Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, together with his Second Letter to him and the Letter to Titus are collectively called the “Pastoral Epistles.” These were written by the apostle to his protégés serving congregations in Ephesus (Timothy) and Crete (Titus) in order to address crises in their respective congregations. In 1 Tim 1:7; 2 Tim 3:2-7 and Titus 1:10-11, we learn about treacherous teachers who had infiltrated these congregations, creating unrest, conflict and social disorder. He refers to them as “Certain persons (who) have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions” (1Tim 1:6-7). Apparently these teachers were using the Torah as a pretext for strange teachings they were peddling. He further states that these teachers are “those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 3:6-7), telling Titus these are ” insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach.” The picture he paints is of divisive outsiders teaching high sounding doctrines to vulnerable women who had just begun to enjoy significant social status in the communities of the Newer Covenant. The teaching they had heard and followed was fundamentally subversive of family order “upsetting whole families.”
It is into such a context that Paul writes these words to Timothy, serving as the leader of the congregation in Ephesus:
Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control (1 Tim 2:11-15).
A word in the Greek of this text and another in 1 Corinthians serve as pivots for controversies concerning the nature and limits of women’s authority and ministry in the communities of the Newer Covenant. In 2 Timothy chapter two the word is authentein, often translated as “exercise authority over.” The other term, found in 1 Cor 11:3, is kephale, often translated as “head” in the sense of “hierarchical authority” In today’s posting we will deal with authentein and Ephesian context, and next time we will complement that by treating kephale in Corinth.
The term authentein is another hapax legomenon, a term appearing only once in the Newer Testament and not at all in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Older Testament. This immediately creates a problem for interpreters, because words are defined by usage, and if one has only one reference to a term, one must employ much guess work to discern what exactly the term means and what are its connotations. While the NIV and RSV translate the term as “have authority over” and the NASB as “exercise authority over,” the New English Bible adds a different, and as we shall see, most likely appropriate note by translating the term as “domineer over.” This latter translation seems nearest the bulls-eye once one considers how the term authentein is used in the Apocrypha, that body of literature written roughly during the four hundred years between the Testaments.
In Wisdom of Solomon, 12:6, we read of “these parents who murder helpless lives/babes.” In ancient literature, the term underlying “murderers of helpless babes” is our term authentein. It is elsewhere used of a suicide, or a member of a murderer’s family. The verb behind authentein has the connotation of exercising will power over someone, and also relates to violence, as to murder. In other words, authentein is used in the context of destructive autonomy. It has the nuance of absolute power exercised in a destructive manner, in self-motivated actions. Its semantic field is similar to the term “patria postestas,” a term applied to a Roman father who holds absolute power to discipline and stand in judgment over his slaves, children and spouse, to administer punishment even to the death. He has boundless power limited only by custom or tradition.
This kind of dominating behavior is at total variance with the ethic taught by Yeshua, when he said in Mark 10:42-45 that:
You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But sit shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Yeshua’s ethic is 180 degrees in opposition to that of the Roman world. Paul operates and writes out of the same kind of ethic when he states:
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of yGod our Savior (1 Tim 2:1-3).
The text speaking of a “quiet life” is heysuchion bion employing the same term as in 2:11 where Paul speaks of women learning in silence (or quietly) in all submission. It does not have the connotation of women “shutting up,” but rather of maintaining a certain dignified social order (as is also mentioned in 1 Tim 2:1-3). It was to the issue of a disrupted social order that Paul was writing.
This term heysuchos is use as well in 2 Thess 3:12, “we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.” Here again the issue is not one of being quiet, as in not making any noise or sound, but rather of maintaining appropriate social order. Again, Paul uses the word in 1 Thess 4:
9 Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God yto love one another, 10 for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to ado this more and more, 11 and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and dto work with your hands, as we instructed you, 12 so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.
It needs no proof by this point to note that Paul uses this term of maintaining appropriate social order rather than of not opening one’s mouth. It involves the opposite of authentein–that is, it means to subordinate one’s urges in deference to societal norms.
As for the women not being allowed to teach, the problem was not with women teaching per se, but rather with the content and attitude of their teaching, as influenced by false teachers who apparently were insisting that the rules–and roles–had changed now that the age to come had arrived. We read something of their teaching in 2 Tim 2:12, when Paul says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority (authentein) over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet (en heysuchia)” he is speaking of women not presuming to domineer over men, thinking they know better, on the basis of teachings and doctrines they have heard, but instead to remain in a quieted and submissive role, respectful of their husbands. Furthermore, in 1 Tim 3:2 we read of those who are “lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents,” also people whose attitudes and conduct undermines the social order, in the context of family life. Paul’s Letter to Titus bears this out further in the third chapter saying, “For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach” (Titus 3:10-11). Again, we see that the churches were being troubled by false teachers and teachings subverting the social order in families.
From Paul’s Pastoral Epistles it seems that these disruptive false teachings involved a rejection of marriage, regarded as being a hindrance to enlightened spirituality. This is why Paul admonished younger widows to “marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander” (1 Tim 5:14). Why would these young women be resistant to the idea of marriage and need such an admonition? Likely it was because false teachers had been speaking against marriage because the Age to Come had arrived and all the old rules and roles were changing. Some married women had ceased cohabiting with their husbands for the same reason and under analogous teachings (cf. also 1 Cor 7:10), and apparently such “enlightened” women were tending to lord it over their husbands, because they were so sure they had spiritually arrived, as citizens of the Age to Come.
Such women, newly enfranchised in the Newer Testament Church, were yet immature in knowledge, and therefore susceptible to lying teachers, as Eve had been susceptible to the Serpent because of limitations placed upon her by her own lack of knowledge, having not heard from God directly about the command not to eat of the tree in the midst of the garden. These women were in an analogous position to Eve, who knew less of God’s revelation than her husband, Adam (see also 2 Cor 11:3). Against the background of this comparative paucity of scriptural knowledge, these patterns of false teaching, and a climate of inflated super-spirituality, Paul called for order in the families and congregation at Ephesus. Countermanding the subversion of family order, he takes pains to extol marital harmony, calling women back to the institution, which false teachers had apparently portrayed as spiritually dangerous. On the contrary, Paul says of woman, “she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” Women are not spiritually contaminated by marital sex and childbearing, which are both holy estates, but rather by a lack of faith, love, holiness and self-control.
Calling for order in the disrupted courts of the Church in Ephesus, Paul says this: “I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander” (1 Tim 5:14). This is not a recipe for domination over women, nor for their subjugation or loss of dignity. Rather it constitutes a restoration to familial order of a context where error and misguided zeal threatened the entire fabric of society, beginning with the family.
What does this mean for us then? Shouldn’t we restore order to our own interpretation of scripture by always remembering to bear in mind the contexts in which passages are written and interpreted? When one fails to bear in mind that Paul was writing to a crisis situation, one might easily draw wrong and excessive interpretations and applications of these heated texts. And if you think that hasn’t happened, you haven’t been paying attention!
The foregoing blog posting, like the previous one, is based on an article by Scott S. Bartchy, “Power, Submission, and Sexual Identity Among the Early Christians” in C. Robert Wetzel, ed., Essays on New Testament Christianity (Standard Publishing, 1978), 50-80.