Does the Bible say that women can’t teach or have authority over men? (Part 2)

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.

Does the Bible say that women can’t teach or have authority over men? (Part 1)

The prophetess Huldah answers the high priest Hilkiah’s questions about the Scriptures.  Was she allowed to do this?

It’s not difficult to read between the lines of my study guides (to Paul’s Journey Letters or to Paul’s Prison Letters, for example) and recognize that I believe there should be no restrictions on what women can do in communities of Jesus’ followers.  In the guides I acknowledge this as a question on which believers can legitimately differ, and I make every effort to explain both points of view so groups can discuss the issue amicably.  But I think my personal sympathies are probably pretty clear.

I’d like to make them even clearer here.  When a friend of mine saw this post in which Steve Holmes said that for him to defend the ministry of a woman like Phoebe Palmer “would be as ridiculous as a worm trying to defend a lion,” my friend commented how valuable it was for her to hear male biblical scholars affirming the ministry of women.  And so, particularly to encourage women who feel called to ministry, I want to add my own (male) voice in support of their calling.

In recent months, at the request of some friends, I’ve been blogging privately on this topic so we could discuss it together confidentially.  We’ve reached a point of resolution in our conversations, and so with their agreement, I’d now like to share my reflections publicly here.  The material from this formerly private blog is too long (17 posts, nearly 10,000 words) to appear in its entirely in this venue, so I’ll summarize it instead.  But I’ll provide links along the way to those fuller discussions, for those who are interested in pursuing specific points in more detail.  If you’d like to see it all (except for the original participants’ comments, which have been removed), it starts with this post.

Those discussion are more wide-ranging, but in these posts I’d like to focus more narrowly on the biblical statement that is most often taken to support restrictions on what women can do.  Paul writes in 1 Timothy, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man.”  Doesn’t that settle the question?

Actually, whether it does depends on what the Bible is and what we’re supposed to do with it.  If the Bible is essentially a collection of propositions, and if we’re supposed to isolate and collect these propositions in order to answer questions that we pose to the text ourselves about belief and practice, then this statement speaks pretty clearly and decisively to the question, “Should there be any restrictions on what women can do in communities of Jesus’ followers?”

Some further statements that apparently take the same position, although less explicitly, can be brought in for support (for example, “The head of every woman is man”).  Other biblical statements that seem inconsistent with this working conclusion can be accounted for somehow (“Deborah . . . was leading Israel at that time . . . and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided”).  But other passages aside, if we take this approach to the Bible, the statement in 1 Timothy is the definitive one that seems to settle the matter.

The problem is, the Bible is not a collection of propositions that we are supposed to isolate and collect in order to answer questions that we pose ourselves.  The Bible is instead a library of complete works, of greatly varying kinds, that as a whole tell the grand story of God’s initiatives over the course of human history to redeem fallen humanity, culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  (Seen in this way, the Bible has many more questions for us than we have for it, starting with, “What are you doing to join in this grand story?”)

Because this is the true character of the Bible, no biblical statement is true or valid in isolation.  Each one appears in the historical and literary context of an entire work of literature, itself placed within a grand overarching story, and so no biblical statement makes sense in isolation.  If we really want to understand what Paul meant by his statement in the first letter to Timothy and what its implications are for us today, we need to situate it in its historical and literary context.  That is what I will seek to do starting in my next post.

Why did God create Satan?

Q. Did God really know that Satan would rebel?  Why would such a monster be allowed to live?  I just don’t think He would have let Satan near His other angels, or more importantly, near His earthly creation.  I love my children, and if someone threatened them in any way I would do anything in my power to stop it. Satan went after Adam, and ever since then he’s been messing with people’s chances for salvation. God’s judgement was harsh on the enemies of the Israelites. Satan was and is much more wicked. Why hasn’t he been annihilated long ago?  Is God really more powerful?

It’s difficult for us to reconcile the belief that God supremely loves his creatures with the thought that God created a monster that he knew would wreak horrible and eternal devastation among them.

So how do we explain the creation and continuing existence of Satan?  Is God not all-knowing?  (He didn’t realize Satan would rebel?)  Or is God not all-powerful?  (He thought he could stop Satan but then wasn’t able to?)  Or is God simply not all-good?  (He doesn’t care whether his creatures are destroyed?)

I think the solution to this problem lies in appreciating the radical nature of the freedom that God has endowed each of His intelligent creatures with.  It’s hard for us to understand this because we are created and finite, but an eternal and infinite God can make creatures who are so free that their moral choices are not predetermined and so cannot be known in advance.

But isn’t God supposed to be omniscient and know everything, even the choices that we’re going to make?  No, it is no failure in omniscience not to know what cannot be known.  And the freedom God has given us is so radical and profound that the essential moral choices we will make cannot be known in advance.

Perhaps an illustration will help.  The question of how God can be all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good at the same time, and still allow Satan to exist, is comparable to another question that has often been asked about God:  If God is omnipotent, can God make a rock so big that he can’t move it?

The answer is “No.”  Not because God isn’t omnipotent and therefore can’t either make the rock or move the rock.  The answer is no because the contemplated action involves a logical contradiction and is therefore impossible, and it is no failure in omnipotence not to be able to do the impossible.

The logical contradiction is this:  Any created thing is by definition finite, including the largest rock God could possibly make.  A rock so big that God’s infinite power couldn’t move it would have to be of infinite mass instead.  But nothing can be both finite (created) and infinite at the same time.  This question is ultimately asking whether God can do the logically impossible (make something that’s “A” and “not-A” at the same time), and that’s something that by definition can’t be done.  (I’m not talking about miracles here; God can do what is naturally impossible and beyond the scope of any earthly power.)

It’s a similar logical contradiction to ask whether God can know in advance what choice a truly free moral agent will make.  Can God know what cannot be known?  No, no one can.

The implications of this are that when God created the great angel Lucifer, who became Satan when he chose to disobey, God didn’t know for a fact in advance that Lucifer would fall.  God’s intentions in creating Lucifer were not to turn a monster loose on his creation.  Rather, God intended Lucifer to be an agent of good and blessing just like the archangels Michael and Gabriel, who throughout the Bible are recognized, in glimpses at least, as powerful agents of God’s salvation.

Imagine what good Lucifer could have done if he had used all of his splendor, intelligence, and might to serve God’s purposes in the creation!  Imagine what any evil person could have done if they had used their powers in a positive way, and you’ll get a sense of what God had in mind when he created them.

Perhaps one question still remains:  Why would God give his creatures freedom if the consequences of bad choices would be so devastating?  Here’s the best way I’ve been able to understand this:  God knows, in a way that we cannot know, that a world in which there is freedom, and thus the potential for both love and suffering, is infinitely better than a world that has no freedom, and thus neither love nor suffering, and God also knows that these are the only two possibilities.

Anything beyond this is mystery.  But we don’t need to wonder about the goodness and power of God.

This post has generated a great deal of conversation.  For an exchange with a reader about this post, see this follow-up

For responses to the questions asked in the comment below about why a loving father would allow anything evil to tempt his daughter, see this post, and about whether God is so different in His dealings with us today as to be almost a different God from the one in the Bible, see this post.

For an answer to the question asked in another comment below about whether God knows in advance what choices the Antichrist will make, see this post.

Angel GlasgowThis photograph of an angel sculpture from a church in Glasgow suggests the beauty, power, and potential for good that Lucifer had when he was originally created. (Photo by Norma Desmond)

Is there any historical evidence that early Christians understood 666 to mean Nero Caesar?

There certainly are many different explanations of what the number 666 means in the book of Revelation.  So why should anyone believe that it means Nero Caesar, as I argue in this post, rather than something else?  There’s actually an intriguing bit of historical evidence that the earliest readers of the book understood it the way I’ve suggested.

The question of the meaning of the number 666 arose from a comment on a post I wrote about secret codes in the Bible.  This number represents a name and it comes from gematria, the practice in languages that use letters for numbers of adding up the total value of the letters in a word.  Gematria is something like a code, but there’s an important difference.

As a rule, if you know how a code works, you can decipher anything written in that code.  But in gematria, you need to know the likely subject of the code in order to imagine possible solutions and test their numerical totals.

It appears that early followers of Jesus understood the number of the beast in Revelation to indicate Nero Caesar (that is, to point to the imminent resumption of imperial persecution) because at least one early copyist seems to have known that this was the solution to the code, but couldn’t get the numbers to add up, and so wrote 616 instead, a number the copyist thought did work!

Here’s what likely happened.  As Bruce Metzger suggests in his Textual Commentary on the New Testament, “Perhaps the change was intentional, seeing that the Greek form Neron Caesar written in Hebrew characters is equivalent to 666, while the Latin form Nero Caesar is equivalent to 616.”  (The difference is the Hebrew letter Nun, which has a value of 50.)  Whatever copyist first introduced the change was thinking of Nero’s name in Latin rather than Greek, and so wrote in 616.

We don’t know when this variant reading first appeared, but it was quite early, since Irenaeus discusses it in Against Heresies, which he wrote around AD 180.  He notes that 666, not 616, is the number “found in all the most approved and ancient copies” of the book of Revelation, and that “those men who saw John face to face” attest to it.  So 616 was recognized early on as a change.  But that’s the whole point: it’s a change that was made so early it was likely introduced by someone who knew what Revelation wanted to say and who was trying to get the numbers to add up.

A fragment from p115, the earliest written attestation of the reading 616, indicated by arrow (courtesy Wikipedia)

The change in the text was copied into later manuscripts. The first written evidence we have of this reading is in an Egyptian papyrus fragment that dates to about AD 225-275.  The reading 616 also appears in Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, compiled about 200 years later, which is one of the four major uncial manuscripts that are key resources for New Testament textual criticism.

This variant reading provides a vital clue that the interpretation of 666 as gematria for Nero(n) Caesar is correct. The implications are, as I say in my Daniel-Revelation study guide, that the meaning of this number “has a unique solution based on the conventions of apocalypses and the facts of history.  Its main purpose is to delegitimize Domitian’s claims to divinity and to strengthen followers of Jesus who are being pressured by the emperor cult.”  The take-home message for us today is that we should be equally faithful in resisting anything that rivals our loyalty to Jesus.  But “the number 666 isn’t a coded biblical prediction of some invisible, demonic means of social control in the end times.”

Why would God give how-to instructions for things He didn’t want people to do?

polkadots

Q. I read your recent posts on slavery.  I appreciate how thorough they were, but I just can’t understand how God would give special instructions on how to buy and treat slaves if He really didn’t want the Israelites to own them.  He brought them up from Egypt and He could have just said, “Don’t do this to others.”

I think the analogy to divorce that I drew in my earlier post helps answer your question.  The Pharisees asked Jesus why the law of Moses commanded men to give their wives certificates of divorce.  Why give special how-to instructions if people weren’t supposed to get divorced at all?  Jesus explained that Moses hadn’t commanded this, he had permitted this, because of men’s hardness of heart. “But from the beginning,” he insisted, “it was not so.”

I think Jesus himself shows us by this teaching that the Bible is not “flat.”  That is, not every statement in the Bible equally expresses God’s intentions for human life.  The degree to which individual biblical statements should determine our conduct today varies. We need to assign them different weight, like the different sizes and shades of the dots in the design above (from Zazzle).

Some statements in Scripture express God’s highest and best intentions for us: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But other statements are concessions to the way we insist on living: “Your male and female slaves” (if you have any) “are to come from the nations around you.”

So very careful discernment among statements is required.  Jesus sets an example for us of distinguishing between things that are positively commanded and things that are merely permitted.  He also provides the basis for making this distinction by teaching us that the greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor.  Everything else needs to be measured by these positive expressions of God’s highest intentions.

I hope these further thoughts are helpful and I appreciate your concerns about this difficult issue.

What is the meaning of 666, the number of the beast in the book of Revelation?

In response to my last post about secret codes in the Bible, a reader commented that the number 666 in the book of Revelation is also an encrypted word.  That’s quite true. Let me summarize here what I say about this in my Daniel-Revelation study guide.

In many ancient languages, letters were used to represent numbers. (One example of this is the “Roman numerals” we know today: Super Bowl XLVI means Super Bowl 46.) Words and names in such languages had a total value, the sum of the values of their individual letters.  This total value could be used as a kind of  symbolic code in place of the word.  (This practice is known as gematria.) For example, as I discuss in an earlier post, the value of the Hebrew letters in Hezekiah’s name adds up to 130, and in tribute to him, 130 proverbs were placed in the collection that was created under his patronage.

As I’ve show in another post, apocalypses like Revelation evoke the symbolic significance numbers. 666 suggests having pretensions to divinity or perfection, but falling short of it, since it’s symbolized in the book by the number 7.  But whose name adds up to this total, revealing the hollowness of his pretensions to divinity?

To answer this question, we need to understand the book of Revelation in light of the first-century events that occasioned its writing.  The book was written to warn followers of Jesus, who had experienced persecution under Nero, that persecution would resume under the current emperor, Domitian. So they needed to be faithful unto death in order to win the crown of life. When the book is understood this way, its figure of a “beast” is recognized to be a depiction of Domitian as if he were Nero come back to life.

The number 666 is part of this depiction. John writes that understanding this code “calls for wisdom,” meaning that the puzzle has a trick to it. The secret is, even though John is writing his book in Greek, the numerical values will be those of Hebrew letters. As many scholars have recognized, the consonants of “Neron Caesar” in Hebrew add up to 666. Tagging Domitian with the name (or in this case, the number) of Nero is like drawing a Hitler mustache on a leader’s picture today.  Domitian thinks he’s “lord and God” (as he proclaims on his coins), but he’s really just another evil emperor.

So the meaning of the “number of the beast,” 666, has a unique solution based on the conventions of apocalypses and the facts of history. Its main purpose is to delegitimize Domitian’s claims to divinity and to strengthen followers of Jesus who are being pressured by the emperor cult. But evil rulers in other places and times may also revive the tyrannical spirit of Nero, and they’ll have to be resisted with suffering and endurance. That is the significance of the number 666 for all who live after the time of the book of Revelation.

For some historical evidence that the earliest Christians understood 666 to mean “Nero Caesar,” see this post.

For the significance of the number 144,000, see this post.

Nero 666

Is “Atbash code” found “throughout the Old Testament,” as Dan Brown claims?

Q. Dan Brown claims in The DaVinci Code (p. 304) that “text encrypted with Atbash” is found throughout Jewish mystical writings and “even the Old Testament.”  Is this true?

Sheshak

Thanks to reader Don Johnson (see comment below), I am now offering an updated version of this post.

Exactly two words in the Bible are encrypted in a code known as Atbash.

The name Atbash comes from the first, last, second, and next-to-last letters of the Hebrew alphabet: Aleph, Taw, Beth, Shin.  The name shows how this code works:  the first and last letters are substituted for each other; the same for the second and next-to-last letters; and so forth.

An equivalent code in English would be called AZBY:
A <-> Z,
B <-> Y,
C <-> X,
and so forth.
In AZBY the word “Bible,” for example, would come out “Yryov.”  This is how this kind of code works.

God gave the prophet Jeremiah the assignment of publicly announcing his judgment on the nations, including the Babylonian empire, which would soon conquer Jeremiah’s own country of Judah.  This assignment was fraught with danger for the prophet, so he spoke the word “Babel” (the Hebrew name for Babylon) in Atbash code, and it came out “Sheshak“:

“This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, said to me: ‘Take from my hand this cup filled with the wine of my wrath and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it. . . . After all of them, the king of Sheshak will drink it too.'”

Enough of Jeremiah’s listeners could apparently decrypt this code that the promise of ultimate deliverance could be spoken without the prophet’s life being unnecessarily jeopardized.

Later in the book there’s another prophecy in which Jeremiah was able to speak more freely (perhaps because it circulated privately until it could be shared more openly), and in that prophecy he leaves no doubt about identity of the earlier Sheshak:

“How Sheshak will be captured, the boast of the whole earth seized!
How desolate Babylon will be among the nations!”

At the start of that prophecy he also identifies Babylon with Leb Hamai, Atbash code for Chaldea, another name for the Babylonians:

“See, I will stir up the spirit of a destroyer
against Babylon and the people of Leb Kamai.”

But Babel and Chaldea in Jeremiah are the only two words in the Bible that have been put in Atbash code.  So we shouldn’t search the Scriptures for mysterious encrypted messages the way the characters would in a Dan Brown thriller.  There aren’t any messages of that type there.

Instead, we should be inspired by the faith and courage of prophets like Jeremiah, who were agents of a divine resistance movement that proclaimed the time when earthly pretenders would be put down and God’s kingdom established throughout the earth. And we should ask how we can be the same kind of agents in our own place and time.