I was honoured to write a guest blog post recently (January 2022) for Michael Bird’s blog “Word from the Bird.” Dr Bird is a prolific author, an ordained Anglican priest, and Academic Dean and Lecturer in New Testament at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia. You can find it on his blog, here, or just keep reading on this page.
3 reasons why “to have authority over” is an inadequate translation of authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12
I do not allow a woman to teach, or authentein a man; rather, she is to be in quietness. 1 Timothy 2:12.
For some, 1 Timothy 2:12 is a clear verse with a clear message which is usually understood as women can never be pastors or teaching elders in congregations. For others, 1 Timothy 2:12 presents some genuine hermeneutical challenges, especially in the Greek. Understanding precisely what Paul meant when he used the word authentein is one of these challenges.
The Greek word authentein (from the verb authenteō) is a relatively rare word in surviving documents, and I used to think its meaning was a bit of a mystery. But after looking long and hard at the meagre ancient evidence, I no longer hold this view. Instead, I believe there should be a consensus on the general sense, if not Paul’s precise meaning, of authentein.
In this blog post, I draw from ancient texts and briefly outline three reasons why I believe the general sense of authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12 is self-centred, domineering behaviour.
1. Authentein is translated in early translations of 1 Timothy 2:12 with a negative sense.
The first translations of 1 Timothy 2:12 from the Greek were in Latin, Syriac, Sahidic, and Arabic, and authentein was understood by the translators as a negative behaviour, not as a healthy or beneficial kind of authority.
For example, the Vetus Latina (Old Latin translations) (second–fourth centuries) render authentein as dominari (“to dominate”) or, occasionally, words with similar senses. The Vulgate (fourth–fifth centuries) likewise has dominari. The Sahidic Coptic (third century) has erjoeis (“to be lord”). And these translations were done when Koine Greek was a well-known living language. For someone to dominate another person, or act as their lord, is not what Jesus wanted for his people (Matt. 20:25–28).
I have more about ancient translations of authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12 (as well as authenteō in ancient Greek papyri) here.
2. Chrysostom used authentein in a negative sense when speaking about the actions of people.
Writing in the fourth century, admittedly 300 years after 1 Timothy was written, Chrysostom used the verb authenteō several times in his sermons.
For example, in his tenth homily on Colossians, Chrysostom comments on Colossians 3:19 (a verse addressed to husbands) and says that a husband should not authentei his wife. This is translated into English as “act the despot” in Volume 13 of The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (First series). (Online source: New Advent)
In his eleventh sermon on Colossians, he refers to Paul’s exhortation, “Act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of (or, redeeming) the time.” Using the word authentein, Chrysostom warned against self-centredness: “… the time is not yours, but theirs. Do not then wish to have your own way (authentein) but redeem the time.” (New Advent, see under “verse 11”)
In his sermon on Matthew 12:46–49, Chrysostom interprets Mary wanting to speak to Jesus as wanting “to show the people that she has power (kratei) and authority over (authentei) her Son.” From his use of authentei with kratei, a word with a strong forceful sense, we see that Chrysostom did not see authenteō as a benign or beneficial authority. (New Advent)
In his day, Chrysostom understood authenteō as referring to harsh, selfish, or ruling behaviour when the verb is used in the context of the actions of people, male and female, and in most cases, he didn’t approve.
3. Authentein can refer to the supreme power and rule of divine beings and celestial bodies.
A primary meaning of authentein is to exercise full power or absolute rule. (See, for example, the entry in Liddell and Scott’s Intermediate Greek-English lexicon, here, or their exhaustive lexicon lexcicon, here.) Authentein and the related noun authentia are used with these senses in both pagan and Christian texts when speaking about various deities, including God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.
For example, Chrysostom comments on Paul’s words about the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12:11 and says that the Spirit is “exercising autonomous authority (authentoun), not being subject to supreme authority (authentia).” Chrysostom’s Second Homily on Pentecost (PG 50, 464).
Authentein also occurs in ancient astronomical texts, dating to the first-third centuries, when describing the controlling influence of celestial bodies such as planets. For example, in the second century CE, Ptolemy wrote, “Therefore, Saturn when he alone takes control of the soul and has gained dominance/ mastery (authentēsas) of Mercury and the moon . . .” (Tetrabiblos 3.14.10). (More on this here.) But exercising this kind of power is not for husbands or wives or for any Christian. Christians are called to mutually serve and submit to one another, not rule over capable, fellow believers.
In the context of human behaviour, authentein can mean to domineer or control. Cynthia Long Westfall notes that “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.”
I make every effort to see the validity of different interpretations of Bible verses through the eyes of Christians who hold different views than mine. However, I have become reasonably convinced that Paul’s general sense of authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12 was self-centred, domineering behaviour.
Authentein is a rare word in surviving ancient texts that date roughly to the first century. The verb doesn’t occur elsewhere in the New Testament or in the ancient Greek Old Testament. Yet Paul chose it because it conveyed a particular sense. He was not writing about ordinary or healthy authority in 1 Timothy 2:12; he was addressing bad behaviour when he used authentein.
In fact, all of 1 Timothy 2:8–15 is Paul addressing bad behaviour from certain people in the Ephesian Church: angry quarrelling men in verse 8, overdressed rich women in verses 9–10, and a woman who needed to learn quietly (as it says in verse 11) and not teach, and not domineer a man, probably her husband. 1 Timothy 2:8–15 is not Paul’s general teaching on ministry.
Precisely how a woman was controlling or domineering a man is not known with certainty. Nevertheless, I suggest we can apply a general sense of “domineer” in 1 Timothy 2:12. One thing I am certain of is that Paul was not disallowing capable women from ministering, even as leaders. Paul valued the ministry of leading women such as Priscilla, Phoebe, and Nympha.
I do not allow a woman to teach, or to domineer a man; rather, she is to be in quietness. 1 Timothy 2:11-12
 The Greek of the relevant phrase is, ἐπειδὴ ὑποτέτακται ἡ γυνὴ, αὐθέντει.
 The Greek of the relevant phrase is, μὴ τοίνυν βούλεσθε αὐθεντεῖν.
 Hippolytus of Rome (d. 235) used authenteō with the sense of savage tyranny: “And the children will lay hands on their parents. The wife will give up her own husband to death, and the husband will bring his own wife to judgment like a criminal. Masters will lord it over their servants savagely.” Hippolytus, De consummatione mundi (“On the End of the World”) Section 7 line 5 (PG 10.900).
The Greek of the relevant phrase is, δεσπόται εἰς τοὺς ἰδίους δούλους ἀπάνθρωποι αὐθεντήσονται. “On the End of the World” has been attributed to Hippolytus. However, it may be a later, Byzantine work.
 Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 292.
A Spanish translation of this article is here.
Authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12, in a Nutshell (A simple article)
The meaning of authentein with a brief history of authent– words (A long, technical article)
Authenteō (Authentein) in Greek-English Lexicons
All my articles on authentein are here.
All my articles on 1 Timothy 2:12 are here.
Paul’s Theology of Ministry
A short report on this article is on the Eternity News website.
The papyrus bird is part of the logo of Michael Bird’s blog. Used with permission.