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What 1 Timothy Says about Women

by James F. McGrath, PhD

Woman Silhouetted in the Sunset

There are two instinctive and diametrically opposed reactions that some readers have on their first encounter with the famous words in the first of the letters addressed to Timothy in the New Testament:

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).

Some readers will respond by embracing this (whether enthusiastically or grudgingly) as authoritative teaching requiring that women be excluded from positions of teaching and leadership. Others will respond by seeing it as proof Paul was the chauvinist he is reputed to have been and dismiss him, and quite possibly all of Christianity itself along with him.

Without excluding the possibility that one or the other of these might be the most appropriate response to what we find in this text, there are often more than two options available in such cases, and texts do not always have the meaning they appear to us to have when we resituate them in their ancient historical and cultural context. There are a wider array of issues and interpretive possibilities that deserve to be discussed and considered before deciding what the text means—and what to do with it.

What about other passages from Paul’s letters?

One major question that needs to be asked is how the words in this passage relate to other things found in Paul’s letters. Connected with this are a number of issues of translation, textual criticism, historical and cultural context, and a range of other issues, all intertwined inseparably, which makes it very hard for many readers to consider any of them fairly. If any of them needs to be rethought, it may impact everything else.

For instance, Paul’s sending of his letter to the Roman church through Phoebe (Romans 16:1) whom he refers to as a deacon of the church in Cenchrea seems to clearly involve her having authority and speaking with authority.

1 Corinthians 14:34-35, on the other hand, requires women to be silent and in submission. If those verses are an original part of Paul’s letter (there is some doubt about that) then there seems to be a contradiction not only among Paul’s letters, but even internally within that letter to the church in Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 11, women pray and prophesy, presumably out loud. In 1 Corinthian 14, the point might not be a prohibition of speech as part of the meeting, but women discussing what was being said among themselves, while someone else was speaking. If that was the meaning, then it is addressing something Paul had heard was happening in the church in Corinth, as he does at many points throughout the letter, and does not constitute a prohibition against women preaching and teaching.

There are different ways to interpret the discrepancies.

In the end, there will be some who will decide that Paul had female companions in his work who spoke with authority and led, and so the passages that suggest otherwise must not mean what they appear to, or must relate to specific circumstances in the communities to which those letters were sent. Others will judge that the discrepancies are too great and thus some of the letters and passages must not actually come from Paul. Still others will decide that the statements about women being silent and submissive are the clearest and the appropriate place to start, and thus women must not have played the leadership roles they seem to in Paul’s churches and his work of proclaiming the good news.

The majority of scholars are persuaded that 1 Timothy is a letter written in Paul’s name by someone other than Paul. Whether you accept that view or not, the letter may still carry weight with you as part of Christian scripture irrespective of who wrote it. But recognizing the possibility of pseudepigraphy—that this could be a work that claims to be by Paul but is not—at least provides additional options for making sense of the tension and contradictions.

The New Testament is a collection and not the work of a single author. It contains the perspectives of Paul, James, and Peter, and Paul’s own letters inform us that they did not always see eye to eye on things (see Galatians 2:11-12). If we expand our consideration to texts outside the New Testament, still further insights become available.

Let’s look at women in 1 Timothy versus women in the Acts of Paul and Thecla.

1 Timothy not only denounces women teaching, but also the forbidding of marriage. Interestingly, a work known as the Acts of Paul and Thecla presents a perspective that seems to match what 1 Timothy is arguing against. In that work, Paul proclaims a gospel of chastity, and women like Thecla who embraced it were liberated from conforming to their assigned submissive gender roles as a result. In ancient patriarchal cultures, daughters were treated like the property of their fathers until they were married to husbands who were then considered to have authority over them. Renouncing marriage made for a natural coupling with an assertion of female autonomy, and we see that depicted in the story the Acts of Paul and Thecla tells. The early church author Tertullian, in his work “On Baptism” 17:5, claims that the work was written by an unnamed presbyter in Asia.

“If certain Acts of Paul, which are falsely so named, claim the example of Thecla for allowing women to teach and to baptize, let men know that in Asia the presbyter who compiled that document, thinking to add of his own to Paul’s reputation, was found out, and though he professed he had done it for love of Paul, was deposed from his position. How could we believe that Paul should give a female power to teach and to baptize, when he did not allow a woman even to learn by her own right? Let them keep silence, he says, and ask their husbands at home.”

I have long been surprised by the willingness of so many scholars to simply take Tertullian at his word on this point. Tertullian was seeking to nullify the impact of the work and so denounced it in vague terms as a forgery, saying that some unnamed individual living far away from where he was in an unspecified city or town had admitted to forging the work. There is no hope of anyone in his time, never mind in ours, investigating his claim.

However, even if the author was a presbyter in Asia and Tertullian was telling the truth, that does not mean that this was something that happened in or close to Tertullian’s time. What 1 Timothy says about women and the Acts of Paul and Thecla say about women might represent competing forgeries written by authors in Asia Minor in the first half of the second century, one claiming to tell stories about Paul that lent authority to women, the other claiming to be written by Paul himself and to curtail that authority.

What 1 Timothy says about women was part of a larger debate about Paul’s legacy and vision, and it is only one of several possible views of how to best interpret what he wrote.

It may or may not seem persuasive to you. And as has already been said, the place of 1 Timothy among the New Testament writings may give it a weight that the Acts of Paul and Thecla does not carry. What might you do under those circumstances?

What we do with biblical interpretations is up to each of us.

Jesus’ teaching and the example of the early church encourage us to seek out liberating and positive ways of interpreting the scriptures. What they say may be beyond our control (although it is always important to dig deeper to see whether the particular translation we read accurately conveys the meaning and nuances of the original language). What we do with what they say, however, is up to us.

There are many examples in the Bible in which a passage of scripture seemed perfectly clear, and yet Jesus, Paul, or someone else found a way to interpret the passage that was more liberating and inclusive. While the prospect of doing that with 1 Timothy 2:11-15 might appear unlikely at first glance, in actual fact there are details in the text that ought to give us pause, to puzzle us and raise questions about its meaning. Close attention to those will lead us to alternative ways of understanding the text that deserve our consideration.

The first thing we ought to note is the fact that this text, whoever wrote it, was penned in historical circumstances in which women were rarely given educational opportunities. Few men had the opportunity for formal study either, just to be clear, but the limited opportunities there were to study were almost exclusively the purview of men. This fact alone might change our impression of what is significant in 1 Timothy 2:11.

1 Timothy does say that women should learn.

We often rush past 1 Timothy 2:11, “Let a woman learn…” to the prohibition against teaching in the next verse, because that is what grabs our attention as modern readers. But that prohibition might have seemed mundane in an ancient Roman context. What might have seemed striking, on the other hand, was the statement that women should learn. That the author does not allow women to teach might seem understandable in a context in which women had not been previously given the opportunity to learn.

In order to teach, one must first learn. There are plenty of examples past and present of both men and women teaching and claiming to speak authoritatively on subjects about which they are clearly not informed. The statement can be taken as a delay on the possibility of women teaching, rather than a blanket prohibition for all time.

What do Adam and Eve have to do with 1 Timothy?

There are other details in the text that support this interpretation. The author’s treatment of the story of Adam and Eve seems, at first glance, every bit as problematic as his insistence on prohibiting women from teaching, if not indeed more so. How can anyone read Genesis and understand that only Eve was deceived and became a sinner but not Adam?

(This detail might also seem to support the conclusion that this is the work of someone other than Paul. After all, in letters of Paul’s the authenticity of which is all but certain, such as Romans 5:12 and 1 Corinthians 15:21, sin is said to have come into the world through one man. There, Eve doesn’t even feature, much less bear the blame on her own!)

Close attention to both texts—Genesis and 1 Timothy—opens some interesting avenues. Why does the author of the letter to Timothy highlight that Adam was created first and Eve only subsequently? The order of creation does not have any bearing on the question of whether one may legitimately teach, does it? Reading the story in Genesis closely, we see that it is not only the case that Adam is created first, then Eve, but that Adam is created first, then the commandment is given, and then Eve is made.

Eve thus had no opportunity to learn the prohibition, unless of course she learned it from Adam, in which case Adam seems to have failed miserably in his role as informant.

When Eve is tempted by the snake, she misquotes the prohibition. There is no suggestion either in Genesis or 1 Timothy that Eve had misunderstood. The implication is that, because of the order of events, she had not been given the opportunity to learn what was needed in order to resist temptation effectively. That Adam had botched things with respect to his teaching role is a fascinating implication that we will refrain from exploring further in this context, in the interest of keeping focused on our main subject at hand.

Eve had not had the same opportunity to learn that Adam had had from an authoritative teacher (in this case God). Picking up only bits here and there indirectly had made her more susceptible to temptation and being led astray than she presumably would have been if she had been given the proper opportunity to learn. And so the order of creation and the misleading of Eve reinforce the initial statement in 1 Timothy 2 which now seems even more likely to be the point: women should learn.

They should not teach at least until they have had the proper opportunity to learn.

‘Saved’ from the curse on women in 1 Timothy?

What about after that? It may be that this passage about women in 1 Timothy addresses this question as well. When 1 Timothy 2:15 talks of being ‘saved’ through childbearing, it says that she (singular) will be ‘saved.’ The word translated ‘saved’ indicates rescued from danger, being restored or maintained in safety. The singular suggests that Eve is still the focus in that statement rather than women in general. Eve will be rescued, but how and from what? After being led astray she is subjected to her husband as part of the curse (Genesis 3:16).

The question addressed here is how that curse will be overcome. The answer is that Eve’s children, her daughters, will bring about her rescue and restoration. She (singular) will be rescued from her predicament, the text says in 1 Timothy 2:15, if they (plural) continue in righteousness. In other words, there has been a subjection as a result of sin, and the expectation is that Christ brings about its end.

But that isn’t something automatic. Women may teach, but that is not an instantaneous result, which perhaps some in the audience that 1 Timothy is addressing had assumed it could and should be. Being well-informed and ready to teach doesn’t happen in a miraculous instant. Women should learn, and once they have done so, their learning and their practice of righteousness that goes along with it will result in Eve’s (in other words, womankind’s) restoration. Then they can and should teach.

This is clearly not the only way one can interpret 1 Timothy. But hopefully I have illustrated that there are other ways of understanding this passage than that which gets heard most often from both advocates for and detractors from what both those parties understand the text to be saying, which is that women today are not permitted to teach.

What 1 Timothy says about women are words written by a human being, not by God.

When we think about it, this ancient text obviously says absolutely nothing directly about what should be done almost two millennia later. While I am happy to offer this alternative understanding, one that prohibited women from teaching only in that time because it was important that they first learn and only then begin to teach, ultimately there is a more foundational point that is even more important that readers of this article take away with them.

Whether written by Paul or someone else forging a letter in his name, and whether it be understood as saying something oppressive or ultimately liberating, the author’s voice ought not to be mistaken for the voice of God.

The author may be Paul or someone pretending to be Paul, but in neither instance is the author pretending to be God or claiming to be God. What we hear through the text is a human voice and not a divine one. Whatever you conclude that that voice is saying, you won’t be the only one who agrees or disagrees with it. The New Testament is a collection of texts written by people who disagreed amongst themselves. The collection does not offer a definitive answer to problems of ancient Christians, never mind of modern ones.

Then as now it was an invitation to participate in a conversation. I hope this article not only provides you with a wider array of options for wrestling and engaging with this text, but most importantly helps you to recognize your own authority and responsibility as its interpreter.