Can Women Minister? – 1 Timothy 2:11-16

Adam and Eve by Rembrandt
Adam and Eve by Rembrandt (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. (ESV)

In the previous section, I deliberately left one possible argument unaddressed: “But what about when Paul says, ‘If there is anything they [women] desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home’? How does that tie in with your argument about women being permitted to prophesy?” I did so both because the major commentators I consulted all wrestle with the prophecy issue, which makes it the stronger argument, but also because I wanted to tie in the subject of women learning and teaching with the above passage from 1 Timothy 2:11-16.

Verse 11 directly contradicts the notion that women expected women to only learn from their own husbands at home–as indeed does both his own example and that of the Lord Yeshua. Yeshua’s band included a number of women who actually financed the mission (Luke 8:1-3), and he personally taught Mary, who sat at his feet as any rabbinic disciple would (10:39, 42). He also taught a certain Samaritan woman while waiting by a well (John 4), breaking two conventions of Jewish society at the same time. Paul in turn taught a group of Jewish women who gathered near a river in Phillipi, noting that one Lydia was especially attentive and led her whole household in immersing into the name of Yeshua (Acts 16:13-15).

In none of these cases did either Yeshua or Paul refuse to teach the women personally. This again proves that Paul must have been quoting someone else’s position in 1 Corinthians 14 rather than presenting his own.

But what does Paul mean here when he says, “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness”? Well, the word “quietly,” hesychia (used also in v.12), doesn’t mean “utter silence,” but simply the quietness that goes with a willingness to listen instead of arguing, or to live in peace instead of meddling in the affairs of others, and is used of men as well as women (cf. Acts 22:2, 2Th. 3:12).

But what about the word “subjection”? We’ll come back to that in a moment.

Verse 12 is where the trouble lies: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” Taken together with 1 Corinthians 14, this is often given as proof against women having any public role in the Church. And yet, the same problems with that interpretation of the Corinthians passage plague this one: There is a clear precedent for prophetesses in the Bible, including at least one who served as judge and ruler over Israel; and Paul had indicated that women may prophesy if dressed modestly, which by the necessity of the role of a prophet ascribes to the woman a certain authority given by the Holy One himself!

The popular interpretation (which I won’t bother to source, since it’s nearly universal) is that this passage limits a woman’s proper role to teaching (and prophesying to) other women, as well as children. However, it seems odd that Paul would not have said so in Corinthians when explaining that women can prophesy with a head covering–it would have saved a lot of confusion in his previous letter. And again, such an interpretation flies in the face of the Biblical precedents.

There is are some additional problems, which crop up in the translations. First, the word translated “exercise authority” is not the common word exousia, but a far more rare word, authenteo. In fact, this word is so rare that this is the only place it appears in the canonical Scriptures. Thayer’s indicates that in the rare cases where it is used in Greek literature, it means “one who does a thing himself, the author . . . one who acts on his own authority” as “an absolute master.” That’s quite a different thing from “exercising [properly held] authority.”

The second translation issue comes out of the fact that in Greek (as well as Hebrew), there is no special word for either “husband” or “wife.” Instead, the terms “man” (aner) and “woman” (gyne) are used, with only the context indicating whether the man and woman are married or not. So let’s look at the context of v.12.

Verses 13-16 use Adam and Eve as the prototypical example to support v.12–but Adam and Eve weren’t just a man and a woman, but the first married couple. Paul then goes on in 3:2 to use the same Greek words to indicate a husband and wife. Indeed, the whole of chapter 3 focuses on what the family life of a deacon should look like.

So let’s look again at the passage, fixing the translation issues:

Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a wife to teach or to act on her own authority over a husband; rather, she is to remain quiet [peaceful]. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

In the early Ekklesia, it was not uncommon for a wife to come to faith in Yeshua before her husband (1Co. 7:13f). It may well be that the only point of this passage is that a woman who came to faith first, or who was otherwise more gifted in the Word than her husband, should not be put in a position of being a teacher to or acting on her own authority apart from him, so as to not disrupt the proper chain of authority in their household (Eph. 5:23).

However, as Glenn Miller explains (, there were also cultural issues that necessitated Paul’s instruction to Timothy which also explain why he decided to refer back to Adam and Eve for his prooftext:

Ephesus was legended to have been founded by the Amazons in the 12-13 centuries BC (ISBE, s.v. “Ephesus”), and maintained one of the strongest goddess worship centers in history (WS:ISNW:47-54). This was worship of the Great Mother or maternal principle, who allegedly gave birth to both humans and the gods. . .

“From the earliest times in Anatolia, female religious officials known as ‘old women’ kept alive the ancient myths.” (WS:ISNW:64). . . “Ancient writers attest that distorted stories, including perversions of the Adam and Eve saga, were already circulating in the first century of the common era. Recent scholarship suggests that Gnostic-like myths opposed to traditional biblical values may have been afloat in Alexandria as early as the second or first century before Christ. Philo, who died in CE 45, utilizes the very theme which was to draw rebuttal by Paul; namely, mythologizing Eve as the one who brings knowledge and meaningful life to Adam” (WS:ISNW:65). . .

The success of Paul’s ministry at Ephesus would no doubt have included some of the priestesses of Artemis (cf. the story of the burning of incantation scrolls by cult practitioners in Acts 19.19). Mickelsen (cited in WS: WIC: 126) shows how these might be in view in a number of the textual situations:

In Ephesus with its huge temple to the goddess Artemis were hundreds of sacred priestesses who probably also served as sacred prostitutes. There were also hundreds of hetaerae, the most educated of Greek women who were the regular companions and often the extramarital sexual partners of upper-class Greek men. Possibly some of these women had been converted and were wearing their suggestive and expensive clothing to church. Since hetaerae were often respected teachers of men in Greece (many are named in Greek literature), they would be more likely to become teachers after they became part of the church.

Paul, of course, had lectured in a Greek secular school for two years there (Acts 19.9), and if the pattern was anything like that in Athens (Acts 17.34), educated women were probably there and were converted under his teaching.

Miller then provides the punch-line which truly changes our understanding of the meaning of the whole passage:

The lexical work of Kroeger (WS:WAB:225-244) and Kroeger/Kroeger (WS: ISNW:87-104), although complex, documents one important strand of meaning as being “to proclaim as the originator or source of something” (op.cit.). Liefeld summarizes Kroeger in WS:WAB:246: “If Kroeger’s understanding of authenteo is correct, the most straightforward translation of the verse would be, ‘I do not permit a women [sic] to teach or to declare herself the originator of man.'”

WS:ISNW:103 states it thus: “If we were to read 1 Timothy 2:12 as ‘I do not allow a women [sic] to teach nor to proclaim herself author of man,’ we can understand the content of the forbidden teaching as being the notion that woman was somehow responsible for the creation of man.”

And elsewhere: “I do not permit woman to teach nor to represent herself as originator of man but she is to be in [peaceful] conformity [ with the Scriptures, as a respectful student]. For Adam was first formed, then Eve…”

Ergo, the correct meaning of the passage is not that no woman can have a properly invested authority over any man, but either a) that wives may not be in a position of authority over their own husbands, or b) that the “reverse Bible stories” common in the goddess-centered city of Ephesus must be put to an end.


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