Friday, June 13, 2014

Modesty Culture Part 6: The Real Meaning of I Timothy 2:8-10

What Saint Paul Was Saying in I Timothy 2

I want to circle back for a moment now to the passage in I Timothy and re-examine what Saint Paul was saying. I noted in earlier posts that I believe that the proponents of Modesty Culture not only “proof text” their preconceived beliefs about women, but they also ignore the most logical meaning of the text.

I have mentioned that I Timothy in general can be a confusing book to read, and interpretation is hardly easy or simple. One of the reasons for this is that it is loaded with cultural references. In some ways, it is very much as if it was written, for example, by someone immersed in the world of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Explaining this to someone who was unfamiliar with Tolkien’s invented world would be difficult at best; but just imagine explaining it to someone who had no concept of fantasy or mythology.

I Timothy is like that, because it is jam packed with references to the cult of Diana/Artemis, which was the central reality of life in ancient Ephesus. Without knowledge of this cult and its beliefs and practices, many things in this book make no sense at all, and seem to be completely contradictory to other parts of scripture. However, they do make some sense in light of the culture they were referencing. The details of that are beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say that the whole “women will be saved through childbearing” didn’t make sense to me until I read Wade Burleson’s post on the Artemis cult - and why childbearing came into the discussion in the first place.

So, in light of that, I want to take a look at I Timothy 2:8-10 in context, and also in historical context. (All citations are NASB unless otherwise indicated.)

Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension. Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness.

The instructions to men and women form a matched set. Both deal with disruptions to the worship service. The men were quarreling, and the women were showing off.

How do we know this? The reference to braided hair and gold is not accidental. At all. As part of the cult of Artemis, women who were in her service would show off the wealth they attained by braiding gold into their hair. In addition, there is good evidence that braiding had become an elaborate art, requiring hours of labor - slave labor - to produce. It was a visible representation of being a wealthy slave owner. The style of one's hair made a clear statement about one's wealth and class. 

They were bringin’ the bling.

They were using a forum for the worship of God and the fellowship with others as a means to show off how wealthy they were.

Roman Hairstyle c. 90 CE

This wasn’t about sex!

That interpretation isn’t present in either the context of the of the passage or in the historical context of the problem Saint Paul was addressing. That was read into the passage later by those who decided this was about sex, not pride and money.

In fact, at some point, the very meaning of words changed to suit the new obsession with sex.

Not too long ago, “modest” didn’t have sexual connotations. It meant the opposite of “prideful.” The opposite of “ostentatious.” It still holds these meanings. A person is modest when he doesn’t tout his own accomplishments. He is modest when he doesn’t show off his wealth.

But a woman is modest when her manner of dressing doesn’t make men desire her. See the difference? See how it has changed?

This gets even more interesting for those who prefer the King James Version. As I quoted it in Part 2 of this series, the verse goes:

In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; but (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.

The word in the previous translation rendered as “modest” now becomes “shamefacedness.”

Likewise, the word rendered as “proper” in the NASB and as “modest” in the KJV doesn’t mean what we have made it mean.

What Does “Proper” or “Modest” Mean?

For all discussions of word meaning, I have relied on a concordance and an interlinear Bible. I have also looked to online scholarly sources for meanings of Greek words. While I am not a Greek scholar by any means, even I can see that translation is hardly a mechanical process. Choices must be made in how to translate a word, and that choice often betrays bias about what the translator thinks the passage means.

The word translated “proper” by the translators of the NASB and as “modest” by the translators of the KJV is used in I Timothy just a chapter later in 3:2.

An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach…(NASB)


A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach…(KJV)

Interesting, isn’t it? When referring to a man in leadership, the word means “respectable” or “of good behavior.” Other sources indicate that the word literally means “well ordered.” This is about respectability within the society. But suddenly, in our modern interpretation, it becomes primarily about sex when applied to women.

I could see in this an admonition to be respectable, neat, clean, and put together. That makes sense. Come to the house of God and show respect. But instead, this has been twisted to mean that women are to dress differently than the present culture (see Part 3) because they make men sin sexually.

And what about the other word?

What Does Shamefaced Mean?

This is yet another example of where the language gap between Elizabethan England and Twenty-first Century America is exploited by those with an agenda.

Unlike some of the translation errors I noted in a previous post, “shamefaced” is not an entirely wrong translation of the Greek word. True, it is translated as “reverent” the one other place it is used (Hebrews 12:28 - see note below.)

However, the concept of shame isn’t missing from that of the original word. I have seen it explained in terms of the honor culture of the day. Reverence was also a desire to avoid bringing shame. To doing what is shameful by failing to give proper reverence where it is due.

However, I do believe that difference in application of this verse may well reflect some latent sexism.

“Shamefaced” as interpreted by the Patriarchists

All it takes is a little perusing of the comments on one or more articles on “Modesty” to run across some asshole who decides to make the point that women should be “shamefaced.” (I know, I probably will live longer if I avoid the comments section on blog posts.)

What this means to those within the Patriarchal lifestyle is this: Women should be “shamefaced” when speaking to men.

For practical purposes, what this means is that women should not look men in the eye, but should have a properly “downcast” glance. I wish I were making this up, but this is really what is taught!

 Magdalen from No Name by Wilkie Collins, demonstrating a proper Victorian downcast glance. 
Illustration by John McLenan

 Nora from He Knew He Was Right, clearly NOT showing a downcast glance. 
But, she and Hugh were both of strong personality and determination, and thus made a delightful match. 
Illustration by Marcus Stone.

Let me unpack this a bit.

Looking someone else in the eye is a statement. It is a challenge. This is why, as lawyers, we are trained to do it. To look someone else in the eye and not turn away is to show that you think of him or her as an equal. It requires engagement. It will either end in some degree of respect or in a fight, in my opinion. At the risk of sounding sexist, men know this. Women within my profession do too, and that is why they look you in the eye. Woe indeed to the one who flinches.

There is a history to this, of course. If you want the nice little Biblical example, think of Mordecai, who refused to show deference to Haman, explaining that one bowed to God, not men.

A commoner who looked a nobleman in the eye was challenging him, and would be punished accordingly.

Likewise, woe to the slave who didn’t have a proper “downcast” glance. To look the master in the eye was to challenge: to assert equality.

So too for male/female relationships. The Victorian ideal was that women didn’t assert themselves by looking men in the eye. They needed to have a proper “shamefaced,” “downcast” glance. Demure. Unaggressive.

Make no mistake, this was based on a belief in the inherent, congenital inferiority of women. I’m not even going to argue this point further. Anyone with a basic knowledge of history knows this to be true. It is there in the public words of the vast majority of the men writing at that time. I intend to explore this and its link to Modesty Culture in a future post.

This basic belief is vital to the teachings of the Patriarchists, and thus they insist on “shamefacedness.” For women, of course.

This belief, by the way, is nothing new. Early church father St. Clement expressed the views of many of his and later ages when he said, “Every woman should be overwhelmed with shame at the thought that she is a woman."
Why was this word used then?

See, I believe that there is nothing in this passage that indicates that women ought to be “shamefaced” toward men.

I believe that the word is used to indicate a reverence toward God, and an embarrassment at using His house to show off.

I believe that the passage is telling women to show respect for the house of God. They were using his house to show off how wealthy they were. Bringin’ the bling.

Saint Paul was saying, Show some respect for the house of God!

I am reminded of one of the times that Christ himself was truly angry. He saw the temple being used by the sellers of animals and money changers as a means to profit off the backs of the devout. From Matthew 21:12-13

And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves. And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a robbersden.”

At the risk of sounding profane, I might paraphrase this in the following way:

I intended that you enter my house to pray, so get your Goddamn money out of my house!

Note the parallels. Saint Paul exhorts the men to pray without quarreling, and the women to stop making wealth an issue.

This shouldn’t be about sex.

But we have perverted what was originally an instruction about the corruption of worship into quarreling and prideful display of wealth into a proof-text for forcing women to dress a certain way so that men don’t think about sex.

There are two huge problems with this:

1. Building an entire doctrine of women’s bodies by twisting scripture.
2. Completely ignoring the point of the passage, which is classism and materialism.

I have addressed much of problem number one in this and previous posts.

But I believe problem number two - the classism that plagues churches, past and present - is also vitally important. I’ll discuss it in the next installment.

Modesty Culture Part 6: The Real Meaning of I Timothy 2:8-10
Modesty Culture Part 7: Maybe Christian Women Should Buy Their Clothes at WalMart 
Modesty Culture Part 8: Sexism and Misogyny 
Modesty Culture Part 9: Inconsistent Application of Rules 
Modesty Culture Part 10: Social Signaling  
Modesty Culture Part 11: "Others May, We Cannot" is a Lie
Modesty Culture Part 12: Amanda's Story 


Further note on “Shamefaced”:

In Part 2 of this series, I wrote a footnote on Bible translations and the way different words are translated, depending on the person or persons to whom the word refers. Often, the word choice betrays an obvious sexism.

This is particularly pernicious in I Timothy.

When the passage speaks of all people or of men, “well ordered” or “respectable” is used. “Modest” is used when referring to women.

Thus, when speaking about women:

In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; but (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works. 
When speaking about all people:

Hebrews 12:28: Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.

Similarly, all persons are to have reverence for God, but women are to be shamefaced. (And the word is generally used to mean women should be shamefaced toward men.) And this doesn’t reveal a sexist bias? Really?

One more, for the fun of it. A few verses later in I Timothy, a certain word is translated as “silent” or “silence” when referring to women. Women are to be “silent” in church. (This is often taken very literally.) However, that exact word is used in other contexts as an admonition to all persons to lead “quiet” and sober lives. While a few religious orders do indeed believe in silence, few believe that all persons should be silent at all times.

The translation thus reflects the bias. The translators started with a particular view of women, and the translation shows that the gender of the person referred to determines the meaning of words that are exactly the same.

My response to a common objection to my viewpoint:

I have heard some say, "well, the women with gold in their hair were prostitutes, so this is about dressing like a hooker." 

Assuming that this interpretation is true, which seems dubious, my point still stands on two fronts. As I pointed out above, there is no evidence that Saint Paul was referring specifically to the dress styles of prostitutes. Rather, there is significant proof that hair styles were indeed used as a status symbol. But what if they were prostitutes? First, dressing in a respectable manner - one in line with cultural norms - is a great idea for a number of reasons. "Modesty Culture," though, takes the opposite approach. DON'T dress in a culturally normal manner, because culture is evil. It's only "dressing like a hooker" if the culture says that it is. If a large portion of the population dresses like that, and they aren't streetwalking, it - by definition - isn't "dressing like a hooker." 

The second point is that if the problem were women showing too much skin in church, Saint Paul easily could have made that point. Instead, he points to the gold in their hair. The "bling" they (maybe) got from their prostitution. They are not showing off their bodies, but their wealth. Exactly what I said before. A more direct modern example would be showing off the huge ring and fast car from one's sugar daddy.  

No matter what way you slice it, it still comes down to parading wealth and fitting in with the culture - not sex.  


  1. There is a very good possibility Paul is not even the author of the epistle. I believe, today, they're looking at him not being the author at all. If so, it changes the entire conversation.

    1. I'm not sure that the authorship changes the conversation that much. If you accept the book as part of the legitimate cannon, then it is part of the conversation. Likewise, the Artemis references are pretty obvious, and there seems to be no reason to doubt that it was directed toward someone who understood that.

      If you instead believe that it shouldn't be part of the cannon or view scripture or the book as non-authoritative, then presumably it can be ignored outright. I address the issue from the point of view that it is part of the cannon, and as one who affirms the authority of the scriptures - but is not a theonomist, if that makes sense.

    2. Um, that's "canon," if you please...

    3. Ummm...

      1 Timothy 1:1-2
      "Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus according to the commandment of God our Savior, and of Christ Jesus, who is our hope, 2 To Timothy, my true child in the faith: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord." is it not clear who the author is? Not that it changes the point, but still. Odd statement to make, given the very first line of the book says specifically that Paul wrote it.

    4. Among scholars who like to be critical of the Bible, a claim of authorship in a book is only the starting point for deciding who wrote it. The most radical, I think, doubt that any New Testament book was written in the first century. In fairness, those who accept the authority of Scripture likewise discount internal claims of apostolic authorship for books such as the "Gospel of Thomas."

    5. While the claim is interesting, it is hardly dispositive. I could, after all, have claimed that this post was written by the 1st Century Timothy, and that would not have been true.

      In looking at the authorship of a book, since we don't have the originals, scholars look at things such as the language used. Those who argue this was written later than the 1st Century make the argument that the language doesn't match the undisputed Pauline epistles, and that some words appear to have been in use in the 2nd, rather than 1st Century. So that really is the question. Anyone COULD have written a book and claimed it was by Paul (there are other writings of the time that appear to definitely be forgeries), so you have to look at the rest of the evidence. Either way, I tend to think it turns on whether you consider the book to be part of the canon or not. If it is, then let's discuss it. If not, then, well, it can be dismissed.

  2. Re silence: If God wanted women to be silent, why did He make them able to speak?

    Paul's words in I Timothy and I Corinthians are balanced by the way he actually treated some of the women he knew, Lydia (Acts 16) and Priscilla (Acts 18) in particular. Paul stayed in Lydia's house when in Philippi; would he have done that if he had disapproved of her being "a merchant in purple [cloth]"? And whenever he spoke of Priscilla and her husband Aquila, he put her name first--obviously addressing her as coequal with her husband even in preaching God's Word. So we have a strong balance between, on the one hand, asking for courtesy during worship services, and on a more personal level, showing respect and honor for individual women--rather unPatriarchal to my mind, and rather a bad example for Gothard et al. :)

    1. This is one of my big beefs with the way that Gothard and other patriarchists interpret scripture. I also am dismayed that Evangelicalism in general seems prone to accepting this view of women. It doesn't take a genius to note that women taught and even preached in the New Testament. Likewise, a little historical knowledge makes it obvious that the Mary and Martha episode was a clear indication that Christ thought women could train to be rabbis. Unfortunately, all these other passages have been ignored because they don't support a patriarchal view of the world.

  3. Sir, my question for you is: "is there a line that a Christian should not cross even if dressing in that particular way is 'respectable' by worldly standards?" Indeed, if the statement Paul makes had to do with "fitting into the culture" (which I'm not completely against) than wouldn't the statement of wealth (the expensive hair braiding) be an attempt to "blend in"? I can imagine the Christian patricians going to a party and their daughters do not have gold braided into their hair ("what repressive parents!"). Perhaps while Paul has showing off wealth mostly in mind, the distinction between sex and wealth is quite thin. The second question would be, "where does modesty (both for males and females) begin?" I think their is a line, is that line drawn by where the culture is at? In some ways I think we have to reject cultural standards, while at the same time we are defined by them and we should look to the principles of the scriptures and cease trying to come up with Pharisaical rules (which eliminate the need for wisdom and discretion).

    1. Welcome to the discussion. My own interpretation as to how a modern Christian should approach is this:

      First of all, I would say that we should spend much less time worrying about what we are wearing. Fashion obsession, and a tendency to display brand names that say "I'm able to afford more than you" seem to me to be out of line with the Christian ethic. I think too, if you think of Saint James' concern about favoritism within the church (which remains a huge problem today), we - even the modern patricians - should seek to identify ourselves more with the poor, and less with the rich. If we truly believe that less wealthy people are our moral and spiritual equals, then we will be less likely to want to show off our differences with them.

      On a related note, I do believe that we are to stand out from the culture - but on internals, not externals. Christ himself said that the way the world would know we were his disciples was by our love. If we focused less on how we looked - and how other people looked - and focused our efforts on compassion, then I think we would indeed stand out from the culture. If we were less focused on our own material comfort, we would stand out.

      Finally, one of the best posts on this that I have read comes from one of my favorite bloggers: