Elsa TAMEZ, Struggles for Power in Early Christianity. A Study of the First Letter to Timothy. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2007. Translated by Gloria Kinsler. Foreword by Juan José Tamayo. pp. xxvi, 163. $20.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-57075-708-2.
Reviewed by Linda MALONEY, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Enosburg Falls, VT 05450

Elsa Tamez, one of the founding mothers of Latin American feminist liberation theology and professor of biblical studies at the Latin American Biblical University (UBL) in San José, Costa Rica, presents in her latest book an analysis of 1 Timothy. Unlike the standard commentaries, Tamez’s book does not work through the letter from beginning to end, but rather examines its treatment of particular power relationships. Thus the chapters, after an explanatory Introduction, treat (1) “The Rich and the Struggles for Power in the Christian Community,” (2) “The Patriarchal Household and Power Relations between Genders,” (3) “Theological Positions and the Struggles for Power,” and (4) “Criteria for Leadership in the Struggles for Power.” Appendixes offer graphical depictions of the socioeconomic structure of the Roman empire and of plurality in primitive Christianity, as well as the full texts both of 1 Timothy and of the Acts of Paul and Thecla. There are very adequate notes and a bibliography, as well as indexes of names and subjects.

As a Protestant theologian, Tamez is especially concerned both to counter oppressive “pastoral” uses of 1 Timothy and to find ways to ensure its continued usefulness within the churches, for positive rather than negative ends. She stresses the original context of the letter in order to show that its strictures against the activity of women in the churches—and even more, the leadership of slaves—were conditioned by the times and the author’s desire to make the church at home in its cultural environment. Her own cultural context leads her to emphasize the tension between rich and poor; she is perhaps more understanding of the author’s negative attitude toward wealthy women who seek leadership roles in the churches than a North American woman reader who finds herself scorned by church leaders for ostensibly the same reason might be. She does acknowledge that some of the tensions about qualifications for the supervisory (episcopal) role were ultimately resolved simply by allowing the office to be occupied, as a matter of course, by wealthy men.

While acknowledging the pseudonymous character of the letter (both as to author and recipient), Tamez also accepts the situation presented as genuine: she views this as a letter to a post-Pauline Ephesian community engaged in power struggles relating to gender, office, and theology. She also accepts as a given that the writer is an authority figure who represents what he calls “the true teaching,” and that his opponents in the community, including the wealthy women, are indeed preaching and teaching a false doctrine she identifies with Gnosticism or one of its predecessors. While she has done a thorough study of the literature on the Pastorals, she does not consider the possibility that the author of the letter is a person out of power who is using the authority of Paul to try to displace his opponents, whom he therefore accuses of false teaching. It seems to me that at the putative date of the letter (late first or early second century C.E.) it is not valid to try to identify “true” or “genuine” teaching in any systematic way; the dogmatic situation was far too fluid, and the concept of “Judaists who leaned toward Gnosticism” (p. 145, n. 7) seems to be speculative at best.

The interesting issue, perhaps, is this: It has become possible to accept the pseudonymity of about half the New Testament epistolary literature while at the same time continuing to grant those writings canonical authority. Would they lose that authority if it were shown that they are not only pseudonymous, but also not “normative” in their teaching?—that is, that on some points other writings not included in the canon were closer to presently-accepted norms than these canonical texts, or that the state of Christian thought in the late first and early second centuries did not permit the composition of “normative” texts at all? Is 1 Timothy’s “the saying is sure” anachronistic even in its own context, to say nothing of the postmodern one?

The translation is accurate and there are few typos (though Gal 2:28 on p. xix should certainly be Gal 3:28!). The style, however, is heavy, as the author systematically dissects the various power relationships and places them within their contemporary context. This is anything but light reading. Nevertheless, it is one of the most important contributions to literature on the Pastorals of the last two decades and should be on every New Testament teacher’s bookshelf.


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