In the spring of 2014, in a small courtroom in the quiet town of Public Opinion, Ohio, 1 Timothy 2:12 stood trial. The charge? Discrimination against women and crimes against humanity. You probably remember reading about it in the paper.
I was a cub reporter in those days, still wet behind the ears and eager to prove my mettle. I was working the local beat before heading to the big city to make my name.
It was one of those warm April afternoons, the kind that makes you forget about winter and makes you want to walk a little slower between your car and the office. Yellow daffodils paved the courthouse lawn, fighting off a few purple iris rowdies. I had bought a sandwich from Sam’s—pastrami and Swiss in greasy paper—and was thinking about one thing and one thing only: whether the Buckeyes would have a fighting chance at the College World Series.
The Court of Public Opinion wasn’t much to look at: stone building, dark wood rooms in need of natural lighting, the usual set-up with judge’s bench, jury box with a dozen nondescript people, and spectator seating. You’ve probably seen something like it in your town.
I wasn’t expecting much.
I sat off to the side where I could wedge my feet against the back of the bench in front of me and eat my sandwich with a reasonable expectation of privacy. I laid my pen and yellow legal pad next to me and started to unwrap the sandwich. That’s when the bailiff stepped into the room.
I dropped the sandwich and stood with the dozen or so other loosely affiliated spectators you’d expect to see on a nice Monday afternoon. Soon I forgot about my sandwich or my notes.
The bailiff’s voice rang out: “The case of 1 Timothy 2:12 vs. Women and Humanity. The honorable Brabus Evenly, presiding.”
The judge glided in from his chambers, gown billowing.
We settled heavily.
I glanced at the defendant’s table. A middle-aged man sat in an ill-fitting suit next to his attorney. I was surprised to see that she was a woman–a Ms. Sharp. “Crimes against women?” I thought. “Did she not get the memo?” I could only see the back of her head—blond hair in a tight French braid—but she looked put-together and more intelligent than the court of Public Opinion usually attracted.
I turned to the prosecution. Three attorneys sat at the gleaming table, all in expensive suits and snappy accessories. The chief prosecutor—the one in the middle—was also a woman. “Ms. Candide,” read the nameplate on her desk. She wore a sharp black blazer, starched white blouse, and had red hair pulled severely back.
After opening arguments—the substance of which I forget but which you can read in the newspapers—the prosecutor called her first witness: a Ms. Harriet Spielman from Cumquat, Ohio.
Witness 1: Ms. Spielman
After taking her oath, Ms. Spielman sat down in the witness stand, her face red and her hands tugging at her dress.
“Ms. Spielman,” said the prosecutor, “can you tell me about your church?”
“Yes ma’am. It’s a Baptist Church. About 200 people. Pastor’s from one of those big seminaries down south.”
“And this pastor is a man, I presume?”
“Yes ma’am. We’ve always had a man for a pastor.”
“I see. And when this pastor retires or leaves, who will be your next pastor?”
“I’m not sure.”
“I mean, will you have a male or a female pastor?”
Ms. Spielman chuckled. “Oh, it will be a man, all right. That’s all we’ve ever had, and it’s all we ever will have, you can be sure of that.”
The prosecutor looked at the jury, then back at Ms. Spielman.
“And why can we be sure of that, Ms. Spielman?”
“Why, because of Mr. 1 Timothy sitting over there. He says that a woman can’t teach a man or have authority over a man. Plain as the hand in front of your face.”
“And has anybody in your church ever questioned this idea, Ms. Spielman?” The prosecutor sounded gentle, like she was petting a kitten.
“Oh no! How could we? It says so in the Bible and we fear God. There won’t ever be a female pastor in our church, you can be sure of that.”
The prosecutor cocked her head to the side. “But Ms. Spielman, surely you know that other churches have female pastors.” She walked back to her desk, picked up a sheet of paper, and began to read: “The Lutherans, for example. Or the Methodists. Episcopalians. Assemblies of God. African Methodist. Mennonites. The Vineyard Movement. The Presbyterian Church, USA. Pentecostal Holiness Church. Wesleyan. United Church of Christ. The Quakers.” She walked back to the witness stand. “These groups compose millions and millions of Christians. Do you think your church of 200 people is right and all these millions of people are wrong?”
“I don’t know about that,” said Ms. Spielman. “And I can’t speak for the hearts of those folk. But I know that we Baptists fear God and take the Bible as his inspired word, without error. And since it says there in 1 Timothy 2:12 that women can’t teach or have authority over men, why, that’s what we have to follow.”
“But do you think all these other folks are wrong in what they’re doing? Aren’t they captive to the Word of God, as you say you are? Don’t you ever wish that a woman who clearly has the gift of leadership could lead in the church?”
Ms. Spielman looked flustered. “It doesn’t matter what anyone else does. Doesn’t matter what we think. Doesn’t matter what we wish. Our conscience is captive to the Word of God. And anyway, women in our church can lead. They lead the children’s ministry and women’s groups. We even have some deaconesses who help out planning the potlucks and visiting the sick.”
“But don’t you feel like you’re missing out, Ms. Spielman? That you’re being discriminated against? Don’t you feel offended that you can teach women and children the Word of God, but never a man? Don’t you think Paul was a misogynist and that the Church has oppressed women and that this all misrepresents the heart of God?”
“Objection!” shouted the defense. “I don’t see how the Church’s behavior through history can be pinned on my client. The Church has done a lot of things in the name of God which are not reflective of scripture.”
“Sustained,” said the judge. “Ms. Candide, I ask you to keep your questions to the exact text and direct application of 1 Timothy 2:12.”
Ms. Candide nodded. “Thank you, Ms. Spielman. No further questions.”
The judge looked at Ms. Sharp. “Does the defense have any questions for the witness?”
“Not at this time.”
Ms. Spielman climbed down from the box and returned to the gallery. A man in a flannel shirt patted her shoulder and put his arm around her. She looked winded.
Witness 2: Dr. Erudite
The prosecutor called her second witness: a Dr. Erudite, from the religion department at the local university.
After taking the oath, Dr. Erudite sat in the witness box, cool and composed, red tie matching his brown herringbone jacket.
Ms. Candide smiled. “Dr. Erudite, can you state your name and occupation for the record?”
“Dr. Bart D. Erudite,” he said. “James T. White professor of Religious Studies at Wheatgerm College. Expert in New Testament Studies and Greek.”
“Thank you, Dr. Erudite. In your opinion, has 1 Timothy 2:12 been the flagship verse used to support Hard Complementarianism and the oppression of women in the church?”
“Objection!” shouted Ms. Sharp. “The opinion of the professor can hardly be called evidence in this trial of my client and his supposed crimes against humanity.”
“Overruled,” said the judge. “Dr. Erudite’s opinion is germane because of his field of expertise. If he has thoughts about this, I’d like to hear them.”
Ms. Candide smiled. “Thank you, your honor. Dr. Erudite, in your expert opinion, is 1 Timothy 2:12 the primary proof-text for the church’s discrimination against—and oppression of—women?”
The professor furrowed his brow. After the exchange between attorneys, he seemed to pick his words even more carefully. “While I can’t say that it is the cause of all oppression and discrimination against women in the church, it seems to me the primary verse used to prevent women from attaining roles of leadership such as pastor or elder in the church. Insofar as women may be gifted for or desire such positions, I would say that this verse creates a glass ceiling and may even lead to harsher interpretations which can result in abusive behavior toward women.”
I looked quickly at the defense and saw Timothy’s shoulders slump. He shook his head slightly and whispered something to his attorney.
“Indeed,” said Ms. Candide. “And do you find any evidence from sociological studies to affirm the stated reason for 1 Timothy 2:12, namely, in verses 13-14 where the author appeals to the biblical account of the created order and the deception of Eve as justification for why women should be prohibited from teaching or having authority over men?”
“Objection!” the defense attorney said. “The doctor is not an expert in sociology, nor are we discussing verses 13 and 14, per se.”
“Do you have any background in sociology, Dr. Erudite?” the judge asked.
“I do on this particular topic, your honor. I have teamed with Dr. Ernst Humboldt, renowned sociologist at the University of Cornucopeia, to study deception in both men and women. In our studies, men are just as likely—or sometimes even more likely—than women to be deceived by a stranger.”
“Very well,” said Judge Evenly. “I’ll allow the doctor’s opinion on this particular matter.”
Ms. Candide stepped back. “No further questions, your honor.”
“Does the defense have any questions for the witness?”
“Not at this time, your honor.”
The Prosecution’s Final Witness
After Dr. Erudite stepped down from the stand, the prosecutor called her third witness, and the courtroom filled with excited rustling: it was 1 Timothy 2:12.
He stood and shuffled over to the witness stand.
The bailiff brought a Bible and administered the oath: “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”
“State your name, age, and occupation for the record.”
“1 Timothy 2:12. 1,950 years old, but,” he smiled, “that depends on your calendar. I’m a descriptive and prescriptive Bible verse written by the Apostle Paul.”
I noticed he had a thick accent, hard to place.
The prosecutor stood in front of the stand, her arms crossed. “Mr. Timothy, you realize, don’t you, that you have injured and oppressed millions of women since you were penned?”
“Objection!” Timothy’s lawyer jumped to her feet. “It is for the court of Public Opinion to decide Mr. Timothy’s guilt or innocence. My client cannot be asked to self-incriminate.”
“Sustained,” Judge Evenly said. “Pursue another line of questioning, Ms. Candide.”
“Very well. Mr. Timothy, doesn’t your text read, ‘But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man. She must remain silent.’?”
He shifted in his seat, eyes quizzical. “Is that how you translate it?”
“Mr. Timothy, a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ will be fine.”
“But it is not so simple,” he said. He had a mustache that curled up in beautiful little handlebars, and he began to twist one of the ends. “I am an immigrant, after all, and my English is imperfect. I understand that there are various ways to translate my verse into English. I was written first in Greek, you see, and the word you translate ‘woman’ can also be translated ‘wife.’ And then there’s the matter of ‘authority,’ which more precisely…”
Ms. Candide stiffened. “That’s enough, Mr. Timothy!”
Judge Evenly chimed in, “Mr. Timothy, you will stick to simple answers. The defense will have an opportunity to cross-examine.”
Timothy nodded. “Very well. But since I am Greek, should I not be judged in Greek and not in English? After all, it hardly seems fair to prosecute me for a translation performed by other men and for actions done by others. Why are the translators not in this seat?”
“Because they’re all dead, Mr. Timothy, and you remain distressingly alive,” said Ms. Candide.
“But I am Greek, and you are American,” said Timothy. “It doesn’t seem fair to judge me for the work of other men. Better to judge me in the context of my peers—the context in which I was written, and the culture in which I was born.”
“Mr. Timothy, your words have been used by all subsequent generations to subjugate and oppress women: from the early church fathers to the Catholic Church to the Protestant Reformation to the modern day evangelical church. Do you really expect this courtroom to believe that in your day your words meant something entirely different, and that women were free to lead in the church? Seriously?”
Timothy shrugged. “Believe what you want. But to be fair you must judge me in context, and in Greek. Never judge a verse by its abuse, but rather by its original intent.”
“So you deny the accuracy of the translation I just quoted?”
Timothy looked at his attorney.
She nodded her head.
“I do,” he said. “It’s inaccurate.”
Ms. Candide looked frustrated. “So are you telling the court that the traditional English translations have completely mistranslated you? Does that sound very reasonable? After all, each English translation was the product of a team of experts…”
“…each of whom was a product of his particular culture and who possessed his own particular biases,” Timothy interrupted. “But I was written in Greek, so you should judge me in Greek and not in English. It is no fault of mine that I was mishandled.”
“Are you telling me that the entire Bible is untrustworthy? If your verse has been so grievously mistranslated, how can we assume that other passages are unaffected? Does everyone have to know Greek to get the gist of God’s Word? Wouldn’t that just give us a billion different translations?” She seemed genuinely puzzled.
Timothy looked unruffled. “No translation is perfect in every regard. It’s a dynamic process. Translators are just people, locked in their own culture and with their own particular traditions and biases. They all do their best, and that’s pretty good—especially in regard to major doctrinal points. By working in teams they pool their expertise and help cancel out personal biases. But in my case, they got the translation somewhat wrong. On the other hand, they got it sort of right, too, but that’s because…”
The prosecutor interrupted. “So how would you translate yourself?”
“Objection!” Timothy’s lawyer shouted. “Self-incrimination.”
“Sustained,” said the judge.
“Actually, I don’t mind,” said Timothy. “I think it might…”
“No!” said his lawyer.
Timothy looked surprised. “But…”
“No,” she repeated.
He shrugged his shoulders.
The prosecutor sighed. “No further questions, your honor.”
Judge Evenly raised an eyebrow. “No further questions? Very well, Ms. Candide. Does the defense have any questions for the witness?”
Timothy’s lawyer shook her head.
The judge nodded. “You are dismissed, Mr. Timothy. Does the prosecution have any other witnesses?”
“The prosecution rests.”
“Then the defense may call its first witness. Ms. Sharp, whom do you call?”
The defense attorney stood. “I call only one witness, your honor. Dr. Ken Keener, professor of New Testament at Hosanna Bible College. He is a Greek scholar and also a world-renowned expert on the cultural background of first-century Ephesus.”
A small, mouse-faced man walked to the witness stand. After taking the oath, he sat in the box, all elbows and thick glasses.
Ms. Sharp said, “Dr. Keener, you’ve studied 1 Timothy 2:12 for quite some time, isn’t that right?”
Keener looked over at Timothy and smiled. “Indeed. You could almost call us old friends.”
“And you have a different interpretation of the verse?”
“Could you share that with the Court, please?”
Keener shifted in his chair. “Certainly. The word in this verse for ‘authority’ is not the normal term Paul uses elsewhere in his writings. In fact, it is the word authentein, which occurs only here in the New Testament. That makes it a little tricky to determine the exact meaning, but many scholars—and I am one of them—believe it has the nuance of ‘domineer.’”
“Objection!” said the prosecuting attorney. “What the doctor believes is not the question. Bible scholars for centuries have translated this word as ‘authority.’ Why would he be right and all of them wrong?”
The judge motioned for silence. “Do you have evidence for your opinion, doctor?”
“I do. If Paul had wanted to use the word ‘authority,’ he would have almost certainly used the word exousia, which means ‘power’ or ‘authority.’ It occurs dozens of times in his writings and was the common word with a clear meaning. For him to choose a different word—indeed, a unique word—strongly implies a different nuance in meaning. I believe authentein has the nuance to ‘domineer’ or ‘lord it over.’ In extra-biblical writings in the 6th century B.C., it meant ‘to initiate or be responsible for a murder.’ In the first century A.D., it usually meant ‘to be, or claim to be the author or the originator’ of something.”
“Very well,” said Judge Evenly.
“But there’s more,” said Keener. “Since Paul refers to the creation order in 1 Tim 2:13-14, it is not unreasonable to assume he may have had in mind Genesis 3:16 where God said that the woman would ‘desire’ her husband. When the Septuagint translators rendered the Hebrew for this verse into Greek, they chose the word kurio, which means to ‘lord it over’ someone else. The curse in Genesis 3 is not that a wife will desire her husband (what’s wrong with that?), but that she will want to lord it over him. Paul would have been well familiar with this translation.”
“Objection!” the prosecutor shouted. “Speculation!”
“Do you have more evidence that this may have been the apostle’s intent in 1 Timothy 2:12?” asked the judge. “Otherwise, I would have to agree that it sounds quite speculative.”
“In fact, I do,” said Keener. “The cultural background of Ephesus and the context of 1 Timothy 2:12 both provide clarity. Paul wrote to Timothy while the latter was staying in Ephesus. Ephesus was the center of the cult of Artemis—there were other cities who worshiped Artemis, but those were like franchises of the primary deity. Built in the 6th century B.C., the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. While Artemis has often been thought of as the goddess of fertility, in the Ephesus franchise she was actually the goddess of war and of childbirth. The ‘breasts’ on her sculptures appear to form scales of armor”—here the prosecutor snorted loudly, but Keener continued—“which also appear on certain statues of Zeus as pectoral armor.” He looked pointedly at Ms. Candide. “I have pictures if you want to see them.”
“Then I present Exhibit A, pictures of both Artemis and Zeus with this pectoral armor.”
The bailiff retrieved the photos from Ms. Sharp and brought them up to the judge. Judge Evenly looked at them, then held them up for the rest of the Court to see.
Ms. Candide walked up and scrutinized the pictures. “Looks like breasts to me,” she said.
Keener laughed. “I can understand that perception, but it doesn’t make sense that Zeus would have the same appendages. Artemis was a warrior goddess, and it makes more sense that these represent pectoral armor.”
“I don’t see what any of this has to do with 1 Timothy 2:12,” Ms. Candide said. “Your honor, can the defense’s witness please get to the point?”
Judge Evenly nodded. “The witness will please connect the dots for the benefit of the Court,” he said.
Keener sat straighter in the box. “Certainly. This is all part of the cultural background of Ephesus, the context Paul had in mind when he wrote the letter to Timothy. The adherents of Artemis were quite domineering towards men. They believed that women should rule over men, and they also believed that woman was created first, rather than man, since Artemis was born the day before her twin brother Apollo. And they believed that Artemis would protect women in childbirth if they prayed to her. Further, Jewish Gnostics in Ephesus believed that Eve was the illuminator of humanity because she was the first to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. She then supplied this gnosis (true knowledge) to Adam.”
Ms. Candide sighed loudly and rolled her eyes.
Keener looked around the room. “May I continue?”
The judge nodded.
“Okay. We see these same elements addressed specifically by Paul in 1 Timothy 2:9-15. In verses 8-11 he says that women should dress conservatively and modestly, practice good deeds, and learn respectfully. This would have contravened the practices of the brash, domineering adherents of the cult of Artemis. In verse 12, he says that Christian women in Ephesus should avoid domineering the men. Paul can’t mean that women must remain silent entirely, because in 1 Corinthians he permits them to prophesy and speak in tongues in the church. He also allowed Priscilla to teach Apollos; included Junia among the apostles; mentions Phoebe as a deaconess; appears to make provision for female elders (this is debatable—I won’t press the point); and greets numerous females as co-laborers in his work. For Paul to order all Christian women at all times to remain silent in the church would defy the rule of noncontradiction.”
Judge Evenly stared at Keener but said nothing. The jurors seemed lost. But Timothy, I noticed, was nodding his head vigorously during Keener’s soliloquy.
Keener continued: “In verses 13-14, when Paul talks about Adam being created before Eve, and about Eve being deceived (rather than enlightened), he directly opposes the corresponding Artemis and Gnostic myths. Remember that later, in 1 Timothy 4, Paul commands Timothy to have nothing to do with godless myths or endless genealogies. It is likely that these were the Artemis reverse creation myths he was referring to. Finally, in verse 15, Paul seems to use a quote, ‘she will be saved through childbearing.’ If it is a quote from the cult of Artemis, it solves the grammatical switch in number from the singular ‘she’ to the plural ‘they.’ The cultural background in Ephesus gives a strong reason for Christian women to especially fear childbirth. Perhaps Paul was saying that Christian women would not die in childbirth in Ephesus as a sign to the culture that Jesus was stronger than Artemis. Maybe it was a proof sign. It is not true of all women in all times.”
Keener fell silent and looked around at the Court. I couldn’t see Timothy’s face, but his ears rose in what had to be a wide smile.
It all seemed overwhelming to me. I wasn’t exactly sure what Keener had just said.
His lawyer stepped in. “So let me get this straight, Dr. Keener. You’re saying that 1 Timothy 2:12 is not guilty of oppressing women because Paul wrote the verse to address particular problems with a particular cultural context in mind?”
Keener nodded. “Exactly. All of this helps to explain 1 Timothy 2:12 in its biblical context as a culturally-specific command. All Scripture is for all time, of course, but not all Scripture is for all circumstances. We can extract some principles of relating respectfully to one another in this verse, but it was never meant to apply to all people at all times. The verses around it help to explain this. Faithful Christian women have sometimes died in childbirth down through history, and faithful women have sometimes taught men.”
Even Ms. Sharp seemed stunned with everything Keener had said. She turned toward the judge. “I have no further questions, your honor.”
The judge looked over at Ms. Candide. “Would the prosecution like to question the witness?”
Ms. Candide stood. “Yes, your honor. Just one question.” She walked to the witness stand and stood in front of it. “Dr. Keener, if you put a brick on your car’s accelerator and forget to take it off, are you liable for the damage your car causes, even if you intended to hit the brakes?”
Keener looked confused. “Come again?”
“Objection!” shouted the defense. “Is counsel going somewhere with this?”
“I would appreciate a correlation, Ms. Candide,” said the judge.
The prosecutor stood with her hands on her hips. “Just this: even if everything Dr. Keener has said is true and 1 Timothy 2:12 is culturally-specific, it doesn’t say so explicitly in the text. The original audience might have known it was intended for a specific cultural scenario, but how are we supposed to ferret it out? No one ever put their foot on the brake to stop this verse, and look what damage it has caused to women for the past 2,000 years.”
“1,950!” Timothy piped up.
Ms. Candide ignored him. “Isn’t it reasonable in such a case, Dr. Keener, to hold Mr. Timothy responsible for the damage his language has caused?”
For a moment, Keener said nothing. Then he smiled and said, “Unless the car was hijacked.” He turned toward the jury and waved his hand in their direction. “But I suppose that is for the jury in the Court of Public Opinion to decide.”
I suppose I don’t have to tell you what the verdict was, do I? You probably already read about it in the papers.
As for me, I walked out of that courtroom with a lot to ponder. I was so busy thinking, I even forgot my pastrami sandwich. Left it right there in its greasy paper.
After a lot of thinking, I did come to a settled opinion about the whole matter–but I guess that’s a story for another time, isn’t it?