The eight verses that make up 1 Timothy 2:8-15 are among some of the most controversial in the Bible.
1 Timothy 2:8-15
8 I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; 9 also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, 10 but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. 11 Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. 12 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty. (NRSV)
I cannot address every nuance of this passage nor am I qualified to do so. Scholars have written entire books about this passage. Yet because this passage would seem, at least on the surface, to have implications for the fictive family metaphor, I want to offer my interpretation. I am going to present two interpretations of verses 12-15 without sorting through every objection that could be raised. I think both of my interpretations probably apply but you will see what I mean as this unfolds.
I believe this passage is addressing problems of false teaching. Chapter 1 ends (vs. 18-20) with Paul exhorting Timothy to “fight the good fight” against false teaching. Verse 1 in Chapter 2 begins with “I exhort, therefore…” (parakalo oun) and then gives the next seven verses. The grammar links the instruction in these verses with the good fight against false doctrine in Chapter 1:
1 First of all, then, I urge (parakalo oun) that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable (hesuchios) life in all godliness and dignity. 3 This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, 6 who gave himself a ransom for all -- this was attested at the right time. 7 For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. (1 Tim 2:1-7)
Verse 8 begins with “Therefore, I want …” (boulomai oun) or “I desire then…” in the NRSV. It too is grammatically linking back to the good fight against false teaching. (Discovering Biblical Equality, Teaching and Usurping Authority, 217) The problem is that a surface level reading would not suggest that this passage has anything at all to do with false teaching. Let us look closely.
First, Paul addresses the men. It is not clear to me what the source of division is among the men. Quarreling over teaching appears to have become a problem, based on what else we know about the two letters to Timothy. There are not enough clues to be certain. Whatever it is, it is distracting from an environment where sound teaching can take place.
Next after only one verse of instruction about the men, we get seven verses of instruction about women. As many have noted 1 Timothy spends more time talking about women than any other book. Women appear to be a focal point of the problems at Ephesus.
Verse 9 suggests that there were women of means and status present in the church because only women of wealth wore the adornment Paul describes. High status women could frequently disregard traditional customs like head coverings and their adornment would have been quite unseemly and licentious to conservative Jews and Greeks. Furthermore, unlike other women, and indeed unlike many other men, many high status women would have been exposed to public speaking and would likely have been tutored in public speaking. In status conscious Greco-Roman society, it is not hard to imagine how these women might have seen themselves in terms of others in the church community and in terms of young wet-behind-the-ears Timothy. They almost certainly would have presumed themselves to be in charge.
In verse 10, Paul says he wants them to act like women who have reverence for God and then in verse 11 he writes, “Let a woman learn in silence (hesuchia) and submission (hupotage).” If you will look above at 2:2, you will see the word translated “silence” in verse 11 was translated “peaceable.” Paul wants the women to be still, listen, and really take to heart (be in submission to) the teaching. The clear implication is that these women have been irreverent, disruptive, and unwilling to be instructed, exactly what we might expect from wealthy women in this culture: an arrogant presumptuousness.
Moving to verse 12, Linda Bellville notes that according to Greek grammar, “teach” and “authority” (authentein) are infinitives functioning as nouns not verbs. “‘Neither to teach nor authentein” modifies the noun a “woman,” which makes the authentein clause the second of two distinct objects.” (Bellville 207) A pairing in this context could indicate a “neither-nor” relationship, synonyms, antonyms, showing a progression from general to particular (e.g., “wisdom neither of this age nor of the rulers of this age,” 1 Corinthians 2:6), a natural progression of related ideas (e.g. “they neither sow nor reap nor store in barns,” Matthew 6:26) and to define a related purpose or goal (e.g. “where thieves neither break in nor steal” or “break in to steal” Matthew 6:20.) (218) So what do we have here?
One of the big challenges in this passage is interpreting the word authentein. It is the only place it is used in Bible. It raises the interesting question of why Paul selected this word. If the simple idea of “exercise authority over” (exousia) is the intended meaning, then why use the more obscure authentein? According to scholars I’ve read, authentein can have a variety of meanings including simple authority but it must be determined by context. A common use of the term prior to and during the New Testament era was “to domineer” or “to usurp authority,” or “to self-authorize.” Here is how major interpretations of the bible have translated it up to the 20th Century (all from Bellville):
- Old Latin (2nd-4th cent. A.D.): “I permit not a woman to teach, neither to dominate a man [neque dominari viro]. (209)
- Vulgate (4th-5th): “I permit not a woman to teach, neither to domineer over a man [neque dominari in virum].” (209)
- Geneva (1560 edition): “I permit not a woman to teache, nether vfurpe [usurp] authoritie ouer the man.” (210)
- King James Version (1611): “I suffer not a woman to teach, neither to usurpe authoritie over the man.” (210)
Some more recent translations have retained this connotation as well.
- New English Bible (1961): I do no permit a woman to be a teacher, nor must woman domineer over man. (210)
- New Translation (1990): “I do not permit a woman to teach or dominate men.” (210)
The change in the Twentieth Century has come from translators opposed to women in ordained ministry. If the passage is speaking to a particular abuse instead of authority in general, then this passage is no longer pertinent to the exclusion of women from church authority.
But getting back to the grammar question, I conclude that the most probable reading of verse 12 is:
12 I permit no woman to teach or to [seize] authority over a man; [instead] she is to keep silent (hesuchia).
The pairing of concepts is to define a related purpose or goal: “teach so as to seize authority over.” The contrast of “she is to keep silent” is the prescribed behavior in response to the prohibition of unruly behavior.
“For” (gar) in verse 13 merely indicates continuation of the discussion. Paul presents an analogy to buttress his argument in verses 13-14. According to Jewish tradition, Eve led the world into sin by being deceived. God formed Adam first and gave him instruction. But Eve coming later, had not been sufficiently taught so she was easily deceived by false teaching. The only other mention we find about Eve explicitly in the New Testament is in 2 Corinthians where Paul writes:
2 I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. 3 But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. 4 For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough. 11:2-4
Eve is presented specifically as analogy of for deception by false teaching.
In short, these presumptuous high status women needed to take on some humility, be attentive, and learn before they presumed to teach. Without instruction, like Eve, they were going to lead people into error. But why specifically address seizing authority over men instead of just seizing authority? For one, it most likely was men who were teaching. It was one thing in this culture for men to vie for position but a woman vying for authority over a man was deeply troubling to many. Didymous the Blind (fourth century) writes:
The Apostle says in First Timothy: “I do not permit women to teach,” and again in First Corinthians: “Every woman who prays or prophesies with uncovered head dishonors head.” He means that he does not permit a woman to write books impudently, on her own authority, nor to teach false doctrine, because by doing so, she does violence to her source, man: for “the head of woman is man, and the head [source] of man is Christ.” The reason for this silence imposed on woman is obvious: woman’s teaching in the beginning caused considerable havoc to the human race; for the Apostle writes: “It was not the man who was deceived, but the woman.” (On the Trinity 3.41.3 (Minge PG 39.988C-989A) in I Suffer not a Woman by Richard and Catherine Kroeger. 112-113)
Much like the women prophesying with their heads uncovered in 1 Corinthians 11, these women are bringing shame on men as their origin. (See earlier posts here and here.) Indeed, part of their misbehaving may have been in failing to cover their heads.
It is hard to tell from what Didymous wrote, if he thought women could be sufficiently trained to teach on their own accord. Paul implies that with proper instruction these women could one day teach. The issue is not specifically teaching but the presumptuous and uninformed behavior of these women.
Finally, in verse 15, we must look at the word sozo translated “saved.” Several scholars have suggested that this verse is suggesting that as Eve gave birth to fallen humanity, Mary gives birth to a new humanity in Christ. In essence, the curse of increased pain in childbirth came through Eve but is symbolically reversed in Mary who gives birth to Jesus, the firstborn of a new humanity. She is thus “saved” through the childbirth of Mary. I’m doubtful of this interpretation. Craig Keener and Kenneth Bailey both point out that in Greek literature sozo frequently means “carried safely through,” and in this case is likely “kept safe through” childbearing. Prayers were offered to Isis and Artemis that asked for just this care. The attempt is to assure women that despite having the pain in childbirth inherited through Eve, God, not Isis or Artemis, will see them through.
This concludes my first pass through this passage but I want to offer an additional (and more controversial) perspective on this passage.