Updated: May 17, 2020
Since the dawn of time, Eve has been the stick that men beat women with, or at least, that's how it seems.
The order in which Eve was created, and the fact that she was the first one to eat the forbidden fruit, has been held up as the reason why women must submit to men, even thousands of years later. In this post, we will take a look at the problem of Eve and how certain readings of Paul's letters have led some to hold Eve's role over all women—and kept women from using their gifts.
The gnostic problem of Eve
Historians have found gnostic works written in the centuries after the early church that retell the creation story in a whole new way. We see Eve as the one who imparts wisdom and understanding to Adam. She is portrayed as the first of creation, and it is Adam who leads mankind in the first sin. This idea likely predates these writings, even into days of the early Christian church. (1) This might serve as a clue for understanding some parts of Paul's letters, but for now, let's take a look at the original story.
The problem of Eve's role being used to repress women
The creation story is told twice, one right after one another. In the first telling, we see this:
“God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
Here we see that both men and women were created by God and in His image. We also see that they both get the same directive: multiply, rule, subdue.
The second telling has a more dramatic spin. Adam is created out of the dust of the earth and God plants a garden and puts him in it. Then God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make a helper suitable for him.” Then God creates the animals and birds and brings them to Adam to name, but Adam does not find a suitable helper.
What does the Bible mean with this word helper? A maid? A cook? Is Eve supposed to be washing Adam's socks while he gets on with the more important business of subduing and ruling the earth?
This word we have translated as “helper” is used in a handful of other places in the Bible, and it does not refer to a subordinate. The Hebrew word “ezer” (pronounced ay-zer) means to help or assist.
Using the software Logos, I searched the lemma of the word translated “helper” in Genesis 2:18, and these are the verses I found:
Genesis 2:18, 20
Deuteronomy 33:7, 29
Psalms 20:2, 70:5, 89:19, 121:1,2, 124:8, 146:5
Look them up, and you'll see that two times “helper” is referring to Eve. Most of these refer to God or His actions, and others speak of soldiers or shields. Two of the verses show people failing to be a helper.
The word itself does not define the relationship between the helper and the helpee. So while it may have been popular in days past to believe God thought Adam should have a “little woman” around the house, that isn't the image this word paints. It doesn't say in Genesis how Eve is to be a helper, other than to solve the problem of Adam being alone. If you were to take this verse, apply the same context as those additional helper verses, you'd get a picture of a woman as a protector and a valued companion.
Moving on in the story, God makes Adam fall into a deep sleep and creates Eve out of Adam's rib. The author then tells us that this is why a man and woman share a special bond as husband and wife.
Now what are Adam and Eve up to as they share this special bond in the garden? Is Adam ruling while Eve multiplies? If we go by Genesis 1:28, Adam and Eve are both told to multiply and rule over the earth, so we can assume that is what they are doing.
The problem of Eve's temptation
The serpent comes and tricks Eve, who eats the fruit and gives some to Adam who eats it as well. They realize what they have done and try to hide from God, but He knows what has happened and has something to say. He curses the snake first. Then to the woman, God says,
“I will greatly increase your pain in childbirth,
In pain you will bring forth children;
Yet your desire will be for your husband,
And he will rule over you.”
This here is the passage that many have used to say that men should rule over women, and they even go beyond husbands and wives. This passage has been used to explain why men are teachers and leaders in the church, while women are not.
Is God commanding Adam to rule over Eve here? God is talking to Eve at this point, not giving instructions to Adam. Would it be better understood that because sin has been unleashed into the world, a struggle for power is the natural fall-out?
The problem of Eve's unique punishment
Perhaps it's because Eve will experience pain in childbirth while Adam will eat by the sweat of his brow that people said and continue to say that men and women have different roles in life and even in their spiritual roles.
I know that in many cultures and in many times the women were concerned with the home and child-rearing while the men worked outside of the home, and there is nothing wrong or demeaning for women with that picture at all. Caring for a home and children is an extremely valuable service not only for your family but for society, and that's not the issue here.
The issue that many women face today is that the order of origin—Adam first, Eve created as a misunderstood helper—and the fact that Eve sinned first has been used to say that there are certain roles spiritually a woman must not do.
Linking the problem of Eve to women's spiritual limitations
There are different beliefs that churches hold when it comes to the role of men and women in ministry. Egalitarian minded Christians believe that men and women are equals spiritually and that they can both minister, teach, and lead within the church. Complementarian minded Christians believe that men and women are equal before God but with different roles that complement each other. (Meanwhile, strict patriarchal societies believe that women are inferior to men in almost every way and that their only purpose is to bear children and serve men. Treating women as chattel is not commended anywhere in the Bible.)
Complementarian churches have male leaders, and most if not all public roles are filled by men. Women are usually permitted to teach women's classes and Sunday School and to serve in other important, but background roles. Some allow women to pass communion trays, pray publicly, lead worship, or read scripture. There is a great variation church to church, but they are all trying to grapple with the text in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 where it says,
“A woman must receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam deceived, but the woman being deceived fell into transgression, but [she?] will be saved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint.”
So some point and say, “See, right there! What more is there to discuss? Women cannot teach men.”
I think there is a larger context to consider.
The problem of Eve and the apostle Paul
We know Paul's not a woman-hater, (despite how this verse sounds) because he speaks highly of women within the church:
He greets and exhorts women who have some sort of public role (Philippians 4:3 and Romans 16)
He almost certainly attended the church that grew in Lydia's home, as she was the first convert in Europe (Acts 16:15-14)
We have an example of a woman teaching and ministering with her husband, and both were good friends of Paul. Aquila and Priscilla can be witnessed together in Acts 18:1-4,18-21, 24-28; 1 Corinthians 16:19; and Romans 16:3-4
And for those who say that because of the creation order, men must not listen to women, we have older examples of positive outcomes of men heeding the counsel of women:
Deborah is accepted as a judge and prophetess. (Judges 4:4-6, 8)
The spies took the advice of Rahab. (Joshua 2:8-11, 23-24; 16:32)
David listened to Abigail. (1 Corinthians 25:2-42)
Joab listened to a “wise woman”. (2 Samuel 20:14-22)
King Lemuel heeded his mother. (Proverbs 31:1-9)
The prophetess Huldah advised King Josiah. (2 Chronicles 34:19-33)
Esther gave instructions to Mordecai. (Esther 4:17)
Within the gospels we have women informing men to their benefit:
Anna speaking to the men of the city in the temple. (Luke 2:37-38)
The woman who told the men of the city about Jesus. (John 4:28-30)
Mary Magdalene telling the disciples about the risen Jesus. (John 20:17-18)
Plus, when Paul speaks of the gifts of the spirit, he does not divide them by gender. See Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:28, 14:26; Ephesians 4:11-12; Colossians 3:16.
Beyond all these examples as well as the many women in the book of Acts, there is more to consider within the text of 1 Timothy itself.
Ordering the silence of women based on the origin of Eve
We have Paul addressing specific groups in this part of the letter to Timothy. Men who are showing wrath and distention, and women who are making a show of their wealth by their appearance. Note then how it switches to a singular case with “a woman” and “a man” even though the previous instructions had been to groups? Is this about a specific couple that was having trouble?
Was a certain woman trying to instruct a man when she didn't have the basics of faith figured out herself?
We later see Paul mention that they should ignore “worldly fables” in 1 Timothy 4:7 and that some men are wanting to be teachers of the law “even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions” back in 1 Timothy 1:7.
Perhaps a woman was trying to bring in that gnostic belief about Eve I mentioned above, and Paul is correcting her theology and encouraging this couple to continue in faith, love, sanctity, and self-restraint as they sort this problem out.
We also don't see Paul tell this woman who she is to submit to. Some have said it is men, but it is equally, if not more logical that she should submit to God, submit to the act of learning (without being a know-it-all, remember that Eve wasn't some feminine manifestation of higher wisdom), submit to the teachings of the Bible, and submit to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Remember, we are only getting one side of a letter conversation, so the background to these verses will surely be debated for generations to come.
We can't miss the context that those wealthy women who were chastised were also told to do good works. We don't have “good works” defined for us here, but we know that wealthy women supported the church financially, had churches meet in their home, and provided for widows. This is a call for women to be active in the church rather than passive.
Later, in this same letter, in 1 Timothy 3:11, we get the criteria for women deacons, that they be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate and faithful in all things. A deaconess role is an active one, where her spiritual gifts would be put to good use.
True, Paul also says that he wants younger women to be married and keep house in 5:14, but being married and keeping a house is not a negative thing! It does not negatively impact spiritual gifts and how we serve the larger church, and so I see nothing in that statement about a women's role within a church community. (And once again, being a wife, mother, and keeping a house is an honorable task and not the issue at all here.)
What do you think? Is Paul addressing a specific teaching problem in 1 Timothy 2:11, or is this a blanket statement for all women?
Does the creation order mean that Eve, and all women after her, were created to be subordinate to men?
We have another creation origin statement made in 1 Corinthians 11:3-16. It opens with:
“But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.”
The word here is literally “head” but the Greek word “kephale” can also mean “source”, like the head of a river, which gives this text a different feel. The very early church theologians believed kephale should be translated as "source" in this verse. "Source" also makes better sense to me when it comes to the connection between Christ and God. Paul revisits this “creation order” in a verse further down, but there is a twist:
“However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of women. For as the woman originates from man, so also the man through the woman; and all things originate through God.” (emphasis mine)
This origin order stated here is not about hierarchy, this is about how both men and women are dependant on each other and both are created by God.
But what about all that stuff in the middle about covering heads while praying and prophesying? What about women being created for man? Does that have something to do with a woman's subordinate role in the church?
This letter has been sent to Corinth after a report of quarrels by some people from Chloe. We don't know who Chloe is exactly, but we can assume she had some influence in the church at Corinth. Paul goes through and deals with some of the issues causing dissension, often mentioning issues by name.
Is it possible that verses 4-9 are Paul relating what they believe about the worth of women, and the verse beginning with “however” is clarifying this point for them?
After all, there are no laws in the Old Testament that deal with head coverings, and we see women veil themselves for both good and bad reasons in the Old Testament. We know culturally in this era that married women of a certain status wore their hair covered outside the home in the Greco-Roman world, and likely Israelite women followed suit.
(See my post What to Wear in the First Century and How to Stay Clean for more about daily life as a woman in ancient Israel.)
There were laws about what men and women wore in Rome. Slave girls in Roman culture were forbidden from covering their heads in public, so head coverings became a status symbol that protected wealthy matrons.
Women did not cover their heads in the house, and most early churches were in houses at this time. Most art depicting Roman and Greek women do not show them with veils or hats either, and Historian Dr. Ally Kateusz has noted that we do not see Christian women depicted with head-coverings until the mid 4th century. We also do not have any solid evidence that prostitutes shaved their heads as some have suggested. Art of the era shows both male and female prostitutes with hair. (2)
On top of this, there is no mention of a veil or hat anywhere here. The oft translated phrase “a symbol of authority on her head because of the angels”, actually has “a symbol of” added by modern translators, that's why it's in italics in some versions. And if you cut that “a symbol of” out, it changes the tone.
“Therefore a woman ought to have authority on her head because of the angels.”
"The word for authority here is exousia. Gordon D. Fee has observed there is no known evidence that exousia is ever used in the passive sense. (3) That is, the usage of the word indicates that a person can have and exercise exousia (authority/power/freedom) in an active sense, but the word is not typically used in the sense of a person or people being under or affected by someone else's exousia, a passive sense."
It also doesn't say that women are under the authority of men anywhere here, nor does the argument seem to be about leadership roles at all.
Still, if the church in Corinth wanted their women covering their heads for cultural reasons, Paul also says that a woman's hair is given to her by nature for her glory and as a covering, which seems to be him putting an end to the argument. (And may have been received gratefully by those slave-girls who felt inferior because they could not legally cover their heads.)
So, as I see the highlights of this tricky passage, men and women are both created by God. This new church isn't an excuse for women to start ruling over men in place of men ruling over women. They are both dependant on one another. A woman ought to have authority and glory of her own, and head coverings are not about gender-roles in the spiritual aspects of the church anyway.
The problem of Eve and silent women
We aren't finished with women in the letter to the Corinthians. We see them come up again in 1 Corinthians 14: 26-36. The controversial verse here is:
“The women are to keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves just as the Law says.”
The topic of this chapter is that all things in the church be done for edification. When they assemble everyone has something to share. Three groups are told to be silent at specific times t keep things orderly. If someone wants to speak in tongues but has no interpreter, he must keep silent. If a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent.
We know that women prayed and prophesied within the church from that previous bit in 11:5, so that is not the kind of silence Paul is speaking about. We also know how highly he values prophecy from 1 Corinthians 12:29 and 14:1-5, so he's not saying women can do the “side-work” of praying and prophesying while the men get on with the real work of teaching the church.
There is no law in the Old Testament about the silence of women in worship. Paul may be quoting rabbinic law or Roman law (Romans did have rules), but that is not his usual way. (5) This is where some have decided that the law referred to is Genesis 3:16 and the phrase “he will rule over you”. But we don't see that statement given as a law to Adam, and Paul doesn't quote that here if that's what he meant.
We also have an open-ended statement here. Earlier it says “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets”. So when it says “The women are to subject themselves,” the question is "subject themselves to who or what"? Many have inserted "men" here. However, if we follow the pattern above, it reads that the women are to subject themselves to themselves. Or in other words, control themselves to keep the proceedings orderly which is the topic at hand.
It was customary in this time in history for men to interrupt the rabbi to ask questions. In school while learning the Torah, a new student who knew little did not interrupt. He showed respect by listening and learning. When he grew in wisdom he then could ask educated questions. (4)
Girls did not go to school. Jewish girls knew some, but not all of the Torah. Gentile women knew nothing about biblical history and the laws of Moses.
Perhaps, when passing judgments on prophecies (back in verse 29) or during general readings and sermons, the women were confused and wanted clarification on what would be considered basic points. This resulted in slowing down the whole assembly. Paul tells these women to control themselves and keep these sorts of questions for later. He tells the husbands that they are to share their knowledge with their wives—something that would be new and exciting for many women!
Perhaps this sharing of knowledge is what Paul is getting at when he says right after this instruction to those who consider themselves prophets, “Was it from you that the Word of God went forth? Or has it come to you only?”
I believe Paul knew the women will be more useful in the church when men share the blessings of a spiritual education!
Whatever the exact circumstances, the point of these three groups told to “keep silent” is summarized in verse 40:
“But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner.”
When the church gathers it should be orderly and respectful—and that applies to both men and women speaking publically in this passage.
The problem of Eve and the assumption women are uniquely flawed
Some in history have used these passages that highlight the created order to say that there is something especially flawed about women, a weakness that makes them susceptible to temptation and unfit for leadership. Women in the medieval ages were sometimes thought of as temptresses by nature and always one step away from harlotry. That is not the picture we get in the Bible.
Eve is often credited in popular culture with bringing sin into the world, but in the account of Genesis, it is Adam who is told that man will now die and return to the dust. In this same letter, 1 Corinthians, Paul states,
“For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive." (1 Corinthians 15:21-22)
We can't deny that Eve was the first to succumb to temptation and to then tempt Adam in turn, but he isn't an innocent bystander in all this. He knew the rules as well as her. I think it's long past time to drop the gender blame-game of the garden of Eden.
It's also long past time that we see women the way they are now rather than how they were 2000 years ago. There is no logical sense to pass over the words of an educated woman of faith and wisdom because of her gender, just as there is no logical reason to say all men are suitable teachers simply because they are men.
What do you think?
Is the order of creation a valid reason for men to have all the authority in the churches for now and forever? Are all women defined by Eve's role? Is the idea of male leadership divine law or a cultural norm?
Let me know in the comments, or feel free to contact me!
You can read more about Women in the Bible with these related posts:
1. You can get a list of these gnostic works as well as a brief overview of each by visiting the website of Marg Mawczko and her article Adam and Eve in Gnostic Literature
2. For more see the book by Bruce W. Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities, 2003, available on Amazon.
3. 'The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987) 519. The quote was taken from the footnotes of this article The Chiasm in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 on website of Marg Mawczko.
4. Craig S. Keener, "Women in Ministry" in "Two Views of Women in Ministry" edited by James R. Beck and Craig L. Blomberg
5. A quote from Adam Clarke's commentary on 1 Timothy 2:12:
Nor to usurp authority - A woman should attempt nothing, either in public or private, that belongs to man as his peculiar function. This was prohibited by the Roman laws: In multis juris nostri articulis deterior est conditio foeminarum quam masculorun,; l. 9, Pap. Lib. 31, Quaest. Foeminoe ab omnibus officiis civilibus vel publicis remotae sunt; et ideo nec judicis esse possunt, nec magistratum gerere, nec postulare, nec pro alio invenire, nec procuratores existere; l. 2, de Reg. Juris. Ulp. Lib. i. Ad Sab. - Vid. Poth. Pand. Justin., vol. i. p. 13.
"In our laws the condition of women is, in many respects, worse than that of men. Women are precluded from all public offices; therefore they cannot be judges, nor execute the function of magistrates; they cannot sue, plead, nor act in any case, as proxies." They were under many other disabilities, which may be seen in different places of the Pandects.
But to be in silence - It was lawful for men in public assemblies to ask questions, or even interrupt the speaker when there was any matter in his speech which they did not understand; but this liberty was not granted to women. See the note on 1 Corinthians 14:34, 1 Corinthians 14:35; (note).