Few passages provoke as much fervent debate as does 1 Timothy 2:11-15. At the same time, scholars acknowledge that the text’s meaning is far from straightforward. Interpreters can’t even agree about the cultural background that should inform our readings.
To compound problems, much written about Artemis of Ephesus (where Timothy is located) is manifestly wrong. Accordingly, debates about Paul’s meaning have been hijacked by distracting tangents that reinforce mistaken interpretations of 1 Timothy 2.
For convenience, I include 1 Timothy 2:11-15 (NRSV) below:
Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
Interpretations of 1 Timothy in Recent History
In the early 1990s, Richard and Katherine Kroeger argued that Paul’s comment “she will be saved through childbearing” served to counter an ancient fertility cult and sacred prostitution. Since then, writers have repeatedly asserted that the goddess, Artemis, was a symbol of motherhood and fertility. Egalitarians long used this historical reconstruction as a basis for their readings.
In reality, these claims are as mythical as Artemis herself. Following the publication of their book I Suffer Not a Woman, numerous scholars demonstrated the utter falsity of the Kroegers’ thesis.
Complementarians (i.e., those who think Paul universally prohibits women teaching and having authority over men in the church) seized on the fact that the Kroegers’ conclusions were discredited. Consequently, many complementarians dismissed arguments that suggest that Artemis lies in the background of 1 Timothy 2.
Glahn Sets the Record Straight
Though Nobody’s Mother is an academic book, it’s brief and surprisingly readable given the content. Because scholars have improved access to primary sources, Glahn draws on a wealth of material across multiple disciplines. As a result, she writes a comprehensive resource compiling the most up-to-date research on Artemis of the Ephesians.
Of the book’s 6 chapters, four (chs 2-5) share what can be learned about the Ephesian goddess from ancient stone inscriptions, literary materials, epigraphic sources as well as architecture and art. The final chapter applies the book’s findings to 1 Timothy 2, especially v. 15.
Glahn reveals a clear portrait of Artemis. First-century Ephesians did not see Artemis as a fertility goddess, yet her influence on Ephesus was unmistakable. Her celebrity was second only to Zeus. Above all, she was associated with chastity and virginity (not prostitution). A renowned hunter, women asked Artemis to save them from death by childbirth or else use one of her euthanizing arrows to end their lives painlessly. For this reason, she was regarded as a midwife.
Furthermore, Artemis is closely tied to the legendary Amazons, warrior women well-known for their courage and independence. This observation does not imply that Artemis was somehow anti-male or a proto-feminist of the modern variety.
Applying Artemis to 1 Timothy 2
After reading Nobody’s Mother, one can hardly make the case that Artemis did not factor into Paul’s thinking. Instead, Glahn shows multiple ways that Artemis might have shaped several of his letters. A refreshing part of this book is the way that Glahn humbly and honestly weighs various possible readings. Unlike countless other interpreters, she acknowledges that any interpretation of 1 Timothy 2 requires we think in terms of probabilities based on available historical evidence (not mere speculation).
So, what does Glahn conclude about 1 Timothy 2:15, “she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty”? (She has much to say about 2:11-14, but I am limited by time and space here.)
Concerning 2:15, Glahn argues that “she will be saved in childbearing” most likely represents a local idiom used by Ephesian women to express their hope for Artemis to deliver them during childbirth. However, Paul subverts the saying for his own purposes. He not only affirms the ability of Christ to rescue them during labor but also from death eternal.
For this reason, Paul underscores the point by adding, “The saying is sure” (3:1). Remember that chapter and verses were not added until many centuries later. Hence, “The saying is sure” could apply to what precedes it or what follows. Glahn gives several compelling arguments for why 1 Timothy 3:1 refers back to 2:15. For example, not only is this how fourth-century church father, John Chrysostom, understood Paul; but this reading also resolves Paul’s otherwise mistaken grammar (“she…they”) in 2:15.
For anyone interested in understanding ancient Ephesus and the cultural background of 1 Timothy, Glahn Nobody’s Mother is essential reading. Its sweeping survey of primary literature cuts through the speculation and misinformation that have plagued countless arguments about Paul’s message for women then and today.
The next post will look at ways that Glahn helps us to see Paul’s approach of contextualization.