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A Review: God's Good Design. What the Bible Really Says about Men and Women 2nd Edition

Review: God’s Good Design: What the Bible Really Says about Men and Women, 2nd ed.

by Claire Smith. Kingsford, Australia: Matthias Media, 2020.

A second review by Dr Lyn M. Kidson.

In 2012, Claire Smith published her book, God’s Good Design: What the Bible says about Men and Women. At the time I had just completed my MA in Early Christian and Jewish studies at Macquarie University and I was moving on into the PhD program. Utilizing my recently acquired knowledge of the Greco-Roman world, I wrote a review that appeared on Marg Mowczko’s website. With the release of Smith’s book with a study guide, Jen Barker asked me if I would consider revising my review for the “Fixing her Eyes” website. It has been an interesting exercise to revisit a critique that I wrote before I even started on my PhD on 1 Timothy. I am pleasantly surprised at how sturdy my argument was. I also realised that much of what I have said here has subsequently found its way into my later work. Central to my critique of Smith’s book was her lack of engagement with the most up-to-date resources in her discussion of the various passages she considers. Much has happened in scholarship in the decade that has passed, but Smith has still not taken the opportunity to engage with the scholarly discussion on the early church, the roles of men and women in the Greco-Roman world, attitudes to femininity and masculinity, nor the latest philological break throughs. It stands, as it did in 2012, as an under-resourced and outdated inquiry into various passages of the New Testament featuring women.

My specific speciality is 1 Timothy. Since I decided to concentrate my PhD on chapter 1, my study focus became the men in the letter. When one thinks about it, a lot of effort has gone into interpreting the role on the women in chapter 2, without much thought given to the men in the Ephesian church. In my work, I found that chapter 1 focuses on the role of Hymenaeus and Alexander, the false teachers, in causing a lot of destructive dissension in the church. At the end of 1 Timothy 1, we find that they have been expelled from the church community (1 Tim 1:20). Thus, the discussion of the women in chapter 2 must be seen in the light of this momentous event in the life of the church. Further, as many have noted (except for Dr Smith) there are familiar masculine and feminine stereotypes (to a 1st C audience) being used by the writer in his argument to persuade the men and women of the Ephesian church to return to instruction of Paul. In all the work done by complementarians on 1 Timothy 2, virtually nothing is said on the topic of femininity much less masculinity so widely known in the Roman world (also found in Jewish writings). In the response, I have unpacked the unexamined assumptions about masculinity found in Glenn Davies (1987), Claire Smith (2012), and Hefin Jones (2016) in a chapter that is to appear in 2022: Lyn M. Kidson, “Aussie Men, Roman Men, and Fashioning the Evangelical Man from 1 Timothy 2,” in Reading the New Testament in a Global World, edited by E-M. Becker J. Herzer A. Standhartinger and F. Wilk (Tübingen: Narr Francke, forthcoming). This chapter will provide the academic foundations for what I am saying in this review. Dr Smith has supplied in this 2nd edition of her book a study guide. Note that I have 4 questions in the section on 1 Timothy 2, which the reader might like to compare and contrast with Dr Smith’s questions on the same section. This exercise might highlight for the reader the difference in approach between myself and Dr Smith.

At the end of this review the reader will find a list of my work on 1 Timothy and the Pastoral Epistles, as well as a list of scholars who have made efforts to discuss the New Testament instructions to women in their historical and social context.

Below is my review of Smith’s book from 2012, abridged and corrected. In reading Claire Smith’s God’s Good Design: What the Bible Really Says about Men and Women I was surprised to find that she does not engage with the Greco-Roman materials we have at our disposal, much less made any effort to understand how these materials might enlighten our exposition of the New Testament passages under discussion. Furthermore, I note in her resource list that she has relied on a very limited number of secondary sources to aid her in her discussion. In recent times, there has been quite a lot of research into the social history that stands behind the New Testament.[1] In particular, there have been historians who have focused their efforts on understanding masculinity and femininity in the Greco-Roman world.[2] These works, I would have thought, would be essential reading for someone attempting to describe New Testament ideas about men and women.

As a historian, I can testify that it has taken a lot mental wrestling with the first-century writers to understand their ideas of masculinity and femininity. It is a difficult task to understand how the New Testament writers, as first-century people, have either embraced these ideas or altered them in light of the gospel. After this effort, I am disquieted by Dr Smith’s confidence that she knows what the Bible says about men and women when she appears to have spent so little time researching for herself the passages she so firmly assures us are ‘plain’ in their meaning. I would like now to examine three of these ‘plain’ passages and point out how a knowledge of the first century cultural background alters the way we might understand the passage. At this point I would like to say that I don’t have any definitive answers about each passage. My purpose is merely to alert Dr Smith’s readers to the possibility that our understanding of each passage is altered when the cultural background is taken into account.

Dr Smith begins with a study on 1Timothy 2 (chapter 2 of her book), which is fortunate because this is the passage that I am most familiar with. I would dispute a number of points that Dr Smith makes in explaining this chapter, but the point I would like to focus on is her explanation of what ‘quiet’ might mean. Now according to Dr Smith “quietly” (v.11) and “quiet” (v.12) are self-explanatory (pp.24 &31): that “they [women] are not to challenge or dispute what is taught” (p.29). This explanation is simply a good guess. There is nothing in the text that is telling us what ‘in silence’ means (the phrase that is use in both verses). Is this total silence, without speaking at all, or is it participating with “a quiet decorum” (p.29) as Dr Smith’s phrase suggests? Let us look at the cultural ideas that stand behind ‘in silence.’ Silence was associated with strength and was a sign of virtue. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch who was martyred in about 117AD, provides us with a good example. I’m beginning with Ignatius for two reasons. First, it should jar us out of our complacency that all that is required for understanding the Bible are good comprehension skills. Secondly, Ignatius is dealing with the problem of false teaching in his letters and so offers a similar context to 1Timothy. Ignatius commends the bishop at Philadelphia,

I was impressed by his gentleness because when silent (σιγῶν) he can do more than those who speak in vain… Therefore my soul blesses his godly mind recognising it as virtuous and perfect and his immovability and freedom from wrath all gentleness characteristic of the living God. (Philadelphians 1:1-2).[3]

Notice that this bishop, in his silence, is free from wrath and has a gentleness that is characteristic of God. In this sense silence is valued and stands in contrast vain talking, quarrelling etc. In discussing the silence of the bishop in this passage, Harry Maier says,

Silence here does not denote the absence of sound or the lack of speaking ability. It is the opposite of intemperate speech and as such connotes the well-deployed rhetorical ability of the virtuous who have trained themselves to use the right word at the right time to achieve the common good.[4]

The silent bishop is one who knows when to use the right word at the right time. It was an important part of his rhetorical skill. This could have implications for how we might understand the silence of women in verses 11 and 12 of chapter 2, if we decide the context is a gathering of teachers and learners.

Of course, you might object that Ignatius is talking about the bishop. However, the silence of a woman belonged to a similar and well-recognised set of ideas or topos. The letter of Melissa (allegedly a letter written by female philosopher)[5] is an example,

…listen to the topic of women’s adornment offers fair hope that you intend to perfect yourself in virtue. It is necessary then for the moderate and liberal woman to live with her lawful husband adorned with quietness (ἡσυχίᾳ), white and clean in dress, plain and not costly, simple and not elaborate or excessive. For she must reject …and garments of purple or gold…but if she is to be attractive to one man, her own, a woman’s ornament is her manners and not her clothing.[6]

What should be immediately obvious is the similarity between the instructions in this letter and 1Timothy 2. What this means is that the instructions in 1 Timothy have been drawn from a common pool of cultural ideas about how a woman ought to live and behave. In other words, the instructions in 1 Timothy 2 are culturally defined. In some ways 1 Timothy is saying no more than what an ancient audience would expect a writer to say when describing the behaviour of a woman. But isn’t it interesting to note where this common topos has been changed? In Melissa’s letter, the woman is “adorned with quietness.” This was a standard expression and even in the 5th century B.C. it was described as a well-worn phrase.[7] The Christian woman is not told to adorn herself ‘in silence,’ rather she is “to adorn herself in modest dress with decency and propriety” (v.9). Not content with that the letter goes on in verse 10 to say she is to adorn herself with what is “proper for a woman professing godly reverence” and this is “good works.” We might now see that these changes are revolutionary. Bruce Winter observes that a woman’s good works are listed in the description of a true widow (1 Timothy 5:5-10),

her (the Christian widow) proven record of Christian benefactions, i.e. good works, is outlined. She is to be ‘well attested for her good deeds (ἐν ἔργοις καλοῖς) having brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the feet of the saints, relieved the afflicted and devoted herself to good works in every way’ (ϵἰ παντὶ ἔργῳ, [5] vv.9-10). It is important to note here that the hallmark of the Christian widow is her benefaction which was a requirement of all Christians…[8]

While these womanly good works may appear to us to be mundane, to an ancient audience they would have been strikingly unconventional. The philosophical literature traditionally centred a woman in the home.[9] Here in 1 Timothy the Christian woman’s occupations are not entirely centred in her home. Her good works are a benefaction towards members of the community and her family beyond her house; “if any believing woman has widows, let her assist them” (1 Timothy 5:16).[10] A woman serves the saints and may even hold a recognised position as a deacon within the community of believers (1 Timothy 3:11 –13).

Enough said on this for the moment; our discussion has moved us away from our topic of silence and what it means for a woman in the first century. The Roman moralist Plutarch (c.46-119 AD) gave a speech to his young students who had just entered into married life. In “Advice to the Bride and Groom,” he advises the bride to be ready to laugh and joke with her husband, but said that she should know when and to whom to speak, Theano, in putting her cloak about her exposed her arm. Somebody exclaimed, ‘A lovely arm.’ ‘But not for the public,’ said she. Not only the arm of the virtuous woman, but her speech as well, ought to be not for the public, and she ought to be modest and guarded about saying anything in the hearing of outsiders, since it is an exposure of herself; for in her talk can be seen her feelings, character, and disposition.[11]

A woman was to be shy in her conversation with strangers because it revealed something of her inner person. Roman poet Juvenal (ca.55–127 AD) complained about wives’ inappropriate speech at dinner parties, Let the wife, who reclines with you at dinner, not possess a rhetorical style of her own, let her not hurl at you in whirling speech the well-rounded syllogism. Let her not know all history … I hate the woman who is always consulting and poring over the grammatical treatise … who with antiquarian zeal quotes verses that I have never heard of and corrects her ignorant female friend for slips of speech … let her husband at least be allowed to make his solecisms [slips in syntax] in peace.[12]

Juvenal here is complaining about other men’s wives correcting their friends and their husbands on their grammar. As we might be able to surmise from this brief introduction to attitudes to women’s speech, there is more to the instructions in 1Timothy than just the ‘plain’ reading in English affords. This is because we in our culture come to it with a different set of references than the ancient audience. Even if we attempt not to be influenced by twentieth-century feminism, it still does not help us in our quest to see things from a first-century perspective. So how can this summary on silence help us understand the instructions in 1 Timothy 2 better? Well, I like to make at least one suggestion. As I hope you have seen silence is viewed as a positive behaviour. It means the avoidance of negative speech. We have also seen that, traditionally, it was considered as something that adorns a woman. So I would like to suggest verse 11 belongs with verses 9 and 10 so that they form a unit of positive instructions, which then pairs with the instructions given to men in verse 8. This means that contents of verses 8–10 are all governed by the positive command, “I want.” Verse 12 beings with a small Greek word (δέ) that means what follows stands in contrast to the previous words. The negative injunction “I do not want” then suggests behaviours that are considered negative and are not to be engaged in. So how might this temper our understanding of verse 12? Women’s negative speech behaviour was of great concern in antiquity. Women were seen as gossips, nags and were believed to have the ability to be irresistibly and erotically persuasive and therefore dangerous to husbands and society.[13] These same concerns that are reflected in 1Timothy 5:13-15. This leaves us with a lot of questions about how verse 12 is working in Chapter 2:

a) How does the observation that ‘in silence’ is in effect shorthand for temperate speech affect our understanding of ‘to teach’?

b) Is the concern for women’s negative speech related to verse 12?

c) How does the perception of women’s negative speech affect our understanding of Eve’s deception in verse 14?

d) What is the relationship between Eve’s deception in verse 14 with the word ‘to teach’ in verse 12. How does the idea of temperate speech effect our understanding of this relationship?

I would suggest, given my research, that a concern about women’s negative speech habits is shaping the discussion of 1Timothy 2:12–14. Unfortunately, space does not allow me to go into my reasons for proposing this idea. But my purpose, as I said, is not to offer a definitive interpretation of this passage in 1Timothy; rather, it is to highlight how current historical research might alter our understanding of such passages. I am assuming that Dr Smith and I share the same assumption that the ‘plain’ meaning of Scripture is in its original language. As Don Carson says,

The original languages take precedence. This is a corollary of the fact that this revelation took place through specific individuals at concrete historical junctures in real and time-specific human languages.[14]

Since we, as Evangelicals, make it our commitment to understand these passages in their original language with its attendant social, literary and cultural contexts, then it is important for any evangelical scholar to be aware of the developments in the study of the historical context of the Biblical writers that may impact on their interpretation.[15] I fear that Dr Smith has failed to keep up with such developments.

This brings me to the second point I would like to make on Dr Smith’s discussion of 1 Corinthians 14. As we have seen in our discussion on silence in 1Timothy, “silence” was a part of a woman’s decorum. As such it is not out of place in 1Corinthians 14 since the context is the community discussion and she must not to forget her decorum and participate like a man. Perhaps Paul is thinking that this would add to add to the confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33). As we have seen, Juvenal found such women a nuisance. We have also noticed that Juvenal was not complaining about “women” as much as other men’s wives. It is Dr Smith’s argument that it is “women” rather than “wives” that I would like to focus on (p. 94). Dr Smith, after acknowledging that the passage might be addressing married women, says,

But the Greek could just as easily mean they should ask their women men at home, which—given that households in the first century had a well-established pattern of male leadership—could simply mean, ‘Women, when you get home ask the head of the house.’

There are a number of problems this analysis. First, that the Greek may be read that women as a general class would ask ‘their own men,’ but is that how a first-century audience would understand it? At this point I would like to ask Dr Smith, where is her evidence for understanding this phrase in this way? In my research I have found plenty of discussions about men and women but always when the genders are brought together the women are assumed to be married. It is helpful here to have an understanding of women in society. Women were excluded from real political power, although they could and did have influence.[16] The place where women could exercise any real power was at home. It was believed that women were at their most dangerous in their marriages because of the power they could exercise over their husbands.[17] Hence the attention that is given to regulating a woman’s behaviour in their marriage. Discussions on women’s behaviour inevitably lead to a discussion of her relationship with her husband.[18] I find it difficult to believe that the text here is referring to any woman rather than a woman with her “own husband.” Yet Dr Smith states that the category “women” would include unmarried females. Such girls would be called “virgins” and would be too young to fit into the “woman” category. If they had a father at home it would read, I think, “and let the daughter (or ‘virgin’) ask her father.” What is needed is evidence that “her man” could be referring to a girl’s father.

The other allied problem here is the assumption that all households would be headed up by a man. In actual fact, there is plenty of evidence that many ancient households would be headed by a woman.[19] This is because girls married in their mid to late teens and men in their mid-twenties to late thirties.[20] This means that fathers had often died before the children had grown into adulthood. This is the reason why the care of widows is such an issue in the New Testament.[21] If a woman survived through her childbearing years then it was most likely that she would outlive her older husband. The evidence I have seen points to the widow as being the head of the household.[22] It was the wife’s responsibility to manage the household in the absence of her husband and her duty to supervise the children and household slaves.[23]

But here we strike a difficult conceptual problem for the twenty-first-century westerner. Even a modest first-century household would include slaves—both male and female.[24] I think it extremely unlikely that the discussion in our passage about “women” would include female slaves. As we saw above, it was wives at dinner parties who were seen as transgressing the social etiquette. At this point, things get very messy. Sometimes a man’s “defacto wife” would be his slave or freedwoman.[25] Any children born of this relationship would be considered slaves, unless he recognised them as his children. Otherwise they would be his slaves to be disposed of as he saw fit.[26] Moreover, female slaves in a household were considered the property of their masters and mistresses to treat in whatever manner they wished. Masters could legitimately have sexual relations with their female slaves.[27] It was seen as their right. A slave did not have rights over their own bodies. A slave girl would, however, still answer to her mistress (consider the relationship between Sarah and Hagar). Now we might assume that Christians took up the sexual mores of their Jewish antecedents and masters refrained from sexual relations with their slaves.[28] But the point is that any questions a slave girl might have about the household faith, I am assuming, would more naturally be directed to her mistress rather than her master.

We must also consider the relationship between a mistress and her male slaves.[29] A wife was responsible for the running of the household including the oversight of slaves.[30] That was a part of good household management (1Timothy 5:14). If a woman was widowed to a man who ran a business then it was possible for her to continue that business.[31] In this way, a woman could become financially independent and prosperous.[32] For instance, Lydia was a dealer in purple cloth (Acts 16:14-16). There is no mention of her husband, so perhaps she was a widow running the family business.[33] She was from Thyatira. Most likely she was in Philippi on business or that she came to live there because that was where her best market was. Acts records that Lydia and her household were baptised. Now we can’t be sure, but it could be that Lydia’s household included at least one male slave but maybe more.[34] My purpose in suggesting this is to illustrate that a wife, particularly if she was widowed, was the head of the household in lieu of her husband and as such would have complete authority over the male slaves. If Lydia was the head over her household then she was the spiritual authority in her house, as we see her and her household were baptised. This has implications for how we read both 1Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 11 and 14. So my point is that a woman is a wife unless she is called a “virgin” or a “widow.” A man is not always a “man” because he could be a slave.[35] To my knowledge this is a little-explored dimension of the household codes.[36] But I believe that we can’t discuss the relationship of the genders, “man” and “woman,” in the ancient world without considering the other half of the household: the slaves. This means that when we read the passages that deal with advice to households and churches we must bear in mind that when the author addresses men and women he most likely has free men and women in mind. Men and women who are slaves are usually addressed separately after men and women.

The third passage I would like to discuss is 1 Peter 3:1–7. The main point I would like to make here is not so much historical but hermeneutical. That is, how this passage applies to us today. Dr Smith begins Chapter 6 with a metaphor, “that family resemblances have the effect of establishing and declaring our identity …both publically and personally” (p.129). So, in the same way as biological family resemblances give identity, Christian marriages should foster a spiritual heritage and family resemblances. To begin with, I agree with what Dr Smith is suggesting about 1 Peter 3: that it is assuming that the Christian marriage would display a Christian likeness and so, in turn, commend it to unbelievers (p.130). But what exactly that might mean for the Christian marriage today is what I would like to discuss. But first let’s look briefly at the text that Dr Smith gives us, 1 Peter 3:1-7 (p.133).

We might notice firstly that this text has very similar themes to 1 Timothy 2. There is the same concern for a woman’s deportment and adornment. What is helpful about this passage is that it is far more explicit as to the connection between a woman’s adornment and her inner spiritual life. Further, the adorning is not the external dress but rather the way she behaves toward her husband. As we saw in our discussion of 1 Timothy, this was a common theme in literature on woman’s behaviour. The letter of Melissa gives similar advice to 1 Peter,

A liberal and moderate woman must seem good-looking to her own husband, but not to the man next door, having on her cheeks the blush of modesty rather than of rouge and powder, and good bearing and decency and moderation rather than gold and emerald.[37]

As we can see in 1 Peter and Melissa’s letter, the outer adornment reveals the inner self. In the ancient world, the book was judged by its cover.[38] Both 1 Timothy and 1 Peter are drawing on commonly held values for women’s dress and behaviour. Both assume, I believe, that such deportment in a Christian woman reveals the inner change that Christ has made in their lives. The external declares the internal and in so doing commends the Christian life to the unbelieving husband.

Secondly, and I hope it is apparent after our earlier discussion, 1 Peter is drawing on the same ideas of silence when it says that unbelieving husbands, “may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives,” (1 Peter 3:1). As we saw, Ignatius believed that the bishop of Philadelphia could achieve things more by his silence than by vain babble. Control over one’s speech revealed something of one’s internal virtue as Maier says,

The ideals of moderate, measured speech as an external sign of inner virtue are also behind Ignatius’ exhortation in Ign.Eph. 14.2-15.2 that ‘it is better to be silent …and real …, than to babble …and be unreal.’”[39]

In other words, silence reveals inner virtue, which was highly esteemed in the culture of the first century. I think we are now in a position to see how the advice in 1 Peter works. But before we come to draw any conclusions there is one more issue I’d like to point out.

Thirdly, 1 Peter assures the believing woman that if she conducts herself according to the highest, commendable values then she need, “not fear anything that is frightening” (1 Peter 3:6). What could possibly frighten a wife? This is where I think Dr Smith’s discussion lets her down. It was expected that the wife would worship the same gods as her husband. Indeed, the whole household, including slaves were to participate in the cult of the household god/s. In the Hellenistic and Roman periods there appears to be a tendency for wives to take on a cult of their own,

…women seem to have been especially attracted to the syncretic cults produced by the spread of eastern and Egyptian religions through the Mediterranean cities. Conservative historians and satirists frequently blamed the lush growth of these cults on the superstition and irresponsibility of emancipated women … Plutarch urged that a husband use not only philosophy to protect his wife from such gullibility, but also a strong hand, for ‘it is becoming for a wife to worship and to know only the gods that her husband believes in, and to shut the front door tight upon all queer rituals and outlandish superstitions. For with no god do stealthy and secret rites performed by a woman find any favour.[40]

I hope what we can see is that a wife would have plenty to fear if her husband disapproved of her new cult, Christianity. We have seen that the New Testament writers have been relatively instep with the philosophers and moralists of the day in their advice to women. But here Peter and the other New Testament writers depart radically. It is here that we see them at their most countercultural. Instead of urging the wife to submit to her husband and worship his gods, 1 Peter gives advice on how to continue in her faith while rejecting her husband’s gods. This is a radical reworking of submission, which needs a great deal of thought before we can apply it in the 21st century context.

I now come to the point I wish to make. Try as I might I find it very difficult to grasp what Dr Smith thinks submission means for 21st-century women. She asks the question,

So what does a wife’s submission look like? Well, at first glance there is not a lot to go on. Also, the example of the godly wives of the past … tell us that it has something to do with obedience, respect and doing right. But as for the day-to-day nuts and bolts of submission, Peter—like Paul in the passages we have already looked at—gives us very little of the detail (p.137).

Dr Smith spends some time telling us what it doesn’t look like (pp.138–142), but there is no time spent articulating how the first-century advice to wives translates into 21st-century advice. I think this is because so little time has been devoted to exploring how the New Testament writers understood the principles of the gospel and how they related to their culture’s ideals. Also, little time has been spent on how the practice of these ideals would, in turn, commend the gospel to unbelievers. What I fear Dr Smith is urging us to do, as Christian women (myself included), is to practice the ideals of first-century femininity. But would that achieve what Peter hopes it would achieve? Would the practice of first-century ideals commend the gospel to our husbands, family, neighbours, work colleagues, other mothers at school etc? Or does it just make us look quaint and rather odd? Could it be producing the very opposite effect of what 1Peter 3 intended? Now it’s not as if I don’t think that the passage is talking about submission. It is, after all, the example of Christ, which Peter offers (1 Peter 2:21-25). The question is how does submission today commend the gospel to unbelievers? What values, practices, behaviours do unbelievers admire that would illustrate our submission to our Lord? A lot more thinking needs to go into what silence, adornment, submission and obedience might look like in our culture if we are to live lives that commend us and our faith to our Australian society. We need to think hard, like the New Testament writers did, about how the gospel principles of love, faith, holiness, joy, peace kindness, forgiveness etc translate into being the women that our society needs us to be if they are ever to hear the gospel message.

To sum up, Dr Smith has failed to notice the exciting work that historians and biblical scholars have done over the last twenty years [and more now in 2021] and this is primarily the weakness of this book. Many of the resources that she has relied on are at least a decade or two old [in 2021 little has changed]. And some of these such as Wayne Grudem’s Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth (2004) rely on the older discussions such as Women in the Church: A Fresh Analysis of 1Timothy 2:9-15 (1995). It is not a bad thing that she has used these resources; it is just that Dr Smith hasn’t assessed their arguments in the light of current research. She does use Bruce Winter’s book Roman Wives, Roman Widows (2003), which does utilise the first-century sources and the more up-to-date historical work [now in 2021 there are even more works that challenge her views-see the list below]. I am surprised that this did not inspire Dr Smith to research for herself the ideas that are emerging from the research about masculinity and femininity in the Greco-Roman culture.

Furthermore, there is some very exciting work being done on inscriptions from the time of the New Testament.[41] These inscriptions give us insight into what more ordinary citizens of the Roman Empire thought about their daughters, wives and mothers. Some inscriptions are found on graves, but others are on statue bases and monuments set up to commend citizens who had benefited their city in some way. Sometimes women are included in inscriptions honouring their husbands and/ or sons. Some inscriptions honour women in their own right for their example and beneficence to their city.[42] In these inscriptions we see what a community thought was highly commendable and honourable about a particular woman. This enables us to do a compare and contrast with the advice given to women in the New Testament. They also give us insight into the roles women were actually playing in their communities. The inscriptions help us touch the real world of first century women and give us a more rounded picture of their lives than just what we read in the moralists and philosophers.

Another fruitful area of study is into the everyday letters, which have survived in the desert sands of Egypt.[43] These move us even closer to the women of the first century. We can actually see the words written by the women themselves and gain insight into their daily lives.[44] We can see who they wrote to and what their concerns were. We can see how husbands and wives conducted their relationships, albeit at a distance. This is the closest thing we have to hearing their voices after two thousand years. It helps us understand their social etiquette, what they approved of and didn’t approve of, what kinds of things they worried about and what kind of business and legal problems confronted them. There is a wealth of information that can make our texts come alive.

What I hope to show in this review is that there are resources out there that enlighten the texts of the New Testament that is just not possible with comprehension alone. I believe it is incumbent upon a scholar to make use of these primary resources (the inscriptions, letters, philosophical texts etc) along with the historical and social research that is available to give the best possible interpretation of any New Testament passage. I am sorry but it is more than the red dust of feminism that is clouding our view of these important New Testament texts. Rather, I suggest that these passages are difficult to understand for us as 21st-century people, with or without feminism. This is not negating the idea of the ‘plain’ meaning of Scripture. No doubt, in the first century, their meaning was plain. But for us, we need to transverse twenty centuries and wrestle with the cultural context of the New Testament writers until their meaning becomes plain.


Dr Kidson is an Ancient historian and New Testament scholar, a Pastoral Epistles specialist, with a focus on gender, sexuality, hermeneutics and numismatics. She currently lectures at Alphacrucis College in Parramatta.