1 Timothy 2:13-15: The Order of Creation? Saved through Childbearing?

Paul’s Reference to the Creation Account: His Message in Context

Some complementarians insist that Paul makes reference to the creation account in 1 Timothy 2:13-14 to reinforce the notion that women should not attempt to “usurp” male authority in the church.  An exploration of Paul’s Ephesian context in light of his expressed concerns about false teaching suggests a different interpretation.  Rather than protecting “male authority” from women, Paul seems to be intent on protecting the gospel message from an early form of Gnostic asceticism.

One of the earliest recorded Gnostic sects in this region drew their theological beliefs from the mythology of a goddess named Cybele.[i]  Her consort was a castrated male deity named Attis, and she was served by eunuch priests. The Gnostics viewed the castration of Cybele’s priesthood and Attis as a symbol for the renunciation of “the flesh.”  They viewed matter as evil, and sought to “put to death” the body and its passions.

An earlier article examined the possibility that Paul’s prohibition against a woman teaching something related to “authentein andros” in 1 Timothy 2:12 may be prohibiting ascetic teaching that encouraged men to “put to death” a part of themselves.  Available historical evidence demonstrates that some men who embraced this teaching also engaged in ritual self-harm that was prohibited by Roman law.  These practices included self-castration, self-flagellation and the taking of hemlock to suppress the passions.  That article is available here: https://equalityworkbook.wordpress.com/2017/02/08/pauls-concern-in-1st-timothy-false-teaching/

The Gnostic sect that embraced castrated Attis as a symbol of their ascetic beliefs also made significant alterations to the creation story found in Genesis. They praised Eve for eating the forbidden fruit to obtain divine “gnosis,” and viewed the serpent as a messenger of God.[ii] They combined the creation story in Genesis with the Cybele myth, which depicted a female goddess as the source of all life and purity, while male gods were portrayed as the source of all that is evil.[iii] By referring to the actual creation story as recorded by Moses, Paul highlights that while all men do come from women, the first woman came from a man. He also demonstrates that Eve as well as Adam played a role in humanity’s fall. Rather than endorsing a male-dominated “order of creation,”  Paul’s comments in 1 Timothy 2:13-14–understood in their original context–simply correct the theological errors of ascetic Gnosticism.

Paul’s Reference to Salvation through Childbearing: His Message in Context

This brings us to an examination of Paul’s comments in 1 Timothy 2:15: “But she will be saved through childbearing, if they abide in faith and love and holiness, with self-restraint” (Berean Literal Bible). “Saved through childbearing” is the phrase that has led to confusion for many theologians throughout church history. Once again, understanding Paul’s words in the context of his immediate concerns (asceticism influenced by mythology) can be helpful. Authors Philippe Borgeaud, Lewis Farnell and Marguerite Rigoglioso point out that while natives of Asia Minor called their goddess “Cybele,” Greeks who immigrated to the region gave her one of the names of their own goddesses; they called her “Artemis.”[iv] When the Greeks would give a foreign goddess one of the names of their own deities, the beliefs and practices of the different cultures would begin to merge. In some cases they would overlap; in others they would retain some of their original distinctions. (It is important to recognize that there were many variations of the goddess “Artemis” in the ancient world. We are concerned here only with the Artemis that was essentially a Greek perception of the goddess Cybele.) In the worship of Cybele/Artemis, marriage was traditionally frowned upon. This mythical deity preferred women to remain single and set apart for divine service; marriage was viewed as a form of betrayal. Women who married and became pregnant were afraid that the goddess might kill them in childbearing.[v] Whereas worshipers who knew the goddess as Artemis would offer animal sacrifices or other gifts to appease her wrath,[vi] male priests of the goddess Cybele would attempt to appease her by offering bloody sacrifices from their own bodies. Seneca, a Latin philosopher from the 1st century A.D., wrote to express his horror about this practice:

One cuts off his virile organs, another slashes his arms. How can they fear the gods in their wrath, who thus gain their favour when they are to be propitiated. Rather, gods who would demand this should not be served in any manner at all…. On the whims of kings some have been castrated, but no one ever, at the command of his lord, unmanned himself by his own hands. They slay themselves in their sanctuaries; they beseech the gods with their wounds and with their blood. If one has the chance to look closely at what they do and what they undergo, he will find these things to be so unseemly for decent people, so unworthy of freemen, so unlike the actions of the sane, that no one would doubt that they are mad, were they but mad with the minority; now, however, the crowding number of the insane serves as proof of their sanity.[vii]

In the context of 1st century A.D. goddess mythology, salvation from possible death in childbearing and ritual violence against men went hand-in-hand.[viii]

The Gnostics who drew inspiration from this mythology insisted that spiritual salvation required both men and women to become sexless.  Procreation (the creation of matter) was viewed as evil.[ix]

Paul writes to Timothy to tell him that salvation is not to be associated with pagan myths or a Gnostic renunciation of human sexuality. Rather, he explains that women will be saved through faith in Christ, that expresses itself in love and holiness.

Apparently ignorant of Paul’s context and intended meaning, Latin theologians like St. Jerome concluded that women would be saved from sin by giving birth to children.[x] Similarly, in some complementarian circles today, women are told that they will demonstrate a saving faith in Christ by embracing the roles of wife and mother.[xi]

These patriarchal interpretations of Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:15 deny the gospel of salvation through faith in God’s grace, and overlook what Paul’s comments likely meant to his original audience in 1st century Ephesus.

Endnotes

i Hippolytus of Rome, The Refutation of All Heresies, Book V.

ii The Gnostics and Their Remains, by Charles William King, [1887], at sacred-texts.com, http://www.sacred-texts.com/gno/gar/gar15.htm.

iii Edwards, Let My People Go, pp. 60-61.

iv Borgeaud, Mother of the Gods, p. 7-9; Farnell, L.R. (1977). The Cults of the Greek States: Volume II. New Rochelle, NY: Caratzas Brothers, Publishers, p. 482; Rigoglioso, M. (2009). The Cult of Divine Birth in Ancient Greece. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, p. 99.

v Rigoglioso, M. (2009). The Cult of Divine Birth in Ancient Greece. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan; Demand, N. (1994). Birth, Death and Motherhood in Classical Greece. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press; Budin, S. (2015). Artemis. New York, NY: Routledge.

vi Budin, p. 95; “let her sacrifice an adult animal as penalty, and then go to the bedchamber”; Farnell, L. (2010). The Cults of the Greek States: Volume 2, New York, NY: The Cambridge University Press, p. 444, robes were offered to Artemis after childbirth, or on behalf of women who had died in childbearing.

vii Seneca, De Superstitione (fr. 34 Hasse), as quoted in St. Augustine, De civitate Dei 6.10.; cited in Borgeaud, p. 95.

viii Sir James George Frazer highlights the purpose of the bloody rituals of Cybele’s priesthood: “new birth and the remission of sins”: Frazer, J. (1994). The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, A New Abridgement from the Second and Third Editions, Ed. Robert Fraser, New York, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 358-359; Clement of Alexandria, a 2nd century A.D. Christian writer, makes reference to the bloody offerings of male genitalia as an atonement for sexual sin, in book two of his “Exhortation to the Greeks,” http://www.theoi.com/Text/ClementExhortation1.html#2.

ix The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, as cited in Catherine and Richard Clark Kroeger’s “I Suffer Not a Woman,” p. 173.

x Jerome, Against Jovinianus, Book 1 §27, as cited at http://www.womenpriests.org/traditio/jerome.asp.

xi Bruce Ware; as cited in Taylor, S. (2013). Dethroning Male Headship, Auburndale, FL: One Way Press, pp. 108-109.

 

The Elephant in the Room: Denying Reality to Justify Male Power

Complementarians celebrate that they have always had the same view of 1st Timothy 2:12. As far as they are concerned, it tells us that God created men to “exercise authority over women,” and that anytime a woman attempts to share this authority with men, it is a sin.

Egalitarians take a different approach. I’ve completed a literature review of some of the most common egalitarian explanations of this passage. I’ve read the work of Gordon Fee, Catherine and Richard Clark Kroeger, Philip B. Payne, Sharon Hodgin Gritz, Linda Belleville, Leland Wilshire, Gilbert Bilezikian, Katharine Bushnell, Charles Trombley and others.

All of these scholars note that when talking about authority, Paul usually uses the word “exousia” in the New Testament (32 times). In 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul uses a different word, “authentein,” and he only uses it once. My first encounter with the word “authentein” outside of the New Testament occurred when I read the Wisdom of Solomon in the Greek Septuagint. Here a noun form of the same word, “authentas,” is used to describe parents who sacrificed their children to false gods and goddesses in secret rituals. This was my first indication that Paul probably did not see “authentein” simply as a synonym for “exousia.”  This impression has since been affirmed by many years of related research.

In addition to noticing that Paul uses “authentein” rather than “exousia” in 1 Timothy 2:12, many egalitarian scholars also see that 1st Timothy is a warning against a false teaching that was somehow “ascetic.” Ascetics taught that the body and its passions are evil. They commanded people to abstain from marriage and to avoid eating foods that might stimulate the passions (see 1 Timothy 4:3-4). Usually this meant avoiding meat and wine.

Many egalitarian scholars also note that this kind of asceticism was connected with a false teaching eventually called “Gnosticism.” The Gnostics taught that denying the body and its passions would enable people to receive special revelation knowledge (gnosis in Greek) from God. In 1st Timothy 6:20, Paul warns Timothy to guard the gospel message against the “profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge”–gnosis.

Some egalitarian scholars also note that Gnostic asceticism in Ephesus and the surrounding region was influenced by pagan goddess mythology. Sometimes the goddess is identified as Artemis, sometimes she is called Cybele. When the Greeks first immigrated to this region, they began to confuse Cybele (who was already there) with one of their own goddesses, Artemis; so it isn’t difficult to see why both goddesses are mentioned in egalitarian literature. In addition to being “ascetic,” Paul identifies that the false teachers in Ephesus would, “devote themselves to myths” (1 Timothy 1:4).

Paul’s use of “authentein” instead of “exousia” in the context of a warning against Gnostic asceticism based on myths suggests a number of possible interpretations of 1 Timothy 2:12:

1) Some scholars see Paul as prohibiting the teaching that a woman was the “author” of man. “Authentein” is sometimes translated as “author,” or “the person ultimately responsible for something,” in ancient Greek literature. Goddess mythology in Ephesus did teach that women were the authors of men. Female deities were responsible for creation, and male deities were more often connected with evil.

2) Some scholars see Paul as prohibiting a woman from teaching a man in a “domineering” fashion. At least by the 2nd century A.D., the word “authentes” began to be used as a synonym for “despotes,” meaning “tyrant” or “despot.” In the goddess myths of Asia Minor, women were dominant. In the 4th century, 1st Timothy 2:12 was translated into Latin, and the word used for “authentein” was “dominari.” Latin commentaries explained that this meant a woman was not to have “domination” over a man. Some commentaries said that a wife was not to be “domineering” with a husband.

3) Some scholars see Paul as prohibiting a woman from simply assuming authority that was not rightly conferred upon her by the church. Again, women influenced by local goddess mythology may have had some sense that they had a special connection with the divine, and that this entitled them to teaching and leadership positions on the basis of gender alone. (Today, we see men making the same erroneous assumption.)

4) Finally, some egalitarian scholars see that just as “authentas” referred to murderous rituals in the Wisdom of Solomon, so too did the goddess cults regularly practice ritual violence against men. Men in these cults were called “slayers of themselves” in Roman literature of the 1st century. They offered sacrifices to the goddess from their own bodies. Ascetic Gnostics interpreted the mythology and practices of these cults as confirmation that the body and its passions are evil and must therefore be “put to death.” On numerous occasions throughout Greek literature extending into the New Testament period words such as “authentas, authentes, authenten, authentai, euthentekota, authentesonta, etc.” were used to indicate murder or violence done to oneself or others, either literally (as in the case of the goddess cults) or figuratively (as in the case of ascetic Gnosticism).  I find evidence for this viewpoint most compelling.  Anyone interested can read more about that here: https://equalityworkbook.wordpress.com/2017/02/08/pauls-concern-in-1st-timothy-false-teaching/

So what do we do with all of these possible egalitarian interpretations?

In my profession as a therapist, we would often use an analogy involving an elephant to describe a situation in which each person in a group had an understanding of one part of a larger situation. All of the people in the analogy are in a dark room, and they attempt to identify the elephant by touch alone. One person would discover the trunk of the elephant, another the ears, another the legs, and another the tail. The danger highlighted by this analogy is that all of these people might focus exclusively on their part of the elephant, divorce it from others’ findings, and begin to argue about what they have found. The one grasping the trunk might conclude it is a snake, while someone else grasping a leg might insist that it is a tree etc. In reality, they each have a hold of one part of something very large and very real—the elephant.

All of the egalitarian scholarship I have just referred to is excellent. It is based on years (sometimes decades) of credible scholarship. All of it points to different aspects of the same larger theme: Paul’s warning against ascetic teaching based on myths that gave priority to women over men. In other words, Paul is not talking about women merely “exercising authority” over men in the church. Those that insist he is are simply ignoring the elephant in the room so that that they can continue to justify the human tradition of male power.