Part 3: The Heresy in the Ephesian Church

Paul’s Reason for Writing to Timothy 

Paul declares his primary reason for writing to Timothy right at the beginning of his letter. After a customary greeting he writes:

“. . . stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. 1 Timothy 1:3-4a (NIV 2011, underlines added)

1 Timothy 2:12 in Context: The Heresy in the Ephesian ChurchPaul was concerned because people[1] within the Ephesian church were teaching false doctrines, and so he wrote to Timothy—who was ministering in the Ephesus at that time—and advised him how to handle the false teachers and their false teachings. It is possible that at least some of these false teachings were influenced by myths concerning the Ephesian goddess Artemis. Paul may have been referring to these myths when he told Timothy to “shun the profane and old-womanish myths” (1 Tim. 4:7).[2] The pure and sincere faith which Paul had brought to Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:5) was being tarnished and corrupted, perhaps by the merging of  Artemis mythology with the gospel.

Wherever the gospel has gone, many new believers have found it difficult to quickly and completely let go of long-held beliefs and superstitions. These difficulties were due to the fact that religious practices were usually closely tied and interwoven with the local culture and customs of community life.

In Roman Catholicism most of the “Madonnas” or “Our Ladies” started off as local pagan goddesses which were later morphed into “Marys” when Christianity came.[3] Were the new Christians at Ephesus trying to morph Artemis into Mary—both regarded as virgins? There is no clear evidence for this, but there is some indication, in later documents, that some Christians were conferring on Eve an almost divine status. In Genesis 3:20. [More about Artemis in Part Two.]

Christian Gnosticism and the Early Church

During the Hellenistic period (c. 320–30 BC), the classical forms of Greek religion were increasingly influenced by foreign religions, especially Near-Eastern religions with their elements of initiation, mysteries, salvation, and asceticism. And the great goddess, or feminine principle, was universally sovereign. (Martin 1987:81) A resurgence of interest in Greek philosophy also had an influence on religion. In the Greek world, and later in the Roman empire, both Greek and Near-Eastern religious ideas, as well as philosophy, influenced local indigenous cults, such as the Ephesian cult of Artemis.

This merging of different religious practices and ideologies—syncretism—was a feature of the Hellenistic period and it paved the way for the various sects of Christian Gnosticism which would become a huge threat to orthodox Christianity in the second and third centuries AD.[4] I strongly suspect the false teaching in the Ephesian church involved a syncretistic, or pre-Gnostic, heresy.[5]

The word “Gnosticism” comes from the Greek word gnosis which literally means “knowledge”. Gnostics believe that it is special knowledge that brings salvation; however this knowledge is secret, esoteric, and only accessible to the few who can achieve transcendence.

Tertullian (160-220) identified the false teaching in the Ephesian church as an early, emerging form of Gnosticism. In his description of a developed Gnostic heresy, Tertullian used Paul’s own expression of “myths and endless genealogies”, and he added, “which the inspired apostle [Paul] by anticipation condemned, whilst the seeds of heresy were even then shooting forth.”[6] Irenaeus, writing in about 180, also identified the false teaching in the first-century Ephesian church as a kind of Gnosticism.[7] However, it is possible that Tertullian and Irenaeus were projecting the Gnostic heresies of the late second and early third century back onto the first-century Ephesian church.

Nevertheless, the “endless genealogies” that Paul mentions in 1 Timothy 1:4 could refer to a concept similar to that of the complex series of emanations, or aeons, that is a feature in some later Gnostic teachings. These aeons were seen as a series of links between the supreme God and humanity. Rather than numerous aeons, however, Paul states in 1 Timothy 2:5: “There is one God and one mediator between God and humanity—the human being Jesus Christ.”[8]

Various groups of Christian Gnostics borrowed elements from Greek philosophy and pagan faiths, and syncretised them with Christian beliefs. The heresy in the Ephesian church may have incorporated some pagan beliefs or practices from the cult of Artemis, but we do not know this with certainty.

Gnostic Interpretations of the Genesis Creation Accounts

Early Christian Gnostics, many of whom were Jewish, incorporated aspects of Judaism and the Old Testament Law, or Torah, into their beliefs. This seems to be the case in Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:6-11).[9]

The ancient Gnostic texts found in Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945 show that the creation accounts, recorded in the Torah, were interpreted freely and allegorically. “Gnostics often depicted Eve—or the feminine spiritual power she represented—as the source of spiritual awakening.” (Pagels 1989:68) Moreover, Eve as “spirit” was frequently seen as bringing life when united with Adam’s “soul”.

There are several surviving Gnostic creation accounts which gave Eve primacy over Adam.[10] Moreover, Eve was a heroine to the Gnostics because she desired knowledge (gnōsis) (Gen. 3:6).

Paul closes his first letter to Timothy with one final exhortation concerning this serious issue of a Gnostic-like heresy:

O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you, avoiding profane chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called “knowledge (Greek: gnōsis)” which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith. Grace be with you.” 1 Timothy 6:20-21 (NASB, underline added.)

All this information so far may be helpful if we want to understand the meaning and significance of 1 Timothy 2:12 and the verses surrounding it. In Part Four we begin going through 1 Timothy 2:11-15, verse by verse.


[1] Note that “certain men” used in the NIV 1984 translation of this verse is not a completely accurate translation from the Greek. A more faithful translation would read “certain ones” or “certain people”. The new NIV (2011) has translated it as “certain people”. Women were among those spreading profane stories and myths in the Ephesian church (e.g., 1 Tim. 5:13-15).  Cynthia Westfall (2016:302-303) notes, “Historically, older women are often the story bearers of the culture, and they transmit the culture from generation to generation through myths, fairy tales, and lore that are repeated in front of the hearth and at bedtime.”

[2] Paul uses the word “profane” (bebēlos) a few times to describe the false teaching in Ephesian church: 1 Timothy 4:7; 6:20; 2 Timothy 2:16. See also 1 Timothy 1:9. Bebēlos is used five times in the New Testament: four times in 1 Timothy, and once in Hebrews 12:16. It means ungodly, profane, and heathenish. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 215) used the same expression as in 1 Timothy 4:7, “old wives tales” (“old womanish myths”), in reference to occult practises. (Paedagogus, Book 3, Chapter 4)

[3] Luther H. Martin (1987:72) notes that the fusion of Mary with a pagan goddess is exemplified in the case of Isis. The Hellenistic mysteries of the Egyptian goddess Isis became universal in the Greco-Roman world, and survived until the imperial prohibition of pagan religions in the fourth century AD. Martin writes, “In one sense, however, Isis survived even Christian dominance, for together with her divine son Horus, she is remembered in the sentiment and iconography of Roman Catholic Mariology.”

[4] Scholars are increasingly reluctant to call syncretistic religious beliefs before the second century AD “Gnosticism”. In the context of the letter to the Ephesians, which, like the letters to Timothy, was written in the late first century, Clinton Arnold (1989:12) is wary about the calling the heresy in Ephesus “Gnosticism”, but concedes:

A total dismissal of all Gnostic interpretation of Ephesians would not be a proper conclusion to draw . . . . Even if the thoroughgoing dualism characteristic of fully developed Gnosis cannot be demonstrated before A.D. 135 . . . , other streams of religious influence (with permutations already in process) may have existed which had a profound impact on developing Gnosis. One or a number of these merging streams may have been converging in the first century forming the beginning of Gnosis.

[5] Gnosticism rapidly grew at the same time, and in many of the same places, where the gospel was growing. It would develop into highly organised and complicated mythological systems during the second and third centuries, and it posed a huge threat to the church at that time. However the beginnings of gnostic-like beliefs are evident in the New Testament. Several New Testament letters address the problem of a kind of pre-gnosticism, in particular, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, 2 Peter and John’s letters.

[6] Tertullian provides a detailed account and refutation of the Valentinian branch of gnostic heresy in Against the Valentinians (c. 200-220), and writes in chapter 3: “. . . as soon as he finds so many names of aeons, so many marriages, so many offsprings, so many exits, so many issues, felicities and infelicities of a dispersed and mutilated deity, will that man hesitate at once to pronounce that these are ‘the fables and endless genealogies’ which the inspired apostle by anticipation condemned, while these seeds of heresy were even then shooting forth?”

[7] Irenaeus wrote a five-volumed work (c. 180) in which he identified and refuted several sects, or systems, of Gnosticism. This work is commonly called Against Heresies; however its true, or full, title is: On the Detection and Overthrow of the Falsely-called Knowledge (Greek: Gnōsis)(Underline added.) Irenaeus exactly copied Paul’s expression from 1 Timothy 6:20, “falsely-called knowledge”, for the title. This work opens with Irenaeus remarking on “endless genealogies”, a phrase copied from 1 Timothy 1:4. Irenaeus recognised traits of Gnosticism in 1 Timothy.
Eusebius (263–339) also used Paul’s phrase of “falsely-called knowledge” when describing the Gnostic heresy that threatened the church in the second and third centuries (Ecclesiastical History, Book 3, 32,8)

[8] 1 Timothy 2:5 also addresses a Gnostic belief termed Docetism, which is that Jesus Christ did not really come in a human body of flesh, but only seemed to be human.

[9] Some strains of Judaism were influenced by the teachings and practices of Jewish sorcerers and exorcists who were well known in the Greco-Roman world, including the cities of Asia Minor such as Ephesus. These apostate Jews combined Judaism with the occult (Acts 13:6-11; 19:13-19; cf. Simon Magus in Acts 8:9-15).

[10] Gnostic texts from Nag Hammadi which give Eve primacy include: Apocryphon of John, Gospel of Philip, Hypostasis of the Archon, Thunder: Perfect Mind, and Apocalypse of Adam. These texts were penned in the second and third centuries, after First Timothy was written. More on these Gnostic texts here.

© 8th of December 2009; revised the 5th of August 2010; Margaret Mowczko

« Part Two: Artemis of Ephesus and her Temple

» Part Four: 1 Timothy 2:11-12 – Phrase by Phrase

Related Articles

Kephalē and Proto-Gnosticism in Paul’s Letters
The Consensus and Context of 1 Timothy 2:12
Adam and Eve in Ancient Gnostic Literature