Honor widows who are widows indeed

Recent scholarship shows that during Paul’s time, “Artemis of the Ephesians” was seen as having more particular interests than the generic “Artemis” (http://www.dts.edu/read/the-identity-of-artemis-in-first-century-ephesus-glahn-sandra/). Artemis of the Ephesians had a birth story associated with Ephesus in which she was born before her twin brother Apollo. She was a perpetual virgin who was associated with decisions of life and death at childbirth (both due to her help at the delivery of her brother, but also apparently due to her killing the children of other gods). For women in a culture in which their main cause of death was childbirth, Artemis’ “deliverance in delivery” was paramount – and thus celebrated cultically by participating in her example of virginity in various ways.

This sheds a lot of light on Paul’s comments in I Timothy. He’s not randomly bringing up issues  of men/women, authority, childbearing, etc. – in fact these are the major concerns for an Ephesian church that was rooted in female primacy/authority, idealized asceticism (particularly female sexual abstinence), and feared the uncontrollable mortality of childbirth.

So in Chapter 2, when Paul roots his male authority argument in the fact that Adam was formed before Eve (v.11-13), he is giving the church a new origin story (as opposed to their old story in which Artemis was born before Apollo). In pointing out that Eve was deceived first (v. 14), perhaps Paul is riffing on the Artemis/Apollo myth where Apollo tricks Artemis into killing Orion. Paul is keenly aware that undermining Artemis will cause his audience mortal (literally!) fear, so he immediately addresses the fear of childbirth by rooting deliverance in the work of the Spirit rather than in the work of the flesh (v. 15).

Having re-oriented his audience, in Chapter 3 Paul moves into issues of authority in the church. He again (as in 2:8-10) confirms their instincts to avoid pursuing things of the flesh, but redirects them to practice these within the family structure. Paul gives a secondary argument for male authority by connecting household rule to church rule – a direct confrontation to a cult in which duty to Artemis pulled women away from their households into a life of asceticism. Paul requires that elders and deacons be married; this guarantees male and female participation in the church (thus the list of requirements for wives in v.11), but maintains the male headship foundation that he laid in Chapter 2.

In Chapter 4 Paul is even more offensive, attacking false teaching as “old women’s tales” (v. 7), and the avoidance of marriage (v. 3) as demon’s lies. He shows the asceticism of food abstinence (v. 3) and bodily discipline (v. 8) to be practices of “ungratefulness” and “worldliness”. As in Chapter 2, Paul understands the fears that the Ephesians will have in neglecting these vital callings of the Artemis cult, so he co-opts the language of childbirth (labor/strive/delivery) to describe the work of God (rather than Artemis) in verse 10. Some of the pain/persevere/salvation verbiage in verses 15-16 suggests a continuance of the analogy via an appeal to active participation in that work of  deliverance.

Having demolished the remnant beliefs of the Artemis cult within the Ephesian church, Paul now deals with the aftermath in Chapter 5. Given that he is mandating male family leadership within the church, the obvious question is how to incorporate the now displaced unmarried female leadership of the Artemis cult into the Christian community. Paul recognizes that these women formerly held places of honor, and so in verse 3 he encourages continued honor where it is due, and then goes on to define different situations – i.e. “types” of widows. The greek word for “widow” here doesn’t have the same meaning that we give it in English: the word “Cheras” is broader and describes a woman without a husband.

In verses 4-16 Paul differentiates between younger unmarried women vs. older unmarried women, women who have family to care for them vs. those who don’t, and women who are truly setting themselves apart for God vs. those who are pursuing pleasure. In all but one case he encourages a return to family life via the embracing of children, grand-children, marriage or re-marriage.

Paul recognizes that this is not an option for all of these women, and so returns to his implicit question (v. 3) of “who is a truly a widow?” by explicitly answering it in verses 9-10 with requirements that bear striking resemblance to those previously given to elders and deacons. However, these requirements differ in orientation: while elders and deacons must evidence household authority, true widows must evidence household service.

When a (previously?) married woman was at least 60 years old, it appears that she may have been eligible to be put on a list (v. 9) if she met these criteria of service. It doesn’t seem like this is a “support list”; while the monetary support of these women was obviously a concern of Paul’s (v. 16), it seems unlikely that women who did not meet these criteria (i.e. all women younger than 60 who had never been married with children) would be left without food or shelter.

If this is true, then the list must be one “of honor” – which Paul stated as an imperative at the beginning of this section of instructions (v. 3), and a word that he uses again in reference to the office of elders/bishops (v. 17). In this light, there is allowance for (and perhaps a mandate for) a third, separate and female church office – one not rooted in authority, but in service.

As a brief commentary – Timothy is dealing with a situation in which women who demonstrate leadership capability and experience are asking why Paul limits their participation in church authority (per his previous letters to them and the other churches). Paul sidesteps all possible counterarguments of Jew/Gentile gender traditions by appealing back to absolute differences in male/female creation as normative and foundational for family (and therefore church) leadership. But he is also developing his previous family instruction to them by describing more specifically how this looks in a church made up of those (now re-formed) families. In that sense all of this could be seen as an exposition of his previous instruction in Ephesians 5: Women who have demonstrated the service of submission within the family are glorified with church honor, and men who have demonstrated the rule of love within the family are granted church authority. This is probably as offensive today as it was then, which is why Paul has to keep writing letters about it.