The taped woman in the meme:
On the representation of the woman in the meme scholar & Professor of Philosophy Tim McGrew comments: “Even on the traditional interpretation of the passage [where women are not permitted to speak], women are not supposed to have their mouths closed with electrical tape (as the meme suggests); they are simply not to have teaching roles in the church” (via personal correspondence). That is a far cry from the alleged abuse skeptics, as presented in this meme, wish for us to believe. Another scholar, Schreiner, in an analysis of this passage comments that the author is not commanding “absolute silence but rather a gentle and quiet demeanor is intended.” (4)
The Apostle Paul is so sexist!
Firstly, we must be cognisant that the majority of scholars do not hold that 1 Timothy was actually written by him, although many have argued for Pauline authorship – Howard Marshall would be worth consulting on the issue. Nevertheless, according to New Testament Foundations (our class coursework for New Testament Studies) this epistle is considered “inauthentic, at best a later and derivative testimony to genuine Pauline theology” (1). In other words, it was probably attributed to Paul by one of his followers. Attributing a letter to a significant person (as Paul was in 1st century Christianity) who did not actually author it was a common technique in the 1st century, and the letter was subsequently “accepted and cited as genuinely Pauline by early Christian writers.”
The biblical context.
The author is writing with an immediate problem in mind, usually in the form of disturbances in worship services within the early church. These disturbances threatened unity and may also have reflected a disregard for biblical and cultural distinctions between men and women. These disruptions by the women included inquiring about the meaning of prophecies (1 Cor 14:33-35) and teaching men (1 Tim 2:11-12). Again via personal correspondence with Tim McGrew, who is familiar with the exegesis of New Testament Professor Craig Keener, comments:
“Craig Keener in The Bible Background Commentary, suggests that several factors are in play. First, it would appear that the women in this congregation were erring more severely than the men, and in ways that could bring reproach upon Christianity because they were culturally inappropriate. Their external adornments were causing problems for the men (verses 9-10). Culturally, both inside and outside of Palestine, women were far less likely to be literate in men, and they only rarely had any training in philosophy, rhetoric, or law. False teachers were exploiting the relative ignorance of women to spread their errors among them. (Keener mentions 1 Tim 5:13 and 2 Tim 3:6 in this connection.)”
However, we shall briefly touch on below that women did indeed play a role in the Bible & within the early church.
The 1st century context.
We must likewise be cognisant that 1st century Judaism was a very patriarchal society where women played little role and were of little significance. In other words, throughout the Old Testament and into the New Testament God had to make use of a non-ideal situation to bring about his redemptive purposes – this is most clear when we see God’s ideal creation of man and woman in Genesis as equal, mutually compatible persons, however, the fall into sin ruined this ideal.
The Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, perhaps our most significant source for scholars to understand and make sense of 1st century Judaism, informs us that: “A woman, it [the law] says, is inferior to a man in all respects. So, let her obey, not that she may be abused, but that she may be ruled; for God has given power to the man.” Later Flavius would write: “But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.” So not only were women seen as inferior to men but their testimony in a court of law was not even permitted! One writer says: “That Paul wants Christian women to learn is an important point, for such a practice was not generally encouraged by the Jews” (3). So, could the author’s words: “Let a woman learn in silence…” represent a moral improvement in the context of 1st century Judaism? Very possibly.
I think with this in mind we can better understand that this verse may well be representative of 1st century patriarchal views towards women. Again, we must bear in mind that our New Testament (in which we find 1 Tim) is first and foremost a historical document that is representative of cultural, social etc. backgrounds and is certainly influenced by that.
“I permit no woman to ….”
Additionally, we ought to be aware that the author of this epistle claims to speak on his own authority. It is therefore possible that this verse in question is representative of the author’s mind-set, after all much of scripture allows for an author to express himself (read any of the Psalms – for example, Psalm 137:9 has our psalmist so distraught that he wishes death upon the infants of his enemies after successfully invading Israel). In other words, the author is of the opinion that women are not to exercise authority over men. Again, throughout scripture one finds many occasions where less than ideal situations are recorded (think the Old Testament’s moral progress in actually creating laws to protect slaves in their society unlike the other surrounding ANE cultures etc.). It is also entirely possible that the author is stating his policy for churches within his control, and that may imply that such an instruction is relevant to his church only, however, we cannot know for certain.
How Christianity has actually elevated women:
To be fair (which is often a task beyond the grasp of many skeptics) to Christianity we ought to have a more holistic view when it comes to women in the Bible. In other words, what do we find beyond our passage in question?
We find that Christianity, according to Sue Bohlin, was “The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Women” (5). Jesus himself bucked 1st century views on women, according to Schmidt: “The extremely low status that the Greek, Roman, and Jewish woman had for centuries was radically affected by the appearance of Jesus Christ. His actions and teachings raised the status of women to new heights, often to the consternation and dismay of his friends and enemies. By word and deed, he went against the ancient, taken-for-granted beliefs and practices that defined woman as socially, intellectually, and spiritually inferior.” (6)
On one occasion Jesus had a conversation with a Samaritan woman (John 4) in public even though the rabbinic oral law condemned this: “He who talks with a woman [in public] brings evil upon himself.” Further, some Jesus’ closest friends were women such as Mary and Martha – these two allowed Jesus into their home (Luke 10:38-42). Schmidt goes on to say that Jesus “violated the rabbinic law of his day [about speaking to women]” (p. 102/3). Even some of Jesus’ followers were women, as reported by the synoptic gospels. For example, we see that Joanna the wife of Cuza (Herod’s household manager) and Susanna provided material support for Jesus (Luke 8:3). The first people Jesus physically appeared to after his resurrection were women of whom he instructed to tell the disciples that he was alive (Matthew 28, John 20). In a culture where a woman’s testimony was worthless (as shown by Josephus) Jesus elevated the value of women beyond anything the world had seen at that time.
In reference to the Apostle Paul, Sue Bohlin continues: “The apostle Paul is often accused of being a misogynist, one who hates and fears women. But Paul’s teachings on women reflect the creation order and high value God places on women as creatures made in his image. Paul’s commands for husbands and wives in Ephesians 5 provided a completely new way to look at marriage: as an earthbound illustration of the spiritual mystery of the union of Christ and His bride, the church. He calls wives to not only submit to their husbands as to the Lord, but he calls husbands to submit to Christ (1 Cor. 11:3). He calls men to love their wives in the self-sacrificing way Christ loves the church. In a culture where a wife was property, and a disrespected piece of property at that, Paul elevates women to a position of honor previously unknown in the world.”
When we are aware that women had no place and no voice in worship within the Jewish synagogue, it is quite significant that Paul allowed the church to be a place for women to pray and prophecy out loud (1 Cor. 11:5). Furthermore, spiritual gifts were given to women as well as men, and as Bohlin concludes: “As a result of Jesus Christ and His teachings, women in much of the world today, especially in the West, enjoy more privileges and rights than at any other time in history.”
So, when we maintain a more holistic and fair view of what the Bible teaches we begin to see an altogether different picture emerge than what skeptics want us to believe. Would it be considered a fair analysis to focus solely on one text at the expense of all the others? I don’t think so.
Influential women in the Bible:
It is worth noting that women held influential positions in the Bible. For instance, in the Old Testament we find that Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah are significant people that God used for special purposes. Deborah (Judges 4) was given authority as a prophetess and judge while Esther was a queen. Esther was a Jewish woman who was selected by the Persian King Ahasuerus to be his wife (Esther 1-8). Arguably one of the most God fearing & loving of mother’s was that of Hannah (1 Samuel 1) who dedicated her child to God. Her child was raised in the temple and grew up to be Samuel – one of the most influential and godly men in the Bible. Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute, was spared from God’s judgement on the city of Jericho, and was portrayed as an ancestor to Jesus (Matthew 1:5). Abigail (1 Samuel 25) demonstrated much wisdom and generosity. She would go on to save her family from death and was miraculously delivered from an evil husband. She was given a godly husband in his place, and she stands as one of the truly virtuous women in the Bible. We see bravery displayed by Miriam (Exodus 2) as she assists her brother Moses by helping him to be raised in Pharaoh’s household, despite Pharaoh decreeing that all infants were to be slaughtered. Miriam had put herself at risk to defend the defenceless.
Lois and Eunice in the New Testament (2 Timothy 1) are seen as diligent students of God’s Word. Mary, the mother of Jesus, demonstrated much humility. In Luke, Mary was alleged to have said: “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (1:38) thus proving to be a role model for men and women of faith. Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, is another key character. Her very named means “God’s promise/God is generous.” Of her child, John the Baptist, Jesus would allegedly say that: “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matt 11:11). The Old Testament woman Ruth, a Moabite, is worth noting for her humility and love towards the Lord (see: Ruth 1:16-17). A woman by the name of Priscilla was a pillar of the early church in Jerusalem. Aquila and Priscilla were both tentmakers like Paul (Acts 18:1-3) and went on Paul’s missionary trip to Syria (Acts 18:18), and they both risked their lives for the gospel message. According to Paul they were his “fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life” (Rom 16:3). Dorcas did good works and charitable deeds because she was a Christian (Acts 9:36-42). Mary Magdalene was a prominent disciple and follower of Christ even up to his death on the cross. She was also one of the first to be a witness to Jesus’ resurrection. That Jesus would choose to appear to women before his male disciples is significant since their testimony was worthless within the context of 1st century Judaism.
This list could extend on further. Notable examples would further include the likes of Bathsheba, Rebekah, Elizabeth, Zipporah, Martha etc.
Worst case scenario:
Now, back to the meme: what is at stake for Christianity in hindsight of the meme? Certainly not its authenticity based on the resurrection of Christ as an event of history. Perhaps one could argue that Christianity is abusive towards women. On an intellectual level I would then be tempted to simply ask: “So what?” The skeptic still has an empty tomb to explain, he also has to explain away Jesus’ post-mortem appearances, the disciples conviction and willingness to die for their proclamation of the risen Christ. The skeptic has to have an alternative explanation as to why Paul, who previously slaughtered Christians, converted to Christianity after his radical encounter of Jesus. Likewise, the skeptic has to account for the radical conversion of Jesus’ previously doubting brother, James. What about the undeniable, on historical grounds, supernatural aspect of Jesus’ ministry? The skeptic has a lot to explain, but if he would rather focus on a single verse from 1 Timothy then that’s alright. But then the skeptic shouldn’t wonder why Christians can remain stable in their belief that Christianity is well grounded on the truth of Jesus’ resurrection.
- Stegmann, R. 2015. New Testament Foundations. p. 117.
- Barclay, J. 2007. Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary, Volume 10: Against Apion. p. 284.
- Moo, D. What Does It Mean Not to Teach or Have Authority Over Men? in John Piper and Wayne Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (1991).
- Schreiner, T. 2005. Women in the Church. p. 98.
- Bohlin, S. 2010. Christianity: The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Women. Available: https://bible.org/article/christianity-best-thing-ever-happened-women
- Schmidt, A. 2001. How Christianity Changed the World.