Wendy Wilson, the Mission Advisor for Development of Women and the Women’s Development Track Exec Director over at Missio Nexus asked me to write the following for the Missio Nexus audience, and it provides a sneak preview of what you can expect when my book comes out.*
Many have undertaken to explain how understanding the identity of Artemis, the goddess of midwifery in first-century Ephesus, can shed light on the apostle Paul’s instructions about being saved through childbearing (or childbirth, or the childbearing) (2:15), but fewer have explained how understanding first-century Artemis and her cult helps provide a context for the entire pericope or section of 1 Timothy 2 when the apostle talks to his protégé Timothy about women (or wives) in the church. Paul is addressing a problem, but his doing so is often universalized. The problem was specific with broad ramifications, as is always true of Scripture. But this passage is often understood in the opposite way—as speaking to a broad universal problem with specific application.
In his instructions to these wives or women (Koine has only one word that encompasses both, so we must do some interpretation to determine which he means), the author of 1 Timothy begins, “I do not allow a gune (γυνή) (2:12). In saying, “I do not allow,” he uses the present tense, which in Koine Greek has more of a sense of progressive action than in English. So the first-century Koine-speaking person would probably have heard this phrase as, “I am not allowing.” Such a progressive statement carries the idea that “disallowing” is the author’s practice, perhaps always, but perhaps only for a limited audience and/or duration. This in itself is not necessarily significant.
What makes the present tense stand out a bit more than it might otherwise is Paul’s use of the first person combined with the present tense. It’s not that one must not allow, or that women should never be allowed. But rather, he says, “I am not allowing….” In a personal letter, not an epistle addressed to an assembly, the apostle states what he himself is not doing so as he gives his protégé directions in his task of charging certain people in Ephesus to stop teaching false doctrine (1:3). Rather than asserting “Thus saith the Lord” to a group, Paul describes his own practice to his mentee.
Again, rather than saying, “A woman (or wife) must not teach,” he says, “I am not allowing a woman (or wife) to teach.” The apostle uses similar limited-context first-person language elsewhere when he refers to the marital status of virgins and widows in Corinth. In that context he counsels Corinthian women to stay single (1 Cor. 7:25–40), which is quite different from the counsel he offers about Ephesian widows (i.e., to marry, 1 Tim. 5:14). In his instructions to the Corinthians, he states outright that he is not giving a universal directive: “Now concerning virgins I have no command of the Lord, but I give an opinion as one who by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy” (1 Cor. 7:25).
Regardless of whether the author’s practice transcended time and culture or was temporary, both husbands and wives in the assembly at Ephesus needed to stop doing something disruptive. Husbands were angry during prayer, and apparently wives were acting in a way that communicated a sense of superiority or perhaps violated civil law.
One might also see an Artemis influence in Paul’s reference to limiting women or wives teaching. He gives this reason for the restriction that he says is his practice: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve” (v. 13). To Jewish people, the Adam-and-Eve narrative was the old, familiar creation story. But for Gentiles—the focus of Paul’s ministry—the Genesis narrative was new. The non-Jewish members of Timothy’s spiritual community were well versed in a far different creation story. They had a special pride of place about this story, because they believed its events—known throughout the empire—took place near their city. In the Artemis cult’s origin narrative, the woman came first, and her twin, Apollo, followed. In Timothy’s context the creation story from Genesis contradicts the local story and would have served as a logical corrective. To the Ephesians, woman came first and was preeminent; to Jews, the woman was not only second, but she was even deceived. This is not to suggest Eve was a prototype of females’ sin. Rather, the facts about Eve knock women back to a place of equality with men.
Seeing the author’s use of Genesis as a corrective to the local story’s implications rather than as an inviolate principle of firstborn preeminence allows for reading Genesis in a straightforward way. Rather than trying to find hierarchy in the creation story, readers can see in the Genesis text a stress on how “alike” the man and woman are. Adam exclaims that the woman “finally” is a creature who corresponds to him (Gen. 2:23). This is not to diminish the beautiful difference between man and woman; it is merely to say that the Genesis text emphasizes oneness and unity and likeness, not difference.
If Paul’s exhortation is addressing a local issue, how might the phenomenon of a woman teaching square with what God has called women to do since the beginning? It actually corresponds beautifully. Throughout redemption history, the Holy Spirit has moved women such that in every era in which God has raised up male prophets (e.g., Law, kings, post-exilic, pre-Pentecost, Pentecost, church age), he has also raised up women prophets. And women will prophesy again in the future, not due to a failure of male leadership, but as a sign of the Spirit (Joel 2:28–29; Acts 2:17–21).
Seeing the reference to Eve’s creation order in 1 Timothy 2:13 as an all-time prohibition against females imparting spiritual content to males creates far more textual difficulties, both in this text and throughout the canon of Scripture, than it resolves. But seeing Paul’s instructions to Timothy as an apologetic against false teaching in Ephesus both fits the context and allows interpreters to better synthesize the whole counsel of God.
Paul writes, “Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.” Again, in contrast with the Artemis myth, the facts of the Genesis creation story correct false thinking. If Timothy’s charges in Ephesus were unduly influenced by the Artemis cult and its over-exalting of woman, the Genesis story brought a course correction. The female is not superior; Genesis proves it.
The author’s local corrective does have universal implications, but not the sorts of ramifications that have often been assumed. Paul’s statement about Eve is not to suggest that women are inferior teachers because of an inborn vulnerability to corruption. Rather, the truth that Eve was deceived restores equality in a context in which pride of creation order probably brought an imbalance. The application: If someone teaches false doctrine, make them stop, but let them learn.
Seeing the text this way is consistent with Paul’s teaching about Eve elsewhere. Not only of women, but of the entire assembly at Corinth, he wrote, “I am afraid, lest as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your [plural] minds should be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3). Noting this, Sumner argues that the apostle did not view vulnerability to deception as a female-only weakness, but rather as a human one. Paul warned the entire assembly that they were vulnerable to being deceived in the same way Eve was.
Paul was writing to his protégé living in a culture in which Artemis of the Ephesians was esteemed as a midwife who was believed to bring mercy-killing or rescue to women in labor. Her temple was one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and people came from all corners of the empire to worship her. That there was a clear conflict between her followers and the followers of Jesus Christ is clear from the Book of Acts. A Christian whose loyalty had recently shifted from following Artemis to following Jesus as the Jewish Messiah would have faced an adjustment both in going from a female-dominated cult to a more male-dominated one, and in viewing childbirth differently. Refusing to make offerings to the goddess of midwifery as a statement of her faith likely would have caused a wife great anxiety, as the prospect of death would have terrified her. But because Christ is superior to Artemis, it’s entirely plausible that Paul was assuring his protégé that no such disaster will happen. She will be saved/delivered safely—assuming she lives for Christ.
The city’s prominent goddess and her cult had a profound influence on first-century Ephesus. Ancient inscriptions dating to the time of the earliest Christians suggest that at that time, Artemis was associated with saving and midwifery, and also that women enjoyed great autonomy in that city. While some have said that Artemis was a goddess of sex and fertility and that a concern to oppose such an influence motivated Paul’s instruction about women in 1 Timothy 2, there is no evidence to support such a claim. But seeing the Book of 1 Timothy, and especially his instructions about women in its cultural context sheds light on how readers today are to take heed. The problem is not women; the problem is falsehood. So, let us learn.
(* I have signed a contract with IVP Academic to publish my dissertation work on Artemis of the Ephesians at the time of the earliest Christians. My working title is: Nobody’s Mother: Artemis in First-Century Ephesus and Why She Matters. I expect the book to release in the fall of 2023.)