Archaeology and the Church: Can Archaeology help Answer Questions Dealing with Women in Ministry and the Church?
Women’s roles in church and ministry have been evaluated and debated for some time now. 2000 years after the writings of Paul in the New Testament, and still, theologians and scholars are not quite sure what to make of the passages concerning women’s roles in church and ministry. The passages in question (1 Timothy 2:8-15 and 1 Corinthians 13:34-35), seem cryptic, out of place, and void of context. We as the readers are simply not given enough information as to why Paul adds this prohibition into his letters to Timothy and to the church in Corinth. Could it be possible that there was something going on at Ephesus and Corinth during the time of the early church which led to Paul’s prohibition?
Here are the passages in question:
1 Timothy 2:8-15;
1Tim. 2:8 I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument;
1Tim. 2:9 also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes,
1Tim. 2:10 but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God.
1Tim. 2:11 Let a woman learn in silence with full submission.
1Tim. 2:12 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.
1Tim. 2:13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve;
1Tim. 2:14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.
1Tim. 2:15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
And 1 Corinthians 14:34-35;
1Cor. 14:34 women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says.
1Cor. 14:35 If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.
Historical Context and The Temples at Ephesus and Corinth
Ephesus’ excavations in 1869 (again in 1904) and historical documents by historians, such as Pleny the Elder, confirm that the ancient temple of Artemis (goddess of the hunt, wilderness and wild animals) may be as old as the 7th Century BC and was reconstructed in 550 BC. It was perhaps the first Greek temple created completely with marble. It was destroyed in 356 BC and rebuilt again in 323 BC. The temple itself is considered one of the “7 Wonders of the Ancient World” and consisted of 100, 13m high columns.
The temple of Artemis plays a central role in Paul’s missionary journey to the Ephesians in Acts 19. The text claims that Paul was causing such a commotion in Ephesus that it stirred the citizens into a frenzy, and they gathered at the “Temple of the great goddess, Artemis” chanting and rioting into the night. At risk of his life and others, Paul was forced to leave the city.
Likewise, the city of Corinth was known for its three temples to Aphrodite (the goddess of love, fertility, beauty and pleasure). The main temple of the city was known as the Temple of Aphrodite at Acrocorinth. It has been suggested that the temple was famous for its “temple worship” or “temple prostitution” however the historicity of this type of worship is uncertain.
What is clear, is that in both of these cities, female deities reigned supreme and women were at the heart of both cities’ cultic practices. If we are to put this historical context along with the writing of the Paul’s letters to Timothy at Ephesus and to the Corinthians, we may be able to see that there is a social and political statement being made by Paul regarding specific situations within these two churches.
Now, a bit of exegesis.
Regarding the letter to Timothy:
First, the argument typically made is that woman should not have authority over a man because, Paul says, they are easily deceived. Paul continues and says that since Eve was deceived first, therefore all of woman-kind is now cursed. However, this is not a valid response and a misreading of the text and of the narrative in Genesis 3. In Genesis 3:6 the author is sure to mention in the narrative that Eve ate, gave the fruit to her husband “who was with her and he [also] ate.” The text does not single out Eve as the sole transgressor and neither does Paul. It is unlikely that Paul misread Genesis 3, and came to the conclusion that Eve alone was deceived, but rather both woman, with man, transgressed and are equals as sinners before a holy God.
(Side note: if churches were to implement this literally, that ‘women should not have authority over men,’ then why do majority of congregations give women authority to teach other women and also children if they are so easily deceived? Would this not run the risk of deceiving the other women and the next generation of Christians?)
The key to this passage is the word, “permit” [ἐπιτρέπω/epitrepo] which some scholars have suggested that the word in Greek implies a temporary and local nature rather than an umbrella term or command for each early church to employ to their own home congregation.
Something we need to keep in mind when reading the Epistles of Paul is that his letters were perhaps not meant for mass circulation. They were meant for local circulation to the house churches in a specific region (hence: the Letter to the Romans, the Letter to the Galatians, etc.) We are essentially reading someone’s ancient mail and although some may consider it Scripture, we have to acknowledge that Paul is addressing specific needs and issues at specific churches. Churches are then (and likewise nowadays) to take these concepts, doctrines and ideas, and apply them to their own churches.
For example: when Paul encourages the Thessalonians to continue to work and live out their lives as they are waiting on the return of Christ, it is unlikely that the Galatians would have read this letter and thought Paul was calling them (the Galatians) lazy. Alternatively, Paul had a few other, choice words to say specifically to the church in Galatia that was not intended for the Thessalonians.
Secondly, if the people of Ephesus are converts from the cult of Artemis, they are coming from a woman-led religion. In fact, one could say that it was a strong “feminist” society (some of the myths surrounding the ancient women of the Amazonians come from the Artemis cult). This seems likely considering Paul’s reaction and his reference to the creation of man first and then Eve in Genesis 1. We are usually quick to assume that the ancient, more primitive cultures resort to being masculine, misogynistic societies but from the historical documents and archaeology it is possible that men could have been seen as second-class citizens in the city of Ephesus. If this is the case, then Paul is imploring the Ephesian women to act in a way of mutual submission to their male counterparts.
Paul then ends the discussion on women saying that they will be saved by childbirth which is confusing to anyone that would assume he is talking about everyday reproduction in the natural sense. If women are saved through childbearing alone, then how does this function, for those that are barren? Is the blessing of salvation withheld from these women because they cannot have children? This is rather unlikely.
If Paul is as egalitarian as the historical context would lead us to believe, then the “childbirth’ he is referring to is the birth of a single human, the incarnation of God, Jesus Christ. In this case, both man and women are both saved by the “childbirth/childbearing” of one woman (Mary), which harkens back to the promise/covenant to Abraham and Sarah in Gen 18:18, 22:18 and 26:4 that all of the nations of the earth, both male and female, shall be blessed through their lineage.
Regarding the letter to the Corinthians:
The passage 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is referring to Paul’s prohibition for women to speak in church. These two verses seem out of place considering Paul, previously in 1 Corinthians 11:5 and 14:26, encouraged the congregation (gender inclusive “brothers and sisters”) to pray and prophesy (assuming out loud). In fact, some of the early copies of this letter have these verses out of order or not included in the letter at all.*
Again, like in Ephesus, this may be another case of a specific situation addressing a woman-dominated city of Corinth where there were three temples to Aphrodite.
Syntactically, some scholars have suggested that Paul may be addressing a series of “quotations” or “sayings”, and v.34-35 may be one of them. This is not out of character for Paul as he addressed other common sayings in the very same letter on account of meeting the congregations where they are in their ministry. In 1 Corinthians 6:12-13 he quotes “all things are lawful for me” and “food is meant for the stomach and stomach for the food” which were two common sayings Paul wished to stomp out of these churches as a false doctrine.
If we are again to assume the historical documents and situations of the text, Paul may be dealing with a common saying that has been floating around the house churches as the leaders have been trying to overcorrect a female-dominated society into a male-only led congregation which suppressed the ministry involvement of its fellow women. It brings to light a very different understanding if we are to read it in this way:
(Note: the quotations marked in brackets are my insert. The original and early manuscripts did not have punctuation so we are left to interpret this verse as it is. Even punctuation is something we have all added in our own translation for it to make sense in our language.)
1Cor. 14:33-35 for God is a God not of disorder but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints,
[“]women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.[”]
It brings to light a different understanding if we read this passage with the aforementioned in mind. If we read this assumed prohibition as a quotation rather than a commandment from Paul, then this certainly helps understanding the following verse:
1Cor. 14:36 Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?
By asking the following rhetorical questions he addresses the interpretation of the word of God not only being gifted to one gender, but to both.
Paul’s relationship with Women in his Ministry
Paul had faith in several women during his ministry as he entrusted them with the transmission of the gospel and with his correspondences. In Roman’s 16:1, he specifically mentioned by name, Phoebe, who was a successful business woman living in Rome. He entrusted to her his letter to the Romans and it is also likely that she was the first person to ever read aloud the letter to the Romans in her home congregation. In fact, the word he uses to describe her was a “(fem)deaconess of the church/διάκονον τῆς ἐκκλησίας.”
This also brings another question. Why not mention this order and command with the other churches in other letters? In his letter to the Philippians, Paul addressed a situation of quarreling women, Euodia and Syntyche, to put aside their differences which seemed to be dividing the church. He spoke very highly of them and said they “struggled beside me in the work of the gospel” in Phil 4:3. He could have simply told them that they should remain silent and report to their husbands, yet he does not. He addresses them publicly (in the letter) as if they are indeed leaders in the church at Philippi for whom the letter was no doubt intended.
Conclusions and Implications
Both letters, The First Letter to Timothy and the First Letter to the Corinthians, warn of false doctrine finding its way into the church. An alternative understanding to both of these scenarios is that in a woman-dominated society, the false doctrine entering (whether consciously or subconsciously) in these churches was anything that was anti-egalitarian. It would put the focus on gender issues and dominance rather than on the gospel of Jesus. This was the issue Paul was pursuing in these epistles (Galatians 3:28).
Now what does this mean for the modern Church? Is it possible that a misinterpretation of such passages have occurred, therefore, over a millennia of Spirit-filled women have been silenced in the Church? Does this mean more women preachers and teachers should take to the pulpit? I honestly do not know. I wanted to do an honest assessment of the data from the brief study I can do for a monthly blog post. Some of the ideas I pose may not be the most popular to some people but for a moment, take an inward look and ask yourself where your feelings lie on this topic and are they thought out, reasonable feelings? Or do your feelings on the subject stem from years of tradition and personal preference?
I do think however, that this is an endeavor worth pursuing if there is even the slightest chance that Christians have gotten this wrong. If Church History and a simple reading of the text have failed us, then perhaps archaeology and biblical studies can shed some light on a rather difficult passage. There is still work to be done and we may only be scratching the surface of this topic. My pursuit in archaeology and biblical studies mean to dig deeper into some of these rather complex and divisive issues.
No doubt, you will have something to say about what you just read. Please contribute to this post with any questions or comments!
*Pg 492 The New Testament in its World NT Wright
For further reading:
Lucy Peppiatt - Unveiling Paul’s Women
McRay – Archaeology and the New Testament
N.T. Wright – The New Testament in its World
Carson and Moo – An Introduction to the New Testament
Gundry - A Survey of the New Testament