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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 It stands, as it did in 2012, as an under-resourced and outdated inquiry into various passages of the New Testament featuring women.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]