What was Paul thinking when he wrote 1 Timothy 2:12?

GreekMS
“I do not permit me a woman to teach or have authority over a man. She must be silent.”

What is one to do with this Bible verse from Paul’s letter to Timothy?!

Here’s how I address it in my book Communicate to Change Lives.

Take the common meaning in the original languages

Words change over the years. Right now I would be terribly misunderstood if I said, “I’m feeling very gay today.” Fifty years ago, it would have meant I was happy, joyous. In 2007 it means something very different. If I say, “That’s a really bad car,” I’m not saying it needs to be recalled for safety concerns. It’s a really cool car (which doesn’t refer to temperature at this time.) All these examples have the shelf-life of milk!

It’s the same with Scripture written thousands of years ago. Let’s take an often misinterpreted verse:

“I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be silent” (1 Tim. 2:12).

In 60 A.D. the word translated “authority” from the Greek actually had multiple meanings (and since this is the only time the word is used in the New Testament, it’s impossible to determine how Paul used it from other contexts.)

Scott Baldwin, popular author on women’s issues, notes several possible translations: to control, to dominate, to compel, to influence someone/thing, to domineer/play the tyrant, to grant authorization, to act independently, to assume authority over, to exercise one’s own jurisdiction, to flout the authority of, to commit murder. He concludes the most likely translation is “to have authority over” or “to domineer.”

Catherine Kroeger, a Greek scholar and founder of Christians for Biblical Equality, argued that authenteo is an erotic term best translated “to engage in fertility practices.” She later changed her interpretation to mean “proclaim oneself author of a man” in response to “a Gnostic notion of Eve as creator of Adam” (2 Tim. 2:13). Dr. Kroeger also notes that the word, used at the time in court briefs, refers to “self murder” or suicide. L. E. Wilshire studied 314 references to authenteo and concluded it originally was connected with murder and suicide, but later to “broader concept of criminal behavior.”

Thus, those supportive of women in ministry, interpret it to mean to “dominate” which Paul strictly forbids since men and women are to be viewed as equals (Gal. 3:28) and submit to one another (Eph. 5:21). Fundamentalists interpret the word to denote a hierarchy; women must not be in a supervisory role over men. (However the word didn’t mean hierarchy until 300 AD.)

The best we can conclude is that there is no precise definition for the word.

Take the cultural context of the passage

In that culture, women were not allowed a formal education, so virtually all women in Ephesus at that time were illiterate. This, of course, made being a woman teacher a bit difficult!

Melanie Kierstead, of Asbury College, also argues that Paul wrote the controversial passage to address the matriarchal culture of Asia Minor, and particularly Ephesus, where the gods were all women and the human men were ceremonially castrated. Thus, these are specific instructions for a specific people (those in the Ephesus church) at a specific time (first century) in a particular place (Asia Minor where the temple of Dianna, goddess worship, and matriarchal dominance were). Other scholars, however, believe temple prostitution was no longer practiced in 60 A.D. Ephesis.

Take the broadest, most documented position

If you have a church filled illiterate women who are recent converts from goddess worship (or ex-temple prostitutes), 1 Timothy 1:12 is wise advice for that church at that time.

But if you look at the entire Bible’s view of women, you see many leaders and teachers: prophets (Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Isaiah’s wife, Philipp’s four daughters), military leader and judge (Deborah), disciples (Mary, Martha, Joanna, Mary Magdalene, Susanna, and “many more”), deacon (Priscilla), and church leader (Lydia).

Then you have to deal with Acts 2:1718 which is a fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy “your sons and daughters will prophecy.”

Following these three principles will clear up many apparent “contradictions.”

Copyright © 2007 James N. Watkins. All rights reserved.

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26 Responses

  • Michelle Gerson says:

    Thank you for these explanations on Paul’s letter to 1 Timothy 1:12 and your obvious conclusions in the paragraph ‘broadest most documented position”.
    I was rebuked today by a man who is a good non religious christian whith whom I agreed on all points except one: I told him that Jesus’s language in his days was Aramaic and told him that certain passages in Old and New Testament were written in Hebrew- Aramaic. When I proved to him that Josephus confirmed this, he quoted 1 Timothy 1:12 that women should remain silent. I knew the scripture, but not having the details you are giving above, I had to agree with him, only being able to quote that Mary Magdalene was also a woman who followed Christ, to which he added that she did not have a speaking ministry.
    I am sending this person your page and others which I have gathered for him to read and learn from…. a man.

    • jameswatkins says:

      Thanks for your comment. It must be trying to be a smart woman rebuked by dumb men. (My wife is an ordained minister, so I’m especially passionate about this subject.)

      • Michael says:

        some men are dumb when they do not open up their eyes and understanding…women are not to be pastors or bishops or have authority over the Man…go back and re-read the Bible again…their is order in the Church, just like order in the Court….the bailiffs can’t do the Judges job and over rule him…nor can the Woman be over the Man in the Church. There is a lot of weak minded Men without any back bone to stand on the truth.

  • Clint says:

    Wow. The stupidity is strong here. If this is the ridiculous argument you are going to use to defend this immoral book/passage, then, applying the rule to the entire bible…. Why beleive any of it. It could mean anything in the ‘old lanuage’. It’s not the only time this word exists in the shitty book. Then you have the problem with EVERY OTHER WORD possibly meaning something else. Cherry picking and strawman at its best. What about slavery, genocide, ethnic clensing, rape, murder, ritua lhuman sacrifice and the rest of it. Translate those words MF.

    • Thanks for your comment. My entire point is to not “cherry pick” passages and to carefully examine every word to make sure it’s the definition intended by the original author. I would encourage you—before labeling Scripture as “immoral”—to read the Gospel of Matthew (first book in the New Testament). Jesus was the most “moral” and loving person to have ever lived and he is the antithesis of the issues you’ve noted. Dare to read Jesus’ words objectively.

  • Aron says:

    If one part is wrong then all of it is wrong….

    • completely not buying it says:

      for he so loved the world he gave his only begotten son ..etc etc yada yada. but god,knowing the future and thats his kid would be right as rain in 3 days kknda takes the ole lacquer shine off of thst supposed good deed. the bible has TEN good amd memorable passages . the commandments.period .the rest is as believable and emulatable as the rituals of santa claus

      • Actually, there really was a St. Nicholas–from which all the myths are based. I’m afraid that many Christians have distorted the image of a very real God as well–and thus tainted the faith with misinformed myths. I would encourage to simply read the words of Jesus.

  • RR says:

    Any theological excuses for the writer of this passage is futile. The subsequent verses prohibit these excuses entirely because the writer has already given you and all readers the reason why this particular passage will stand for all time and in all circumstances of Christianity (Verses 13 – 15) –> A woman[a] should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man;[b] she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women[c] will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

    Literally, absolutely, and clearly in all instances, female self-advocacy in the church is barred. Why? Because Adam was born first and then Eve AND (he’s not done) because Eve was an idiot but Adam was not. I just have a lot of trouble taking in any excuses for Paul because he has already told you the theological basis for why women cannot even speak. I know the case for Biblical truth is strong and we want to believe the Bible in its entirely. In order to do so, we also have to completely ignore the obvious. And the obvious is pretty hard to ignore. Simply taking Paul for face value is the only true way to take on and challenge this rubbish and damning writing on women.

    Challenge Paul himself: 1) Christ did not write this, 2) Christ did not inspire this, 3) this is Greek cultural infusion as Greeks believed women to be snakes and untrustworthy sexual predators at their core. It’s easier for me to believe this passage was added to the scripture for case of empire (RCC) or some other direct attack on women because women were already a power force for the gospel: Priscilla and Aquila were actual pastors and founders of the early church in Cypress (not simply godly women as Paul described them – historical evidence has proven this). Christ chose to appear first to Mary Magdalene not the apostles to establish women as equals in him (and to combat misogyny as Magdalene was dubbed a liar when she gave her testimony on seeing Jesus in heavenly form). The prophet who identified Christ as the messiah in the first place was a female waiting for his arrival. We should fight false doctrine head on, not make theological excuses for it. Paul claimed himself to be a servant of Christ, in that he was honest. He was delusional if he believed all that he wrote was inspired by Christ and the Holy Spirit.

  • jesusdeepinsideme says:

    Mmm-Mm-Mmm Yes! What are we to do! Goodness, hate it when the good ol’ bible makes it a bit hard for us believers to stand firm on sane foundations! But thank the Lord for followers like yourself and Scott Baldwin, who gracefully sweep the bigotry and sexsim and racisim and all around ignorance, of the bible under the rug by saying the most intelligent sentences like ‘words just sure don’t mean what they did back then, now!’ Boy oh boy are you right! ‘They must be silent’ Probably just meant they must be silent when they talk about getting jobs or or running for congress or even worse president! Or what they have to say about their own vaginas, or how many organic ingredients are in their lunch or about their revelation during hot yoga or about who out of their friends are in a fight that particular week, am I right! Darn females never shut up about that gossip! Boy do they love it, and boy do we love them! Especially when they’re not trying to control or gain authority of the household and us men, the real authorizers. So glad we have u fellow god fearing men here, to ease our minds that we aren’t blindly following such hateful sexist people. But be careful what you say how phrases change over time! Especially about feeling gay! Wouldn’t want people to think that being gay is now, thousands of years later, seen as something natural and okay! That sure hasn’t change! Right? Oh god, it couldn’t right? Haha yeah, definitely not! Could you imagine?! I can’t and wouldn’t want too either! Well anyway have a blessed day!

  • Eileen Hines says:

    I Thank you for researching this much misunderstood verse. A little light goes a long way. Our people grew up and still do on figures of speech. Its a good thing to be able to know figures of speech to further one’s understanding of The Word Of God. Anyway, just passing through, and wanted to let you know the research was helpful.

  • Tash says:

    Thanks for this writing. Was brave of you to write on such a controvertial topic. I appreciate it. God bless

  • Josephine Harris says:

    We all have to be carefull and not lean on our own understanding Proverbs 3:5,all scriptures are inspired of GOD for our instruction and to set all things straight 2Timothy3:16.

    • I don’t mean to be argumentative, but is this passage inspired of God?

      “A feast is made for laughter, wine makes life merry, and money is the answer for everything” (Ecclesiastes 10:19).

      No! We’re reading the spiritual journal of man who is trying to find meaning in life. If Solomon is the author, then it’s also the writing of a man who would turn from God and build altars to his hundreds of foreign wives’ gods. The book as a whole is certainly instructive. This attitude will lead to spiritual ruin.

  • Crankypants says:

    For me, Paul is writing a letter to Timothy and expressing his ideas like a pastor on a Sunday morning expressing his ideas. No one knows if Timothy carried out these ideas. In fact no ones knows the context in which the letter was written.

    We are to follow the teachings of Jesus. Paul, as an apostle, was to spread these teachings. I am not sure but what some of Paul’s letters expressed his ideas rather than what Jesus would have taught. Again, who knows. We were not there.

    In the New Testament, Jesus tells us how we are to live. In Matthew 22: 37-41 Jesus specifically commands us to LOVE. You love God first others second and yourself last. All the law and prophets hang on this.

  • Lindsey Jordan says:

    This is nothing but satan that is allowing you ppl to change God’s Word. All of your eyes are shut closed you are in darkness. Rebuke the devil and you will be set free, Paul is clearly saying “FOR A WOMAN TO BE SILENT IN THE CHURCH.” Point blank period stop changing God’s word just to fit your life. Yes it was female followers of Christ but did they usurp authority over a man. A woman is simply not suppose to be over a man, in no way shape or form. Especially in the church. A women is to come to her husband for answers not the husband coming to her. This world is twisted. This same behavior is what’s going to cause alot ppl who think they’re going to heaven, to get sent straight to eternal damnation. I will keep you all in my prayers. Study to show thyself approved.

    • Steve says:

      Lindsey you are teaching men here. In so doing you are contradicting yourself and your God. Tisk tisk.

      Note that the Greek word “silent” is elsewhere translated “quiet” (2 Thess 3). You would dwell to study Greek if you are going to be so uptight about accurate rendering of the text. Additionally, the Bible is clear neither women NOR men are to have authority over one another, but are to mutually submit (Ephesians 5, Galatians 3) (all Paul’s letters, like Timothy!)
      God’s word is living and active, which means it changes and adapts. This is good. Things that don’t adapt, die. As always, our Law is love….which by the way illiterate people can even obey. That is, put your poorly understood Bible down and go be good to people. Jesus said this is the Law and Prophets anyway! (Matt 7). This love and goodness to people is how men and women preach the gospel with their lives, which isn’t either gender’s exclusive business.

      • Good point, Steve. Yes, she was certainly trying to “school” me. Those who try to take the Bible literally, without considering the language, the context and the Bible’s overall teaching, paint themselves into a corner of contradicting their own literal teaching. That said, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right” (2 Timothy 3:16). I think I’m showing the utmost respect for God’s Word by trying to study what he really meant in the text.

  • X says:

    What a crock of shit… can’t pick and choose which to take literally and which to put off to word changing meanings… and there isn’t any writings of Jesus for centuries and these “biblical scholars” know what Jesus and apostles said, when there is no evidence that they ever lived…

    • Actually, there is plenty of secular, historical evidence (ie. Josephus) to support Jesus and his disciples. And there are more accurate manuscripts of biblical writing than Shakespeare. I triple-dog dare you to investigate it.

  • Just Saying says:

    “The best we can conclude is that there is no precise definition for the word.”
    James, you’re a pathetic cretin.

  • Belle says:

    Doesn’t the next chapter of 1 Timothy talk about the requirements for a person to become an overseer? The same chapter that says only the men can be overseers is also written to the same group of people where the women were illiterate, which makes sense. I still don’t understand why a woman in this chapter couldn’t have been a deaconess though?



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