Paul’s Teaching in 1 Timothy Learning, Teaching, Authority

Paul’s Teaching in 1 Timothy Learning, Teaching, Authority


After enjoining modesty and good deeds, as distinct from expensive adornment and its potentially provocative message, Paul continued to specify how the women were to behave. We need to remember that he is writing to correct an immediate problem, and so should consider his words in that context.

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. 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, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.                                              (1 Timothy 2:11-15, NRSV)


In silence with full submission

What did Paul mean when he said that a woman was to learn “in silence with full submission”?

It is noticeable that Paul instructed that a woman should learn, a distinct difference from many attitudes to women in the ancient world.

“In silence” means “in quietness” (hesychia), the same basic word used in verse 2 “a quiet life”. It is not the word sigan, “refrain from speaking”, used in 1 Corinthians 14 when speakers in tongues, prophets and the women are told to be silent. “Quiet” in verse 2 means “free from disruption or persecution”, and it has been suggested that Paul meant the same in verse 11, i.e. that no attempt should be made to disrupt the process of a woman being taught. Pagan and Jewish comments can be quoted which object to women being educated. However, the close linking of “in quietness” and “with full submission” suggests that “in quietness” more likely refers to the woman herself. The word does not mean “without speaking”. The intention is that the woman should be co-operative and eager to learn, listening to her teacher rather than making out that she knew everything already. Such an approach to learning is essential for any student, male or female, but this was evidently not being followed in Ephesus. Plutarch (c. 100 AD) wrote:

How wise a thing, it would seem, is silence [hesychia]. In particular it serves for studying to acquire knowledge and wisdom, by which I do not mean the wisdom of shop and market place, but that mighty wisdom which makes the one who acquires it like to God.

(On Quietude, Fragment 143)

Behaving with hesychia, with quietness, is a basic characteristic which applies to all believers, not just women. It is part of acting with “submission” as all believers are to do to each other: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). Paul exhorted the Thessalonians “to aspire to live quietly” (hesychazein, the verbal form of hesychia) in 1 Thessalonians 4:11, while in 2 Thessalonians 3:11-12 he said:

For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work in quietness (hesychia) and to earn their own living.

“In full submission” may mean to the Scriptures, or to the teaching of the apostles, or the elders (3:2) or to the teaching given by her husband, or to that given by an older sister (Titus 2:3). It is the attitude required by someone who needs to learn, as did these women in Ephesus.


I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man


Various Translations

Apart from whether gyne means “woman” or “wife” and whether aner means “man” or “husband”, other possibilities of translation depend on how the words are fitted together according to translators’ assessments of the rules of Greek grammar and the translation of other key words. Is “teach” (didaskein) to be taken on its own or as a verb governing “man/husband”? Does authentein mean “have authority over”, or “dominate” in an undesirable manner? Should “teach” be linked with authentein so as to qualify what is meant by “teach”?[1] There has been much debate over the meaning of authentein, and we discuss this in the next chapter, pages 94-98.

To simplify, we will use the translation “man” and “woman”, rather than “husband” or “wife”, and translate authentein as “have authority”, though everyone should be aware that there are alternative possibilities.

Possibilities of translation include:

(1) “I do not allow a woman to teach at all. Nor do I allow her to have authority over a man”.

(2) “I do not allow a woman to teach a man nor do I allow her to have authority over him.”

(3) “I do not allow a woman to teach or dominate a man.”

We have already observed that Paul encourages all believers to teach, e.g. Colossians 3:16, and that he regards women who teach as his fellow workers. In Titus 2:3 he specifies that older sisters are to “teach what is good”. He goes on in 2 Timothy 2:2 to say that “faithful people” are to teach. How, then, are we to understand this apparently contrary statement?

There are at least four possibilities: Paul differentiated between teaching in private from teaching in public; or he had a specific individual in mind in the emergency situation he was addressing; or he was referring to husbands and wives; or he intended to ban only teaching of an immoral, misleading type.

And since he approves of women teaching elsewhere, is his ban here intended only for the immediate crisis? Does he mean that once the crisis is solved, and when the women have learned “in full submission” and therefore been properly trained, then women should teach?


(A) Private and Public Contexts

One suggestion is that Paul approved of sisters teaching in a private context, such as when Priscilla taught Apollos at home, but did not permit a woman to teach in public. In both the Greek and Jewish worlds the idea that women could be teachers was not generally acceptable. Pagan writers in the ancient world objected to women taking public roles in a number of areas, including teaching.[2] Respectable women were expected to stay at home and look after the household.

Not only the arm, but the voice of a modest woman ought to be kept from the public, and she should feel shame at being heard, as at being stripped.... ... she should speak to, or through, her husband.                                     (Plutarch, Advice to Bride and Groom 31-32)

We need to take account of this background when we observe the favourable references in the New Testament toward women teaching. It is difficult, however, to differentiate between public and private when ecclesias met in homes, and Colossians 3:16 is obviously referring to a meeting. It may be that as Christianity spread and the movement became larger, the issue of private versus public became more acute.


(B) There was a Problem with One Particular Woman at Ephesus

The text in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 is in the singular. This may be a general manner of speaking; or perhaps there is one particular woman of whom Paul has heard but whose name he does not know or whom he prefers not to specify, just as he does not specify who the “certain persons” are (1 Timothy 1:6) – yet presumably he knows, judging by the detailed criticism of the content of their teaching. The passage can be translated with a more immediate reference as “I am not allowing a woman to teach”, i.e. in the situation and circumstances of which Paul had heard. If he imposed a blanket ban at this stage, he could sort out who could teach and who could not when he arrived personally, as was his intention (“I hope to come to you soon”, 1 Timothy 3:14), and as he does in 2 Timothy 2:2.


(C) Husband and Wife

Most translations interpret verse 12 in a general manner (“man” rather than “husband”):

I do not allow a woman to teach or to have authority (authentein) over a man.

The word “submissiveness”, however, suggests a husband/wife context, for Paul had already taught that “wives are to be subject to their husbands” (Ephesians 5:22). The switch from “women” in the plural (verse 9) to “woman” (gyne) and “man” (aner) in the singular in verses 11 & 12, and the reference to childbearing in verse 15, likewise suggest a marriage context. Translating these words as “wife” and “husband”, they then read:

Let a wife learn in silence and in all submission [to her husband]. I do not allow a wife to teach (didaskein) or to dominate (authentein) her husband.                                                                         (1 Timothy 2:12)


What background could have required this teaching from Paul?


There are several possibilities:

(1) In the ancient world women were usually married as teenagers (14 years old) to men who were considerably older (20s to 30s). In this situation, it is obvious that wives, who were little more than youngsters at first, should learn quietly from their husbands when being instructed in Christian teaching.

(2) Bossy, domineering wives are not unknown today. It may well be that among the false teachers were some such women.

(3) Most women in the ancient world received little education other than in housekeeping from their mothers.[3] Many women could not read or write. In such a situation the wives were in no position to teach their husbands. The frequent references by the apostle Paul to the Old Testament Scriptures indicate the assumption that his readers would have an awareness of the Old Testament. A proper understanding is impossible without literacy, and uneducated wives therefore needed to be taught both literacy and the Scriptures. Relying on old-wives’ fables taught in the nursery (1 Timothy 4:7) – such as Greek myths and other stories from pagan backgrounds – would not give them any basis for understanding the way of Christ. Titus 2:4 indicates that younger wives needed to be given spiritual and moral education, and this would be given either by older women as in Titus 2:4-5, by ecclesial leaders or by husbands.


(D) Paul sought to stop Immoral, Misleading Teaching

Paul was writing in a situation where those who were spiritually uneducated were teaching others:

Certain persons ... desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions.                                                         (1 Timothy 1:6-7)

Immodest dress suggested sexual promiscuity (2:9); some widows were living for pleasure (5:6) and younger widows whose commitment, and morality were in doubt, were going from house to house (ecclesia to ecclesia?) “saying what they should not” (5:11-13). Paul instructed the deacons’ wives (or “women deacons”) to be “serious, no slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things” (3:11). The need to give such instructions shows that some, perhaps many, perhaps the majority of the women were light-headed, slanderers, immoderate and unfaithful (to Christ or to their husbands). The crisis facing Paul and Timothy was a major one. Such women were in no position to teach, or exert any influence. The linkage of “teach” with authentein suggests activity which at its mildest was dominating in an unhelpful manner; at its worst it was immoral and was undermining the Scriptural basis of the Christian gospel, like the woman Jezebel, in Revelation 2:20 “who is teaching and beguiling my servants to practise immorality”.


She is to keep silent

“Silent” is the same word on which we have already commented in verses 2 and 11 (hesychia). It makes more sense to translate it literally, “in quietness”, not “in silence”. She is not to be disruptive, a comment which fits well if authentein means dominate, for “in quietness” is directly contrasted with authentein. Alternatively it could mean that she is to refrain from speaking and teaching false proto-Gnostic ideas, and instead be in harmony with the Scriptures, which would fit with the immediately following references to Genesis.


Adam and Eve

Paul next refers to the Garden of Eden, connecting this to the foregoing by the word “for”.

For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.  (1 Timothy 2:13)


Adam was formed first, then Eve

We discuss the evidence from Genesis in Chapter 18, but the question which needs to be asked at this point is: What does Paul mean to convey by this reference?

Three ways of understanding his wording have been suggested.

(A) Because Adam was formed first he was given the divine right to lead, teach and rule over his wife.

If Paul intends this, he certainly does not state it, nor does a careful examination of Genesis 2 bear this out, as we show in Chapters 17 and 18. The idea that being formed first thereby entails authority over what was formed later is an assumption, not stated here nor in Genesis. The animals were formed before mankind according to Genesis 1, but this does not imply that the animals were in authority over mankind. Sometimes reference is made to the special privileges allotted to the first-born (Genesis 48:18, Deuteronomy 21:15-17), but Adam was not “born”, and Paul makes no reference to this practice.[4]

(B) The problem addressed here is of women giving men false teaching. This is against God’s purpose. He created man first, and then the woman, the purpose being that she would be a suitable companion to him, someone who would help him live as God intended. This is not what the women at Ephesus were doing, so Paul cites Genesis to remind them of how men and women were created to work in unity. They were to rule over the earth together in partnership (Genesis 1:28, 2:23), not over each other. But in Ephesus the women were exerting authority wrongfully over men and were leading them into sin, just as had happened with Adam and Eve.

The relevance of saying that Adam was formed first, then Eve, is that Adam was instructed by God and had the job of passing on God’s commandments to Eve. Adam as the senior had greater experience of life, and especially of working with God before Eve was made. In the context of Ephesus, the position was the same. The wives of whom Paul was thinking in Ephesus were comparatively uneducated; it was important that they listened to their educated Christian husbands. Paul therefore drew a parallel between the original needs in Genesis and the needs in Ephesus.

(C) Paul says that Adam was formed first, then Eve, because the false teaching in Ephesus, as seen later in Gnosticism, gave priority to Eve. Gnostic writers conflated Eve with the Mother Goddess – Isis/Cybele/Artemis. We gave one example on page 76. Here is another:

After the day of rest, Sophia sent Zoe her daughter, who is called Eve, as an instructor so that she should raise up Adam, who had no soul in him, so that those whom he would beget should become vessels of the light. When Eve saw her co-likeness lying flat, she showed pity upon him and said, “Adam, live! Rise up upon the earth.” Straightaway her word became a deed. For when Adam had risen up, he immediately opened his eyes. When he saw her, he said “You will be called ‘the mother of the living,’ because you are the one who has given me life.”                    

(Nag Hammadi Codex, II, Tractate 5

On The Origin of The World, 115.85-116.86)

Paul therefore repeats the original Bible teaching as given in Genesis and instructs that believers should hold firmly to the warning it gives.

It is traditionally suggested that Paul objects to a woman teaching on the grounds that this is contrary to the order of creation. We need to ask: Why, then, did he not stop at “For Adam was formed first, then Eve”? Instead he continues with a second reference “and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor”. The answer, we suggest, is that there were problems concerning deceptive teaching in the first century circumstances in which this was written.


Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived.

There are at least three possible interpretations of this statement:

(A) All women are easily deceived like Eve and are therefore not fit to teach or have authority.

There are several reasons for doubting this interpretation.

(1) Sisters seem no more prone to be led astray or to lead others astray than do brothers. It is only some women who are a problem (e.g. 1 Timothy 5:13). Others like Timothy’s mother and grandmother are spoken of with approval for their faith and their work (2 Timothy 1:5 & 3:15).

(2) If Paul regards sisters as by nature unfit to teach, why does he instruct them elsewhere to do so, e.g. Titus 2:3-4, where the older women are to be “teachers of good things”? And why do we allow them to teach our children?

(3) Believers, male and female, are in the process of transformation into a new nature, so to say that women en bloc are easily deceived like Eve (or to say that all men sin deliberately like Adam) is to deny our renewed life in Christ:

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.  (Col. 3:9-10)           

A second interpretation is this:

(B) Paul was drawing a parallel between women at Ephesus who were teaching false doctrines (and had been deceived into these, such as in 2 Timothy 3:6-7) and Eve who similarly was deceived and then misled Adam.

This conforms with the manner in which Paul drew a parallel from Genesis in 2 Corinthians 11:3.

But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.

Paul’s reasoning, according to interpretation (B), is this: Adam was formed first and therefore received the commandments from God, but Eve was deceived by the snake and led him astray just as was happening in Ephesus in the situation to which Paul was addressing his warnings. By referring to an Old Testament incident his hearers knew well, Paul was drawing a parallel to reinforce his message, this being that a spiritually misled sister should not mis-teach or dominate her husband.

There is a third possibility:

(C) Paul is reminding the church at Ephesus that Eve was a sinner, not the bringer of enlightenment and salvation. This next comment in Timothy therefore follows on to reinforce the rejection of the idea that Eve was originator of life and the one who revealed true knowledge:

For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.  (1 Timothy 2:13)


Saved through bearing children

Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.  (1 Timothy 2:15)

Paul’s approval of childbearing (obviously within marriage, which helps to indicate that this section may be specific to married couples) is a suitable rejoinder to the false teachers who forbade marriage (1 Timothy 4:3), or to the ‘new’ women who rejected marriage or treated their vows lightly. Some of the Gnostics had a strong aversion to childbirth, rejecting anything to do with the material body which they regarded as evil, while the ‘new’ women preferred promiscuous relationships and measures to prevent pregnancy or childbirth.

But this is an obscure verse for several reasons. Sisters are saved by being in Christ just like brothers, and various suggestions have therefore been made as to the meaning of “saved through bearing children”.[5] What about sisters who do not have children? Translation is a problem too, for the second part is plural, though the sentence begins in the singular:

Yet a woman (or wife) will be saved through bearing children, if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.  (1 Tim. 2:15)

This verse once again illustrates the difficulty of understanding and applying comments when we do not know, and cannot properly discover, the situation Paul was addressing. This much is clear, that Paul endorses faith, love, holiness and modesty, qualities desirable in us all but sadly lacking among the false teachers in Ephesus and Crete.

We suggest, as one of a number of possible positive approaches, that the passage could be paraphrased and expanded to read as below.

“Wives who need to be instructed in the Christian faith should learn quietly and submissively. I do not allow a wife, who herself needs to be taught, to teach or to tell her husband what to do. She must keep quiet and learn. For Adam was formed first, then Eve, not the other way round as some people are saying in Ephesus; and we can draw a lesson from what happened in the Garden of Eden. Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. She was deceived because of her lack of experience and by false teaching – just like the women in Ephesus. I am anxious that women in Ephesus shouldn’t do as Eve did and use their influence to lead their husbands astray. And mindful that Eve was deceived, don’t go along with the idea being promoted by some people that woman is the creator and the all-virtuous revealer of truth. Yet, though Eve was deceived, a wife will be saved, and there will be no deception and no sin, if she lives a proper married life, bearing children and continuing in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.”


Concluding Comments on 1 Timothy 2:12

This passage contains sufficient uncertainties of context, translation and interpretation that it should be viewed in the light of clearer teaching elsewhere. It should not be used as a key passage in any discussion on the role of sisters in the ecclesia. Nor should it be quoted in writing or speech without the qualification that both translation and meaning are open to considerable debate. Doubtless the meaning was clear to Timothy, as required by the circumstances and his mission. But we cannot simply quote words from the past and apply them to our own context today when their original meaning and application are uncertain.


Teaching Today

Paul did not define (in 1 Timothy) the position of a woman who had learned properly, like Priscilla, or like his female “fellow workers” who were therefore in a position to teach. But if the prevailing attitude of society made it difficult for women to teach in the first century, it is not so now. Acceptance of the Gospel is more likely to be hindered today by any attitude which says that capable sisters may not teach. In fact, our community has always permitted sisters to teach – in print, which is much more public and has a wider impact; we have thereby acknowledged, if unwittingly, that teaching by a woman is not inadmissible in itself; when properly done, it is a positive good.

[1] Each time the verb “teach” occurs in 1 Timothy it is linked with another verb which helps to explain the type of teaching: “not to teach any different doctrine, nor to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies” (1:3-4); “Command and teach these things” (4:11); “Teach and urge these duties” (6:2); “If any one teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ” (6:3). Similarly in Revelation 2:20: “Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice immorality.” It has been suggested therefore that in the expression “to teach or to have authority over men” (2:12), the type of teaching is explained by the other word in the couplet, authentein. If, as some evidence seems to show, authentein has a bad meaning, then the type of teaching to which the apostle objects is wrongful teaching, not good teaching.

[2] “Public Roles for Women in the Pauline Church: A Re-appraisal of the Evidence” by James G. Sigountos and Myron Shank, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol. 26, No. 3, September 1983 pages 283-295. This article argues that the perception in the ancient pagan world was that women who taught were not being submissive, whereas women as prophets or as priestesses (e.g. at Delphi) were acting acceptably.

[3] Some women, especially in important cities like Ephesus, did receive a high level of education. But, as the context in 1 Timothy indicates, what is lacking is spiritually educated women. Hence Paul’s command that they are to learn, not teach, and not exercise authority. What could be worse than for worldly, spiritually uneducated women teaching others and telling them what to do?

[4] Thomas R. Schreiner writes:

The readers of 1 Timothy would not have scratched their heads with perplexity and amazement when Paul says that women should not teach because Adam was created first. The priority of Adam in creation would have naturally suggested his authority over Eve to the original readers. Paul does not endorse primogeniture per se in 1 Timothy 2:13; he appeals to the creation of Adam first in explaining why women should not teach men. (Women in The Church – an Analysis and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9-15, eds. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Thomas R. Schreiner, second edition, 2005).

If Paul had referred solely to the creation of Adam first, then Eve, there might have been cause to think that “priority of Adam in creation would have naturally suggested his authority over Eve to the original readers” – despite the fact that no such statement is made in Genesis, and the opposite is stated: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18). But Paul does not leave it there. He immediately follows with comments about deceit, which (we suggest) puts the whole reference to Genesis in the context of the problems in Ephesus – along with the instructions that women should learn in quietness. Women who were not spiritually fit to do so were teaching and expressing authority over men; they were deceived, and were deceiving others both by what they taught and the manner in which they dominated the men. See our comments on Genesis in Chapter 18, pages 122-126.

[5] Suggestions include that the woman will be kept safe through the dangers of childbirth; or that it refers to Mary and the salvation brought by the birth of Jesus. Or it may refer to the dangers caused to their health by the ‘new’ women who don’t “continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty” and seek to avoid childbirth by abortion – at considerable danger to their lives. Each suggestion presents difficulties of its own. Another context may be a reference to the worship of Artemis who was believed to protect women in childbirth. Christian women look to God, not Artemis, for their salvation in Christ.

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