Wednesday, March 31, 2010

"I do not permit a woman to teach"

I Timothy 2:11-15:
11A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.13For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15But women[a] will be saved[b]through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

I received an email this week from someone I know asking several questions about the passage: whether I think that women shouldn't teach or have authority over men, why the passage brings Eve into the argument, and what does the passage say about women who cannot or do not have children?

Although I've sent a reply out which I may post soon, I thought I'd invite readers to suggest their own ways of handling the passage. It's certainly part of our tradition. Most women have to deal with it (or passages like it) one way or another. So how have you read I Timothy 2:11-15 in your life and work?


A Good World said...

"He washed that morning scrupulously—he got some soap from Nastasya— he washed his hair, his neck and especially his hands. When it came to the question whether to shave his stubbly chin or not (Praskovya Pavlovna had capital razors that had been left by her late husband), the question was angrily answered in the negative. “Let it stay as it is! What if they think that I shaved on purpose to…? They certainly would think so! Not on any account!”"

That's a similarly long passage from 'Crime and Punishment' which I randomly picked from an online text. Based on this, it is clear to me that Dostoevsky's entire novel is all about how one presents oneself, specifically in terms of facial hair: Men shouldn't shave.

Granted, it's been 25 years since I minored in Russian in college, so my knowledge of the original language is rusty, and that would inhibit my understanding. But I have tremendous faith in the interpretation inherent in this online translation of the text.

More to the point, Dostoevsky spends much more time in his novel defining what it means to be male than the Bible does. When someone throws this pithy quote at me, some four lines from a book my copy of which is some 2,000 pages long, my response is to kindly ask that person to define Biblically what 'female' means, as God has decided not to provide such a definition in the rest of the text.

Mind you, this is not some postmodern question along the lines of 'what is truth,' or some such question. The Bible doesn't shy from definitions, such as a rabbit not being kosher because it chews its cud. But a simple grasp of gender allows one to swiftly demolish any definition of male or female that is provably universal.

Without knowing what 'female' is, one can't run around applying this 'rule' without trying to engage the rather larger context this tiny quote is from.

My two cents.


James F. McGrath said...

Certainly on the one hand it is possible to challenge the author's reading of the story in Genesis 2-3. The woman was not yet made when the commandment was given, and so it is presumably a failure on the man's part if she did not have all the information she needed.

On the other hand, if one is looking for a positive reading, it is possible to provide one by focusing on the context and a close reading of the wording. In that time, it might have been more surprising that women were permitted to learn than that they were not allowed to teach. And given that women had not been previously allowed access to education, there is nothing too shocking in a temporary prohibition on women teaching until they have had the opportunity to learn. In this context, the point of the story is that the man was created first, and given instruction, and because the woman had not yet been given adequate teaching, she was open to being deceived. But Eve/womankind ("she", singular) will be saved/restored through her descendants, if they (plural) take advantage of the opportunity to learn and continue as a result in faith, love, and propriety.

That's my best attempt at offering a positive interpretation of the passage. It may or may not be persuasive! :) I'd be interested to hear what others think. It is on any account a difficult passage.

TonyTheProf said...

Well, one could approach it with Origen style allegorical interpretation, and take "childbearing" as reflecting women teaching. While a woman should learn in quietness, she can then be saved by teaching what she has learned to others, childbearing.

It's stretching it a bit, but Origen did take some very strange interpretations!

But on a literal level, it is one of those purple passages that delight Richard Dawkins when he wants to show how mysogenist religion can be.

Bill Carroll said...

When facing a text like this, I always smile and say "The Bible says many things, not all of them true."

Then I talk about what is true in the Bible: namely the basic story lined summed up in the creeds/regula fidei. And the need for community discernment, as well as encouragement for conscientious dissent. And the need for preachers/exegesis/etc.

Then I try to give a historical account of why some in the early Church thought this might be a good thing to say, but why the overall trajectory of the Scriptures (at least as read in this community) is liberatory.

matthew said...

It's interesting that all the comments so far are from men.

I would argue along with Dr. McGrath that the author of the passage has misread the Genesis account.

Here is a paper arguing for a more egalitarian reading:

matthew said...

Here is that link:

Tim Bulkeley said...

If "Paul" had been married, or had a daughter... sadly the poor man wasn't ;) But even so you'd think his own experience of women prophets and leaders who he comments on favourably elsewhere might have saved him this embarrassment, maybe he was having a "bad hair day"?

Basically, as A Good Word says, thankfully we have the other 1999 pages to correct him and us. Read (without the bias of centuries of patriarchal interpretation the preface to the Biblke does a pretty good job of setting this noinsense right!

Deirdre said...

Thank you, gentlemen! Your comments are most helpful.

You urge paying attention to context of I Timothy; other readings of Genesis 2-3 (e.g. as a temporary prohibition); allegorical readings and the nachleben of the text; the big picture of scripture (emancipatory and not restrictive).

I'll wait & see if some women commentators and colleagues might emerge from Holy Week and contribute to this discussion.

Jules said...

I would say, consider the source. The writer explicitly says "I do not permit," doesn't claim that God and other people do not permit women to teach. The rest of the rather badly reasoned non-argument reads like a last-ditch effort to justify his particular practice, which he is commending to a junior associate. We know this is not Paul speaking and we know this is not God speaking so who is this? The line about women being saved through childbearing borders on heretical, since we have all been saved by Christ....

Unknown said...

Quickly, as a final task for this Holy Thursday - and for the record my very first blog comment ever.

The speech and authority of women wss a contested issue in the early Christian communities as it has been in various ways ever since. This passage shows one reading of Genesis 2 that highlights Eve's role in a way that Paul in Romans did not. It draws conclusions and answers an unexpressed question about how women are saved. This passage should be seen in light of the disputes around both women's authority and women's choice of celibacy (they are linked in this period). Both are excluded by this text. See as an alternative interpretation of "Paul's views" on celibacy, authority, family life and diet, the Acts of Paul and Thecla. The passage raises questions for us who read scripture as Christians: how are we to claim or disavow Paul's legacy? What role in the debate about women's leadership and sexuality are we going to take as it pertains to history and in the present? What is the history of interpretation and the effects of a text like this, and what is an ethical Christian response to that?

Cynthia Briggs Kittredge

Anonymous said...

thank for share, it is very important . ̄︿ ̄

Deirdre said...

In my own response to the email, I asked first of all what authority scripture has for the questioner. Obviously, it has some authority or the question wouldn't arise as to how one might read the passage. And we all like some passages better than others and they mean more given our life experiences. But how is the passage being deployed in the religious tradition out of which the question comes?

Then there is the question of what weight our own particular tradition gives them. As others have observed, this text is never read in church at any time, according to our BCP or RCL lectionaries. In this way, the text is effectively relegated to a second-class status in some Christian churches.

Then there is the question of this particular author. One could consider whether this is a "Paul" concerned to present himself to outsiders as an authority figure in charge of an obedient community rather than simply a description of women to whom he was writing. At stake is the ordering of the social lives of worshiping communities. In pursuit of order in the community, "Paul" articulates a theological argument about creation with consequences for women's behavior drawn. This is neither "natural" nor "inevitable."

Here I am touching on the affirmation or disavowal of Paul's legacy raised helpfully by Cynthia Kittredge.

Thank you for your excellent posts on this topic.

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