Plato’s Spectacles: How Greek Philosophy has Distorted our View of Women in the Bible

The following presentation was shared at Emmanuel Bible College on March 3, 2015:

Plato’s Spectacles

To view the presentation, please click on the link above.  You will need Powerpoint (or a compatible program) installed on your computer to view the file.

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May God use this information to enlighten and encourage!

P.S. For those who do not have Powerpoint, I have added this PDF version of the presentation.  You can view it using Acrobat reader.  Hope that helps!

Plato’s Spectacles

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A “Biblical” View of Men and Women?

According to the “Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” (CBMW) the English Standard Version of the Bible (ESV) presents an “unapologetically biblical stance on God’s gracious plan regarding the complementary roles of men and women” (http://cbmw.org/uncategorized/literary-esv-is-unapologetically-complementarian/).

In the eyes of this Council, the biblical role of men is to be leaders, whereas the role of women is to submit to this leadership. Female leadership in the church is bluntly described as “unbiblical” (http://cbmw.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/50Q_contents.pdf).

The following passage from the ESV translation seems to support this viewpoint:

“My people—infants are their oppressors, and women rule over them. O my people, your guides mislead you and they have swallowed up the course of your paths” (Isaiah 3:12).

It appears from this passage that God stands opposed to female leadership. If women usurp male authority, God’s people may be led astray.

What the CBMW does not seem to make clear is that this translation of the Bible is based on the work of Jewish scribes from the 7th-10th centuries A.D. known as Masoretes. One of the jobs of these scribes was to add vowel marks to the Hebrew text, which originally consisted only of consonants (https://theorthodoxlife.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/masoretic-text-vs-original-hebrew/).

Depending upon which vowels were added to Isaiah 3:12, “infants” could be translated “extractors,” and “women” could be translated “extortioners.” Which translation is accurate? This is an important question.

Is God opposed to women ruling in Israel…or extortioners? A much older version of Isaiah, translated from Hebrew, is found in the Greek Septuagint of the 2nd century B.C.. Please note that the writing of this translation predates the oldest available copy of the Mosorete’s text by roughly 1000 years. This version (the Septuagint) was also quoted directly and extensively by the writers of the New Testament (including Matthew, Luke, John and the apostle Paul) (http://www.bible-researcher.com/quote01.html).

How did the Septuagint translate Isaiah 3:12?

“O my people, your extractors πράκτορες strip you, and extortioners ἀπαιτοῦντες rule over you: O my people, they that pronounce you blessed lead you astray, and pervert the path of your feet.”

A much older version of the Bible, frequently quoted by the New Testament authors, says nothing about “women” in leadership.

In fact, in the Old Testament we see that God himself appointed Deborah as a judge, leader and prophet of Israel. She did not lead God’s people astray:

“Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the sons of Israel came up to her for judgment” (Judges 4:4-5 NIV).

The CBMW also claims that female leadership is prohibited by the New Testament passage found in 1 Timothy 2:12:

“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man…” (ESV)

What the CBMW doesn’t seem to clarify is that this translation of the passage is based upon Erasmus’ Greek/Latin version of the Bible from the 16th century A.D.. Specifically the notion that women may not “exercise authority” over a man comes from Erasmus’ Latin “auctoritatum” (Wilshire, 2010, Insight Into Two Biblical Passages). The Greek word he was translating was “authentein.” It is used only once in the New Testament, so it is difficult to grasp its meaning…unless we once again look to the Septuagint for assistance.

In the Septuagint Book entitled “The Wisdom of Solomon” the word “authentas” is used to refer to those who engage in pagan sacrifices to idols (12:6). The “authentas” were parents who sacrificed their children to a false god. What does this word actually have to say about women in leadership?

Absolutely nothing at all.

In fact for hundreds of years leading up to the New Testament era, the word “authentein” nearly always referred to perpetrating or supporting violence, murder or sacrilege (Wilshire, 2010). Not surprisingly, ascetic cults in Ephesus, the destination of Paul’s letter to Timothy, had a long history of performing violent ritual sacrifices involving men. Diodorus Siculus, a historian from 30 BC, explained that one of these cults originally sacrificed male children to their goddess, Cybele. In the New Testament era, male genitalia were offered to the goddess (an idol) during an annual ritual. Men not willing to participate in this ritual were perceived as “unclean” and therefore unfit for spiritual service. Is Paul really writing about “women in authority” here? Not if we look to the Septuagint to help us understand his language, and not if we take the religious history of Ephesus seriously.

So, is the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood correct in saying that the leadership of women in the church is “unbiblical”? No, I don’t believe they are. In fact, older manuscripts of the Bible strongly suggest that scribes and translators later distorted God’s message with their own sexist bias.

“‘How can you say, ‘We are wise, for we have the law of the LORD,’ when actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely?” (Jeremiah 8:8)

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The Sin of “Authentein”

Many are aware that 1 Timothy 2:12 is a verse often used to prevent women from “exercising authority” in the church. Some are also aware that the English expression “to exercise authority” originated as a 16th Century A.D. translation of the Greek verb “authentein.” For decades now, scholars have been debating the possible meaning of this verb, since it is found only once in the New Testament.

To help us understand what this word meant to the apostle Paul, I think it is helpful to examine the Bible he often cited in his epistles; namely, the Greek Septuagint (http://www.bible-researcher.com/quote01.html).

In the Septuagint (LXX), a noun form of “authentein” is used in following passage:

“Do you remember the ancient inhabitants of your holy land? You scorned them for their unholy ways, for their sorcery and profane rituals, their callous killing of children, their cannibal feasts on human flesh and blood. They practiced secret rituals in which parents slaughtered their own defenseless children” (Wisdom of Solomon 12:3-6, TIB).

The parents in this passage, who slaughter their children in profane rituals to false gods, are referred to as “authentas.”

Why would Paul use a verb form of this word in his letter to Timothy? Were child sacrifices being performed in or around Ephesus in the worship of false gods or goddesses? Historically, child sacrifices were indeed performed in Ephesus and the surrounding area by a matriarchal culture that worshiped a goddess named Cybele:

“They…dismissed all thought of intermarriage with their neighbours, calling it slavery rather than marriage. They embarked instead upon an enterprise unparalleled in the whole of history, that of building up a state without men and then actually defending it themselves, out of contempt for the male sex…. Then, with peace assured by their military success, they entered into sexual relationships with surrounding peoples so that their line would not die out. Males born of such unions they put to death, but girls they brought up in a way that adapted them to their own way of life…. After conquering most of Europe, they also seized a number of city-states in Asia. Here they founded Ephesus” (Pompeius Trogus, 1st Century B.C., as cited in Yardley, 1994, p. 29).

According to historians Ferguson and Farnell, the female-dominated culture in Ephesus viewed the male sex with contempt because masculinity was seen as a source of evil. Femininity, on the other hand, was seen as the source of life and purity. These views were reinforced by the culture’s creation myths. In the New Testament era, Cybele was still worshiped by a female-dominant culture, and they still viewed men with contempt. Although male children were no longer put to death, any men desiring to serve the goddess had to be purified of their masculinity through ritual castration. After this public rite, these men would sometimes fall into a trance-like state and begin prophesying for the goddess. Romans who witnessed this referred to the men as “interpreters of the divine word” (Favazza, 2011, p. 160). In addition to undergoing ritual castration, and shunning marriage, these men fasted from certain foods. Female worshipers looked to Cybele as the goddess who would save them in childbirth (Farnell, 1977, p. 444).

In Paul’s letter to Timothy, he warns against false teaching and mythology (1 Timothy 1:3). He connects this false teaching with those who shun marriage and forbid the eating of certain foods (1 Timothy 4:3). Those who practice this ascetic lifestyle claim to have access to special knowledge (gnosis) that Paul refers to as doctrines of demons (1 Timothy 6:20 & 4:1). Paul addresses the issue of being saved in childbirth (1 Timothy 2:15). He reminds Timothy that Adam was a source of life, and that Eve played a role in humanity’s fall (1 Timothy 2:13-14); this creation account directly contradicts the creation mythology of Cybele.

Paul also forbids the teaching and practice of “authentein” (1 Timothy 2:12). In this context, like that of the Wisdom of Solomon, it appears that “authetein” refers to ritual violence performed in the worship of a false god, or in this case the goddess Cybele, who was called Artemis by the Greeks.

Does the linguistic and historical data available to us support the idea that “authentein” should be translated into English as “to exercise authority”? No, I do not believe it does. Rather, I think it supports the notion that Paul is forbidding the teaching and practice of ritual violence.  In the case of Ephesus, this violence was done to men.

Appendix 1: What other authors say about “authentein.”

Catherine Clark Kroeger: “Authenteo, with its connotations of murder and of “sexuality related to death,” may imply a ritual action, for the mysteries contained both sex and death.  Possibly there was a ritual subjection to female dominance in order to gain purification…” (Women, Authority and the Bible, 1986, p. 244).

Leland E. Wishire: Between the 2nd century B.C. and the 2nd century A.D. Greek authors outside of the biblical text used a form of “authentein” in the following ways:

-Polybius used the word authenten, 2nd century B.C., to mean the “doer of a massacre.”

-Diodorus Siculus used three variations of the word (authentais, authenten, authentas), 1st century B.C. – 1st century A.D., to mean “perpetrators of sacrilege,” “author of crimes” and “supporters of violent actions.”

-Philo Judaeus used the word authentes, 1st century B.C. – 1st century A.D., to mean “being one’s own murderer.”

-Flavius Josephus used the words authenten and authentas, 1st century A.D., to mean “perpetrator of a crime” and “perpetrators of a slaughter.”

-The apostle Paul used the word authentein once during the same time period as Diodorus, Philo and Josephus.

-Appian of Alexander used the word authentai three times, and the word authenten twice, 2nd century A.D., to mean “murderers,” slayer,” “slayers of themselves” and “perpetrators of evil.”

-Harpocration used the word authentes, 2nd century A.D., to mean “murderer.”

-Phrynichus used the word authentes once, 2nd century A.D., to mean “one who murders by his own hand.” (Insight Into Two Biblical Passages, 2010).

Appendix 2: Comparison of Bible verses from the Septuagint and 1 Timothy

The Bible Paul was reading (LXX) included a book called The Wisdom of Solomon. In it, we find the following verses:

τέκνων τε φονέας ἀνελεήμονας καὶ σπλαγχνοφάγων ἀνθρωπίνων σαρκῶν θοῖναν καὶ αἵματος, ἐκ μέσου μύστας θιάσου καὶ αὐθέντας γονεῖς ψυχῶν ἀβοηθήτων, ἐβουλήθης ἀπολέσαι διὰ χειρῶν πατέρων ἡμῶν
(http://www.ellopos.net/elpenor/greek-texts/septuagint/chapter.asp?book=29&page=12)

Here is an online English translation:

And also those merciless murderers of children, and devourers of man’s flesh, and the feasts of blood, With their priests out of the midst of their idolatrous crew, and the parents, that killed with their own hands souls destitute of help

Here are Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:12

γυναικὶ δὲ διδάσκειν οὐκ ἐπιτρέπω, οὐδὲ αὐθεντεῖν ἀνδρός, ἀλλ’ εἶναι ἐν ἡσυχίᾳ.
(http://www.ellopos.net/elpenor/greek-texts/new-testament/timothy_1/2.asp)

Speaking to a culture that had a history of sacrificing male children (in Ephesus) and was currently sacrificing male genitalia to an idol, why do we think Paul was talking about “authority” here?

I do not believe he had “authority” in mind.  “Authority” as a translation does not appear until Erasmus’ 16th century Latin “auctoritatem” (Wilshire, 2010).  English Bibles based on this Latin edition translated the word as “authority.”  The King James, for example, follows this tradition.

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