Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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)[1]

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”)[2]

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]

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.”[4]

Conclusion

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


Footnotes

[1] The Greek of the relevant phrase is, ἐπειδὴ ὑποτέτακται ἡ γυνὴ, αὐθέντει.

[2] The Greek of the relevant phrase is, μὴ τοίνυν βούλεσθε αὐθεντεῖν.

[3] 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.

[4] Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 292.


Explore more

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.

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13 thoughts on “Authentein as Bad Behaviour in Ancient Texts

  1. Thanks for this.
    I’m including this concept in my core theology (and philosophy of life in general), along with similar items. The title of that category is “Why You Shouldn’t Be A Butthead.”
    I avoid, as much as it is possible, people who thrill at causing controversy and enjoy fussing at folks, but it’s helpful to have good citations when the inevitable happens.

  2. what about the teach part of the verse?

    1. Hi Kia, I don’t write much about didaskein (“to teach”) because this word is reasonably straightforward and easier to understand than authentein. I don’t believe Paul used didaskein in an especially technical or restricted sense.

      In Paul’s letters, didaskein usually refers to teaching doctrine or to instructions about behaviour.

      Paul uses didask– words about 20 times in the Pastoral Epistles in the context of both good and bad teaching or instruction. Bad teaching was one of Paul’s main concerns when writing to Timothy in Ephesus and to Titus in Crete.

      Bad Teaching

      There are several instances in the Pastoral Epistles where the verb didaskō and its cognates are used for corrupt, inadequate, or “other” teaching. Note that most of these are from 1 Timothy.

      heterodidaskalein (infinitive) “to teach” other doctrines in 1 Timothy 1:3.
      nomodidaskaloi (concrete noun) [unqualified] “teachers of the law” in 1 Timothy 1:7.
      didaskaliais (noun) “doctrines/ teachings” of demons in 1 Timothy 4:1.
      heterodidaskalei (verb) “teaches other doctrines” in 1 Timothy 6:3.
      didaskalous (concrete noun) “teachers” that cater to itching ears in 2 Timothy 4:3.
      didaskontes (participle) “teaching” things that shouldn’t be taught in Titus 1:11.

      I believe didaskein (infinitive) “to teach” in 1 Timothy 2:12 should be included in this list.

      Sound Teaching

      False teaching was such a problem at Ephesus and Crete that Paul often uses positive descriptions to qualify “teach/ teaching/ teacher” words to distinguish good teaching from the prevalent false teaching.

      didaskalos (concrete noun) a “teacher” of the Gentiles in faith and truth in 1 Timothy 2:7.
      didaskalias (noun) good/ fine “teaching ” in 1 Timothy 4:6.
      didaske (vocative verb) command and “teach” these things [the things Paul had just taught Timothy] in 1 Timothy 4:11.
      didaskalia (noun) pay attention to the [public] reading of scripture, to exhortation, and to “teaching” in 1 Timothy 4:13.
      didaske (verb) “teach” and exhort these [correct] things in 1 Timothy 6:2.
      didaskalia (noun) sound/ wholesome/ healthy “teaching” in 1 Tim. 1:10; 2 Tim. 4:3; Tit. 1:9; Tit. 2:1. (“Sound words” occurs in 1 Tim. 6:3 and 2 Tim. 1:13. Logos is used frequently with the meaning of Christian teaching in the Pastoral Epistles).
      didaskalia (noun) godly “teaching” in 1 Timothy 6:3.
      didaskalia (noun) my [i.e. Paul’s] “teaching” in 2 Timothy 3:10.
      didachē (noun) “correct, rebuke, and encourage with complete patience and “teaching” in 2 Timothy 4:2.
      didachēn (noun) the “teaching” of the faithful word in Titus 1:9.
      kalodidaskalous (noun) “teachers” of good things in Titus 2:3.

      Didaskalia, which can mean instruction or teaching, occurs several more times in the Pastoral Epistles.

      I suggest a woman in Ephesus was teaching a strange version of Genesis 2 and 3, so Paul tells Timothy that she needs to learn like a good student (1 Tim. 2:11) and is not allowed to teach (1 Tim. 2:12a).Paul then provides a correct summary of Genesis 2 and 3 in 1 Tim. 2:13-14.

      She also needs to stop domineering a man/husband: authentein andros.

      I have more on 1 Timothy 2:12 here: https://margmowczko.com/category/1-timothy-212/

  3. Chrysostom’s record on αὐθενθέω seems a little more mixed than perhaps is implied here.

    He uses the word somewhat positively about people several times, and neutrally even more.

    To take two broadly positive examples, he uses the verb to describe Peter taking charge at the beginning of the church in the appointment of an apostle to replace Judas.
    He also uses the word in a broadly positive context connected to Priscilla teaching and converting Apollos (connecting the noun αὐθεντία very closely to this cognate verb in the immediate context).
    He further during a sermon on the book of Titus explicitly exposits the αὐθεντέω verse and strongly links it to the office of public teaching (thus representing an early reading that combines διδάσκω and αὐθεντέω together in terms of explanation).

    A tenable suggestion that the word is always intended negatively when applied to human beings must take into account these and a variety of similar passages – many of them from the self-same Chrysostom mentioned.

    1. I’d love to read the passages where authent– words occur. This sounds like important information.

      Can you give the citations for these, Mojay? Links would be great too. Thanks again.

    2. MoJay, I spent a bit of time reading Chrysostom’s first homily on Titus today (beginning on p. 363), but I didn’t see an authent– word. I may have missed it. Can you give me specific reference? I really need to know about this.

      1. Apologies – have been away for a few days. I’ll try to find the open source versions. I’ve been performing a personal study of all authentein words in Chrysostom recently (part of my *very* long and slow journey towards understanding this range of issues) from which I have notes, so will hopefully be able to source it pretty quickly.

      2. The Homily Greeting Priscilla and Aquila can be found in English translation here: https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/john-chrysostoms-first-homily-greeting-priscilla-and-aquila/ . The relevant section is section 3. The phrase translated as “right to teach” in this section (connected closely to the discussed quotation of 1 Tim) is τὴν αὐθεντίαν τῆς διδασκαλίας, or “the authentia of teaching” – which is explicitly not deprived from Priscilla (according to Chrysostom) in the case where she is instructing Apollos.

        As far as the Titus homily goes, the discussion is in the fourth homily: a translation is found here: https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/23084.htm
        In both cases he is attempting to harmonize his reading of the 1 Tim passage with positive things said about women teaching in other contexts. (in this case, it is Paul commanding the elder women to teach the younger women. The question he anticipates: “but hang on, aren’t women forbidden from teaching?” his response: “No. they are forbidden from teaching and authentei-ing. i.e. presiding in the assembly/giving long speeches like men. Other contexts are fine.”).

        1. Thanks so much, MoJay!

          1. Note that there is a reference to Peter authentei-ing (as a way of describing him taking the lead in the early church/selecting a new apostle) that reads very positive (in Chrysostom’s 3rd homily on acts) – but English translations have a footnote that suggests that the textual evidence for the relevant line is somewhat shaky, so, not being equipped to do full-blown textual criticism on the church Fathers, I have “noted” the reference but am cautious about making anything of it for the time being.

          2. I have some pressing work I need to do that doesn’t involve authentein, so I don’t have time to look at these references at the moment, but I do apreciate them.

            Have you come across authent– words in passages, other than the one’s I’ve mentioned in the article, where Chrysostom, or someone else, disapproved of the behaviour?

          3. My study of the word is far from complete (I’m basically working backwards through the fourth century towards the NT)

            It’s really tricky to work out when the word is being used negatively in terms of its *intrinsic* (rather than contextual) meaning. But softening that bar and just looking for passages where the behaviour (neutral or negative) is being denied or frowned upon (and where 1 Tim is not explicitly in view)

            We have in Chrysostom:

            Sermon 3 in Genesis:

            “Adam replied, ‘The woman you gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate.’ What a pretext without a sound reason! What an apology that does not benefit the speaker! What a bitter speech, not saving the speaker!
            I gave you the woman as a helper, not an αὐθεντοῦσαν; as an advocate, not a mistress[female despot]; a like-minded partner, not a teacher; a yoke-partner, not a ruler; under your hand, not higher; bowing with you, not overpowering you. Hence, as you listened to the enemy and ignored me, accept the full reprimand, which long ages will not shake” (here an implicit ref. to 1 Tim can’t be ruled out)

            Homily on Romans volume 60 p525:

            For this wreath is far greater than the earlier one. Therefore, he did not simply say, ‘Those who live by the Spirit of God,’ but, ‘Those who are led by the Spirit of God,’ showing that He wants to be the lord of our life, as the captain of a ship, or the charioteer of a team of horses. And it is not just the body that is subjected to these reins, but also the soul. He does not even want that one to αὐθεντεῖν, but He has placed its power under the influence of the Spirit. So that we do not, confident in the gift of baptism, neglect the life that follows, he says that even if you have been baptised, but do not intend to be led by the Spirit thereafter, you have lost the dignity that was given to you, and the precedence of sonship. Therefore, he did not say, ‘Those who have received the Spirit,’ but, ‘Those who are led by the Spirit of God,’ that is, ‘Those who live their entire life in this way, these are the sons of God.’

            (here the soul is being prevented from authenteing, so is negative contextually… but not clearly negative intrinsically (this passage is actually one of my key ones for grasping the semantics of the word)

            Next negative example I found was in Socrates Scholasticus (Ecclesiastic history, book 2 ch 34): this is the one example I have (so far) that is unambiguously negative in its valence, and it it the one example that I really haven’t been able to explain perfectly with my own developing understanding of the “core” of the word:

            After doing this, Gallus did not bear his fortune well but instead plotted to revolt against the one who had chosen him and aspired to tyranny. So it was not long before his plot was plainly revealed to Constantius. For he, αὐθεντήσας, killed Dometian, the prefect of the east, and Magnus the Quaestor, who had revealed his plot to the emperor. Enraged by this, Constantius summoned Gallus to him. Out of fear, Gallus unwillingly proceeded. However, once Constantius had him in the western regions and near the island of Flanona, he ordered Gallus to be executed. Not long after, he appointed Julian, the brother of Gallus, as Caesar and sent him to deal with the barbarians in Gaul.

            (its an attendant circumstances participle)

            Along with the two you’ve mentioned (the instruction to husbands and the passage with Mary) these are the only other ones I’ve found (across about 27 passages and at least 35 uses of the word and closely connected cognates, and across three figures so far (Chrysostom, Severianus, and Socrates Scholasticus). I am currently working through spur. works of Ephrem the Syrian, as well as those of Didymus the blind.

          4. I’d love to know more about your work, MoJay. Your comments are very helpful! Thank you for sharing your findings with me!

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