The following article examines uses of the word “authentes” in ancient Greek literature other than the Bible.
Why is it helpful to look at this literature?
When the apostle Paul wrote 1st Timothy in the 1st century AD, he used a word that is found nowhere else in the New Testament. That word is “authentein.” Beginning with a man named Origen in the 3rd century AD (roughly 200 years after Paul wrote his letter) commentaries began to interpret Paul’s language as prohibiting women from “exercising authority over a man” either in church or in the home.
The commentators who did this (Origen, Augustine, Jerome, etc.) used Plato’s philosophy as an interpretive guide to the Bible. Plato believed that the “natural order” of the created world was based on hierarchical categories. He taught that men must rule women, just as free men must rule over slaves. Any “mingling of the classes” would result in social disorder (Plato, the Republic).
By examining ancient Greek literature between the 3rd century BC and the 2nd century AD, we find that the word used by Paul, “authentein,” frequently carried a meaning other than “exercise authority.” In the Greek Septuagint Bible, for example, Jewish scholars used “authentas” (a noun from of the same word) to refer to parents who “murdered” their children by offering them as sacrifices to false gods (Wisdom of Solomon 12:6). Throughout ancient Greek literature, we find that noun and verb forms of “authentein” were frequently used to refer to those who were directly or indirectly responsible for someone’s death. This death could be intentional or unintentional; it could refer to killing others or oneself; it sometimes referred to a literal “death,” and sometimes referred to putting someone or something “to death” metaphorically. An article that includes a survey of these meanings from the 5th century BC through to the 2nd century AD is available here: 1st Timothy 2:12: Not About Authority.
Recently, as I was doing research for a friend, I found yet another example of “authentes” used to mean something other than “exercise authority.” This example is found in a non-biblical story known as “the Shepherd of Hermas, Parable #9.” I believe the use of “authentes” in this parable sheds even more light on our understanding of Paul’s comments in 1 Timothy 2:12-15.
For anyone who hasn’t read this parable, it contains a vision of a tower made up of many stones. The stones are actually people, and the tower is the church.
The “authentes” of the tower comes to examine the stones to see if they are worthy to be included in its construction (9.5.6). Those that are considered worthy have renounced the desire for women and embraced “continence”–sexual abstinence (9.15.2). They have been brought to the tower by virgin women (9.3.4). In fact, stones not brought to the tower by virgins are described as “unsightly” (9.4.6).
Those who did not embrace continence after professing Christ would be judged unfit for the church, and “cast out” by the tower’s authentes (9.13.8-9).
In this role, the authentes functions as the tower’s architect, designer, originator. It is made “according to his will” (9.5.2). He also functions as the inspector or judge of all the stones (9.5.6). He decides which stones will “enter into the Kingdom of God” (9.12.5), and which stones will be “condemned to death” (9.18.2). In fact, it is directly in the role of inspector or judge that the term “authentes” is used.
Many scholars believe that the Shepherd of Hermas was written either in the late 1st or early 2nd century AD. Another writer during the 2nd century AD, Appian of Alexandria, also used “authentes” in a similar manner. To be precise, he used the plural form of the same word, which is “authentai.” Appian was referring to magistrates who were contemplating sentencing a man to death. They were hesitant to pass the death sentence because despite his crime, the man was renowned for his public service to the Roman Empire (The Civil Wars 1.7.61).
Appian used the same word (authentai) again to refer to men who participated in the murder of Julius Caesar (The Civil Wars 3.2.16). The word signifies that they were responsible for Caesar’s death. Appian uses “authentai” yet another time to explain how the actions of such men (their involvement in Caesar’s murder) eventually led to their own deaths (The Civil Wars, 4.17.134). In other words, they were responsible for their own demise.
Though complementarians (i.e. those who teach “male authority”) have stated that using “authentes” to refer to murder or being responsible for someone’s death was “obsolete” by the New Testament era (Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 44, A Semantic Study of Authentes and its Derivatives, Albert Wolters), a look at primary sources even into the 2nd century AD tells us otherwise. (The same journal article also says that the meaning of “murder/responsibility for death” was to be associated with Attic, not Koine Greek, yet Appian wrote in Koine.)
Over and over in complementarian literature we’re told that the meaning of “authentein” in 1 Timothy 2:12 could only be a reference to “positive authority.” In other words, for women to “exercise authority” over men in the church is wrong, simply because they are women.
That is not the meaning we find in our primary sources. In the Shepherd of Hermas, the “authentes” functions as the one who inspects the stones and passes judgment on them, condemning them “to death” (9.18.2). He is also the “designer” of the tower, the church. In the works of Appian of Alexandria, authentai are magistrates (judges) with the power to sentence people to death, they are murderers, or they are people whose actions result in their own deaths.
How might this meaning relate to the apostle Paul? In a nutshell, Paul was warning the church against a false teaching known as “asceticism.” It encouraged people to “put to death” the body and its passions. In fact, the false teaching Paul was warning against seems very similar to some portions of the Shepherd of Hermas. Men who did not embrace “continence” (sexual abstinence) would be “cast out” of God’s kingdom. Paul may have used “authentein” as a reference to men “putting to death” the part of themselves related to their passions. Experiencing desire in this belief system was viewed as a sin. Women and men were expected to embrace “continence,” even in marriage. Failure to do so would put their salvation in jeopardy. (See also Paul’s reference to women who may have been concerned about being “saved” in childbearing: 1 Timothy 2:15. If they had accepted the false teaching of asceticism, having sex and bearing children would have jeopardized their salvation.)
Some men who blamed their bodies for sexual sin literally castrated themselves in an attempt to rid themselves of bodily passion. The Acts of John provides an example of a man doing this in 1st century Ephesus (1.236), the destination of Paul’s letter to Timothy. Others who hoped to rid themselves of desire would use hemlock, a potent poison. Both self-castration and the use of hemlock had the same intended outcome: “mortification of lower masculinity” (The Origins and History of Consciousness, Eric Neuman, Part 2, p. 253). The “sacrifice of lower masculinity” was viewed as “the precondition of spirituality,” and a prerequisite for salvation (Neuman, p. 253).
A Roman law initially passed by a proconsul in Asia Minor named Cornelius Sulla in the 1st century BC attempted to limit these activities on the grounds that they robbed a man (and the Empire) of future offspring, and also risked killing the man (Becoming Male in the Middle Ages, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen & Bonnie Wheeler, p. 22; Magic Religion and Law: The Case of the Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficiis, p. 59). In English, this law would be referred to as the “Law Against Murderers and Poisoners.”
Could Paul have been warning Timothy about a false teaching that encouraged men to “mortify” or “put to death” their “lower masculinity” as a condition of salvation? I believe so. This meaning fits both Paul’s language and his immediate context. Also writing in the 1st century AD, Philo Judaeus similarly used “authenten” to refer to men who metaphorically “put to death” or “murdered” a part of themselves. Appian of Alexandria, as we have seen, used “authentai” to refer to men who were responsible for their own literal deaths. Flavius Josephus (also writing in the 1st century AD) used “authenten” to refer to death by poison (Jewish Wars 1.582.1). Men who practiced ascetic self-mortification were prohibited from self-castration and using hemlock in a law written by a proconsul in Asia Minor of the 1st century BC on the grounds that they might be responsible for their own deaths.
In other words, if we are willing to put complementarian claims aside and look for ourselves at available evidence, it does not appear that the apostle Paul was warning anyone about “female” authority. Rather, it seems he was concerned about the false teaching of asceticism, and practices associated with it that might result in either the literal or metaphorical death of a man.
In light of this information, how might we more accurately interpret 1 Timothy 2:12?
“I do not permit a woman to engage in teaching that would be responsible for the death of a man.”
Leland Wilshire offers another similar interpretation: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to instigate violence against a man” (2010, Insight into Two Biblical Passages, pp. 29-32). If Paul was concerned about ascetic self-mortification and related practices, it is self-inflicted violence that would have been encouraged or “instigated” by the false teaching.
Authentes was sometimes used to refer to someone who “supported” a violent act (Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca historica. Book 34/35 chapter 25 section 1 line 4), so another translation could be, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to support violence against a man.”
Since authentes was used by Philo to refer to men who metaphorically “put to death” a part of themselves, another translation could be, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to support the self-mortification of a man.”
Paul addresses “a woman” because at least one of the false teachers in Ephesus was evidently female. He identifies male false teachers in 1st Timothy 1:20; so it appears he was concerned about the nature of the teaching, not the gender of the teacher.
From the Shepherd of Hermes, we can also see why some egalitarian scholars point out that “authentes” can refer to the “originator” of something. In addition to being the judge who would condemn people to death, the “authentes” of the tower was also its “designer” or “architect.”
From the Shepherd of Hermes, we can see why other egalitarian scholars point out that “authentes” was sometimes used as a synonym for absolute master or “despot.” The tower’s “authentes” was also referred to as its “despotes.”
In the 2nd century AD, a Greek grammarian named Phrynicus Arabius pointed out that some orators in the law courts were using “authentes” and “despotes” interchangeably. He disagreed with this practice, stating that authentes should only be used to refer to someone responsible for murder (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.)