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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, Paul writes,

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

Paul was concerned because “the pure and sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5) he had brought to Ephesus was being corrupted. Men and women within the Ephesian church were teaching and spreading doctrines that were different from Paul’s teaching, and so he wrote to Timothy—who was ministering in Ephesus at that time—and advised him about these people and their doctrines.

It is possible that some of these false teachings were influenced by myths related to 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] [More about Artemis in Part Two.]

Wherever the gospel has gone, many new believers have found it difficult to quickly and completely let go of long-held beliefs and ancient superstitions, especially as religious beliefs and practices were usually closely interwoven with the local culture and daily customs of family and community life.

One way of dealing with new beliefs is to syncretise them with old beliefs. In Roman Catholicism, for example, many of the “Madonnas” or “Our Ladies” started off as local pagan goddesses that were later morphed into “Marys” when Christianity came.[3] There is no evidence of the Ephesian Artemis being morphed into Mary or being incorporated into a Christian heresy. On the other hand, in a few ancient documents, we see that some Christians were conferring on Eve an almost divine status. We will come back to Eve below.

Hellenism and Syncretism

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.[4] A resurgence of interest in Greek philosophy also had an influence on religion. In the Hellenistic Greek world, and later in the Roman Empire, both Greek and Eastern religious ideas, as well as philosophy, influenced local indigenous cults, including the Ephesian cult of Artemis.

The merging of different religious practices and ideologies (syncretism) was a feature of the Hellenistic period. This syncretism paved the way for various schools of thought known as Christian Gnosticism. Gnosticism threatened more orthodox expressions of Christianity in the second and third centuries AD.[5] Perhaps the false teaching in the Ephesian church involved syncretistic, or early Gnostic, heresies.

Christian Gnosticism and the Early Church

The word “Gnosticism” comes from the Greek word gnosis which literally means “knowledge.” Gnostics believe that it is special knowledge that brings salvation. This knowledge is secret and esoteric, however. It is only accessible to the elite few who can achieve transcendence through knowledge of, or acquaintance with, the divine. [More about Gnosticism in footnote 6]

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.”[7] Irenaeus, writing in about 180, also identified the false teaching in the first-century Ephesian church as a kind of Gnosticism.[8] However, it is possible that Tertullian and Irenaeus were projecting the Gnostic heresies of the late second century back onto the late first-century Ephesian church.

Nevertheless, the “endless genealogies” that Paul mentions in 1 Timothy 1:4 (cf. Titus 3:9) might refer to a concept similar to that of the complex series of emanations, or aeons, that is a feature in some Gnostic teachings. [See footnotes for another explanation of the “endless genealogies.”] These aeons were seen as a series of links between the supreme God (an unknowable, pure spirit) 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.”[10]

Christian Gnostics borrowed ideas from Greek philosophy and pagan faiths, which were blended with Christian concepts. While the heresy in the Ephesian church may have incorporated some pagan beliefs or practices from the cult of Artemis, there is no concrete evidence of this.

Gnostic Interpretations of the Genesis Creation Accounts

Early Christian Gnostics, many of whom were Jewish, combined aspects of Judaism and the Old Testament Law, or Torah, into their beliefs. In 1 Timothy we are told that the Law was being misused by some in Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:6–11).[11]

The teachings Irenaeus attributes to the Gnostics include “retellings of the Genesis stories of the creation, Adam and Eve, and the fall.”[12] The ancient Gnostic texts found in Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945 confirm Irenaeus’s observations. These texts show that the creation stories were interpreted freely and allegorically. For example, “Gnostics often depicted Eve—or the feminine spiritual power she represented—as the source of spiritual awakening.”[13] Eve as “spirit” was frequently seen as bringing life when united with Adam’s “soul.”

There are several surviving Gnostic creation accounts that give Eve primacy over Adam.[14] 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 (gnōsis)” which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith. Grace be with you.” 1 Timothy 6:20–21 (NASB, my italics)

All this information so far, on Artemis in part 2 and on syncretism and Gnosticism in part 3, may or may not be helpful if we want to understand the meaning and significance of 1 Timothy 2:12 and the verses surrounding it. Nevertheless, since Artemis and Gnosticism are frequently brought up in discussions on 1 Timothy 2:12, I wanted to provide a discussion on these topics and provide corrections to some of the more extreme claims sometimes made.

I’ll end here with this quotation from James W. Thompson who offers this caution about identifying the heresy (“disease”) in the Ephesian Church.

Despite the numerous scholarly attempts to ascertain both the nature of the disease and the author’s precise definition of “healthy teaching,” the issue remains unresolved because the author’s purpose was not to draw a profile of this disease, but to warn against it. The primary focus is not the nature of the heresy, but the moral consequences of both healthy and unhealthy instruction.[15]

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 may not be a completely accurate translation from the Greek. A more faithful translation could 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 Long Westfall 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.” Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 302–303.

[2] Paul used the word bebēlos (“profane, irreverent, heathenish”) a few times to describe the false teaching in the Ephesian church: 1 Timothy 4:7; 6:20; 2 Timothy 2:16 cf. 1 Timothy 1:9.
Regarding “old wives’ tales” (or, “old womanish myths”), Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 215) used the same expression as in 1 Timothy 4:7 in reference to occult practices.  (See Paedagogus, Book 3, Chapter 4)

[3] Luther H. Martin 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.” Martin, Hellenistic Religions: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 72.

[4] L.H. Martin, Hellenistic Religions: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 81.

[5] Scholars are increasingly reluctant to call syncretistic religious beliefs before the second century AD “Gnosticism.” Clinton E. Arnold is wary about seeing Gnosis reflected in the letter to the Ephesians which, like the letters to Timothy, was probably written in the late first century. Nevertheless, he concedes,

A total dismissal of all Gnostic interpretations 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.
Arnold, Ephesians: Power and Magic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 12.

E.E. Ellis believes the “teachers of the law” who are criticised in 1 Timothy 1:9 were gnosticising judaisers (cf. Tit. 1:10). He writes,

They forbade marriage, promoted food laws and claimed to impart spiritual “knowledge” (gnosis) whose source was, in the words of an oracle applied to them, demonic spirits (1 Tim 4:1–3; 6:20). They represented one stage of a continuing counter-mission which appears in Ignatius (IgnMagn. 8–11; IgnTrall. 9; c.110) as a kind of “Judaism crossed with Gnosticism” (Lightfoot) that denied not only Christ’s resurrection but also his physical incarnation and death, and which later developed or merged into the full-blown Gnostic heresies.
Ellis, “Pastoral Epistles,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Gerald Hawthorne and Ralph Martin (eds) (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 658–666, 663.

[6] Gnosticism rapidly grew at the same time, and in many of the same places, where the gospel was advancing. It would develop into highly organised and complicated mythological systems during the second and third centuries. However, the beginnings of gnostic-like beliefs are evident in the New Testament. Several New Testament letters address various problems associated with gnostic-like beliefs, in particular, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, 2 Peter and John’s letters. [See previous footnote.]

There was not one religion or one sect of Gnosticism but several schools of thought that shared some similar ideas. Broadly speaking, Gnostics held to a complex cosmology with numerous divine entities, and they held to a creation myth that was quite unlike the creation accounts in the Bible but nevertheless derived from Genesis chapters 1–6. Like Platonists, they believed that matter was bad, or not real, and that spirit was good and truth. They believed that salvation was achieved when one ascended to the realm of the deities and became acquainted with, or had knowledge of, the divine. At that moment in time, the divine spark, or spirit, or mind was released from its material earthly body. Gnosticism was elitist and exclusive; the claim was that only a few people could achieve gnosis. For the Gnostics, Christ is a divine being, one of many aeons. Still, he is the redeemer who revealed the true truth necessary for salvation. This “truth” is that some people are themselves divine or contain a divine spark.

[7] Tertullian provides a detailed account and refutation of the Valentinians. (Some scholars consider the Valentinians as Gnostic, while other scholars assert they borrowed ideas from Gnostics but were not Gnostics themselves.) In chapter 3 of Against the Valentinians (c. 200–220), Tertullian writes, “… 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?”

[8] Irenaeus wrote a five-volume 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 (Gnōsis). 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 he mentions “the league of godless error [that] took its rise as a result of the folly of heretical teachers.” (Ecclesiastical History, Book 3.32.8) According to Eusebius, this occurred following the deaths of the first successors of the twelve apostles.

[9] Some heretical groups supposedly traced their origins back to Cain and Seth, the sons of Adam and Eve. Do the endless genealogies refer to this? In his words against the Cainites, Irenaeus mentions that they were keen to prove that their origin was derived from certain “mothers, fathers, and ancestors.” (Against Heresies 1.31.8)

[10] 1 Timothy 2:5 also addresses a belief that Gnostics held. This belief, termed Docetism, is that Jesus Christ did not really come in a human body of flesh but only seemed to be human. Moreover, Paul’s preceding statement in 1 Timothy 2:4 is that God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” The salvation Paul taught was for everyone; it was not reliant on secret knowledge and it was not for the few who could achieve transcendence. Furthermore, God is portrayed positively in 1 Timothy, and not like the distant god of the Gnostics who was not nice.

[11] 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).
In his Sixth Satire, the Roman author Juvenal (55–140) speaks sarcastically about a Jewish woman who is a crippled beggar but claims special powers: “No sooner has that fellow departed than a palsied Jewess, leaving her basket and her truss of hay, comes begging to her secret ear; she is an interpreter of the laws of Jerusalem, a high priestess of the tree, a trusty go-between of highest heaven. She, too, fills her palm, but more sparingly, for a Jew will tell you dreams of any kind you please for the minutest of coins.” (Source)

[12] David Brakke, The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual and Diversity in Early Christianity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 36.

[13] Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve and the Serpent (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 68.

[14] Gnostic texts from Nag Hammadi that 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, perhaps one hundred or more years after First Timothy was written. More on these Gnostic texts here.

[15] James W. Thompson, Moral Formation according to Paul: The Context and Coherence of Pauline Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 200–201.

© Margaret Mowczko 2009
Most recent revision: July 29th 2020
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Postscript: August 18, 2023

Michael Bird presents a useful and sensible 10-minute discussion on Gnosticism and the Valentinians at the beginning of this video. He then looks at the contents of a letter written by Ptolemy to a woman named Flora. The letter contains a Gnostic/Valentinian interpretation of the Jewish Law.

1 Timothy 2:12 in Context

Part 1. Introduction: Using 1 Timothy 2:12 as a Proof Text
Part 2. Artemis of Ephesus and her Temple
Part 3. The Heresy in the Ephesian Church
Part 4. 1 Timothy 2:11–12, Phrase by Phrase
Part 5. 1 Timothy 2:13–15: The Creation and Salvation of Woman

Explore more

Kephalē and Proto-Gnosticism in Paul’s Letters
Adam and Eve in Ancient Gnostic Literature

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10 thoughts on “1 Timothy 2:12 in Context (3): The Heresy in Ephesus

  1. It was very helpful,
    Thanks marg

  2. I am so thankful for your expertise in Greek and your hard work in trying to help men and in understanding the truth about God’s call to women. There has been much suffering. It has taken me years to work through these passages. Having studied Greek in Seminary I was and am to work through these passages; however, I lack the indebt grammatical expertise that you have. I am in process and thanks to you I can see more clearly. I am presently dealing with my church regarding these issues. The men and women have not had the education and are digging in hard against women in ministry. In fact we could use the Greek AUTHENTEIN used in Timothy! Thank you again.

    1. 1 Timothy 2:12 has indeed caused a lot of suffering, but this was never Paul’s intention. I’m glad my articles are useful to you.

  3. Great article! Thanks!

  4. I’ve been reading in Plato’s Theaetetus, Sophist and Statesman. There appear to be a number of similarities between these works and the Pastorals, concerning the Ephesian Heresy as well as other points.

    Legitimate and illegitimate use of genealogies; babbling old women, old wives chatter; the Sophist’s abuse of myths, stories and tales; Socrates’ spoke prophetically of Theaetetus, foreseeing his success as a philosopher; to improve in knowledge to a wonderful extent…as it seems to them and everyone else; to be given over to another teacher if they don’t do well; an extensive criticism of Ephesians: impossible to discuss with, they regard one another as knowing nothing. He seems to equate the Ephesians with the Sophist: money making, disputative, controversial, pugnacious, combative, using fictitious arguments, repeating of myths or story, etc.

    The impression I’m getting is that there isn’t a heresy as such but rather the language reflects Paul’s moralist style of combating erroneous, money hungry troublemakers, perhaps in line with Abraham Malherbe’s approach.

    1. Thanks, John. I’ll look out for those similarities. There were probably lots of unhelpful, unsound ideas circulating in the Ephesian Church, but there is a concern about “other teaching” (1 Tim 1:3). And I think the law in 1 Tim 1:7-9 most likely refers to the Jewish scriptures that were being mishandled. On the other hand, much of the “sound teaching” in the Pastorals does have to do with moral behaviour (e.g., Titus 2:1).

  5. Thanks Marg for this explanation of Gnosticism. Your research is very welcome! I produced a video that is on youtube that uses a story format summarizing the Kroeger’s understanding of the Gnostic heresy that Paul may have faced. It also summarizes Ken Bailey’s interpretation of this passage. The link to it is here:


    It really helps to understand the context and the culture behind Paul’s writings. I really appreciate the work that you do.
    I pray that God will richly bless you and your work!
    LInda Lawler

    1. Thanks, Linda. 🙂

      This is my overall take of 1 Timothy 2:12:

      You’ve probably seen these, but in case you haven’t, I have a series of videos by Kenneth Bailey here:

      1. Here’s a link that discusses the origins of “endless genealogies”. It’s worth the listen! https://youtu.be/VI1yRTC6kGE

        1. Thanks, Brittany. I have a problem with the idea that Jewish scribes made up the idea that Shem was Melchizedek and then tampered with the Hebrew scriptures to make Shem old enough to have passed on a priesthood to Abraham, and that they did it all to disprove a point written in a letter that may not have been widely distributed until well after Paul wrote 1 Timothy.

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