God’s First Feminist
by Jack Hoehn, May 29, 2015: The first female author may be the “violet-haired, pure, honey-smiling Sappho,” a poetess considered during her lifetime and for generations later one of the 10 greatest poets. From the Island of Lesbos she wrote love poems that resonated with her contemporaries and many generations afterwards. Sadly, now only fragments and comments about them remain. Here is a translated fragment that I’d call Lady Luna:
Awed by her splendor
stars near the lovely moon
cover their own bright faces
when she is roundest
and lights earth
with her silver.
Sappho (circa 600 BC)
Women in Antiquity
Although there are other “golden-haired women with the gift of the Muse,” in fact few women wrote in antiquity because girls were largely not taught to read and write. But ancient Greek male authors wrote about women. Homer’s epic poem had many Nymphs in it, supernatural women usually tempting men into trouble. Aristotle said that man is by nature superior to the female, so the man should rule and the woman should be ruled. Male schoolchildren learning to write often copied this aphorism, “A man who teaches a woman to write should know that he is providing poison to an asp.” The famous orator Demosthenes is said to have written, “We keep hetaerae for the sake of pleasure, female slaves for our daily care and wives to give us legitimate children and to be the guardians of our households.”
One writer summarizes it this way. “It seems clear, then, that Athenians saw women as beguiling creatures capable of causing considerable harm to themselves and others, and weaker in mind and body than men. Many believed that young girls were somewhat wild and difficult to control, and that virgins were subject to hallucinations that could encourage them to be self-destructive. The solution was an early marriage, for only after a woman had delivered her first baby could she be a fully-operational female.”
Women in the Old Testament
The Hebrew Bible talks about women, of course. Beside Eve there are Noah’s wife, Sarah and Hagar, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel, Miriam, Hannah, and three books are girl stories. But never in human history was there one writer, male or female, secular or sacred, who picked up a pen, clay tablet, or chisel to write, clearly and unambiguously, that women were actually equal to men.
Until a stubborn Jew became a Christian.
The First Person in History
The Hinges of History series author, Thomas Cahill, claims that the first clear affirmation of sexual equality in any of the many literatures of our planet was written by St. Paul! Paul is the first person in history to ever write down an insistence that there was an essential equality of the sexes.
Girls and women raised in Adventist Christianity may be surprised by this statement. Because the New Testament writings of Paul have been misused for two thousand years to support male superiority over females. This is true both in the marital relationship and in church hierarchy, such as the “Ordination of Women as Pastors and Administrators” controversy in our own church.
Men presently in positions of power (and some of the complementarian women they love) both feel the Bible teaches some kind of female subordination. They quote confidently from Paul’s writings to support their assertion that “the Bible clearly teaches male headship.”
Of course, all honest Bible students have to agree: the Bible, written about the past 6,000 years of human history post-Eden, records the fact that in all cultures women have been subordinated to men in all kinds of unhappy ways. You might start with Moses. He permitted a form of divorce (that, as Jesus explained, was not God’s plan but was due to the hardness of male hearts). There was toleration of polygamy by men God was working with in the Hebrew Bible. Also, there were no statements against slavery or bloody wars of extinction (genocide) or political government based on hereditary kingship (although again, not God’s recommendation). Prostitution of daughters by Jews was forbidden and the religious prostitution of pagan religion was strongly condemned. But the actions of Tamar and Rahab as prostitutes were not condemned in the Bible on moral grounds. Jepthah was allowed to foolishly sacrifice his daughter; the Levite sacrificed his concubine; Lot offered his daughters up for gang rape. In those last two cases, women were misused in order to protect men from sexual misuse.
The Bible Tells What Was, Not What Should Be
The Bible always tells us faithfully what was, but the Bible does not always tell us what should be. Bible stories show God working for the good of His creation, as the lovely King James intones, “In sundry times and divers manners.”
But to use Bible stories to inform Christians in the 21st century how to arrange their home and church affairs is a form of bookish and academic idolatry, called Bibliolatry. This means to be more interested in doing what the Bible says, or what we think it says, than in doing what Jesus is actually telling us to do.
Jesus made it clear that what we thought the Bible taught was to be changed, corrected, improved, and sometimes completely contradicted by what He taught. “You search the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life!” But listen to me, not what you think the Scriptures say. In His most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, He quoted six Bible texts and then contradicted or refocused their misunderstanding of those texts. After His resurrection He chided two Bible believers for being “foolish and bradycardic (slow of heart)” and then explained to them what they had been unable to see in their Bibles.
It is understandable, but dangerous, for Seventh-day Adventists to claim that we can only use “what the Bible says” as the basis for our faith and practice. Because what we think the Bible says and what God wants us to do are not always the same thing. Claiming that the Bible is always clear and simple and can be understood by anyone who can read English may earn us Christ’s declaration that we are in fact “foolish and bradycardic” in our simplicity and unwillingness to move beyond the text.
If we could walk beside Jesus as did Cleopas and his wife and hear Him explain the sometimes confusing and partial truths of Old Testament Scripture, truly our hearts might “burn within us” as things we thought were true are suddenly consumed by the revisions and updates to our Bible-thinking.
Bible Based, not Bible Bound
Our doctrines must certainly be based on the Bible, but never restricted by the Bible. Otherwise, Adventists could all smoke, have several wives, use our second tithe for alcoholic beverages, and keep slaves where permitted by law or custom. I’ve lived long enough to remember the Bible being quoted to support obligatory segregation of races in schools and worship in places such as Alabama and Pretoria. In church school in Southern California we were told the Bible forbade inter-racial marriages between Asian and Caucasian, African and Indian, and even German with English!
Avoidance by 21st century Adventists of all these un-Christlike practices (smoking, polygamy, slavery, purchasing liquor with tithe) is based on principles found in the Bible, but not clearly commanded or required by “the Bible and the Bible alone.” The Bible alone is incomplete and risky.
It is a holy record of God’s actions with mankind, but it is a human book. It is the Word about God, not the Word of God, with the exception of a few quotations said to have been written with His finger. And even here we don’t have the originals but two different versions of those 10 Commandments. Besides, we are actually quite sure God doesn’t have a physical finger. At least not till Mary’s womb.
We are not just to march off willy-nilly making up our own rules about life and church. To say that “the Bible clearly teaches women’s subordination to men” is not sufficient to restrict us from ordaining women to the ministry of the Gospel, if the Holy Spirit leads us, as Jesus did, to new understandings and interpretations of ancient Scripture. He already has done this about slavery, tobacco, alcohol, and vegetarianism. We draw these Christian-Adventist principles from the Bible and apply them to where God wants us to advance. None of these advanced Adventist teachings and practices are “clearly taught” in the Bible, but all have solid Bible support, properly interpreted.
St. Paul on Gender Equality
So now I wish to return to the assertion that St. Paul was moved by the Holy Spirit to teach the young Christian church something that no Bible text, no philosophic doctrine, no religion, no preacher, prophet, or sage had ever clearly revealed to humanity—that now in Jesus Christ and in His new church, there was to be equality of gender, race, and economic status.
Surprisingly, it comes in the middle of some Pauline church discipline to the Corinthians. The Corinthians were the Las Vegas of churches! A sailor town connecting two sea routes, Corinth, says Cahill, was “a boomtown, full of retired army grunts, resettled freedmen, and assorted misfits and refugees from more conventional lifestyles, a place where anything might happen.” In the church some “spirit” people with a rarefied “wisdom” (Gnosis) were happily “speaking in tongues,” and had no problem with incest and other sexual irregularities. (For example, some claimed that free in Christ meant freedom from marriage since “it is good not to marry.” But then “everything is permissible for me,” so that “a man has his father’s wife” and another “unites himself with a prostitute”).
Cahill suggests, then, that 1 Corinthians 11 is in the context of how these “holy-roller, free-in-Christ, secret-knowledge” church members were handling worship. It seems to Thomas Cahill that the Lord’s Supper in one of the houses was led by a male cross-dresser with long hair up, woman-like, and a woman sporting a butch haircut (never worn by women in the ancient world, except for humiliated prisoners of war).
In essence Paul cries out, “God help us, a man should dress like a man and a woman like a woman!” He is actually only reminding them of the conventions of the time (and that anything too boldly theatrical can give unnecessary scandal to more conventional palates), but he ends with the true democrat’s ultimate stance:
‘The decision is yours. Does it really seem right to you that a woman should pray to God with her hair exposed (something that was never seen in any temple or shrine of the ancient world)? Doesn’t nature itself teach you that a man with the elaborate hairdo of a woman is impossible to take seriously, whereas a woman with long hair is a glorious instance (of God’s creation)? Wasn’t it God himself who gave her this covering…? But if anyone wants to get into an argument over all this, then I say we don’t—nor do any of God’s churches—have such a thing as ‘custom.’”
Sadly, Cahill avers, Paul’s attempt to correct an unfortunate circumstance in Corinth has been misinterpreted by earnest literalists as the source about hats in church (always for women, never for men)! Then he continues: “The earnest misinterpreters have managed, however, to slide over the most important—and only ageless—point Paul has to make in this whole business about dress.”
“In the end—and in the Lord–woman is not otherwise than man, and man is not otherwise than woman: and though woman came from man [since Eve came from Adam’s side], so does every man come from a woman—and everything comes from God” (1 Corinthians 11:11,12).
“Equality, not complementarity, is Paul’s subject: what he is doing here is taking the Genesis account of the Creation (which was the aboriginal Jewish locus classicus on the inequality of women) and turning it on its head by subtly reminding his readers that even the Messiah needed a mother. Most of us should be cheered that here, plunk in the middle of this old-hat stuff about what to wear, we have the only clarion affirmation of sexual equality in the whole of the Bible—and the first one ever to be made in any of the many literatures of our planet.”  Paul is the first person in history to insist on the essential equality of the sexes.
What about 1 Timothy?
Some will point to the scholarly accepted idea that 1 Timothy, perhaps written 40 years after Paul’s death, may have been written by a ghost writer in Paul’s name. That would have been done to give it authority at a time when Bishops began to emerge, trying to get a little order into the “free in Christ” churches Paul had started.
But there is another explanation that I find better than just saying, Paul didn’t really write that….
1 Timothy may be another example of the same “secret knowledge” that makes the “free to do whatever we want” Gnostic fanaticism in Ephesus, the same as Paul had to labor with in Corinth.
The letter introduces the trouble in Ephesus with “certain persons” (male or female) teaching “false doctrine.” These included “myths,” “endless genealogies” and “meaningless talk.”
Chapter 2 then informs us that here was a danger of these false doctrines causing unrest and disquiet and unruly noise. And who knew! These Gnostics were again into looney dress and hair! Their badge of “secret knowledge” seems to have been that they could braid their hair with gold and pearls and outlandish clothing.
Worse, they decided that since Jesus came from Mary, the Bible must have been wrong, and really Eve was first, and bore Adam! And these “spiritually enlightened” Gnostic women had no need of men, and could even divorce their husbands, or at least live celibate, sex-free lives while married to them. They were now “spiritual,” superior to men, and therefore free of marriage, and free of sex (unlike those “lesser women” still bearing children)!
There were many Gnostic Creation accounts which gave Eve primacy over Adam. In Gnosticism, Eve is regarded as the first human being (and in some Gnostic texts, even as a member of the Godhead). Eve is sometimes referred to as “the daughter of light,” “the creator of the Logos,” “the virgin,” and even specifically as the mother of Jesus. In Gnosticism, it is Eve who gives life to Adam. Moreover, Eve was a heroine to the Gnostics because she desired knowledge (gnōsis) (Gen. 3:6).” In twisted logic they decided if Jesus was the 2nd Adam then Mary was the 2nd Eve!
In this heretical context, then, this could be what 1 Timothy 2: 9-15 is saying:
“I want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not (outrageously) with braided hair or gold, or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. A woman should learn quietly and respectfully. I do not permit the teaching that women authored men ( that Eve came first) (Alternate – I do not permit a woman to teach that they are allowed to harm men.) Silence, (Gnostic) woman. The Bible is clear that Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner (not an enlightened one) by eating the forbidden Gnosis! Of course, women having children can be saved! If they continue to live (as wives with their husbands) with faith, love, holiness and propriety.”
It’s Not True Now
If it was true then that outrageous men and women were distorting their freedom in Christ and taking into fanaticism their “secret knowledge” that made them “above the rules” that ordinary people had, then being Gnostic was as spiritually dangerous as professing to not be able to know anything, or to be Agnostic. Both extremes, knowing nothing and knowing more than you know, are distortions of the message of Christ. But advice on curing this heresy says little about the place of women in God’s plan for humanity, equality, in the Christian Adventist church today, unless we are fighting similar fanaticisms.
As Thomas Cahill concludes, “Women were as free to speak, to evangelize, and to administer the Pauline churches as was any man…Paul is actually the New Testament’s ultimate democrat; and it is a pathetic irony that the first person in history to exclude consciously all social grades, isms, and biases from his thinking, believing that nothing—not birth, nor ethnicity, nor religion, nor economic status, nor class, nor gender—makes anyone any better than anyone else, should so often be made to stand…accused of the opposite of what he believed so passionately.”
Listen to Christ, and Then Reinterpret Your Bible.
“The cosmic Christ, whose glory knocked Paul from his horse on the road to Damascus, who sums up in Himself the whole of the created universe, eventually leads Paul to thoughts that no one has ever had before—thoughts about the equality of all human beings before God. In this ancient world of masters and slaves, conquerors and conquered, a world that articulates at every turn, precisely and publicly, who’s on top, who’s on the bottom, Paul writes the unthinkable to his Galatians….”There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
So what will our church do? Listen to men who claim that male position and privilege is God’s never-changing will? Or listen to Paul’s revolutionary teaching that abolished racial and economic discrimination, and should now remove gender discrimination from our church?
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sappho quoting her contemporary Alcaeus.
 (Hetaerae = paid female companions, courtesans who offered companionship as well as sex to wealthy males.) These quotations and others are collected on https://www.womenintheancientworld.com/whatathenianmensaid.htm
 Ruth, Esther, Song of Solomon.
 Genesis 1:27 is surely equalitarian. And my Adventist Today article, “Not a Rib” discusses the equalitarian “side” or “half” translation in the Genesis 2 human creation story. But these examples are inferential, and can be disputed by the eternal subordinationists.
 Thomas Cahill, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, The World Before and After Jesus, (Volume 4 of The Hinges of History), Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, a division of Random House, New York, 1999, pp. 141, 142.
 Judges 11, a tragic story about being too proud to admit you made a terrible mistake and repent of your oath.
 Judges 19, a male religious leader with a concubine was not the issue, nor was his sacrifice of her for his own safety condemned by the Bible, although now we who read the story post-Christ must do so loudly and unequivocally.
 John 5:36-40.
 Matthew 5.
 Luke 24:25.
 Luke 24:32.
 Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 have different records of the 10 Commandments. And Jesus summarized the 10 Commandments as two commandments.
 1 Corinthians 11.
 Cahill, P. 136.
 1 Corinthians 7:1. Note that the Corinthians wrote to Paul, It is good for a man not to marry, and his comments are in that context; this was their notion, not Paul’s.
 1 Corinthians 6:12.
 1 Corinthians 5:1.
 1 Corinthians 6:15,16.
 Cahill, p. 141.
 Cahill, p. 147. Quoting Galatians 3:28. If you wish to find what the Bible clearly says, I don’t know how it can be clearer than here.