Aída Besançon Spencer Cascade Books 2013-10-31

To many evangelicals the label “feminist theologian” means its object is a goddess worshiper who views Paul as a misogynist and who takes a low view of Scripture. For some the phrase also evokes images of a man-hater. Aída Besançon Spencer, whom many describe as a feminist theologian, appears to embrace that label. Yet she serves on the front lines with those who challenge such aberrant theologies. In fact in her latest book, Spencer, who is professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (also Extra-Ordinary Researcher for North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa), describes herself as one who is committed to “God, who inspired the words and thoughts, and in sympathy with Paul, as a friend and colleague in ministry, who was mentoring other ministers in very difficult situations” (p. 2).

The author’s books have included Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry (author); Paul’s Literary Style: A Stylistic and Historical Comparison of II Corinthians 11:16–12:13, Romans 8:9–39, and Philippians 3:2–4:13 (author); The Prayer Life of Jesus (coauthor); and The Goddess Revival: A Biblical Response to God(dess) Spirituality (contributing author). And now, for the first time, Spencer has written a commentary on a letter of Paul that contains a number of controversial “woman” pericopes—1 Timothy.

Anyone inclined to dismiss Spencer’s work would benefit from reconsidering, or risk missing a good resource. Spencer provides excellent exposition, for example, of the phrase “teachers of the law” (p. 31), cross-referencing it with Acts 22 and Philippians 3. Indeed, only a small percentage of this commentary relates to the role of women in ministry. Instead, the author takes readers verse-by-verse through 1 Timothy, emphasizing, as Paul did, a focus on sound orthodoxy coupled with solid orthopraxy. As she does so, she draws on her rich knowledge of Koine Greek and first-century backgrounds.

In organizing her work Spencer begins with a sound overview about Pauline authorship followed by historical, literary, ecclesiastical, and theological reasons for this letter to his protégé. She also includes a proposed timeline of events. Following this, the reader finds a section with background information about Artemis of the Ephesians before encountering the verse-by-verse exposition.

Like many egalitarians before her, Spencer relies on late sources—as late as the fourth century—in establishing the identity of Artemis of the Ephesians and her cult at the time of Paul. And the influence of these later sources on Spencer’s view of Artemis is significant, as they affect her interpretation of Paul’s instructions about gunhv (“woman” or “wife”) in chapter 2. While Spencer wisely references Paul Trebilco’s epic work The Early Christians in Ephesus from Paul to Ignatius in relation to Artemis, she makes the same mistake some complemetarians[1] have made in citing Trebilco’s work on Ephesus while ignoring a number of his best-supported conclusions about the city’s goddesses. One such conclusion Spencer overlooks is that Artemis of the Ephesians at the time of the earliest Christians was associated with asceticism, not sexual immorality; the other is that the cult of Isis was probably inactive in Ephesus by the time of Paul.

Spencer’s choice to include late works, for which egalitarians have often received criticism,[2] affects her interpretation of a number of passages. For example, she quotes Xenophon of Ephesus (late 2nd/early 3rd century) to establish that braided hair was associated with being erotically attractive. She views Paul as being concerned about a sex-saturated church rather than being concerned about their avoidance of sex and marriage. But in this, she is not speaking as an egalitarian; complementarians often make the same assumptions.

Some of Spencer’s “woman” material, however, is handled well. Her explanation for what it means to “keep declining” or refusing “godless and old-women’s myths” (p. 109, cp. 1 Tim. 4:7) is worth the price of the book. Drawing on Strabo and other lines in Paul’s letter, she makes a case for understanding the apostle as referencing women’s active part in telling myths. This Spencer contrasts with the teaching Timothy received from another elderly woman—namely, his grandmother, Lois (2 Tim. 1:5; 3:14). The pastor preaching through 1 Timothy and wishing to quote a female when explaining Paul’s mention of “old wives’ tales” will find a friend in Spencer. 

One of the author’s strengths is her vast knowledge of primary sources as well as her background knowledge of aesthetics. She also points readers from the realm of the academy to pastoral ministry. Every chapter includes a “Fusing the Horizons” sidebar with information such as “How to Use Leadership Lists” and “Living with Wealth.” And most chapters include an excursus with topics such as “Applying the Order of Widows to Today”—which reflects her knowledge of contemporary international contexts.

As is true of any commentary, few will agree with everything Spencer says. But the discerning reader will find she has put to good use her numerous tools of analysis. The result is an accessible work full of interesting exposition, background information that fleshes out word studies, and numerous practical pastoral helps.


[1]         Clinton Arnold and Robert L. Saucy, “The Ephesian Background of Paul’s Teaching on Women’s Ministry,” Women and Men in Ministry: A Complementary Perspective, ed. Robert L. Saucy (Chicago: Moody, 2001), 284.

[2]         A noted example is Richard Oster in his article “Other Books,” which appeared in The Biblical Archaeologist 56, no. 4 (1993): 225; also, “I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11–15 in Light of Ancient Evidence,” by Robert A. Pyne, in Bibliotheca Sacra 150 (April–June 1993): 247–48.

About the Contributors

Sandra L. Glahn

In addition to teaching on-campus classes, Dr. Glahn teaches immersive courses in Italy and Great Britain, as well as immersive courses in writing and in worship. Dr. Glahn is a multi-published author of both fiction and non-fiction, a journalist, and a speaker who advocates for thinking that transforms, especially on topics relating to art, gender, sexual intimacy in marriage, and first-century backgrounds as they relate to gender. Dr. Glahn’s more than twenty books reveal her interests in bioethics, sexuality, and biblical women. She has also written eleven Bible studies in the Coffee Cup Bible Study series. A regular blogger at Engage, bible.org’s site for women in Christian leadership, she is the owner of Aspire Productions, and served as editor-in-chief for Kindred Spirit from 1999 to 2016. She and her husband have one adult daughter.