I just finished reading a satirical commentary on life in the Roman Empire of the 1st century AD, written by a man who lived at the same time as the apostle Paul. The author’s name was Juvenal. In his 6th Satire, he describes concerns similar to those raised by Paul in his first letter to Timothy.
Both Juvenal and Paul talk about women dying (or being saved) through childbearing (see 1 Timothy 2:15). Childbearing was very dangerous for women in the ancient world. Women would appeal to Ephesian goddesses (Artemis and/or Cybele) to save them in childbirth. Some women would also practice “pharmakeia,” otherwise known as “perierga.”
Acts 19:19 talks about the practice of perierga in Ephesus. This is one of the Koine Greek words for “sorcery.” In a 1st century context, “sorcery” literally involved the use of forbidden drugs. Some of these drugs were directly associated with a woman’s fear of death in childbearing. Some drugs, administered to women, triggered abortion. Other drugs, administered to men, suppressed desire and/or produced sterility. In both instances, those to whom the drugs were administered were sometimes inadvertently killed (see James Rives’ “Magic Religion and Law” in Ando and Rupke’s “Religion and Law in Classical and Christian Rome”).
The use of these drugs was prohibited under a law called the Lex Cornelia de Sicariis et Veneficis (The Law of Cornelius Against Murderers and Poisoners). Cornelius Sulla served as a Roman official in Asia Minor. The Roman word for “poisoners” or “sorcerers” was “veneficis.” One Greek word carrying the same meaning was “periergoi.” Paul warns certain Ephesian women not to be “periergoi” in 1 Timothy 5:13.
Juvenal writes about the necessity of abstinence from intercourse as part of ancient religious custom. He specifically discusses the cults of Isis and Cybele. Juvenal also references the fact that the male priests of the goddess Cybele (notably worshiped in Ephesus) had all castrated themselves. While some men (like Cybele’s priests) physically castrated themselves for religious reasons, other men used drugs—including hemlock—as a form of chemical castration.
Following prescribed periods of abstinence and/or the practice of literal or chemical castration were integral components of ancient goddess mythology. Intercourse in general (or sexual activity during times set apart for religious observance) would lead to divine judgment. Specifically, a woman might die in childbearing. Juvenal explained that priests of the goddess cults would make “intercession for wives who’ve failed to abstain.” Sometimes these cults would also sell drugs to either prevent or terminate pregnancy. Juvenal refers to “the peddler of magic spells and Thessalians.” The so-called “witches of Thessaly” were renowned for their use of drugs (including poisons) to suppress male desire (see Marco Leonti and Laura Casu’s “Ethnopharmacology of Love”).
In addition to trying to control human reproduction, the priesthoods of these goddesses also practiced soothsaying or fortune-telling. Their religious rites of abstinence allegedly gave them access to divine knowledge (gnosis). These mythologies influenced the rise of Gnosticism within Judaism prior to the advent of Christianity. These myths then began to infiltrate the early church, notably in Ephesus. (See Hippolytus of Rome’s “Refutation of All Heresies,” Lewis Farnell’s “Cults of the Greek States,” Florence Mary Bennett’s “Religious Cults Associated with the Amazons,” John Ferguson’s “Religions of the Roman Empire,” Allen H. Jones “Essenes: The Elect of Israel and the Priests of Artemis,” and Philippe Borgeaud’s “Mother of the Gods: From Cybele to the Virgin Mary” for more information on the beliefs and practices of the goddess cults, and how they impacted the early church).
Juvenal makes a direct comparison between the the goddess cults and Jewish women who embraced similar beliefs and practices. He says that such a woman would “interpret Jerusalem’s laws,” and he refers to her as a “high priestess”; she would also practice fortune-telling (perierga) for money. The main difference, to Juvenal, was that the goddess cults tended to charge more money for their services than their Jewish counterparts.
In Paul’s 1st letter to Timothy, we find a warning against “false” teaching by those who claimed to be “teachers of the law.” Paul also says they were preoccupied with myths (see chapter 1:3-7). They also taught abstinence from marriage and certain foods (see chapter 4:1-10). As mentioned, Paul warns certain women in Ephesus not to be “periergoi” in 1 Timothy 5:13. Most English translations render this “busybodies,” which may be missing how the word was more likely used in a 1st century Ephesian context. In 2nd Timothy 3:8, Paul compares the false teachers of Ephesus to “Jannes and Jambres,” two of the sorcerers who opposed Moses in the book of Exodus. In Plutarch’s “Alexander,” periergoi practiced “enchantments,” and participated in “superstitious ceremonies” (2.4-5). In 1st Timothy 6:20-21, Timothy is urged to guard the gospel message against that which is falsely called “gnosis” (knowledge).
In 1st Timothy 2:12 Paul warns against “a woman” teaching (didaskein); he also warns against her doing something represented by the Greek words “authentein andros.” In other 1st century AD literature, words such as “authentes, authenten and authentas” were used by Philo and Josephus to refer to those who were somehow responsible for someone’s death. In Josephus, the “authenten” was someone who purchased poison from a woman to commit a murder. In Philo, the authentes was someone who caused his own death by embracing a false “gnosis” (knowledge) of God (see Josephus’ Jewish War,” and Philo’s “The Worse is Wont to Attack the Better”).
Authentes—and related nouns—had nothing to do with “exercising authority” over someone in these contexts. They were a reference to being responsible for someone’s death (either spiritually or physically). Two Hellenistic Greek verbs—euthentekota and authentesonta—were also used with this meaning. One use referred to a man who murdered his mother. The other referred to a king (Mithridates) who was responsible for the death of others, even though he himself did not commit the act (see Leland Wilshire’s “Insight into Two Biblical Passages,” and Philip B. Payne’s “Man and Woman: One in Christ”).
In Juvenal’s 6th Satire, he refers to a woman who practiced the use of poisons as a “murderer.” He also compares such women to the mythical Danaids, who were noted for killing their husbands.
If Paul and Juvenal are discussing similar concerns—and it seems probable that they are—then the women Paul addresses in 1st Timothy were not simply “exercising authority” over men. They may have been engaged in false teaching that would somehow be responsible for a man’s death. This may have been a spiritual death (teaching false gnosis), or it may have been connected to the practice of perierga—the illegal use of pharmaceuticals to inhibit desire or promote male sterility, which sometimes resulted in death. In one way or another, false teaching would have been responsible for the death of a man.
An excellent summary of the spiritual context of 1st century Ephesus is available in a Priscilla Paper’s article, written by Dr. Aída Besançon Spencer. In the article, she accurately references the influence of the goddess cults on the early church. She specifically mentions the practice of perierga (withcraft/sorcery), and how Paul is likely addressing a false teaching that would result in the domination or destruction of a man. She highlights that Paul likely compares this false teaching to Eve’s giving of the forbidden fruit to Adam–an act which led to his death. Paul makes reference to this in 1 Timothy 2:13-14. Her article, which I would recommend, is available here: https://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/priscilla-papers/leadership-women-crete-and-macedonia-model-church
Paul’s use of the word “authentein” and his reference to being “saved through childbearing” have baffled theologians for centuries. Reading other 1st century authors– such as Juvenal, Philo and Josephus–who used similar words and/or discussed similar issues, will likely give us a better chance of grasping his intended meaning.