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
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.
Limiting the Abuse of Authority
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 child-bearing” in 1 Timothy 2:15. Understanding the language and context of Paul’s letter sheds light on this mystery. (Here’s more on Paul’s use of the creation narratives and 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:
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
Be sure to check out Bob’s new book, A God I’d Like to Meet: Separating the Love of God from Harmful Traditional Beliefs. This post was adapted from an original article on Bob’s website.
- Confusing “Equality” with “Sameness”: A Complementarian Misconception - January 20, 2015
- 1 Timothy 2: Paul’s Original Language, Timothy’s Original Context - October 14, 2014
- What Equality in Christ Means for Men - April 9, 2014