Bespoke Epistles: Part 2

Once upon a time, on June 21, 2017, Dalrock posted an article entitled “Straining out gnats” (PDF) in which he discussed 1 Timothy 2:12 with respect to women teaching and holding authority. For the first time, I decided to comment there. Here a piece of  my lengthy comment and my subsequent retort:

…and…

A few days later, Dalrock responded to my comments with his article “Bespoke Epistles,” which relentlessly mocked me for coming up with a contrived story. Dalrock even encouraged his commenters to mock me some more.

Yet, contrary to Dalrock’s claim, I didn’t invent the backstory. It remains a fairly common belief among both religious and secular historians. I had accurately portrayed this as a mainstream historical belief, but, it turns out, I was wrong about a number of things. So it’s probably a good thing that I’ve never used this argument since then, despite writing on this passage many times.[1]

The Historical Artemis

It is with some irony all around that the egalitarian feminist Marg Mowczko just posted “Sandra Glahn Debunks Myths About Artemis,” which absolutely rips apart a portion of this backstory: not because it is theologically questionable, but based on historical analysis.

It turns out that the following beliefs on Artemis are historically unfounded:

  • That Artemis was associated with prostitution.
  • That Artemis worship was explicitly anti-male and pro-female.
  • That Artemis was a fertility goddess.
  • That Artemis was a maternal figure.

But not everything about Artemis is a myth:

  • Artemis—who was not married—was a goddess of virginity.
  • Artemis was born first, and her brother Apollo was born second.
  • Artemis was a midwife who had the power to deliver babies safely.

Some of these may prove especially relevant:

“A woman must learn without causing a disturbance, by being in complete subjection. I do not permit a woman to teach or to impose authority over a man, rather she is not to cause a disturbance. For Adam was first formed, then Eve, and Adam was not deceived, but the woman, being thoroughly deceived, fell into transgression, but she will be saved through childbearing, if they continue in trust and love and holiness, with good judgment.” — 1 Timothy 2:11-15

On Historical Context

Dalrock believed that the Bible should be interpreted without consideration to factors outside of the pages of scripture. So, by Dalrock’s standard, if Ephesus contained the Temple to Artemis—and it did—then we may not reference the history of Artemis worship to help us understand 1 Timothy 2:11-15.

This is an unreasonable standard. Historical context is quite important.

The New Testament letters—like the mini-letters to the churches in Revelation—were written to specific congregations dealing with specific problems unique to them in specific cultural contexts. Imagine, for example, neglecting the relevance of the emancipation of women in Rome (e.g. Ephesians and 1 Peter), the role of slaves (e.g. Philemon; 1 Peter), the Roman custom of adoption (e.g. Galatians), the Roman military tradition (e.g. Ephesians; Philippians), and the significance of Pergamum being the seat of Satan to the prophecy of the beast (e.g. Revelation). Or consider this bespoke interpretation of Ecclesiastes 7:28 from the Amplified Bible.

And, of course, by examining the things we can confirm about Artemis, we can still see that Paul seems to be referencing cult of Artemis in 1 Timothy. And this helps us winnow out some of the common interpretations for the verse.

For example, the fact that Artemis was associated with a midwife who delivers babies safely, but was not concerned with maternal matters, we can conclude that whatever Paul was saying, he wasn’t saying that women should focus on raising their family rather than teaching men.

What all this demonstrates is that while we all think we know what is correct, to truly seek the truth at all costs we must always be ready go back, look at what we said previously, and be willing to modify it according to new evidence that comes to light.

Learning From One’s Errors

When I said…

There is no historical question that Artemis was the fertility goddess of Ephesus.

…I was wrong. Artemis was not the fertility goddess of Ephesus. But the rest of what I said was correct:

The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus is one of the 7 ancient wonders of the world. This isn’t even remotely controversial. It is mind-bending to say that the religious and cultural identity of the Ephesians has no bearing on this text. Without considering Artemis, it is unclear what being saved through childbirth means in v.15. It is anything but simple and clear as evidenced by the lack of consensus here and among theologians. Ignoring cultural context is blinding.

In one of the more hilarious points of my personal history, none of my arguments actually rested on Artemis being a fertility goddess. I mentioned it in passing, and then never mentioned it again. So while I was wrong, the rest of my statement has actually stood the test of time.

On the other hand, my other statement has aged quite poorly:

The Ephesians were dealing with the cult of Artemis which taught that woman was the originator of man. These women were trying to assert their dominance over men by teaching that man comes from woman. Verse 12 instructs the woman not to teach that she dominates a man due to the superiority of her gender. Now the applicability of verse 13 is obvious: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve” directly contradicting the cultist teaching. Verses 14 and 15 states that Eve was deceived, cursed with painful childbirth, and will be saved through faith in Jesus Christ (a man who came through childbirth).

This argument is almost certainly wrong. If I had written what I wrote on Dalrock on a post on this blog, I would have long since removed it or rewritten it.

See, I’ve written extensively about headship on this blog.[2] I probably write about it more than any other topic. In particular, I’ve noted that kephale connotes preeminence and firstness, not origination. In fact, it is this interpretation of 1 Timothy 2 (that women were the originators of man) that likely led me to spend so much time researching this topic! So, had I had the benefit of unlimited foresight, I might have written this to Dalrock instead:

The Ephesians were dealing with the cult of Artemis which taught that woman were preeminent or first over man. These women were trying to assert their dominance over men by teaching that woman came first (because Artemis herself came before her brother). They also taught that Artemis was a midwife who could save a mother from pain in childbirth. Verse 12 instructs the woman not to teach that she dominates a man due to the superiority of her gender. Now the applicability of verse 13 is obvious: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve” directly opposed how Artemis was born before Apollo. Verses 14 and 15 states that Eve was deceived, cursed with painful childbirth—directly opposing Artemis providing painless birth—and that she will be saved through faith in Jesus Christ (a man who came through a painful childbirth)—not from Artemis.

It’s interesting to compare the two, to see how it has changed since 2017, when I didn’t know what kephale meant and I was ignorant of the historical details of the cult of Artemis. I strongly suspect that even this hastily written interpretation is also fundamentally flawed, but it certainly appears to be much closer to the truth than the one I had first shared in Dalrock’s comment section so long ago.

Like the pursuit of true science, understanding scripture requires a firm and unyielding commitment to discovering truth, a never-ending process of refining one’s viewpoints, striving always to get closer to the truth. So long as you are always willing to challenge your own beliefs, getting it wrong is really no big deal. As long as you keep trying to get it right, heresy—which is unavoidable—just isn’t a big deal.

Dalrock’s mockery—an ad hominem—served no logically constructive purpose. It’s been almost seven years and it is still divisive. It always will be. When a feminist is more level-headed and intellectually rigorous, you know you have a problem. Seven more years from now, and the worst you’ll be able to say is that she was wrong.

Christians who attack the person and not the idea—especially if that person is reasonable—should be ashamed of their divisive behavior, which is not at all constructive. Such behavior rarely stands the test of time.

Footnotes

[1] My previous writings on 1 Timothy 2:11-15 include:

[2] See this index on Headship Submission.

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