Can women teach? part (ii)

I have written a Grove Biblical booklet with the title ‘Women and authority: key biblical texts’ which aims to explore all the key texts in 28 pages! You can buy it from the Grove Books website. The booklet covers Gen 1, 2 and 3, Luke 24, John 20, Acts 18, Romans 16, 1 Cor 111 Cor  14Eph 5 and 1 Tim 2.

Here is my take on what must be the most disputed verse in the whole New Testament, 1 Tim 2.12.

‘Learn in silence and full submission’
In the Greek NT, there are three main words translated ‘silence’ or ‘keep silent’ in English, and they each have a different sense. In 1 Cor 14.28, 30 and 34, Paul uses the word sigao which has a clear sense of ‘to stop speaking’, that is, to actually be silent. The same word comes in Luke 9.36 and is followed by the comment ‘they told no-one’

But the word here is hesychios. The root of this word cannot mean ‘silence’ in the sense of not saying anything, since in it used in Acts 11.18 and Acts 21.14 immediately followed by something the people then said, and so is translated ‘quietened down’ or something similar, and signifies the people ceasing their objections. It is used by Paul elsewhere (1 Thess 4.11 and 2 Thess 3.12) to describe the ‘quiet’ life that the believers should lead, in contrast with causing a disturbance either within the community or in relation to the authorities. And it is used in the same sense in 1 Tim 2.2 to describe the quiet life Paul wants for all believers.

In this passage, as a command to the women, the word therefore both mirrors the command to the men in v 8 (‘without argument’) and is part of the wider concern to put an end to disputation.

As in Eph 5, ‘submission’ comes from the same root as hupotasso and should be distinguished from the idea of ‘obedience’ which Paul does not apply in male-female relations. It is striking that Paul is here encouraging women to learn, something that contemporary Jewish practice, and the Talmuds (Jewish teaching on the Law) at points explicitly prohibit (‘Better to burn the Torah than teach it to a woman’ j. Sot. 3.19).

‘I am not permitting …’
As some have noted, the construction here is unusual, in that Paul uses a first person present tense (‘I am not permitting’) rather than either an imperative (‘they must not…’) or a third person present tense (‘it is not permitted to…’) both of which come in 1 Cor 14.34. This could mean that the command is limited to this particular situation[1] though in fact Paul uses a similar construction elsewhere for general commands (1 Cor 7.10, 1 Thess 4.1, 10, 5.14). It is more likely that Paul is signaling a new command which breaks with practice previously or elsewhere. After all, older women are to be ‘good teachers’ (Titus 2.3) and we have seen that elsewhere in the Pauline corpus women have some form of teaching role.

It is important to note that, although ‘teaching’ probably refers to authoritative instruction in a gathering, there are no grounds here for distinguishing between teaching in ‘public’ and ‘private’ contexts, not least because the social context of first-century gatherings of believers doesn’t allow for such a distinction.

‘Usurping authority’
The translation of this one word (authentein) has been fiercely debated because so much hangs on it. Is it a general, fairly neutral, word for ‘to have authority, in which case the verse can be read as a general, universal prohibition on women exercising authority over others? Or does it have a particular, negative sense, in which case the verse is prohibiting a particular misuse of authority?

The first thing to note is that this is the only place where this word occurs in the New Testament. (The technical term is that is it a hapax legomenon which is Greek for ‘said only once’). This in itself must be significant, since elsewhere in the New Testament and in Paul the usual words for ‘authority’ and ‘exercise authority’ (exousia and exousiazein) are quite frequent.

This means that we must turn to usage outside the New Testament to determine what Paul and his readers would have understood by this term. George Knight’s NIGTC commentary has been influential for many people, and his conclusion is that the term is neutral and has ‘no inherent negative sense’ to it[2]. In this he cites research done by L E Wilshire, using a database of Greek usage in the centuries before and after the New Testament. Unfortunately, however, he ignores Wilshire’s conclusion from this survey, and Wilshire goes on to comment that Knight’s conclusions on the word ‘need to be modified’ since the idea of murder is integral to the basic meaning of the word.

The reason is that this verb and the related noun authentes has a universal and highly negative sense in the centuries leading up to the time of 1 Timothy. It is related to the Greek word for ‘self’ (autos from which we get ‘autonomy’) and consistently means either ‘murderer’ or ‘slayer’ or the mastermind or perpetrator of a violent crime or act of war. The verb is much less common, with only five main examples found, one neutral, but the others meaning ‘to get one’s way’, ‘to domineer’ and ‘to murder’.

Despite this consistent picture, a negative meaning for the term continues to be disputed. I suspect that in part this is because our English word ‘authority’ appears related to it, and (as with the usage of ‘head’ meaning authority) it is hard to shake this off.[3] The picture is also confused by neutral use of the term some time after the period of the New Testament amongst the church fathers, but this is almost certainly because they are influenced by their (mis)reading of this passage.

Andreas Koestenberger advances two arguments for a neutral sense of of the word. The first is to limit the extra-biblical examples to the verb form only, and conclude that they are so few, the meaning is uncertain. But this is a rather arbitrary decision; it would be usual to explore the meaning of related terms at the same time, and he gives no reason for avoiding doing so in this instance. Secondly, he argues that pairs of verbs linked with ‘and’ in Greek literature (a ‘hendiadys’) always includes either two positive terms or two negative terms, never a positive and a negative. But, as Linda Belleville points out, he is considering examples of indicative verbs, and here the only indicative is ‘permitting’; ‘teach’ and ‘usurp authority’ are infinitives, acting as nouns to describe an action.[4]

An analogy in English might help here. If I were to say to one of my children ‘You are not to shout and make a scene in public!’ I am using two infinitives (‘shout’ and ‘make’; the ‘to’ applies to both), the first of which is neutral (in that ‘shouting’ can be a good or bad thing) but the second is negative. But the second explains the problem with the first; shouting could be a good thing, but in this context the shouting would constitute making a scene, and so is to be taken negatively. A paraphrase might be ‘You are not allowed to shout in such a way as to make a scene in public.’ In the same way, a paraphrase of 1 Tim 2.12 might be ‘I am not permitting women to teach in such a way as to misuse authority in a domineering way over men.’ So the ‘usurping authority’ explains the way in which, in this situation, Paul is not allowing the women to teach.

The neutral translation is often styled as the ‘traditional’ reading, but in fact it is worth noting that there is a long history of translating authentein as ‘usurping’ or ‘misusing authority’, including in the King James.[5] It is only relatively recently that more translations have reverted to the neutral term ‘have authority’, and given the difficulty it is odd that more do not footnote alternative translations.

[1] So Fee, NIBC p 72, though Marshall, ICC, p 454 takes a slightly different view.

[2] Knight p 141

[3] In fact ‘authority’ derives from the Latin augere ‘to increase’ and is etymologically unrelated to the Greek authentein and autos.

[4] The full discussion can be found in Koestenberger (2001) pp 244f and Belleville (2004) p 217.

[5] See Belleville pp 209–210

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26 thoughts on “Can women teach? part (ii)”

  1. Thanks for this, and I am looking forward to the Grove booklet. I am often getting myself in a bit of a tangle explaining that ‘head’ doesn’t mean headship and authority doesn’t mean submission and that Paul is far more radical than that, though in a somewhat misunderstood way.
    Keep them coming!

  2. Hi, Ian. I suppose it’s too late—and perhaps too self-serving—to recommend my argument in “What Eve did, what women shouldn’t do: The meaning of AUQENTEW in 1 Tim.2:12”, Tyndale Bulletin 44.1 1993 and Speaking of Women: Interpreting Paul (IVP, 1998), based on a thorough review of the relevant Hellenistic texts, that the issue with authentein is not so much whether it is neutral or negative. It is that the verb properly signifies not the having of authority but the authorship of something—an action or state of affairs. “What the word brings into view is the particular occasion on which authority or responsibility is exercised, initiative is taken, an action is perpetrated.” It is then the story of Adam and Eve that makes sense of this.

  3. Andrew, thanks for the comment–no, not at all self-serving! I read your article, though you are right to say I have focus on lexical matters rather than the relation of authentein to what follows. I think I have been steered into this by being aware of the other arguments, particularly in Knight and Koestenberger, that either we can’t be sure that the word is negative, or we can be sure that it isn’t–neither of which seem to fit the evidence of your study or those of Belleville and Wilshire.

    Would you say, then, that this text is arguing against the idea: ‘women should take control because they are primary in creation’?

  4. Hi Ian
    Great discussion. I think the trouble with arguing about what it means from non-NT Greek is related to James Barr’s observation ‘the meaning of a word is what it means in that language and not what it means in another’. I always think of how the Greeks got confused when Paul preached ‘Jesus and the resurrection’ (Acts 17:18). Non-NT Greek is not as good an answer as a whole-text reading. It seems clear, as the Kroegers argue, that a reasonable understanding, related to the whole question fo false teaching is ‘I do not permit a woman to teach that she is first’ ie relating to Gnostic heresies (if you allow a late date for 1 Tim). This fits much better with the tenor of the letter as a whole and its deep anxiety int he area of false teaching. It also explains the so-called ‘creation ordinance’ reference. Hope these thoughts are helpful: looking forward to seeing you tomorrow.

  5. Thanks Jenni. I agree with you in part, but the issue in terms of the text is two-fold for me.

    First, how do we prevent the argument within the text from being circular? I would go with this as a theme, but all the different elements need to lean against each other (in a positive way). A lot of ‘conservative’ readings start with the assumption that Paul’s concern is about church order, so they might say that the Kroegers’ have misread the whole text, and so are misreading this one. In addition, my worry is that the Kroegers’ reading depends too much on a specific reconstruction which could be disputed.

    Second, an important issue is the matter of how this would be heard in its first century context, which means surely in the first instance having some idea of the lexical range of the term. So I would add to Barr: ‘yes, but neither can the meaning in the text be detached from readers’ lexical expectations.’ I have been quite surprised to find considerable unanimity on what the extant examples tell us, and I think this makes all ‘neutral’ readings of the term problematic.

    Also, I have become convinced that this is in fact a first-century text originating from Paul, so I wouldn’t want to go down the ‘Gnosticism’ route.

    Does that make sense?

  6. Dear Ian

    yes, perfect sense. I take your point about lexical expectations, but how do we know what those were? I tend to view 1 Tim as a late text, and that in itself illusrates the problem: who were the implied readers and what did they hear when they heard ‘authentein’?

    i agree that the Koregers’ analysis is not without problems but I still think it addresses the co-text in a way that many other readings don’t because they put far too much weight on ‘authentein’ and not enough on ‘didaskein’. Being a linguist in my previous life, i onyl believe in meaning at the sentence level, like the old tag ‘Words don’t have meanings, meanings have words’. However, not clear that all this abstruse linguistic stuff would fit in a Grove booklet!

    Enjoying the discussion immensely, though, and I did like Perriman’s ‘Speaking of Women’ and often use it when discussing.

  7. Hello Ian Paul,

    Just found you on the wide world of the internet. ? Really appreciate the sensible treatment you have given thus far to these issues that are so important to the spiritual life of Christian women.

    ” Would you say, then, that this text is arguing against the idea: ‘women should take control because they are primary in creation’?”

    Don’t know if you meant ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ or if that was just a cleverly stated question. But godliness has not Scripturally been a question of who has control and who doesn’t have it. Rather, we are to seek to be servants, not controllers. Christ made this crystal clear in Matt. 20:26-28. And anyone can become a servant giving his/her life for the purpose of bringing healing, truth, freedom from bondages, etc. to others. It is the way of the world to want titles and special privileges to accompany such self sacrifices. And for myself, I believe that is at the root of Paul’s admonitions here and elsewhere.

  8. Thanks for the question TL. I did mean to say it that way, though I am aware that all these articles are rather compressed.

    I think it is highly plausible that the women in Ephesus were saying ‘We came first, we don’t need men, and we don’t need to learn, so we will take charge and teach.’ Paul is countering them by saying ‘Actually, you didn’t come first, the man did, and *like everyone else* you need to learn in quietness, just as the men do.’ Does that make sense?

    I think it is important to note that this possible reconstruction of the social situation does not determine the meaning of the text, since, like all reconstructions, it is hypothetical. I have come to believe that what the text can and cannot mean arises from looking at the words and sentences, which is why I focus on exegesis here and in the next post on this passage. The text does *not* mean ‘Women must submit to men’–there is no mention of ‘men’ in relation to the submission! And it does *not* mean ‘women cannot (for all time) exercise authority’ because that is not what ‘I am not permitting’ or ‘authentein’ mean, lexically. It does mean ‘I am not [in this situation] allowing women to take over teaching as if truth originates with them and so controlling others’ or some such.

    However, such a social reconstruction helps to make sense of why Paul might have been expressing things in this, rather awkward, way.

  9. Don’t you ever think that there might be a better starting point for a personal moral philosophy than the minutiae of 1st century Greek etymology?

    • Jeremy, yes there is: the overall radical unity and equality of the people of God as set out in the New Testament. The reason for exploring the minutiae of Greek is that a minority in the Church think that these particular Greek words provide the interpretative key to all the other texts. Because I want to take both them and the New Testament seriously, I feel I need to engage with them on this point. But there are many other texts which make the point much more clearly, and I discuss these in my other posts.

  10. Ian,

    When you’ve salvaged (to your satisfaction) this verse in 1 Timothy from the junkyard of Stone Age lunacy of the ancient, scientifically ignorant, goat sacrificing culture that produced the bible, are you going to embark on the never ending journey of trying to save your holy book from the 500 plus misogynistic, barbaric, idiotic, asinine, cave-man mentality passages that profoundly saturate its pages?

    And when are you going to post the explanation as to why your almighty, all knowing God sat up in his heaven and watched with complete indifference as his sacred message to humankind was altered and misinterpreted by the copyists who replicated his message with significant human error, all the while knowing that some of these mistakes would cause women to suffer indignities by those who would quote from the supposed inerrant pages of this ‘word’ of God?

    Two thousand years of mistakes that inflicted misery on an untold number of women and children.

    Gee, thank goodness that modern women have more ‘enlightened’ scholars to save them from such disgusting misunderstandings!!!

    Praise Jeezus!!! Right, Ian?

  11. Dear LW, kind of thank you for posting. I don’t want to be sneery, but I do think your comment really just parades your own ignorance of what is probably recognised by all (within and beyond Christianity) as the greatest and most sophisticated influence on Western, and probably global, culture.

    Your characterisation of my belief really has no contact with reality, so I don’t think you really hit the mark.

    I am genuinely interested in critiques of my own views, from within and without faith, so if you do think of a serious comment, please do feel free to post again.

  12. Ian, I don’t believe that ????????? ?? ??????? ??? ???????? ???? ????????? ?????? can mean ‘I am not permitting women to teach in such a way as to (?????????) men. There is no way that ???? can be forming a hendiadys here, that I can see. Can you give a) any examples of a hendiadys being formed when the two elements are separated as they are here; b) any examples of a hendiadys being formed with ???? rather than with ???? Can you give any reference in a grammar or lexicon of a hendiadys being formed with ?????


  13. Ian, I don’t believe that ‘didaskein de gunaiki ouk epitrepw oude authentein andros’ (it looks like you don’t have unicode) can mean ‘I am not permitting women to teach in such a way as to (authentein) men. There is no way that oude can be forming a hendiadys here, that I can see. Can you give a) any examples of a hendiadys being formed when the two elements are separated as they are here; b) any examples of a hendiadys being formed with oude rather than with kai? Can you give any reference in a grammar or lexicon of a hendiadys being formed with oude?


  14. You give this analogy from English: ‘If I were to say to one of my children ‘You are not to shout and make a scene in public!’ I am using two infinitives (‘shout’ and ‘make’; the ‘to’ applies to both), the first of which is neutral (in that ‘shouting’ can be a good or bad thing) but the second is negative.’

    The first problem with this is that oude doesn’t mean ‘and’, it means ‘and not’, or ‘nor’ [look it up in eg BDAG]. oude is just ou plus de, basically, as all the main grammars and lexicons agree.

    The second problem is that the two terms have to be in close proximity for this to work – which they are not in 1 Tim 2.12.


    • Andrew, thanks for commenting again…sorry not to reply first time.

      I don’t think I am clear about your point. The main ‘conservative’ argument here is that these two words *do* form a hendiadys, and therefore must both either be neutral or both be negative. Since the second has a negative connotation, then the first must have also.

      My observation is slightly less formal in terms of grammar; my point is that the meaning of ‘teaching’ cannot simply be determined by its association with another word; instead, we must take the sense of the whole phrase.

      Does that make sense?

      • Thanks, Ian. I take it that you are referring to Andreas Kostenberger’s theory about the two terms having to be either both negative or both positive. But I don’t think he thinks in terms of hendiadys particularly. He goes for distinct but closely related, citing Moo [see Women in the Church, 2nd ed, 55]. His translation uses the English disjunctive ‘or’: ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to have (or exercise) authority over a man’. That’s two prohibitions, is it not?

        But I am not really concerned with Kostenberger’s theory, but with simple grammar. oude is an additive connective – it just adds one thought to another, it’s very simple. If you look at any commentary on the Greek text published prior to c.1919, and the nineteenth century ones tend to be by men who had classical education and so reading fluency, they all see two prohibitions.


  15. Hi Ian,

    This is a great post and summarizes some of the scholarship which lies behind the main disputed term “authentein”. I would very much agree that:

    (i) false teaching is the context which Paul is addressing
    (ii) the term “authentein” has strong authoritarian connotations (that of a “killer”, “slayer” etc)

    Where I disagree is with the implication sometimes drawn from this – that in context it means something like “to domineer” or “to control”. I don’t think this is a given at all. Just because it is a strong term, that does not mean it is a negative term.

    The apostle Paul often depicts Christian ministry in terms of “rebuking” or “excommunicating” false teachers. See for instance Titus 1:9 where Paul describes a key task of an elder as “giving instruction in sound teaching” and “rebuking those who contradict it”. Paul often depicts church discipline in extremely strong terms (eg. Titus 1:13, 1 Cor 5:4-5, 1 Tim 1:20). I think this is precisely what Paul has in mind in 1 Timothy 2:12, where he uses to verbs, one meaning to “teach” (that is, to set forth sound teaching) and the other meaning to “rebuke” (that is, to correct and to excommunicate false teachers).

    Given all of this, it is no coincidence that he immediately moves on to speak about appointing overseers (1 Timothy 3:1-7), since it is to them that the task of setting forth correct teaching and rebuking false teachers is entrusted.

    What do you think?



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