What does it mean?
I’m spending a bit of time on 1 Timothy 2:12, and especially on the word “authentein,” the infinitive form of “authenteo,” because this is one of the chief—or maybe even the chief—passage cited in support of the disqualification of women from leadership and teaching roles in the church. There are several broad issues that come under scrutiny because of this, including:
- How “literally” do complementarian theologians apply the rest of what’s written in 1st Timothy, the pastoral letters in general, Paul’s other letters, and the New Testament overall?
(The answer is, as you might have guessed, they don’t in a consistent manner).
- How “literal” are translations of the Bible?
(None are exactly literal, for a variety of reasons, and all are translated in a somewhat biased manner, depending on the translation team’s biases.)
- Is the complementarian reading of 1st Timothy the only accepted reading in the evangelical landscape?
(Though complementarian theologians are the most familiar, they are not the only voice in evangelical Christianity.)
- How “new” is the view that women are to be seen as equal with men in terms of teaching and leadership in the church?
(The Quakers and Dissenters were outspoken on this issue fully four hundred years ago, and the 1st through 4th century church had women teachers and leaders.)
- How did the early church read 1st Timothy?
(Because women leaders and teachers are documented in the first few centuries of Christianity, what we can surmise, before we take a deep dive, is that whatever they understood Paul to mean, they didn’t think he meant a unilateral and permanent disbarment of women from these roles.)
Before we wade into those issues, though, let’s start getting a feel for what the last 50 years’ worth of archaeological finds have discovered—that is to say, what the hundreds of newly unearthed inscriptions and papyri containing various forms of the word “authenteo” have to offer.
This week’s scholar: Cynthia Long Westfall in her paper, “The meaning of “authenteo” in 1 Timothy 2:12”
This is a 36-page paper, exhaustively studying 80 of the 329 instances this word has been seen, so far, in the ancient record. The 80 instances she chose to study occur within the timeframe of Paul’s letter to 1 Timothy, therefore offer the most accurate renderings known to Paul, and used in his day.
Her research carefully delineated in what “register” this word was used, such as legal registers including lawsuits and enactments of law, astrology, philosophy, the political arena, and specifically the register of church leadership. She outlined how the word was used in relationship between the “actor” and the “goal.” She spread her research to take note of other words that tended to be used in conjunction with variations of “authenteo,” and what situations “authenteo” words found themselves in.
What she discovered was fascinating!
The “basic semantic meaning” of the Koine Greek verb “authenteo”
“Can be described as the autonomous use or possession of unrestricted force.”
Autonomous: The actor takes matters into their own hands.
Unrestricted: The actor uses whatever means necessary to accomplish their goal. No boundaries, including use of force, and railroading over resistance.
Force: The actor uses whatever powers they have to exert their will, including violence.
In fact, the only person who can legitimately claim authenteo in any positive sense is God Himself. Anyone else who might want to apply this word on their own behalf would indicate they are legitimizing the above definition of a person over other persons.
Westfall suggests a comparable English word to “authenteo” might be the word “eradicate.” Other possible definitions might be “put an end to,” “destroy,” or possibly, “tear out by the roots,” with the basic “semantic meaning of an ‘autonomous user or possessor of unrestricted force/power.”
Study of this word used in the register of church leadership revealed it was never used in a positive way, but rather described activity in which a person was forced against their will in a destructive way.
Here is one possible scenario which might have prompted Paul to write to Timothy, as outlined at the end of Westfall’s paper,
It is likely that a woman, particularly a wealthy widow, would be present in an Ephesian house church with at least one male, who might be a slave if she was not accompanied by a husband or male family member. Furthermore, the worship services were most likely held in the largest homes available, and women who owned such homes (such as Lydia) would be the masters of male slaves who would be under their direction in serving the agape meal—and this would even be the case with women in their husband’s homes, because men were not involved in the overseeing of this kind of domestic arrangement.Cynthia Long Westfall, “The meaning of “authenteo” in 1 Timothy 2:12”
This prohibition might be broadened to have included any time women in antiquity might have occasion to abuse a man within her power.
Stay tuned! Next week, we’ll take a look at another theologian’s close study of the word variations associated with “authenteo,” (Marg Mowczko)
Below is a short (7 minute) video of the well-known and eminent Bible scholar, N.T. Wright, offering his view on this passage in 1st Timothy.
In two weeks, I will offer some thoughts from another theologian, Jeremiah Vance, on groundbreaking scholarship he has done concerning the way to read 1st Timothy as a whole letter.
If you would like to get a head start, see what happens when you divide chapter 2 in this way:
There is a similar “chiastic” structure for verses 10-15—see if you can come up with it on your own before two weeks from now.
In three weeks, I hope to offer some further thoughts from another theologian, Bruce C.E. Fleming.
 “The meaning of “authenteo” in 1 Timothy 2:12,” Cynthia Long Westfall, pages 166-167
 Ibid, page 169-170
 Ibid. page 171
 Ibid. page 172
Hand with a scroll | Needpix, Circe Denyer (publicdomainpictures.net)