In my last post I argued that we need to understand Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man,” as something more than an isolated proposition. When we do pay attention to its literary and historical context, one of the first things we notice is that Paul immediately gives a reason for saying this: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve.”
So what? Why does it matter that Adam was formed first? Some have argued that Paul is invoking a principle of primogeniture, that is, the senior status and authority of the firstborn. Thomas Schreiner, for example, notes that Paul is alluding here to a passage in Genesis, which he says it’s one that “the Hebrew reader would be disposed to read . . . in terms of primogeniture,” implying a principle of male authority. Others have made similar arguments.
Now it is true that God establishes primogeniture as an important principle within Israelite society, which was supposed to be a model for the surrounding nations. Nevertheless, in his own inbreaking work of redemption, God repeatedly disregards this principle. For example, he chooses Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over his ten older brothers, Manasseh over Ephraim, Gideon over his older brothers, David over his seven older brothers, and so forth. So why would God uphold primogeniture as a governing principle in the community of Jesus’ followers, which is the very embodiment of his inbreaking work of redemption in our world today? (Indeed, the book of Hebrews describes this community as the “church of the firstborn,” suggesting that all members share this status corporately.)
Since this initial consideration of the context doesn’t really account for Paul’s statement, I propose taking a different approach. Let’s read the entire sentence in which it appears. Our English translations don’t always bring this out, but this famous statement is not an entire sentence in itself, but part of a larger one. It’s actually a dependent clause within that sentence, not even its main point. (So it shouldn’t ever be used as an independent proposition.)
Paul says (in the NIV translation, but following the punctuation of major critical editions of the New Testament), “A woman should learn in quietness in full submission; I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” In other words, Paul is primarily asking women to do something (“learn in quietness,” “be quiet”), and he only describes what he doesn’t want them to do secondarily, to help explain what he does want them to do.
It seems to me, therefore, that we can best understand what Paul doesn’t want women to do by appreciating as clearly as possible what he does want them to do. I’ll take this up in my next post.