Taking a second look at the worst verse in the Bible


Theater at Ephesus

When Ship of Fools asked readers to submit nominations for worst verse in the Bible a few years ago, there was a clear winner—beating out passages on genocide, dismemberment, and all manner of inscripturated unpleasantries. It was this:

I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be silent.
–1 Timothy 2:12, NIV

For many complementarians, 1 Timothy 2 is the Discussion Killer. The Trump Card. It’s the clobber text that beats up all the other clobber texts and takes their lunch money.

Paul couldn’t have put it any more clearly.

But before we pull the plug on #Mutuality2012, let’s observe something. The name of this letter is not “Mandatory Instructions for Churches Everywhere.” Paul set his sights a bit lower. He was counseling a young pastor at the end of his rope.

Paul sent Timothy to take charge of the dysfunctional church at Ephesus—a church Paul had founded years earlier. It was not an easy task.

I visited Ephesus in 2005 on a trip retracing the spread of Christianity in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). What I learned put an entirely new perspective on the “worst verse in the Bible.”

In Paul’s day, Ephesus was a leading city of the Roman Empire. Half a million people lived there. That number swelled for two weeks every year, when a giant festival was held to honor the city’s patron deity: Artemis.

Artemis was the goddess of fertility (among other things). Her priests were women and, as N.T. Wright observes, “they ruled the show and kept the men in their place.”

Artemis’ temple was said to be founded by the Amazons, an ancient group of female warriors who had little use for men, apart from the occasional hookup in order to procreate.

Yup, that’s her.

According to the Artemis legend, women were created first. Women were superior. Women called the shots. Artemis was mainly concerned with the welfare of women, which is why she promised to keep them safe in childbearing—no mean feat in a world where 1 in 3 women may have died giving birth.

Men who wished to serve the goddess were free to do so… well, I say “free.” Actually, the cost was rather steep. In exchange for the honor of service, Artemis quite literally demanded their manhood.

New Testament scholar Catherine Clark Kroeger described the initiation process as follows (HT Alex Haiken for the link):

Males voluntarily castrated themselves and assumed women’s garments. A relief from Rome shows a high priest of Cybele [a closely related deity]. The castrated priest wears veil, necklaces, earrings and feminine dress. He is considered to have exchanged his sexual identity and to have become a she-priest.

It’s likely many female converts to Christianity in Ephesus came straight from the Artemis cult. Can you imagine the difficulty they would’ve had learning to accept the men in the church as their equals? Not unlike like the difficulty some men in church have today accepting women as their equals.

Before long, tensions would have boiled over. Church gatherings would have descended into anarchy as some of the women boasted they were created first and should call the shots. Timothy would have reached the end of his rope trying to hold this fledgling community together.

So his mentor, the apostle Paul, wrote a letter. Two thousand years later, we cannot hope to understand Paul’s advice in that letter without spending a little time in Ephesus.

Paul was trying to correct a specific situation run amuck. So he prohibited Ephesian women from taking the reins of the Ephesian church, from usurping Timothy’s authority (as Paul’s surrogate), and from lording it over their brothers in Christ—many of whom had known nothing but subjugation their entire lives.

Understanding the context also helps explain Paul’s otherwise bizarre reference to childbearing, which turns out to be a slap in the face to Artemis:

But women will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
—1 Timothy 2:15

To use 1 Timothy 2 to insist that women are inherently subject to men and unfit to lead is to commit the very error Paul condemned in this passage. Only, this time the shoe is on the other foot.

Paul didn’t want women lording it over men, as Artemis had taught them to do. Nor would he have wanted men lording it over women. Assuming Paul’s authorship of 1 Timothy (not all scholars accept this), this is the same person who told the Galatians there is no “male and female” in Christ’s church.

If Paul were addressing a complementarian church today, where it was taught that women are intrinsically subordinate to men, he may very well have written something like this:

I do not permit a man to teach or have authority over a woman; he must be quiet. For Eve was formed last, the pinnacle of creation. And Eve was not the one told to avoid from the forbidden tree; it was the man who was told and should have known better.

Sometimes harsh words are needed to correct an imbalance of power. That’s what we see in 1 Timothy 2. In the long run, however, the only real solution is (you guessed it)…



Church of St. Mary the Virgin (5th century), Ephesus

4 thoughts on “Taking a second look at the worst verse in the Bible

  1. “Paul set his sights a bit lower than that. Namely, on counseling a young pastor who was at the end of his rope.”

    Very important part. It’s such a strange practice to look for a verse that says what you want it to say, cut it out, and paste it at the top of all your arguments. That’s not being a good steward of the text.

    Additionally, it seems to me that much of Paul’s advice along the way was “ad hoc,” so maybe we shouldn’t work to apply every little detail, and instead be faithful to the whole witness of Scripture.

    Great post. Blessings.



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