Editors note: the following book review appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Eikon.
Peppiatt, Lucy. Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women: Fresh Perspectives on Disputed Texts. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2019.
In Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women: Fresh Perspectives on Disputed Texts, Lucy Peppiatt, the principal of Westminster Theological Centre, analyzes what the Bible says about the role of women in the church and home. Her intended audience is primarily “the evangelical Protestant world” (160), and she aims to show that the relevant biblical texts are not as straightforward as they are often made to sound, and that when read properly, actually support an egalitarian — she prefers the term “mutualist” — viewpoint. Specifically, she argues that the complementarian — she prefers the term “hierarchicalist” — interpretation of the relevant texts promotes “the exclusion, subordination, and silencing of women” (142), and does not accord with the text.
In order to accomplish this aim, Peppiatt divides the book into eight chapters. In Chapters 1 and 2, she reckons with the apparent androcentricity of the Bible, especially “the maleness of Jesus” (10), and she queries how that might impact our understanding of God and salvation history. From the standpoint of theology, she rightly dismisses the notion that God is embodied and does not have biological gender as humans do. She also notes that Scripture, while often referring to God with the masculine pronoun (“he”) or with the signification of “Father,” can speak of God using maternal imagery (e.g., Isa. 46:3–4). Hence, the maleness of Jesus shouldn’t lead us to believe that God has masculine gender. Instead, Peppiatt suggests that in the incarnation the Son chose to be born a male in order that, through him as a “free Jewish male,” everyone who is united to him can hold “the place of highest honor in the closest proximity to God” (40).
In Chapters 3 and 4 she analyzes the Genesis creation account and Paul’s teaching on head coverings (1 Cor. 11:2–16). At creation, Genesis 1:26–27 is the controlling text, and the subsequent creation account in Genesis 2:4–25 must be interpreted to fit into its paradigm. Accordingly, the phrase ‘ezer kenegdo (Gen. 2:18) is taken to mean “a power equal to man” (49, quoting R. David Freedman). Adam’s naming of Eve, the description of Eve as “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” and her creation from his side — Peppiatt finds it significant that she was not created from his head — combine to emphasize Eve’s equality with Adam and do not in any way designate Adam’s authority over her. Regarding the nature of the woman’s “desire” (teshuqah) in Genesis 3:16, she seeks a via media such that the desire is not “contrary to” her husband but as an idolatrous “turning to man rather than to God” (54) instead finds male domination. How this fits with the use of teshuqah in Genesis 4:7 is left unanalyzed.
The analysis of 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 is perhaps the most novel analysis in the book and helps the book live up to its subtitle. In this chapter, which distills her monograph on the topic, she analyzes the egalitarian and complementarian interpretations and finds them both wanting. Contra the egalitarian view, kephalē (“head”) does not mean “source,” and that Paul grounds his teaching on headship in creation shows it transcends culture. But contra the complementarian view, kephalē doesn’t mean “authority,” which does not cohere with the Genesis creation account. Instead, following the view of Chrysostom, kephalē refers to a “first principle” and can thus apply to things that coexist (unlike “source”) and share the same essence. This preserves an orthodox Trinitarian interpretation of 11:3 and fits with the equality between the man and the woman in the creation account. Moreover, she suggests that 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 is nonsensical as it stands, for it is filled with contradictions (e.g., 11:7–10 is corrected by 11:11–12). She concludes that some of the pericope must express the errant and distorted viewpoints of the Corinthians and not Paul’s view. Relying on the likelihood that elsewhere in 1 Corinthians Paul quotes their slogans and then responds to them, she suggests that 11:4–5, 7–10 reflects their distorted view, and 11:2–3, 6, 11–16 reflects Paul’s response.
In Chapters 5 and 6 Peppiatt critiques the complementarian view of marriage and offers a defense of the egalitarian view. She takes issue with The Meaning of Marriage by Tim and Kathy Keller, deemed to be a fair representation of the complementarian view. She rightly dismisses the Son’s eternal subordination to the Father, and she denies that the Triune God in himself is any model for human relationships, whether hierarchicalist or mutualist. In both chapters she addresses the New Testament’s household codes and finds them especially noteworthy in their instruction for men, both for what they say (e.g., “love your wife”) and for what they don’t say (e.g., nothing is said about a husband’s power). She understands 1 Peter 3:7 to mean the husband should work to bring his wife to Christian maturity since she is weaker in both a physical and social sense.
Chapter 7 is one of the most important chapters for Peppiatt’s thesis, for in it she asserts that the New Testament depicts women as apostles, prophets, and teachers/pastors. She contends that in Romans 16:7 Junia was a female apostle. Regarding prophecy, Peppiatt asserts that it includes a “teaching element” (123), yet women were prophesying in the gathered assembly at Corinth. Hence, women were teachers. Phoebe in Romans 16:1–2 was not only a deacon (diakonos) but also held a position of authority (prostatis) and was expected not only to carry Paul’s letter to the church at Rome but also to read and explain its contents to the gathered assembly. The goal of this analysis is to prove “women’s involvement in the church at every level” (113).
Finally, in Chapter 8 Peppiatt analyzes 1 Timothy 2:9–15. Her hermeneutical method explains the rationale for putting 1 Timothy 2:9–15 at the end: It is better to start with the more positive affirmations of the extent to which women were involved in the church and then read any prohibitions in light of them. Following the work of Gary Hoag and Sandra Glahn, she contends that “there is compelling evidence that the Artemis cult lies behind this text” (146). She rests her case on the words and themes common to 1 Timothy and Xenophon’s Ephesiaca. The result is as follows: Paul needed to regulate women’s attire in Ephesus (1 Tim. 2:9–10) because the women were wearing their hair and dressing like devotees of Artemis. He prohibited them from teaching, not permanently but only for a time, because they weren’t willing to learn but were attempting to teach in line with the myths of Artemis and Isis (1 Tim. 2:11–12). Hence Paul corrected their misinformed view about the order of creation and who was deceived (1 Tim. 2:13–14). He also encouraged them not to fear Artemis, the goddess of childbearing, but to trust in God who would protect them (1 Tim. 2:15).
Due to space constraints, I am unable to mention all the ways in which I appreciate this book, but I will mention a few. Often this kind of book does not interact extensively with the biblical text but simply asserts the thesis with a few arguments vaguely rooted in Scripture sprinkled in for good measure. But Peppiatt takes the biblical text seriously. She doesn’t give prominence to a “trajectory hermeneutic” by which the interpreter moves beyond the text of the New Testament, but she engages the biblical text for what it says. For instance, while I remain unconvinced that 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 is contradictory, I appreciated her effort to follow its flow of thought. Similarly, she doesn’t overlook the major debated texts. She doesn’t always engage with the strongest arguments from those texts against her position — for example, she doesn’t entertain the possibility that in 1 Timothy 2:13 Paul says Eve was deceived because of the serpent’s attempt to overturn the created order — but one cannot say everything in a book. Put one way, what the book lacks in depth, it certainly makes up for in breadth.
Also, I appreciated Peppiatt’s keen insights into the cultural background of the New Testament, especially in the Haustafeln. That women are addressed at all in the household codes is significant, and wives being equated with the church in Ephesians 5:22–24 would have dignified Christian wives. The mutual conjugal rights of 1 Corinthians 7:3–4 would have been “particularly arresting” (95), and Paul’s teaching on the interconnectedness and mutual dependency of those in the body of Christ would have been dignifying to all those in the body, including women.
Even though I do not agree with her overall conclusions, much of her exegesis is compelling, especially in cataloguing the extent to which women in the New Testament participated as “disciples, patrons, and witnesses” of Christ (31). Luke highlights the women who followed Jesus (esp. Luke 8:1–3; 10:38–42), women are key witnesses in John’s Gospel (John 11:27; 20:18), and Paul entrusted Phoebe with the task of carrying his letter to the church at Rome (Rom. 16:1–2). The critiques I offer below should not diminish my appreciation for her exegetical insights and desire to dignify Christian women.
While I appreciate much of Peppiatt’s work, I have four points of disagreement and critique. The four are linked in that they all have to do with hermeneutical method and the handling of the biblical text. Hence, the goal of my critique is aimed at honing the hermeneutical method of Christian scholarship so as to interpret the biblical text more soundly.
First, even though Peppiatt extensively interacted with the biblical text so as to marshal evidence for her position, the evidence did not always support her conclusion. For instance, Paul’s labeling Christian women as his “coworkers” does not mean those women were apostles (see 128–29). Again, just because there may be female deacons in 1 Timothy 3:11 does not necessitate that Paul would allow for female overseers earlier in the qualification list. Again, does the virgin birth signify that Mary had “an apostolic role” (31)? Much of Chapters 2 and 3 I agree with — women were Jesus’ “disciples, patrons, witnesses” — but this does not prove they had an “apostolic function” (28) or that Jesus’ choice of the Twelve did not bestow any greater authority upon them but was merely symbolic (33). Again, by no means is it clear that the present tense epitrepō in 1 Timothy 2:12 should be pressed to mean, “I am not allowing this for now or in this current season” (144). One of the strengths of the book is that it engages with the biblical text, but one of its weaknesses is that in doing so it presses the evidence too far, beyond what it can bear. The effect is that the book’s thesis is much weaker because it rests on evidence that, upon further reflection, is much thinner than it initially appeared to be.
Second, and related to this critique, is that evidence that could be construed as contrary to Peppiatt’s thesis was sometimes, though not always, either ignored or explained away. For instance, the Haustafeln instruction that a wife should submit to her own husband is explained away because it was an expected behavior in Graeco-Roman households and thus isn’t really shocking (93). But does apostolic paraenesis only possess abiding value if it was unexpected to the original audience? Does the expectedness of the instruction to submit nullify its continuing significance for Christian wives today? And if not, then what does it mean for wives to submit to their own husbands? Again, it was noted that in the qualification lists for overseers and deacons that the only gender-specific term is found in the phrase “one-woman man” (133; see 1 Tim. 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6). This may be so, but what does the phrase mean, and how does its inclusion in a qualification list affect whether women can serve in such offices? Similarly left unexplored was the relationship between Paul’s injunction against women teaching in the congregation (1 Tim. 2:11–12) and his qualification in the following passage that an overseer must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). How might this impact our understanding of the injunction in 1 Timothy 2:11–12? Peppiatt’s thesis would have been more convincing if she had analyzed more thoroughly the evidence that appears to contradict her thesis.
A third critique regarding the handling of the biblical text has to do with nuance. Especially on topics that are hotly debated, we need scholarly writing that is careful and nuanced. But occasionally Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women lacks such nuance. One example will suffice, which comes from the discussion on Junia in Romans 16:7. Peppiatt claims that “[i]t is now accepted” that Junia was a female apostle (120), that “without exception Junia was considered a woman by all the early church writers” (121), that “Junia was glossed out of the Bible” (121) through the appearance of the name in a masculine form in various Bibles, and that this was done as a conscious effort among Bible translators and theologians over the past 800 years to remove women from church leadership positions. These bold statements lack nuance, for they don’t accurately portray the complexity of the issue. The name “Junia” could derive from Latin or Hebrew; the former would be a female name, but the latter could be a masculine name. As the recent scholarly literature will attest, this question is by no means settled, despite Peppiatt’s claims to the contrary. Even more, regarding the text’s reception history, it simply isn’t true that “without exception Junia was considered a woman by all the early church writers.” It is more accurate to say that some thought the name was male (e.g., Origen, Epiphanius), and others female (e.g., Chrysostom, Jerome). To claim the early Christians were univocal on the question obscures the historical complexity surrounding its reception. Finally, the claim that Bible translators intentionally altered the text to protect their androcentric bias is hardly charitable and amounts to an ad hominem. Without further examination of the evidence, such claims should be put to rest or nuanced with greater care and precision.
Finally, Peppiatt’s analysis raised a question about how a hypothetically reconstructed historical situation should function in elucidating a biblical text: How much weight should such historical reconstruction bear in shaping the way a text is read, especially if that reconstruction is tenuous? This question was particularly acute in Peppiatt’s analysis of 1 Timothy 2:9–15, which can provide a case in point. As indicated in the summary above, Peppiatt is convinced, especially from the similarities between 1 Timothy and Xenophon’s Ephesiaca, that the Artemis cult lies in the background of Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 2:9–15. What should we make of this reading? To be sure, every biblical text is situated in space-time history, and thus interpretation is aided by historical and cultural awareness. In this sense Peppiatt’s effort in tracing possible connections to the Artemis cult is commendable. Her analysis, however, fails to convince because it rests on a tenuous historical reconstruction that overturns what appears to be otherwise a culturally-generic and indefinite prohibition of women teaching and exercising authority over the congregation (1 Tim. 2:11–12). Despite Peppiatt’s attempts to the contrary, it is by no means clear that the Artemis cult lies in the background, for Paul never mentions Artemis or Isis, and the proposed links with Xenophon’s Ephesiaca are too generic to establish a link. For instance, should we be surprised that “nearly every word in 1 Tim 2:9–10 appears in Ephesiaca” (148, quoting Gary Hoag), since the latter is a story about, among other things, lavish adornment and wealth? Are these not the words we would expect an author to use if he wanted to address such a topic? The appearance of these words in 1 Timothy 2:9–10 is no more an argument that Paul alluded to Artemis priestesses than it is that Peter did so with similar words in 1 Peter 3:3–4. To be sure, discerning the historical circumstances that gave rise to Paul’s instructions is difficult and complex, and it is possible the Artemis cult is in the background. Further, it is possible that Paul’s instructions may have been heard in particularly meaningful ways by women in Ephesus who had formerly been associated with the Artemis cult. But in light of the paucity of such evidence, such an interpretation is tenuous and uncertain. In such cases, it is hermeneutically unsound to allow a tenuous historical reconstruction to render as culturally-specific and temporal what appears to be a culturally-generic and indefinite apostolic instruction — in this instance, Paul’s injunction against women teaching and exercising authority in the congregation. A better hermeneutical approach seeks to understand the text as it stands, mining the historical and cultural background in such a way that it sheds light on and coheres with the text. Elsewhere Peppiatt rightly cautions against letting our interpretive imaginations run wild in assuming what life was like in the early church (117). But it seems to me that her analysis of 1 Timothy 2:9–15 is guilty of precisely that — letting her interpretive imagination run wild.
I want to end with a brief commendation of Peppiatt and echo one of her frequent exhortations. She notes that the gospel means we should expect “visible results” (38; cf. 37, 137, 161) in the lives of Christian men and women, including how they relate to and treat one another. This is exactly right, and such a claim needs to be commended because it is the natural outflow of the gospel and highlights the power and majesty of Christ who transforms our lives by grace. The exhortation that often follows when Peppiatt makes this claim is that, therefore, we should seek these “visible results” in our lives and churches. What she thinks constitutes such results, as I have indicated above, was not proven by her analysis, and in my estimation she missed the biblical mark. Rather, the Bible calls for, among other things, godly male headship and godly female submission manifested in Christian homes and churches. Still, we should heartily agree with Peppiatt that having “visible results” are not optional but are a necessary consequence of the gospel in our lives.
Joshua M. Greever is Associate Professor of New Testament at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
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