Ah, 1 Timothy 2…the foundation of most debates concerning women in ministry. It is here where Paul tells women to...shut it.
Why does he do it?
Well, let's back up for a second, as a lot of critical issues go into this text...including: literary context, grammar, history, and culture. I’d love to get into each of these, (and perhaps eventually I will) but for the sake of time, I’ll focus specifically on cultural context.
Timothy, whom we ascribe as the recipient of this letter (hence the title) was the leader of the church at Ephesus. Location is important within the context of culture, as we all know. For example, a letter addressed to a church in Los Angeles, California would be very different in cultural climate compared to a letter written to a church in Machamba, Mozambique (or even the difference between a letter written to a huge city-church in L.A. from a letter written to a small-town, rural church in Oregon).
So a little bit about Ephesus:
Ephesus was the capital of the province of Asia. One of the main things it was known for was its devotion to the goddess Artemis. Her temple came in second in regards to the seven wonders of the ancient world; it was four times the size of the Parthenon in Athens! Many people would travel from all over the world to Ephesus to pay their respects to the goddess, as well as learn about the origin of life. On top of this, many people’s incomes revolved around Artemis worship, as we can see in the narrative of Acts (19:26–28). Verse 27 even states, “The whole province of Asia—indeed, the entire civilized world—worships her…” In the Acts narrative, the city’s silversmiths, who generated a ton of profit from making silver models of Artemis’s temple became angry with Paul because he had been going around saying that gods made by human hands weren’t actually a thing. Because of this, the silversmiths were losing business and naturally, became angry. This led to a city-wide riot that forced Paul out of Ephesus. The angry mob of people chanted (for two whole hours), “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:28). Clearly, (as we see within Scripture itself) Artemis was a really big deal.
So what was this Artemis cult all about?
Well, first of all, the Artemis cult was female-led. Artemis was believed to be the Mother Goddess—the source of life, the one who nourished all creatures, and the power of fertility in nature. Maidens turned to her as the protector of their virginity, barren women sought her aid, and women in labor turned to her for help in childbearing. It was believed that Artemis was the child of Zeus and Leto and the sister of Apollo. Artemis came to be called the goddess of childbearing because she helped her mother deliver her twin brother. She also sought the company of a human male partner, instead of her own kind. Thus, making Artemis (and the rest of her female adherents) superior to men. Because of the belief of female-superiority, the Artemis cult also taught that evil was brought forth by man, as he was the one deceived in the Creation account.
Now that we have a bit of background, let’s take a look at the passage at hand:
“In the same way, I want women to enhance their appearance with clothing that is modest and sensible, not with elaborate hairstyles, gold, pearls, or expensive clothes. They should make themselves attractive by doing good, which is appropriate for women who claim to honor God. A woman should learn quietly with complete submission. I do not allow a woman to teach or to control a man. Instead, she should be a quiet listener. Adam was formed first, and then Eve. Adam wasn’t deceived, but rather his wife became the one who stepped over the line because she was completely deceived. But women will be brought safely through childbirth, if they both continue in faith, love, and holiness, together with self-control.” 1 Timothy 2:9-17
While non-egalitarians use this passage to promote male hierarchy, most don’t comment much on that last verse concerning child-bearing, as it makes absolutely no sense without proper cultural context…
So let’s use some of what we now know about the culture at that time to connect the dots and make sense of Paul’s instruction.
Greg Hoag offers some incredible insight in his book on the worshippers of Artemis. In fact, his research mostly stemmed from Ephesiaca—a novel written by Xenophon of Ephesus around the year 50 AD (which happens to be around the same time Paul was in Ephesus). In the novel, Xenophon of Ephesus talks about cultic activity associated with wealth, and specific things women used to show their piety to the goddess Artemis—namely, dress codes and hairstyle. This is significant, as it links directly to the first instruction Paul gives to women in 1 Timothy 2:9. You see, worshippers of Artemis would ordain themselves with gold and pearls as to flaunt their wealth, as well as wear their hair in a certain way that imitated the goddess, in order to show their commitment and express their worship. This is exactly what Paul is addressing in the text—telling the Christian women to NOT adorn themselves with expensive clothing and hairstyles (associated with Artemis), but to adorn themselves modestly, with good deeds, to show their piety toward God.
Hoag also explains that women worshipped the goddess daily in the temple precincts through incantation and reciting of prayers. They were to be assertive, competitive, vocal, and well versed in their religion. Besides reciting prayers, they were to serve piously and compete fiercely to attain various religious roles linked to their adornment and activities. Hoag explains that the women aggressively promoted the Artemis myth, which alleged that the goddess, the woman, was the author of man. He suggests that this explains the use of the word αὐθεντεῖν in verse 12, which translates to “to usurp authority.” Women during this time were going around saying that they were superior to men and doing so in such a way as to promote heresy. What Paul is addressing in his prohibition on teaching in this passage is heresy and false doctrine (this is consistent with the introduction in the first chapter of 1 Timothy, as Paul opens the letter with a warning against false teachers). As Hoag puts it, “Women must cease propagating the heresy that promoted the woman as the usurper of authority from man, the woman as the originator of man, and that man was the one deceived in the creation account.”
Lastly, Paul’s final word about childbearing fits perfectly in the context of Artemis as the goddess of childbearing. You see, women received heavy social pressure if they didn’t remain loyal to the goddess. The consequence for unfaithfulness was—you guessed it—death during childbirth. Among the women that Paul is addressing in the congregation at Ephesus were converts from this cult to Christianity. These women feared being in danger of vengeance (in the form of death) from the goddess for serving God instead. What makes this text so beautiful is that Paul is offering them hope and freedom, reassuring them that they will indeed be brought safely through childbirth (vs. 17).
So in conclusion, the cultural context of 1Timothy is rich and robust. The words offered in this passage in regards to women are, on the one hand, words of instruction concerning their old way of life, yet on the other hand, words of hope and freedom concerning the practice of their new way of life.
Paul is saying to these women that they don’t have to dress to impress, belittle and oppress the opposite gender, or fear for their lives. Instead, they can walk in the joy found in Jesus, as he relieves them from all of that and brings freedom, hope and the opportunity to engage in worship mutually and liberally with men and with each other.
What a joy this is! May we read and savor Scripture in the truth that it was intended, because wow, what a difference it makes!