Other 1st Century Jewish Writers Who Used Greek Words Like “Authentein”

I was recently reading an interesting paper about a 1st century Jewish philosopher named Philo. Like Paul, Philo wrote to warn people about a false “knowledge” (gnosis) of God. Also like Paul, Philo used a rare Greek word in the context of a warning against false teaching. While Paul used the word “authentein,” Philo used a similar noun, “authentes.” Here are a few excerpts from the paper, and some thoughts about why this may be significant for women’s equality in the church:

Heretical gnosis reached Palestine at least by the early first century. ‘Gnostic’ mystical doctrines were tolerated and fostered by some in orthodox circles, so long as ‘the honor of the Father in Heaven’ was served and the unity of God maintained. Thus a distinction was made between ‘true’ gnosis and ‘false’ gnosis, the latter characterized by arrogance over against God…

The Palestinian distinction between true and false gnosis is matched by, and preceded by, a similar distinction in the Alexandrian Diaspora. Philo distinguishes between the true and the false gnosis by stating that the true is characterized by following God, and is typified by righteous Abel, while the false, typified by Cain, is characterized by ascribing all things to the human mind. (https://www.dhushara.com/book/consum/gnos/jgnos.htm)

In his work entitled “the Worse Attacks the Better,” Philo talks about two opposing principles in the life of each person. One of these principles—which he metaphorically calls “Cain”–is at war with the other, which is metaphorically referred to as “Abel.”

A person who is dominated by Cain embraces a false “gnosis” of God. Such a person elevates the human mind over and above God. Philo describes the symptoms of such a life in the following terms:

If, therefore, you see any one desiring meat or drink at an unseasonable time [some Gnostics advocated a life of bodily self-indulgence], or repudiating baths or ointments at the proper season, or neglecting the proper clothing for his body, or lying on the ground and sleeping in the open air, and by such conduct as this, pretending to a character for temperance and self-denial [other Gnostics advocated a life of bodily self-denial], you, pitying his self-deception, should show him the true path of temperance, for all the practices in which he has been indulging are useless and profitless labours, oppressing both his soul and body with hunger and all sorts of other hardships. (The Worse Attacks the Better)

Sticking with his “Cain and Abel” metaphor, Philo explains that a person who embraces a false “gnosis” (knowledge of God) becomes a “murderer” of himself. Here are his exact words:

What is this that thou hast done, O wretched man? Does not the God-loving opinion which you flatter yourself that you have destroyed, live in the presence of God? But it is of yourself that you have become the murderer (authentes), by destroying from out of its seat the only quality by which you could live in a blameless manner. (The Worse Attacks the Better)

What is striking about this passage is that Philo describes a man who has embraced a false “gnosis” of God as an “authentes”–a “murderer” of himself.

Some complementarians argue that the practice of using “authentes” to refer to a “murderer” was obsolete by the 1st century AD; yet Philo–a first century author–used it in exactly this way. He is not alone. Flavius Josephus–another 1st century Greek speaking Jewish writer–also used “authentas” and “authenten” to convey this meaning.

Those familiar with the Greek language of Paul’s first letter to Timothy will probably recognize that Philo’s “authentes” is very similar to Paul’s use of the word “authentein” in 1 Timothy 2:12. Dr. Leland Wilshire, author of “Insight into Two Biblical Passages,” demonstrates that “authentes” is a noun form of the infinitive verb “authentein.” In other words, it is likely that the two words shared a similar meaning in the 1st century AD.

Some complementarians allege that while nouns like authentes may have carried a meaning related to murder, similar verbs (like authentein) did not. In making this argument, they ignore the work of egalitarian scholars Leland Wilshire and Philip B. Payne who provide examples of other verbs in Koine Greek literature that carried this meaning. The first verb, discussed by Wilshire, is “euthentekota.” It is used in a commentary on a famous Greek tragedy in which a man “murdered” his mother. The second verb, discussed by Payne, is “authentesonta.” It is used to highlight that a king (named Mithridates) was responsible for the killing of Roman citizens carried out by his soldiers. Even though the king did not do the killing himself, he was still responsible for the deaths. (See Payne’s discussion of 1st Timothy 2:12 in “Man and Woman: One in Christ”)

The significance of the parallel between Philo’s use of authentes and Paul’s use of authentein becomes especially apparent when we consider that both authors were 1st century AD Greek-speaking Jews, writing to warn people about a false “knowledge” or gnosis of God. As Paul says in 1 Timothy 6:20, “Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge (gnosis).”

Paul’s description of those who embrace such a false knowledge is also similar to Philo’s. Here are Paul’s comments from 1 Timothy 4:1-4:

But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth.

In Philo, false gnosis is responsible for a man’s spiritual death. Such a man would be an “authentes.”

In 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul may very well be prohibiting a woman from a form of teaching (didaskein) that would similarly be responsible for the spiritual death of a man (authentein andros).

Some complementarians object to this thinking on the grounds that it is absurd to think Paul was forbidding a woman from “murdering” a man. The Ten Commandments would suffice to prohibit such an act. Paul would not need to write an additional prohibition in 1st Timothy 2:12. This is a straw man argument. Paul was not evidently prohibiting women from murdering men. What he may have been doing, however, is prohibiting a false teaching that encouraged a man to embrace a false knowledge of God, and thereby become a “murderer” of himself.  In this manner, a woman’s false teaching may have been responsible for a man’s spiritual death.

Again, some complementarians refer to this kind of thinking as “mental gymnastics.” It isn’t. In reality, it’s simply good ethnomethodology–a field of sociology that examines the cultural meaning assigned to words in their original historical context. In 1st century Greek literature, written by a Jewish author, “authentes” did indeed refer to a man who “murdered” himself–brought about his own spiritual death–by embracing a false knowledge of God. Paul may well have used “authentein” in a similar manner.

If this interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12 is accurate, Paul’s reference to the story of Adam and Eve in 1 Timothy 2:13-14 is very enlightening. Gnostics referred to the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as “divine gnosis.” They viewed the serpent as a messenger of God that was passing this knowledge onto Eve, who would then transmit it to Adam. In 1 Timothy 2:13-14, Paul may be addressing this Gnostic heresy by reminding Timothy that Eve did not receive “divine knowledge” from the serpent; rather, she was deceived, and when she gave the fruit to Adam, he ate it and consequently died. (See “The Equality Workbook: Freedom in Christ From the Oppression of Patriarchy” for further details and documentation on early Gnostic thought)

Even the passage about being “saved through childbearing” begins to make sense in this context. Some Gnostics believed that a woman would lose her salvation by bearing children. Giving birth to a child, in their eyes, was an act that imprisoned another soul in a corrupt body. It was viewed as a terrible sin. Through childbirth a woman might lose her life (death by childbearing was common) and even her salvation.

A woman teaching an ascetic form of Gnosticism (bodily self-denial) in Timothy’s church might have encouraged a man to embrace a false knowledge (gnosis) of God that required celibacy, perhaps even within marriage. (Paul confronted a similar problem in 1 Corinthians 7:1.)

Paul’s response to this Gnostic teaching may then have been to remind Timothy that women will be “saved through childbearing” by having faith in Christ that shows itself in holiness (1 Timothy 2:15). This does not mean, as St. Jerome wrongly suggested, that a woman will be saved “by” bearing children; but rather that she will be saved by faith in Christ, and need not worry about losing her soul “through” the act of giving birth.

It’s interesting to note that both Philo and Paul appear to address Gnostic heresy that was formed by combining Judaism and/or Christianity with pagan myths. (For more information on goddess myths and their influence on early Gnostic beliefs, see Philippe Borgeaud’s “Mother of the God’s: From Cybele to the Virgin Mary.”)

Paul makes reference to the influence of “myths” in 1 Timothy 1:4. Ephesian mythology was particularly focused on “saving women in childbearing.” One way the Ephesian goddess could be appeased was by male priests who permanently renounced their masculinity through a ritual act of self-castration. Historically, native Ephesians called this goddess Cybele. Greeks called her Artemis, and Romans referred to her as Diana. Though Greco-Roman worship practices eventually dispensed with castration in favour of temporary celibacy for Artemis’ male priests, Anatolian men continued to honor their goddess (Cybele) through ritual self-castration. This practice continued in Ephesus through Roman times, and was even imitated by Christians who embraced extreme asceticism, notably in 1st century Ephesus. (See Daniel F. Caner’s “The Practice and Prohibition of Ritual Self-castration in Early Christianity” https://www.jstor.org/stable/1583869?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents)

This practice so alarmed Roman law-makers that Roman citizens were forbidden to participate in the rite. Those who violated this law were prosecuted under the Roman law “against murderers.” Depriving a man of his masculinity—and depriving both him and the Empire of future (male) offspring—was a crime comparable to murder. (see “The Covenant of Circumcision: New Perspectives on an Ancient Jewish Rite,” edited by Elizabeth Wyner Mark, and “Becoming Male in the Middle Ages,” edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Bonnie Wheeler)

What does all of this historical information suggest?

It tells us that despite complementarian claims to the contrary, words like “authentes” and “authentein” likely maintained a meaning in the 1st century AD that had nothing to do with a woman “exercising authority” over a man in church. It is more likely the case that the apostle Paul, like Philo before him, was writing to warn the church about a false teaching that would somehow be responsible for the death of a man. The teaching may have encouraged a man to embrace a “false gnosis” of God and thereby bring about his own spiritual death. And/or it may have encouraged a man to participate in the extreme asceticism of self-castration—a crime comparable to murder under Roman law.

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Wayne Grudem: Denying history to rationalize “male authority”

Hoping to prove that the apostle Paul was warning against “female authority” in 1 Timothy 2:12, Wayne Grudem sets out to deny historical evidence that does not support his viewpoint.

He is determined to disprove egalitarian claims that 1 Timothy 2:12 is possibly a warning against an early form of ascetic Gnosticism, influenced by Ephesian goddess mythology.

One key point of his argument is his assertion that ancient Ephesians did not ever “conflate” or “syncretize” the Greek goddess Artemis with an indigenous Anatolian goddess referred to as “the Mother of the Gods.” (Syncretism is the blending of one deity and related mythology with that of another.) Grudem dismisses evidence that “Artemis was syncretized to the Anatolian Great Mother” as “fragile” and “tottering” (Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth, pp. 665-666).

Ancient hymns written between the 7th century BC and the 3rd century AD directly contradict Wayne Grudem’s claim—further lending support to this egalitarian perspective.

Describing Homer’s work in VII BC, internationally renowned authority on “the Mother of the Gods,” Philippe Borgeaud, makes the following remarks:

“The Homeric hymn addressed to the Mother of the gods retains the anonymity to better render it universal and salutes her, at the end, by associating her with all the other goddesses: ‘I salute you in this song, as well as all the goddesses together.’ The formula is remarkable and rings out respectfully with the traditional custom: ‘I shall think of you in all my other songs.’ Yet there is only one more appearance of this formula in the entire corpus of the Homeric Hymns. This time, and it is certainly not by chance, it is applied to Artemis of Ephesus.” (Mother of the Gods, from Cybele to the Virgin Mary, p. 9).

In the second century AD, the following evidence of syncretism was copied from an earlier hymn:

“All Mortals who live in the boundless earth,
Thracians, Greeks and Barbarians
Express your fair name, a name greatly honoured among all,
Each in his own language, in his own land.
The Syrians call you Astarte, Artemis, Nanaia,
The Lycian tribes call you Leto the Lady,
The Thracians also name you as Mother of the Gods,
And the Greeks Hera of the Great Throne, Aphrodite,
Hestia the Goodly, Rhea and Demeter.
But the Egyptians call you Thiouis (because they know) that You, being One, are all other goddesses invoked by the races of men.” (Greeks and Barbarians, Kostas Vlassopoulos, p. 308)

Writing in the 3rd century AD, Hippolytus of Rome recounts the following hymns of one of the earliest ascetic Gnostic cults on record, believed to flourish in the province of Asia during the late 1st, early 2nd centuries AD. Here Attis, the consort of “the Mother of the Gods,” is syncretized with other gods:

“Whether you descend from Cronos or Zeus, happy one, or even from Rhea, salutations, great god, Attis, plaintive music of Rhea. The Assyrians call you Adonis, the thrice regretted, all of Egypt calls you Osiris, Greek wisdom names you the heavenly horn of the moon god, the Samothracians call you saintly Adamna, the Hemonians Crybas, and the Phrygians sometimes Papas. Sometimes corpse, sometimes god, or the sterile one, or the shepherd, or the cut green ear, or male player of the syrinx, who gave birth to the fruit-laden almond tree.” (Borgeaud, p. 107)

Other historians describe syncretism between Artemis of Ephesus and the Anatolian Mother of the Gods in detail, offering even more evidence. These historians include Florence Mary Bennett, John Ferguson, and Lewis Richard Farnell. The evidence presented by these historians is far from fragile or tottering; it is simply not something Mr. Grudem is apparently willing or able to see.

If someone refuses to see evidence that contradicts his or her beliefs, that does not mean the evidence is “fragile” or invalid. In my opinion, Wayne Grudem does not give us an objective appraisal of history.

In fact, the very evidence he tries so hard to deny is what compelled me to change my mind about 1 Timothy 2:12. Given abundant historical information that is well documented by numerous reputable historians (that have no vested interest in complementarian/egalitarian debates) I can no longer in good conscience continue to believe that Paul was ever worried about women “exercising authority” in the church. It is more likely that he was indeed warning Timothy about a false ascetic teaching that was influenced by native goddess mythology.

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.