Thoughts on 1 Timothy 2:12

160px-Artemis_Efes_MuseumOn Ishshah’s Story we have been exploring some of the scriptures from Paul’s letters that have been used to severely limit the function of women in the church.  One prime verse comes from 1Timothy 2:12-13, “12 And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. For background, it will really help you to read 1 Timothy 1 through 2:11.

In these verses it is critical to remember that Paul is writing to Timothy. It is a personal letter. They know and understand many problems without having to say what they are. In our English idiom we’d say, Paul didn’t have to “spell out” everything—meaning he didn’t have to provide details. Timothy knew what Paul was talking about.  However, in passages like this we have a problem.  To begin to unravel the mystery let’s take a closer look

The common understanding of this verse is that the word translated “authority” (authentein in Greek) has something to do with domineer or usurp authority.  Those wishing to point out that Paul has accepted teaching from women in other places note that this passage says “a woman” not “the women” which is the form used in previous verses.  This may well have been a specific case with which Timothy was all too familiar.

Gnostic teachings were a major problem for the early church in Ephesus.  It is also true that in Ephesus there were major cults that advocated female superiority and even supported the castration of male priests.  While Paul may have been referencing any of these practices, the one that makes the most sense to me comes from a quote or a heretical Gnostic teaching.

Gnosticism is a religious philosophy advocating gnosis (knowledge) as the way to release a person’s spiritual element. Gnostics believed the physical world to be corrupt but enlightened individuals could escape if they had special spiritual knowledge. They believed that by gaining hidden wisdom they could release their enlightened spiritual element.

In this case a Gnostic[1] passage from On the Origin of the World mixed Greek deities with the biblical account from Genesis.

“After the day of rest Sophia sent her daughter Zoe, being called Eve, as an instructor in order that she might make Adam, who had no soul, arise so that those whom he should engender might become containers of light. When Eve saw her male counterpart prostrate she had pity upon him, and she said, ‘Adam! Become alive! Arise upon the earth!’ Immediately her word became accomplished fact. For Adam, having arisen, suddenly opened his eyes. When he saw her he said, ‘You shall be called ‘Mother of the Living’ For it is you who have given me life.” [2]

Eve is also an important figure in two other Gnostic texts.  1 Tim 2:12-13 makes sense when we see that Paul was confronting the threat from a woman or group of women who were promoting Gnostic teaching and the idea of the female as somehow superior to the male.

Once we understand about this facet of Gnostic teaching let’s take a look at the word translated “authority” in 1 Timothy 12.

12 And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.

The word translated authority is authentein in Greek. This unusual Greek verb is found only this once in scripture. Bible translators have generally translated authentein as “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.[3]

While authentein is a rare word in Classical Greek, it is occasionally found to mean “author”, “originator” or “perpetrator.” This supports what is found in papyri [4] where its meaning is “original” or “originator of.” Remember the scriptures were written in Koiné Greek,[5] the same form as the papyri.

Using the word “originator” rather than “authority” the passage reads, 12I do not permit a woman to teach that she is the originator of man.” It clearly corresponds with the Gnostic passage quoted above that teaches that Eve gave life to Adam.

The use of “originator” as English for authentien  is further supported by verse 13 where Paul stresses that the man was formed first.  12I do not permit a woman to teach that she is the originator of man” 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve.

 Books have been written on 1 Timothy and even on this section of chapter 2 by learned men and women.  I got an “amen” in my spirit when I found this explanation and I offer it here as an option. The exact meaning may never be known but what we know for sure is that Paul did not forbid women teaching men.[6]


[1] The Nag Hammadi Library, a collection of thirteen ancient pieces of literature containing over fifty texts, was discovered in upper Egypt in 1945. This immensely important discovery includes a large number of primary Gnostic scriptures. Nag Hammadi texts which include the Genesis creation accounts are: On the Origin of the World, Gospel of Philip, Exegesis on the Soul, Hypostasis of the Archon, Thunder: Perfect Mind, Apocryphon of John, Apocalypse of Adam, and Testimony of Truth.

[2] On the Origin of the World 115:31-35, 116:1-7, The Nag Hammadi Library, ed. James Robinson, rev. ed. San Francisco: Harper 1988.

[3]   Hypostasis of the Archon and The Apocalypse of Adam from the Nag Hammadi Library.

[4] Papyri are everyday papers like receipts, letters, and business documents, etc from the first century that clarify previously unknown New Testament words.   These are called papyri because of the material on which they were written.

[5] Koine Greek, is everyday rather than the formal language or Classical Greek.

[6] For further study in context see Women for the Nations Part 3 Lesson 5, the Junia Project on 1 Timothy 2, Ancient Heresies and a Strange Greek Verb by Katherine Kroeger.

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