A coherent interpretation of 1 Timothy 2.12

But I am not allowing a woman to teach or to dominate a man, rather she is to be quiet. 1 Timothy 2:12

1 Timothy 2:12 is a verse I’ve looked at long and hard. I’ve looked at the original language used in this verse and compared it with other Greek texts in and outside of the New Testament. I’ve also delved into several different scenarios which may help to explain the verse’s meaning.

In this article, I provide an interpretation which I believe “connects the dots” between 1 Timothy 2:12 and surrounding verses, and takes into account known issues in the first and second century church, issues which are alluded to in First Timothy.

I’ve tried to keep this post as short as possible, so I’ve listed interpretative decisions as brief, even terse, statements, which are supported by a single-paragraph rationale, along with a link to an article or two where there is more in depth information. You’ll find my overall interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 towards the end of this post.

1. The prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12 concerns a woman and a man in the Ephesian church, most probably a specific couple.

Rationale: The singular for “woman” and “man” is used in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and is a marked difference to the plural “men” and “women” used in previous verses (1 Tim. 2:8-10). Note that 1 Timothy 2:12 does not say “I am not allowing a woman (or women) to teach, etc, men . . .”
The understanding that a woman and a man is being spoken of in 1 Timothy 2:12 fits well with 1 Timothy 2:15 and the singular verb, which is correctly translated as “she will be saved”, followed by the plural verb meaning “they continue.” “She” refers to the woman; “they” refers to the couple.
More information: The Anonymous Man and Woman in 1 Timothy 2:11-15

2. The teaching that is being disallowed in 1 Timothy 2:12 is a topsy-turvy account of Genesis chapters 2-3.

Rationale: Several ancient documents survive which contain corrupted versions of the Genesis 2-3 creation account. In these documents, Eve, or a powerful feminine force, gives life to Adam, and Adam is the one deceived. The various versions of these distorted accounts were taught by Jewish and Christian Gnostics and their forerunners. A woman in Ephesus may have bought into a faulty understanding of Genesis 2-3; so 1 Timothy 2:13-14 is given as a correction.
More information: Adam and Eve in Ancient Gnostic Literature

3. The conjunction translated as “for” in 1 Timothy 2:13 is used to introduce background information relevant to the prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12.

Rationale: While the Greek word gar (translated as “for” in 2:13) is often used to introduce a reason, it is also used in other ways. In the New Testament, gar occasionally introduces background information, often from the Old Testament. This is what is happening in verses 13-14. Here are a few examples where gar introduces background information and is sometimes translated in English Bibles as “now” (rather than “for”) or is even left untranslated: Matt. 3:3; John 4:44; Acts 15:21; 1 Cor. 10:4.
More Information: 1 Timothy 2:13: Another reason 1 Timothy 2:12 is not as clear as it seems

4. The Greek word authentein, translated as “to usurp authority” in the KJV, can mean “to dominate/coerce/bully,” and may have been used in 1 Timothy 2:12 in the context of a woman permanently withholding sex from her husband.[1]

Rationale: In the early church, sexual renunciation (including celibacy within marriage and not having children, as well as lifelong virginity for the unmarried) was seen as an act of piety and was connected with salvation, the defeat of death, and the resurrection. Verses in 1 Timothy which address celibacy in some way (other than 1 Timothy 2:15) are 4:3 and possibly 5:11 & 14. (Paul addresses celibacy in the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 7:1-7.) Plus there are many passages in early Christian literature which extol celibacy within marriage, not having children, and lifelong virginity. See, for example, the Acts of John 63.[2] 
More information: The Meaning of Authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12, and Chastity, Salvation, and 1 Timothy 2:15

5. Salvation is in view in 1 Timothy 2:15, and not safety during childbirth or Mary’s delivery of Jesus, etc.

Rationale: The phrase “this is a trustworthy saying” is used several times in the Pastoral Epistles, three times in 1 Timothy, and it is always used in connection with statements about salvation. “This is a trustworthy saying” occurs immediately after 1 Timothy 2:15, at beginning of 1 Timothy 3:1. I believe the chapter and verse numbers have been put in the wrong place, and that “this is a trustworthy saying” refers to a woman’s salvation in 2:15 and not to what follows in chapter 3.
More information: See endnote 17 in Chastity, Salvation and 1 Timothy 2:15.

Putting it Together: A Cohesive Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-15

To sum up, I suspect that 1 Timothy 2:13-14, which is an accurate summary statement of Genesis chapters 2 and 3, corrects the faulty teaching of a woman in the Ephesian church (as per didaskein, “to teach”), and that 1 Timothy 2:15 corrects her faulty exercise of control of a man, probably her husband (as per authentein andros, “to coerce/bully a man”). So, 1 Timothy 2:12 may be interpreted as:

But I am not allowing a woman to teach (a heretical version of Genesis 2-3) nor to bully her husband (by denying him sex because of false notions of piety).

Furthermore,  1 Timothy 2:15 can be understood as:

But she (the woman mentioned in verses 11 and 12) will be saved (or, will keep her salvation) through childbearing (contrary to teachings about the perceived virtue of celibacy and childlessness), if they (the couple) continue in faith and love and holiness with propriety (true Christian virtues).[3]

Instead of teaching and coercing her husband with her false ideas, a woman is to quietly learn good doctrine (as per 1 Timothy 2:11).

I have discussed elements of this interpretation in more detail elsewhere on this website. I hope you’ll take a look at the other, longer articles before rejecting or accepting my suggested interpretation. Or better still, reserve judgement and perhaps keep this interpretation in mind.

I think my interpretation makes good sense of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and takes into account well-known, documented heresies that circulated in the first and second centuries, and later. Still, I am holding my interpretation loosely as we cannot know with certainty the exact circumstance being addressed in 1 Timothy 2:11-15.


Endnotes

[1] Because of word authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12, and because of the singular “man”, it is unlikely this verse is prohibiting a woman from exercising a healthy authority in church meetings. Not everything mentioned in 1 Timothy chapter 2 happens in church meetings (e.g., 1 Tim. 2:10, 15). Furthermore, this verse cannot be taken to mean that a woman was being prohibited from being an elder. The Greek word authentein (which is unrelated to the English word “authority”) did not refer to ordinary authority before the fourth century AD.

[2] More examples: the Acts of Paul and Thecla 6-7; Gospel of Thomas, sayings 22 & 79; Gospel of the Egyptians (quoted in Stromata 3.9.66); Tertullian, Ad Uxorem 1.7-8. Here are some texts which critique sexual renunciation as the teaching of heretics: Tertullian Prescription Against Heretics 33; Irenaeus Against Heresies 1.24.2; Clement of Alexandria Stomata 3.6.45 cf. 3.6.48.

[3] Note that several English translations do not translate 1 Timothy 2:15 accurately; words are added such as “women” and the senses of the singular verb meaning “she will be saved” and plural verb meaning “they continue” are altered.


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