Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty. (1 Tim 2:11-15 NRSV)
1 Timothy is a personal letter written by Paul to his coworker Timothy in Ephesus. The letter was intended to address specific problems that Timothy was encountering at the church in Ephesus, namely, false teachers. False teaching was clearly Paul’s primary concern in writing the letter because he jumps immediately into the issue at the beginning of the letter instead of giving his normal thanksgiving, and it remains his main concern throughout the remainder of the letter. Unlike many of Paul’s letters, his letter to Timothy was addressed to Timothy, rather than to the church, providing additional weight to the problem facing the church at Ephesus.
In the context of this letter which is concerned with false teaching Paul writes, “women, learn in silence with full submission.” Teaching women was not common in Paul’s day. These women, according to Paul, were unlearned in the faith, so it was probable that they could have been advancing false teaching. It seems likely that (in verses 11-12) Paul is referring to the way in which learning required submission to a teacher. It appears that there was tension or conflict during the worship (1 Tim 2:8), and it is possible that women may have contributed to the disruptive worship (1 Tim 2:12), which is why Paul would call for submission1.
The Greek word used in verse 12, which has frequently been translated “to have authority,” is authentēs. This word is found only this one time in the New Testament and so its meaning is unclear. Other Greek words were more typically used to indicate having authority over, such as exousia, so it is likely that authentēs has a different connotation than merely “having authority.” In other early Greek sources, this word is often associated with violence. According to lexicographers, authentēs is synonymous with “to dominate someone."2 Paul is most likely prohibiting women from teaching men in a manner that is domineering.
Why does Paul reference Adam and Eve? Paul is using Adam and Eve to correct the women who were acting in a manner which was domineering to men. It must be noted that he is opposing the idea that women are superior to men, not claiming that men are superior to women. Paul is not saying that women cannot teach men because Adam was created first, but that women should not dominate men because they are not superior to men, but were created to be partners with men.
When Paul writes that the “woman was deceived and became a transgressor,” he is not claiming that the fall resulted because a woman assumed authority over a man, but that false teaching led to transgression. This brings us back to the focus on false teaching that heavily occupies the letter to I Timothy. Paul is concerned with the behavioral results of this false teaching.
The strange verse that women will be saved through childbirth makes more sense in light of the context of Artemis worship. The Artemis cult was popular in Ephesus at the time (see Acts 19:28-37). Artemis was a fertility goddess and protector of women. Paul is claiming that women do not need to look to Artemis to protect them through childbirth, but to Christ.
Paul was addressing a particular problem specific to the church at Ephesus in which false teaching was resulting in inappropriate behavior. Paul was not giving a universal order to all women of all time not to teach nor have authority over a man, but was ordering that women do not assume superiority over men or promote false teachings. Women should learn first, being educated in the faith before they teach. It is clear from Paul’s other letters that Paul supported women teachers and leaders. Priscilla was a minister of the Gospel who taught a man, Apollos (Acts 18:26), and in 2 Timothy, Paul asks Timothy to greet Priscilla and Aquila (4:19). Surely, I Timothy 2:11-15 is not prescriptive to women for all time if Paul also commends women leaders and teachers.
1. Linda L. Belleville, “Teaching and Usurping Authority: I Timothy 2:11-15,” Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2005), 209.
2. Belleville, 212.
For Further Study:
“The Bible and Gender Equality,” by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis
“The Biblical Basis for Women’s Service in the Church," by N. T. Wright
Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy, ed. Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, with Gordon Fee
Equal to Serve: Women and Men Working Together Revealing the Gospel, by Gretchen Gaebelein Hull
“Exegetical Fallacies in Interpreting 1 Timothy 2:11-15,” Linda L. Belleville
Good News for Women: a Biblical Picture of Gender Equality, by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis
I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence, by Catherine Clark Kroeger and Richard Clark Kroeger