which complementarians insist belongs to males only. If so, then we have found an overt, explicit contradiction in Scripture. Many scholars are convinced that the office of deacon describes a ministry of God's word. Note one of Paul's qualifications for the deacon: "they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience." (1 Tim. 3:9) Dr. McKnight concludes: "At some level Phoebe was a 'minister.' She was also significant. When Paul asks the church at Rome to 'receive her,' he surely has in mind that they are to roll out a red carpet of hospitality -- the way they do for 'saints.'" (McKnight, 183) Most think that Phoebe is a courier for this letter to the believers at Rome; and since the couriers are responsible for reading and explaining the letter to the churches, she most likely performs this task -- a task which includes her teaching men.

7 Regarding female teacher Prisca, or Priscilla, Dr. McKnight underscores the fact that she is "almost always named before her husband, leading many to think she was the leading light when it came to this ministry." (cf. Acts 18:18, 19, 26; Rom. 16:3; 2 Tim. 4:19) McKnight, 182.

8 J. Lee Grady, 10 Lies the Church Tells Women: How the Bible Has Been Misused to Keep Women in Spiritual Bondage (Lake Mary: Charisma House, 2006), 140.

9 Reggie M. Kidd, "1 Timothy," in The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary, 1459. This is learned, notes Kidd, from the literature of Seneca, Plutarch, Epictetus, and Philo. Also taken into consideration are statues, frescoes, and coins.

10 Keener, 112.

11 "In either case, we should notice that Paul did not employ his usual term for 'the normal exercise of authority' (exousia). He chose an unusual word (authenteō) that could carry negative connotations such as 'to usurp or misappropriate authority' or 'to domineer.' The unusual term probably signifies an unusual situation. In the Ephesian context at least, women had misappropriated authority by taking upon themselves the role of teacher." Philip H. Towner, 1-2 Timothy and Titus: The IVP New Testament Commentary Series; ed. Grant R. Osborne (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1994), 77. This Greek word is treated in fuller detail in Kroeger and Kroeger, 87-98.

12 Richard Clark Kroeger and Catherine Clark Kroeger, I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), 161-70.

13 Grady, 140. See also Kroeger and Kroger, 153-60.

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.