I love history. My degrees are in history-related fields. I am published in history. Yet, history does not help me read my Bible. Instead, my Bible has helped me read my Bible.
Why? I have found that the Scripture itself does a good job describing context and explaining matters so that I do not need to be an expert in ancient history to apply what it teaches.
Further, if the Bible required a thorough knowledge of archaeology, ancient history, or other fields which did not exist professionally for most of Christian history, the Scriptures would have been in many points indecipherable and inapplicable. But this is not so, for in general the points the Scripture makes are rather straight forward. If the Scripture is perspicuous, we must reject the idea that we require professional disciplines to apply the teachings God intends us to. However, recently in the history of the Church Christians have felt compelled to understand ancient history in order to correctly apply some pretty explicit passages in the Bible.
The question should be, why? In the beginning of the Church’s history, the Scripture settled matters of dispute in the eyes of the Church Fathers. As time passed, Church Tradition began to hold sway in interpretive matters and for good reason, because new interpretations that are not only absent in the Scripture but also unheard of among the people of God for centuries have a higher chance of being heretical.
“Historical Context,” and Biblical Interpretation. For all these years, interpreters never seriously addressed the study of secular history in their interpretations of Scripture. This is probably for a few reasons. One, all matters of major dispute did not revolve around history. It revolved around Scriptural interpretations, linguistics, even issues of Canon. Second, issues that could not be addressed by linguistics, such as the historical question of the Canon, were addressed by appeals to tradition or dialectical reason. Third, the study of secular history largely did not focus on topics peripheral to culture and social norms. Historians were interested in things of political and military importance. No one was seriously asking the question, “Did women wear togas back then?”
We need to be aware then, that the idea of invoking “historical context” as a pivotal means of addressing matters of religious importance is mostly a new method in which we interpret the Scripture. Though interpreters over the years have cited history, none would disregard a clear rendering of a given text due to “historical context” until the liberal critical school of the 19th century reared its ugly head.
We must ask ourselves, what justifies the change in method?
Space does not permit an in depth treatment of this, but if one does any research at all on liberal scholarship we can come to two firm conclusions. The purposes of higher criticism and delving into secular history have always been to (1) question the Bible’s inerrancy and (2) question time-honored interpretations of the Church.
In fact, I challenge anyone to prove otherwise that among liberal circles this is the norm.
Liberal Scholarship’s Corruption of Biblical Interpretation. It is with some consternation that even conservative religious scholars such as Bruce Winter in Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities (see another review of it is here) and RC Sproul are bending the knee to pagan secular scholarship such as that found in “’The New Woman:’ Representation and Reality,” by E. Fantham, H. Peet Foley, N. Boymel Kampen, S.B. Pomeroy, and A.H. Shapiro.
Apparently, the old method of understanding the Scriptures (using the Scripture itself and the testimony of tradition) has given way to listening to the odd opinions of atheists and non-religious people.
“The New Roman Woman.” The contention of scholars such as Fantham in the early 90s was that there was a phenomena in the Roman world during the time of the New Testament called the “new Roman woman.” Coincidentally, the “new Roman woman” looks a lot like the post-1960s “new western woman” who dresses ostentatiously, is financially independent, practices licentiousness, and intimidates men with her newly derived access to education.
Talk about reading the present into the past. Obviously, the scholars are claiming that the woman of the 1st century BC faced an almost identical socio-cultural context that the western woman of the 20th and 21st century context does.
First, does this pass the sniff test? The chances of this being true are patently absurd.
Yet, as I said before, there are theologians who, not being historians, that will take these conclusions as Gospel truth in order to justify overturning longstanding Church tradition, and more importantly, the clear testimony of Scripture.
Abandoning Traditional Gender Roles Because of Historical Context. It is with much trepidation that we should employ historical context in interpreting otherwise clear passages of Scripture. What we shall see is that the “historical context” flag gets thrown by the modernity referees who do not like the obvious applications of the literal exhortations of Scripture, traditionally understood.
Here is one such example of how the “historical context” flag gets thrown onto the field in order to overturn what the Scripture states in order to justify secular values concerning gender roles. Steve Robbins does just that when trying to tell his readers that it is irresponsible to interpret 1 Tim 2 as an imperative against women teaching in church:
To put a finer point on it, let’s look at our target text, 1 Tim. 2:8-15. It would seem strange, if we weren’t so accustomed to doing it, to gloss over Paul’s other injunctions— for men to lift up holy hands in prayer (verse 8), to restrict women’s hairstyles, jewelry, and expensive clothing (verse 9), and to assert that women’s respectability and salvation depend on their childbearing—and then turn with all vehemence to verses 11- 12 [pertaining to women not having teaching authority over men] and insist on literal compliance without any regard to the particularity of the historical-cultural situation. By what principle of interpretive consistency and fair play do we invoke literal compliance here and not elsewhere, even in the immediate literary context?
Can you see the obvious dangers of invoking historical context? If historical context is good enough in of itself to abrogate what the Scripture teaches, we better be sure that the historical research is dead-on–though logic would demand that in order to abrogate something that is God-breathed, you would need an authority that is equally God-breathed. Sorry, but secular history does not meet that criteria.
The New Roman Woman’s Historical Merits. Was there really an uppity woman’s lib movement in the Roman world during the 1st century AD? Let’s address real history:
For the Roman upper classes, particularly in Rome, during the 1st century BC and the early 1st century AD, Augustus Caesar codified laws that regulated marriage and inheritance. Far from reflecting a reaction against an “ancient woman’s liberation movement,” the Law seemed to be more concerned with a family’s personal honor (a father can kill a man for sleeping with his unwed daughter) and the regulation of property rights (women must remarry so as to make sure that power retains within the hands of the male nobility, a woman who owns property but commits adultery is not to be executed unlike women who don’t own property, etc.).
Not coincidentally, the totalitarian Roman government wanted to perpetuate the power of its upper classes and prevent their dissolution by the use of laws. The fact that the laws between the late 1st century BC and the early 1st century AD lessened in severity (that means, before the mid 1st century AD when Paul actually wrote) shows that whatever social ills or political changes that might have acted as an impetus behind the laws, those obviously being Augustus Caesar’s rise to power and not an imaginary woman’s lib movement, were not as relevant anymore.
So, we do have a Roman law that applied to the nobility of Rome. Does it make sense, historically, to assume that the issues which affected Roman nobility also applied to the backwaters of the Empire that St. Paul was speaking to, both Greece and Judea?
What, in fact, did these societies have in common? They were not racially the same, they lived in different places, and they dressed differently. Being that Paul was not writing to nobility nor Latin speaking Romans, Greeks and Jews had practically nothing in common aside from the fact some of the people happened to have Roman citizenship (though clearly that would have been the minority).
The secular scholars know they ultimately can’t point to Augustus’ laws in order to prove that the ancient Roman woman was a liquor swilling, financially independent, man-hating, contraception-loving, sexaholic. Remember, we need to actually prove these things in order to postulate a new Roman woman actually existed. So, what evidence do these scholars resort to? Well, they quoting sources that were never serious commentaries on such subjects completely out of context.
One such source they employ are Juvenal’s Satires. In it, he exaggerates every possible social problem in Rome in order to covey the point that Rome is falling apart at the seams. We are talking about the Satires after all!
In one of the books Juvenal complains that women are too uppity and hard to deal with, that it is is preferable to be a pedophile. Now, does anyone honestly think he is speaking of a new social problem, or is this just an ancient equivalent to a “take my wife please” joke?
Obviously, the latter is the case. For the remainder of his books he invokes tasteless hyperbole to bash all sorts of things he does not like such as foreigners taking over Rome so much there are no more Romans left to rule it, accusing women of sleeping with Ethiopians producing children corrupting the Roman elite, a giant fish creating a political crisis due to Emperor Domitian’s ineptitude, and etc.
Any historian who would taking such sources at face value in order to argue that there was a real concern with over-zealous women exerting themselves over society is misguided at best and totally incompetent at worst.
Yet, that does not stop certain Christian commentators from doing just that. Steve Robbins, the man I quoted earlier, quotes Juvenal to show that women were getting too academic and putting men in their place intellectually (see page 7):
I hate the woman who is always consulting and poring over the grammatical treatise of Palaemon, who observes all the rules and laws of correct speech, who with antiquarian zeal quotes verses that I never heard of and corrects her ignorant female friend for slips of speech that no man need trouble about: let her husband at least be allowed to make his solecisms [slips in syntax] in peace.
We can see that Juvenal is describing women educating themselves beyond the level of himself and other men. Was this issue so serious in Roman society, that Paul had to put the kibosh on it in the churches he wrote to?
Not likely. Juvenal is obvious employing gross exaggeration. There is no evidence of women starting schools where they taught men or writing works in which male scholars of the time would have had to respond to, or other socially relevant developments that would have indicated that women were seriously exerting teaching authority. And, if there is no evidence that there was a massive social problem in the seat of the empire in which the churches Paul wrote to existed, it is completely ridiculous to presume that the backwaters of that empire among the Greek speaking, lower class population, would display even more serious social upheaval.
Simply put, it would be true today that if a new social movement that breaks with tradition is not apparent in a cosmopolitan place like New York City, surely it does not exist in Macon, Georgia.
So, just what is Juvenal really talking about. This much is obvious. He is pining for the “good old days.” Men have always done this. Solomon warned 3,000 years ago: “Do not say, ‘Why is it that the former days were better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask about this” (Ecc 7:10). It is patently obvious to anyone with a pea brain like me that Juvenal and other contemporary observers were complaining about how in the “good old days” women knew their place but now all of the sudden they were uppity and rebellious.
And, all we have as evidence for the “new Roman woman” are the cranky musings of old, dead white guys. We have nothing from women relating any of the facts involved. Instead, we have stuff like the Satires and nothing else of substance.
In fact, if we read what the scholars cite as evidence (cranky old guy writings), we can see that the “problem” of the new Roman woman persisted for over a century. Yes, over 150 years of recorded history.
Imagine that, cranky old guys pining for the good old days when women knew their place.
This evidence is really, really bad. At some point, if the complaints quoted from the primary sources stay the same for 150 years, the “good old days” just seem made up and the old codgers are merely projecting a common male insecurity and nothing more. Hence, to extrapolate from the musings of old guys over a very long course of time the existence of a new social movement is extremely questionable. If the social movement was real, it wouldn’t be a new phenomena to each succeeding generation.
I must conclude that what all these men were actually talking about was a common anxiety pertaining to men’s position relative to women. This anxiety exists to this day when men repeat the same complaint that women “used to know their place.” The expression of anxiety does not justify the existence of a solidified ancient women’s liberation movement.
Conclusion. Let’s sum up all of the major problems with taking the “new Roman woman” idea and imposing it upon how we interpret the Scripture. First, taking historical context to abrogate what the Scripture clearly states and what Church Tradition interprets the Scripture is a new, and arguably worse, interpretive practice. Second, being that the study of history is not God breathed like Scripture is, there are logical difficulties with abrogating the clear testimony of Scripture in light of a lesser authority. Third, the “new Roman woman” idea is historically debatable, mainly because the laws on the books reflect a situation that began reversing itself decades before the Bible was written. Further, the sources that are invoked to show that ancient women were a lot like modern women are not making serious observations, but rather employing hyperbole and expressing anxiety–nothing more.
However, let’s put all of this aside for a moment and concede every single point to the egalitarians. Historical context can abrogate Scripture. The “new Roman woman” idea is dead-on accurate history. Fine, let’s concede these points.
Paul is writing to an ancient Greek church, but for all intents and purposes it is any western church after the 1960s. Paul sees overly-educated, immodestly dressed, financially independent, sexually loose women taking authority for themselves in the churches in Greece. Paul responded back then with a clear condemnation against such things. So, let’s fast forward to today. If Paul has the Spirit of God as he so claims (1 Cor 7:40) and he were alive today, observing an identical social situation, would his response be any different? Of course not!
This is how ridiculous the “historical context” argument even is! Hence, the critical scholars against their own better judgment eviscerate their own argument. You don’t even need to go to the Scripture itself to show that in 1 Cor 11 and in 1 Tim 2 Paul invokes the order of creation as detailed in Genesis as justification for gender roles in the Church, making the social context of the time irrelevant. If the social context of the time was plagued by nearly identical issues as it is today, it stands to reason that Paul would respond to it today in the exact same way he responded to it in the past. This means that Paul’s invoking of gender roles is made stronger due to historical context, not weaker.
However, as Paul warned himself:
[P]reach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths (2 Tim 4:2-4).
And it is myths masquerading as history we are turning to when we don’t turn to the Scripture and the Scripture alone. Paul was not merely writing to just the people back then. The Scripture’s admonishments are applicable to all people for all time because the Scripture is inerrant, is God’s very word, and “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matt 24:35).