In my thesis on Paul and Plutarch and their view of wive’s submission, I was undertaken a more „historical“ approach. That is, I was not yet interested in it application for today. MY goal was to investigate how Paul compared to his surrounding cultures [For those interested in my research on Paul and Plutarch, you can read it here]

Soon I will be giving a presentation on Paul and women in the church. For a long time I have been wanting to read William J. Webb’s Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001). Finally, I was able to do so.

In this blog-post I want to „summarize“ and share my thoughts on this book.

In general, I would like to state that this book is incredibly helpful. It challenges one’s presupposition, guides along hermeneutical-lines, and gives insight into cultural and exegetical issues. One needs not to agree with all the details in the book, but one will definitely benefit from having read it.

How do we know that a text is culturally bound (that is, pertaining solely to the culture in which it was written) or transcultural (pertaining to today)? This is the question William J. Webb seeks to answer in developing different criteria (see TOC below).

Webb structures his book in three parts: I. Toward a Hermeneutic of Cultural Analysis; II. Intrascriptural Criteria; and III. Extrascriptural Criteria. He concludes the last part with a chapter on “What if I am wrong?” (a question which manner authors might not even entertain). Then he also has helpful appendices on e.g. 1 Tim 2 and Research on Deception.

In most of his chapters on the different criteria, Webb starts out with a statement and definition of the criterion, proceeds with neutral examples (with that he means issues which most agree on), then goes on to the issue of women, and last to the issue concerning homosexual. After an evaluation of each criterion he also summarizes his findings. This is done in a clear and precise manner.

After the giving the table of content, I will offer some of my own thoughts and observations.

What follows are some of my own observations, things which stood out to me, and questions which were raised in my little grey cells. As in my own research and ministry I am more concerned with the “issue” of women (I never like that term), my focus will be more on the ministerial implication on women and their role in the church.

In his introduction Webb mentions that it is always a question of application: Do we apply Scripture “in the exact form on the page” or the underlying principle? (p 13).

As a word of wisdom Webb maintains that if culture needs to be challenged on a certain aspect then we should do so. But if it doesn’t “violate one’s faith, then utilize it for the sake of the gospel!” (p. 23).

On pp. 26-28 he lays out the different positions on the “women’s issue”:

  • Strong patriarchy (extensive power of man; woman needs to submit)
  • Soft patriarchy (moderate power of man; woman needs to submit)
  • Evangelical Egalitarianism (equality of power; mutual submission [some hold to some role distinction])
  • Secular egalitarianism (equality; no gender roles)

Webb argues for a “redemptive hermeneutic”. One way to see a redemptive movement is to look for differences to the wider cultural context (Ancient Near East, Greco-Roman, Jewish).

Further: “What we should live out in our modern culture, however, is not the isolated words of the txt but the redemptive spirit that the text reflects as read against its original culture” (p. 33; emphasis his).

This approach focuses on five aspects (p. 35): “(1) redemptive movement, (2) multilevel ethic, (3) a balanced perspective, (4) cultural/transcultural assessment and (5) the underlying spirit within the text.”

Webb also makes a crucial observation concerning theological education. Oftentimes we focus a lot on exegesis but often are weak in the application process … as if the former leads easily into the latter (p. 67). I utterly agree with his assessment. Just because we know what something meant (and with some Pauline texts concerning women, we don’t exactly), it does not follow that we know how to apply it, how we should then live.

With the second part of his book (“Intrascriptural Criteria), Webb further subcategorizes into persuasive criteria, moderately persuasive criteria, as well as inconclusive criteria. The first five criteria pertain to the persuasive ones.

In this criterion (“Criterion 1: Preliminary Movement”) Webb differentiates between to movements: 1) absolute movement and 2) preliminary movement. With “movement” Webb means a modification within the original cultural context. An absolute movement is one in which the “author has pushed society so far and that is as far as it supposed to go; further movement is not desired”. In a preliminary movement the “author has pushed society so far as it could go at that time without creating more damage than good; however, it can and should ultimately go further” (p.73).

Webb sees that in general “the biblical material is headed toward an elevation of women in status and rights” (p. 76) which can be seen e.g. in the softening of the patriarchal structures in the household codes.

In “Criterion 2: Seed Ideas” there is a similarity to the former one. Here a further movement is suggested or encouraged. So e.g. the “in Christ” passages could (for Webb should) contain social implications. He sees that this had happened in church history concerning slaves and asks, “Why should it not today for females?” (p. 87).

The breakout-criterion (criterion 3) develops the seed idea. Whereas the seed-criterion suggested further movement and acts more quietly, the break-out is  a shout out; it “completely overturns the expected norms” (p. 91). For this see e.g. Paul’s statement in 1 Cor 7:4b “it is not the husband who has the rights to his own body, but the wife” and the overall mutuality in that passage. Something rather unheard of in the first century.   

Webb defines criterion 4 (“Purpose/Intent Statements”) the following way: “A component of a text may be culturally bound, if by practicing the text one no longer fulfills the text’s original intent or purpose” (p. 105) and gives the “Holy Kiss” commandments of the New Testament as the first neutral example. By literally doing what the text is saying, we might go contrary to our culture and miss what the intention of the original culture was.

Transcultural aspects can be found if it is rooted in the Fall or the subsequent curse (criterion 5). Webb maintains, rightly in my mind, that the curse does indeed carry on with its indicative aspects (what is) but should not be seen imperatively (what ought to be) “especially in the redeemed community” (p. 112). The debate among different proponents is whether hierarchy is part of the curse or was existent even before the Fall. If it is post-Fall equality rather than hierarchy should be striven for.

In the following chapter we are moving to “moderately persuasive criteria”. In criteria 6 and 7 Webb looks at the creation account and how it influences our hermeneutical practice. First, he looks at creation as a pattern and then the issue of primogeniture. Concerning a creational pattern Webb maintains yes indeed everything in the garden was good, but that this not necessarily implies that everything has a transcultural pattern (agrarian material, etc.).

In terms of the issue of primogeniture Webb sees that as a part of ancient cultural structures. Almost no one today follows them in the sense of inheritance patterns for example. As primogeniture is a cultural loaded element being used in the creation of the biblical text, one needs to ask if Paul’s argument in 1Tim 2 uses this to illustrate a point in his culture. Hence, for Webb this is only moderately persuasive.

That too pertain to criterion 8 and the basis in new creation. Webb, to my mind, overstates his point when he writes that “the new-creation community in Christ intentionally replaces the old humanity in Adam. In other words, new creation patterns should be given prominence over the old-creation patterns” (p. 147). This should probably be balanced with something like “old humanity in Adam” after the Fall. But this is solely a minor quarrel. He sees the “in Christ” passages and the categories mentioned therein as “simply representative of social inequality” and that the pair “male and female” could have been put in all of them (p. 147; emphasis his). Webb further argues for renewal and not eradication of these categories (p. 149).

The “Competing Options” argument (criterion 9) says that a transcultural aspect can be detected if other options were available in a culture but not chosen. Or conversely, it is culturally bound if no other alternatives were around or imaginable. Seeing patriarchy as the only option, it is a strong indicator (within the moderately-persuasive-criteria category) that this might be culturally bound.

In criterion 10 we come to something similar encountered in criterion 3 (breakouts). In this criterion we have something a transcultural value if it is in opposition to the original cultural context. Concerning women, we see that in the mutual submission (Eph 5:21) where Paul softens patriarchal hierarchy. It is strongly in opposition e.g. to the Jewish prayer (see tBer 7.18; yBer 9.2; bMen 43b) which reads: “Blessed be He who did not make me a Gentile; blessed be He who did not make me a boor; blessed be He who did not make me a woman” (quoted on p. 160).

A kind of “circumstantial evidence” component is talked about in criterion 11 “Closely Related Issues”. If something closely related is culturally bound there might be an indicator that the issue itself is culturally bound as well.

In the argument concerning the penal code (criterion 12), Webb argues that the cultural and transcultural component goes along the spectrum of light to severe punishment. The less sever, the more culturally bound it is.

Similar in criterion 13 “Specific Instructions Versus General Principles”, the more general a statement is, the more likely it is transcultural.

Criterion 14-16 are in the category of “inconclusive criteria”. In criterion 14 Webb maintains that a “component of a text may be transcultural if its basis is rooted in the character of God or Christ through theological analogy” (p. 185). On p. 187 he qualifies and writes that “[w]hen the biblical text addresses human sociological structures” the theological analogy most likely oftentimes is used as motivation and not necessarily as an endorsement of that structure.

For criterion 15 “Contextual Comparison” a specialized context gives a hint for culturally bound or transcultural features. Though this is inconclusive because oftentimes a mixture of both are present.

Another inconclusive argument is an appeal to the Old Testament (criterion 16). Here continuity and discontinuity play a big role. If there is discontinuity between the testaments it is likely that the argument in a text had a strong cultural element. Continuity, however, “offers no assurance of transcultural status” (p. 201).

Within part III “Extrabiblical Criteria” Webb moves outside of Scripture. In that he lists two more persuasive criteria: “Pragmatic Basis Between Two Cultures” (criterion 17) and “Scientific and Social-Scientific Evidence” (criterion 18). Within criterion 17 it is argued that sometimes a command e.g. cannot be easily transferred from one culture to another. Hence this seems to be culturally bound. The example of Lev 19:10 is taken: You must not pick your vineyard bare, and you must not gather up the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You must leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God.”

A ladder of abstraction is needed, and I want to show his self-explanatory illustration from p. 210:

Regarding women’s submission Webb lists the following reason why it made sense in that culture (pp. 213-214):

  • Lack of knowledge and education
  • Lack of experience and social exposure
  • Lack of strength: more reliance on the male provider in agricultural societies
  • Economic dependence on males
  • Age difference on marriage: girls/women (ages 12-14) males (older)

Webb explains: “Each of these factors in the original setting built a natural or understandable hierarchy between men and women, whether or not Scripture had anything to say on that matter” (p. 214; emphasis mine). Most of these reasons do not exist in or culture anymore.

Concerning the (social-)scientific component Webb states that “a text may be culturally confined if it is contrary to present-day scientific evidence” (p. 221). What struck me most here is the (false) belief that women are more easily deceived than men. An argument which Paul seems to make in his letter to Timothy. When one observes today’s research on deception, gender does not play a significant part in that. But the following reasons do play a part (p. 229):

  • Crosscultural nuances
  • Age*
  • Experience*
  • Borad versus sheltered social exposure*
  • Intelligence
  • Knowledge/formal education*

Those items marked with and asterisk (*) “sustain a cultural thesis for why women in Paul’s day were generally more easily deceived than men” (p. 229). So, Paul truly might have thought that way because in his day and age this was generally the case. Today things have changed, and they have changed quite a bit.

In conclusion, Scripture oftentimes does not “present a ‘finalized ethic’” and we need to make wise judgments for our day and our culture. I agree with Webb when he states that the authors of Scripture relative to their cultural surrounding “spoke redemptively to their given communities” (p. 254).

How do we speak today to those around us?