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Anti-Gnostic Measures against Women

1 Timothy 2,11-15

Anti-Gnostic Measures against Women

The Pastoral Letters, I and II Timothy and Titus, are now generally accepted by biblical scholarship as having been composed by a disciple of Paul who wrote in the apostle's name to indicate that he stood in the same tradition. Date: around 100 AD. Place: possibly Asia Minor or Greece.

The main concern of I Timothy is to counteract the influence of Gnostic teachers.

The Gnostic teachings were of a mixed hellenistic and Jewish origin. Gnostic heresies included dualism, contempt for material things, dependence on knowledge (=spiritual experience), not faith, as a way to salvation, secret doctrine reserved for the elite few and restrictive teachings about sexual practice.

The accusations made by the author are mainly centred around “speaking” and “teaching.”

Gnostic teaching affected both men and women for we read of the biblical author’s complaints “about contention and grumbling among the men” (1 Timothy 2,8) and about “backsliding or apostasy among the women” ( I Timothy 5,14-15). Yet, the author seems to be concerned more about women. In Gnostic circles women were upheld and glorified as “favoured instruments of revelation” and feminine imagery was freely applied to God and his/her emanations.

The text about women's ‘silence in the assembly’ (1 Timothy 2,11-15) should be read in this context.

Read: P. W. BARNETT, ‘Wives and Women’s Ministry’ (I Timothy 2:11-15): Evangelical Quarterly 61 (1989) 225-238; B. BARRON, ‘Putting Women in Their Place: I Timothy 2 and Evangelical Views of Women in Church Leadership’: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 33 (1990) 451 459; A. L. BOWMAN, ‘Women in Ministry: An Exegetical Study in I Timothy 2:11-15’: Biblical Studies 149 (1992) 193-213; R. FALCONER, ‘I Timothy 2,14.15. Interpretative Notes’: Journal of Biblical Literature 60 (1941) 375 - 379; S.E.FIORENZA, In Memory of Her, SCM, London 1994); G. P. HUGENBERGER, ‘Women in Church Office: Hermeneutics or Exegesis? A Survey of Approaches to I Timothy 2 :8-15’: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 35 (1992) 341-360, H. HUIZENGA, ‘Women, Salvation and the Birth of Christ: A Reexamination of I Timothy 2:15’: Studies in Biblical Theology 12 (1982) 17-26; S. JEBB, ‘Suggested Interpretation of I Timothy 2,15’: Evangelical Theology 81 (1969/70) 221-222; C. S. KEENER, Paul, Women and Wives. Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, Mass. 1992); D. R. KIMBERLEY, ‘I Timothy 2:15: A Possible Understanding of a Difficult Text’: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 35 (1992) 481 486; G. W. KNIGHT, ‘AUTHENTEO in Reference to Women in I Timothy 2.12’: New Testament Studies 30(1984) 143-157; S. L. LOVE, ‘Women’s Roles in Certain Second Testament Passages: A Macrosociological View’: Biblical Theology Bulletin 12 (1987) 50-59; A.-M. MALINGREY, ‘Note sur l’exegese de I Timothy 2,15’: Studia Patristica X11 (ed. E. A. Livingstone) (Berlin 1975) 334-339; D.J. Moo, ‘I Timothy 2:11-15: Meaning and Significance’: Trinidad Journal of New Testament Studies I (1980) 62-83; C. D. OSBURN, ‘AUTHENTEO ( I Timothy 2: 12)’: RestQuarterly 25 (1982) 1-12; A. PADGETT, ‘Wealthy Women at Ephesus. l Timothy2:8-15 in Social Context’: Interpretation 41 (1987) 19-31; PH. B. PAYNE, ‘Libertarian Women in Ephesus: A Response to Douglas J. Moo’s article, ,, I Timothy 2: 11 - 15: Meaning and Significance’: Trinidad Journal of New Testament Studies 2 (1981) 169-197; G. N. REDEKOP, ‘Let the Women Learn: I Timothy 2 :8-15 Reconsidered’: Studies in Religion 19 (1990) 235-245; R. R. RUETHER, ‘Women and ecclesiastical Ministry in historical and social perspective’: Concilium 12 (1976) 17-23; A. D. B. SPENCER, ‘Eve at Ephesus (Should women be ordained as pastors according to the First Letter to Timothy 2:11-15?)’: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 17 (1974) 215-222; V.C. STICHELE, ‘Is Silence Golden? Paul and Women's Speech in Corinth’, Louvain Studies 20 (1955) 2-3.

Exegesis of 1 Timothy 2,11-15

“Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness.” (verse 11)

To whom should women be submissive? Since in our text the object is not specified, it is inappropriate to assume that man (universally) is the object. Since the Letter was written to deter women from submitting to false teachers, “the admonition to learn with all submission seems to imply a learning from true teachers” (Redekop; Padgett). “Just as wives (Titus 3:5), children (1 Timothy 3:4), and slaves (Titus 2:9) must be submissive within their households,... so the community (especially women in our case), should not have contempt for their ministers.” (Fiorenza, p.289).

“I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men. She is to keep silent.” (verse 12)

There is no doubt about the fact that the author of 1 Timothy had imposed a prohibition on women that forbade them to teach or to have authority in his Christian assembly.
However, the main question is: was this just a local and temporal prohibition, or a universal norm imposed under inspiration for all time to come?
We can deduce that it was only a temporary and local prohibition from the following considerations:

  1. When the verb ‘to permit’ (epitrepsein) is used in the New Testament, it refers to a specific permission in a specific context (Matthew 8,21; Mark 5,13; John 19,38; Acts 21,39-40; 26,1; 27,3; 28,16; 1 Corinthians 16,7; etc.) Moreover, the use of the indicative tense indicates an immediate context. The correct translation, therefore, is: “I am not presently allowing" (Spencer; Hugenberger); “I have decided that for the moment women are not to teach or have authority over men” (Redekop; see also Payne).
  2. We know for a fact that Paul allowed women to speak prophetically in the assembly (1 Corinthians 11,5). Women functioned in the Church as deaconesses. We know, therefore, that women did speak in the assemblies. 1 Timothy 2,12 is an exception, a later ruling to counteract a specific threat.
  3. The immediate context of the prohibition was the danger of Gnostic teaching that at the time affected mainly women. Enlarging its purpose to including a permanent norm for all time goes beyond the “literal sense” of the text and the intended scope of the biblical author.

The overall meaning of this verse is, therefore: “Until women have learned what they need in order to get a full grasp of the true teaching, they are not to teach or have authority over men.” (Redekop)

“For Adam was formed first, then Eve. (verse 13)
And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. (verse 14)
Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty” (verse 15).

It is clear that these verses are not carefully considered theological statements. Because, strictly speaking, they do not make sense. If Eve is subject to Adam because she was created later, Adam and Eve are subject to the animals which were created first. Then, according to the first creation story Adam and Eve were created simultaneously: “God created him, male and female he created them” (Genesis 1,27). Also, Adam was equally deceived and equally guilty as the story makes clear (Genesis 3,17-19). Pain in childbirth and being dominated by their husbands were seen as punishments for Eve (Genesis 3,16), but the victory of woman over evil (Genesis 3,15) is ignored by our author. Are these heavy doctrinal pronouncements?

Why then did the biblical author of 1 Timothy quote the second creation story in Genesis so clumsily to back up his opinion? No doubt, “the use of Genesis to teach women a lesson was common among Jewish expositors” (Witherington). But the Gnostics also used the creation story. These verses may well have been “a polemic directed against several misconceptions concerning Adam and Eve” (Hugenberger). “The gospel is struggling in Ephesus with Gnostic-influenced women trumpeting a feminist reinterpretation of Adam and Eve as a precedent for their own spiritual primacy and authority” (Barron).

The polemic against Gnostic teachers may reveal the author's real point. In Genesis Eve was deceived by the snake and transgressed, in Ephesus some women were deceived by false teachers, and for this reason they transgressed. Since according to 1 Timothy 2,14 the emphasis is on the fact that Adam was not the one who was deceived, it reveals the context in which the letter was written. i.e. women are the ones who were causing the trouble. Therefore the author of l Timothy was addressing a specific situation.

It is possible that it was just the author’s patriarchal prejudice against women, rather than the specific Gnostic context, that caused his rather anti-feminine outburst. If so, there is even more reason not to take this broken and clumsy interpretation of the creation story to be solemnly defined doctrine.

These verses about Adam and Eve are typical rationalizations, that is: ad hoc reasonings to undershore something stated. They could only be understood within the context of the letter's audience, and therefore had a limited scope.

The tragedy is that these verses were extensively used in later tradition to justify contemporary prejudices against women. They were supposed to prove from the inspired Scriptures that God subjected women to men and that women are more susceptible to temptation and deception.

See also the interpretation of the Genesis accounts and of the use of its texts and accompanying rabbinical traditions in the New Testament, by Cora E. Cypser, ‘The Perennial Problem of Sin’.

John Wijngaards

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