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 2:13-15 ESV)
This is a verse which has had multiple readings for centuries, so it is probably best to survey them from one of the most commonly used commentaries. We post the section from Donald Guthrie’s volume for the Tyndale commentary series in full, and then a short comment by Tom Wright:
“15. From the particular allusion to Eve, Paul seems to pass to women in general, by declaring thatwomen will be kept safe through childbirth, but the precise meaning of this is difficult to determine.
1. One interpretation is to understand the words as simply an encouragement to women in their natural sphere. This certainly accords well with the Genesis story which pronounces on Eve the doom that in sorrow she shall conceive, adding the assurance of safe delivery if the conditions are observed. It is probable that the duty of child-bearing is emphasized to offset the unnatural abstinence advocated by the false teachers (cf. Jeremias).
2. An early church father, Chrysostom, took the verb in its spiritual sense, but to avoid the manifest absurdity of making the statement suggest that child-bearing is a woman’s means of salvation, as if unmarried or childless women areipso factoexcluded, he understood the word ‘child-bearing’ as equivalent to child-nurture, and supplied ‘children’ as the subject of the verb ‘continue’. But this would make women’s salvation a matter of good works of a particular kind, and it is inconceivable that Paul meant this.
3. Another suggestion is that the words should read as in the RV ‘she shall be saved by means of the child-bearing’ (i.e. the Messiah, see also RSV margin For if that were the writer’s intention he could hardly have chosen a more obscure or ambiguous way of saying it. If the birth of the Messiah was intended by the words ‘child-bearing’ it is strange that Paul did not add some further explanation. The Greek article could be generic, referring to child-birth in general, rather than definitive, referring to one particular instance. Nevertheless, if the whole passage is concentrating on Eve, it is possible that there is here an allusion to the promise of Genesis 3:15, to the promise of the one who would crush the serpent’s head. If this were so, it would explain the reference to salvation in this verse. This suggestion is attractive in spite of the obscurity involved.
4. Another proposal is that the words should be taken to mean, ‘she shall be saved, even though she must bear children’, that is to say, she shall be linked with man in salvation, in spite of the penalty of her misdemeanour imposed on her. In that case the statement would be a kind of apology about what has just been said about women (cf. Scott). This view has the advantage of showing Christian women the way in which the original curse on their race is mitigated by Christian salvation, but it imposes an unnatural meaning on the Greek preposition dia (through).
It is difficult to reach a conclusion, but the third suggestion is perhaps faced with less difficulties than the others.
In this verse the verbs change from the singular ‘she shall be saved’ (sōthesetai) to the plural if they continue (meinōsin). NIV gets over the difficulty by translating the former as generic and therefore plural (women). This means that the former part of the verse must be interpreted in the light of the latter part. This would make good sense of the verse, but some other interpretations have been given. Some suggest the plural refers to husband and wife (cf. Brox) or that the writer is quoting a separate source (cf. Hanson). But neither is convincing, for Paul is dealing here with the wife not the husband, and the source suggestion seems an act of desperation. It is much more likely that the plural refers to Eve and her successors.
There is a quartet of Christian virtues which women are expected to develop—faith, love, and holiness with propriety. These terms suggest the quality of Christian living expected from women. They imply a continuing state. The preposition en (in) points to the woman’s sphere as being pre-eminently in the fostering of these Christian graces. The inclusion of holiness in the list demonstrates that such a quality is possible in the married state, and gives no support to the view that the celibate life is indispensable for the attainment of holiness as some sections of the church have supposed.
(Tyndale New Testament Commentary – The Pastoral Epistles 1957, revised 1990 p88)
“What about the bit about childbirth? Paul doesn’t see it as a punishment. Rather, he offers an assurance that, though childbirth is indeed difficult, painful and dangerous, often the most testing moment in a woman’s life, this is not a curse which must be taken as a sign of God’s displeasure. God’s salvation is promised to all, women and men alike, who follow Jesus in faith, love, holiness and prudence. And that includes those who contribute to God’s creation through childbearing. Becoming a mother is hard enough, God knows, without pretending it’s somehow an evil thing.” (N.T. Wright Paul for Everyone – The Pastoral Epistles 2003 p26)