More on I Timothy 2:12

Sometimes people who like things done a particular way (and isn't that all of us?) latch on to one verse in the bible. And for those who like to keep women out of church leadership, I Timothy 2:12 is one such verse.

Tim Harris has critiqued Claire Smith's and Peter Bolt's critique of John Dickson's book "Hearing Her Voice" (complicated enough for you yet?) here, and I thought his perspectives on this verse are worth repeating. (One doesn't need to all this background to appreciate the reflections here!)

To quote Bolt:

"It is a common strategy to suggest that 1 Timothy 2:12 is not clear. However, the only possible element that is unclear is the presence of the word authenteō, since it does not appear elsewhere in the Bible—even though, thankfully, it occurs frequently enough outside the Bible to remove any real doubt as to its meaning (‘to have authority’). In this verse, Paul prohibits a woman from teaching or exercising authority over a man, and from the context, this relates to what is going on in the public assembly. There is no need to go digging below the text here to understand what is forbidden, for the teaching that is being forbidden is that done by a woman towards a man.’ (288-289)

Where to start with such a sweeping summary? Let me list some of the interpretative issues that Bolt’s summary overlooks, and eclipses from view from the general reader:

1. The verb ‘I am not allowing’ is in the present tense – the interpreter or translator must decide if it refers to a specific circumstance (as it does usually for Paul), or is of universal ‘all times and places’ significance. Grammatically it can be either.

2. Despite Bolt’s (astonishing!) assurance that authenteō occurs ‘frequently enough’ (well, only if you tally up about a thousand years of later usage), the verb appears to have been very rare at the time of 1 Timothy 2:12 – why such a rare verb, and does it have any distinctive nuances when considered alongside more common terms for authority? It has a wider range of established meanings than ‘to have authority’ (to limit it to this is a form of the ‘root fallacy’).

3. Does the verse refer to ‘woman’ and ‘man’, or more specifically ‘wife’ and ‘husband’? The Greek terms can refer to either.

4. Dickson has raised the valid question as to what activity ‘to teach’ refers to.

5. 1 Timothy 2:12 may be considered essentially ‘clear’ from an interpretative point of view (notwithstanding the above), but only if you detach it from its immediate unit. Once we ask how this verse relates to the explanatory verses that follow (note the ‘for’ that links verses 13 and 14 to v.12), things are far from ‘clear’. When verse 15 is included (and not conveniently detached), understanding verse 12 within the full unit in which it is immediately located is even less clear.

6. What are we to make of ‘For Adam was formed first, then Eve’? And why does Paul mention that Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived, and became a transgressor? How do these explain the injunctions in verse 12? I would be genuinely interested to hear how Bolt understands verse 14.

In brief, to suggest that all this is really ‘quite clear’ is misleading. Is this ‘digging below the text’? No, it is taking a close look at the text in front of us, and exploring it in context.

One continually repeated statement regarding authenteō is to quote a 1984 NTS article by George W. Knight, who concluded that the term essentially means ‘to have authority’ in a neutral sense (a conclusion supposedly confirmed in a couple of subsequent studies).

Köstenberger is frequently cited in this regard, who in turn quotes Baldwin, who quotes Knight, who quotes linguistic specialist J. R. Werner’s conclusion: authentein essentially means ‘to have authority’ in a neutral sense. Except that Werner didn’t conclude this. Werner subsequently made it clear he has been misquoted, and that Knight substituted his own conclusion and for some reason attributed it to Werner as an independent authority (see Philip B Payne, Man and Woman: One In Christ. Baker, 2009, pages 365-369 for details and documentation).

Does all this matter? I would suggest it is highly significant, and all-too-often repeated as a ‘given’, an assured result of research. Yet this overlooks key questions. Why did Paul use an extremely rare verb when he had far more common terms to use if he simply meant ‘authority’ in a straightforward sense. To repeat my quote from Claire Smith on such matters: ‘it is at the very points where the meanings of words do not overlap that we find the distinctive contribution that a chosen word makes to the meaning of a sentence. It helps tell us why the author chose this word and not that word’ (121; emphasis original).

Bolt’s approach ends up placing enormous emphasis on the notion of ‘authority’’, and I argue that this rare verb cannot bear the weight of this as an interpretive crux. One thing that emerges from lexical research into the usage of authenteōis that it does reflect distinctive elements (perhaps influenced by the noun), including the capacity to prevail or to dominate – ‘to have one’s way’.

What would be my rendering of this passage? It is something like this [with my contextual reading in square brackets]:

A woman is to learn in peace and in all obedience [in contrast to those women stirred up by the false teachers]. I am not allowing [in these circumstances] a woman to instruct or dominate over a man, rather she is to be in peace."


To throw yet another spanner into the works for I Timothy 2:12 - the meaning of authentein may even be as strong as MURDER. See here and here

I think we can all agree murder is rather unethical behaviour.

Women teaching the bible? Less so.

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