Wednesday, June 06, 2012

REPOST - All Translation is Interpretation


When I wrote Monday's post, I argued for a different "starting point" for discussing women in ministry than 1 Timothy 2:11-12. I left open-ended the question of "so what, then, do we do with this passage?" This post, originally written in 2006, is one attempt at an answer. As with all reposts for this "Week of Mutuality" event, I have updated the material somewhat.


When I was a student, briefly, at a Presbyterian seminary in Kentucky, my professor of exegesis constantly repeated the mantra, "all translation is interpretation." I have often found this to be true as I've learned more about Biblical studies and interpretation, but in few areas as obviously as in issues relating to gender equality.

Over the years, I have been able to spend quite a bit of time reading through some other people's experiences and views on the issue, and I generally find the experience to be highly enlightening. At one point several years ago, blogger Julie Clawson posted a link to a conference paper presented by respected evangelical theologian N.T. Wright at an event in 2004, providing a biblical basis for "Women's Service in the Church."

Any scholar attempting to deal seriously with this issue must, at some point, address Paul's words to Timothy in 1 Timothy 2: 8-15.* Here is the text of that passage from the TNIV, which readers may recall was often criticized by traditionalists for its "gender neutral" translation philosophy, which they feared would be used to undermine the Bible's "clear teachings" against women in church office (although the translation was, in fact, created by scholars from both sides of the "women in ministry" debate):
8Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. 9I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
11A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15But women will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
It is easy to see how even this translation, often used by people who do not generally believe that women "must be quiet" in church, nonetheless leaves us forced to look beyond the obvious meaning of the text if we are to finally be able to suggest that Paul "doesn't mean what people think he means" here. For example, egalitarians often suggest that Paul is telling gossips and contentious women that they must be quiet, but that this passage was never intended to be taken as a blanket condemnation of all women's speech.

But it's likewise easy to see why non-egalitarians are suspicious of such an interpretation. Paul's text does appear, on the surface, to be a blanket condemnation. Of course, egalitarians rightly point to other parts of Paul's letters, and the ministry of Jesus himself, to demonstrate that women were indeed regarded highly, even within the church. But the non-egalitarians often respond that they don't mean to treat women with any less respect (in spite of the fact that this is obviously what happens in many, many cases), but that God assigned specific roles to men and to women, and that these preclude a woman in a leadership role in a church.

The argument continues, and I don't expect it will end anytime soon. But N.T. Wright suggests in his paper a novel approach to this particular text. (He deals with a lot of other texts before getting to 1 Timothy in the paper, and I encourage you to read the whole thing. For now, I'm just dealing with the 1 Timothy text.)

N.T. Wright observes that there's a good chance that this text was very possibly intended to be sent to Timothy while Timothy was in Ephesus. Ephesus was known, first and foremost, as the city of Diana (or Artemis, depending on whether we're using the Roman or the Greek pantheon). Paul's experience in Ephesus in Acts 19:23-41 explicitly deals with this fact. (I actually wrote a Doctor Who short story about a decade ago that put the Fifth Doctor and one of his companions in the setting from this passage. I'm rather embarrassed by the preachy nature of the story now, but I mention it to note that I learned a fair bit about the Ephesus/Diana connection while researching that story.) Wright notes that one of the features of Artemis worship in Ephesus was female-only temples. If 1 Timothy was written into this context, that changes almost everything about how the passage is to be interpreted.

I'd invite you to check Wright's own words for the specifics of his reasoning, but so far as I can tell, its all exegetically sound and faithful to original Greek. Here's the translation he proposes for I Timothy 2: 8-15:

[8]So this is what I want: the men should pray in every place, lifting up holy hands, with no anger or disputing. 9In the same way the women, too, should clothe themselves in an appropriate manner, modestly and sensibly. They should not go in for elaborate hair-styles, or gold, or pearls, or expensive clothes; 10instead, as is appropriate for women who profess to be godly, they should adorn themselves with good works. 11They must be allowed to study undisturbed, in full submission to God. 12I’m not saying that women should teach men, or try to dictate to them; they should be left undisturbed. 13Adam was created first, you see, and then Eve; 14and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived, and fell into trespass. 15She will, however, be kept safe through the process of childbirth, if she continues in faith, love and holiness with prudence.
This allows women to hold roles just the same as men, but the emphasis is that they shouldn't become superior to men, just as men shouldn't become superior to women. In a context where it is culturally common to see temples where only women could worship, or hold leadership roles, this makes perfect sense, and this understanding would have been immediately obvious to Paul's audience. It was only as the text was translated into other languages by scholars increasingly removed in time and culture from this original context that this implicit understanding would have been lost. If this cultural understanding hadn't been lost, just imagine how much of the debate regarding women's ability to hold church leadership roles would be a non-issue! But as it is, we have centuries (even millennia!) of interpretive tradition that, in many cases, must be undone to even begin to talk about what Paul originally intended. Such a tragedy!

This post is the third intended to tie in with "A Week of Mutuality," hosted by Rachel Held Evans this week (the week of June 4-10) at her blog, rachelheldevans.comYou can head to this link to learn more about the project.

*There is considerable scholarly debate about whether or not Paul was actually the author of 1 Timothy. While I do not take a position on that debate here, I think that suggesting that Paul might not have been the author is neither relevant nor helpful to the discussion of whether or not women are called by God to church ministry. Even if Paul didn't write this passage, it remains a part of the Bible, and its position as part of inspired text remains undiminished. However, when egalitarians suggest that Paul perhaps didn't write this letter, it is often used by those opposed to their position as a sign that they do not take the Bible seriously enough. I would prefer to deny opponents that rhetorical weapon.

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