Authentein, from the Greek verb authenteō, is a word found only once in the Greek New Testament. It occurs in 1 Timothy 2:12 where it is translated in the King James Bible as “to usurp authority.” I’ve previously written a long and somewhat technical article on authentein. But in this short post, I present information that is easier to follow.
This information comprises three definitions copied from respected lexicons of ancient Greek and a few quotations from respected New Testament scholars who have expertise in ancient Greek.
The order of the definitions and quotations follows a progression of thought which tracks what I believe to be general understandings of the word, narrowing to what I believe it more specifically means. The aim of this progression of thought is to show that “to have, exercise, usurp authority” is an inadequate translation of authentein.
Note the word “full” in the first two definitions.
Liddell and Scott’s An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon
αὐθεντ-έω “to have full power”, τινός, New Testament (online source: Perseus).
Chartraine’s Dictionnaire Etymologique de la Langue Grecque
αὐθεντέω “avoir pleine autorité sur” (NT Pap)
translation: “have full authority/ control/ rule over” (New Testament, Papyri)
(online sources: Internet Archive, p.138, or second screenshot here.)
“In the overwhelming majority of [instances of authenteō], the authority that is assumed is an authority that has not been properly granted, so it usually carries a negative connotation.”
Philip Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 391.
“In fact, to introduce the idea of ‘authority’ into the definition at all may be misleading if it is taken to mean a derived or ordained authority: it is ‘authorship’, not ‘authority’, that is at the heart of the meaning of authenteō. This distinction is crucial. The idea of authority comes into play only when the object of the verb is not an action or state of affairs but a person: one cannot ‘author’ a person, but one can exercise an ad hoc authority over a person in such a way that he or she becomes instrumental in bringing about an action or state of affairs.”
Andrew C. Perriman, “What Eve Did, What Women Shouldn’t Do: The Meaning of Aὐθεντέω in 1 Timothy 2:12,” Tyndale Bulletin 44.1 (1993): 129–142, 37.
(A pdf of this paper is here: TynBull_1993_44_1_08_Perriman_EveITim2.)
“. . . 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.”
Cynthia Long Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 292.
Louw and Nida’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament
“§ 37:21 αὐθεντέω to control in a domineering manner — ‘to control, to domineer.’ …”
Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, (New York, NY: United Bible Societies, 1988), 1.474, s.v. αὐθεντέω (Internet Archive) (An abbreviated online source is here).
If Paul’s meaning in 1 Timothy 2:12 was simply about exercising, usurping, or even misusing authority, why didn’t he use a more common word that means authority? Why did he use a relatively rare word? Linda Belleville answers these questions: “The obvious reason is that authentein carried a nuance (other than ‘rule’ or ‘have authority’) that was particularly suited to the Ephesian situation.”
Linda L. Belleville, “Teaching and Usurping Authority: 1 Timothy 2:11–15,” Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy, Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (eds) (Leicester: InterVarsity, 2005), 211.
Authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12 may well give the meaning that Paul is not allowing a woman to control, or to bully, or to domineer a man, possibly her husband. He is not addressing the exercise of a healthy kind of authority but is addressing the exercise of an overbearing and controlling use of power. I briefly discuss what this control may have involved here.
© Margaret Mowczko 2018
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All my articles on authentein are here.
Authenteō (Authentein) in Greek-English Lexicons
6 Reasons 1 Timothy 2:12 is not as clear as it seems
1 Timothy 2:13: Another reason 1 Timothy 2:12 is not as clear as it seems
Chastity, Salvation, and 1 Timothy 2:15
An interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12 that joins the dots of 2:11–15
1 Timothy 2:12 in a Nutshell
Freebies for Students of New Testament Greek
A Review of Cynthia Westfall’s ‘Paul and Gender’
18 thoughts on “Authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12, in a Nutshell”
Thanks for the nutshell version, Marg. Very helpful.
You’re welcome, Tim.
From what I’ve read the original meaning of authentein was sexual murder. This is what it meant during Paul’s era. It evolved to mean usurp but did not come to mean that until after the apostolic era. I am no Greek scholar. Just what I read.
Hi Deb, I’ve looked at every ancient document that contains the verb authenteō (and authentein) and I’ve only seen one instance where the verb means murder, and it wasn’t “sexual murder” (whatever that means). And the earliest surviving source of this one instance, Scholion 42a on Eumenides, is in the 10th-century Laurentianus Mediceus 32.9 (or 31.9). So it’s possible that a mistake was made somewhere along the line.
Though we can’t be sure precisely what a woman (or women) was doing in Ephesus, I strongly doubt Paul had murder of any kind in mind when he wrote 1 Timothy 2:12.
I mention Scholion 42a on Eumenides in this longer article: https://margmowczko.com/authentein-1-timothy2_12/
I enjoy reading your work on this topic. Are you familiar with Leland Wilshire’s book, “Insight into Two Biblical Passages: Anatomy of a Prohibition I Timothy 2:12, the TLG Computer, and the Christian Church?” I found his work to be most beneficial in sorting out this word.
I’m not a fan of Wilshire’s book. I prefer his 1988 paper “The TLG Computer and Further Reference to ΑΘΕΝΤΕΩ in 1 Timothy 2.12.” But in both the book and paper, he spends very little time discussing the verb. He spends most of his time discussing the cognate concrete noun authentēs.
I discuss authentēs, and the cognate abstract noun authentia, as well as the verb authenteō here: https://margmowczko.com/authentein-1-timothy2_12/ They may be related words, but they have their own histories and their own meanings.
What Wilshire’s book helped me realize is how the immense power of one’s own church ecclesiology drives the application of this passage and maintains the status quo. Male leaders/preachers/elders who discovered they missed the mark in their understanding of 1 Tim 2:11-12 find themselves facing a career and spiritual crisis.
If they speak up–from the pulpit or in elder’s meetings–they face a real possibility that they may be fired and lose their livelihood. Perhaps even a scandal that makes it nearly impossible to serve as a minister/pastor in another church.
In staying, they must teach ever so carefully in hope of changing the minds of the leaders all the while witnessing women in the congregation excluded from ministry.
Have you any advise in this regard? Or any resources that advise male leaders how to practically approach this matter without splitting or causing disunity in the church?
I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. But I’ll look around and, hopefully, get back to you.
A unique word (in the bible) for a unique situation.
Thanks again Marg for articulating this so well
A unique word in the New Testament and an uncommon word in Ancient Greek, one that was chosen deliberately by the author of 1 Timothy, rather than the more usual words for “authority”, to make a point. And we don’t want to misconstrue his point.
Thank you Marg! My husband is working on presenting a case to our church elders over the area of women ministering (or lack thereof) in our congregation.
Do you happen to know what the main arguments/translations are that somone who espouses Christian patriarchy/complementarianism would use? It seems clear to me the evidence makes it a unique verb for a unique situation – so what is ‘the other side’ espousing?
One idea that is held by some, perhaps many, modern complementarians is that women (plural) cannot hold the office of a pastor or teaching elder, etc. They see “to teach” and authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12 as referring to the teaching and to the authority of the church offices of pastor or elder.
However, it is highly unlikely that authentein refers to any legitimate, healthy, or normal kind of authority associated with church offices in the first century. This interpretation also presumes the Ephesian church had “offices” at the time 1 Timothy was written, and this is debatable.
My husband teaches at a conservative Christian college that holds a fundamental interpretation of I Tim 2:11-2. About 8 years ago after raising our family, I returned to college. My research project focused upon this passage. We were both stunned and overcome with grief when we discovered the passage did not teach what we had so many years believed and taught ourselves in our ministries!
I recently received my MA in New Testament so was asked to present my thesis work at this same college. My research revealed that my own church leaders … and I think in other conservative churches as well–is the prevailing thought, that even contemplating letting women teach puts the church, the male leaders, and the woman herself at risk of eternal damnation.
This fear…that tampering with what is God’s holy Word…is fear enough for them to maintain things the way they are: Women in the pews, and men only leading.
Another challenge is that those holding the conservative view, really do believe in their hearts that they are obeying God’s words. It will take a good deal of sensitivity on your husband’s part to let them know he appreciates that … even while he gently introduces them to an idea that is frightening to them. I pray God opens their hearts and minds and that this can take place amicably for all involved.
Thanks for sharing this, Brenda.
I relate to being stunned and grieved. I had the same reaction when I realised Romans 12:6-8 does not exclude women, which it seems to do in older English translations such as the NIV 1984. This realisation concerning Romans 12:6-8 was a catalyst in my journey towards egalitarianism.
Many good and godly brothers and sisters hold to a complementarian ideology. I agree that sensitivity is needed. And prayer.
Amen to your prayer.
One point (that I read in a CBE article and has stuck with me) is that since the word is used just once that nowhere in Scripture is a man told he can authentein/authenteo a women or even another man. This can be phrased as a question for comps and can show how their assumptions go beyond Scripture.
I like that point! Thanks, Don.
The context of this passage speaks of Adam and Eve and even childbirth. Is it a grammatical error to use “husband” rather than “man” and “wife” rather than “woman”? If so, it could be that the particular issue was with marriage rather than the church as a whole?
Hi Kim, Martin Luther suggested 1 Timothy 2:11-15 refers to married couples, as do more recent scholars. I think these verses may well refer to a particular couple in the Ephesian Church.
The CEB translates 1 Timothy 2:11-15 this way:
“11 A wife should learn quietly with complete submission. 12 I don’t allow a wife to teach or to control her husband. Instead, she should be a quiet listener. 13 Adam was formed first, and then Eve. 14 Adam wasn’t deceived, but rather his wife became the one who stepped over the line because she was completely deceived. 15 But a wife will be brought safely through childbirth, if they both continue in faith, love, and holiness, together with self-control.”
In answer to your question, using the words “wife” and “husband” are acceptable translations of the Greek words used in these verses.