Steven P. Wickstrom
The issue of women in ministry is controversial and emotionally charged. It can also be a very divisive issue that can rend churches apart. The problem is that the primary scripture used to “prove” the case against women in ministry tends to be misunderstood and seldom taught in the context of the culture. The case against women in ministry is rooted in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” The meaning of this text has been highly disputed, and most theologians consider it to be a genuinely tricky passage to interpret. The text contains several Greek words that are not used anywhere else in the New Testament, which prevents us from comparing how authors used the terms elsewhere. Some claim that 1 Tim 2:12 perhaps “the single most scrutinized verse of Scripture in recent scholarship.”1 Interestingly, very few theologians research why Paul thought it was necessary to give these instructions to Timothy. To understand the instructions, we must first understand the history of Ephesus.
Understanding history is crucial to understanding scripture. Historical accounts give us the backstory, or background story, to 1 Timothy 2:11-15. The Apostle Paul probably wrote this letter to Timothy in the mid-60s A.D., between Paul’s first and final Roman imprisonments. Paul wrote 1 Timothy to advise his coworker Timothy about problematic issues in the church at Ephesus, where Timothy served as a Pastor. Since Timothy was serving in Ephesus, and Paul was writing about problems in the Ephesian church, understanding something about Ephesus will assist us in understanding the passage above.
According to www.history.com, the town of Ephesus was once considered the most important Greek city and the most important trading center in the Mediterranean region. According to tradition, Ephesus’ founding was by the Amazon’s, the female warriors, believed to be daughters of the god Ares (the god of war) and Harmonia. Throughout history, Ephesus survived multiple attacks and changed hands many times between conquerors. Much of Ephesus’s ancient history is unrecorded and sketchy. What is known is that in the seventh century B.C., Ephesus fell under the rule of the Lydian Kings and became a thriving city where men and women enjoyed equal opportunities. It was also the birthplace of the renowned philosopher Heraclitus. The Lydian King Croesus, who ruled from 560 B.C. to 547 B.C., was most famous for funding the rebuilding of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus.
Artemis was the goddess of the hunt, chastity, childbirth, wild animals, and the wilderness. She was also one of the most revered Greek deities. Modern-day excavations have revealed that three smaller Artemis temples preceded the Croesus temple. In 356 B.C., the temple burned down and the Ephesians rebuilt the temple even bigger. It was estimated to be four times larger than the Parthenon and became known as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. During the reign of Roman Emperor Tiberius, Ephesus flourished as a port city. Rome opened a business district around 43 B.C. to service the massive amounts of goods arriving or departing from the man-made harbor and caravans traveling the ancient Royal Road. According to some sources, Ephesus was second only to Rome as a cosmopolitan center of culture and commerce.2
The most popular feature in Ephesus was the temple to Artemis. In Ephesus, Artemis transformed from the goddess of the hunt to a fertility goddess. In Greece, Artemis was a huntress with her bow and arrows. In Ephesus, however, Artemis idols were depicted the eastern style, standing erect with numerous nodes on her chest.3 Because of the temple to Artemis, Ephesus was a city unlike any other in the ancient world, coupled with women’s equal rights and opportunities. In the ancient world, women were nothing more than property. Their status was above that of a slave, but not by much. Ephesus was a different story. Women priests ran the temple rather than men. Women could be involved in politics, hold public offices, own a business, teach in schools, and exercised liturgical authority in parallel to the city’s officials’ legislative, judicial, or financial power.4 It is critical to understand that Ephesians equated women's rights and opportunities with Artemis. It was Artemis who got the credit for a woman’s standing.
An important right that women in Ephesus enjoyed was that of education. Women could receive an education, as were the men in Ephesus, which was practically unheard of in the ancient world. Greek schools were very different from modern schools. Students had classes in reading, writing, mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, and science. Students were encouraged to ask questions, but it had better be a good one. They did not have the philosophy that there was no such thing as a stupid question. A student who stood up asked a foolish question was punished for not paying close enough attention. A student who stood up asked a good question was praised for analytical thinking.
Ephesus was a unique, one-of-a-kind city. It was during Paul’s second missionary trip that he started the church in Ephesus. A couple of years later, Paul would return and spend three years teaching in the church. About a decade after founding the church (approx. 62 A.D.), Paul wrote a letter to the Ephesians commending their faith and love. Timothy was installed as the church's pastor at an unknown time for an unspecified period. At some point, someone, probably, Timothy, wrote to Paul about problems in the church. The letter of 1 Timothy (probably written around 63-65 A.D.) addresses these issues. The issue we want to focus on is that of women.
“Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.” This command goes entirely against what the women learned in school. Going to school wasn’t about being quiet or submissive. It was about standing up and making your voice heard, provided it was a wise and well-thought-out comment. A student who was not actively participating was not learning. A student deemed as not learning earned punishment in front of the rest of the class. The goal was to let everyone know that they were absorbing the wisdom and knowledge of the teacher. Paul was telling the women that the church service was not the same as a classroom. It was quite the paradigm shift. But it’s not just that the church service was not a classroom; Paul was sending the subtle message that Artemis was not in charge. If the church service looked just like a Greek school class, and women were in school because of Artemis, then to an outsider, the natural conclusion would be that women were in church because of Artemis. It’s not that Paul had anything against women; it’s that he had everything against Artemis.
“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” Paul has now shifted his focus to women’s rights. Please remember that in Ephesus, all the rights and opportunities a woman had derived from Artemis. A woman could teach in a school because Artemis gave her that right. Teachers were esteemed highly in society, and a woman in that role would have been in high regard by her peers. A woman could be involved in politics and hold a public office because of Artemis. If a woman was in a place of authority over men, it was because of Artemis. Once again, it’s not that Paul has anything against women; it’s that he has everything against Artemis. Paul is setting up the church so that it looks nothing like Artemis worship. He cannot afford to have Christianity have any resemblance to Artemis. It must be plainly (if not painfully) evident that Jesus has nothing to do with Artemis. If Christianity looks just like Artemis worship, the non-Christians would not realize that they need Jesus.
“For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” Paul has now shifted his focus to the founding of Ephesus. In the popular myth about the founding of Ephesus, the Amazon women came first, started the town, and then followed by men. This myth played a considerable role in the importance of Artemis and the ensuing rights, privileges, and significance of women. Paul is holding up Old Testament scripture as overriding the local myth. According to scripture, the man came first, not the woman. Scripture overrides myths and legends. By downplaying the role of women, Paul is downplaying the role of Artemis. Paul is working hard to eradicate Artemis from the hearts and minds of the Ephesian Christians. Going against hundreds of years of tradition can be difficult, but Paul is giving it his best shot. Once again, it’s not that Paul has anything against women; it’s that he has everything against Artemis.
“She will be saved through childbearing - if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” Remember that in Ephesus, Artemis is the goddess of fertility (pregnancy and childbirth). She also had the title, “Artemis the Savior.”5 In addition, she was also considered the protector of children and a healer of diseases in women. Unfortunately, infant and maternal mortality were very high in the ancient world, with many mothers dying of exhaustion, hemorrhage, or eclampsia - seizures resulting from high blood pressure. The average life expectancy for a woman at this time was about 35 years.6 Ephesian women prayed to “Artemis the Savior” for protection through the birthing process. Many women, however, did live through the process of childbearing. When a woman and child did survive through childbirth, the mother offered a gift of thanksgiving to Artemis. Once again, we see Paul attacking Artemis. It’s not Artemis who can save women from dying while giving birth, but God alone. There is a condition, however. They must serve God, not Artemis. The phrase “if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control” sums up what it means to serve God. The focus is to be on God rather than Artemis. Paul is intent on defeating culturalism7 in the Ephesian church. Once again, it’s not that Paul has anything against women; it’s that he has everything against Artemis.
The main thing to remember about these verses in Ephesus is the cultural relevance of the instructions. If Paul had written this to the church in Philippi, they would have thought he had lost his mind. Women didn’t have those kinds of rights in Philippi. In Ephesus, however, Paul’s instructions struck at the very heart of Artemis worship. In the modern Western culture, we need to be cautious when applying cultural instructions for a culture that died out two thousand years ago. Paul did want women to teach so that Christianity would not be confused with the cult of Artemis. Are we preventing women from teaching in the church to prevent ourselves from being confused with Artemis, or are we blindly following rules without knowing why Paul initiated them in the first place? This scenario is a classic case where not knowing history can cause us to interpret scripture outside of the intended context. The context is that Paul does not have anything against women in ministry; it’s that he has everything against Artemis.
Paul was working hard to keep the local culture out of the church, a point that we have completely overlooked. Instead of keeping women out of ministry, it would better serve us to prevent local culture from entering the church. It would have been politically correct for the church in Ephesus to allow the influences of Artemis to slip inside, but Paul would not allow that to happen. In our modern church, we have kept women out of ministry and allowed political correctness to infiltrate. We have missed the point. In doing so, the world cannot tell the difference between the church and self. It’s time to do what Paul instructed the Ephesians; get “Artemis” out of the church.