Goddess Worship and the Apostle Paul

Peaking into the hidden lives of women in the early Church


“I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”

1 Timothy 2:9–15


The above verses used to erk me a lot. In part, yes, because of the way he focuses on Eve’s sin (click here for a great explanation) but also because the woman described above is nothing like me. I am at all times myself, to a fault. Typically I will say what I think, when I think it, to the point of embarrassing others around me. I do not care about what people think of me, which can get me into trouble around others at times, especially Christians, and certainly strangers.

This special trait came up at a wedding a few years back when I mentioned at the table that I do not want to have children. A man, who I had just met, referenced 1 Tim 2:15, and I responded firmly, “well I am saved by the blood of Jesus Christ.” I am sure he didn’t think I was “learning in quietness and full submission” either. However the memory of that comment led me to study what Paul meant when he wrote 1 Timothy 2. Through my research I found out there is more to the story then meets the eye. A large piece of that story lies in the forgotten lives of the women of Ephesus and their worship of Artemis.

Artemis was the primary goddess in Ephesus, where Timothy was working, and she was a valued symbol throughout the area. Images of Artemis were connected to Diana, the roman goddess of the moon and virginity, and Isis the Egyptian goddess of fertility. Much of this was done to unite the people who followed multiple religions. It was Rome’s way of saying, “see we all worship the same divinities here!” And while the three goddesses were very different (Rome also made connections with Aphrodite and Isis), the high respect and power their images held is significant, and Artemis’ influence on the women in Ephesus is also worthy of attention.

It should go without saying that the women of the early church were not raised Christian. The women in Ephesus were raised in Artemis cults. Unless they were slaves who came from outside of Greece, in which case they likely grew up worshiping another goddess. All this to say motherhood and childbirth was highly respected not only by women but also by men who worshiped the same goddesses.

With this understanding it is important to ponder the worldview of early Christians. While they had left their former faith, and based on martyr accounts, it is safe to say they did not want to look back, I find it hard to imagine their respect for fertility, and cultural understandings of marriage, sex, and gender changed much. Once these beliefs are acknowledged, the meaning behind Paul’s words is less shocking.

At the time of Paul’s writings Artemis was a popular icon in industry. This covered women’s fashion as well. Artemis, at the time, was depicted with jewelry, pearls, gold, and braids. Women, likewise, wanted to dress in the same way, particularly in Ephesus during her festivals. However this was not merely to look pretty. Artemis was the image of an ideal woman, mother, and wife. A woman who dressed like her was aiming to mimic her. I think it is important to acknowledge Paul says that when the women avoid elaborate dress it shows they worship God. Dressing like Artemis would have shown otherwise. In addition, Paul may also be commenting on some women showing off their wealth instead of focusing on their faith. Particularly since the church would have been a mixed community of slaves, servants, wives, and widows. Many whom could not afford finer clothing and perhaps relied on the charity of fellow Christians.

The women raised in Artemis cults were also for a time priestesses. Artemis was not simply a goddess of childbearing, but also the protector of virgins, and the goddess that prepared women for marriage. Serving in the temple was a common form of worship before leaving childhood and becoming a wife and mother. In a culture where women had three options in life, courtesan, concubine, or wife, her access to respect as a image of the goddess was likely hard to let go. Much of Artemis worship put women in the center with dancing and songs. Also, while it is possible that Christian women were not educated in reading and writing, in Ephesus, women were spiritual leaders in the temple. In fact because religion and politics were intertwined the women in spiritual leadership held roles similar to what a mayor does today.

Considering this it is easy to understand the difficulty many women would have had in seeing the men in the church as their spiritual equals. These women were only treated with respect in their religion and now they were being asked to give up some of their power. Since it was only men who were taught to read and write it is likely women couldn’t access the writings that would expand their knowledge of this new faith. They had to rely on the men to teach them. When Paul says women shouldn’t be teaching he is not making a permanent statement. This is even clearer when his choice of words are considered. There are two words used by Paul for authority. In other letters he uses the word exousia meaning moral authority. In this passage, however, he uses the word authentein, meaning dominating authority. Paul is telling the women in Ephesus to release their control of the spiritual space. Consider as well that the men in Ephesus were used to women having spiritual power. These men may have even been silencing themselves because they were used to putting women higher during worship. In this passage Paul is reminding them they worship God, not Artemis, and that the men and women are equal in the kingdom. He is not stripping women of the ability to speak in church, instead he is telling the whole community to share power.

This brings us to the final verse in the section. The same verse that caused my own problems a little while ago. The one where Paul brings up childbearing and the word saved. Remember these women grew up honoring motherhood. This was their only access to respect and power. They are now in a faith that does not worship motherhood or childbrith. I imagine these women had conflicting feelings. In one hand they were empowered by the grace of God, and on the other their only access to earthly power was being taken away. Paul is not naive to this. He is also not naive to the beauty of childbirth. I think Paul understands why whole nations worship it. It is also important to know what he is not saying. Today some Christians confuse this verse and understand it to mean women must have children, or that being a mother is connected to her worship. To confuse this is falling into the same trap Paul is warning the Christians in Ephesus to avoid. He is encouraging women to step away from putting their value in being a mother like Artemis and look to God instead.

In the end Paul is clear that he sees value in motherhood. The word he uses for saved is sōthēsetai, it is used in the New Testament to reference spiritual salvation, but at other times physical healing. Because Artemis cults did believe women were spiritually honored because of childbirth, Paul would not have claimed it as a great form of worship after telling them to stop acting like followers of Artemis. Instead it is more likely he is referencing the fall and the pain and death in childbearing that came as a result. Ephesians believed Artemis protected women from this pain and death. It was believed that she healed women and protected them during labor. It was Artemis who sōthēsetaito the women. Childbirth was the leading cause of death for women. In our modern age we have forgotten the very real fear our ancient sisters had when pregnant. The word “through” is often understood in English to mean because of, yet the word in Greek (dia) also means getting to the other side. Paul is saying women should not be worshiping Artemis for protection in childbirth, but instead God who will truly protect them. In some respect this passage is highlighting the feminine image of God, as a divinity of fertility and childbirth.

When we forget the lives of our ancient sisters, and the world they lived in we forget what their lives teach us. I imagine our Ephesian sisters, they are bold in their faith because they abandoned a religion that restricted them to motherhood and risked their lives to worship God. I think it is sad this passage is used to limit women’s opportunities to serve God, because the gospel freed these women from those same shackles. What would our sisters, who were likely martyred because they would not worship Artemis, think of theology today that puts those shackles back on? Motherhood is a gift, a blessing, and an honor, but it is not the only blessing God has to offer women in this life. Paul wanted the women of Ephesus to remember that. And it is time we remember as well, what these women’s stories truly tell us about freedom in Christ and the unity we share in our faith.


Sources:

LiDonnici, Lynn R. “The Images of Artemis Ephesia and Greco-Roman Worship: A Reconsideration.” The Harvard Theological Review 85, no. 4 (1992): 389–415. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1510059.

Brinks, C. L. “Great Is Artemis of the Ephesians”: Acts 19:23–41 in Light of Goddess Worship in Ephesus.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 71, no. 4 (October 2009): 776–794. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 4, 2017).

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