Throughout history, the institutional church has been characterized by a male-dominated social hierarchy. Still today, some religious leaders insist that men must hold authority over women at church and in the home. This worldview has been so pervasive in the church 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?” Frankly, the answer is “yes.”
A 1st century B.C. historian by the name of Diodorus Siculus provides us with the following information:
“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. She would maim the arms and legs of male children, making them useless for service in war.” (as cited in Murphy, 1989, p. 58)1
Another historian from the 1st century B.C., Pompeius Trogus, supplies us with 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, out of contempt for the male sex…. Then, with peace assured by their military success, they entered into sexual relationships with surrounding peoples so that their line would not die out. Males born of such unions they put to death, but girls they brought up in a way that adapted them to their own way of life….
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
Historians Ferguson and Farnell write extensively about the religious traditions of this female-dominated culture in Asia Minor. They worshiped “the mother of the gods,” whose oldest name was Cybele. When the Greeks immigrated to the shores of Ephesus in Asia Minor, they began to call her by the name of one of their own deities; they called her Artemis.
The hierarchy of her priesthood was dominated by women. Men could become priests, but only if they first renounced their masculinity for life, through the act of ritual castration. Once they were castrated, they would periodically enter into trance-like states and become spokesmen for the goddess. In addition to being castrated (and celibate), they also abstained from certain types of food.
A historian from the 1st Century A.D., Josephus, observed that some of the Jews who had been exiled to Asia Minor in the second century B.C. began to incorporate some of the religious traditions of the native culture into their brand of Judaism. Like their Asian counterparts, 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. These allegorical meanings were referred to as the true knowledge of God’s law. They justified their unique interpretation of the Torah 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
The epicenter for this form of religious asceticism in Asia Minor was Ephesus, the city where Timothy preached the gospel. It was to Timothy, in Ephesus, that Paul wrote his letter warning against: false teaching, doctrines of demons, endless genealogies, forbidding marriage and the eating of certain foods. He urged Timothy to guard the gospel against that which was falsely called knowledge, and 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 of the region we have just reviewed, his warnings were well-deserved.
In his letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul also warned against “a woman” teaching and practicing something he called “authentein” against “a man” (1 Timothy 2:12).
Most modern Bibles translate the word “authentein” to mean “exercise authority.” This particular meaning can be traced back to earlier English, German and Latin translations of the Greek manuscripts. In the 4th Century, for example, 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 remove all negative connotations from the Greek word “authentein.”
Throughout the history of Greek Literature, particularly from 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. however, authentein represented something notoriously violent. Leland Wilshire documents this in his book entitled, “Insight into Two Biblical Passages: The Anatomy of a Prohibition, 1 Timothy 2:12, the TLG Computer, and the Christian Church.” According to Wilshire, 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”
(Polybius, Diodorus Siculus, Philo, Appian of Alexander, Irenaeus, Harpocration, Phrynicus, as cited in Wilshire, 2010).4
Similarly, in the Wisdom Literature of the Septuagint, “authentas” (the noun plural form of authentein) referred to the murder of children in worship to false gods.5
Given an accurate understanding of “authentein” as it was most commonly used from 200 B.C. to 200 A.D., and given the religious history of Ephesus–the intended destination of Paul’s letter–is it likely that Paul was warning simply against women (in general) “exercising authority” over men in the church? Frankly, I don’t think the evidence supports this opinion.
It is much more likely that along with his warnings against false teaching, deceiving spirits, mythology, forbidding marriage and the eating of certain foods, he is also warning against an abusive form of power, traditionally held by women, that was historically expressed through acts of violence against men—ranging from murder to ritual emasculation.
Furthermore, women who worshiped Artemis or Cybele in Ephesus 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 seems to shed important light on this mystery.
Similarly, the church has questioned why Paul makes reference to the creation narrative in 1 Timothy 2:13-14. In the religious culture of Ephesus, all life and purity had its origin in Cybele, a woman. All sin originated with various male gods, including Cybele’s unfaithful consort, Attis. Women were viewed as life-giving and pure. Men were seen as evil, simply because they were men. To this female-dominated hierarchical culture, Paul explains that Adam–the first man–was also a source of life; and Eve–the first woman–also played a role in humanity’s downfall. According to Chapman (as cited in Edwards 2013) there is evidence that by the second century A.D. the cultural norms of Asia Minor had begun to distort the creation narrative in some faith communities calling themselves Christian.6
So, is it Paul’s intent to replace a historically violent female-led hierarchy with a male-dominated system of governance? Would he agree with some of the early church fathers that women rather than men should be blamed for the problem of evil? Absolutely not.
Rather than reinforce the social injustice of a hierarchy dominated by either gender, Paul 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) In Christ, the gender wars can finally come to an end.
1Murphy, E. (1989). A Translation with Notes of Book II of the Library of History of Diodorus Siculus.
2Yardly, 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
4Wilshire, 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.
5The Wisdom of Solomon (2013). In The Greek Old Testament (Septuagint). Retrieved April 28, 2013, from http//www.ellopos.net/elpenor/greek-texts/Septuagint/chapter.asp?book=29&page=12.
6Edwards, 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.