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The Theme of Virginity in the Acts of Paul and Thecla

A couple of weeks ago I read the Acts of Paul and Thecla. This work of fiction dates to around AD 150 and is thought to have been written by a presbyter somewhere in Asia Minor.[1] It was well known in the early church, and several prominent early church fathers refer to it (Tertullian, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Methodius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and others) which indicates its widespread influence.[2]

The repeated theme of virginity and chastity (not having sex) is striking in the Acts of Paul and Thecla. (This theme is a feature in all the Apocryphal Acts.) In the Acts of Paul and Thecla, this theme is apparent from the beginning where Paul brings the “word of God” in a house church in Iconium. This “word of God” is mostly about chastity and sexual self-restraint (egkrateia) which is associated with resurrection. Thirteen beatitudes constitute Paul’s message; the following four are specifically about chastity:

Blessed are those keeping their flesh chaste, because they will be a temple of God.
Blessed are those with self-control (egkrateia), because God will speak to them.
Blessed are those having wives as though not having them (i.e. being married and celibate), because they will receive an inheritance from God.
Blessed are the bodies of virgins, because their bodies are pleasing to God and they will not lose the reward of their chastity; because the word of the Father will be a work of salvation to them in the day of his Son, and they will have rest forever. (Sections 5–6)

The last beatitude links virginity with salvation. Paul’s supposed message is that the life of a good Christian is a life of celibacy and that chaste living has a bearing on our salvation and on our resurrection.[3] Thecla, the virgin par excellence, embraces this teaching and resolutely remains a virgin despite bitter opposition and mortal danger. And she later becomes a teacher and preacher endorsed by Paul.[4]

“Boycotting the Womb” and Not Having Children

Other early Christian writings also extol the virtue of celibacy, and they explicitly connect it with not having children. In the days before relatively safe and widely available contraceptives, having children was not an unexpected result of the sexual union of husband and wife. Several Christian documents that promoted virginity and celibacy, by extension, also promoted not having children. One of these documents is the Gospel of the Egyptians, dated to between 80–150.[5]

The Gospel of the Egyptians does not survive as a whole but several early Christian authors quote from it, giving us glimpses of its content and ethos.

Ron Cameron writes,

“Despite the paucity of the extant fragments, the theology of the Gospel of the Egyptians is clear: each fragment endorses sexual asceticism as the means of breaking the lethal cycle of birth and of overcoming the alleged sinful differences between male and female, enabling all persons to return to what was understood to be their primordial and androgynous state. This theology is reflected in speculative interpretations of the Genesis accounts of the Creation and the Fall (Gen. 1:27; 2:16–17, 24; 3:21), according to which the unity of the first man was disrupted by the creation of woman and sexual division. Salvation was thus thought to be the recapitulation of Adam and Eve’s primordial state, the removal of the body and the reunion of the sexes.”[6]

Clement of Alexandria is one person who quoted selections from the Gospel of the Egyptians and provided commentary on them.[7] In Stromata 3.9.66 (written around 200) he provides this quotation: “Salome said, ‘How much longer will people (anthrōpoi) continue to die?’ . . . The Lord answers: ‘So long as women bear children.’ Salome answers, ‘I have done well, then, in not bearing children.’”[8]

A saying contained in the Gospel of Thomas gives a different account of an incident recorded in Luke 11:27. Jesus’ supposed statement in saying 79 in the Gospel of Thomas highlights the perceived ideal of celibacy and not having children:

“A woman from the crowd said to him, “Blessed is the womb which bore you and the breasts which nourished you.”
[Jesus] said to her, “Blessed are those who have heard the word of the Father and have truly kept it. For there will be days when you will say, ‘Blessed is the womb which has not conceived and the breasts which have not given milk.'” (Logos 79, Gospel of Thomas) [9]

Peter Brown makes this comment about Encratites, a second-century Christian sect led by Tatian which forbade marriage and also discouraged the eating of meat.

In the Encratite tradition, the end of the present age was to be brought about by the boycott of the womb. And the boycott of the womb was crucial because sexuality was presented less as a drive than as the symbol of ineluctable processes, the clearest token of human bondage.[10]

Peter Brown writes about the geographical location of Encratites. (Note that the Near East includes Asia Minor and the city of Ephesus.)

From the second century onward, and almost certainly from an earlier, less well­documented period, little groups of men and women, scattered among the Christian communities throughout the eastern Mediterranean and in the Near East, as far as the foothills of Iran, strove to render almost audible, by their “singleness,” their studied isolation from marriage, the vast hush of the imminent end of the age. It was for this reason, they claimed, that Christ had come to earth: “He came to deliver us from error and from this use of the generative organs.”[10]

Heresies, Asceticism, and 1 Timothy

The person, or community, who compiled the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas had Gnostic sympathies which included encouraging asceticism. Tertullian, in his work against heresies (written sometime around 200), mentions 1 Timothy in the context of the teaching of the Gnostic teachers Marcion (c. 85–160) and Apelles. Tertullian writes, “Instructing Timothy, [Paul] attacks those who forbid marriage. This is the teaching taught by Marcion and his follower Apelles.” (Prescription Against Heretics, 33) Apparently, Marcion did not allow married converts to be baptised.[11]

Irenaeus, in his work opposing heresies (written about 180), mentions the school of the Gnostic teacher Saturninus who spoke strongly against marriage and procreation. (Saturninus was active around the year 100.) Irenaeus wrote, “They say marriage (gamein) and procreation (gennan) are from Satan. Many of those, too, who belong to his school, abstain from animal food, and draw away multitudes by a feigned temperance of this kind.” (Against Heresies 1.24.2 cf. 1 Tim. 4:3) Irenaeus similarly criticises the teachings of Tatian (120–180): “. . . like Marcion and Saturninus, he declared that marriage was nothing else than corruption and fornication.” (Against Heresies 1.28.1) [I provide Irenaeus’s paragraph about Tatian and his use of Adam and Eve in a postscript below.]

C.K. Barrett, writing about the Pastoral Letters of the New Testament (which includes First Timothy), notes an implied attack on Paul and his teaching “by those Jewish Gnostic Christians whose heretical kind of Christianity lurks in the background of the Pastorals.”[12] Gnosticism was a “dualistic transcendent religion of salvation” that swept across the Roman Empire and was a real threat to apostolic Christianity.[13] Christian Gnosticism combined Greek philosophical and pagan religious ideas with Christian and Jewish teaching.[14] Asceticism, including celibacy or chastity, was a tenet of several strands of Gnosticism.

There are several indications in First Timothy that the heresy being addressed in the letter may have been a forerunner of later heretical schools that promoted celibacy. One of these indicators is 1 Timothy 4:3 where Paul states that some in the church at Ephesus were forbidding marriage. This heretical teaching is one of the factors behind Paul’s advice that idle younger widows remarry (1 Tim. 5:11–15). And it may be squarely behind Paul’s words about salvation in 1 Timothy 2:15. It is also possible that Paul’s statements in 1 Timothy 2:13–14 corrected some of the many false ideas circulating about Adam and Eve that would become popular among some Gnostic teachers. However, Encratites such as Tatian also used Adam and Eve to support their ideology of sexual renunciation. (See postscript on Tatian.)

Whether exaggerated piety or heretical teaching was to blame, or both, I believe one issue behind 1 Timothy 2:11–15 is a woman withholding sex from her husband.

“The Childbirth” or “Having Children” in 1 Timothy 2:15?

Yet she will be saved through childbearing (tēs teknogonias) if they continue in faith, and love, and holiness with moderation. 1 Timothy 2:15 

1 Timothy 2:15 is an enigmatic verse and several interpretations have been put forward to explain its meaning. Some scholars suggest that this verse is about physical safety during the childbirth process.[15] A few English translations of 1 Timothy 2:15 convey this idea (e.g., NASB; Darby Translation, Moffat Translation, Weymouth New Testament).

Another interpretation of verse 15 is that “childbearing” should be translated as “the childbirth” (tēs teknogonias) and that it refers to the birth of Jesus Christ, through whom salvation comes. (The ISV, and footnotes in NEB and NLT, convey this idea.) Those who propose “the childbirth” interpretation highlight the connection between the birth of Jesus Christ and the seed of the woman promised in Genesis 3:15. However, while two verbs in 1 Timothy 2:13–14 are borrowed directly from the Septuagint’s version of Genesis 2:7–8, 15 and 3:13 (plassō: form/ mould and apatatō: deceive), 1 Timothy 2:15 has no clear linguistic connection with Genesis 3:15.

The definite article is also highlighted in “the childbirth” interpretation. Abstract nouns, however, are commonly used with a definite article in Greek and these articles are usually left untranslated in English translations. So the definite article may not be significant. Some also make the argument that we can’t be sure of the precise meaning of teknogonia.[16] Yet, the cognate infinitive teknogonein appears a few chapters later in 1 Timothy where it is typically translated as “to have children” or “to bear children” (1 Tim. 5:14).

The difficulty of “the childbirth” interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:15 is that elsewhere in 1 Timothy, Jesus and salvation are mentioned together plainly, but Jesus is not mentioned in 2:15. I agree with Margaret Davies when she says, “Had Christ’s birth been the subject, the name Christ Jesus would have been highlighted, as in 1:15 and 2:5.”[17] Nevertheless, I believe that salvation, rather than safety, is the meaning in 2:15.[18] The verb sōthēsetai (“s/he will be saved”) is usually, but not always, used in the New Testament with the meaning of eschatological salvation. For example, “… the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13b).

I suspect heretical ideas that promote celibacy in marriage are the impetus for Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 2:15.[19] It is plausible that in this verse Paul was assuring a married woman (or women) in the Ephesian church that if she renounced celibacy, had sex with her husband, and became pregnant, she would not jeopardise or lose her salvation. Rather, “she will be saved.”[20] I further explain this interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:15 here.

I suspect Paul’s message in 1 Timothy 2:15 is that salvation is not dependent on celibacy and remaining childless, but involves continuing in faith, and love, and holiness (hagiasmos) which are “expressions of a saved life.”[21] Holiness is an ascetic ideal, but Paul wants holiness “with good sense” (meta sōphrosunē), or, in moderation. He doesn’t want extreme piety or asceticism. By associating holiness with childbirth, he indicates that marriage, sex, and procreation are not opposed to piety as some were teaching in Ephesus and in other parts of the Roman world.[22]

Paul’s teaching about marriage and having children in 1 Timothy 2:15, 4:3–4 and 5:11–15 (cf. Tit. 2:4–5) is distinctly different from the teaching attributed to him in the Acts of Paul and Thecla.[22] And it is the antithesis of the teaching found in many Christian documents that circulated widely in the second century, documents that strongly promoted virginity and chastity as saving virtues.


[1] The Acts of Paul and Thecla is a work of fiction and contains several literary devices typical of the romance novels of the day. Since other characters in the story, such as Paul and Queen Tryphaena, were real people, some have thought that Thecla was also a real person even though her surviving story has been obscured by exaggerated and fabricated embellishments. She was sainted by the Roman Catholic Church, but her sainthood was revoked in 1969. An English translation of the Acts of Paul and Thecla is here.

[2] See Léonie Hayne, “Thecla and the Church Fathers,” Vigiliae Christianae 48.3 (September 1994): 209–218. Hayne cites the works of these men who mention Thecla with a brief discussion. (Online at JSTOR)

[3] Tertullian (who was born around the time the Acts of Paul and Thecla was written) also connects chastity (or continence) with salvation. In Ad Uxorem 1.7 he wrote, “We have been taught by the Lord and God of salvation that continence is a means of attaining eternal life. In Ad Uxorem 1.8, he adds, “ . . . virgins, because of their perfect integrity and inviolate purity, will look upon the face of God most closely . . .” Tertullian, The Treatises on Marriage and Remarriage, translated and annotated by William P. Le Saint, Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 13 (New York: Paulist Press, 1951), 19 and 21. Tertullian did not forbid marriage, especially first marriages, but he and his wife lived in continence; they did not have sex.

[4] Martin Dibelius and Hans Conzelmann write, “The position which Thecla assumes in the Acts of Paul as teacher and preacher is very relevant” to the context of 1 Timothy. They also note that certain virgins held privileged positions in Gnosticism. Dibelius and Conzelmann, The Pastoral Epistles (Hermeneia; Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1972), 48.

[5] Two ancient works are called by the name The Gospel of the Egyptians. The one referred to in this article is the Egyptian gospel originally written in Greek, not the later Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians.

[6] Ron Cameron, ed., The Other Gospels: Non-Canonical Gospel Texts (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press 1982), 49. (Google Books)

[7] Clement of Alexandria poses the rhetorical question, “What about those who use religious language for irreligious practices involving abstinence . . . and teach that we ought not to accept marriage (gamon) and childbearing (paidopoian) or introduce yet more wretches in their turn into the world to provide fodder for death?” (Stromata 3.6.45; Greek: PG 8, p. 1149) Clement notes that the people who advocate for abstinence believe the resurrection has already happened. (Stromata 3.6.48) Much of book 3 of Stromata discusses the tension between marriage and having children, on the one hand, and celibacy and continence, on the other. (Here is another online source of book 3.)

[8] James Dunn notes that the “Hellenization of Christian thought”, especially in relation to sexuality, resulted in “the denigration of sexual relations” which “became a feature of Christian spirituality in late antiquity [third–eighth centuries]. . . . Virginity was exalted above all other human conditions. Original sin was thought to be transmitted by human procreation.” Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 73. There is already some evidence of these attitudes in first and second-century Christian thought. (See footnote 22.)

[9] Texts and information on the Gospel of Thomas can be found at Early Christian Writings.

[10] Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in the Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 99 and 85.
The “deliver us from error” quotation is from Clement, Stromata who cited Julius Cassianus, Concerning Continence and Celibacy.

[11] Tertullian, “Early Latin Theology”, S.L. Greenslade (transl. & ed.) Library of Christian Classics V (1956), 54, footnote 71. (Tertullian.org)

[12] C.K. Barrett, The Pastoral Epistles (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), 15.
Dibelius and Conzelmann saw the author of First Timothy as someone “who had to withstand the mighty assault of syncretistic and ascetic tendencies and movements” of the second generation of Jesus’ followers. Dibelius and Conzelmann, Pastoral Epistles, 49.

[13] Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1963), 32.

[14] Artemis (also known as Diana) of Ephesus was the patron goddess of the city of Ephesus where her presence was pervasive. Unlike other goddesses, Artemis of Ephesus had no male consort and no child; she was regarded as a virgin and a champion of virgins. Did this mythology influence the heresy in the Ephesian church? The goddess was also regarded as a midwife, and women in childbirth would call on the Ephesian Artemis/ Diana for help (e.g., Acts of Andrew 25 cf. Apuleias, The Golden Ass 11.2). Even though Artemis is not mentioned or clearly alluded to in 1 Timothy, some suggest her role as midwife is relevant in understanding 1 Timothy 2:15. (More about Artemis here.)

[15] Craig Keener writes, “It may thus be that Paul’s promise that the women will be brought safely through childbirth is seen as a relief from part of the curse, from which believers will not be completely free until they share fully in the resurrection.” Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women, & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 119.
David Instone-Brewer also suggests that safety is the meaning, but he believes Paul’s statement may have been designed to contradict an idea among some Jews, an idea later expressed in the Mishnah. He writes,

To make sure wives remembered these duties, they literally instilled the fear of God into them, by teaching them an ancient and chilling saying: “Women die in childbirth for three reasons – because they are not meticulous in the laws of menstrual separation, of dough offering, and of kindling the Sabbath lamp” (Mishnah Shabbat 2.6). About a third of women died in childbirth, so this terrifying threat would be scarred into their minds. Christians overturned this saying by reversing it: “Women will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith, love and holiness” (1 Tim. 2.15). This shows that God is in the business of saving us; he isn’t on the lookout for a reason to kill us. And instead of the three forgotten details of ritual in the Jewish saying, the Christian saying replaced them with three virtues.
Instone-Brewer, Moral Questions of the Bible: Timeless Truth in a Changing World (Scripture in
Context Series; Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), 137–138. (Google Books)

[16] Lynn H. Cohick writes that teknogonia “is rather elastic and can indicate pregnancy, delivery or raising the child.” Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 138.

[17] Margaret Davies, The Pastoral Epistles (Epworth Commentaries; Westminster, London: Epworth Press, 1996), 21.

[18] Frances Young, and others, connect pistos ho logos, which can be translated as “this is a faithful saying,” with salvation.

The pastoral epistles (1 Tim 1:15; 3:1 (referring back to 2:15); 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:11; Titus 3:8) are “punctuated by ‘faithful sayings’. Sometimes it is difficult to determine whether the standard phrase ‘faithful is the saying’ refers to what has gone immediately before or what follows immediately after, but what is evident, I submit, is that the formula is invariably attached to a statement about salvation. This would suggest that the phrase does not simply signal a reliable Pauline tradition, or a secure doctrine but rather heralds an assurance of the gospel.”
Frances Young, The Theology of the Pastoral Letters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 56.

[19] Dibelius and Conzelmann suggest “Gnostic, or semi-Gnostic, ideas” are behind 1 Timothy 2:15 and they provide some of the references to ancient sources that I quote in this article. Pastoral Epistles, 48–49.

[20] I suspect that 1 Timothy 2:12–15 was aimed at a particular married couple in the church at Ephesus. Accordingly, here is my expanded paraphrase of 1 Timothy 2:15:

But she [the woman in 1 Tim. 2:11–12] will not lose her salvation if she has children, provided they [the man and the woman of 1 Tim. 2:12] continue in faith, and love, and holiness in moderation.

[21] Davies, Pastoral Epistles, 19.

[22] For example, the apocryphal Acts of John, written in the second century, tells of a respected Christian woman in Ephesus, who, “for the sake of godliness,” refused to have sex with her husband. The woman, Drusiana, is portrayed in a positive and pious light. (Acts of John 63)
In the Acts of Peter (second century), four concubines agree together to “remain pure from the bed of Agrippa” their husband (Acts of Peter 33). In the next paragraph, an elite woman, Xanthippe similarly refuses to sleep in the same bed as her husband. And “many other women also, loving the word of chastity, separated themselves from their husbands, because they desired them to worship God in sobriety and cleanness.” (Acts of Peter 34)
In the Acts of Philip (180–250), a man name Ireus is told by Philip the apostle to live in faith and constancy (i.e. no sex) and leave his wife. Ireus’s wife complains that Philip “separates husbands and wives.” (Acts of Philip 49–51)
In the Paris manuscript of the Acts of Philip there is a story of a woman named Nicanora who is healed and converts to Christianity through the ministry of Mariamne. Nicanora tells her husband, the proconsul, that she will only live with him if they live in continence. He doesn’t like this idea and is violently abusive. Then Nicanora and twenty-four other women who had left their husbands, as well as forty virgins, escape from being sucked down into the abyss because of their piety. (Additions to the Acts of Philip, Paris Manuscript)
These stories, and others like them, are fictitious, but they reveal attitudes and behaviours of some early Christians regarding celibacy and abstinence as acts of piety. The situation of Christians abstaining from sex in marriage is also behind Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:4. (More on 1 Cor. 7:4 here.)

[23] Benjamin Fiore brings up the Acts of Paul and Thecla in his commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, and writes, “The Acts of Paul and Thecla extols the extreme against which the Pastoral Epistles are reacting: chastity, emancipation from a wife’s role, ascetical abstinence, realized resurrection.” Fiore, The Pastoral Epistles (Sacra Pagina Series; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007), 67.

© Margaret Mowczko 2016
All Rights Reserved

Postscript: November 14, 2019
Tatian on Adam and Salvation

Here is the paragraph about Tatian’s unorthodox ideas which Irenaeus writes about in Against Heresies 1.28.1. It includes the idea that Adam was not saved. Irenaeus says this idea about Adam was recent and unique to Tatian (born 120). But I wonder if the idea may have been circulating earlier and if it has anything to do with Paul’s correction in 1 Timothy 2:14, “And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.”

Springing from Saturninus [active 100–120] and Marcion [born 85], those who are called Encratites (self-controlled) preached against marriage, [cf. 1 Tim 4:3] thus setting aside the original creation of God, and indirectly blaming Him who made the male and female for the propagation of the human race. Some of those reckoned among them have also introduced abstinence from animal food, thus proving themselves ungrateful to God, who formed all things. [cf. 1 Tim 4:3-4] They deny, too, the salvation of him who was first created. [cf. 1 Tim. 2:13-14] It is but lately, however, that this opinion has been invented among them. A certain man named Tatian first introduced the blasphemy. He was a hearer of Justin’s [Justin Martyr], and as long as he continued with him he expressed no such views; but after his martyrdom he separated from the Church, and, excited and puffed up by the thought of being a teacher, as if he were superior to others, he composed his own peculiar type of doctrine. He invented a system of certain invisible Æons, like the followers of Valentinus; [cf. 1 Tim. 1:4] while, like Marcion and Saturninus, he declared that marriage was nothing else than corruption and fornication. [cf. 1 Tim 2:15] But his denial of Adam’s salvation was an opinion due entirely to himself. Against Heresies 1.28.1

In his excellent book on sexual renunciation in early Christianity, Peter Brown writes about Tatian’s ideology and how “the Encratites expounded their view of the cause of the universal bondage of mankind through exegesis of the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve.” Here’s an excerpt.

In the thought of Tatian, images of marital bonding and of nurture were so powerful that they blocked out the possibility of sexual joining in ordinary marriage. So huge an inner reality permitted no rival. In his Diatessaron, Tatian subtly reinterpreted the passage of Genesis to which Christ had appealed as the basis of his demand for monogamous marriage. For Tatian, once Adam had willfully decided to “leave” his Father and Mother, God and His Spirit, he became subject to death, and so was forced to “cleave,” through physical intercourse, to a woman, by marrying Eve. To regain the Spirit of God that had once raised Adam above death, and so above the need for marriage, human beings must abandon married intercourse, the most clear symptom of Adam’s frailty and the most decisive obstacle to the indwelling of the Spirit.

Contemporaries assigned to the views of Tatian, and of the many groups loosely associated with him, the general term of “Encratite”—from enkrateia, continence. The Encratites declared that the Christian church had to consist of men and women who were “continent” in the strict sense: they had “contained” the urge to have sexual intercourse with each other. To this basic continence, the Encratites added dietary restraints, abstention from meat and from the drinking of wine. These abstentions were intimately linked to the constitutive act of sexual renunciation …
Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in the Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 91–93.

Postscript 2: November 12, 2021
Melito of Sardis on male and female virgins

Melito of Sardis (d. 180) quotes a hymn in which male and female virgins are exalted. “Mother” here may be the Holy Spirit who is often described as a mother (and as “she”) in early Christian writings written in Syriac.  (I’ve written more about this here.) The following comes from Daniel R. Streett’s website here.

Sing a hymn to the Father, O holy ones!
Sing to the Mother, O virgins!
We, the holy ones, sing a hymn, we highly exalt [them].
May you be exalted, brides and grooms,
Because you found your bridegroom, Christ.
Drink in the wine, brides and grooms! (Melito, Fragment 17)

Ὑμνήσατε τὸν πατέρα οἱ ἅγιοι,
ᾄσατε τῇ μητρὶ παρθένοι.
Ὑμνοῦμεν, ὑπερυψοῦμεν, ἅγιοι.
Ὑψώθητε, νύμφαι καὶ νυμφίοι,
ὅτι ηὕρατε τὸν νυμφίον ὑμῶν Χριστόν. (Source)
Εἰς οἶνον πίετε, νύμφαι καὶ νυμφίοι.

Postscript 3: December 3, 2022
Lynn Cohick on asceticism in light of Tertullian’s On the Veiling of Virgins.

In the early church, lifelong virginity was chosen by some young women to avoid the thankless responsibilities of domestic management and the dangers of childbirth, but others may have chosen an ascetic life for the status and authority it gave them.

Lynn Cohick states,

Asceticism was a wild card in the game of social rank and standing because it gave moral authority to those whose social rank would not otherwise allow for such prestige.
Cohick, “Virginity Unveiled: Tertullian’s Veiling of Virgins and Historical Women in the First Three Centuries A.D.”  Andrew’s University Seminary Studies, 45.1 (2007):19–34, 25. (PDF)
(On the Veiling of Virgins can be read here.)

Nevertheless, some women, as well as men, chose virginity and celibacy for reasons of piety.

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14 thoughts on “Celibacy, Salvation, and 1 Timothy 2:15

  1. The Shakers didn’t think that marriage was necessary after their concept of the return of Christ. I often think of how that contradicts so much of what Paul is talking about in Timothy, and how gnostic some of the Shaker’s theology was. The confusion in sexuality and child birth is a classic heresy.

    1. “The confusion in sexuality and child birth is a classic heresy.”

      Nicely put. The early church fathers (many of whom were educated in Stoic philosophy) didn’t read the Bible carefully enough and promoted the idea that sex, especially enjoyable sex, was incompatible with holiness and piety. 🙁

      1. My Catholic relative was truly taught by her church that she should never have sex WITH HER HUSBAND for the sake of lust, but only to procreate children…I can only pity him after they stopped having children a long time ago. This idea is alive and well in Papal teaching.

        1. Such a shame. 🙁 That idea comes from Stoic philosophy, not from God or the Bible.

          1. I am wondering if we need to be sure we are defining “lust” the same way. To me, lust is a negative thing, based on selfishness where sex is all about me and my drives. I would have no concern about my partner’s needs. Whereas desire is more about the idea of doing something special as a couple where both persons’ needs are considered. So the way I see it, sex for lust is not good. It can result in abuse and rape. However, a married couple in love should desire each other.

            I don’t agree with the idea of sex being only for procreation, and I do not believe that the Bible teaches that in any way. In the OT, the woman was considered unclean for the first 7 days of her cycle, then she was sent home with expectations of having relations with her husband. Since the peak of fertility in a 28 day cycle would be about days 12-16, if sex was only to be for procreation, it would have made more sense to have her be unclean until closer to that time, during which desire would build until a pregnancy would be pretty much guaranteed. Paul talks about being available to each other except for a mutually agreeable time of abstinence for prayer.

            This is one area where I heartily disagree with the Catholic church, and one of the many reasons I am not a Catholic.

          2. agree…my Sister in law seemed to interpret it this way, as a Roman Catholic…she seemed definitely to believe she and her husband should only have sex to procreate…and since they had their last child, I guess that is it for him…

        2. I would agree with the ‘not for the sake for lust’ part – for the sake of love is Biblical.

          1. The argument about not having sex just for lust in a marriage was
            that if it wasn’t for procreation it was for lust.

  2. This background may also lay behind the statements in 1 Corinthians 7, which affirm sexual congress as a matter of mutual interest (even obligation) which should not be deprived by either husband nor wife from the other. By the end of the passage, Paul acknowledges both singleness and marriage as gifts.

    While it seems we are a bit far afield of Genesis’ command to be fruitful and multiply, in times of persecution or distress, these attitudes on virginity and/or celibacy are understandable.

    “Now concerning the matters you wrote about. Yes, ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual contact with a woman.’ But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital responsibility to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a set time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer; then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. This I say by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all men were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. Now to the unmarried and to the widows I say that it is good for them if they remain single, as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with sexual passion.” – 1 Corinthians 7:1-9 http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1Corinthians7:1-9&version=MOUNCE

    1. Hi Guy, I’m amazed that celibacy and asceticism is already seen is such an early document as 1 Corinthians.

      Asceticism in Christianity seems to be tied to a theology of an already realised resurrection. This seems to be the theology held by some in the Corinthian church.

      While Paul thinks celibacy is good, he certainly doesn’t push it, and he doesn’t equate it with holiness. He merely states that being single frees a person to serve God more.

      1. When you look at this section in light of not just asceticism but of Gnosticism, it makes a lot of sense. The Gnostics were very confused in their teachings on sex, especially about procreation. Many of them would have thought that abstinence would prevent more evil little bodies from coming into the world, and would have preferred that. Paul was battling Gnosticism, and this speaking in favor of mutually fulfilling sex between a married couple.

  3. Margaret, thanks for this—how fascinating!

    Hace you read Rodney Stark’s Rise of Christianity? He argues from the documentary and statistical evidence that one of the distinctives of the early christian movement (in contrast to Paganism) was a symmetrical sexual ethic, commitment to marriage, and commitment to child-rearing.

    He argues that this was a major contributor to church growth—biological growth. This fits well with the emphasis in Paul you have hear.

    1. Yes I read it quite a while ago, not cover to cover though. I’ve been meaning to borrow it again. He makes some excellent observations.

      There certainly seems to be a diversity of thought and practice in the early church. In Ignatius’ letters (circa 115) we see that the church in Smyrna already had a recognised group of celibate women (IgnSm 13:1 cf. IgnPol 4:1). On the other hand, many churches may well have promoted a “normal” family life.

      Interestingly the cognate verb of teknogonia (a word crucial in understanding 1 Tim. 2:15) occurs in the letter to Diognetus 5:6: “They marry like everyone else and have children (teknogonousin), but they do not expose their offspring.” The author wants Diognetus to know “Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity” (Ep. Diog. 5:1). Throughout chapter 5 he explains that the lifestyle of Christians is similar (and therefore non-offensive and non-threatening) to their non-Christian neighbours.

  4. very interesting take on these verses! One always wonders what piece of the context puzzle is missing in our mis-interpretations of so much scripture…

    In the end, how can one argue that God is ever in favour of putting anyone into bondage or any situation that deliberately puts them into a state of oppression (or indeed puts anyone on a pedestal for that matter)? Yet it is part of Complementarianism to assume that women are lesser in some way or another.

    Talking about that pedestal…how often men say women seem to be determined to be taken down off ‘that pedestal’ while, in the same breath, they insist on our submission to them! Truly they speak with forked tongue ☺

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