This article was originally published in The Reformed Journal. Reprinted by permission of the authors.
In Paul’s first epistle to Timothy, bishop of Ephesus, there is a passage which has perplexed the church of Jesus Christ:
I will therefore that men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands without wrath and doubting. In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array: but (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works. Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety (2:8-15).
Yet the author of these words brought Priscilla as well as her husband Aquila to Ephesus to serve in a teaching capacity (Acts 18) and made significant use of women in his ministry. He hails several as fellow-laborers in the gospel (Rom. 16:1-15; Phil. 4:2f.) and asks the church to give submission to such as these (1 Cor. 16:16). He stated furthermore that in Christ there is neither male nor female and that before the Lord there is neither man without the woman nor woman without the man (Gal. 3:28; 1 Cor. 11;11f.).
How can this attitude be reconciled with the text in 1 Timothy? And what of the doctrine that women must continue to bear responsibility for the sin of Eve? How does this accord with Christ’s full and perfect atonement for sin and with the biblical precept that the child should not be held accountable for the parent’s sin (Deut. 24:16; 2 Chron. 25:4; Jer. 31:29f; Ezek. 18:20)? And then there is the matter of salvation through childbearing: how does this fit into the New Testament affirmation of salvation by faith?
The twelfth verse (italicized above) contains a rare Greek verb, found only here in the entire Bible. This word, authentein, is ordinarily translated “to bear rule” or “to usurp authority”; yet a study of other Greek literary sources reveals that it did not ordinarily have this meaning until the third or fourth century, well after the time of the New Testament. Essentially the word means “to thrust oneself.” Its earliest meanings are noteworthy, since they might provide a quite different understanding of a difficult text. We must also examine the closely related nouns authentia (later translated as “power”), authentes (after the New Testament period, “master”) and the adjective authentikos, which still survives in the English as “authentic.” Although the usages prior to and during the New Testament period are few and far between, they are significant.
The Attic orator Antiphon used the term authentes to mean “murderer” in four different instances in legal briefs of murder cases and once to mean suicide, as did Dio Cassius. Thucydides, Herodotus, and Aeschylus also use the word to denote one who slays with his own hand, and so does Euripides. The Jewish Philo, whose writings are contemporary with the New Testament, meant “self-murderer” by his use of the term.
In Euripides the word begins to take on a sexual tinge. Menelaos is accounted a murderer because of his wife’s malfeasance, and Andromache, the adored wife of the fallen Hector, is taken as a concubine by the authentes, who can command her domestic and sexual services. In fury the legitimate wife castigates Andromache with sexually abusive terms as “having the effrontery to sleep with the son of the father who destroyed your husband, in order to bear the child of an authentes.” In the extended passage she mingles the concepts of incest and domestic murder, so that love and death color the meaning. The word also occurs in a homosexual sense in a speech by Theseus, king of Athens, where love of young boys was considered a virtue rather than a vice.
Although one finds hints in certain modern lexicons, the erotic sense of authentes is often ignored. The grammarian Phynichus, writing approximately A.D. 180, explained that the word is composed of two parts–autos, “self,” and hentos from hiemi: to “thrust out from oneself” or to “desire.” The word should never, he announced, be used to denote tyranny, but rather murder by one’s own hand, as with a sword. (The sword was considered a phallic symbol in ancient Greece.) Moeris, also in the second century, advised his students to use another word, autodikein, as it was less coarse than authentein. The Byzantine Thomas Magister reiterates the warning against using this objectionable term. The charred fragments of a scroll excavated from the ruins of Herculaneum demonstrate the use of authentein in a parallel position to “those wounded by the terrible shafts of Eros.” The lines were penned by the rhetorician and obscene epigrammatist, Philodemus, who was nicknamed “Lascivus.”
In the Wisdom of Solomon 12:6, part of the Septuagint Apocrypha, one finds authentas goneis, “parents engendering helpless souls,” in the midst of a discussion of the abominable fertility and mystery rites of the Canaanites. Although God gave the Canaanites ample opportunity to repent, yet
Thou wert not ignorant that theirs was a wicked conception, their evil inseminated, and that their attitude could never be changed. For it was a cursed seed from the beginning.
Pregnancy as a result of pagan orgies was an ancient commonplace, but to the Jewish mind illegitimacy was repugnant in any form. The same book states elsewhere:
The wives [of the godless] are frivolous, their children criminal, their parenthood is under a curse . . . The children of adultery are like fruit that never ripens; they have sprung from a lawless union, and will come to nothing. Even if they attain length of life, they will be of no account and at the end of their old age will be without honor. If they die young, they will have no hop, no consolation in the hour of judgment; the unjust generation has a hard fate in store for it . . . The swarming progeny of the wicked will come to no good . . . Children engendered in unlawful union are living evidence of the parents’ sin when God brings them to account (3:10 – 4:6, NEB).
The crime of the authentas parents appears to be the procreation of souls doomed to everlasting damnation— although most English translations render the phrase “parents murdering innocent souls.” The Latin Vulgate translates it parentes auctores, “parents procreating innocent souls”; for in the period before the birth of Christ, authentes came to mean the “author” or “originator” of an action. Such usage occurs in Josephus, Diodorus of Sicily, Eusebius, and Polybius. By the second century A.D., the word was used for “creator,” for a self-thrusting one could both murder and create. Most modern scholars accept the rendition of “original status” for authentia in 3 Maccabees 2:29.
In Egyptian magic and Gnostic papyri, the terms authentes, authentikos, and authentia designated the original, the primordial, the “authentic”; and by the third century, the concept of the primal source had merged with that of power and authority. In most ancient theologies, creative acts were also sexual ones; and the erotic connotation of authentein lingered on.
In a lengthy description of various tribes’ sexual habits, Michael Glycas, the Byzantine historiographer, uses this verb to describe women “who make sexual advances to men and fornicate as much as they please without arousing their husbands’ jealousy.” The eighth-century folk epic Digenes Akrites repeatedly employs authentes as a term of endearment, usually in an amorous sense, and quite often its use ushers in an erotic scene such as this:
“That was why, my authentes [lover], fear came over me.” We kissed a thousand times and went into the tent.
In another scene, introduced by the use of both authentes and the feminine authenteria, there follows so amorous an episode that the mother-in-law is obliged to douse the couple with cold water lest they should be completely overcome by the heat of their passion.
But what can the term authentein imply in 1 Timothy 2:12? In his Commentary on 1 Timothy 5:6, St. John Chrysostom uses authentia to denote “sexual license.” If the word in this context refers to sexual behavior, it puts a quite different interpretation on the entire passage. For instance, if we were to translate the passage, “I forbid a woman to teach or discuss higher algebra with a man,” we would understand the prohibition to be directed against instruction in mathematics. Suppose it read, “I forbid a woman to teach or talk Japanese with a man.” Then we infer that the injunction applies to the teaching of language. “I forbid a woman to teach or dangle a man from a high wire” would presuppose that the instructor was an aerialist. “I forbid a woman to teach or engage in fertility practices with a man” would imply that the woman should not involve a man in the heretical kind of Christianity which taught licentious behavior as one of its doctrines. Such a female heretic did indeed “teach to fornicate” in the Thyatiran church mentioned in Revelation 2:20 (cf. 2:14f.; Num. 25:3; 31:15f.).
Too often we underestimate the seriousness of this problem for the New Testament church. A passage in 2 Peter expresses concern not only for those drawn into this error but also for the illegitimate children which it produced:
But Israel had false prophets as well as true; and you likewise will have false teachers among you… Having eyes full of adultery, that cannot cease from sin; beguiling unstable souls, an heart they have exercised with covetous practices; cursed children, which have forsaken the right way . . . following the way of Balaam . . . They utter big empty words, and make sensual lusts and debauchery a bait to catch those who have barely begun to escape from their heathen environment (2:1, 14f., 18).
It is evident that a similar heresy is current at Ephesus, where these false teachers “led captive silly women laden with sins” (2 Tim. 3:6f.).
Licentious doctrines continued to vex the church for several centuries, to the dismay of the church fathers. Clement of Alexandria wrote a detailed refutation of the various groups who endorsed fornication as accepted Christian behavior. He complained of those who had turned love-feasts into sex orgies, of those who taught women to “give to every man that asketh of thee,” and of those who found in physical intercourse a “mystical communion.” He branded one such lewd group authentai (the plural of authentes).
Others have kicked over the traces and waxed wanton, having become indeed “wild horses who whinny after their neighbors’ wives.” They have abandoned themselves to lust without restraint and persuade their neighbors to live licentiously.
Continuing, he describes them as
Lecherous, incontinent men who fight with their tails, children of darkness and anger, thirsty for their blood, authentai, and murderers of their neighbors (Stromata, III.xviii).
Such, then, are the deluded Christians who persuade their neighbors’ wives to live voluptuously.
But if 1Timothy 2:12 is understood as a prohibition against promulgating licentious doctrines and practices, how does this tie in with the entire passage? Women are bidden to dress modestly and with propriety (vv. 9-10)—surely a necessity in a city which boasted thousands of prostitutes. Sumptuary laws forbade any but harlots the adornment Paul here proscribes. “Imitate not the courtesans,” thundered John Chrysostom in his commentary on this passage—and widens his censure to include seductive voice as well as dress. But “silence” has here to do with receptivity to learning Christian doctrine in “subjection to the gospel.”
In Ephesus, where a great multitude of sacred courtesans were attached to the shrine of Diana, women had much to unlearn. Previously they had been taught that fornication brought the worshiper into direct communion with the deity. It is worth noting that certain Gnostics and Nestorians employed authentia to indicate a force binding together the fleshly and the divine. But converts must learn that the one Mediator between God and man was Christ Jesus, and that they must practice their newfound faith in quiet decorum rather than in the wild and clamorous orgies demanded by Ephesian religion.
The devil had once seduced Eve (the verb in vv. 13 and 14 is also a sexual one); and Jewish tradition held that Satan chose the woman because she was newer and therefore more gullible. She was quite genuinely deceived, supposing that she would gain the knowledge of good and evil; and she involved Adam, who was not deceived, in the transgression. To women who had been trained in childhood in the gross immorality of the Phrygian cult, the admonition was certainly appropriate. But prostitutes were active in many areas of ancient life, and some of these found Christ as well.
Virtually without exception, female teachers among the Greeks were courtesans, such as Aspasia, who numbered Socrates and Pericles among her students. Active in every major school of philosophy, these hetairai made it evident in the course of their lectures that they were available afterwards for a second occupation. But the Bible teaches that to seduce men in such a manner was indeed to lead them to slaughter and the halls of death (cf. Prov. 2:18; 5:5; 7:27; 9:18). The verb authentein is thus peculiarly apt to describe both the erotic and the murderous.
Verse 15, with its reference to salvation through childbearing, might refer either to the woman’s social and economic salvation in marriage and family or to a concern for children brought into the world as a result of immoral practice. We have referred above to the “tainted children” of 2 Peter and those described in Wisdom of Solomon as headed for a dreadful fate, rising up against their parents at the Day of Judgment.
Paul was familiar with the Wisdom of Solomon, and he quoted from it in Romans and 1 Corinthians. As the word was so rare, the use of authentein here must have triggered a recollection of the “parents engendering helpless souls” in Wisdom. But the gospel of Jesus Christ offered redemption to mother and child alike when they have been born anew in the family of God. The stigma of illegitimacy could be removed and the personality healed; and the redemptive maternal attitudes are faith and love and holiness with self-control.