Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

The “Little Women” in 2 Timothy 3:6-7

weak-willed silly women 2 Timothy 3

For among them are those [false teachers] who worm their way into households and take captive “little women” (gynaikaria) who are weighed down by sins, led by various passions, always learning and never able to come to a knowledge of the truth. 2 Timothy 3:6-7

The “Little Women” (gynaikaria) in 2 Timothy 3:6-7

I’ve seen people express dismay that Paul[1] disparages women in 2 Timothy 3:6-7. However, these verses are talking about a certain kind of woman—probably those stuck at home with little education and limited life experience, including experience in how to learn and discern. Paul is not talking about all women, or women in general, in these verses.

The usual Greek word for “women/wives” (gynaikes) is not used here, but a diminutive form, literally “little women” (gynaikaria). This diminutive form is an uncommon Greek word and doesn’t occur elsewhere in the New Testament. The word can have a neutral or endearing sense, but Paul’s context in 2 Timothy 3:6-7 indicates a negative sense. Accordingly, it is variously translated into English New Testaments as weak women, vulnerable or silly women,[2] or gullible women. (Compare translations here.)

Paul doesn’t specify what kind of sins were weighing on the women, or what kind of passions they were indulging. A common trope or stereotype of the day was that men were better at controlling themselves than women, a stereotype perpetuated in the writings of men. And sometimes people live up to expectations and standards of stereotypes. Then again, Paul may be using overblown rhetoric to forcefully make a point. What is clear is that he was not happy with the behaviour of this group of women.

Strong Criticism for Depraved Men and Duped Women

The passage where these verses come from is not primarily a criticism of weak-willed women, however, but of false teachers who were infiltrating the Ephesian church (2 Tim. 3:1-9). Paul states that these people “resist the truth” and “They are men who are corrupt in mind and worthless in regard to the faith” (2 Tim. 3:8 CSB).[3] These treacherous men were manipulating apparently simple-minded, easily-led women.[4]

Paul doesn’t hold back and is scathing in his criticism of the false teachers and also, to a lesser extent, of the women who have fallen for their deception. He is angry at the teachers and exasperated with the women, and he wants Timothy and the Ephesian Church to know it! Paul had worked long and hard in Ephesus where he had faithfully taught the gospel, “the knowledge of the truth,” and now it was being undone by insidious predatory teachers.

Paul Respected Sensible and Gifted Women

Paul uses forceful language against the male teachers and their female students, but these words are no indication whatsoever of his general thoughts of men and women. There is no hint in his letters that Paul thought women were generally gullible, weighed down by sin, driven by unhealthy passions, or unable to learn.[5] In other verses of the New Testament, we see that Paul respected women and that he valued and endorsed their ministries.

He planted a church in Lydia’s home. He introduced Phoebe to the church at Rome as his sister, as a minister (or deacon), as a patron of many, and he entrusted his letter to the Romans to her. He valued the ministries of Prisca, Euodia, and Syntyche as his coworkers in the gospel. He positively acknowledged the ministry labours of Mary of Rome, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis—he loved Persis. He referred to Junia as a fellow Jew (or relative), his fellow prisoner, and as noteworthy among the apostles. Paul warmly mentions no less than ten women in Romans chapter 16.

There are still more women who Paul positively acknowledges in his letters. He took seriously a report from Chloe of Corinth’s people. He passed on greetings from Claudia of Rome, and sent greetings to Apphia of Colossae. He recognized the house church of Nympha in Laodicea and asked that greetings be passed on to her and her church. He respected the faith and teaching of Lois and Eunice.

Paul’s criticism of one group of women, the “little women” who were duped by false teachers in Ephesus, doesn’t change the fact that he respected more sensible women and their abilities.


Footnotes

[1] Many scholars believe 2 Timothy was written by an anonymous author writing in the name of Paul. I believe it was written by the apostle Paul.

[2] The gynaikaria were first called “seely women” or “silly women” in the Rheims New Testament (1582) and the King James Bible (1611). (Thank you to Andrew Bartlett who pointed this out in the comments section below.)
When these older translations were produced, the meaning of “seely/silly” had a broader range of meanings than it does today. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) takes into account early modern English, the language of the KJV. Definition 2 of “silly” in the OED is “Helpless, defenceless, powerless; frequently with the suggestion of innocence or undeserved suffering.” However, the OED, rightly or wrongly, cites the KJV translation of 2 Timothy 3:6 as one example of definition 6a which is, “Of a person: lacking in judgement or common sense; foolish, thoughtless, empty-headed; characterized by ridiculous or frivolous behaviour.”

[3] The context indicates the false teachers were all, or were mostly, men.

[4] Gynaikaria/γυναικάρια (“little women”) is grammatically accusative neuter plural in 1 Timothy 3:6, and the participles that mean 1. “weighed down,” 2. “being led,” 3. “[always] learning,” and 4. “[never] able” are all accusative neuter plural, and so they are describing the women. I’ve included this information because I’ve seen people incorrectly suggest these behaviours are descriptions of the male false teachers; the Greek grammar does not support this suggestion.

[5] The “little women” (gynaikaria) in 2 Timothy 3:6-7 are distinct from “a woman” in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 who needed to learn and not teach, and also not domineer her husband. Paul thought this woman was capable of learning (1 Tim. 2:11).

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Further Reading

Andrew Bartlett argues for a more sympathetic understanding of gynaikaria here.

Related Articles

Women, Eve, and Deception
Partnering Together: Paul’s Female Coworkers
A List of the 29 People in Romans 16:1-16
1 Corinthians 14:34-35 in a Nutshell
1 Timothy 2:12 in a Nutshell
What does “Weaker Vessel” mean in 1 Peter 3:7?
All my articles on Paul and Women are here.

4 thoughts on “The “Little Women” in 2 Timothy 3:6-7

  1. Hi Marg. I don’t think the conventional interpretation is convincing.
    Don’t verses 8-9 make clear that Paul’s criticism is directed at the predatory false teachers?
    Given Paul’s emphasis on patient love for others (1 Corinthians 13), the warmth and respectfulness of his relationships with women (see Romans 16), and his evident pastoral purpose in 2 Timothy 3, it seems likely that, when Paul points out to Timothy that the women are laden with sins and unable to learn, he is evoking Timothy’s sympathy for their desperate plight, in their captivity to the false teachers.

    Here’s what I wrote in ‘Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts’ p261: “Many English versions, reflecting traditional cultural bias, characterize these women as ‘silly’ or ‘weak-willed’ or some similar expression. There is no such word in the text. The Greek is gunaikarion. This is a diminutive of the ordinary word for a woman. Use of the diminutive often connotes affection (as in Mark 5:23; 7:25 – ‘little daughter’; and Matt. 15:26–27; Mark 7:27–28 – ‘little doggies’). Paul’s reference is to the women’s youth and immaturity. His heart goes out to them. The context shows he is expressing not contempt but concern, because their immaturity makes them vulnerable. The reason they are ‘always learning and never being able to come to a knowledge of the truth’ is because they are under the sway of the false teachers.”

    So far as English versions go, they were first called “silly women” or “seely women” in the KJV of 1611 and the Rheims New Testament of 1582. But in those days one of the meanings of “silly” or “silly” was “defenceless” or “deserving of pity”.

    1. Hi Andrew, thanks for giving the older definition of silly/seely. This is important information and I’ll mention it in my blog post.

      Could you help me with “well taken” which is how some of the oldest English translations describe Andronicus and Junia? Does it have a now-obsolete meaning?
      Tyndale’s New Testament (1526): “which are wele taken amoge the Apostles”
      Matthew Bible (1537) “which are well taken among the Apostles”
      Great Bible (1539-1541) “which are well taken amonge the Apostles”
      Bishops Bible (1568) “which are wel taken among the Apostles”

      _____

      My post is based on a comment I left on Facebook a few weeks ago where the verses were being discussed. At the time I said that I felt sorry for the women. But after sitting with the text, and considering what else Paul writes about the women, I think Paul is angry and exasperated. He worked hard to establish the gospel in Ephesus and was angry that the work was being undone by people with different ideas. Paul does speak strongly against heretics and heresies, and those taken in by them (cf. Gal. 3:1ff). And as a comparison, he isn’t at all complimentary of the idle young Ephesian widows who were up to no good (1 Tim. 5:11-15).

      There really is very little to go on with gynaikaria other than Paul’s immediate context. I’ve looked at two of the other three ancient texts that use the word and are cited in LSJ. Only one is roughly contemporaneous with 2 Timothy. And I couldn’t find anything in New Docs (but I’m missing a couple of volumes).

      In the first century, diminutives don’t always have a diminutive sense; they have lost it. And they don’t always convey affection. But I’m not dismissing your points, I’m thinking about them.

      The meaning of kynarion is much discussed. “Doggies” seems an appropriate translation in the stories of the Syrophoenician/ Canaanite woman. I think Jesus was differentiating between the stray, scavenging dogs, which were dangerous nuisances, and house pets.

      The linguist Mary Haas has noted, “The diminutive also usually carries with it a number of affective connotations which range from endearment to tenderness through mild belittlement or depreciation to outright derogation and insult.”
      Haas, “Expression of the Diminutive,” Language, Culture and History: Essays by Mary R. Haas, Anwar S. Dil (ed.) (Standford: Standford University Press, 1972) 82.

      This is true in Greek also.

      In his statistical analysis of diminutives in the New Testament, Swanson (p. 146) gives the semantics (nuances) behind their use:
      1. deteriorative (he gives gynaikaria as an example);
      2. endearing (he gives kynarion an example);
      3. small, with a shift in metaphorical meaning (keration, “little horn,” is an example);
      4. true and faded diminutives (diminutives that have lost their diminutive sense, etc).

      Donald C. Swanson, “Diminutives in the Greek New Testament,” JBL 77.2 (June 1958), 134-151. (JSTOR)
      This is quite an old paper; 63 years old. And I’m certainly not hanging my hat on Swanson’s belief that gynaikaria has a deteriorative nuance.

      Johnathan M. Watts, in his paper “Diminutive Suffixes in the Greek New Testament: A Cross Linguistic Study,” BAGL 2 (2013): 29–74 (PDF), mentions gynaikarion a few times and notes that it is typically translated as a derogative. He makes no attempt to change this understanding but notes “the Janus-like contrast between endearment and derogation.” (p. 51) And, “What is endearing in one context becomes dismissive or derogatory in another.” (p. 52)

      Thanks for your comment, Andrew. And thank you for your excellent book! I often consult it.

  2. So, this verse is often used to denigrate women, yet the part where the men are responsible for misleading them seem to get no mention at all! The fact that Paul calls such men treacherous never seems to get a mention. Yet I see the same today where men convince women that they are easily deceived. Same thing, all over. Men don’t seem to get the blame for their evil deeds the way women do for being mislead.

    I am not an expert in Greek, but I did have 3 yrs of high school Latin!! The diminutive is used much the same in Latin as it seems to be in Greek. Two famous uses are in the name “Dracula” and the name “Caligula.” Dracula was the “Little Dragon,” where as his father was know as Dracul. Caligula is my favorites. Caliga is BOOT, so in effect, his name is “Bootie.” He was not a large man, so that reflected a serious description, but the spoiled brat aspect of his personality is reflected in that. I always get a kick out of calling one of the most horrendous Caerers of Rome being called Bootie!!

    1. I was thinking of Caligula, and how inappropriate his nickname was, when I was writing the article. 🙂

      If Paul had just called the women gynaikaria without any extra information, I’d be inclined to take it as an endearing diminutive. But the other phrases (weighed down with sin, etc) make me think that Paul is very cross, as he was with the Galatians (Gal. 3:1ff), because the gospel message that he had put his heart and soul into was being compromised.

      Paul put up with a lot of things, but he had a very low tolerance of heresy and heretics. His most strident criticism is for the male false teachers.

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