The full text is as follows:
8 I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarrelling; 9 likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. 11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 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—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. (1 Timothy 2:8-15 ESV)
Only at Ephesus?
The idea has been suggested that there were one or more particularly dominant women in the church at Ephesus, and that therefore Paul’s comment is largely a local comment to Ephesus. There is no direct evidence for this in the later brief letter to Ephesus found in Revelation 2:1-7, though the idea that their might have been was raised by some early commentators on 1 Timothy 2.
Obviously the passage is relevant to Ephesus, since Timothy was at Ephesus, and Paul is writing to Timothy about the problems that Timothy has reported at Ephesus. But against this when Paul says “I do not permit” we know that the one place Paul wasn’t was Ephesus.
There is no great disagreement over the meaning of the word “teach” in Paul’s statement, but some attention has been directed to the second verb, translated “exercise authority” in the ESV.
The King James Bible (1611) has “nor to usurp authority over the man”, a reading possibly taken from “usurp authority” in the Geneva Bible of 1599. Whereas the 1525 and 1534 Tyndale Bible had simply had “neither to have authority over a man”, which is a more neutral statement. Much earlier, though not relevant to the King James, Wycliffe had followed the Latin Vulgate “neque dominari in virum” as “neither for to have lordship on the man”. Similarly (but from the Greek not Latin) the Revised Version had “nor to have dominion over a man”. Modern versions have a range of similar readings.
In 1979 Catherine Kroeger proposed that authenteo really meant “to thrust oneself” and thus 1 Timothy 2:12 should be read as:
“I forbid a woman to teach or engage in fertility practices with a man” (Kroeger, C. “Ancient Heresies and a Strange Greek Verb,” The Reformed Journal 29, March 1979)
The idea was rejected by scholars, including those otherwise accepting of egalitarian readings of Paul’s texts. But in subsequent years various other claims about authenteo circulated including for example that:
- The verb authenteo is rare in Greek
- it comes from a root meaning ‘murder’
- and is used to mean ‘violently usurp authority’,
- so cannot apply to any sister who peacefully has authority over a man.
- Hence Paul should be read something like:
12 “I suffer not a woman [that specific woman you have in Ephesus] to teach or [violently] usurp authority over a man, [as distinct from another woman who has legitimate ecclesial authority over a man which is acceptable] rather, she [that specific woman in Ephesus] is to remain quiet. (note: comment in square brackets inserted to make explicit the contrast with traditional readings)
The problem with this is that it is not true.
Firstly authenteo is not that rare in Greek. 40+ pre-New Testament uses is more than many New Testament words have to give background to them. It is not very common, but it also is not very rare.
Secondly the root of the word is not ‘murder’, the root is auto, ‘self’, perpetrate, do. This misreading of the lexicons is because ‘do’ can occur with murder ‘phonos’ : a perpetrator of murder (authentês phonos , Aeschylus, Eumenides 212). So in several instances ‘one who acts on his own authority to do’ does mean ‘perpetrator’ in a negative sense, including of murder.
But a perpetrator, doer, someone who takes an act under his own authority, does not have to be negative:
- Theseus: “Again, where the [democratic] people have their own authority over the land, they rejoice in having a reserve of youthful citizens, [and are free from tyrants]” (Euripides, The Suppliants)
Generally with authenteo the emphasis is on exercising one’s own authority, whether good or bad.
The following examples contemporary with Paul shows that idea of illegality or violence, or even a negative tone isn’t inherent:
–“men who incur the emnity of those in authority are villains” (Philodemus, Rhetorica 1C AD)
–“Saturn has authority over Mercury and the moon” (Ptolomey, Tetrabiblos 2C AD)
–“the boatman appealed to me… and exercising my authority over the charterer, he agreed to provide Calatytis the boatman with the full payment within the hour” (Berlin papyrus BGU208, 1C AD, Agyptische Urkunden aus den königlichen Museum zu Berlin 1985)
–“according to the decision of the accountant having authority over the estate” (Tebtunis papyri, 2C AD)
There is no suggestion in any of these verses that having authority is anything but a good thing. The democrats in Euripides’ Suppliants, the good rulers in Philodemus’ Rhetorica, Saturn having authority over Mercury, the merchant with authority over the boat, the bookkeeper with authority over the estate, none of these are abusing or usurping authority, they simply have authority.
So back to the 1 Timothy 2:12 text.
Unfortunately the answer appears to be that Paul’s text simply means what it says and is related to Paul, wherever he went in the Mediterranean, rather than being related to or limited to any specific woman or women in Ephesus.
The more interesting question for readers in the 21st Century, is whether Paul, in applying more fundamental principles such as salvation and equality before God, would say the same thing in a Western culture today. Obviously we can’t know, since if Paul had grown up in the 20th Century (rather than suddenly arrive in a time machine from the 1st) then the other Paul born in our age would be a very different person from the man we know who grew up in Tarsus and studied with Gamaliel. So that question is not really about Paul as time traveller, but about God and his Son the Lord Jesus, and how different in God’s eyes is our 21st Century from Paul’s 1st?
Some things certainly are different, and some things are not.
But that is outside the scope of what Paul meant writing to Timothy then.