How to Understand 1 Timothy 2:11-12

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In yesterday’s post, I took a look at how a few different Bible versions translate 1 Timothy 2:11–12. They all had subtle differences partly due to the fact that it’s a challenging passage to translate and perhaps also due to the fact that there are several strong opinions on what this verse means.

Let’s take a closer look at these verses. For sake of simplifying the discussion, I’ll use the ESV text: “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.”

So first of all, what does Paul mean when he instructs women to be quiet in the final phrase “she is to remain quiet”?

Whatever the word “quiet” means, it likely does not mean complete silence. Paul used the same word in verse 2 to describe all believers leading a “peaceful and quiet life.” So, unless we want to say that neither men nor women should ever talk, perhaps we should consider the word “quiet” here to be more in line with the idea of leading a peaceful life.

Second, what does the phrase “a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man” mean? A comparison of English translations demonstrates the wide variety of ways this has been taken. Part of the translation difficulty is that this is the only place in the New Testament that the Greek verb authentein (translated “authority”) appears.

Furthermore, there are several more common words for having authority in the Greek language, which Paul did not choose. Apparently, there was a nuance for authentein that must have matched the situation for the particular believers Paul was writing to in Ephesus. If you look at ancient Greek literature outside of the Bible, there are a few times this verb occurs. Interestingly all of its occurrences have the idea of domineering or having mastery over someone, in some cases even in violent ways.

So, it should come as no surprise to read that a primary Greek lexicon (BDAG) translates this particular verb as “to assume a stance of independent authority,” “give orders to” or when used with a genitive of persons “to dictate.”[1]

Taking a further look at the grammar in 1 Timothy 2:12, it is important to point out that the main two verbs didaskein (“to teach”) and authentein are both infinitives functioning as verbal nouns. In essence, they are two direct objects probably used together in order to “define a purpose or goal.” With this in mind, I feel a better translation of this passage would be “I do not permit a woman to teach so as to gain mastery over a man,” or “I do not permit a woman to teach with a view to dominating a man.”[2] So in other words, a woman is not restricted from teaching men. She is only restricted from doing so in a domineering way.

This interpretation falls in line with the rest of 1 Timothy, where it appears that the women in particular in Ephesus were behaving in a manner unbecoming for any Christian.

Some of you may be wondering why more Bible translations don’t reflect this idea? Some of it has to do with the fact that many good believers have differing opinions on the role of women in the church. But, I believe part of it may also have to do with the pressure put on Bible translation committees by the general public for hot button issues like this.

For example, in 2011 the NIV committee updated the NIV version. First Timothy 2:12 was one of the updated verses (changed to the phrase “assume authority”), and the committee stated they updated this verse in an effort to reflect the ambiguity of the Greek text. The Southern Baptist Convention was not in agreement with several of the updates, including the one for that verse, and made an attempt to get the Lifeway Christian stores to stop selling this updated NIV version (Read about it here or here).

All that to say, I encourage believers to heed well the words of 1 Timothy 2:15 “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.”

When there is a hot button issue in an interpretation, listen to what a variety of believers have to say and compare the verse in question with other Bible passages. Often times, the confusion in one verse is cleared up by a careful reading of what the Bible says about that topic in other passages.

[1] Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, rev. and ed. Frederick W. Danker, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), Accordance Version 9.5.3.

[2] Linda L. Belleville, “Teaching and Usurping Authority: 1 Timothy 2:11–15” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy, ed. Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis and Gordon D. Fee (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2005), 217–219.