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Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

The Context of 1 Timothy 2

For many Christians, the entire conversation on gender roles hinges on Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:11-15. The headliner is verse 12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man.”

I know this is true because this passage shaped everything I used to believe about gender roles.

And I’ve heard the same from other complementarians.

At the beginning of this series, a visitor to my website left a comment on the first post: “Looking forward to 1 Timothy 2:12 :).”

Another person told me that most complementarians have decided before hand what they think about the rest of the biblical evidence because of 1 Timothy 2:12.

A well known reformed evangelical preacher once quipped, “If you can get ‘I do not permit’ to say ‘I do permit’ then you can get the Bible to say anything you want.”

But can an entire theological position stand or fall on one verse? Many answer, “Yes!” Still, others would point to a broader theme of “male headship” throughout the Bible.

In this series, however, I’ve shown that the larger narrative of Scripture, not to mention specific women in prominent roles, should inform how we understand and interpret 1 Timothy 2:12. Not the other way around.

I do not believe that the Bible would contradict itself (and neither would Paul). That means that though 1 Timothy 2:11-15 does restrict women in some sense, it must be doing something other than restricting all women from teaching and leading for all time.

This post and the next is about figuring out what that “something” is.

How Should We Approach 1 Timothy 2?

This passage has been dissected and debated for decades.[1] So, I want to approach it with an extra dose of humility and caution, and resist being dogmatic.

I’d ask the same of you.

I hope that what you’ll find is that the options I present make just as much sense, if not more, than the traditional complementarian explanations.

In light of that, let me be clear: I will not provide my own definitive answer for every single thing in the passage. Approaching this passage with humility and caution leads me to approach it with openness. Instead of giving you the egalitarian interpretation, I want to propose some interpretive options. These options will account for:

  1. The actual words Paul uses;
  2. The context of what Paul’s doing 1 Timothy;
  3. The cultural situation in Ephesus (where Timothy ministered); and
  4. The larger narrative of Scripture which has clearly revealed women do teach, minister, and lead at various times throughout the history of God’s people (see a summary in my previous posts).

We can’t say there are multiple paths to salvation. But with a non-salvation issue like gender roles, we can say with confidence that options are acceptable to Christians

I hope that what you’ll find is that the options I present make just as much sense, if not more, than the traditional complementarian explanations.

This post will examine the context of the Ephesian church which will help us understand Paul’s words. The next post will be a commentary on 1 Timothy 2:11-15 that fleshes out my summary post from earlier this week.

Biblical Context: Ephesus in the New Testament

Ephesus was the most prominent city in the region of Ionia (in modern day Turkey) and a major port on the Mediterranean. Estimates indicate it had a population of 250,000 in the first century. In the New Testament, we’re introduced to Ephesus in Acts 19. Paul spent two years reasoning with Jews in the synagogue (vv 8-10).[2] He spent a total of three years teaching and making disciples in Ephesus (20:31).

Some local idol craftsmen protested Paul’s ministry (19:25-27). Worshiping Jesus, not idols, was bad for business. A large crowd had gathered to join the protest, but most had no idea why they were there (19:32).

From its founding in Acts 19 to the end of the biblical story, the Ephesian church continually fought against false teaching.

The crowd was dispersed after a few hours of shouting “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (19:34). Ephesus, we find out, was the global hub for this false goddess (Acts 19:35). More on Artemis in the next section.

In Acts 20, Paul leaves Ephesus. He encouraged the elders to watch out for false teachers who would try to come in and ravage the church (20:28-31).

Later, Paul wrote a letter to these same Ephesians. Many consider it the of “charter of the church,” particularly because of its great themes of cosmic redemption and unity in the body of Christ.

Paul sent two more letters to Ephesus–his personal correspondence with Timothy, a young minister. Timothy was commissioned by Paul to stay in Ephesus to keep people from teaching false doctrines (1 Tim 1:3).

Ephesus then makes an appearance at the end of the Bible, in Revelation 2:1-7. John wrote Revelation some thirty years after Paul’s wrote Ephesians. Jesus speaks to the Ephesians. He commends them for their endurance and rejection of false apostles. But they are also called to repent because they had forsaken their first love (vv 4-5, probably referring to Jesus).

Finally, Jesus says, “You have this in your favor: you hate the practice of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (v 6). We don’t know anything about this group, but it’s obvious they’re a heretical movement that threatened the doctrine and devotion of the Ephesian church.

From its founding in Acts 19 to the end of the biblical story, the Ephesian church continually fought against false teaching.

Timothy’s Context: Problems in the Ephesian Church

When we zoom into what’s going on in Ephesus while Timothy ministered there, we find a mess. The main reason Paul wrote to Timothy is to encourage him in the work he was commissioned to do: “command certain people not to teach false doctrines” (1 Tim 1:3).

Paul spends the entire first chapter fleshing out this charge. He concludes by specifically naming two individuals who were ring-leaders of this heretical movement in the church: Hymenaeus and Alexander, who have been excommunicated from the Ephesian fellowship (see 1:20).

In chapter 2, Paul begins to address problems that Timothy has been dealing with. First, he gives a general command (“I urge” in NIV) that prayer be made for everyone (vv 1-2). Then reflects on Christ as mediator (see below for more on why I think he does this).

In verses 8-10, Paul talks about two specific problems: angry men (v 8) and wealthy women (vv 9-10). Paul wants the men to pray with the hands lifted up without anger or disputing. He wants the women not to flaunt their wealth by their external attire, but to be adorned with good deeds. The end of verse 9 shows that the issue is not showing a lot of skin, like our modern purity culture would have us think. The problem was flaunting wealth: “not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.”

In verses 11-12, Paul then moves to another problem in the church: a woman is teaching and assuming authority she ought not to have. Paul shifts from two general concerns in Ephesus in verses 8-10, to one specific concern regarding a woman and a man (her husband?) in verses 11-12. The use of the singular (“woman,” “man” in vv 11-12 and “she” in v 15) is one reason I think this is likely the case, but we can’t know for sure. Of course, I’ll explain more in the next post.

Cultural Context: False Teaching in Ephesus

Everything we’ve looked at so far comes from within the Scripture itself. But what about the wider context of Ephesus and 1 Timothy? Knowing something of the cultural and religious context in and around Ephesus will lead us in the right direction and, I believe, better prepare us to understand Paul’s words.

Artemis of the Ephesians

Ephesus was the epicenter of the Artemis cult, home to the Temple of Artemis. It was one of the seven great wonders of the ancient world.[3] The feature photo is a model of what experts think the temple looked like.

Artemis was the Greek goddess of wild animals, the hunt, vegetation, chastity, and childbirth.[4] Unlike other goddesses, she was a virgin and childless. Incredibly protective of her sexual purity, she punished any man who attempted to dishonor her.[5]

Being a virgin in Greek mythology may have meant someone who has never had sex. Artemis fit that definition. But virginity also had the connotation of being strong, independent, and untouched by the influence of another, especially a man. Artemis was the fullest representation of these characteristics.

Any Christian community will deal with the false gods and goddesses of the non-Christian culture that surrounds it.

Though childless, Artemis was a caregiver to women and babies. In one legend, Artemis was born a day before her twin brother, Apollo. And she helped her mother give birth to him. This began her role as the protector of women in childbirth. Ironically, she was also the goddess of disease and sudden death of infants and children.[6]

Finally, she was well known for her elaborate attire. In her temple, both male priests and female priestesses served her. Interestingly, there’s some evidence that only eunuchs (castrated males) were allowed to serve.[7]

While we can’t be sure how much influence the Artemis cult had on Christians in Ephesus, it’s safe to say some was inevitable. Any Christian community will deal with the false gods and goddesses of the non-Christian culture that surrounds it. This is still the case today, even for idols that aren’t physically made by human hands.

Gnosticism in Ephesus

As troublesome as Artemis may have been for the Ephesians, there may have been something even more dangerous because of its subtlety. The text of 1 Timothy itself seems to suggest that the nature of the false teaching that concerned Paul was an early form of Gnosticism.

What is Gnosticism?
Gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, which is translated “knowledge.” This system of belief was based on the idea of secret knowledge that could be discovered by personal experience.

Built upon various ideas from Greek philosophy, Gnosticism ramped up in the first century, then found significant momentum in the second through fourth centuries. Paul’s letter to Timothy was written sometime in the mid AD 60s. If there was a Gnostic influence (and I’ll show below I think it’s reasonable to say there was), it was in primitive form.

There wasn’t a single gnostic movement. There were varieties and each gnostic leader/group had their own particular beliefs. Gnosticism as a whole, however, had three foundational beliefs:[8]

  1. God is transcendent but not immanent. God is not intimately involved in creation in any way. He only interacts with humanity through good and evil intermediaries. Christ was considered a “good” intermediary.
  2. Salvation is enlightenment. To be saved means to ascend to a specialized knowledge only available to a select few. Salvation is freedom from enslavement to the defiled, material body and deliverance into a pure spiritual existence. Obtaining gnosis means you are a member of the spiritual elite. These people are related via an endless string of divine genealogy.[9]
  3. Life is defined by dualism. The spiritual is good; all material is evil. Gnostics believed that the material universe was not created by God but by another, lesser being. They’d argue that the physical body was not their “real self.” Thus some excused indulging in all physical pleasures. But others practiced asceticism (avoidance of pleasure) because they believe they were liberated from material life into pure spiritual consciousness.

This false teaching snuck into the church in various forms and the apostles dealt with it in various letters. Many of the church fathers refuted Gnostic teaching.

Gnosticism doesn’t seem so subtle to us today. It’s quite obvious it’s false! But we’ve had 2,000 of history to work out our theology. You can buy any systematic theology book you want on Amazon right now. The first and second generations of Christians didn’t have this luxury. False doctrines spread easily then. But does Paul refute Gnosticism in 1 Timothy?

Let’s find out.

Does Paul Refute Gnosticism in 1 Timothy?
You may think all of this is fascinating information but nothing more than a clever way to distract from those boldfaced words, “I do not permit…” I assure you I’m not trying to distract you in the least. The religious context of the first century will help us better understand our passage.

It seems clear to me that the text of 1 Timothy reveals Paul is dealing with an early form of Gnostic heresy.

It seems clear to me that the text of 1 Timothy reveals Paul is dealing with an early form of Gnostic heresy. His emphasis on combatting this false teaching stretches across the letter and should inform how we interpret everything.

Paul mentions five problems in 1 Timothy 1:3-7 that would come to represent later Gnostic belief: false teaching, myths/genealogies, causing people to leave the faith, meaningless/vain talk, and misuse of the law.[10]

In 1 Timothy 2:5, Paul writes, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus.” Why does he point this out? Yes, because he’s talking about prayer. But is it perhaps because Christ is not simply a “good intermediary,” as the Gnostics taught? He’s not one of numerous aeons.[11] He is the one mediator who connects humanity to God.

In 3:16, Paul records an early credal formation. He affirms the incarnation and Jesus’ vindication by the spirit (probably a reference to his baptism). Then what of his reference to angels? To modern eyes, this is so random. But against the backdrop of pre-Gnostic beliefs threatening the church, it makes perfect sense. Paul affirms the goodness of the material world (Jesus came in the flesh) and affirms angels are witnesses–not divine intermediaries–of the one Mediator, the God-Man Jesus Christ.[12]

In 4:1-8, we see the most obvious defense against Gnostic belief. Paul says “deceiving spirits” are leading people astray (v 1). The false teachers advocated for asceticism by forbidding marriage and ordering the abstention of certain foods (v 3). They also spread myths to the gullible (v 7). These are classic marks of Gnostic belief and practice.

Paul rejects all this and affirms God created everything good. The material world can be received with thanksgiving (v 4). He later reiterates that creation is for our enjoyment in 6:17. Creation is not sanctified, and thus enjoyed, by secret knowledge; humans don’t need to escape it either. It can be received and enjoyed through the word of God and prayer (4:5).

In this same section, Paul reminds Timothy to be trained in godliness–in opposition to the Gnostic’s “spiritual knowledge.” Interestingly, Paul also affirms some value in physical training (v 8). It’s not the focus of the verse. But that’s a strange thing to include in a letter when ink and papyrus were at a premium, unless there were false teachers who preached that the physical body wasn’t real or important. Could that be why Paul mentioned it?

Finally, Paul ends his letter with the most explicit clue. In 6:20-21, he writes, “Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge [Gk gnosis], which some have professed and in so doing have departed from the faith.”

This early Christian heresy wasn’t known as the full-fledged system “Gnosticism.” But clearly people were susceptible to a “secret spiritual knowledge.” Paul’s concern for Timothy’s own salvation (see 4:16) probably shows the pervasiveness of this false teaching.[13]

All of this leads me to believe there is a significant probability that Gnosticism was the heresy that plagued the Ephesian church.[14]

But what does all this have to do with Paul prohibiting women from teaching and leading?

The Gnostic Adam and Eve
In 1945, dozens of Gnostic texts were discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Several contain alternative details of the Adam and Eve narrative.[15] This is relevant because Paul’s summarizes their story in 1 Timothy 2:13-14 (and possibly v 15, according to some people).

To Gnostics, Eve is superior to Adam. She is powerful while Adam is passive and, it seems, quite clueless. Eve gives life to Adam, and she is the one who teaches him.

In these Gnostic texts, Adam and Eve were not historical figures but representative of different human realities. The soul, represented by Adam, was the embodiment of personality. The spirit, represented by Eve, was the capacity for spiritual consciousness. Since the material world was evil, the soul was inferior to the spirit.

Thus to Gnostics, Eve is superior to Adam.[16] She is powerful while Adam is passive and, it seems, quite clueless. Eve gives life to Adam,[17] and she is the one who teaches him.[18]

These Gnostic texts were written well after Paul’s lifetime. Could these these ideas have been in the minds of Ephesians in AD 65? Yes, since religious systems take time to develop. It’s almost certain that the beliefs and stories in these texts were circulating in primitive form well before they were written down.

Because Paul was probably refuting Gnostic teaching in 1 Timothy, I think we have reason to believe what Paul spoke against also included the Gnostic versions of Adam and Eve. I’ll come back to this in my commentary in the next post.

Summing It All Up

The first-generation Christian community in Ephesus was vulnerable as false teachers tried to cloud orthodox teaching with false worship and heretical ideas. I’ve tried to show that both the worship of Artemis and pre-Gnostic teaching were major obstacles for the Ephesian church.

While Artemis isn’t mentioned by name in 1 Timothy, we know from Acts and secular history that Ephesus was the global hub for her cult. Though Gnostic teaching wasn’t fully developed as a system until the second through fourth centuries, many of its core beliefs are directly refuted throughout Paul’s letter.

Paul didn’t need to spell these things out specifically because both he and Timothy would have understood the cultural issues in their personal correspondence. We are the ones who have to work to put these pieces together.

Knowing this history is vital if we want to make sense of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 without doing some kind of interpretive gymnastics. The next post will be a commentary on the text that takes these cultural clues into consideration.


Notes

Feature photo: A model of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus.

[1] Not only has the passage been debated, but so has the entire book of 1 Timothy. For those who haven’t done formal study of theology, you may not know that there are some people who do not believe Paul wrote 1 Timothy. Some of the vocabulary and phrasing is different than in Paul’s other letters. I do believe he wrote it, but that he probably used a scribe he trusted and to whom he gave a lot of freedom in choosing what to say. Luke would be a good candidate for this. But that’s beyond this post, and we’ll have to set that matter aside for now.

[2] Acts 19-20 suggest that Ephesus had a large Jewish population. The first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus later confirmed this, see Against Apion 2.4.

[3] “Artemis,” Encyclopaedia Britannica; “Artemis,” World History Encyclopedia.

[4] “The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus,” World History Encyclopedia.

[5] Musing on how she received her name, Plato, Cratylus 400d & 406a, writes, “Let us inquire what thought men had in giving them [the gods] their names…possibly, too, that she hates sexual intercourse (aroton misei) of man and woman.” Found here.

[6] See many quotes from Homer about this here. Here’s one example: “Zeus has made you [Artemis] a lion among women, and given you leave to kill any at your pleasure.” Homer, Iliad 21, 480.

[7] James O. Smith, “The High Priests of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus,” Cybele, Attis and Related Cults: Essays in Memory of M.J. Vermaseren (New York: Leiden, 1996), 323ff.

[8] The term Gnosticism was first used in the 1600s by philosopher Henry More. See “Gnosticism,” Encyclopedia Britannica. For a very helpful summary of gnosticism, see Gervase N. Charmley, “Gnosticism,” Banner of Truth, 3/22/2016.

[9] Edward Moore, “Gnosticism,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[10] Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009),, 298.

[11] In Gnostic thought, an aeon is a being from the order of spirits that emanated from the Godhead. Paul’s word about Christ as the Mediator between God and humanity squashes any teaching about him being “one of” many in a divine order of spirits.

[12] Compare Peter’s words about angels in 1 Pet 1:12.

[13] Marg Mowczko, “The Consensus and Context of 1 Timothy 2:12,” 7/2/2014.

[14] It’s also fascinating to note that 1 John, which scholars almost unanimously agree was written to combat Gnosticism, was written from Ephesus to churches in and around Ephesus. See Donald W. Burdick, 1 John, NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), on BibleGateway.com.

[15] For a very helpful summary with links to all of these texts see Marg Mowczko, “Adam and Eve in Ancient Gnostic Literature and 1 Timothy 2:13-14,” 3/9/2015. I’m thankful for Marg’s work here and I’m standing on her shoulders.

[16] Stephan A. Hoeller, “The Genesis Factor,” Quest (September 1997). Hoeller is an ordained priest in the Gnostic church.

[17] The Hypostasis of the Archons, “And the spirit-endowed woman came to him and spoke with him, saying, “Arise, Adam.” And when he saw her, he said, “It is you who have given me life; you will be called ‘mother of the living’.” On the Origin of the World, “After the day of rest, Sophia sent her daughter Zoe, being called Eve, as an instructor, in order that she might make Adam, who had no soul, arise, so that those whom he should engender might become containers of light. When Eve saw her male counterpart prostrate, she had pity upon him, and she said, ‘Adam! Become alive! Arise upon the earth!’ Immediately her word became accomplished fact. For Adam, having arisen, suddenly opened his eyes. When he saw her, he said, ‘You shall be called ‘Mother of the Living’. For it is you who have given me life.'”

[18] Apocalypse of Adam, “She taught me [Adam] a word of knowledge of the eternal God. And we resembled the great eternal angels, for we were higher than the god who had created us and the powers with him, whom we did not know.” See also the Apocryphon of John, “[S]he assists the whole creature, by toiling with him and by restoring him to his fullness and by teaching him about the descent of his seed (and) by teaching him about the way of ascent, (which is) the way he came down.” In the Apocryphon of John, Eve is called “Zoe.” Both names mean “life.”

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Theology

Jesus isn’t a Genie to Do Your Bidding

I picked up this flier from a pastor near the local orphanage I volunteer at in Pretoria.  Evidently, Jesus is dishing out miracles next week in Mamelodi.

Power Hour

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It wouldn’t be right if I didn’t link this video about the prosperity gospel.