Having just watched A.N. Jacobs’ TED talk on “The Year of Living Biblically”, in which he tried to live out – literally – every one of the Bible’s commands, I thought it a good moment to fire off a couple of thoughts on biblical interpretation. You see, a couple of Sundays ago we hit 1 Timothy 2 in our small group Bible study… certainly got people talking — thankfully with respect and much grace, albeit not always with a whole lot of understanding — and it’s been going round in my head since then.
Just how are we supposed to view this text?
Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. (1Timothy 2:8-15)
Whilst some called for a “literal” interpretation, we soon got into deep water with that one. It went a bit like this:
What is modesty, decency and propriety in dress sense? In India it is perfectly acceptable for a woman to show her midriff under a sari, but in Spain? If topless is OK for Kalahari Bushman women, why is it frowned upon for good Christians at the beach? Is decency, then, in fact a cultural construct with no absolutes at all? And if so, how do we assign absolute value to anything in Scripture? Who decides what is cultural and what is not, what is to be taken “literally” and what needs cultural unpacking?
But back to Paul’s list for now. When it comes to hairstyles, just how elaborate is elaborate? Curlers OK? What about highlights? Perms? Gel must be acceptable, though we have no agreement on how much hairspray we can use before reckoning that it really must be classed as elaborate if it needs that much to keep it in place…
No gold? What, none at all? What about my wedding ring, that’s hardly bling is it? And pearls — are cultured pearls OK? Imitation pearls? What if you can’t tell, is it OK to ask someone if their string of pearls is genuine? We’d better stick to silver, emeralds and rubies then, at least they are not banned! We could even start a new line in 1 Timothy 2 compliant luxury jewelry…
Back to clothes. At what price does a shirt become expensive? What if I got a $129.99 pair of Levis in a sale for $14.99, or last year’s model as a hand-me-down from my must-have-the-latest-fashion more-money-than-sense neighbours, do they still count as “expensive clothes”? Anyway, isn’t price a relative concept? What is expensive in Bangladesh might be cheap in Brick Lane. And if that is relative and cultural, maybe the whole text is. Where does that leave us? Whatever, one thing is clear if we are after literal interpretations — there is no mention of make-up, so don’t worry ladies, at least you can keep the lipstick, foundation and “I’m worth it” mascara.
And that’s all before we get to the thornier issue of women teaching and holding authority, or even speaking at all. “If they could just keep quiet, that would save us all a lot of headaches, ha ha”. LOL… not; jokes from stereotypes don’t help achieve consensus in understanding. Maybe we should allow women to take on roles where they don’t have to be telling men what to do? That does away with leading worship then — “Please stand to sing the next hymn…” But there again, the Greek word used — αὐθεντεῖν, authentein — seems to mean “to usurp authority” more than just to hold authority. Maybe a woman can do anything as long as a man has told her she can. Or maybe it’s just about wives and husbands, not all women and all men; as long as her husband is happy, it’s OK. Not sure where that leaves single women though. Maybe they are exempt and can do what they like. Or maybe they are the ones that should just keep quiet…
Whatever, let’s not forget that all this isn’t Paul’s big idea — he draws it from Scripture. The biblical underpinnings of our theology are vital. So, yes, Adam was formed first. But if creative order is that important, wasn’t the donkey formed before Adam? And for that matter, even if Eve was the first to take a bite out of the proverbial apple, Paul — who elsewhere lays the blame fairly and squarely with Adam — does appear overly harsh in suggesting that all women share her undiscerning taste in fruit peddlers.
What’s all this about Eve anyway? Well, maybe Paul really does mean that all women are gullible and easily deceived, so it’s best not to let them teach. It’s not all bad news, though. We are only going to ban women from teaching men; they can still teach heresy to our children in Sunday school if they like. And it only applies to church too — teaching, even adult literacy, is still an ideal career for the good Christian woman wanting to make a positive impact on her society.
Then, just when we think we might be making some progress against a strong headwind, we hit verse 15 — not very good news for the single ladies in our midst. The theological overtones of “saved” are strong and resist any other translation — but am I really to think that salvation for men is by faith, and for women, by having kids? Could it not be instead that Paul means that women will be kept safe through childbirth? Given the number that die in giving life to another, that would hardly seem likely. Unless, that is, we are going to accuse those that do die of “lack of faith” (plus, in this case, love and holiness with propriety), the universal get-out clause for every case of non-recovery at the hands of a faith-healer. The dead don’t argue, so perhaps we will just have to take their word for it… Whatever, this verse cannot be separated from the rest; we cannot sanction a “literal” interpretation of verse 12 unless ready to to the same with verse 15. The two form part of one unified thought in Paul”s mind and must be understood together. The necessary flight from dogmatism that accompanies a humble reading of verse 15 is not a bolt-on extra to categorical statements about the role of women in church but has to characterize our reading of the whole passage.
So much for a “literal interpretation”.
In reality, a “literal interpretation” of Scripture is as unreal as an unbiased opinion. An opinion, of necessity, carries the individual’s bias. Likewise, as soon as we use the word “interpretation”, we leave “literal” behind. Whilst we may be deceived by some “easier” texts into thinking that we take Scripture literally, we do not. Everything we read is understood through the interpretive filter that connects us with the world around us. So the question is not whether we interpret Scripture or take it literally, but whether we interpret it well.
What does that mean for 1 Timothy 2? That will have to wait for another day.
PS. For those mystified by the title, the BBC television commentator Ted Lowe made that statement during a particularly exciting (!) snooker match. His other classic comment was from the 1970s, aiming to help viewers who were not privileged to own one of the new colour televisions: “Steve is going for the pink ball – and for those of you who are watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green.”