Paul’s Concern in 1st Timothy: False Teaching

Based largely on Latin translations of 1 Timothy 2:12 from the 4th and 16th centuries (texts written by Jerome and Erasmus), theologians have concluded that the apostle Paul was prohibiting women from “exercising authority” in the church.  Mounting evidence strongly suggests that this conclusion is not accurate.

In his book entitled, Insight into Two Biblical Passages, Dr. Leland Wilshire examines every known use of the word authentein in the TLG Computer Database and the BAGD Lexicon during the four hundred year period surrounding the New Testament era (from the 2nd century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D.). Throughout this period, some form of the word authentein is used to refer to violence, murder or another serious crime on sixteen separate occasions. Prior to the writing of Paul’s first letter to Timothy, other possible meanings occur only twice. One refers to a man negotiating a fare on a boat. The other refers to orators (public speakers) incurring the wrath of those in power. Following his comprehensive analysis of available evidence, Wilshire concludes that “the preponderant number of citations from this compilation have to do with self-willed violence, criminal action, or murder or reference to the person who does these actions.”[123] (Examples of authentein as violence, murder, dismemberment, poisoning, taking one’s own life, etc. available here: authentein as violence/murder.)

Complementarian theologians are reluctant to believe that Paul could be prohibiting women from instigating or supporting authentein andros in the sense of “violence or murder against a man.” (Andros is the Greek word for “man.”) They seem to find it difficult to imagine Paul needing to say something like this to a church. This difficulty may be attributed to the fact that Paul was addressing a very different audience facing issues that would be utterly foreign to the modern mind.

The Context of Paul’s Letter: Concerns About Ascetic Teaching

Throughout Paul’s letter, we see that he is warning Timothy to guard the gospel message against false teaching (1 Timothy 1:3-7, 6:20-21). The false teachers were preoccupied with “myths and endless genealogies” (1 Timothy 1:4). In chapter 4, Paul explains that the false teaching was ascetic. In other words, it portrayed the body and its appetites–for food and sex–as evil (1 Timothy 4:3). Paul refers to this teaching as “demonic” (1 Timothy 4:1). Ascetic teachers encouraged people to renounce the body in pursuit of spiritual “gnosis,” meaning knowledge. At the end of his letter, Paul encourages Timothy to guard the gospel against opposing ideas that are falsely called “gnosis” (c.f. 1 Timothy 6:20-21).

What many present-day scholars do not seem to recognize is that ascetic teaching during the New Testament era was commonly symbolized by ritual violence against men. One ascetic Jewish sect would forcibly circumcise Gentile men. Men who refused to submit to this procedure were murdered. When Paul was accused of teaching against mandatory circumcision, Jews from Asia Minor sought to murder him (Acts 21:17-32). One of the mystery cults present in Ephesus worshiped a goddess named Cybele; her priests were compelled to castrate themselves. Early Christian ascetics in the region began to imitate this cult, and also practice ritual castration. At the time Paul wrote his letter to Timothy, depriving a man of offspring through castration was viewed by Roman law as a form of murder. (details to follow)

Ritual Violence Against Men that was Connected to Ascetic Teaching

According to a well-documented article by Daniel F. Caner, entitled “The Practice and Prohibition of Castration in Early Christianity,” asceticism that included literal castration became a widespread problem in the early centuries of the Christian faith. Born at the end of the 1st century A.D., Justin Martyr wrote about a Christian man who wanted to castrate himself to disprove accusations that Christian “love feasts” (communion celebrations) were nothing more than sexual orgies.[124] In the Acts of John, a Christian man living in 1st century Ephesus castrates himself in a fit of remorse over committing adultery and murder. He is rebuked by John, the Lord’s disciple, who says the following:

Young man, the one who gave you the idea to kill your father and become the lover of another man’s wife is the same one who portrayed your cutting off your member as a just act. Alas, you should have eliminated, not your bodily parts, but rather the thought that through their intermediary showed itself to be harmful. For the organs are not what does harm to man, but rather the invisible sources according to which all shameful impulses get started and manifest themselves.[125]

Also writing about spiritual practices in the 1st century A.D., philosopher Philo Judaeus favourably compared Jewish ascetics to those who celebrated the “corybantian mysteries.”[126] The “corybantes” were “the attendants or priests of Cybele noted for wildly emotional processions and rites,”[127] during which they ritually castrated themselves.[128] Philo’s comparison of Jewish ascetics to the corybantes is not surprising. Jews exiled to Ephesus and the surrounding region by Antiochus the Great in the 2nd century B.C. were “noted for their easy assimilation of [native] culture and religion.”[129]

Citing Philo, author Elizabeth Wyner Mark explains that Jewish ascetics (known as the Essenes and Therapeutae) symbolized their renunciation of the body and its appetites not through castration, but rather through the ritual of circumcision. According to Wyner Mark, Philo compared circumcision to castration and viewed both rites as “apt metaphor[s] for spiritual progress.”[130] In addition to teaching asceticism symbolized by circumcision, leaders of the Essenes claimed spiritual authority by tracing their “endless genealogies” (c.f. 1 Timothy 1:4) back to the priesthood of Zadok.[131] Zadok was a priest during the reign of King David in Israel (2 Samuel 20:25).

A third century Christian writer, Hippolytus of Rome, discusses Jewish asceticism at length in his work entitled, “The Refutation of All Heresies.” He highlights one group of Essenes that would forcibly circumcise Gentile men. This sect viewed it as a form of sacrilege if Gentiles dared to speak of God or His Law without being circumcised. Gentiles who refused to submit to the procedure would be “slaughtered.”[132]

Hippolytus also writes about a group of ascetic Gnostics in the early church called the Naassenes. They drew inspiration from mythology concerning the goddess Cybele and her castrated consort, Attis. All of Cybele’s priests (known as the Galli) imitated Attis by practising ritual castration. Inspired by this example, the Naassenes lived their lives as though they had been castrated. Hippolytus viewed the Naassenes as the “grand source of heresy” in the early church.[133] Author and Professor of History and Religion, Philippe Borgeaud, highlights the widespread concern among church leaders from the second century onward that Christians would follow the example of the Galli, embrace extreme forms of asceticism, and begin to confuse Jesus’ mother (sometimes called “the Mother of God”) with the goddess Cybele (known as “the Mother of the Gods”).[134]

Writing in the 4th century A.D., Epiphanius (the Bishop of Salamis) also discussed castration in the context of ascetic cults that called themselves Christian. He attributed the literal practice to a sect known as the Valesians:

The Valesians, who “are all castrated except for a few…when they take someone as a disciple, as long as he has not yet been castrated he does not partake of animal flesh. But once they have persuaded or forced him to be castrated, then he partakes of anything whatsoever…. They not merely discipline their own this way, but often impose the same on strangers passing through, entertained by them as guests.[135]

By the 4th century A.D., castration in conjunction with extreme asceticism had become a wide-spread problem in the church. Hoping to stem the tide of ritual castration in the region of Galatia, Basil, the Bishop of Ancyra,[136] insisted upon disciplinary action to “check the many such eunuchs” who had “already grown prominent in the Church.” In his appeal to church leadership, Basil attributed the practice of physical castration by Christians in the region to the influence of “the Greeks of old.”[137] Caner concludes from this expression that Basil is referring to Cybele’s priesthood, “the Galli.”[138] Philippe Borgeaud explains that the men of Galatia who castrated themselves in honor of Cybele were known as “Gallo-Greeks” (i.e. “the Greeks of old”).[139] Ritual castration was eventually banned for Christians by the Nicaean Canons and the Apostolic Constitutions in the 4th century A.D..[140]

In summary, asceticism was a prevalent movement within Judaism and early Christianity. Numerous ancient sources (cited above) agree that Jewish and Christian ascetics were both influenced by mythology concerning the goddess Cybele. The castration of her mythological consort Attis was viewed as the ultimate symbol of an ascetic “renunciation of the flesh” in pursuit of spiritual “gnosis” (knowledge). Some ascetic groups viewed Attis’ emasculation as an example to be followed metaphorically. They were taught to live as if they were emasculated.[141] Others, like those mentioned by Justin Martyr, the Acts of John, Basil and Epiphanius, followed the example of Attis and the Galli literally. Ascetic teaching in the New Testament era was often known for its practices of fasting, celibacy, circumcision, ritual castration and sometimes even the outright murder of men. It is this form of false teaching in Ephesus that appears to be the focus of Paul’s concern.

Cybele, Attis and the Galli

Cybele, also referred to as “the Mother of the Gods,” was a deity worshiped in an area of the world known as Anatolia (modern day Turkey).[142] This part of the world is also referred to as Asia Minor. Mythology concerning this goddess and a subordinate male deity (named Attis) emerged in two regions within Anatolia: Lydia and Phrygia, [143] Ephesus, the destination of Paul’s letter to Timothy, was located on the Western fringe of what was once called Lydia. The oldest literary evidence for the myth of Cybele and Attis in this region dates back to the 4th century B.C..[144] In most versions of the myth, Attis was the companion and lover of the goddess. A central feature of the mythology, and related cult worship, was Attis’ castration. Caught in an act of infidelity by the goddess, he castrates himself in a fit of remorse and bleeds to death under a pine tree. In some versions of the myth, he is raised from the dead by the goddess, purged of his masculinity–the alleged source of his sin. This purging via castration was then re-enacted by men wishing to join Cybele’s priesthood in an annual celebration held on “The Day of Blood.”[145] These castrated priests, the Galli, would then serve the goddess by becoming oracles, telling people’s fortunes for money.[146]

Though the Greeks and Romans would come to dominate Asia Minor politically, author and historian Lynn Roller demonstrates that the worship of Cybele remained “an important part of Ephesian life.”[147] This influence would persist through the New Testament era into the reign of the Emperor Julian (4th century A.D.), who was “secretly initiated at Ephesus,” and composed a hymn “to the honor of Cybele, the mother of the gods, who required from her effeminate priests the bloody sacrifice.”[148]

Even a glance at the story of Cybele and Attis demonstrates why this particular myth was so inspiring to ascetics. It seemed to epitomize their belief that the source of evil was located in the body. Attis’ self-castration was viewed as an act of atonement and purification:

He [Attis] lacerates his body with a sharp stone, practicing on himself the type of bloody mortification that the Galli will later imitate. He lets his long hair down, thus designating the spoiling of his betrayed virginity, and is heard uttering: “I deserved it, I am paying exactly for my error with the price of my blood. Oh! May the parts [of my body] that have made me do wrong, yes, may they disappear!” He removes the burden from his groin, and no sign of his virility remains.[149]

Drawing inspiration from this myth, ascetics within Judaism and early Christianity continued to symbolize their renunciation of the body through the genital cutting of circumcision or castration. Like the Galli, ascetic Gnostics also believed that this renunciation would enable them to access secret, spiritual knowledge.[150]

Castration, Circumcision and Murder, Under Roman Law

If the apostle Paul was talking about “castration” in 1st Timothy 2:12, why would he use a word that was typically understood to mean “murder?” Under Roman law of the 1st century A.D., castration was referred to as a form of “murder.” The law was known as the Legis Corneliae de sicariis et veneficis: “The Law of Cornelius Sylla against murderers and poisoners.”[151] The word “sicariis” is Latin for “murderers.” It is the Latin equivalent of the Greek word authentas. If written in Greek, the Roman law against castration could have been called “the Law of Cornelius against “authentas.” “Sicarii” is also the title that was given to the Jewish ascetics who would forcibly circumcise Gentile men, sometimes murdering them. Castration, forcible circumcision, and the outright murder of men were all prohibited under Cornelius Sylla’s law.

To understand why the Romans included castration as an example of murder, it is necessary to understand their thinking about human reproduction. Drawing from Aristotle’s view of human biology, a dominant perspective was that “the soul” of every living human was already present in the seed of the man. At conception, the woman merely provided “soil” for the seed to grow.[152] Through Roman eyes, depriving a man of his offspring through the act of castration was as good as murder.

Additionally, according to Hippolytus, one of the mystery cults castrated men chemically, by using hemlock.[153] The use of hemlock to inhibit sexual desire is also referred to in the work of a first century A.D. Roman poet named Ovid. He associates its use with “the magic arts.”[154] Using potions to render a man impotent was referred to as a form of “magica” (i.e. sorcery) under the Lex Cornelia.[155] It was covered under the section referring to “poisoners.” The Latin term for “poisoners” (venificis) can also mean “sorcerers.”[156] Using hemlock for the purpose of repressing a man’s sexuality could also have the unintended side effect of killing the man. The punishment for administering the potion was exile. The punishment for causing death was either crucifixion or being “thrown to the beasts.”[157] First century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus describes the murder of a man named Pheroras by poison. This poison was allegedly prepared by a woman from Arabia skilled in the use of potions that affected sexual desire. The murderer in Josephus’ account is referred to as an authenten, “murderer.”[158]

If we understand Paul’s use of the word authentein in the context of the ascetic teaching he was warning against, 1 Timothy 2:12 would read as follows: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to support violence against a man.” The violence could include ritual castration–a prevalent expression of asceticism that was viewed as a form of murder by Roman law. It might also include the forcible circumcision of Gentiles, and the murder of those who refused to submit to this procedure. It could also refer to the administration of hemlock to rid a man of sexual desire–a practice which risked killing the man.

If Paul is indeed prohibiting ascetic teaching that would encourage various forms of ritual violence against men, it is understandable that he would also tell the church of Ephesus to respect and pray for the Roman authorities:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people–for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. (1 Timothy 2:1-2, NIV)

It is also understandable that he would tell the men of the congregation not to be angry:

Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. (1 Timothy 2:8, NIV)

And of course it is understandable that Paul would then tell “a woman” not “to teach or support violence against a man” (1 Timothy 2:12).

(From chapter 5 of “The Equality Workbook: Freedom in Christ from the Oppression of Patriarchy”)

References

[123] Wilshire, L. (2010). pp. 28-29; see also Parchment 1208 & Philodemus’ Rhetorica.

[124] Caner, D. (1997). The Practice and Prohibition of Self-Castration in Early Christianity. Vigiliae Christianae Vol. 51, #4, p. 396.

[125] Borgeaud, P. (2004). Mother of the Gods: From Cybele to the Virgin Mary, trans. L. Hochrath. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, p. 96.

[126] Philo, The Contemplative Life, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/yonge/book34.html.

[127] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Corybant.

[128] Borgeaud, p. 92.

[129] Kroeger, C. (1986). 1 Timothy 2:12: A Classicist’s View, in Women, Authority and the Bible, A. Mickelsen Ed., Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, p. 240.

[130] Wyner Mark, E. (2003). The Covenant of Circumcision: New Perspectives on an Ancient Jewish Rite. Lebanon, NH: Brandeis University Press.

[131] Edwards, B. (2013). Let My People Go: A Call to End the Oppression of Women in the Church, Revised and Expanded. Charlotte, NC: Createspace, p. 48.

[132] Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, Book IX, Chapter XXI.

[133] Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, Book V, Chapters 1 through VI.

[134] Borgeaud, p. 101.

[135] Caner, p. 406.

[136] Basil was a 4th century Bishop and Greek theologian who took a stand against heresy, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Basil-of-Ancyra.

[137] Caner, p. 403.

[138] Caner, p. 403, note 32.

[139] Borgeaud, pp. 74-76.

[140] Caner, p. 397.

[141] Hippolytus, the Refutation of All Heresies, Book IV.

[142] The Syrian Goddess, by Lucian, tr. by Herbert A. Strong and John Garstang, [1913], at sacred-texts.com.

[143] Borgeaud, p. 33.

[144] Borgeaud, p. 34.

[145] Ferguson, J. (1970). The Religions of the Roman Empire. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, P. 29.

[146] See Cybele, Attis and the Galli, as described in Borgeaud’s “Mother of the Gods,” Farnell’s “Cults of the Greek States Volume 2,” Ferguson’s “Religions of the Roman Empire,” and Peter Sodergard’s “The Ritualized Bodies of Cybele’s Galli.”

[147] Roller, L. (1999). In Search of God the Mother: The Cult of Anatolian Cybele, Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, p. 200.

[148] Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 2, by Edward Gibbon, [1781], at sacred-texts.com.

[149] Borgeaud, p. 42.

[150] “Gnosticism: Part III, the Nature of Gnosticism,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Online, http://www.internationalstandardbible.com/G/gnosticism.html.

[151] Gaii Institutionum Iuris Civilis Commentarii Quatuor, Gaius, trans. Edward Poste, London, Oxford at the Clarendon Press. M.A., M.DCCC.LXXV.

[152] Aristotle, On the Generation of Animals, Books I & II; Sicero, as cited at http://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/aristotle.

[153] Hippolytus, The Refutation of All Heresies, Book V, Chapter III.

[154] Ovid, Amores: Book III, Elegy VII, http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/AmoresBkIII.htm#anchor_Toc520536659.

[155] Rives, J. (2006). Magic, Religion, and Law: The Case of the Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficis.

[156] Hart, J. (1853). Epitome of Greek and Roman Mythology. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Lippincott Grambo & Co. P. 160.

[157] Rives, J. (2006).

[158] Falvius Josephus, Jewish Wars 1.582.1.

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