observations on the background of 1 timothy 2:11–15

There is no doubt that 1Tim 2:11–15 is both controversial and divisive in its interpretation among people who sincerely claim that the Bible forms the authoritative basis for their faith. On the one side are those who understand it to clearly indicate that women should not teach or have authority over men in a church context, and that this applies to all churches at all times — including the present (a group frequently designated “Complementarian”). On the other side are those who claim that the restrictions imposed by Paul here are a result of local circumstances in Timothy’s church and so do not apply in the modern context (a group frequently designated “Egalitarian”). Today, this group claims, there are no restrictions on women teaching men in church contexts.

Those in the first group are suspicious of the claims made about the historical context of 1 Timothy to which the second group appeal in order to arrive at their interpretation. And there is some warrant for such suspicion when there is little agreement among the second group as to the nature of those historical circumstances. You won’t have to look into this subject for long to read claims about the historical context which are themselves contradictory or vague or uncertain.

Rather than delve into these claims, however, in this post I would like to note a number of points which I think adherents to both sides of this debate should be able to affirm, points which are often understated or overlooked but which, I believe, do have clear implications for the application of Paul’s words in the modern context.

First, Paul speaks of authority in 1Tim 2:12. What many English translations conceal from the reader is that, rather than using any of the usual Greek words referring to authority (such as αρχω, εξουσιαζω, υπερεχω, etc.), Paul uses a very unusual term (αυθεντεω) — a term found nowhere else in the Bible and whose meaning is hotly debated. In spite of this, many attempts to explain Paul’s meaning simply treat this word as though he were using a generic term for “authority.” Yet surely such an explanation presumes a lot and specifies the meaning of the passage in ways that are premature. If Paul simply meant ‘authority’ in the usual sense why confuse the issue by using such an unusual word?

Second, while there is uncertainty over whether Paul is referring to two disparate activities (“teaching” and “exercising authority [of some type]”) or the one activity (some sort of “authoritative teaching”), it should be acknowledged that “teaching” — particularly in light of my next couple of points — was an inherently authoritative activity. Teaching aims to modify the thinking and behaviour of the audience, it is an act which carries some amount of authority.

Third, many in the audience in the ancient world would have been functionally illiterate. In the modern world preachers will often encourage their audience to check what they say against what the Bible says, for the Bible is the ultimate authority. For many in the ancient world this was not an option simply because they could not read.

Fourth, even for those who were able to read, they could not pop down to the local bookstore and pick up a copy of the Bible. There was no printing press, there were no shops that sold copies of the Bible. They could not pull out their phone and download the Bible or open their Bible app or visit a website to read the Bible. Bibles were hard to come by. The entire church would be exceedingly fortunate to have one Bible, and we should not be surprised if they had none at all.

Fifth, even if the church had some people able to read and they had a copy of a Bible, their Bible was not our Bible. It was, at best, a copy of the Old Testament (probably in Greek). There was no New Testament — at the time 1 Timothy was written, the church simply could not have a complete NT because it hadn’t all been written! They could not have read Revelation, they probably had no copy of any of the gospels. They may have — and I stress the “may” — had a copy of a couple of Paul’s other letters. For teaching based on any of the parts of our Bible that they had no access to, they had to rely entirely on the approved preachers/teachers in their midst.

What all this means is that the teacher in Timothy’s church was effectively that church’s Bible. That teacher was the authority in a way that no teacher today could be. And a consequence of this observation is that whatever is being prohibited by Paul in 1 Timothy 2:11–15 should not simply be translated into the modern context to automatically prohibit allowing any form of teaching or any authority to suitably qualified women. To do so is an overly simplistic and ultimately misleading reading and application of the passage.

This is, of course, not to say that there were not other factors outside of the text which influenced Paul’s instructions and which may themselves have further implications for the application of his words here today. This is only to say that the above are, I would argue, difficult to deny and weigh heavily on our understanding of the implications of the text for the modern church context.

2 responses to “observations on the background of 1 timothy 2:11–15”

  1. Carl Metzler

    I just discovered this site this morning. It’s interesting. Thanks for doing this. Re the scarcity of Bibles: What about he Bereans in Acts 17:11? They apparently had daily access to the Scriptures of the time and the ability to both read and understand them independently.

  2. Martin

    Hi Carl, that’s a good point. I’d make the point that the Bereans were found in the Synagogue and that indications are that Synagogues likely had a copy of the Torah and remaining Hebrew Scriptures which were read at gatherings (see Grüll, Tibor. “Reading of the Torah in the First Century Synagogue — New Archaeological Proofs,” In Schöner Alfréd hetven éves. Essays in Honor of Alfred Schöner, edited by Oláh János and Zima András, 139–52. Budapest: Gabbiano Print, 2018).

    So while they had access to the Synagogue, they would have had access to the Scriptures (but in their case to none of the New Testament Scriptures at all). For gentile believers in an environment of growing hostility between Judaism and fledgling Christianity, however, it would be less likely that they could stroll into a synagogue and check out what the Scriptures said!

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