6 reasons 1 Timothy 2:12 is not as clear as it seems

I recently listened to a sermon on 1 Timothy 2:12 given by a man who is a pastor of a relatively large church near where I live. Right at the beginning of his sermon, the man stated that 1 Timothy 2:12 is “fairly straightforward” and “uncomplicated”. He gave no indication, let alone an explanation, of the genuine interpretative difficulties of this and the following verses. Nor did he attempt to provide some kind of explanation of the context of 1 Timothy 2:12. Rather, he based his thoughts on an English translation:

“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” 1 Timothy 2:12 (ESV)

The problem is, however, that 1 Timothy 2:12 is not as plain and simple as it appears in many English translations. This post looks at six factors which must be considered when interpreting 1 Timothy 2:12.

6 reasons 1 Timothy 2:12 is not as clear as it seemsFirst, epitrepō, which is typically translated as “allow” or “permit” in 1 Timothy 2:12, is consistently used in the Greek New Testament in the context of giving or asking for permission in an ad hoc, or specific and limited, situation. Similarly, the word is also used in the context of withholding permission in an ad hoc, or specific and limited, situation. Epitrepō was not the word typically used when making broad and definitive statements or universal injunctions.

Paul uses the word epitrepō just once in First Timothy. This occurrence is marked when compared with the language he uses elsewhere in this letter, including, for example, in 1 Timothy 6:17: “As for the rich in this present age, charge (or, command) them not to be haughty . . .” Paul uses this “command” word (verb: paraggellō; noun: paraggelia) seven times in 1 Timothy (1 Tim. 1:3, 5, 18; 4:11; 5:7; 6:13, 17 KJV). Paraggellō can also be translated as “prescribe” or “instruct” with a strong sense.

There is no “command” word or imperative force in 1 Timothy 2:12 in the Greek. Verse 11 is a written as a command, but verse 12 is not.

1 Timothy 2:12A second factor in interpreting 1 Timothy 2:12 is the question of why there is a switch from the plural for “men” and “women” in verses 8-10, to the singular “woman” and “man” in verses 11-12 (cf. 1 Tim. 2:15 and the correct translation of “she [a woman] will be saved”). 1 Timothy 2:8-15 forms a section, so the singular language throughout, concerning a woman, is important to note.

Some suggest that Paul is speaking about a married couple in verses 11 and 12 and 15. This may well be the case. Or, perhaps verses 11 and 12 and 15 are speaking about an anonymous woman, like “Jezebel” who was teaching and leading astray Christians in the church at Thyatira (Rev. 2:20ff). Whether a wife or not, Paul’s remedy is that a woman must learn, quietly (1 Tim. 2:11).

6 reasons 1 Timothy 2:12 is not as clear as it seemsThird, the fact that there is no definite article for “woman” or “man” in the Greek of 1 Timothy 2:11-12 makes these verses slightly ambiguous. A definite article can make it easier to understand if (or that) Paul had been writing about a specific woman, or a specific couple in these verses. The fact that there is no article, however, does not rule out the idea of a specific woman, or couple. (More on this here.) The functions of the definite article in Greek are more varied than in English; the implications of not having an article are also varied. (There is no indefinite article in Greek.) Some suggest that “woman” without an article in verse 12 is an anaphoric reference to Eve who is mentioned in the next verse, but I’m not convinced.

6 reasons 1 Timothy 2:12 is not as clear as it seemsFourth, I maintain that we cannot be sure why Paul chose to use the word authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12, and what precisely he meant by it. This word occurs nowhere else in the Greek New Testament. Authentein is not related to the more common Greek word for authority (exousia). And it is not etymologically related to the English word “authority” despite a superficial similarity.

Authentein may mean “to control” or “to dominate” in ancient Greek (Louw and Nida). The early church father John Chrysostom used the word (the exact form, authentei) in his tenth homily on Colossians where he wrote that husbands should not act this way towards their wives. (Scr. Eccl. vol 62, page 366, line 29. Source: TLG) This verb is translated as “act the despot” in the English translation of Chrysostom’s homily in Vol XIII of A Select Library of the Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), 304. Authentein is unacceptable behaviour for a man or a woman. It has no place in Christian marriage or in the church.

Furthermore, unlike what some assert, there is nothing whatsoever in 1 Timothy 2:12 which indicates that Paul was somehow referring to ordination, and/or prohibiting a woman from holding a leadership office in the church at Ephesus. (Note also that a word meaning “over” is absent in the Greek of 1 Timothy 2:12, but is included in many English translations/interpretations.)

6 reasons 1 Timothy 2:12 is not as clear as it seemsFifth is the question of whether the words didaskein (“to teach”) and authentein are tied together to form a hendiadys. A hendiadys is where two words or phrases are combined to form one idea. Hendiadyses are common in the Old and New Testaments.

If 1 Timothy 2:12 contains a hendiadys, then Paul was not simply prohibiting a woman from teaching a man; rather, he was not allowing a certain kind of teaching from a woman. Perhaps he was not allowing a dominating kind of teaching, or a syncretistic or gnostic-like teaching. Perhaps he was not allowing the kind of teaching Jezebel of Thyatira was engaged in. (Revelation 2:20, which mentions “Jezebel”, contains a hendiadys: “teaching and leading astray”.)

If, on the other hand, 1 Timothy 2:12 does not contain a hendiadys, then didaskein (“to teach”) is not grammatically connected to the word for “man”; only authentein is connected to “man”. This is because didask– verbs and infinitives usually take an accusative object, while authent– verbs and infinitives take a genitive object, and the Greek word for “man” in 1 Timothy 2:12 is in the genitive case, andros. (More on authentein here.)

If 1 Timothy 2:12 does not contain a hendiadys, and “to teach” is not connected to “a man”, then the prohibition of a woman teaching has nothing to do with the idea that women can’t teach men. Furthermore, since 1 Timothy 2:11 states that a woman must learn, it is reasonable to assume that the woman (or women) in question was not yet qualified to teach anyone: men, women, or children.

Whether 1 Timothy 2:12 contains a hendiadys or not, there is nothing to suggest Paul was disallowing sound teaching from an educated, well-behaved woman.

6 reasons 1 Timothy 2:12 is not as clear as it seemsSixth is the issue of translating the Greek noun hesuchia (ἡσυχία). This word occurs near the beginning of verse 11 and at the end of verse 12, thus forming an inclusio. (The related adjective occurs in 1 Tim. 2:2.)

γυνὴ ἐν συχί μανθανέτω ἐν πάσῃ ὑποταγῇ·
διδάσκειν δὲ γυναικὶ οὐκ ἐπιτρέπω οὐδὲ αὐθεντεῖν ἀνδρός,
ἀλλ’ εἶναι ἐν συχί.

There are two Greek verbs commonly used in the New Testament for “be silent” (siōpaō and sigaō) but the word in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 is not related to them. Hesuchia refers more to a disposition of calmness, of tranquillity, and of being settled. It does not mean total silence. Nevertheless, a few English translations use, or have used, the word “silence/silent” (e.g. KJV, HCSB, NIV 1984, DR).

The repetition of the word hesuchia suggests there was a problem with an unruly woman in the Christian community at Ephesus. Nevertheless, Paul was not saying that she should be completely silent. Rather, he wanted her to settle down, to learn in a submissive manner (the usual conduct of a good student), not to teach, and not to dominate or coerce a man (probably her husband).

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Paul gave the instructions and advice contained in First Timothy to his young envoy Timothy who was looking after the congregation in Ephesus. The instructions and advice contained in the section 1 Timothy 2:8-15 are corrective and specific, rather than general. These eight verses address bad and unseemly behaviour among some Ephesian Christians: anger and disputing, expensive and inappropriate clothing, and, I suggest, heretical or unruly teaching. 1 Timothy 2:12 was written with a specific and local situation in mind, but the broader principle of this verse might be “bad or bossy teaching is not permitted.”

Taking 1 Timothy 2:12 at face value, with no understanding of the Greek or the verse’s context, can lead to a flawed interpretation. Tragically, many have applied a flawed understanding of 1 Timothy 2:12 to all women and all men for all time, with crippling consequences for women and men and the church.

Furthermore, the faulty understanding that no woman may ever teach any man does not take into consideration the broader biblical context. The Bible provides several examples of men who were guided by godly women, without any hint of censure. Apollos the teacher was corrected by Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus (possibly in the couple’s house church in Ephesus), and yet this does not seem to have been a problem. Rather it was a good thing.

Interpreting 1 Timothy 2:12 is not plain and simple, and it is misleading to suggest otherwise. The verses following 1 Timothy 2:12 contain even more exegetical challenges. We must not let a simplistic and faulty understanding of 1 Timothy 2:12—one that ignores the broader biblical context and New Covenant principles—stifle the ministry of women and the mission of the church. This was never Paul’s intention.


Related Articles

Why 1 Corinthians 14:34 and 1 Timothy 2:12 are not universal regulations
Jezebel of Thyatira: A Female False Prophet
Chastity, Salvation, and 1 Timothy 2:15 
The meaning of authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12, and a brief history of authent– words
An Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12 that joins the dots of 2:11-15
More articles about 1 Timothy 2:12 here.
More articles about Priscilla here.

Further Reading

Defusing the 1 Timothy 2:12 Bomb by Gail Wallace (The Junia Project)