Responding to Complementarian Claims about the Language of 1 Timothy 2:12

Numerous egalitarian scholars have noted that “authentein”–the word used by Paul in 1 Timothy 2:12–probably did not mean “exercise authority,” a translation we find in many of our English versions of the Bible.  These English translations make it appear as though Paul was prohibiting women from “teaching” or “exercising authority” over men in the church.  Egalitarian scholars such as Catherine and Richard Clark Kroeger as well as Leland Wilshire have identified that words in the same family as authentein were often used to refer to violent crimes, or persons responsible for the death of themselves or others (see the Kroegers’ “I Suffer Not a Woman,” Appendix 1; and Wilshire’s “Insight into Two Biblical Passages”).

Perhaps the strongest critique of these observations comes from complementarian scholar Albert Wolters.  In his article in the Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Spring 2006) he makes a number of statements suggesting that this meaning–that of being responsible for death (as in the case of murder)–was no longer valid during the Hellenistic period, which is relevant to New Testament studies.  The New Testament was originally written in Hellenistic (also called “Koine”) Greek.

Here are some statements by Wolters to that effect:

after the classical period [510-323 BC], authentes, “murderer” had become archaic or obsolete. (Wolters, p. 52)

authentes “murderer”…the classical meaning of this word was no longer understood in Hellenistic times. (Wolters, p. 53)

To begin, Wolters’ definition of “authentes” as “murderer” is unrealistically narrow.  The same word was used to describe those responsible for death in circumstances other than intentional homicide.  Authentes could indeed have been used in reference to murder, but applied equally to suicide, accidental death, or even taking an action that later ended in someone’s death.

In the classical period, for example, Antiphon used authentes to refer once to a “murderer,” and again on another occasion in reference to a man who accidentally killed himself by stepping into the path of a javelin at a sporting event. The focus of the term was to identify the one responsible for the death, whether or not it was an intentional crime.i

Secondly, Wolters is mistaken when he says that this meaning was “archaic or obsolete” during Hellenistic times.

The following list contains a number of examples from the Hellenistic period, during which authentes was used repeatedly to refer to those who were responsible for the death of themselves or others.  Some of these examples are taken from the 1st century AD—the same time period that Paul wrote 1st Timothy:

Date: 1st century A.D.
Source: Flavius Josephus, Jewish Wars
Words: authentas, authenten
Meaning: murderers, murderer
Context: A Roman official named Cumanus neglected to prosecute those who had committed murder. Antipater is held responsible for the murder of Pheroras by poison.ii

Date: 1st century A.D.
Source: Philo Judaeus
Word: authentes
Meaning: self-murderer
Context: Philo speaks metaphorically about those who murder the better part of themselves through ascetic self-neglect and hypocritical living.iii

Date: 2nd century A.D.
Source: Appian of Alexandria, The Civil Wars
Word: authentai, authenten, authentai, authentai
Meaning: murderers, murderer, slayers, slayers of themselves
Context: Magistrates hesitate to pass the death sentence against a former Roman General named Marius. Roman General Marcus Perpenna is arrested for the murder of Quintus Sertorius. Those responsible for the assassination of Julius Caesar are referred to as his “slayers.” Cassius and Brutus brought about their own deaths by participating in the murder of Julius Caesar.iv

Date: 2nd century A.D.
Source: Appian of Alexandria, Mithridatic Wars
Word: authentai
Meaning: those responsible for murder and dismemberment
Context: The citizens of Tralles hire a man named Theophilus to slaughter Romans.  He kills and dismembers them in the temple of Concord.v

Date: 2nd century A.D.
Source: Harpocration
Word: authentes
Meaning: murderer
Context: Murder can be done by one’s own hand or through the use of

Date: 2nd century A.D.
Source: Phrynichus Arabius
Word: authentes
Meaning: murderer
Context: A Greek grammarian wrote, “Do not use authentes for ‘master’ as the orators in connection with the law courts but for ‘murderer.’”vii

In his book entitled, Insight into Two Biblical Passages, Leland Wilshire also includes examples from historians Polybius (2nd century BC) and Diodorus Siculus (1st century BC) that refer to those who are responsible for criminal action, death and murder.  Wolters accuses Wilshire of making an error.  He states that these historical examples are unrelated to “murder,” and that they are properly understood to mean simply that someone was the “doer of an action”:

The proposal by Wilshire, “1 Timothy 2:12 Revisited,” p. 48, to conflate the meanings of authentes “murderer,” and authentes “doer,” and thus to arrive at the sense “instigate violence” for the verb authentein in 1 Tim. 2.12 fails to observe (among other things) this difference in register. (Wolters, p. 65)

Wolters further claims that the “doer of an action” was really the “master of his own actions,” which was really just another example of “authority” used in a positive or neutral sense:

The rarity and lateness of authentes “doer”, as well as its exclusive association with the genitive of words denoting action, give reason to believe that this usage of the word is only seemingly distinct from that of authentes ‘master’. The doer or initiator of an action is conceived of as the master of that action, the one who is in charge of the action…(Wolters, p. 45)

Overwhelmingly, the authority to which authentes ‘master’ and all its derivatives refer is a positive or neutral concept. (Wolters, p. 54)

Do the examples from Polybius and Diodorus Siculus refer simply to “doers of an action” as Wolters claims?  Do they really represent “positive or neutral authority”; or do they refer to murder or being responsible for death, as Wilshire suggests?

To answer these questions, here are the three examples of “authentes” that are cited by Wolters from the histories of Polybius and Diodorus Siculus:

Diodorus Siculus Histories
“Bagoas, a eunuch in physical fact but a militant rogue in disposition, killed him by poison administered by a certain physician and placed upon the throne the youngest of his sons, Arses.  He similarly made away with the brothers of the new king, who were barely of age, in order that the young man might be isolated and tractable to his control. But the young king let it be known that he was offended at Bagoas’s previous outrageous behaviour and was prepared to punish the author of these crimes, so Bagoas anticipated his intentions and killed Arses and his children also while he was still in the third year of his reign.”

Bagoas is not merely the “doer” of an undisclosed or general “action” in this example.  He was a murderer.  He had someone assassinated by poison, and then went on to commit additional violent crimes.

Diodorus Siculus Histories
“For, speaking generally, it was not merely the perpetrators of the sacrilege but all persons who had the slightest connection with the sacrilege that were hounded by the inexorable retribution sent of Heaven.  In fact the man who first schemed for the seizure of the shrine, Philomelus, in a crisis of the war hurled himself over a cliff, while his brother Onomarchus, after taking over the command of his people, now become desperate, was cut to pieces in a battle in Thessaly, along with the Phocians and mercenaries of his command, and crucified.”

Those who pillaged the shrine at Delphi brought upon themselves the retribution of the gods: their own deaths.   In no sense were these men merely “doers” of an unidentified action.  They committed a crime against the gods, and they died as a result.

Polybius Histories
“Philip was exceedingly taken aback by this, and after hesitating for long, said he would send Cassander, the author of the deed, as they said, in order that the senate might learn the truth from him.  Both now and at subsequent interviews with the legates he exculpated Onomastus on the pretext that not only had he not been present at Maronea on the occasion of the massacre, but had not even been in the neighbourhood; fearing in fact that on arriving at Rome this officer, who had taken part in many similar deeds, might inform the Romans not only about what had happened at Maronea, but about all the rest.  Finally he got Onomastus excused; but sent off Cassander after the departure of the legates and giving him an escort as far as Epirus killed him there by poison.”

Cassander was the perpetrator of the Massacre at Moronea, and was as a result of this action himself killed by poison.  In contrast to Wolters’ viewpoint, Cassander was also not the “master of his own actions” in this account, he was acting under the orders of King Phillip of Macedon.

Yet another example from Diodorus Siculus Histories, not mentioned by Wolters, refers to a group of men who actively supported a violent attack on the Roman Senate that resulted in the death of the Senate guard.  These men were referred to as “authentas.”viii  These men were also not the “masters of their own actions”; they waited for a signal from the leader of the conspiracy, Gaius Gracchus, before striking the Senate Guard down with swords they had concealed under their togas.

Has Albert Wolters demonstrated that “authentes” no longer kept the meaning of “murder” (or more properly being responsible for death) during the Hellenistic period?  No, he has not.  In fact, the very examples he uses to support his point actually retained the meaning of those who were responsible for the death of themselves or others.

The meaning of “murderer” or “being responsible for death” remained very familiar to the 1st century Greek speaking world.  In the Greek language of 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul may indeed have been prohibiting someone (who happened to be a woman) from a form of false teaching that would somehow “be responsible for the death of a man.”


Some Contextual Details that May Help us to Understand the Nature of Paul’s Warning

-The false teaching of ascetic Gnosticism in this region encouraged people to practice a form of “self-mortification” (putting oneself to death) that attempted to annihilate the body’s appetites and human emotion.  In 1 Timothy 4:1-5, Paul warns Timothy about those who forbid marriage and prohibit the eating of certain foods.

-Gnostics taught that it was a good thing when Eve gave the forbidden fruit to Adam.  They viewed this fruit as a symbol of divine “knowledge” (“gnosis” in Greek).  They also taught that all life came through a woman.  This can be contrasted with Paul’s language in 1 Timothy 2:13-14, in which he explains that Eve was deceived, and that Adam was actually the source of Eve’s life.  Just as giving the fruit to Adam–and his choosing to eat it–led to his death, so too might the false teaching in Ephesus lead to death.

-Writing a warning against the “false gnosis” of ascetic self-neglect, Philo Judaeus—writing in the same century as Paul—described a man who practiced this as an “authentes,” a “murderer of himself.”  Philo explained that such a man was attempting to please God in his own strength, and compared this man to Cain in the book of Genesis. Just as Cain killed Abel, so too would a man end up bringing about his own death (spiritually) by embracing this false teaching.

-Some ascetics, including a young man in Ephesus (according to the apocryphal Acts of John), blamed their bodies for sin, and castrated themselves as a result. This practice was prohibited by the Roman Law against “murderers and poisoners” enacted by Cornelius Sulla in the 1st century B.C..

-Some men, influenced by the mythology of the Eleusian mysteries, attempted to “mortify the passions” by using hemlock, a potent poison.  This use of hemlock was also prohibited by the Roman law against murderers and poisoners, on the grounds that it might lead to the death of a man.

-Some Jewish ascetics were also zealots who taught that any Gentile who dared to speak of God or the Law must be circumcised.  Men would be circumcised by force; those who resisted would be “slaughtered,” according to 3rd century AD writer, Hippolytus of Rome.  The practice of forcibly circumcising men, or murdering those who resisted, was also explicitly prohibited by the Roman law against murderers and poisoners, enacted just prior to the New Testament period.

-Some Ephesian goddess cults discouraged women from getting married and bearing children.  Women who decided to get married and have a family had to offer sacrifices to the goddess.  They were concerned that if they did not do this, they might die in childbearing.  See Paul’s language in 1 Timothy 2:15 about women being “saved in childbearing” through faith in Christ that would show itself in love and holiness.  Also, Gnostic cults that drew inspiration from this mythology worried that “generating matter” (e.g. having a child) would jeopardize their salvation.  See 1st Timothy 1:4, where Paul warns against those who “pay attention to myths.”

-In Appendix 1 of “I Suffer Not a Woman,” Catherine and Richard Clark Kroeger share a number of possible scenarios in which Paul may have prohibited “authentein” in the sense of ritual violence, or death that was either real or symbolic.  Many of these examples relate to either the mystery cults or early forms of Gnosticism.

-In his book entitled “Insight into Two Biblical Passages,” Leland Wilshire explains that Paul may use “authentein” as a reference to violent arguments about false teaching in the church of Ephesus.

-In his book entitled “Man and Woman: One in Christ,” Philip B. Payne identifies that “authentein” retained its violent connotations in 1st century Hellenistic Greek.  He provides examples of both nouns and verbs that refer to murder, and suggests that Paul may have been referring to metaphorical death in a sense that would have been understood by the Ephesian congregation.

-Possible translations of 1st Timothy 2:12, in light of this information, include:

  • I do not permit a woman to teach or to be responsible for the death of a man
  • I do not permit a woman to teach or to instigate violence against a man (Wilshire’s proposal)

Currently, the only English translation of the Bible that acknowledges the violent connotations of “authentein” in 1st century Hellenstic Greek is the International Standard Version, which reads, “Moreover, in the area of teaching, I am not allowing a woman to instigate conflict toward a man.”  I believe this translation is a step in the right direction.


[i]Antiphon, 2nd Tetralogy,; and Antiphon, On the Murder of Herodes,

[ii] Falvius Josephus, Jewish Wars 2.240.5,; and Falvius Josephus, Jewish Wars 1.582.1.

[iii] Philo, The Worse Attacks the Better XXI 78,

[iv] Appian, The Civil Wars, 1.7.61,; Appian, The Civil Wars, 1.13.115,; Appian, The Civil Wars, 3.2.16,; Appian, The Civil Wars, 4.17.134,

[v] Appian, Mithridatic Wars, 4.23,

[vi] Harpocratian, Lexicon in decem oratores Atticos,

[vii] Lobeck, C. Rhematikon sive verborum graecorum et nominum verbalium technologia, as cited in Payne, P. (2009). Man and Woman, One in Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, p. 364.

[viii] Diodorus Siculus, Photian Fragment 35.25.1.