John Walker's Electronic House

The Bible On Women In Church – An Update

by on Nov.24, 2012, under Rants, The Rest

As was likely, after I wrote my piece on Paul’s thoughts on women in the church, and the twisting of those words to oppress women for millennia since, a few people have suggested some possible errors. I want nothing less than to spread any misinformation, so wanted to update with things I’ve learned since. The rather crucial thing to know is: the facts remain the case. The arguments against women in leadership in the church remain, as I said, theological rubbish.

I should also add that I’m not a scholar. I’m a games journalist. I do have a (first class!) degree in Youth, Community Work & Applied Theology, and while it taught me some basics, it wasn’t exactly hardcore theological studies. I come to this as an amateur, relying on the works of experts, and as such will of course make mistakes, or at least not have learned enough so far.

Thing is: Paul was, unequivocally, in favour of women in leadership, and those who use his words to prevent this are deliberately perverting the clear and unambiguous message that’s prevalent in all of his writing. As I said before, you don’t need to worry about any Greek interpretation, or get into any arguments about the meanings of specific words, to reach this conclusion. Paul openly and deliberately refers to women as apostles, deacons, church leaders, and heads of families running churches. What’s interesting is that from further study, it seems Paul was even more overtly criticising misogynist oppression in the church than I’d ever realised.

It’s those two verses again. 1 Tim 2.12 and 1 Cor 14.34-36. That’s what it always comes down to. And it’s these that I tackled before. However, since some have suggested that I’ve made mistakes in my understanding of the Greek, and that the modern translations are far more representative than I suggested. First of all, when it comes to Greek, I’m certainly in the dark. I have never studied Ancient Greek, and rely on the translations of others, authorities like Strong’s, and the expertise of those I know. It’s from this that the previous arguments were made. I’ve studied further, spoken to more people, and found some extraordinarily revelatory conclusions from one of the most recent and respected translations of the Greek passages, and I’m delighted to reassure that the essence of my arguments were entirely accurate, and if anything I hadn’t gone far enough.

So here are some amendments. First up, 1 Tim 2.12 (NIV):

“I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”

Huge thanks to Andrew de Thierry who points out that in the first seven verses of the chapter, the word for “man” is ἀνθρώπων (anthropos), which means “humankind”, and not “man” as the King James would have it. (The NIV says “mankind”, whereas the more helpfully translated NRSV says the accurate “humankind”.) In verse 8 he then says ἀνθρώπων meaning “men”, then in verses 9 and 10 refers to γυναῖκας, women in the plural. Here he says that women should dress modestly (meaning that their clothes shouldn’t be expensive) and that they should do good works. These are obviously general instructions for women in the church in Ephesus. But by the time we reach verse 11, this changes, and instead of γυναῖκας Paul uses the word γυνή, a woman, in the singular. This continues until verse 14, and then in 15 he returns to γυναῖκας. This chiasm infers a particular focus on the woman, singular, as distinct from the instructions passed on to women generally. And as I discussed in the previous post, Ephesus was home to the Temple of Artemis (where she was thought of slightly differently than the general Greek understanding of the goddess – depicted as a many-breasted woman and symbol of female fertility), and is argued that a particular woman in the church was teaching these values. Paul, it seems, is directly rebuking this woman for what she is teaching.

As for what she was teaching, there lies the other point of contention. I previously said that Paul’s line should be more correctly translated to say, “I do not permit a woman to teach authority over a man, she is to keep silent.” Where it has been suggested I was mistaken was in the understanding of the “or” here. The word is understood to be οὐδέ (oudé), usually meaning either ‘but not’, ‘neither’, ‘nor’, or ‘not even’. It’s a little more complicated, as explained here,

“[It] introduces a statement that is negated factually and deductively. That is, the negation rules out (invalidates) the statement that precedes it, and what naturally extends from it… Regardless of how oudé is translated, it means: If “A” (the preceding statement) isn’t true (valid) – then “B” (which extends from it) is also not valid.”

It appears it creates a link between the two words. Where it gets more interesting is when you look further at what that word “authority” actually is. It’s αὐθεντέω (authenteó). And this is exceptionally rare – so much so that it’s the only time it’s used in the whole of the New Testament, and it’s barely used in contemporary Greek writing. Paul uses the word authority on a number of occasions. Twice he uses the word ἐξουσιάζω (exousiazó), which means to exercise authority over, and is very commonly found in the NT by the gospel writers. Earlier in 1 Tim he uses ὑπεροχή, which also appears in 1 Cor 2.1, meaning authority in the sense of excellence. He also uses ἐπιταγή on a number of occasions in its sense of being instruction, or a command. So why was Paul using a completely unique word in this instance? Why not the word he otherwise would always use when wanting to express authority, ἐξουσιάζω?

One of the most recent and respected translations of the New Testament is The Source New Testament, by Greek scholar (but crucially, not theologian nor Christian) Dr. A Nyland. This takes into account the more recently discovered papyri and inscriptions discovered in the 1970s. Most importantly, the mysterious NT words for which there had been no contemporary comparisons, appeared in these private letters and documents, giving much more understanding, that until now hasn’t been adapted into biblical translations. In fact, our current translations still rest heavily on the so flawed works of 1534 and 1611. Her translation, considered to be far more definitive, translates the passage as follows (emphasis mine):

11 A woman must learn and she is to learn without causing a fuss and be supportive in everything. 12 I most certainly do not grant authority [permit] to a woman to teach that she is the originator of a man.

Not only does this appear to accept the notion that the “teach” relates to the “authenteó”, rather than as two distinct elements, but also quite stunningly changes the meaning of the sentence. With no other use made in the New Testament of authenteó, and its rarity in other Greek writings, it looks like the wrong assumption was made. Contemporary use suggests the word varies in meaning, but is accepted to have meant “murderer” as well as “perpetrator, author”. While the Greek writings tend toward “murderer”, in the papyri it appears 20 times meaning “original” or “originator of”. It isn’t until hundreds of years later that the word means “mastery over”, certainly not in the time that Paul’s letters were written. In context, bearing in mind the heresy of Artemis, it makes much more sense that Paul meant this word in this context.

It’s Nyland’s conclusion that Paul was referring to particular women in this church who had been teachers in the synagogue, who were continuing to be teachers in this new church. She argues he was saying they need to stop teaching and start learning at this point.

So to conclude, there is clearly still discussion to be had, and clearly there is disagreement about exactly what was happening in Ephesus, and why Paul was addressing it. It seems inevitable that a woman, or a small group of women, were teaching heresy, and Paul was addressing this. But what is absolutely clear is that this was not, and never should ever have been understood to be, Paul’s declaration that women should not be teaching or having authority in the church. It is devastating that it was ever interpreted this way.

So to 1 Cor 14.34-36 (NIV):

“34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to enquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. 36 Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?”

I have previously argued that this was likely in a large part due to women in this particular church in Corinth behaving in a disorderly fashion when praying and prophesying. Paul carefully explains that everyone should pray and prophesy in church, giving rules for conduct when doing so, and then seems to madly contradict himself by saying women should be silent, and that their speaking is disgraceful. I talked about how the word σιγάω did not simply mean to be silent, but rather to hold one’s peace. And crucially for this follow-up, I argued that the final line of verse 35, that it was disgraceful for a woman to speak in church, was suggested by the following line to be an ironic declaration of something that simply wasn’t true. This has been contested, saying that the “Or”s at the beginning of those final statements do not do as I suggested, the Wayne’s World “not!”.

For this I’m turning straight to Nyland, and her translation, because it reveals something fascinating. She argues that at this point, v.34-35, Paul is quoting from a letter that has been sent to him by the church in Corinth. This is based on a shift in the type of language used, matching “known Jewish oral law”. And at verse 36 he begins speaking in his own words again, saying,

“Utter rubbish! Did the Word of God come originally from you! Utter rubbish! Were you the only ones that it reached!”

In what is quite a relief to me (I had a rather sleepless night worrying that I’d written a blog post promoting ideas that were simply wrong) this entirely endorses the argument I’ve been taught and had represented. I think it’s easiest to simply quote Nyland’s explanation, both for verses 34-35, and for verse 36.

“This passage has been terribly mistranslated. It has been put in as Paul’s words, instead of a quote, and the following 2 instances of the disjunctive particle “Utter rubbish!” have been deleted.”

She then goes on to give a huge string of references to back this up, that she says provide “evidence that this passage is quoted by Paul, followed by his vehement disagreement with it.” I’ll put them at the end of this for those interested. She then continues,

“The Classical scholar J.M. Holmes (speaking of Paul) states, “He quotes the factional view (which he knows is not generally held), angrily rebukes its proponents, states his own authority, exhorts everyone to be eager to prophesy, and commands that no one forbid anyone to speak in tongues.”

This frees us so much from tangling ourselves over the issues in that Corinthian church. Without the evidence that shows that Paul is quoting, it is perfectly reasonable to infer an issue in this congregation – Paul has been passionately exhorting the right for all to worship and speak in church, and those two passages appear to wildly contradict his entire argument. In those circumstances it makes sense to assume this is about a specifically disruptive group. But with this new information, what was undeniably a hugely confusing outburst makes infinitely more sense.

And indeed, my understanding that the following lines were Paul’s angry rebuking of such notions (I was under the impression that this was specifically about its being “disgraceful” for women to speak in church, but it seems it is the whole of the two verses) seems not to have been wrong as has been argued. Further, my argument that the previous translators have deliberately ignored what they knew to be true by simply deleting crucial elements of Paul’s writing, in order to oppress women, appear accurate. And as such I maintain that modern translations remain deeply at fault.

So to conclude, Paul remains a fascinating man – this most senior authority on the teachings of Christ, writing letters that contained some of the most revolutionary and prejudice-fighting ideas of the time. And yet he has for centuries been considered an oppressor and misogynist, dismissed by so many for apparently contradicting the gospels, when he was in fact teaching quite the opposite. Like Jesus before him, Paul was a radical feminist, and I continue to be impassioned to teach this fact to as many as I can. Paul’s words set women free in a church that had for so long ignored or banned them. That these are the words that have been used to continue women’s ostracising from the church and church leadership is horrific, and brutally wrong.

Here are those references:

D.W. Odell-Scott, “Let the Women Speak in Church. An Egalitarian Interpretation of 1 Cor. 14:33b-36”, Biblical Theology Bulletin Vol. XIII (1983), pp. 90-93.
N.M. Flanagan and E.H. Snyder, “Did Paul Put Women Down in 1 Cor. 14:34-36?” Biblical Theology Bulletin Vol. XI, January 1981, pp. 10-12.
W.C. Kaiser, Jnr., “Paul, Women and the Church,” Worldwide Challenge, September, 1976, pp. 9-12.
J. Harper, Women and the Gospel, G.B.: Pinner, 1974), pp. 14-15.
J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987).
J.A. Anderson, Women’s Warfare and Ministry: What Saith the Scriptures? (Stonehaven: David Waldie, 1933), pp. 20-26.
K.C. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, (Mossville, IL: God’s World to Women Publishers, n.d.)
G. Bilezikian, op.cit, pp. 144-153, 284-5.
J.M. Holmes, op.cit., pp. 229-238.

Pictures stolen from here and here.


7 Comments for this entry

  • Adam

    Love this. When I read 1 Corinthians straight through, I was struck by the disjoint at the start of v34, and if you get a study bible you’ll notice that Paul’s references to the law are referenced back to the OT, except for the one in v34. Good explanation :)

  • Arthur

    John, your most endearing quality is that you are in search of truth, not being right. You wrote a blog post. Some people tell you we’re misinformed on certain aspects and instead of getting snippy you dive in head first to figure out what is most accurate.

    It’s really very impressive.

  • Dave

    This is really well researched. I like that there are still people who genuinely worry when they think they’ve written something wrong.

    With that in mind, though, I’m curious about your opinion of priests, ministers, bishops and church hierarchies in general. Where do you think endorsements for these sorts of insititutions come from? Where in the bible does it condemn/commend that kind of thing?

  • Jack

    This is brilliant John! Thanks so much to you and AdT for researching this! Got to buy me a Source I think.

    Possible typo in the 1 Tim 2 paragraph – was the same Greek word used in v8 as in v1-7? It looks like you’re saying it’s not the same word, but you’ve written ‘Antrhopos’ both times.

  • Stephen

    Good second post.

  • Andrew

    Thanks a lot for these John! Love these as much as your writing over at RPS. Thanks for posting such a great look into the issues. Like you, I’m very grateful for the more scholarly biblical views we’ve gained over the past 50 years. They’ve helped so much in our understanding.

  • Martin Hughes

    Sorry bud, but there is no god. The Bible tells us so.

    God’s plan is so stupid it isn’t worth praise! Create everything, realize what a cock-up it all was, send self down to Earth to realize the cock-up and make amends? Idiocy on a plate.

    What people were talking about 2000 years ago and what they imagined about god is entirely irrelevant. Jesus was a creation after the man’s death, transformed and mutilated to fit a perfect ideal.

    That women can’t be Bishops is stupid beyond belief. The Church has already screwed the pooch on that one by letting them teach. That no one should be preaching lies is another matter entirely.