Interpretation

It wasn’t just a Presidential Election. When they went to the polls earlier this month, Americans in various nooks and corners around the U. S. and A. voted on a number of propositions, notwithstanding inasmuch as which gay marriage would be allowed, as would the consumption of marijuana. Whereupon some wag quoted scripture, as follows:

If a man lieth with another man he should be stoned.

So, gay couples on their wedding night are exhorted to skin up a spliff. It must be true, it says so in the Bible. Actually, the verse concerned (Leviticus 20, 13) doesn’t run like that. No version I have seen says anything about being stoned. Believe me, I checked.

The ultimate source sauce tzores of all Pentateuchal wisdom for me is my Chumash, to be specific, the Soncino Edition of the Pentateuch and Haftorahs, with Hebrew Text, English Translation and Commentary, (2nd edn., 1963) wherein the verse concerned reads

And if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

So, no stoning – that’s the dope. I’m afraid my Hebrew isn’t up to reading the text whence this translation comes (interested parties should probably apply to Professor S. C. of Omaha). However, you can be fairly sure that the translation is not entirely exact. Liturgical Hebrew is a slippery and protean thing, as hard to pin down as it is for the eye of a camel to nail jelly to the ceiling. In which case, the translation I offer above – about being stoned – might be just as valid as many others.

More important than the precise translation is the context in which these lines were written. When context is taken into account, even the simplest texts in the Bible are open to a great deal of interpretation. Take the very first verse of the whole bishbangboodle, Genesis 1: 1 which as everyone knows goes

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth

from which it is easy to imagine our small blue planet floating in the void. But the  avoteinu v’imoteinu who wrote this stuff didn’t know about planets and stars and the heliocentric model of the Solar System. What they did know, was some variant of the Sumero-Akkadian creation myth Enuma Elish, a much more exciting story that begins

When the sky above was not named; And the earth beneath did not bear a name; And the primeval Apsû, who begat them; and chaos, Tiamat, the mother of them both; Their waters were mingled together; And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen; when of the gods none had been called into being.

What follows is an absolute riot of a tale involving a host of gods and goddesses, murder most foul and intrigue most intriguing, the upshot of which is that the hero Marduk rips the body of Tiamat into two halves, creating the sky and the land. Interestingly, the term ‘Heaven and Earth’ in the context of ancient mythology doesn’t necessarily refer to topography, but could be an elision for the entire over-stuffed pantheon.

So, following what little they knew of the real world, taking a pinch from their already ancient mythologies and rendering them monotheistic, sort of, what they wrote was

Bereshith barah Elohim et Ha’Shamayim v’et Ha’Aretz.

Sure, the word Ha’Shamayim in what follows can be read as Heaven, but it could easily be glossed as sky, air or atmosphere. And Ha’Aretz could mean the Earth or the World (qv. the well-known Israeli newspaper) but here probably just means the Land, in the sense of the stuff you walk on that isn’t watery.

So, what they might have meant was something like this:

In the beginning, God [plural; this is the royal 'we', but might once really have been plural] created the other gods and goddesses heaven sky air floaty stuff above and the Earth world soil land hard brown stuff underneath.

See? As clear as botz. The Bible’s simple beginning conceals a wealth of contextual complexity.

But I digress.

Those who are interested in this sort of thing will no doubt have been stirred shaken by the news that earlier this week the General Synod of the Church of England voted narrowly against the proposition to allow the ordination of female bishops. Yes, the C. of E. does have female ministers, canons, deaconesses and so on and so forth in like fashion, and has done so since 1994, but not bishops. The provision – which runs to twelve pages (count ‘em) – failed to achieve the required two-thirds majority in the three houses of the Synod. It passed comfortably through the House of Bishops and the House of Clergy, but failed to make it through the House of Laity by just six votes.

Why? Well, the thing about bishops as opposed to all the Other Ranks of the C. of E. is that they give orders, and ordain priests. A few are unhappy that women should be in this position, viewing it as theologically impossible for a woman to stand in authority over a man. Being the curious individual that I am, I was keen to understand the theological basis for the objection, but I could find nothing amid the rending of sackloth and general media brouhaha to explain why. Following a trail of breadcrumbs on Facebook I pinned it down to St. Paul’s First Letter to Timothy (1 Timothy 2:12):

Let a woman learn in quietness with all subjection. But don’t permit a woman to teach, nor to exercise authority over a man, but to be in quietness. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. Adam wasn’t deceived, but the woman, being deceived, has fallen into disobedience; but she will be saved through her childbearing, if they continue in faith, love, and sanctification with sobriety. [my emphasis].

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Man, not deceived by Serpent, recently.

So that’s that then. Except, of course, that it isn’t. I am grateful to Dr. R. P. G. of Rotherhithe for pointing me towards an extremely interesting interpretation that undermines what at first looks like a thoroughly unambiguous reading. Once again, it’s all about context.

Cast your mind back, if you will, to the very earliest days of the Church, when the early apostles were trying to spread their ministry through the ancient world. Timothy, as it happened, was trying to run the church in Ephesus (in modern Turkey) a city at the centre of a cult to a fertility or mother goddess called Artemis, who was, confusingly, not to be mistaken for the Greek goddess of the same name, but had more in common with ancient Middle-eastern deities such as Ishtar/Astarte.

Paul had had some success in converting the Ephesians to Christianity, but many retained shreds of their former practices and customs – which is what Paul was writing to Timothy about. Artemis was getting kludged into Christianity in a thoroughtly syncretistic stew, turning up as Eve, if not Mary, and resurfacing as the heresy known as Gnosticism. There are several Gnostic versions of the Creation in which Eve comes before Adam; was hailed as the light, the logos, the virgin, the mother of Jesus. Gnostics gave Eve the primacy not because she was tempted into knowledge (that is, gnosis) by the serpent, but because she actively sought it.

From this we can begin to see that Paul might not be talking about the relationship of men and women in general, or universally, but in the light of the goddess cult at Ephesus. This, however, is the sharp end of the verse:

don’t permit a woman … to exercise authority over a man [my emphasis]

This is where it gets really interesting, and we show how lack of context combined with mistranslation can contrive to warp the meaning of a text. The New Testament is not written in Hebrew, but in Greek, and the word translated as authority is the verb authentein.

The problem is that this does not mean what you think it does.

The usual word for ‘authority’ in the New Testament is exousia. Authentein is found just once in the entire New Testament – but it occurs elsewhere in Greek literature, where it clearly refers to the commission of violent crimes, and, especially, sexual license. This makes sense both in the context of Gnosticism (some of whose sects advocated sexual permissiveness) and the religion of the Ephesians, which might have included temple prostitution.

From which one might read 1 Timothy 2:12 as a simple exhortation to keep the faith, and beware of those naughty Gnostics and sexy Ephesian priestesses and their flaky ideas that when God made Man, she was only joking.

Thinking again about this passage and its various interpretations, perhaps you can see why some of the more learned laity mightn’t want to have women bishops – it would encourage the kinds of Gnostic interpretations that Paul was afraid of, in which women might assume a missionary sacerdotal position in the Church, exousia if not authentein. That women should be allowed the arcane secrets of gnosis! Oh, the heresy!

 

About cromercrox

Cromercrox is a recovering palaeontologist, author and editor who lists his recreations as writing, beachcombing, playing hard rock organ, supporting Norwich City FC and falling asleep.
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7 Responses to Interpretation

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    In line with your posting, I would like to propose that God sanctified stem cell research and treatments, because in Genesis 2:21-22 He created Eve from Adam’s rib.

  2. Wow. It’s almost as if trying to extract ancient text from its original context, in order to derive from it the laws that govern modern society, isn’t a good idea.

    The “If a man lieth with another man he should be stoned” line is far too good not to use, though. It’s almost as funny as the Leviticus tattoo story that did the rounds last year.

  3. rpg says:

    St Paul, of course, famously trusted his letters to women. And Jesus (post-resurrection) first appeared to a woman. Taking proof verses without acknowledging the wider picture is always a tad unwise, I fear. Tom Wright has a wise take on the matter, as usual.

  4. John the Plumber says:

    ‘Man not deceived by serpent’ – is this the same ‘man made in Gods image’ – and permit women to be be in quietness – somebody’s deceiving somebody somewhere – I’ll be damned if I can work it all out – but that nothing new.

  5. Belatedly, Henry, this a damned fine and lovely post. When I was immersed in my four years of undergraduate Ancient Greek courses, we did a few readings from the New Testament with a view towards dispelling the idea that one literal translation is easy or possible. There were a whole host of occasions where English versions have it as “man” when the original Greek was actually “anthropos” (mankind/humankind), not “andros” (person who stands up to pee and is therefore allowed to be a CofE bishop).

    Another quirky one I recall is in the Lord’s Prayer, where it seems that petitioners are actually asking to be delivered from “the Devil”, not “Evil”.

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