Jon Zens kindly sent me for review a copy of his book What’s With Paul & Women? Unlocking the Cultural Background to 1 Tim 2 (Ekklesia Press, 2010).
Zens starts his book with a quotation dated 1709 from a vicar of Dedham in Essex, UK, teaching (in fact quoting KJV) that women should learn in silence. So it is fitting that I write from Essex to examine Zens’ argument against that position as traditionally understood.
The book is a brief one – barely 60 pages of large print in its eleven chapters, and another 40 or so (of pages without numbers!) in three appendices (which I have not yet read). It is largely concerned with just two verses in the Bible, 1 Timothy 2:11-12.
In chapter 1 Zens shows how the New Testament as a whole views women. He notes how Jesus went completely against his culture by allowing women to travel with him, and put no restrictions on what they could do. He describes how women like Phoebe, Priscilla and Junia were church leaders. He makes a good point that “Jezebel” in Revelation 2:20 is not condemned for being a women teacher, but for being a false teacher. Thus, Zens writes,
The general flow of the New Testament reveals no need for females to walk on eggshells because of any alleged “restrictions” put upon them by the Lord. (p.32)
In the very brief chapter 2 Zens explains the purpose of the letter:
1 Timothy is not a universal church manual for a pastor. It is a mandate for an apostolic assistant to deal with serious issues involving false teaching in Ephesus. (p.34)
In chapter 3 Zens discusses the background to his passage in 1 Timothy 2. He notes how the same Greek word hesuchia is used in verse 2 as well as in verses 11 and 12 and so cannot mean “silence”. (Actually in verse 2 the Greek word is the adjective hesuchios, but the underlying meaning is surely the same.) Thus Zens sees the thrust of the chapter as teaching to avoid the kind of disorder that was common in Ephesus.
In chapter 4 Zens brings in the cultural background of Ephesus, with the strong influence of the Temple of Artemis. He claims that the women of Ephesus sought favour from Artemis “by donning and presenting expensive attire and ornate hair” (p.40, quoting Frank Ames). He sees Paul’s instructions to Timothy in verse 9 as in deliberate contrast.
In chapter 5 Zens shows in more detail that hesuchia in 2:11,12 does not mean silence, despite the KJV rendering. It is somewhat ironic that he quotes Leland Ryken in support of his point that some people wrongly assume that their preferred Bible translation is “completely accurate and trustworthy”. Zens then looks at the word “submission” in 2:11, and notes that this is not a requirement only for women, as elsewhere in the New Testament all Christians are taught to submit to one another. Then he notes that women are told to learn – a surprising point in the cultural context. Unfortunately he compromises his logical argument in this chapter by twice digressing into polemics.
Chapter 6 is also something of a digression from the main discussion as Zens describes “Post-Apostolic Mistreatment of Women”. His approach is summarised in his first sentence:
The retrogression that occurred with reference to women in the post-apostolic age can be compared to what happened in other doctrinal and practical areas. (p.53)
Zens suggests that Paul’s words about men as the “head” were misunderstood in terms of the mind-body dualism of classical Greek philosophy. Thus he distinguishes the apostle’s teaching from that of the church fathers, and indeed from that of much of the church through the ages up to today.
In chapter 7 Zens returns to the exegesis of 1 Timothy 2:12. He argues that Paul’s words which he renders “I am not now permitting…” are to be understood not as a command but as a shift in strategy in response to false teaching. He then moves on to the double infinitive construction, and cites Philip Payne in support of an understanding that
Paul in this Ephesian situation where some women were propagating error does not want them to teach with the purpose or goal of getting their way with [or dominating] a man. (pp.65-66, parenthesis as in Zens’ text)
Concerning the infamous infinite authentein Zens, citing Linda Belleville, writes that the word
simply does not have the meaning “exercise authority over.” (p.68)
He then looks at Jesus’ teaching on authority, and concludes from it that
we must rid ourselves of the traditional idea that some kind of inherent authority resides in the position of “teacher” [or, in our day, “preacher”]. (p.69, parenthesis as in Zens’ text)
This of course completely undermines the understanding of 2:12 as teaching that women must not be in such positions of authority.
In chapter 8 Zens moves on to verse 13 of 1 Timothy 2, and sees Paul’s teaching that Adam came first as polemic against the teaching of the Artemis cult that the female came first. In chapter 9 Zens discusses verse 14 and notes close parallels with Revelation 2:20-24, suggesting that this verse is Paul’s teaching against a specific woman false teacher.
In chapter 10 Zens attempts to meet the objection that he is not upholding this passage as “timeless gospel truth”. He points out that all the New Testament letters are in response to specific local issues, and that they all have to be interpreted in the light of their cultural contexts.
Zens sums up his argument in chapter 11, and concludes that
to use 1 Timothy 2:11-15 as a basis to completely silence the sisters in Christian assemblies is hardly an accurate way to handle Scripture. It uses one context to cancel out the revelation of many others. … those who persist in using 1 Timothy 2:11-15 as a means of subordinating women in the body of Christ may be guilty of continuing in and perpetuating a false teaching. (pp.89-90)
Strong words! Has Zens justified them? He makes no claim to have done original research for this book. Rather, he writes of his own method that
in most cases I am just calling attention to some foundational points others have unearthed through diligent research. (p.43)
The book comes across as based on a clear but not very detailed exegetical discussion of the verses, based on a variety of sources. This was then expanded to be thick enough for a kind of book by adding some extraneous polemics, and matter from church history, also the appendices. Although the subtitle is “Unlocking the Cultural Background…” this background is in fact only a minor theme.
The arguments made in this book and good and thorough for a popular presentation, although not rigorous enough to convince scholars. I also doubt if it would convince those initially opposed to Zens’ conclusions, not least because the polemics in chapter 5 would alienate them. But this book will be helpful to those who are unsure of their own opinions, and for those who tend to share Zens’ position but want good material to back it up in argument with others.
I don’t think I would go quite as far as Zens in using the provocative words “false teaching”. But he is right to conclude that this passage in 1 Timothy cannot properly be used to stop otherwise well qualified people from active service in the church just because they are women.