Throughout history, the church has been characterized by a male-dominated social hierarchy. This worldview has been so pervasive that some even consider it to be “God’s created order.” In light of the prevalence of this pattern, some people have asked me, “Has there ever been a female-dominated culture?”
A Nation Ruled by Women?
A 1st century B.C. historian by the name of Diodorus Siculus writes:
“Beside the river of Thermadon, therefore, a nation ruled by females held sway, in which women pursued the arts of war just like men…. To the men she [the nation’s Queen] relegated the spinning of wool and other household tasks of women. She promulgated laws whereby she led forth the women to martial strife, while on the men she fastened humiliation and servitude.” (as cited in Murphy, 1989, p. 58)1
Another historian from the 1st century B.C., Pompeius Trogus, supplies additional information about this “nation ruled by females”:
“They also dismissed all thought of intermarriage with their neighbours, calling it slavery rather than marriage. They embarked instead upon an enterprise unparalleled in the whole of history, that of building up a state without men and then actually defending it themselves…. Then, with peace assured by their military success, they entered into sexual relationships with surrounding peoples so that their line would not die out. After conquering most of Europe, they also seized a number of city-states in Asia. Here they founded Ephesus.” (as cited in Yardley, 1994, p. 29)2
Female-Centered Religion in Ephesus
Historians Ferguson and Farnell also write about the religious traditions of a female-dominated culture that worshiped “the mother of the gods,” whose oldest name was Cybele. When the Greeks immigrated to Ephesus in Asia Minor, they began to call her by the name of one of their own deities; Artemis. The hierarchy of her priesthood was dominated by women. Men could become priests, but only if they first renounced their masculinity, through the act of ritual castration. In addition to being castrated, they also abstained from certain types of food.
Josephus, a historian from the 1st Century A.D, observed that some of the Jews who had been exiled to Asia Minor in the second century B.C. incorporated some of these traditions into their brand of Judaism. They shunned marriage, viewing it as a form of slavery. To avoid experiencing bodily passions, they avoided women altogether. They also fasted from meat and wine, believing that this kind of food and drink might stir their passions. They believed that their denial of the body gave them the special ability to interpret what they described as the allegorical meanings behind Mosaic law, which they referred to as the true knowledge. They justified their interpretation by referring to seemingly endless genealogies through which they claimed to be the descendants of Zadok. (see references to Farnell, Ferguson, Jones, and Cook, as cited in Edwards, 2013)3
Paul’s Corrective Teaching on the Abuse of Authority
The epicenter for this form of religious asceticism was Ephesus, the city where Timothy preached the gospel. It was to Timothy that the apostle Paul wrote his letter warning against false teaching, endless genealogies, and forbidding marriage and the eating of certain foods. (Click here to read more on the heresies infiltrating the church at Ephesus.) He urged Timothy to protect the church from people who claimed to be teachers of the Law but did not know what they were talking about (1 Timothy 1:3-7, 4:1-5, 6:20-21). Given the history and context of the region we have just reviewed, his warnings were well-deserved.
Paul also warned against “a woman” teaching and practicing something he called “authentein” against “a man” (1 Timothy 2:12). In the 4th Century, St. Jerome translated “authentein” as “dominari,” which means to dominate or exercise dominion over a man. While “dominate” suggests an abusive form of authority, most recent translations of the Bible remove all negative connotations from the Greek word “authentein”, translating it as “exercise authority.” But throughout the history of Greek Literature, particularly from 200 B.C. to 200 A.D., authentein represented something notoriously violent.
In his 2010 book, “Insight into Two Biblical Passages: The Anatomy of a Prohibition, 1 Timothy 2:12, the TLG Computer, and the Christian Church”4 Wilshire notes that authentein had the following meanings:
– “doer of a massacre”
– “author of crimes”
– “perpetrators of sacrilege”
– “supporter of violent actions”
– “murderer of oneself”
– “perpetrator of slaughter”
– “slayer of oneself”
– “perpetrator of evil”
– “one who murders by his own hand”
Given this understanding of “authentein” and the religious history of Ephesus, it is unlikely that Paul was warning against women (in general) “exercising authority” over men in the church. It is more likely that along with his warnings against false teaching, mythology, and forbidding marriage and the eating of certain foods, he was also warning against an abusive form of power.
On Creation and Childbirth
Some also question Paul’s reference to the creation narrative in 1 Timothy 2:13-14. In the religious culture of Ephesus, life had its origin in Cybele, a woman, and sin originated with various male gods, including Cybele’s unfaithful consort, Attis. There is evidence that by the second century A.D. these beliefs had begun to distort the creation narrative in some communities (Chapman as cited in Edwards 2013).5 So Paul reminds the church that Adam–the first man–was also a source of life; and that Eve–the first woman–also played a role in humanity’s downfall. What’s more, women who worshiped Artemis called upon her to “save them in childbirth.” For centuries, the church has wrestled with Paul’s reference to being “saved in childbearing” in 1 Timothy 2:15. Understanding the language and context of Paul’s letter sheds light on this mystery. (Here’s more on the phrase saved in child-bearing.)
I don’t believe it was Paul’s intent to promote a male-dominated system of church governance or to blame women for the problem of evil. Paul welcomed women as partners in ministry and penned words of resounding equality: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28, NIV)
1. Murphy, E. (1989). A Translation with Notes of Book II of the Library of History of Diodorus Siculus.
2. Yardly, J. (1994). Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press.
3. Edwards, B. (2013). Let My People Go, A Call to End the Oppression of Women in the Church, Revised and Expanded. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DV2JRHQ
4. Wilshire, L.E. (2010). Insight into two biblical passages: Anatomy of a prohibition 1 Timothy 2:12, the TLG computer, and the Christian church. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc.
5. Edwards, B. (2013). Let My People Go, A Call to End the Oppression of Women in the Church, Revised and Expanded. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DV2JRHQ
Edwards, B. (2013) cites the following sources:
Chapman, J. (1911). Montanists. In the Catholic encyclopedia. New York, NY: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved March 28, 2013 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10521a.htm.
Cook, K. (1886). The fathers of Jesus: A study of the lineage of the Christian doctrine and traditions. London, GB: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co.
Farnell, L.R. (1977). The cults of the Greek states: Volume II. New Rochelle, NY: Caratzas Brothers, Publishers.
Ferguson, J. (1970). The religions of the Roman Empire. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Jones, A.H. (1985). Essenes: The elect of Israel and the priests of Artemis. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc.
Online Resources on 1 Timothy:
1 Timothy 2: Ten Talking Points
5 Reasons to Stop Using 1 Timothy Against Women
First Timothy 2:12 in Context five-part series by Margaret Mowczko
First Timothy 2:12, the Ordination of Women, and Paul’s Use of Creation Narratives by John Jefferson Davis
Insight into Two Biblical Passages: Anatomy of a Prohibition 1 Timothy 2:12 (link to the 2012 Kindle version of Leland Wilshire’s 2010 study)
LCMS Report on Authentein by Suzanne McCarthy
This post was adapted from an original article on Bob’s website.
I really appreciate Luis’ comments on the “Theology of the Body.” I agree that matriarchy and patriarchy are both harmful. In fact, they are the same system of inequality; one simply inverts the roles of the other.
What I have noticed throughout my reading of the earliest commentaries is that the patriarchal norms of Greco-Roman culture were typically embraced as not only normative but god-breathed by some very influential theologians. Origen studied neo-Platonic philosophy alongside Plotinus. Plotinus wrote the books that most influenced Augustine. Augustine wrote the commentaries that most influenced Calvin. Calvin continues to exert a strong influence on complementarian evangelical scholars. All of these men have made sense of the Bible through the philosophical lenses of patriarchal Platonism. (Try saying that 5 times)
The Platonists were just as sexist and hierarchical as the “amazons.” They simply put men at the top of the spiritual/moral totem pole instead of women. Personally, I don’t believe this reflects God’s heart or his plan in creation. I don’t believe it is an accurate picture of how men and women should relate to one another “in Christ.” In Christ, I truly believe God wants the injustice of a gender-based authority structure to pass away. I believe he calls us to love and serve one another according to the gifts we have been given. This would be good news for men living under a Lydian matriarchy (especially if they felt “called to the ministry” and didn’t want to experience the customary “purification rites”). This is good news for women who still live in the shadow of Greco-Roman patriarchy.
Super interesting and relevant, but I am really confused about one thing in particular. How does this fit into the Greek Empire?
You quoted, “After conquering most of Europe, they also seized a number of city-states in Asia. Here they founded Ephesus.” It seems to me that if they “conquered most of Europe,” there should be a lot more historical data about this matriarchy. I can understand a female-dominated religious cult being a part of the history of that time and place, but if this was also political and that widespread, how has that been missed in the history books?
Speaking of, could you supply the name of this group? I would be interested in researching more myself.
I’m guessing you would have to start by researching the references provided. This could be related to mythology of that time period, but the existence of female dominated religion in Ephesus is well documented regardless of its original roots.
Yep. I understand a female dominated religious cult (and have seen some of that evidence myself), but it sounded more like a large matriarchal society from the way it was described as militaristic and political. That confuses me. Am I interpreting this article incorrectly?
Bob would be able to answer your questions better, but in the meantime here’s my two cents worth! I think the point of bringing up references to a matriarchal society was to provide more context for explaining the influence of the worship of Artemis in Ephesus. This helps us to understand that Paul might have needed to correct a bias that favored women at that time in Ephesus and may have contributed to an improper application of authority by some women in the church. What do you think? The only matriarchal society I’ve heard about from that time period is the so-called “Amazon women”, which many think was a myth. Myth or not, as we all know cultural beliefs can be hard to dispel!
Good questions here! Gail is correct that I brought up the social and political history of the region as a contextual backdrop. Nothing exists in a vacuum, culturally speaking. The matriarchal and ascetic cults of Asia Minor were one expression of a broader cultural norm. Throughout the history of this area, women were traditionally seen as superior to men, morally and spiritually. Creation myths depicted women as the source of life and purity. Male gods, in contrast, were depicted as the source of evil.
Throughout the long history of Cybele worship, female priestesses held more power than their male counterparts. Male priests also had to undergo castration, or they could not enter into the service of the goddess. Their male sexuality made them unclean. In regular festivals held in honour of the goddess, men were referred to as “the entertainment.”
While it is true that there are many legends/myths about “amazon” women (there are also some plays), we have historical accounts about their existence from Diodorus Siculus, Pompeius Trogus and Strabo. We also have archaeological finds (coins, artifacts, inscriptions on tombs and other buildings etc.) that support the history. One coin found just south of Ephesus, for example, highlights that Cybele was worshiped as the goddess who would save women in childbirth. Roman court documents detail charges against male priests who continued to castrate themselves even when the practice was temporarily banned.
As for the influence of the Greek states on this region, it was very significant. Prior to the New Testament era, there was a military pushback that virtually eliminated the political power of matriarchal Lydia and Phrygia. The Greek states responsible were overtly patriarchal in nature. The matriarchal culture survived, however, through indigenous religious practices. This happened through the New Testament period, despite Greek attempts to Hellenize the worship of Cybele by referring to her as Artemis. Farnell, author of “The Cults of the Greek States” does an excellent job of explaining how these cultural norms met, clashed and to a certain degree blended, particularly in Ephesus. He details extensive syncretism in the region, and it is apparently this kind of syncretism that the apostle Paul is warning Timothy about.
I hope that sheds some light on the questions :).
One reason that John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” is appealing to me is the perfect balance between male and female humans. Without using these terms, I think it clearly shows that both radical patriarchy and radical matriarchy are wrong in understanding the divine plan for humanity. Both men and women are images of God, and the image shines forth in greater splendor when man and woman live in inter-personal communion.
Thanks, Bob! Fascinating stuff 🙂
Thank you to Luis for sharing those resources. They look like something I would very much like to read. Also, I had an interesting experience today. Shopping in a local dollar store, I came across a candle holder with a famous image of Cybele and Attis. It was portrayed, however, as the virgin Mary and baby Jesus. Evidently, the evidence of early syncretism between Christianity and the goddess cults of Asia Minor remains with us. Uncanny.
A great article. I only wish it was longer. I got into it…and then it ended too quickly.
Thankfully I am of a totally egalitarian mind and have a husband who thinks the same way. Recently, however, we moved into a town when women (in church circles) are viewed as being a little lower and less perfect creation than men. We have heard statements, such as “I would never follow a woman in leadership.” “A nation with a female leader would suffer.” Women are too emotional.” “Female preachers are the only ones who want equality.” “Female preachers are the ones who condone sinful behavior,” and the list can go on. When I heard these things, I felt like the very breath was sucked out of my lungs, and I was left speechless on the backward thinking. It is not coincidentally, then, I think that I also observed that the local churches here do not grow much. But…I digress.
Thank you, Bob!
Hi Elena, a longer version of the article is available. Gail provided a link to it above. You can click on the word “original” referring to “original article.” I hope you enjoy that as well :). I’m not sure if it’s possible to share the link in this message, but I’ll give it a try: http://equalityinchrist.wordpress.com/2014/04/13/ending-the-gender-wars-through-unity-in-christ-a-review-of-history-and-the-new-testament-regarding-the-ongoing-struggle-for-power-between-men-and-women/
That goddess worship infiltrated a patriarchal Jewish-Christian community sounds a bit unrealistic to me. Could you kindly provide more background information and/or references to sources?
Luis, that is a legitimate question. I found the link under the section title Paul’s Corrective Teaching that says “click here to read more on the heresies infiltrating the church at Ephesus” to be very helpful on this, as it provides a lot more information on your question. Also see the end notes that were provided.
It is my understanding that this kind of syncretism (blending things from two religious belief systems was not unusual for Greeks. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syncretism#Ancient_Greece
It seems to me that Paul makes it clear something strange is going on – in 1 Timothy 1:3-4 he writes “As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies.” I didn’t interpret Bob to say goddess worship was infiltrating the church, but rather that some of the false teaching related to that religion was showing up – myths and geneologies. I’ve also heard that the teaching addressed could have been Gnosticism. Either way, it seems the issue was false teaching more than women teaching. Would you agree?
Historians Farnell and Ferguson do an excellent job of documenting the religious syncretism that was commonplace in Asia Minor through the New Testament era. Jones especially does an excellent job of demonstrating how some of the beliefs and practices of indigenous Lydians and Phrygians appeared to influence the Judaism of those exiled to the region in the 2nd century B.C.. Josephus provides us with historical information about the exile.
The syncretism most relevant to Paul’s concerns entailed a dualistic form of asceticism practiced initially by the priests of Cybele, later by a Jewish sect in Asia Minor and then finally by Christians.
The essential belief was that the body and its appetites were evil; whereas the spirit was good. Denying the body would bring people closer to deity, and they claimed to then receive special revelation knowledge (gnosis) from the deity of their choice.
Priests of Cybele had to deny their sexuality for life through ritual castration. They would then enter into trance-like states and prophesy the will of the goddess. The Jewish sect evidently influenced by this culture also practiced strict asceticism, shunning marriage, practicing celibacy and fasting from rich foods. They claimed to receive special knowledge concerning the allegorical meanings behind Mosaic law. They claimed to be teacher of the law, and attempted to justify their authority by appealing to long genealogies, allegedly showing a connection to the priestly line of Zadok.
All of this synctretism is known to have been prevalent in Asia Minor during the New Testament period. There is also evidence that by the 2nd century in Lydia and Phrygia, communities calling themselves Christian were practicing the same form of ascetic dualism. They abstained from sex, shunned marriage, fasted and claimed that these practices gave them revelation knowledge. One of the leaders of such a sect was allegedly a former priest of Cybele.
I think our theological traditions have lost sight of this contextual information, largely because of their spurious focus on the alleged dangers of female leadership. I’d like very much for this historical data to become more well-known. I’m very thankful to the Junia Project for helping to share it.
In my book mentioned in the endnotes (above) I devote roughly 30 pages to this subject.
I also think we forget that many of the shrines in and around Ephesus that were once dedicated to Cybele are now dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Cybele was the “mother of the gods.” Mary became known as “the mother of God.” Prayer to Mary as the mother of God originated here, and her priesthood must remain celibate. They also practice regular fasts and assume that as priests, they have special insight into the meaning of God’s word. When I was reviewing archaeological data regarding this apparent example of syncretism I came across a statue of Cybele and her child consort Attis that had simply been relabeled, “Mary and Jesus.” Some priests who embraced an ascetic spirituality within Christianity also allegedly castrated themselves, just like the priests of Cybele before them. In the 1st and 2nd centuries, this was viewed as syncretic and heretical. By the 4th century, however, ascetic dualism had become much more widely accepted. Eventually, it became mandatory. One book that explores this history, and even relates it to modern practice is here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0801899664/ref=s9_simh_se_p14_d0_i4?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=search-desktop-advertising-no-results-center-1&pf_rd_r=1BN8DVZA95DGX37G0GFY&pf_rd_t=301&pf_rd_p=1912906122&pf_rd_i=favazza%20ritual%20self-harm%204th%20edition
Very instructive feedback, thanks! This brings to mind two books by Jennifer McKenzie about the linguistic evolution of Old Testament texts to convert feminine pronouns to masculine pronouns in the process of suppressing female Goddesses in favor of the male Hebrew God. I suspect this process was probably one of in which there were many reactions and counter-reactions over time. Just in case:
I Will Love Unloved: A Linguistic Analysis of Woman’s Biblical Importance
J. J. McKenzie, University Press of America, February 1994
A Gender Neutral God/ess: Be Inclusive but MAKE NO IMAGES was the Religious Change
J. J. McKenzie, Amazon Digital Services, August 2012 (Kindle Edition)
The separation of religious patriarchy/matriarchy from revealed truth may be the most difficult and most urgent issue facing the Christian churches today.
Wow! Thanks for these great resources Luis. This really helps us understand the context better.
I really appreciate this, Bob. Thank you.
You’re welcome Cara, it does my heart good to share this information. I think it’s important to understand the original language and context of the biblical books. Those who don’t do this can make the Bible say whatever they want. My impression is that this is exactly what has been done by too many theologians (all male) throughout church history.
Thanks for this thoughtful exploration of Timothy’s context!
Very happy to share, and I’m glad you enjoyed it Katie.