I’ve stated several times on this website that 1 Timothy 2:12 is a verse which presents genuine challenges as to how it should be interpreted. Despite these challenges, many Christians primarily rely on this text to restrict the ministry of women. In this post, I look at one possible context of 1 Timothy 2:12 and its surrounding verses, and at how this context affects interpretation.

11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. 1 Timothy 2:11-15 ESV

The switch from plural to singular words in 1 Timothy 2:8-15

I have thought for a while that 1 Timothy 2:11-15 may concern a specific couple in the Ephesian church who are spoken about anonymously.[1] The main indicator that Paul is speaking about a couple, and not men and women more generally, is that he switches from “men” and “women” (plural) in 1 Timothy 2:8-10 to “man” and “woman” (singular) in verses 11-12. This switch from plural to singular must be noted and factored into interpretations.

Importantly, verse 15 makes better sense if we understand that verses 11-12 are speaking about one woman and one man, and possibly a particular couple. 1 Timothy 2:15 contains a singular verb meaning “she will be saved” (referring to the woman) and a plural verb meaning “they continue” (referring to the couple). That is, “she (the woman in verses 11-12) will be saved . . . provided they (the man and woman in verse 12) continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”

Unfortunately, many English translations do not translate the verbs with the correct singular and plural meanings. This demonstrates that some translators have been unable to precisely understand 1 Timothy 2:15 themselves, so they have broken grammar rules in an attempt to make some sense of the text (e.g., NIV, NLT, NASB, HCSB, NET, GNT). A few translations, however, accurately convey the respective singular and plural meanings of the verbs in verse 15 (e.g., CEB, NRSV, ESV, KJV).

No definite article for “man” and “woman” in 1 Timothy 2:11-12

The fact that there are no definite articles for “woman” and “man” in verses 11-12 has led some to assume that the man and woman are generic examples and not an actual couple. However, the rules about using or not using a definite article are different and more complex in Greek compared with English. And there are no indefinite articles in Greek.

Unlike English, it is common in Greek to use a definite article when making a generic statement about a generic person (e.g., Mark 7:15). This is explained by Dr Rob Plummer in this 2-minute video from Daily Dose of Greek.

Conversely, there are Greek texts where a specific (named or unnamed) person is mentioned without the use of a definite article. So the absence of a definite article in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 for “woman” and “man” does not mean that “women” and “men”, more generally, are necessarily in view in these verses.[2]

Here are two examples of ancient letters written in Greek in which the sender is writing about a person known to both sender and receiver, but the unnamed person is mentioned cryptically and without a definite article.

P.Oxy.  3.351; Trismegistos 28371 This second-century letter is from a father named Cornelius to his son. Cornelius writes, “Regarding a man of whom you write about to me so often, claim nothing until I come . . .”

Princ. 2.69; Trismegistos 25169 This letter was written sometime in the first or second century, perhaps around the same time First Timothy was written. It is from a woman named Theano to her brother. Theano states, “About a person you indicated to me, we have not found out what he did . . .”

In each of these examples, the anonymous person being spoken about is a real individual and yet no definite article is used in the Greek; the person is referred to simply, and cryptically, as an anthrōpos (“a person”).[3] In English translations of these letters, a definite article is usually added (e.g., “the man” or “the person”) because that is how we speak about individuals in English. But this is not necessarily the case in Greek.

How would it change our understanding if 1 Timothy 2:12 was translated into English with definite articles: “I do not permit the woman to teach or authentein the man”?[4]

Privacy and anonymity in ancient letters

I suggest the woman and man were specific people in Ephesus who are deliberately unidentified by Paul in his letter to Timothy. Letters in the ancient world, even private letters from one individual to another, were not as private as we might think. Firstly, most people, rich and poor, used a secretary to write their letters. Then, secondly, they were delivered by a letter carrier.

Cicero once complained about letter carriers to his friend Atticus. He wrote, “There are so few who can carry a letter of any substance without lightening the weight by perusal” (Att. 1.13.1). And Cicero was a person who had more opportunity than the average person of finding and using reliable carriers than people further down the social ladder. Unlike Cicero, the average person in the Roman world could not use the state-run postal system which was primarily used for government and military purposes.

Sometimes, the letter carrier delivered the letter by reading it aloud as well as handing it to the recipient. This was necessary if the recipient could not read. But even if the recipient was literate, carriers might still read the letter aloud and pass on comments and side notes from the sender.

Letter carriers were usually people chosen for their high level of integrity, but sometimes there were issues that needed to be kept secret from them. If there was something especially private, personal, or sensitive contained in a letter, it was written in a circumspect way so that the secretary, letter carrier, and any other go-between, would be left none the wiser about the identity of any people being written about. The truly private information was written in a way that only the sender and recipient understood who was being referred to.

The anonymous man and woman in the Corinthian church

When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, he addressed the scandalous situation of a man “having” his father’s wife (1 Cor. 5:1ff; cf. 2 Cor. 2:6ff).[5] (Notice that I wrote “a man” and yet it is understood that I am speaking about a particular person, not a generic person.) The Greek phrases used in relation to this Corinthian man are unlike those mentioned in the papyrus examples given above. Nevertheless, Paul refers to the man circumspectly in 1 Corinthians 5:1b and again in 2 Corinthians 2:6-7.[6]

There is no doubt the Corinthians knew exactly who Paul was referring to, yet the identity of the man and woman is completely unknown to us today. Paul wrote that this unwholesome affair was “being reported”—the rumours were spreading—but because Paul doesn’t name names, he doesn’t add to these rumours.

Perhaps the anonymous woman in the church at Ephesus was engaging in unwholesome behaviour. Perhaps she was behaving in a way similar to that of a woman in the church at Thyatira. Jezebel of Thyatira, a woman recognised as a church leader, was teaching and deceiving people in a particularly unwholesome manner (Rev. 2:20). Despite her flagrant immorality, she doesn’t seem to have been expelled from the church community, but was given time to repent (Rev. 2:21).

Note that this woman in the church at Thyatira, like the Ephesian woman, is anonymous. “Jezebel” is a pseudonym. By not revealing the names of the couples in the Corinthian and Ephesian churches, or the true name of Jezebel, these people had a real opportunity to repent, be restored, and have their disgrace minimised.[7]

Conclusion

I strongly suspect that the instructions in 1 Timothy 2:8-10 were given to men and women (plural) in the Ephesian church, but that verses 11-15 were about a particular couple, probably a married couple, who were engaging in unacceptable behaviour instigated by the woman.[8]

Paul may have wanted to protect the privacy of this couple, and he has achieved this. Timothy no doubt knew their identity . . . and knew what the examples of Adam and Eve (another couple) meant. On the other hand, we still have no idea who this Ephesian woman and man were and what exactly was unacceptable about the woman’s teaching.

Rather than signifying some universal, timeless prohibition, it is likely that Paul’s advice to Timothy contained in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 refers to a specific couple in the Ephesian church engaged in an activity which involved teaching, the particulars of which remain unclear.


Endnotes

[1] I also suggest that the couple is being spoken about circumspectly or diplomatically. More about this in the section entitled Epitrepō here.

[2] Stylistically, 1 Timothy is relatively light in its use of definite articles compared with usage in other letters of the New Testament, including 2 Timothy.

[3] The genitive anthrōpou is used in both letters.

[4] I have omitted an English translation of the Greek word authentein, as I am not convinced we know what Paul meant by it in this verse. Cynthia Long Westfall notes, however:

“In the Greek corpus, the verb authenteō [which includes the infinitive authentein] refers to a range of actions . . . . However, the people who are targets of these actions are harmed, forced against their will (compelled), or at least their self-interest is being overridden, because the actions involve an imposition of the subject’s will, ranging from dishonour to lethal force.”
Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 292.

More about the meaning of authentein here.

[5] 1 Corinthians 5:1b in Greek is ὥστε γυναῖκά τινα τοῦ πατρoς ἔχειν. A fairly literal translation of this phrase is, “so that someone is cohabiting with his father’s wife” (NET).

[6] Peter Marshall has shown that Caesar Augustus, and Larry Welborn has shown that Cicero, both used the rhetorical device of not naming their opponents and enemies in their writings. Marshall and Welborn state that ‘non-naming’ adds to the invective and insult, and that Paul regularly used this device when denouncing his enemies in his undisputed letters (e.g., 1 Cor. 2:17; 4:18-19; 2 Cor. 2:17-19; 5:12). However, Paul does not regard the Ephesian woman as an enemy and even provides hope in 1 Timothy 2:15.
Peter Marshall, Enmity in Corinth: Social Conventions in Paul’s Relations with the Corinthians (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1987) 341–348. L. L. Welborn, An End to Enmity: Paul and the “Wrongdoer” of Second Corinthians (Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, 2011) 212–230, 287.
Many thanks to Lyn Kidson who pointed out these books in her comments below.

[7] In collectivist societies, such as those in New Testament times, it is bad form to directly and openly criticise someone in your own group. Criticism is avoided or done circumspectly. On the other hand, Paul seems to have had no problem with publicly denouncing Hymenaeus, Alexander, and Philetus, perhaps because these men were no longer part of the Ephesian church (1 Tim. 1:19-20; 2 Tim. 2:16-19). (Paul’s criticism of Cephas (i.e. Peter) in Galatians 2:11 is astonishing.)

[8] The CEB translates 1 Timothy 2:12a as: “I don’t allow a wife to teach or to control her husband.” “Wife” and “husband” are perfectly acceptable here because the Greek word anēr (which occurs in verse 12) can mean “man” and/or “husband”, and the Greek word gynē (which occurs in 1 Timothy 2:11, 12 & 14) can mean “woman” and/or “wife”. It may be that the scenario addressed in 1 Timothy 2:12-15 has nothing to do with the setting of a church service, but marriage.


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