If we’re going to play a game, we have to follow the rules. Right? I mean, who wants to show up to board game night only to find a table full of people making up the rules as they go? Imagine World Cup playoffs where the officiating referees don’t know the rules of the game, so they just wing it!
One of the accepted rules for responsibly interpreting Scripture is this: the Bible never means what it never meant. In other words, Scripture was not written in a cultural or historical vacuum. Getting at the meaning of any historical record necessarily involves some knowledge of and respect for the background in which it was written.
Enter Sandra Glahn’s Nobody’s Mother: Artemis of the Ephesians in Antiquity and the New Testament. It provides a compelling case of why background knowledge of a biblical text is critical for a proper understanding of it. In light of the epigraphic and architectural evidences surrounding the cult of Artemis, Glahn dispels the myth that Artemis is a fertility goddess and instead is a goddess of midwifery. In light of her research Glahn looks closely and critically at Paul’s first letter to Timothy and puts forth a fresh and (to my mind) persuasive interpretation of that strange and grossly mis-applied text, which reads: “Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control” (1 Tim 2:15).
The gist of her argument is found in the last chapter. Glahn focuses on the two reasons Paul gives as rationale for his instructions to Timothy (creation order/Eve’s deception). It is these reasons that continue to be used as a basis for hierarchy in marriage as well as the tenacious insistence on male-only teaching and leadership in the church. However, Glahn’s findings are different from traditional understanding and deserve consideration. She writes:
“Adam was formed first … not deceived” should not be understood as a male–first creation order that equals hierarchy, either in this world, or the next. Rather, the truths that “Adam was first” and “Eve was deceived” restore interdependence in a context in which pride of creation order in a goddess–first context emphasizes preeminence and autonomy. In the Ephesian origin story, Artemis is first; it’s one of her titles …. Paul’s Lord was begotten, not created, and firstborn over all creation, so there is no parallel creation story of his beginning. But in the creation of humanity, the Genesis story, the man is first in a male-female pairing… The apostle corrects a false story with a true one. He is using a narrative to counter a competing narrative.(p 142-143, emphasis mine)
As I understand, by reiterating the creation order of Genesis, Paul is correcting the familiar cultural narrative of the day where the female goddess Artemis was first created. No, it was the man who was created first, says Paul. This is not about hierarchy of man over woman; it’s about getting the facts straight.
As for Eve’s deception and extrapolating that to all women, it makes little sense to argue that “women are more deceived than men … Male-female difference in levels of deception are not due to ontology or biology but rather to differences in age, education, experience, and opportunity. If women as a class were more easily deceived than men, Paul would not have women instructing children, the most vulnerable of all humans” (p 143).
What then does Paul mean by “she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control” (1 Tim 2:15)? First, Glahn opines it was likely no surprise to Timothy that “Paul brings up deliverance through childbirth in a context where false teaching is likely coming from the cult of the goddess of midwifery—especially because he is bringing up a creation story to counter beliefs in a city that prides itself in its goddess’s birth” (p 143).
What’s more, astute readers should take notice there is a switch from singular to plural, “she will be saved through childbearing if they” (the Greek is clear and this is the best reading, contra NLT, NASB, HCSB. See ESV, NRSVue.). Glahn believes that this grammatical anomaly “provides a hint that he may be borrowing a local quote.” In other words, Paul “may have in mind a popular saying that he’s co-opting for his own purposes” (pp 146-147). After all, it is not all that unusual for Paul to borrow local sayings in advancing an argument (see, e.g., 1 Cor 6:12; 18; 7:1-2; 1 Tim 1:15; 4:8-9; 2 Tim 2:11-13).
Glahn maintains Paul was in fact borrowing from a local saying, but then put a Christian spin with his final thought to counter the saying. In other words, “she will be saved through childbearing” was the local and familiar understanding that Artemis would assist women in getting them through the pain of labor. However, Paul adds, “IF they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint.” Expectant mothers who believe in Jesus will prevail because the gospel prevails and trumps the Artemis narrative, which, by the way, is what the Genesis narrative has said all along (Gen 3:15-16). The goddess of midwifery has met her defeat in the faith of women who believe that Christ saves!
Glahn’s thesis is a provocative one. It will certainly not go unchallenged. However, given her findings and the research available on the cult of Artemis showing its vast impact on the culture of Ephesus (and beyond), this book shows the importance of playing by the rules and respecting the cultural and historical background of the text. In doing so, we can confidently claim that the Bible always means what it always meant.