Review: What's with Paul and Women?

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.

12 thoughts on “Review: What's with Paul and Women?

  1. “Let a woman learn in quietness, in entire submissiveness. I allow no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to remain in quietness and keep silence [in religious assemblies].

    1 Timothy 2:11-12 (Amplified Bible)

    This was a very good post on a very good blog that deserves more readers and more comments as well! Thanks for your effort at making this blog worthwhile reading!

    As for my opinion, I attend a spirit-filled church where people speak and share whenever they choose to, regardless of their gender, so… we don’t feel the need to apply ancient cultural opinions from the period of “classical antiquity” to our lives today, even when those opinions can be found in the Bible! 🙂

  2. Thank you, Michael. I wouldn’t agree that we can ignore what the Bible really teaches, but we can ignore what it doesn’t in fact teach. The word hesuchia does not mean both “quietness” and “silence” as the Amplified Bible seems to suggest. But don’t get me on to what I think of that version. Well, perhaps I will post on that sometime, but probably not while I am in America.

  3. Thank you Peter for this. Sometimes, we do indeed need apologetics for a point of view and do not always have the time or the ability to delve exegetically into some of the specifics of the Greek grammar, nor do people always want to hear it so I think Zens has probably produced a helpful book from the sounds of things summarising much of the thinking. Thank you for your review. I will point my readers’ attention to it.

  4. Peter, you’re very welcome. I would agree that we ought not ignore what Truth teaches us, but as far as the Bible is concerned, we first need to determine if what the Bible teaches on a particular narrow topic is, in fact, true. If we determine that what it teaches on a particular topic is actually not true, then we ought not to follow what it teaches. However, I would never choose the word “ignore” to describe what I’m talking about here.

  5. Michael, assuming you are a Christian (you refer to attending a church), I am somewhat shocked at your comments. You seem to be saying that you are in authority over the word of God, and in fact is you that decides before hand whether what the bible teaches is true. If that is indeed the case then I can’t see how the scriptures can ever powerfully witness to you, and challenge you, as you will pay no heed to them unless you decide by some other means that what they teach is true.

    Our task as faithful Christians is to first read the scriptures, and then let that form our understanding of God’s truth. The other way round robs the scriptures of the power to transform us and speak to us via the Holy Spirit, and reduces the bible to nothing but a bunch of proof texts to be waved around whenever it happens to support out own cherished beliefs.

    Hopefully you weren’t saying the above, unfortunately that is how it came across!

  6. Alastair, thanks very much for responding to my post! Yes, I am a christian. I hope that you will reply to this post as well, so that we can get a dialogue going. You said,

    “Our task as faithful Christians is to first read the scriptures, and then let that form our understanding of God’s truth. The other way round robs the scriptures of the power to transform us and speak to us via the Holy Spirit.”

    What if I said,

    “Our task as faithful __________ is to first read the scriptures, and then let that form our understanding of God’s truth. The other way round robs the scriptures of the power to transform us and speak to us via __________.”

    If any sect or any other religion fills in the blanks, what is it that makes your statement true and all their statements false? And how do you know that?

    Example: “Our task as faithful Mormons is to first read the scriptures, and then let that form our understanding of God’s truth. The other way round robs the scriptures of the power to transform us and speak to us via the Holy Ghost.”

  7. Michael and Alastair, thank you for this interesting discussion.

    Michael, I think the difference between you and Alastair is that he presupposes that the Christian Bible is the authoritative word of God (and that other religious writings are not), but you do not. This is of course an issue which needs to be settled before such a debate can get very far. But the way to make progress is not “to determine if what the Bible teaches on a particular narrow topic is, in fact, true” as we can never do this on each narrow topic. Instead we need to determine its general truthfulness and move on from there.

  8. This kind of discussion shows what a minefield the issue can be. We found similar problems when deeply investigating the interpretation of the Pericope Adulterae (PA), John 7:53-8:11 (the Woman Taken in Adultery), a passage you posted on recently.

    We found one must carefully distinguish what we want the text to say from what it actually says, in its contexts (literary and historical/religious). For instance, O’Day wrote an important piece on the PA, which criticised previous commentators for ignoring the text and reading nomism into it, but was found guilty herself of reading backward into the text anachronistic feminist ideas supporting her own agenda:

    We showed that a careful read of the text does not show Jesus in a positive light in regard to sexual equality and other issues. On the contrary, we found that the best commentary was an eclectic selection of the best points that each of many commentators have said throughout some 600 years of discussion of the passage:

    This goes to show just how difficult the problem of good interpretation is, and how thorough you have to be to find gold.


  9. Peter, thanks much for your comment! Let’s continue this conversation when you have completed your travels and you have the time to post your thoughts. My first Q for you when you get back is,

    You wrote, “we need to determine [the Bible’s] general truthfulness and move on from there.” How could any given individual “determine the Bible’s general truthfulness”? I don’t see how any individual, or even any group of individuals, could do that.

  10. It is very straight forward what 1 timothy 2 is saying…it isn’t hard to understand at all, even children would understand this…no problem…its because today it doesn’t fit the culture so we Chinese whisper the word of God away so that it fits what we want it to say.

    It can’t be actually saying that women are not to share in the assembly because then the following would make no sense. *Lets put context with co-text so that we don’t end up with a pretext*

    1 cor 14:26 What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up

    Acts 21:8-9 On the next day we departed and came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied.

    We see here that Philips daughters prophesied.

    So what does it mean that they are to keep silent and not have authority over the men…lets just put it again here

    12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.

    It means that the direction of the church is steered by male eldership. Women are not to be overseers of the whole congregation – co-text…found in the very next chapter 1 tim 3:

    The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, >he>the husband<< of one wife

    They are not to hold positions of authority that steer the church (they are not to be overseers). This does not mean that women cannot share and speak in the congregations (as in 1 cor 14 explaining) – it simply means they cannot be overseers in the church.

    You can twist this all you like, do what you want with it…it simply means that…I know that is hard for women today to accept but that is the biblical way authorised and set forth by God because Eve was the first to be deceived as again state in 1 tim 2…its amazing how Paul stresses this before then giving the other characteristics of an overseer (besides being male) – Paul stresses that fact that eldership is male (overseers are male).

    Hate it all you want. The problem is that we don't like to accept this today – and it isn't going to make a blind bit of difference what I say (or the bible) so go ahead and do what you want to do … you have your bibles and you know what it is saying…I won't judge you, the word of God will. I am not being judgemental…its the age we are living in and Paul said this would happen – a great falling away from the faith and truths of the bible before the return of Christ. So yeah, today is just living up to prophesy that was given by Paul so who is going to stop the spirit of the age – God as ordained this to happen, who am I to argue this – just make sure that you are not taking part in it!

    Please, before sending me vehement emails – I am only quoting scripture to you, the word of God. It can also be said that Men or not leading by example today but leading with a heavy hand (something which is not scriptural – leadership is always by example – as Christ did).

    Look at it this way. Marriage is (the) number one type of Christ and the church. The male represents the Christ as headship in the house and should lead with gentleness, love and example…even though the male has strength it is to be used with strength in gentleness for his bride…like Christ was with the church.

    The female represents the church and is to lookup to the male the same way the church looks up to Christ…not as a domineering husband but as the husband who gave his life for her so that she could live forever. Any man who is dominating his household with power and might is not of the Spirit of Christ.

    So it works both ways…The men need to become Christ like in order to be "leaders" and the women need to honor and love their husbands as the church loves Christ.

    (Again I am only quoting scripture – Read Ephesians 5)

    That said – we need to have a biblical return to 1 corinthians 14 when the members of the congregation all had a change to contribute to the assembler (overseen by the overseers to keep order) instead of one man giving a sermon week in and week out without anyone ever getting chance to talk and learn from one another.

  11. Thank you, Colin. I wish the issue was as simple as you make out, but it is not. There are other verses which you could have chosen which contradict your picture. For example, I agree with you that “we need to have a biblical return to 1 corinthians 14”, but then what do we do about verse 34, which appears to contradict 11:5 as well as you example of Philip’s prophesying daughters? Sadly we cannot take the New Testament as a collection of proof texts, but we have to consider more complex questions of what the author was intending by what he wrote in each passage.

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