A Woman's Place

Donna Woolfolk Cross's novel, Pope Joan, contains a compelling scene in chapter seven. Set in the ninth century, the book's subject, Joan, who has already been tutored and become an exceptional student by the age of thirteen, is excited to be in the awkward and unorthodox position of being the only female enrollee in the schola in Dorstadt (the book is a fictional portrayal of the legendary woman who became pope upon the death of Leo IV).

In contrast to many current novels, the author's theological and historical knowledge so far impress me, and I found particularly interesting the arguments she places in the mouths of Odo, the master of the schola, and Joan:
"As is well known"--Odo's voice assumed an authoritative ring, for now he was on familiar ground--"women are innately inferior to men."

"Why?" The word was out of Joan's mouth before she was even aware of having spoken.

Odo smiled, his thin lips drawing back unpleasantly. He had the look of the fox when it knows it has the rabbit cornered. "Your ignorance, child, is revealed in that question. For St. Paul himself has asserted this truth, that women are beneath men in conception, in place, and in will."

"In conception, in place, and in will?" Joan repeated.

"Yes." Odo spoke slowly and distinctly, as if addressing a half-wit. "In conception, because Adam was created first, and Eve afterward; in place, because Eve was created to serve Adam as companion and mate; in will, because Eve could not resist the Devil's temptation and ate of the apple."

Among the tables, heads nodded in agreement. The bishop's expression was grave....

Odo smirked. Joan felt an intense dislike for this man. For a moment she stood silently, tugging on her nose.

"Why," she said at last, "is woman inferior in conception? For though she was created second, she was made from Adam's side, while Adam was made from common clay."

There were several appreciative chuckles from the back of the hall.

"In place"--the words tumbled out as Joan's thoughts raced ahead and she reasoned her way through--"woman should be preferred to man, because Eve was created inside Paradise, but Adam was created outside."

There was another hum from the audience. The smile on Odo's face wavered.

Joan continued, too interested in the line of her argument to consider what she was doing. "As for will, woman should be considered superior to man"--this was bold, but there was no going back now--"for Eve ate of the apple for love of knowledge and learning, but Adam ate of it merely because she asked him."

There was shocked silence in the room.
Indeed. As there would be in many churches today. The first of Odo's arguments--based on creation order--continues to be a common interpretation of Paul's statement in 1 Timothy 2:13, apparently explaining why he was not allowing a woman to teach or have authority over men: "For Adam was formed first, then Eve." And Odo's third point is often seen as the meaning of Paul's next statement, "And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner."

However, as Stanley Grenz and Denise Muir Kjesbo (and others) point out, these are far from the only--and far from the most biblically and logically consistent--conclusions. While Paul might have meant that Adam's prior creation means that men are intrinsically superior to women, and the second statement means that men are morally more fit to resist temptation, it is also possible that he was building a timeline of sorts, to draw a parallel with the women in Ephesus, who (like most women in the Jewish and pagan world of that time) were relatively new to "book learning" and "training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16). Paul, relying on Timothy's knowledge of the Word (2 Timothy 3:15), might have intended to refer to Eve's lack of preparedness for temptation, since "Adam was formed first, then Eve..." and Eve--having not received the command from God (because it was given to Adam before her creation; see Genesis 2:16-17)--seems to have been poorly "catechized," as the misquoting of the command in Genesis 3:2-3 might indicate. IF that was the intention of Paul's words to Timothy (and anyone familiar with the cultural and theological setting of Ephesus, where Timothy ministered, must at least grant that it is a possibility), then the Apostle's prohibition was against the spiritually immature, untutored women occupying a place of teaching authority....rather than a blanket prescription that all women=all silent=for all time (a prohibition that not even the strictest hierarchicalists enforce consistently).

In fact, I would have liked it better if Joan had responded to Odo's points a little differently. Perhaps like, "In conception? For if man, who was created after all things is the crowning glory of God's creation, surely woman--created after man--is even more so." And, "In place, because God pronounced everything in Creation 'good,' until he remarked that man was alone; so woman, as the divine correction of the only 'not good' God saw, must be the greater good in all Paradise." And, "In will, because while the woman did indeed succumb to temptation by words of the serpent, the Father of Lies, Adam was led astray by his wife, a newly-minted, amateur sinner."

Or something like that. In any case, it was an unexpected, and intriguing theological discussion well-executed. And, while I'm only 134 pages in at this point, it makes me look forward to the rest of the book even more.

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