Friends met for dinner and we decided to spend the evening looking at family photos. Their six-year-old joined in the fun and after viewing dozens, we asked her which she liked the best. Eagerly she said, “The one with Sarah!” She and Sarah are the same age. Glancing at the photo, none of us noticed Sarah at first. Leaning in however, we found her, peering around her mother’s knee. While adults are not astute at spotting children behind their mother’s leg, six-year-olds know better!
Reading Scripture, we often need new eyes. Like the adults who overlooked the presence of children, we are too often blind to the prominence of women. We repeatedly fail to notice how Scripture honors women leaders who served as evangelists (John 20:17–18; Rom. 16:12; Phil. 4:2–3); deacons (Rom. 16:1–2), teachers (Acts 18:24–26), house church leaders (Acts 16:13–15, 40; Rom. 16:3–5; Col. 4:15; Philem. 1–2; 2 John 1:1), apostles (Rom.16:7), and prophets (Judges 4:4; 2 Kings 22:14–20; Luke 2:36; 1 Cor. 11:5, 14:5).
Moreover, we are equally blind to how select passages are misinterpreted to obstruct women’s leadership. First Timothy 2:12 is one example. Here, we find Paul writing to his closest coworker, Timothy. Like a US president and a top advisor in the Situation Room, they were managing an emergency in the Ephesian church. Namely, false teachings were proliferating among Ephesian believers (1 Tim. 1:19).
We can better understand this crisis and correctly interpret Paul’s response if we open our eyes to the influence females had in Ephesus. The city was famous for its devotion to the fertility goddess Artemis, whose temple was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Ephesian life centered on Artemis, who accomplished her work without the help of men.
Ephesus is also where, beside Priscilla and her husband Aquila, Paul decided to build a church. In naming Priscilla first, and in telling of Priscilla’s teaching of Apollos, Scripture makes clear that Priscilla, a woman, was a gifted and active leader in the Ephesian church. Why then, would Paul build a church beside a gifted teacher, Priscilla, and later silence women teachers in Ephesus? A better understanding of Artemis of the Ephesians may provide insight.
A woman-centric fertility goddess, Artemis promised her worshippers health and wealth—that their crops and animals would increase and women would be safe in childbirth. Superior to males, Artemis not only lacked a male consort, but her powers of reproduction did not require the assistance of men. A close look at her statue explains why. Her chest is covered with what many scholars believe are male testicles. Always featured with a three-strand necklace comprised of bees, Artemis was queen among male eunuchs.1
In a city of spiritual matriarchs, Paul requires women leaders complicit in the false teachings at Ephesus to learn in silence. To suggest that women should learn was itself radical! Learning correct theology is the antidote to false teachings and thus Paul’s “Situation Room” strategy. He is equipping women not yet qualified to hold authority as teachers to become better theological educators in the tradition of Priscilla.
Significantly, Paul also selects an unusual word for “authority” in 1 Timothy 2:12: authentein. Meaning “to domineer” or “illegitimately usurp authority,” this word exposes the problem at Ephesus. Paul is objecting to the ungodly usurping of authority to propagate lies.
Just as Satan deceived Eve, so too the false teachers in Ephesus were deceiving women and promising them power over men. Thus, Paul asks Ephesian women to learn, as the rabbis learn, with a quiet and receptive spirit so that when they do teach, they will teach truth.
To understand 1 Timothy 2, we need to overcome our blindness to women. We need to see Priscilla, a wise and strong leader and teacher; Artemis, the goddess whose female-centered religion would have normalized female religious dominance; the unqualified women usurping authority and spreading false teachings; and those being deceived by those teachings. Only now does Paul’s intent in this “Situation Room” crisis become clearer. He is not forbidding women’s leadership (remember, Priscilla taught Apollos!), but is forbidding specific women from teaching until they are properly taught the gospel.
Paul practiced what he preached, limiting individuals not because of gender but only as their character and learning needed improving.
- Mark Munn, The Mother of Gods, Athens, and the Tyranny of Asia: A Study of Sovereignty in Ancient Religion (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006).