Paul and the “Silent” Women in 1 Timothy 2

Three women friends and a peace sign

I want to follow up on a comment I made in last week’s post about Beth Moore and the mistreatment of women ministers in evangelical circles.

I wrote that one of the things that was said to diminish women was that Eve was “last in Creation and first in the Fall.”

I want to dig into that statement a little further because I think it illustrates something about the misuse of the Bible.

The biblical support for the statement comes from 1 Timothy 2:13-14, but of course it has a context. Look at what Paul says in the preceding verses.

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. (1 Tim. 2:11-14 NRSV, emphasis mine)

At first glance this would seem to undermine my support of women in ministry and in fact to support the “last in Creation, first in Fall” crowd, so much so that a lot of scholars question whether this letter actually comes from Paul.

It does make you wonder how Paul could write such a thing when he clearly had high regard for the women who were his partners in ministry—Phoebe as a deacon in the church, Junia as an apostle—and his ministry was spent tearing down barriers between people, not supporting or erecting them.

Whenever I encounter some inconsistency like this I usually suspect some issue with interpretation and/or with translation, and both are at play here. The major factor, however, seems to be some erroneous assumptions, imposing our cultural norms on the Bible. Not surprisingly, N.T. Wright is the most helpful in understanding Paul and his meaning in this passage.

First, Paul notes that Adam was formed first, then Eve. Note our assumptions here—Adam was first, therefore he is in a superior position to Eve and has authority over her. All that firstborn son stuff, right?

In the Bible, however, the firstborn is continually usurped and ends up in an inferior position. Abel’s sacrifice is favored over Cain’s, Ishmael is rejected for Isaac, little brother Jacob receives the blessing from Isaac that should have gone to firstborn Esau.

Judah is Jacob’s fourth son, yet firstborn Reuben is demoted while Judah is promoted—”…your father’s sons shall bow down before you.” (Genesis 49:8) Joseph is second only to Pharaoh in all of Egypt and he is Jacob’s eleventh-born.

Being first, even in Creation, isn’t necessarily a good thing. If Paul is doing anything, he’s lifting Eve above Adam, not the other way around. This is in keeping with his statement that the men should leave the women alone and let them study in peace.

That’s another assumption we make, that Paul is telling the women to be quiet. It appears, rather, that he’s telling the men to shut up so the women can get some serious studying done.

Note also that he doesn’t actually say Eve was first in the Fall but rather that she had to be deceived into sin while Adam fell willingly and knowingly into it.

Adam is thick-skulled hairy and hungry Esau selling his birthright—“Me not eat birthright. Esau hungry! Esau want porridge!”—while Eve was simply outwitted by the serpent.

Adam had the brawn, Eve had the brains, just not enough to overcome the wily serpent.

So, Paul says, let the women study in peace. Let them gain more and more wisdom. If we leave them uneducated—as was the usual lot of girls in the 1st century—we leave them vulnerable to slick-tongued deceivers.

Let them learn in silence—stop bothering them!—he says, and let them learn with full submission. Notice how we assume Paul means “submission to their husbands,” and/or “their male teachers,” but it is as likely that he means submission to the teachings of Jesus and the Gospel, something that all Christians, male and female alike, need to do.

For Paul, submission is the key to the Christian life, not authority. Jesus is the one with authority and all, male or female, must submit to him. That is why Paul says that he doesn’t permit a woman to have authority over a man.

But he didn’t permit a man to have authority over a woman either!

“Be subject to one another out of reverence to Christ,” he says to husbands and wives in Ephesian 5:21.

The answer to patriarchy isn’t matriarchy, like in some of the pagan temples there in Ephesus. That’s just replacing one system of oppressive authority with another.

The answer is mutual submission, the defining characteristic of the kingdom of God.

Paul is here, as elsewhere, putting men and women on the same footing—each in submission to Christ and in mutual submission to one another as both learners and teachers.

Photo by Omar Lopez on Unsplash

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