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Artemis Can’t Undermine Complementarianism

Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:8–15 have long been a watershed in the debate between complementarians and egalitarians. He addresses both men and women as they come together for public worship as well as the particular danger women face in childbearing.

Complementarians have generally understood Paul’s prohibition in verse 12 to restrict women from certain governing and teaching roles within the church and have understood “saved through childbearing” in verse 15 to relate in some way to the special calling of motherhood. Egalitarians have construed these texts to place no restrictions on women in teaching or leadership, even as they acknowledge the dangers associated with childbearing.

Over the last several decades, barrels of ink have been spilled trying to sort out the issues, with both sides trying to win the battle of persuasion. The controversy shows no signs of abating anytime soon.

Enter Sandra Glahn, professor of media arts and worship at Dallas Theological Seminary. She advances a provocative and somewhat novel thesis in her new book Nobody’s Mother: Artemis of the Ephesians in Antiquity and the New Testament. The book is one part personal narrative and another part study of New Testament backgrounds. She focuses on how the worship of the goddess Artemis in first-century Ephesus should inform our interpretation of the Pastoral Epistles. In particular, she’s concerned with how false teaching emanating from the local Artemis cult shapes our understanding of Paul’s contention that women will be “saved through childbearing” (v. 15).

Along the way, Glahn also offers a fresh interpretation of the entire paragraph (vv. 8–15), including comments on the much-disputed prohibition in verse 12: “I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet” (NASB). Her conclusions fall in line with the egalitarian stream of interpretation for this key text.

Project Overview

Glahn says the impetus for her project is personal. Having grown up in a Christian home, she witnessed a vision for biblical womanhood in her mother. Consequently, Glahn aspired to be like her. She wanted a husband, children, homemaking—just like her mother. That was her vision of the good life and of what God had called her to be. However, after she married, infertility shattered all those dreams. She had a gift for teaching the Bible and had planned to deploy that gift in rearing and discipling children. With her hopes dashed, what now?

She was on the horns of a dilemma. She had 1 Timothy 2:15 saying motherhood was the proper context for stewarding her teaching gift. But motherhood wasn’t an option. Perhaps then she’d use her teaching gift in the church. But verse 12 told her she wasn’t allowed to teach or exercise authority over men. So what was left for her? Something had to give.

In Glahn’s case, what gave was her interpretation of Scripture. Her understanding of verses 8–15 became transformed by an in-depth study of the Artemis cult in first-century Ephesus. Her foils in this study are two Bible scholars named Richard and Catherine Kroeger, who wrote a book in 1992 contending that Artemis worship was the background to Paul’s words in these verses.

The Kroegers argued Artemis was a “mothering fertility goddess” whose cult had made inroads into the Ephesian church through false teaching (156). The apparent prohibition against women teaching men in church (v. 12), therefore, is a warning against a specific Ephesian doctrinal error and not a general instruction. From an extensive examination of ancient literary sources, inscriptions, and architecture/art, Glahn contends—contrary to the Kroegers—that Artemis wasn’t connected with fertility but with virginity and midwifery (156). Thus, Artemis was “nobody’s mother” (116).

Nevertheless, though Glahn believes the Kroegers understood the Artemis cult incorrectly, she argues they were right to read verses 8–15 as a refutation of false teachers under the spell of the Artemis cult. In this light, “saved through childbearing” should be understood as a local proverb (perhaps derived from the Artemis cult) that assures Ephesian women they don’t need the help of the divine midwife Artemis to be safe during childbearing. On the contrary, “a woman who converted from worshiping Artemis to following Jesus” would be kept safe through childbirth and wouldn’t die (155). According to Glahn,

Artemis was thought to deliver painlessly or euthanize women in childbirth. But Jesus is better. He will save through childbearing those who continue in faith, love, and holiness with self-control. (143)

She continues,

This is not to suggest Paul is making a universal statement that would be true of all women in all eras. Rather, it would be true in the case of Timothy and his congregation in the short term, a promise that in this foundational period of their assembly, their God would prove himself bigger than the god of the surrounding culture. (146)

Likewise, Glahn argues, Paul’s prohibition in verse 12 isn’t a universal command intended for all people at all times. Paul merely addresses a local problem in Ephesus in which husbands and wives were particularly rancorous during worship (139). While husbands need to put away “anger” and “dispute” (130), wives need to stop teaching with a view to domineering their husbands (139). When Paul grounds this prohibition in the fact that “Adam was formed first” (v. 13) and that Eve “was deceived” (v. 14), Glahn claims he isn’t appealing to creation order or natural differences between men and women. He’s simply correcting a false story that puts Artemis first with a true story that puts Adam first (143).

Insufficient Evidence

If Nobody’s Mother were merely an analysis of Artemis worship in first-century Ephesus, this volume would be grist for scholars to discuss but hardly worthy of a review in a popular-level forum like this one. But that’s not the kind of book Glahn has written. She has amassed research on the Artemis cult as the hermeneutical key to Paul’s meaning in 1 Timothy. She argues that if readers fail to recognize Paul’s words as a polemic against the Artemis cult, they will not understand what “saved through childbearing” means in verse 15, much less Paul’s apparent prohibition on women teaching in verse 12.

This is the primary weakness of Nobody’s Mother. Glahn asserts the Artemis cult is the foundation for everything Paul says in verses 8–15 without demonstrating it to be the case. There’s a reason for that: it cannot be supported from the text of 1 Timothy. Paul never mentions Artemis. He never refers to the temple devoted to Artemis. He never refers to the cult. He never refers to mythology about Artemis. There’s no evidence whatsoever in the Pastoral Epistles that Paul has Artemis in mind. This was one of the chief weaknesses of the Kroegers’ work back in 1992, and Glahn has repeated their mistake in Nobody’s Mother.

Glahn’s main argument in favor of reading Paul through the lens of the Artemis cult doesn’t come from 1 Timothy but from Acts 19, which records Paul’s confrontation with worshipers of Artemis in Ephesus. Glahn contends that Acts 19 “reveals a major religious context from which false teaching of concern to Paul likely originated: the Artemis cult” (38).

She even goes so far as to suggest female believers in Ephesus may have been praying to Artemis while being Christians (153). Leaving aside the fact that such a practice is incompatible with any credible claim to following Christ (Matt. 6:24; cf. 1 Cor. 10:14–22), there’s no evidence in Acts 19 that the Ephesian believers were Artemis worshipers. On the contrary, the sign they were indeed believers was that they’d turned decisively from such things (vv. 19, 26). A riot broke out against the new believers in Ephesus precisely because the Christians were perceived as a threat to the Artemis cult (v. 24).

The idea that Artemis worship had a continuing hold on the believers in Ephesus has no basis in Acts 19. Nor does it have a basis in any later development. By the time John wrote Revelation, the Ephesian church had established a reputation for doctrinal fidelity and resistance to false teaching (Rev. 2:1–7).

Paul never mentions Artemis or her cult to ground his argument in 1 Timothy. He does, however, mention explicitly the creation order in Genesis 2: “Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1 Tim. 2:13–14). Paul also alludes to the curse on Eve’s fertility in Genesis 3:16 in the phrase “saved through childbearing” (1 Tim. 2:15). Why should anyone read the text as a coded “polemic” against Artemis worship (118) when Paul explicitly appeals to Genesis 2–3 as the primary background? Glahn doesn’t provide sufficient justification for such a move.

Self-Contradictory Interpretation

Paul never mentions Artemis or her cult to ground his argument in 1 Timothy. He does, however, mention explicitly the creation order in Genesis 2.

In her interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12, Glahn marshals a grab bag of egalitarian exegesis that results in interpretive incoherence. For example, Glahn argues that Paul doesn’t issue a universal prohibition on women teaching men. Rather, Paul means to address only husbands and wives in particular (134). This same idea has been presented recently by Gordon Hugenberger, reflecting a novel way of limiting the significant of the passage, to which Tom Schreiner has responded.

Moreover, Glahn claims that by saying “I am not allowing a wife to teach a husband,” Paul merely cites his preference for this particular local situation where the Artemis cult had unduly influenced Christian wives (137–38). Nevertheless, she then argues that “to teach or exercise authority” is one idea (not two) and that the exercise of authority should be viewed negatively. Thus, she interprets Paul as saying, “I am not permitting a wife to teach with a view to domineering a husband” (139).

Glahn doesn’t seem to realize it’s incoherent to argue that Paul prohibits wives from domineering their husbands while also arguing the prohibition addresses only a local situation. While both are common egalitarian interpretations, they don’t make sense when held together. If Paul addresses only a local situation and doesn’t give a universal principle, wouldn’t that mean Paul personally doesn’t allow wives to domineer their husbands in Ephesus but he might allow it elsewhere? Since it’s not an apostolic prohibition but a personal preference, wouldn’t that mean other churches might allow wives to domineer their husbands? Glahn’s interpretation is incoherent at this point.

Shaky Scholarship

Glahn’s exegetical work supporting these contradictory claims leaves much to be desired. She argues the present tense of “I am not allowing” emphasizes this is merely Paul’s personal practice in Ephesus. But the present tense in Greek doesn’t indicate any such thing. She says the fact that Paul uses the first-person pronoun “I” lends this interpretation even more credibility. Yet the Greek text doesn’t have a first-person personal pronoun. These are basic mistakes in Greek, and yet she cites them as justification for reducing Paul’s apostolic prohibition to a mere unauthoritative opinion (137–38).

Crucial to Glahn’s case is the assertion that women were among the false teachers in Ephesus. In 1 Timothy 1:3, Paul tells Timothy, “Remain on at Ephesus in order that you may charge certain men not to teach strange doctrines” (NIV 1984). Glahn observes that “certain men” translates the Greek pronoun tisin, which is neuter. She alleges that because Paul employs a neuter pronoun, it can refer to both men and women (123).

Again, there are elementary linguistic problems here. If the expression were neuter, it wouldn’t be referring to any person at all. Even though the form of the word in verse 3 is the same for masculine/feminine/neuter, the same word appears in verses 6 and 8 where both are clearly masculine. The related participle “desiring/wanting” in verse 7 is also clearly masculine. Also, “charge” in verse 3 reappears in verses 5 and 18, which connect Paul’s admonition to specific male apostates in verse 20. The only false teachers named in 1 Timothy are men.

The technical errors in Glahn’s work are damaging, but there are also other examples of shaky scholarship.

The technical errors in Glahn’s work are damaging, but there are also other examples of shaky scholarship.

For example, Glahn follows the work of egalitarians Philip Payne and Linda Belleville to establish that Paul means to prohibit wives teaching with a view to domineering their husbands (138–39). She then summarily rejects the work of complementarians, calling out “Schreiner and Köstenberger” on this point yet providing no citation of their work (139). Elsewhere, she does cite the important volume edited by Schreiner and Köstenberger, but she interacts only with the 2005 edition and not the 2016 edition.

This may seem like straining gnats, but it isn’t. The 2016 edition of Schreiner and Köstenberger’s Women in the Church is the most important work refuting the claims of the scholars Glahn relies on in Nobody’s Mother. Glahn has no critical interaction with this edition anywhere in her book. Consequently, she completely overlooks crucial exegetical evidence that undermines her case.

Glahn wishes to convince readers that Paul doesn’t give a universal prohibition on women teaching and having authority over men. Yet her exegesis on all these points is too flawed to be persuasive.

‘Saved Through Childbearing’ a Local Saying

Glahn argues the words “saved through childbearing” don’t derive from Paul but likely derive from the Artemis cult. The women in Ephesus knew that Artemis was a midwife who would either save women from the perils of childbirth or gently euthanize them to spare them pain (150). Paul picks up the expression to communicate that Ephesian women don’t have to look to Artemis for help during childbirth. They can trust in Jesus, who’ll save them from dying due to complications in childbirth. This isn’t a promise for all Christian women, Glahn says, but only for the Christian women in Ephesus during this period.

This interpretation is perhaps the most unpersuasive of all. To establish “saved through childbearing” as a slogan from the Artemis cult, Glahn appeals to instances in 1 Corinthians in which Paul quotes local slogans (147–48). This overlooks the fact that Paul’s rhetorical strategy in 1 Corinthians differs dramatically from that of 1 Timothy. It also overlooks specific criteria for identifying slogans in 1 Corinthians—criteria that are largely absent in 1 Timothy. For these reasons and more, Glahn’s explanation of “saved through childbearing” is unpersuasive.

There’s much more to Nobody’s Mother than what I’ve covered in this brief review. For example, I haven’t addressed her use of ancient sources, some of which were written too far after Paul’s time to be relevant (e.g., 72, 75, 88, 89, 92, 93). Nor have I discussed the problematic use of “trigger warnings” appearing here and there in her discussion of ancient sources (55, 58, 64, 65), which experts like Greg Lukianoff, Jonathan Haidt, and others argue may do more harm than good. Nor have I scrutinized her controversial claims that complementarianism is a break with the tradition of the Christian church and that women’s ordination is an idea that goes back to Pentecost and not merely to modern feminism (21, 24). I’ll have to leave these and other worthy topics to other reviewers.

Glahn’s conclusions are a broadside against complementarian interpretations of this text. The book will take its place in the long line of egalitarian works that have in one way or another reduced Paul’s words to a local concern with no abiding prohibition on women in church leadership. What I hope readers will be able to discern from this review is that the book’s main argument falls apart at numerous points. For all the scholarship Glahn marshals to sketch the contours of the Artemis cult in first-century Ephesus, she never really establishes the cult’s relevance to the interpretation of 1 Timothy. As a result, her interpretation of 2:8–15 is ultimately unpersuasive.

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