Cultural Context in the interpretation and translation of 1 Timothy 2:11-14

Let a woman learn in silence with all submission.  And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve.  And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.

— 1 Timothy 2:11-14 NKJV.

[Now in response to the Gnostic teaching stemming from the worship of Artemis that Eve was the originator of Adam and the goddess of life], let a woman learn (in agreement with sound doctrine) with all submission (to that doctrine). And I do not permit a woman to teach that she is the originator or the illuminator of man, but to be in agreement (with the congregation). For Adam was first formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived [his was direct disobedience], but woman being deceived [thus not being infallible], fell into transgression [proving that she was human.]

— 1 Timothy 2:11-12 Paraphrased and Amplified

Don Rousu offers cultural context in the interpretation and translation of 1 Timothy 2:11-14:

The mistranslation hinges on the Greek verb “authentein.” The problem is that this verb is found nowhere else in the Bible. From years of studying biblical languages I know that translators learn the meaning of a word by studying it in other Bible passages. Where there are no other Bible passages they must look in comparative literature of the same time period. Although most translators of 1 Timothy have interpreted “authentein” to mean “to usurp authority” over a man, or “to have authority” over a man, such a translation violates both the context of Paul’s writing and the first-century usage of the word in other literature. Let me explain.

The Authentic Meaning of “Authentein

Research shows that the meaning of “authentein” changed dramatically over a period of 1,100 years.  When we first find it in classical literature of the 6th century B.C., the word usually meant “to initiate or to be responsible for a murder.”  Jumping ahead to 200 or 300 A.D. this word usually meant “to claim ownership of property” either rightfully or wrongfully through fraud.  During the same period it could also mean “to usurp power.”  However around the time the New Testament was written, the most common meaning of authentein was “to be, or claim to be the author or the originator of something.”  To underscore the point with a pun, this appears to be the authentic translation of authentein, the crucial verb of 1 Timothy 1:12.

Not only have translators overlooked the prevailing meaning of the word “authentein” at the time the New Testament was written, but they also seem to have missed the cultural context in which Paul wrote his letter to Timothy.

Perversion of Scripture Infiltrates the Congregation

Timothy was in Ephesus.  Ephesus was the world centre of paganism governed spiritually by the female deity Artemis whom the Romans called Diana.  The cult of Artemis taught the superiority of the female and advocated female domination of the male.  It espoused a doctrine of feminine procreation teaching that this goddess was able to bring forth offspring without male involvement.  The cult was characterized by sexual perversion, fertility rites, endless myths, and elaborate genealogies traced through female rather than male bloodlines.  Magic, and all manner of demonic activity flourished.

Also present in Ephesus was a contingent of Jewish gnostics who represented the first century’s equivalent of the New Age movement.  The Greek word for “gnostic” is “gnosis” meaning “knowledge.”  Gnostics acknowledged spirit guides and combined the teachings of Artemis with the teachings of the Old Testament.  An example of their distortion of Scripture is evident in their version of the Old Testament story of Adam and Eve.

In the most prevalent gnostic version of the story, Eve was the “illuminator” of mankind because she was the first to receive “true knowledge” from the Serpent, whom gnostics saw as the “saviour” and revealer of truth.  Gnostics believed that Eve taught this new revelation to Adam, and being the mother of all, was the progenitor of the human race.  They said Adam was Eve’s son rather than her husband.  This belief reflected the gnostic doctrine that a female deity could bring forth children without male involvement.

Gnostics also taught that the Hebrew God was a lesser deity and therefore changed His name from Yahweh to Ialdabaoth.  Because they believed that physical matter was evil and the world of the spirit was good, they maintained that God had made a serious mistake in creating the material universe.

These gnostic teachings infiltrated the congregation, and in writing to Timothy, Paul encouraged him to confront the people from peddling their false teachings in the congregation and to admonish others to turn away from myths and endless genealogies.  He told him to oppose those who speak falsely of the living God, warn people about the doctrines of demons, avoid stupid, senseless controversies, and have nothing to do with old wives’ tales such as the corrupted story of Adam and Eve.  He urged Timothy to use the Scriptures as an antidote “for sound teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.”

What Paul Really Said

In light of the authentic meaning of the word “authentein” and of the social context within which Paul wrote his letters to Timothy, let me offer what I believe is an appropriate rendering of the text in Timothy.  I believe Paul is saying, “I am not allowing (present tense for that situation) a woman to teach or to proclaim herself the originator of man (authentein).”  Do you see how this translation offsets false doctrine?

The word that is frequently translated “silence” and “hesuchia”, also means harmony, peace, conformity or agreement.  I therefore suggest Paul goes on to say “she must be in agreement,” meaning agreement with the Scriptures and with sound teaching in the congregation.

He continues in this vein saying, “Adam was formed first, then Eve.”  This statement militates against the doctrine of Eve as progenitor.  He also says, “Adam was not deceived, but the woman was!  And sinned!”  This statement directly contradicts the notion that Eve was the “illuminator,” and carrier of new revelation.

I submit that this translation is possibly the most legitimate because it fits the social context, is true to the Greek, speaks to the troubled situation, and lines up perfectly with all of Paul’s other teachings and practices concerning women.

Women: Paul’s Co-labourers in the Good News

Throughout his ministry, Paul speaks of women as his co-labourers in the good news:

  • He worked with a wife-husband team in the tent making business.  He travelled with them planting and pastoring house congregations and training the great orator Apollos to be more accurate in the Word of God.  He usually mentions the woman Priscilla first before her husband, Aquila. (Acts 18:2,3)
  • Paul also encouraged Timothy to trust the faith he had received from two women, his grandmother and his mother. (2 Timothy 1:5,6)
  • In his letter to the Romans, Paul commends a woman leader, Phoebe, to the congregation at Rome.  He says he is sending her himself as a servant of the congregation.  The Greek word for “servant” here is diákonos.  In speaking of Phoebe Paul also uses the word “prostatis”, the female of a derivation of proistémi which means “to put before, to set over, to rule” or “leader, overseer, or someone with stature, responsibility and authority”. (Romans 16:1,2)
  • In the same chapter Paul greets his relatives Andronicus a man, and Junia a woman.  He says that they both were in Christ before he was and that they are highly prominent among the apostles. (Romans 16:7)
  • Finally, Paul himself said: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” — Gal 3:27, 28. NIV