That “Women” Question

NT Wright StudyI’ve put up a two posts on N.T. (Tom) Wright’s response to listener questions posed by Justin Brierley on the radio show Unbelievable. (The link to the show: NT Wright on Paul, Hell, Satan, Creation, Adam, Eve & more – Unbelievable? – 01 November 2013, or the entire Unbelievable audio feed with more shows and more information on each show.) The first looked at his view on evolution and Adam (yes to both), and on Tuesday we moved on to look at what Wright had to say about miracles. Today I would like to consider a less controversial question (ha! If you believe that I have some …). This segment starts about 48:00 in the mp3 file.

Justin: An issue that often comes up in the context of Paul is women and what he says about male female relationships, Jews, Gentiles, slaves, free and so on. Lucy for instance wanted to ask this quick question. I’m sure you’ve tackled it a number of times … “What is your reading and therefore application of a passage like 1 Timothy 2 in particular with reference to v. 11?” When it comes to these issues, what is your general understanding of what Paul’s getting at, what the whole thing is about?

This question gets to an issue which is at least as big a stumbling block to Christian faith in our Western world as the issues of evolution and creation, naturalism vs divine action. One of the biggest questions that always comes back to me as a Christian in the academy focuses on this issue. “How can I be a Christian given how poorly women are treated?” And, of course, 1 Timothy 2 is a key passage, perhaps the key passage. Verse 11 highlighted in the question above is translated in the NIV “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.” Wright responds to the question – and as always the transcript is flat, missing some of the meaning. Listen to the show if interested.

I don’t know if your listeners will have 1 Timothy 2 to hand, let alone in the Greek text. Part of the difficulty there is that Paul uses there some very unusual words which are difficult to translate.

Justin: Can you give us the words in English first?

It depends, because this is precisely what is at issue, the translation and I don’t have my own translation here in the studio with me. But I would say to anyone who wants to know what I really think is going on here, look at Paul for Everyone, The Pastoral Epistles which is the little commentary that I did on the Pastorals because I actually spend longer on that passage than on most other passages there for obvious reasons. Because the way it has been translated there does not do justice I think to the nuanced thing that Paul is saying. Paul is writing almost certainly to a situation in Ephesus where religion was basically a female thing. You have Diana, Artemis the great goddess, who only has female priests, that is deep in the Ephesian culture. And it is very natural therefore that if this seems to be like a new religion, this Christianity thing, that people in Ephesus might assume well basically let’s find the women to be the leaders. … And I think what is being said when Paul is talking about allowing women to study privately and given the leisure to study it doesn’t mean they should sit down, shut up, and go and make the tea, it means that they must have the leisure to be themselves students. But then he says, “I’m not saying that women should take over the show,” which is a cultural reference to what they might have assumed in that place. But that they have to be given space to learn and then we will all go ahead together.

… (At Justin’s question, Wright goes into the “to have authority” phrase. I’m going to jump over this bit.)

(51:00-53:35) Why is it in certain bits of our culture that people take that little verse from 1 Timothy 2 so seriously and they ignore large chunks of what is going on in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? And this is really very serious as a critique of bits of our contemporary Christian culture. Why are we so fixated and nervous about this? When I talk about this issue I always start with John 20. This is not an accident that when Jesus is raised from the dead the first person who is commissioned to tell other people that he’s alive, that he’s the Lord, that he’s ascending to the Father, is Mary Magdalene. That, you know, John does nothing by accident. Jesus did nothing by accident for goodness sake. That’s the beginning of the announcement of the Christian gospel and it is given to Mary Magdalene. From that point, this is part of new creation. Everything’s different now guys. And what Paul is doing is navigating within a very interesting bit of pagan culture how that works and doesn’t work. “I don’t mean that the women should take over, and I don’t mean that the women should boss everyone else around. They must be given leisure to study, its not an either or, we’ve got to do this together.”

Justin: But in a sense, for millenia, the church did take a certain view on those kinds of passages, or whether it was just a cultural thing, I don’t but … it’s a relatively recent phenomenon that women have been ordained and so on.

It is and it isn’t. In the New Testament you have Junia who is an apostle in Romans 16. I know there’s been lots of debate about that but anyone listening who is worried about that, it is absolutely certain exegetically, linguistically, contextually, that in Romans 16 Paul refers to Junia as an apostle. He also has entrusted Romans, the greatest letter ever written, to a lady called Phoebe who is a deacon in the church at Cenchreae. She’s an office bearer; she’s on her way on a business trip to Rome. Women were quite independent in that world. The idea that all women in the first century were sort of, you know, dumbed down little house fraus, that’s absolutely not the case. There are plenty of independent women of independent means. Phoebe therefore is the carrier of the letter to Rome and that almost certainly means, not only would she read it out, but that if they had questions they would ask her. It is highly likely that Phoebe was the first person in history to expound the letter to the Romans. Now when you get that in the text, and Junia as an apostle, and the other people in Romans 16 who are clearly in ministry, some as husband wife teams, some as independent men, some as independent women, then you know, I want to say lighten up guys, why are we so worried about this? …

(a little more – suggesting, perhaps, that this is an issue where the Church in a few hundred years will wonder how we could have held a “men only” view, and then it was time for a station break.)

Wright’s last statement in response to the issue about women as bishops in the Church of England sums this up (he has more to say about the issue – but this is the bit relevant to this post).

(57:11-57:35) As I say, I make no bones about it, the basic foundation of all Christian ministry is the announcement that the crucified Jesus has been raised from the dead, and the first person who does that is Mary Magdalene. I rest my case; don’t need to go any further. It’s there in John 20. And from there on the idea of women in leadership ought to have been a natural. And as I say, we see it in Paul, let’s do it.

I’ve quoted this at length because I think it is worth some serious discussion. What Wright says in this interview is in line with many of the points that Scot has raised over the years, both on the blog and in his book The Blue Parakeet. Wright’s argument is centered on a number of issues. The most significant in my view is John 20.

What do you think? Does Wright have a point on John 20?

If you wish you may contact me directly at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If you would like to comment please see That “Women” Question at Jesus Creed.

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