“The traditional interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12 is often treated as a citadel that dominates biblical interpretation, church policy, and praxis on gender, which can be overturned (hypothetically) only with incontrovertible proof or a rejection of the canonical status of 1 Timothy and ultimately a rejection of the Bible as authoritative for life and practice” (2). So says Cynthia Long Westfall in her recent work, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ. In the whole scope of Paul's treatment of gender, 1 Timothy 2:12 has become the standard by which traditionalists judge all interpretation: "I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man. She is to keep silent."
Although Westfall herself is not willing to dismiss the authority of 1 Timothy, she does question the status of this text in the theology of gender. A coherent Pauline theology, she claims, must account for the whole scope of Paul’s works embedded in their cultural setting and seek an interpretation that minimizes contradiction between various texts. Such a study will demonstrate that the traditional approaches to gender passages are on several counts “implausible readings in a first-century Greco-Roman context” (5). The Pauline vision that Westfall reclaims is one in which women have a prominent and in many ways co-equal role to play with men in the church.
It is typical, especially at the popular level, for egalitarian (a word that Westfall does not use of herself, despite having much in common with those who do) arguments about the New Testament to turn on speculation about the “real” setting behind passages like 1 Timothy 2 in order to make sense of Paul’s commands as particular to a situation and not ultimately normative for the church. Westfall offers such speculation and does it well, but these scenarios do not by any means constitute the “incontrovertible proof” that is apparently necessary to take down take the “citadel” of traditional interpretation.
Where Westfall’s work shines is in her dismantling of the idea of the citadel—in her argument that 1 Timothy 2:12 is neither the clearest nor the most definitive passage within a coherent Pauline theology. It is really not clear, for example, that all women should always be silent in church, since Paul also seems to want them to pray and prophesy (1 Cor 11:5). Even more so, Westfall is able to catalogue a number of ways in which traditional assumptions are inconsistent with Pauline theology, including Paul’s emphasis on gifts as the standard for roles in the church, his assertion of the mutuality of human origins, the eschatological ideal he presents in Galatians 3:28, and the practical reality of women taking roles of leadership in Paul's ministry.
Westfall does not definitively disprove the traditional interpretation, but she does argue successfully for a conversation about gender in New Testament theology that takes the full scope of the canon seriously as the authoritative word of God without stopping short on the chopping block of 1 Timothy 2:12.
While it would be absurd to suggest that Westfall, or any scholar, is not influenced by her time and place, her work does not begin with the assumption of modern feminism and work backward to a pseudo-Pauline theology. Westfall is able to demonstrate from Paul's own writings that the New Testament verdict on gender is not cut and dry. She is able to make the case for renewed conversation. She is thorough and academic, and her book is a fantastic resource for those who are dissatisfied with traditional gender theology in the church, and who desire to ask new questions under the authority of the canonical Scripture.
Veils, Heads, and Glory in Corinth
It should come as no surprise that the dynamics and contexts in which the Corinthian Christians lived are not identical to those of the twenty-first century, Western world. But mistakes in interpretation have often been the result of taking Western ideals for granted. This is particularly the case with veiling, to which topic Westfall turns her attention in her first chapter. There is much in her book that is wonderful, but because her work in this area is particularly intriguing, I will rehearse it here:
A primary problem is that our current consensus on how 1 Corinthians 11:3–16 has been formed and framed has been established by scholars holding a Western worldview, [and] lacking any cultural context with which to interpret the symbol of the veil/head covering in Corinth. (28)
Veiling in the ancient world was not primarily an act of submission, nor would those wearing it have felt it as an act of oppression. The veil was a mark of a married woman and a member of the upper classes that was in fact it was forbidden to female slaves, freedwomen, and others who were under authority or were, by the loose standards of ancient Corinth, sexually available (29–31).
Although traditional interpretation has understood Paul’s command that women be veiled in the worship service as a restriction on women, Westfall argues convincingly that exactly the opposite was the case. In a house church whose members were mostly of high social class (1 Cor 1:26), it would have been natural and even culturally normative for many of the women to go without veils. It seems unlikely that those privileged women who would normally wear them would want to flout them in such a context.
Westfall’s analysis suggests, however, that women in Corinth wanted to wear veils, and that it was men who sought to forbid them. Men were in fact incentivized to have women go unveiled:
There is little doubt that a male slave owner would generally object to his female slave wearing a veil for legal, social, economic, domestic, and, often, personal reasons. Paul’s support of all women veiling equalized the social relationships in the community; inasmuch as such veiling was in his control, he secured respect, honor, and sexual purity for women in the church who were denied that status in the culture. (33–34)
The fact that Paul was going against a common cultural concern makes it more than likely that men would be opposed to him on this point. Unlike the surrounding culture, Paul sought to dignify the women in the church, and especially those of lower social class.
Besides being a sensible assessment of Greco-Roman cultural realities, there is a strong grammatical argument for this view. Consider the “symbol of authority” in v. 10. The Greek phrase (ὀφείλει ἡ γυνὴ ἐξουσίαν ἔχειν ἔπι τῆς κεφαλῆς) can be translated literally as “a woman should have authority over her head.” The traditional interpretation supposes that Paul is using a euphemism to say that the veil is a “symbol of authority,” but Westfall's reading makes this awkward bit of license with the grammar unnecessary. The “angels” in question—which traditional interpretation has had little success making sense of—would thus be the same angels that Paul referred to in 6:3, whom Christians are to judge. If women are to judge the angels, why should they not be able to make a judgment about what to put on their head? The gender-inclusive “anyone” and the masculine adjective “argumentative” (φιλόνεικος) of v. 16 suggest that it is the men, not the women, who would have cause to protest Paul's ruling.
The language of “headship” and “glory” in the passage is complex, but Westfall suggests, on the one hand, that headship refers not to authority but to origin, which was a common metaphor for “head” (κεφαλή) in the ancient world. Paul punctuates his argument in the passage not with an appeal to male authority, but rather with “an explicit statement of mutuality, interdependence, and reciprocity in male-female relationships” (39; see 1 Cor 11:11–12). This statement comes as a kind of caveat. Women have authority over their heads, but that does not make them independent any more than men are independent. All members of Christ’s body—male and female—submit to and depend on one another.
On the other hand, Westfall suggests that woman’s being the glory of man is not a form of derived or lesser glory (which interpretation would contradict Genesis 1:27 and 5:1-3). Rather, “the fact that woman was created for man’s sake indicates the purpose of her greater beauty and her attraction for men” (41, my italics). Hair was a potent sexual symbol in the ancient world, and "Paul, in common with other members of his culture, thought that hair was sexy or a means of attraction" (30). In the Corinthian church, a woman’s unveiled head had potential to draw attention away from worship. If reading this seems contrived, consider how the phrase “women bring men glory” is used as part of an expression about the power of women over men in 1 Esdras (67):
"Gentlemen, is not the king great, and are not men many, and is not wine strong? Who is it, then, that rules them, or has the mastery over them? Is it not women? Women gave birth to the king and to every people that rules over sea and land. From women they came; and women brought up the very men who plant the vineyards from which comes wine. Women make men’s clothes; they bring men glory; men cannot exist without women . . . . Therefore you must realize that women rule over you!" (1 Esd. 4:14–17, 22)
For a woman to go with her hair uncovered was thus a source of shame precisely because her hair was her glory, given to her as a “cloak” (1 Cor 11:15), and giving her influence over man.
Westfall is thus able to make a strong argument that, read within the context of the Greco-Roman worldview, it is likely that Paul's command for women to be veiled during worship is not a form of oppression, as modern feminist readings would have us believe, nor a sign of authority, as the traditional view suggests, but rather a dignifying freedom for the women of Corinth, and especially for those of lower social class. This is just one example of how Westfall's cohesive and context-attentive reading is able to subvert traditional interpretation without subverting biblical authority.