I have received several enquiries concerning whether I was going to tackle the “difficult passage” 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in this series. It was always my intention to do so and, in light of these enquiries, I have decided to tackle the passage sooner rather than later. At the outset, I confess that I approach this text with several hats on:
1. As an Anabaptist, I am passionately committed to women having an equal role alongside men.
2. As a Christian nurtured in the evangelical tradition, I am committed to taking Scripture seriously and cannot simply ignore a passage because it does not seem to fit with my convictions.
3. As a New Testament scholar, I must insist that this text is not taken out of its context. I Tim. 2:11-15 is not a unit on its own – it forms part of the unit 1 Tim. 2:8-15. Furthermore, 1 Tim. 2:8-15 is imbedded in 1 Timothy as a whole. Finally, 1 Timothy forms part of the corpus known as the Pastoral Epistles – I Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus. This is crucial, for we need to understand what the author’s concerns about women are, and this can only be achieved by examining the whole of the Pastorals rather than prematurely making 1 Tim. 2:11-15 the controlling centre for interpretation.
4. Finally, as an Anabaptist New Testament scholar, I cannot make 1 Tim. 2:11-15 the controlling centre for a New Testament understanding of the role of women in any case. A Christocentric hermeneutic (to which 1 am committed) insists that our text must be read in light of the Jesus revealed in the Gospels.
I am firmly convinced that the Pastoral Epistles are not to be read as a manual of church order. The purpose of the Pastorals (or at least 1 Timothy) is stated in 1 Tim. 1:3-4. In my view, the Pastorals are polemical documents written to counter false teaching which was threatening to undermine the communities addressed. The false teachers took pride in propagating special knowledge or “gnosis” (1 Tim. 6:20) with a strong ascetic thrust (1 Tim. 4:1-3) based on the understanding that the resurrection had already taken place (2 Tim. 2:18). The fact that these false teachers forbade marriage (1 Tim. 4:3) is particularly significant.
In a recently published article, I argue that the polemic is particularly strong because the opponents had previously been influential leaders within the Christian community. They were clearly able to teach in some capacity (1 Tim. 1:3; Titus 1:1 1); Hymenaeus and Alexander, leading opponents, are described as having “suffered shipwreck in the faith” (1 Tim. 1:20), implying that they had once been regarded as “in the faith”. Even the passages concerning qualifications of church leaders serve the author’s overall purpose. Those who forbid marriage, for example, cannot be “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:1; 3:12; Titus 1:6) and so are disqualified from serving as overseers, deacons or elders within the community.1
It would appear that these teachers enjoyed particular success among women (2 Tim. 3:6) and we need to examine why this might be the case.
The Widows (1 Tim. 5:3-16)
It continually amazes me that, whilst much time and attention is given to the question of women in I Tim. 2:11-I5, relatively little is paid to 1 Tim. 5:316. This is particularly important when we notice that 1 Tim. 5:14 refers to bearing children and that the verb teknogonein and its related noun teknogonia occur only here and in 1 Tim. 2:15 in the entire New Testament. Some commentators go to great lengths to assert that the childbearing referred to in 1 Tim. 2:15 refers to the birth of Jesus and yet completely ignore 1 Tim. 5 :14. It seems to me that the question of the widows is both of great concern to our author as he devotes so much space to it and of relevance to the question of women in 1 Tim. 2.
The passage is not without its own difficulties. Commentators are divided as to whether it refers to one group throughout or whether a separate group of enrolled widows is addressed from verse 9. My view is that only one group is addressed – the passage is framed by the concern to assist those who are “real widows” (1 Tim. 5:3,16), The Greek term chera (widow) refers to a woman who is living without a husband. Its most common meaning was the one we would associate with the word “widow” – a woman whose husband had died. However, this was not its only meaning. A woman without a husband might be divorced or might have renounced her marriage as did the later Montanist prophetesses, Maximilla and Priscilla.2 Furthermore, the context in 1 Tim. 5 suggests a further extension of the word to include all women who had taken vows of celibacy, whether previously married or not.3 This interpretation is supported by a passage from Ignatius, “I greet the households of my brothers with their wives and children, and the virgins who are called widows. “4
The Old Testament regularly exhorts the community of faith to take care of widows and the early church continued this tradition (Acts 6:1). However, it would appear that in the communities addressed in the Pastorals the circle of widows had grown to include those whom the author did not consider “real widows” worthy of support. Included in this circle were younger women who had taken vows of celibacy. The problems seem to have been two-fold. First, supporting such a large group was draining the communities’ resources (1 Tim. 5:16). To deal with this, the author restricts the supported group to those “who are really widows”. To qualify as a “real widow” worthy of support a woman would have to meet several criteria:
• No family to provide support (verses 4-5).
• At least sixty years old – the recognised age in antiquity when one was classified as “old” and correspondingly less likely to remarry (verse 9).
• Faithful to her previous husband (verse 9).
• Well attested for good works, bringing up children, hospitality, etc. (verse 10).
• No support from other believing women in the community (verse I6).
The author specifically forbids support for younger widows (verse 11). His initial argument focuses on the seriousness of potentially breaking the vow of celibacy (verses 11-12). However, this is not his main concern, as he clearly does not want them to take such vows in the first place – he wants younger widows to get married (verse 14). Why does he want them to marry, bear children and manage their households? Because their household responsibilities would prevent them from “gadding about from house to house” and being “gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not say” (verse 13). This is the second problem posed by the circle of widows.
These younger widows were revelling in their freedom from the constraints of the traditional household structure. Having already taken the celibate route, they were also particularly vulnerable to false teachers who were forbidding marriage. If they were enjoying the freedom that celibacy brought, it would not be a huge step to embrace teaching that actually opposed marriage. Here is the crux of the matter and what really concerns the author. The opponents have already had some success amongst this circle of widows (verse 15).5 The opponents’ rejection of the household structure is deeply threatening to the community of faith which is addressed by the author as “the household of God” (1 Tim. 3:15). His solution to preserve this potentially vulnerable group of women from the error confronting the community is that they should marry, bear children and immerse themselves in their households (1 Tim. 5:14).
1 Tim. 2:8-15
Having set the scene, we come at last to this passage. As stated above, we cannot concentrate attention on just verses 11-12 or even verses 11-15. Verses 9-15 are concerned with women but verse 9 begins with hosautos (likewise) – verse 9 is a dependent clause subordinate to verse 8. So the text reads “I want men to pray… likewise (I want) women to adorn themselves…” The passage is concerned about relations between men and women in the community of faith. However, because false teaching appears to have enjoyed particular success among women, after a brief exhortation to men the author turns to address women for the rest of the chapter. His concern is for appropriate behaviour in the household of God (1 Tim. 3:15). It would appear that women have not behaved appropriately. This is particularly true of the younger, celibate “widows” and, of course, of those who have succumbed to false teaching.
Whatever the precise nature of the false teaching (and scholarly opinion varies on this), clearly its effect was to disrupt households (1 Tim. 4:4; 5:13-15; 2 Tim. 3:6-7; Titus 1:10-11). I have argued that women were particularly attracted to this teaching as it provided them with freedom from the constraints of the patriarchal family structure. In addressing women, therefore, precisely because of the problems facing the community, the author reinforces the traditional family values of both Jewish and Graeco-Roman cultures. The contrast between external adornment and moral virtue for women was a regular feature in ethical writings of the time. In particular, the author wants women to display sophrosune. This word occurs in verse 9 and 15 and is virtually untranslatable by a single word. It was one of the four Greek cardinal virtues and involves modesty, prudence, temperance, discretion, sound judgment and self-control.
This emphasis on sophrosune which frames this passage highlights both that verses 11-15 cannot be divorced from verses 9-10 and that the entire passage is rooted in the ethical concerns of the day. As David Scholer rightly notes: “…there is no exegetical, historical or hermeneutical basis to regard 2:9-10 as normatively different from 2:11-12. Nevertheless, most evangelicals, including those who see 2:11-12 as warrant for limiting women in ministry, take the injunctions against women’s adornment in 2:9-10 to be culturally relative and do not seek to apply them in the unqualified terms in which they are stated. Furthermore, many who discuss 2:11-12 as warrant for limiting women in ministry do not even consider 2:9-10 in their discussion or they treat it rather briefly. The point is that 2:9-10 is intended to protect women from the enticements of the false teachers. Thus 2:9-10 is part of Paul’s specific response to the false teaching in Ephesus that had been directed especially at women who had been made vulnerable by their treatment as inferior or marginal in society.”6
To underline the point, if anyone insists, on the basis of this passage, that women cannot teach or exercise authority over men in the church today, then they must give equal seriousness to the injunction that women should dress appropriately, not have their hair braided, nor wear gold, pearls or expensive clothes. Either we take the whole passage as normative for today or we recognise that it is concerned with specific issues facing the community addressed.
The author goes on to address the crucial question of teaching within the community. That the question is raised at all demonstrates the prominence women enjoyed in early Christian communities. If women had never taught, or at least aspired to teach, there would be no need for the prohibition here. Some commentators, seeking to combine a respect for the passage with an egalitarian approach, have argued that the emphasis falls on “let a woman learn” and not on “I do not permit a woman to teach”. I taught this for a number of years, but having spent a fair amount of time wrestling with the text, I am no longer persuaded by it.
First, the structure of verses 11 -12 forms what is technically known as a chiasm. This is a literary two-part structure in which the second half is a mirror image of the first. In the chiastic structure ABCBA, found in verses 11-12, the emphasis falls on the middle term C. In the text the phrase corresponding to C is “I do not permit a woman to teach” and so this is structurally where the emphasis lies. In any case, far too much is made of the supposedly revolutionary nature of “let a woman learn”. “It simply goes too far to argue from this that he is herewith commanding that they be taught, thus inaugurating a new era for women. The rest of the data in the
New Testament makes it clear that that had already happened among most Christians. “7
Second, the author grounds his prohibition on women teaching and exercising authority over men in the creation account. If the Adam and Eve narrative were being used to support the imperative of verse 11, then reference to it should be placed immediately after “let a woman learn”. The Genesis account provides a two-fold warrant for the author. First, the sequence of creation – Adam, then Eve – draws on “the widespread [contemporary] assumption that the first born …has superior status and rightful authority over younger siblings”.8 This supports his contention that a woman should not exercise authority over a man. Second, relying on Gen. 3:13, he argues that Eve, not Adam, was deceived. “The author’s reasoning is that the deception of Eve and not Adam reveals this to be a weakness peculiar to women, and the particular success of the opponents with women confirms it. Thus women must not be permitted to exercise the crucial role of teacher lest their vulnerability to deception permit the spread of false teachings in the church (cf. 5:13).”9
Finally, reference to childbearing in verse 15 is highly unlikely to refer to the birth of Jesus for at least three reasons. First, it would be an obscure way of referring to the Incarnation. Second, the act of bearing Jesus is nowhere else suggested as the means of salvation. The word certainly cannot be stretched to mean Jesus himself Third, as stated above, the related verb occurs in 5:14 where it clearly refers to bearing children. It is a vital part of the author’s argument that women find salvation through a role which is the exclusive preserve of women – that of childbearing. If some women were revelling in their freedom from the traditional household structure, and this made them susceptible to false teaching, then, to counter the effects of this false teaching, women will be saved from error by accepting their traditional role as childbearers. In an amazing twist on Gen. 3:16, the author insists that just as Eve, the archetypal woman, was “cursed” in childbearing as a result of her deception, so she will now he saved from deception by means of childbearing.
Those women who bear children are unlikely to be affected by the heresy. Of course, childbearing alone is no guarantee against error so women need to continue in faith, love and holiness with sophrosune. Many commentators argue that “save” here cannot mean salvation from error as it is consistently used in the Pastorals to denote redemption from sin. However, 1 Tim. 4:16 is consistently overlooked. Timothy is exhorted that, by paying close attention to himself and his teaching, he will be able to “save” (same Greek word) both himself and his hearers. In I Tim. 4, the context is clearly the refutation of error.
Jouette Bassler sums up what this passage is essentially about:
The reference to bearing children has an obvious anti-ascetic and thus anti-heretical thrust. It may be that because of the Pastor’s concern to reject the celibate lifestyle advocated by his opponents, he sought here to counter the suggestion of Genesis that childbirth is a curse, an idea that would play into the hands of the heretics. Indeed, the heretics, who were skilled in manipulating Jewish myths (Titus 1:14), may have already exploited the potential of this idea. The Pastor then polemically transformed the Genesis curse into a Christian blessing, which may have operated on two levels. A woman will be saved from the allure of the heretical message by bearing children, and because she thus avoids making a shipwreck of her faith (I Tim 1: 19), she will also be saved in the absolute sense of the word, provided, of course, she continues in faith, love, and holiness. 10
To counter the effects of heretical teaching on women, the author reinforces the traditional expectations of women in Graeco-Roman society. He insists, in common with other contemporary ethical writings, that women should be examples of moral uprightness and fulfil their traditional family role as mothers, thereby saving themselves from the error of the opponents. In view of the perceived problem of deception, he refuses to allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man. He grounds his argument in the account of Adam and Eve found in Genesis 2-3.
Llovd Pietersen is currently doing doctoral research on the Pastoral Epistles at Sheffield University. In the second part of this article he will explore further the implications of this understanding of this passage.
1. For further details see my paper, “Despicable Deviants: Labelling Theory and the Polemic of the Pastorals”. Sociology of Religion 58:4 (1997), pp. 343-352.
2. Eusebius. Ecclesiastical History 5.18.3. Priscilla, according to Apollonius (cited by Eusebius in this passage), was thereafter called a virgin by the Montanists.
3. Verse 12 appears to suggest a vow of chastity and verses 1 1 and 14 refer to marriage and not remarriage.
4. Smyrnaeans 13.1, my emphasis.
5. I am indebted to Jouette M. Bassler, “The Widow’s Tale: A Fresh Look at I Tim. 5:3-16”, JBL 103 (1984), pp. 23-41, for an insightful analysis of this passage emphasising the attractiveness of freedom from the traditional household constraints for these celibate younger widows.
6. David M. Scholer, “1 Timothy 2:9-15 and the Place of Women in the Church’s Ministry” in Alvera Mickelsen (ed.), Women, Authority and the Bible (Basingstoke: Marshall Pickering, 1987), pp. 193-219 (202). I am substantially in agreement with both Scholer’s exegesis and conclusions.
7. Gordon D. Fee, I Timothy and 2 Timothy, Titus (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1988), p. 72.
8. Jouette M. Bassler, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996), p. 60.
9. Jouette M. Bassler, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, pp. 60-61.
10. Jouette M. Bassler, “Adam, Eve, and the Pastor: The Use of Genesis 2-3 in the Pastoral Epistles,” in G. Robbins (ed.), Genesis 1-3 in the History of Exegesis (Lewiston, NY: Mellon, 1988), pp. 43-65.