Review of Icons of Christ: Errors of Philology






Having discussed plausibility structures and history in the previous two parts of this review, we come now to what, for Protestants, will be the central question of the debate: can Witt show that the passages that have long been thought to pose an obstacle to women’s ordination (WO) do not, in fact, do so?

Before inspecting how Witt deals with these passages, I must remind the reader that the argument against seeing egalitarianism in the Bible is one of cumulative weight. It is therefore not adequate to give a new interpretation for one or two verses. The project is much larger than that. It requires a comprehensive re-evaluation of all the evidence, using two methods:

First, a conspiracy theory. Witt believes that there actually was a primitive egalitarianism of office in the church, but that all the evidence of women bishops and presbyters has been suppressed and misinterpreted by patriarchal medievals and sexist modern scholars.[1] Thus, Witt thinks that St. Epiphanius was able to get away with bald-faced lies about how there have never been any women priests or bishops in the Church – and this, with no outcry or opposition, despite the fact that Christianity and Judaism were in an antagonistic relationship, each eager to accuse the other of any departure from propriety or Biblical norms. Witt believes that the apostles established women presbyters, and later generations of Christians somehow abolished this practice before the Council of Nicea, with no controversy or trace of protest in the literary record.

Second, Witt reinterprets all mentions of women in the NT—Priscilla, Junia, Phoebe, Tryphaena and Tryphosa—in order to use them as precedents for modern women in ordained offices. This project of reinterpretation requires novel philology and exegesis to defuse what some egalitarians have dubbed the “texts of terror” and the “mulier taceat” verses.

Errors of Philology

Witt discusses the now well-worn controversies over the meaning of αὐθέντειν in 1 Tim. 2:12 and of ἡσυχία in 2:11; the gender of Ἰουνίαν/Ἰουνιᾶν in Rom. 16:7 and the attendant dispute over ἐπίσημοι ἐν + dative;[2] the meaning of προστάτις when applied to Phoebe in Rom. 16:2; the meaning of “one-woman man” in 1 Tim. 3:1-2; and many others. Witt does not contribute anything new to any of these debates, but presents one-sided summaries favoring the pro-WO sides of each and omitting most of the scholarship of the opposing view. He is dependent on the labors of others for his reconstruction of the 1st and 2nd century Church and his exegesis of texts. This is unfortunate, because while scholars on both sides have committed errors of lexicography and grammar and philological method in pursuit of their theological and halakhic goals, the lion’s share of the errors have been committed by egalitarians as they press these texts in isolation from the larger Biblical picture of the sexes. These debates are often protracted in the scholarship and rely upon fine points of Greek grammar. Witt is not a competent arbiter of these disputes; he commits numerous errors of Latin[3] and Greek[4] in the course of the book that show him to lack an adequate command of the languages.

A thorough response to the exegesis Witt adduces from egalitarian scholars would require another book, but I will adduce a few instances here as examples. I must ask for the reader’s patience at this point, for philology, while opaque to a reader with no Greek, is very near the fulcrum of theology: the determination of what the words of Scripture actually mean is prior to the task of building theology on those words. Small changes close to the philological fulcrum can turn into huge changes when they are traced out on the theological perimeter.

Mutual Submission?

Following Allen Padgett,[5] Witt claims that the verb ὑποτάσσομαι in Eph. 5:21-22 (“wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as unto the Lord”) has a distinct voluntary meaning in the middle (92, 110). But in the first place, the middle voice in Greek cannot be equated with a reflexive self-determined action. Second, contrary to Witt’s assertion that “Hypotassomai does not mean ‘obey’ and it is neither in the active voice (a command given) nor in the passive (a command received),” we must note that the participle in Eph. 5:21 could very well be morphologically passive, and that the passive of this verb does in fact mean “obey.”[6] Witt appears not to know that the passive and middle voices are not morphologically distinguished in the present tense of Greek verbs. Contextually, Ephesians 5:21 actually functions as a heading for the subsequent Haustafel that continues into chapter 6. That passage gives the lie to the reciprocal and mutual submission that Padgett and Witt claim: slaves are commanded to obey masters, and children to obey parents, but no reciprocal obedience or submission is enjoined upon masters and parents. Both Witt and Padgett also stress the dative ἀλλήλοις (“submitting to one another”) as though it proved mutuality and reciprocity; it does not.[7] For instance, the 6th century BC Greek philosopher Xenophanes claims that “Homer and Hesiod attributed to the gods all things which among mortals are shameful and blameworthy: stealing, committing adultery, and deceiving one another (ἀλλήλουσ᾽ ἀπατεύειν).” (DK 21B11) Xenophanes does not mean that whenever one of the gods tricked another, the second also deceived the first. He means, as does Paul with ὑποτασσόμενοι, that within the collective group, some are doing the action in question to others.[8] Padgett’s and Witt’s claims are philologically unconvincing.[9] Furthermore, even if Witt were correct about the mutuality of the submission, that still would not mean that the submission is symmetrical, i.e. that men’s submission to women would look the same as women’s submission to men. The examples that follow show that it would be asymmetrical: it would mean only that the man, as the head, must carry out his functions with concern for the good of his wife, not as a means of self-aggrandizement.

Witt also adopts another interpretation to avoid the idea of women submitting to men in 1 Tim. 2:11-12:

Paul would be suggesting that, like Eve, the women at Ephesus are not well-informed, and thus are subject to deception. They should not teach, but rather learn quietly in submission to the subject matter so that they will be better informed and no longer deceived. Presumably, once they had learned, they could teach. (164)

This interpretation fits neither the meaning of ὑποταγή as Paul uses it in the same letter, 3:4, nor the immediate context, in which the strong adversative ἀλλὰ is used to contrast the women’s “being in quiet (ἡσυχίᾳ)” with the prohibited activities of teaching (διδάσκειν) and exercising authority (αὐθεντεῖν) – and in which the previous verses discuss men, who are not commanded to be in quietness or “submission to the subject matter.” The idea that the submission in question is “to the subject matter” (which is never mentioned!) rather than to their (male) teachers is motivated by nothing in the text.

I am not permitting…for now?

Witt also follows Philip Payne and Ben Witherington in claiming that οὐκ ἐπιτρέπω in 1 Tim. 2:12 is a “true” or momentary present tense best translated “I am not (now) permitting a woman to teach…[sc. but I will do so later]” rather than “I do not (ever) permit.” He claims that the construction “does not comport with a permanent prohibition.” (325) On the contrary, the verb ἐπιτρέπω ordinarily indicates the granting of a permission that would not otherwise obtain, i.e. an exception to a standing rule:

    • Acts 26:1 “Agrippa said to Paul, “It is permitted (ἐπιτρέπεταί) for you to speak for yourself.” Context: a formal self-defense before Agrippa and Bernice. Paul did not previously have permission to speak until he was granted it by Agrippa.
    • Hebrews 6:1-3 “Therefore, setting aside the account of the beginning of Christ, let us press on to completeness…not laying again the foundation…And this we will do if God permits.” If God doesn’t permit, the author won’t be able to do it.
    • Matthew 19:8 “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of the hardness of your heart.” Without such permission, divorce would have been forbidden.
    • Mark 5:13 and Luke 8:32 “And He gave them permission [to enter into the herd of swine].” If Jesus had not given permission, would the demons have entered the herd?
    • John 19:38, “And Pilate permitted [Joseph of Arimathea to take the body].” Had he not done so, Joseph would have tried to bury it at his peril.
    • Acts 27:3 “And Julius, treating Paul kindly, permitted him to go to his friends and get care.” A dispensation relaxing the normal restrictions on a prisoner’s movements.

To these Biblical examples, we may add another from the patristic Catena on Mark’s gospel, which uses the identical negated construction as 1 Tim. 2:12:

Not only, he says, do I not permit (οὐκ ἐπιτρέπω) the hindering of those who call upon my name and work miracles, but even of those who receive you and offer you only a cup of cold water.[10]

Shall we suppose that God only temporarily does not allow such hindering of his servants, but He will do so later, as Payne and Witt would have it in 1 Corinthians 14:34 and 1 Timothy 2:12? The idea of a temporary suspension is even more implausible in 1 Cor. 14:34, where the verb is in the perfect tense: οὐ γὰρ ἐπιτέτραπται αὐταῖς λαλεῖν – “Permission has not been granted for them to speak.” The Greek perfect indicates an ongoing state resulting from past action. Accordingly, these passages are best read as Paul denying that he is granting an exception to a standing prohibition of women teaching in the church.

Get Out the Scissors

Some verses are too difficult to reinterpret, and egalitarians prefer to excise them completely.[11] Witt repeats the arguments of Gordon Fee and Philip Payne that 1 Cor. 14:34-35 are an interpolation, since they are transposed to a different position in the text in a few MSS, and are marked with what Payne identifies as “distigme-obelos” in the margin of Codex Vaticanus. Curt Niccum has shown that the verses in question are transposed “only in a few, closely related MSS from northern Italy spread abroad in the Middle Ages by Irish monastics. No other reading has claim to being ‘original’ other than that preserving the traditional sequence of verses.”[12] Peter Head has argued that the markings in the margin are not original with the 4th century Codex Vaticanus, but are actually a combination of later distigmai with earlier-written paragraphoi markers.[13] Richard Fellows has shown that Payne’s measurements of the length of the alleged obelos markings are not statistically sound evidence for the claims he makes.[14] Payne has replied to all these criticisms,[15] but it does not appear that he has persuaded the majority of NT textual critics. Perhaps the most egregious part of Payne’s theory is that he proposes a notation to be included in a critical apparatus: “om. B••– 88* Fuldensismg Cl TP.” It is hard to overstate how misleading such a notation would be. It represents a corruption of the very purpose of an apparatus criticus, which is to give the reader accurate information about what the manuscripts say. The notation will be taken by readers as meaning that there are some manuscripts in which 14:34-35 is omitted. That, after all, is what “om.” means, not “obel.” or “athet.” or “marked with a distigme.” But there are no such manuscripts. If adopted, such a critical notation will require herculean labors of future textual critics to correct. Payne’s proposed notation thus threatens not only the text of Scripture, but the integrity of Biblical textual criticism. Witt, on the other hand, mentions none of the criticisms that have been made of Payne’s theory, but represents it as “likely the strongest textual argument that the passage is an interpolation.” (148)

Nothing except what doesn’t count

Witt also commits errors of lexicographical method. In his attempt to refute Wayne Grudem’s survey of the word κεφαλή (“head”) in 1 Cor. 11:3 as meaning “one in authority over someone else,” he says that “apart from Philo and the LXX, none of Grudem’s examples are from before the NT.” (128) This will not do. If Grudem has Philo and the LXX from before the NT on his side, then he has the main texts of Judaic Greek on his side. It is like saying that “apart from George Washington and John Adams, none of the earliest American presidents were of the Federalist Party.” In addition, Grudem’s citations of Josephus on the same point – citations which Witt dismisses as post-dating the NT – are in fact strong evidence for Judaic Greek usage that is almost precisely contemporaneous with the NT. When confronted with such special pleading, it is hard to avoid the impression that Witt’s real criterion of acceptable lexicography is whether it fits with egalitarian interpretations.


  1. This conspiracy theory is common coin among egalitarian scholars: Ute Eisen, Women Officeholders in Early Christianity: Epigraphical and Literary Studies (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2000) and Kenneth Bailey, “Women in the New Testament: a Middle Eastern Cultural View”, Theology Matters Vol. 6 No. 1 (Jan/Feb 2000) are frequently cited sources for the claim. It has not found favor with leading historians of church office. Everett Ferguson states, “Women were recognized by the church as models of asceticism as virgins and models of prayer and service as widows. In some places women were appointed as deacons to assist in ministry to women. Women were not appointed as elders, nor did they take public speaking roles in the assembly as prophets, teachers, or leader in the assembly. Where women did take these roles in heretical and schismatic groups, this practice was a basis for objection to these groups. That other groups employed women in leadership shows that the orthodox church could have done the same, if it felt such had apostolic authority.” Everett Ferguson, Women in the Church: Biblical and Historical Perspectives (Abilene, TX: Desert Willow Publishing, 2015), ch. 2. Likewise Alistair Stewart: “In spite of the evidence that women did participate in public life in the early empire, the adoption by Christians of associational behavior that took the church beyond the domestic sphere, ideationally if not actually physically, meant that office as it emerged was held exclusively by men. Possibly, Christians were more careful in observing the norm…that female governance was restricted to her own household. As monepiscopacy emerged over a century later, it would seem that female leadership, in urban areas at least, was no longer even a memory.” Alistair Stewart, The Original Bishops (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 351.
  2. Witt is, in my judgment, correct about Junia being a woman, and being called an apostle; but an apostle of what? And what bearing does this have on office in the church? Any attempt to answer this question must take into account the background of the institution of apostleship in ancient Judaism. Witt does not do so.
  3. E.g. no gradu tantum (non), 213; in persona Christis capitis (Christi), 192; and multiple instances of the papal encyclical Mulieries Dignitatem (mulieris, genitive), 191.
  4. Witt repeats the errors of Padgett in claiming that ὑποτάσσομαι and ἀλλήλοις in Eph. 5:21 express voluntary and reciprocal submission (110); the errors of Payne in claiming that οὐκ ἐπιτρέπω in 1 Tim. 2:11-15 is a temporary and ephemeral prohibition (“I am not now permitting”) rather than a permanent or standing one (“I do not permit”) (p. 166, 325); the errors of Brooten in claiming that διάκονος in reference to Phoebe in Romans 16 is “masculine rather than the expected feminine form.” (The word διάκονος does not have separate feminine forms in the 1st century.)
  5. Alan Padgett, As Christ Submits to the Church: A Biblical Understanding of Leadership and Mutual Submission (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011)
  6. cf. LSJ s.v. ὑποτάσσω, II.2, which cites Eph. 5:21 as an instance of the passive, along with James 4:7, Arr. Epict. 3.24.65, ἄγρια θηρία ὑποταγήσεται αὐτῳ̂ (“wild beasts will be subject to him”) and Polybius 3.13.8, which uses οἱ ὑποταττόμενοι of the “subjects” of a king.
  7. Perriman, himself in favor of WO, says of this claim, “It seems unlikely that when Paul urges the Ephesians to be ‘subordinated to one another in fear of Christ,’ he is thinking of mutual subordination – an exegetical tactic commonly employed by those wishing to mitigate the hierarchalism of the subsequent passage.” Andrew Perriman, Speaking of Women: Interpreting Paul (Leicester, England: Apollos/Inter-Varsity Press, 1998), 52.
  8. So Perriman: “Paul wants to designate relationships within the fellowship, rather than towards outsiders, for which he could have used allois.” Perriman, Speaking of Women, 53.
  9. For helpful exegesis of Ephesians 5-6, cf. P.T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 1999) 401-405 and the excellent review of Padgett by John G. Nordling in Logia: a Journal of Lutheran Theology, January 5, 2012, online here:
  10. J.A. Cramer, ed. Catenae Graecorum Patrum in Novum Testamentum (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1840), 366.
  11. As Tertullian famously said of Marcion and Valentinus: “One man perverts the scriptures with his hand, another their meaning by his exposition.” (Praescr. 38)
  12. Curt Niccum, “The Voice of the Manuscripts on the Silence of Women: The External Evidence for 1 Cor 14.34-5” New Testament Studies vol. 43 (1997): 242-255.
  13. See Peter Head’s talk at SBL New Orleans, 2009, in the reports of Tommy Wasserman here: here: Gurry adds further observations contra Payne here:
  14. Cf. Richard Fellows, Vaticanus paragraphoi and 1 Cor 14:34-35, October 5, 2017, available online at:
  15. Philip B. Payne, “Vaticanus Distigme-obelos Symbols Marking Added Text, Including 1 Corinthians 14.34-5” in New Testament Studies 63 (2017), 604-625.

Matthew Colvin

Matthew Colvin holds a PhD in Classics (Cornell, 2004) and is a minister in the Reformed Episcopal Church. He is the author of The Lost Supper (Fortress Academic, 2019). He lives on Vancouver Island.

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