Let a woman Learn

###Curious bits of 1 Timothy###

Last semester, I embarked on an ambitious effort to do some analysis of 1 Timothy 8-15, one of the infamous biblical texts on whether women should have positions of authority. It was a little too ambitious, and I never quite completed it, but ever since, it’s been hanging in my mind, and I keep coming back to it with different results. Since I’ve been dwelling on it again, I thought I’d share a few of my quandaries.

First is the issue of learning and teaching. A cursory reading seems to show that Paul believes women should be allowed to learn, but not to teach. Furthermore, there is a peculiar way that a woman should learn: quietly, and submissively. “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; rather she is to remain quiet.”

Beyond the general offensiveness of this idea to modern Western minds, there have been any number of sound biblical objections to this simple interpretation, which I’m not going to bother to address. The one that has been holding my attention for a while has been that there seems to be an inherent contradiction just within those two verses: “Let a woman learn… I do not permit a woman to teach.” This is curious. Why would someone conjure a person to learn, only to abjure them to teach? I know this is ignoring the religious frame of the text, but the old one-room school house would fall apart under these orders: Imagine not allowing those who have just learned to immediately go and teach! Does knowledge rot in the mind, depending on whose mind it is encased?

The idea itself is strange, but it gets stranger still when you think about the context. Today, the idea of acquiring knowledge just for the sake of knowing is pretty common. In those times, such an idea would be ludicrous and offensive. Imagine a person learning how to fish purely for the sake of knowing how to fish, and never casting a net. Silly, and a waste of the teacher’s time. You gain knowledge in order to put that knowledge into practice. To have knowledge and not pass it on is also a miserly offense.

Women in those days were not educated, I am led to believe, because it was considered a waste of time. The sort of things that fell into the category of “education” was not what women were interested in, and women were considered too foolish to absorb any of it anyhow. Women managed households. Men sat in the gate and discussed ethics, law, politics, theology. You can see this outlined as a general model in Proverbs 31: the wife has this outrageous work ethic, feeds the family, maintains the house, runs a business. The husband sits in the city gate and talks with other learned men. (Though you could hardly read into Proverbs the idea that women are foolish.)

Against the prejudice that women are too stupid for learning, 1 Timothy 2:11 raises up this standard: “Let a woman learn.” As NT Wright points out, it’s the only imperative in the whole text, and it should shout at your. In a Western context, where all women are allowed to learn pretty much as much as they want to, we slide right over the imperative to the adverb: quietly, and think that Paul is putting up a limit to women’s education. Part of that is the difficulty of translation. The Greek word isn’t just “quietly,” but a word that can mean “quiet” or “stillness,” accompanied by the word “in.” NT Wright translates it “Let a woman learn in peace,” that is, without unfair heckling or distraction. (of course, this does nothing for the second phrase “in all submission.” What is that supposed to mean?)

If allowing women to learn is the primary focus of the text, it would merely be continuing on a trend set by Jesus. Recall the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42: Martha is frustrated, working alone in the kitchen while her sister basks in Jesus’ presence “at the Lord’s feet.” But we miss the point if we think that Mary is just “hangin’ with Jesus.” Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet, not as a friend, or a courtier, she’s sitting at his feet because Jesus is the rabbi, and she’s playing the part of a disciple. Martha is upset not just because she feels put upon, but because Mary is wasting her time on men’s affairs, instead of concerning herself with the women’s work that is her duty. When Jesus reprimands Martha, he is essentially telling her, “Let her learn in peace.”

Ultimately, the problem boils down to this: how is it that a woman is not allowed to teach, and yet is left essentially unfettered in her efforts at learning? Even today, we expect learning to result in teaching. If you keep on going to school, what’s the highest degree you can earn? A doctorate. What does it mean to be a doctor? The word in Greek means simply “teacher.” So tell me how it is possible to always be allowing a woman to learn, but never to teach.

Author: KB French

Formerly many things, including theology student, mime, jr. high Latin teacher, and Army logistics officer. Currently in the National Guard, and employed as a civilian... somewhere

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