From her earliest days a girl in contemporary western society is bombarded with images, characterizations, advice, and expectations about how she’s supposed to look, think, and act. Of course we should all be aiming for mutual respect, fairness, and recognition of intrinsic value. But the ideology of gender equality, while reacting to woeful abuses, can veer to an unhealthy extreme. Fundamental differences between the sexes are now being blurred or denied. Masculinity is demonized, as militant feminism dictates popular opinion.
In such an atmosphere the biblical model of gender roles is dismissed outright or modified to conform to modern sensibilities. Conservative Christian ideals are attacked and ridiculed as archaic and misogynistic. But may I suggest a more reasonable approach? What if we read the Bible in context? What if we consider the intended message of scripture? How would biblical directives have been received and understood by those to whom they were originally addressed? By removing our tainted 21st-century westernized spectacles and viewing scripture as the good news it was meant to be, we will have a much clearer perspective.
The Context of the Bible
The Bible emerged in an ancient Mediterranean environment. While its message is timeless, each inspired author through whom the divine will has been conveyed (and targeted audience) lived in a particular historical-sociocultural-real-life setting. To better appreciate the true state of affairs, we need to examine these teachings in view of the general plight of women in antiquity.
The Greek Context
Among the Greeks, females were considered by nature inferior to males and hardly afforded any rights (see Aristotle, Politics 1.1259b). Since at least the early Classical period (5th century BC), boys attended school but girls did not. The “education” of females was pretty much limited to the home, where only domestic duties were learned.1 Violence was endemic in Greek society, so men were valued as fighters. Women were valued for reproduction and as a means of demonstrating male control through physical abuse.2
The Roman Context
Since the early Roman Republic, a female was under the authority and control of her father or husband and deemed incapable of acting for herself. An educated woman was the exception rather than the rule.3 The choice of whether or not to have children was not hers to make, and the husband decided whether to keep or discard a newborn. Many baby girls were exposed to the elements simply because they couldn’t carry on the family name.4 A culture of violence against women was not uncommon in Rome, especially among those outside the socially elite.5
The Jewish Context
A very different scenario emerges in ancient Judaism, although we need to distinguish between what was taught in their sacred writings and what was sometimes practiced.6 Jewish law elevated women to a unique status. Any injustice, contempt, or maltreatment was contrary to and in violation of the divine will. Israelite women were not second-class citizens to be suppressed and victimized. Wives, mothers, and widows were to be honored, protected, and treated with dignity and respect (Ex. 20:12; Lev. 19:3; Deut. 5:16; 10:18; 27:16; Psa. 146:9; Prov. 18:22; 19:14; 31:10-31; et al.).
Sons and daughters alike were educated in their respective households (Deut. 6:6-7; 11:19). During and after the Babylonian exile, synagogues functioned as schools, where both boys and girls attended from age 5 or 6; girls continued until marriage at a relatively young age.7 Mary, the mother of Jesus, is a good example of an educated Jewish young lady. In her song recorded in Luke 1:46-55, she quotes and alludes to copious passages from all three sections of the Hebrew Bible. Thanks to the biblical knowledge and faith of a Jewish mother and grandmother, Timothy learned the holy scriptures from childhood (1 Tim. 3:15; 2 Tim. 1:5).
The Christian Context
Although the pivotal value of honor vs. shame was firmly embedded in the male-dominated Greco-Roman world,8 the NT consistently challenges society’s status quo and reconfigures the boundaries of honor and shame. All who might be dishonored because of ethnicity, social standing, or gender can now be unashamed in Christ, where no one is considered inferior to anyone else (1 Cor. 12:12-27; Gal. 3:26-29; Col. 3:9-11). In this regard NT writers are seen as deviants and radicals, swimming against the current of popular culture.
The “Controversial” Passages
Bible students and most Bible critics are familiar with the apostle Paul’s directives to the mid-1st-century church at Corinth: “the women are to keep silence in the assemblies, for it is not allowed for them to publicly speak but to be in submission … but if they desire to learn anything …” (1 Cor. 14:34-35a).9 A similar prohibition is included in Paul’s letter to the young evangelist in mid-1st-century Ephesus: “Let a woman learn in quietness, in all submissiveness. But I do not permit a woman to teach, nor to exercise authority over a man, but to be in quietness” (1 Tim. 2:11-12).
Historically these passages have been interpreted in at least four different ways. (1) Paul is a confirmed chauvinistic woman-hater (John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism 100-101). (2) A pseudepigrapher is responsible for these non-Pauline texts (James Veitch, Faith for a New Age 165-66). (3) The directives are culturally limited and no longer relevant to modern times (Glenn Rogers, The Bible Culturally Speaking 196-214). (4) Distinct gender roles are divinely enjoined with ongoing applicability (F. LaGard Smith, Male Spiritual Leadership 252-64).
A Contextual Approach
What would instructions like this have communicated to a Christian woman in mid-1st-century Corinth or Ephesus? Seeing that she would have heard the document read aloud in the corporate assembly, this in itself is quite remarkable. In the pagan world women were isolated from most public gatherings.10 In the fellowship of Jesus Christ they are welcomed into the church where social, ethnic, and gender differences remain, yet barriers are removed (cf. 1 Cor. 1:2-11; 12:12-13; 14:23a; 15:1-2; 1 Tim. 5:1-2).
Modern readers, perhaps with embarrassment or consternation, tend to hone in on words like “silence,” “submission,” and “do not permit.” But in the 1st-century Greco-Roman environment of the early church, the same words would have seemed rather innocuous in relation to the radical appeal, “if they desire to learn anything …. let a woman learn …”11 Talk about revolutionary! In their culture a woman wasn’t supposed to learn. Her intellectual capacity was questioned, educational prospects were rare, and she certainly wasn’t encouraged to pursue knowledge.12 Contrary to the societal arena into which it entered, Christianity afforded women opportunities to learn and to be accepted (Acts 1:14; 2:41; 5:14; 8:12; 16:13-18; 17:4, 11-12, 34).
The Biblical Perspective
The Bible has consistently clashed with the secular world’s entrenched standards – past and present. The cultural pendulum swings from one extreme to the other, whereas the biblical model of male-female complementarity goes all the way back to creation and remains unchanged (Gen. 1:27; 2:18-23; 1 Cor. 11:8-9; 1 Tim. 2:13).
According to God’s design, men and women are not the same. There are about 100 gender differences in the human brain,13 not to mention anatomical, emotional, and a host of other distinctions any married couple can verify. Neither gender is superior to the other (Gal. 3:28; 1 Pet. 3:7). Both are equally valued and mutually dependent (1 Cor. 11:11; 12:18-25). And the Creator has assigned each a specific role (1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:22-33).
The “silence” enjoined on women in the church assembly is no more demeaning than the silence enjoined on male tongue-speakers and prophets in the same assembly (1 Cor. 14:27-35). The “submission” of women is no more oppressive or devaluing than Christ’s submission to the Father (Phil. 2:5-8; 1 Cor. 15:28), the church’s submission to Christ (Eph. 5:23-24), the submission of church members to local leaders (Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:1-5), or our mutual submission to one another (Gal. 5:13; Eph. 5:21; Phil. 2:3).
The oft-cited examples of women serving the Lord (e.g. Luke 2:36-38; John 4:28-29; 20:1-2; Acts 2:17-18; 21:9; Rom. 16:1-3; Phil. 4:2-3) are a far anachronistic cry from the modern concept of female authority figures. Christian activity is by no means limited to public leadership, and women are among the finest examples of faith, generosity, and service recorded in scripture.14 Men are not exempt from fulfilling their God-given role or from treating women with anything less than dignity, respect, and gratitude.
Suffice it to say that the true intent of any biblical text is rarely if ever discovered by agenda-driven hermeneutics. To claim the Bible is misogynistic and degrading toward women is to demonstrate ignorance of what it actually says in the context in which it is said. If scriptural teachings result in a woman experiencing shame, low self-esteem, or prideful envy, the Bible is not to blame. It is the ravenous influence of our sinful world that produces such a distorted perception. A godly woman with the Christ-like spirit of humility does not decry her gender assignment at birth or bemoan the special role God himself has allocated. Rather, she embraces her honored status and meekly devotes her unique qualities to HIS glory.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Aleksander Wolicki, “The Education of Women in Ancient Greece,” in A Companion to Ancient Education, ed. W. Martin Bloomer (W. Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2015): 305-320.
2 Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, “Domestic Abuse and Violence Against Women in Ancient Greece,” in Sociable Man: Essays on Ancient Greek Social Behaviour in Honour of Nick Fisher, ed. S. Lambert (Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2011): 231-66.
3 William Smith, William Wayte, and G. E. Marindin, eds. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (London: John Murray, 1890); E. A. Hemelrijk, “The Education of Women in Ancient Rome,” in A Companion to Ancient Education, ed. W. Martin Bloomer (W. Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2015): 292-304.
4 Jo-Ann Shelton, As the Romans Did (New York: Oxford, 1988): 27-28.
5 Serena S. Witzke, “Violence Against Women in Ancient Rome: Ideology versus Reality,” in Topographies of Ancient Greek and Roman Violence, eds. Garrett G. Fagan and Werner Riess (University of Michigan Press, 2015): 248-74.
6 When divorce became prevalent among the Israelites (Deut. 22:19, 29; Lev. 21:7, 13, 14), it was permitted only because of “hardness of heart” (Matt. 19:8), serving to protect women from unscrupulous husbands and the precarious charge of adultery (Deut. 24:1-4; cf. Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22). In the Jewish Talmud, a written record of oral tradition, men offered the daily prayer: “Thank you God for not making me a Gentile, a woman, or a slave” (Menachot 43b-44a). But this is not biblical.
7 Note the Mishnah: Judah ben Tema, Avot 5.21.
8 Literature on this is plethoric. See, e.g., B. J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology 3rd ed. (Louiville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2001): xii, 27-57; B. J. Malina and J. H. Neyrey, “Honor and Shame in Luke-Acts,” in The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation, ed. J. H. Neyrey (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991): 25-66; H. Moxnes, “The Quest for Honor and the Unity of the Community,” in Paul in His Hellenistic Context, ed. T. Engberg-Pedersen (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1995): 203-230; W. Mischke, “Honor-Status Reversal,” Orality Journal 4:1 (2015): 11-36.
9 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation. For a more thorough discussion of 1 Cor. 14:34-35, see Let the Women Keep Silent. For a more thorough discussion of 1 Tim. 2:11-12, see Jesus Couldn't Be a Priest.
10 A. Wolicki, op. cit. 310.
11 Thanks to Derek McNamara for this insight at Freed-Hardeman University’s Scholars Day, 26 Oct. 2018. Craig L. Blomberg calls our attention to “what would have stood out to the initial readers as unique and therefore distinctively Christian. One thinks, for example, of the conventional commands to slaves, children, and women to submit to those in authority over them as compared with the highly countercultural calls to masters, fathers, and husbands to love and serve those under them and to use their authority in a sacrificial, self-giving way” (Handbook of NT Exegesis 104).
12 See also Gary K. Clabaugh, “A History of Male Attitudes toward Educating Women,” Educational Horizons (Spring 2010): 166-69, <Link>; Mark Cartwright, “Women in Ancient Greece,” Ancient History Encyclopedia (27 July 2016), <Link>; Craig Keener, “Women’s Education and Public Speech in Antiquity,” JETS 50/4 (Dec. 2007): 747-50 <Link>. Keener observes, “men normally being more educated than women should be clear to anyone who reads through ancient literature and not just collections of exceptions” (748 n. 4).
13 Gregory L. Jantz, “Brain Differences Between Genders,” in Psychology Today (27 Feb. 2014), <Link>. See also Leonard Sax, "A New Study," in Psychology Today (27 March 2019), <Link>.
14 In the NT alone, see, e.g., Matt. 9:20-22; 15:22-28; 27:55-56; 28:1-10; Mark 12:41-44; 14:8-9; Luke 1:28-30; John 4:28-30, 39-42; Acts 1:14; 2:17-18; 5:14; 8:3, 12; 9:2, 36; 17:4, 12, 34; 17:11-12; 16:13-18, 40; 21:9; 22:4; Rom. 16:1-4, 6, 12; 1 Cor. 7:34; 11:5; Phil. 4:2-3; 1 Tim. 5:5, 10; 2 Tim. 1:5; Tit. 2:3; Heb. 11:11, 23, 31; 1 Pet. 3:3-5; 2 John 1.
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