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.