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Deduction and Tom Wright’s Translation of 1 Timothy 2:11-12

September 5, 2011

Deduction is an amazing tool.  In physics, its reign is absolute — along with real experimental results:


Of course, this is funny, but in fact frames five to eight of this comic (original link here)  give a highly condensed version of the discovery of quantum theory, combining the theoretical insights of Maxwell and Planck (if you want the details, this page is a fine place to start.)

A well-known derivation in Jewish Law is the extension of the Biblical law against cooking a kid in its mother’s milk (in Exodus 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21) to the general prohibition in kosher cooking against mixing meat and milk (בשר בחלב).  There are many places to read about this – Wikipedia is as good a place to get an overview as any.

Of course, it is also legitimate to use logical derivation to understand verses in the Christian New Testament.   Perhaps no verse in the Christian Testament has been more misinterpreted than 1 Timothy 2:11-12.

Here is how the ESV translates it:

Let a woman learn quietlywith all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.

Here is how the NIV2011 translates it:

A woman*should learn in quietness and full submission.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man;** she must be quiet. [Notes: *Or wife; also in verse 12. **Or over her husband].

Here is how The Inclusive Bible translates it:

Women are to be quiet and completely submissive during religious instruction.  I don’t permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man.  She must remain silent.

And here is how Tom Wright reportedly translates it in his forthcoming translation, Kingdom New Testament (already in print in the UK; based on his earlier translation of the Pastoral Epistles):

They [women] must be allowed to study undisturbed, in full submission to God.  I’m not saying that women should teach men, or try to dictate to them; rather, that they should be left undisturbed.

Now, we may wonder – how did Tom Wright reach the conclusion that this verse should be translated this way?  Fortunately, Wright gave a rather extensive discussion of his reasoning in translating the passage this way (pp. 24-26):

… There are several passages in the Bible which deal with the roles of men and women, and many people in modern Western culture don’t like them. They accuse the biblical writers of being ‘patriarchal’, that is, of assuming that men should always run everything and that women should do what they’re told, and of reinforcing this view in their writings. And this passage, particularly verse 12, is often held up as a prime example. Women mustn’t be teachers, the verse seems to say; they mustn’t hold any authority over men; they must keep silent. That, at least, is how many translations put it; indeed, this is the main passage people quote when they argue that the New Testament forbids the ordination of women. I was once reading these verses in a church service and a woman near the front exploded in anger, to the consternation of the rest of the congregation (even though some agreed with her). The whole passage seems to be saying that women are second-class citizens. They aren’t even allowed to dress prettily. They are the daughters of Eve, and she was the original troublemaker. The best thing for them to do is to get on and have children, to behave themselves and keep quiet.

That’s how most people in our culture have read the passage. I acknowledge that the very different reading I’m going to suggest may sound, to begin with, as though I’m trying to make things easier, to tailor this bit of Paul to fit our culture. But there is good, solid scholarship behind what I’m going to say, and I genuinely believe it may be the right interpretation.

When you look at strip cartoons, B-grade movies, and Z-grade novels and poems, you pick up a standard view of how ‘everyone imagines’ men and women behave. Men are macho, loud-mouthed, arrogant thugs, always fighting and wanting their own way. Women are simpering, empty-headed creatures, with nothing to think about except clothes and hairstyles and jewelry. There are “Christian” versions of this, too: the men must make the decisions, run the show, always be in the lead, telling everyone what to do; women must stay at home, bring up the children and get the food ready. If you start looking for a biblical back-up for this view, well, what about Genesis 3? Adam would never have sinned if Eve hadn’t yielded first. Eve has her punishment, and it’s pain in childbearing (Genesis 3:16).

Well, you don’t have to embrace every aspect of the women’s liberation movement to find that interpretation hard to swallow. Not only does it stick in our throat as a way of treating half the human race; it doesn’t fit with what we see in the rest of the New Testament, where women were the first witnesses of the resurrection (in other words, the first apostles); where Paul speaks of women as apostles and deacons (Romans 16); where he expects them to be praying and prophesying in the assembly (1 Corinthians 11), where “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, no male and female, since you are all one in Christ Jesus?” (Galatians 3:28). In particular, it doesn’t fit with the practice of Jesus himself. In one telling little story (Luke 10:38–42) Mary of Bethany is sitting at Jesus’ feet; in other words, she is joining the men in becoming a disciple, a learner, with a view to becoming a teacher in her turn. That’s the main reason Martha was cross with her; no doubt she’d have liked some more help in the kitchen as well, but Mary’s real offence was to cross a hidden barrier that, up to then, had kept women in the background and left education and leadership to the men.

The key to the present passage, then, is to recognize that it is commanding that women, too, should be allowed to study and learn, and should not be restrained from doing so (verse 11). They are to be “in full submission;” this is often taken to mean “to the men,” or “to their husbands,” but it is equally likely that it refers to their attitude, as learners, of submission to God—which of course would be true for men as well. Then the crucial verse 12 need not be read as “I do not allow a woman to teach or hold authority over a man” (the translation which has caused so much difficulty in recent years). It can equally mean: “I don’t mean to imply that I’m now setting up women as the new authority over men in the same way that previously men held authority over women.” Why might Paul need to say this?

There are some signs in the letter that it was originally sent to Timothy while he was in Ephesus. And one of the main things we know about religion in Ephesus is that the main religion—the biggest temple, the most famous shrine—was a female-only cult. The Temple of Artemis (that’s her Greek name; the Romans called her Diana) was a massive structure which dominated the area. As befitted worshippers of a female deity, the priests were all women. They ruled the show and kept the men in their place.

Now if you were writing a letter to someone in a small, new religious movement with a base in Ephesus, and wanted to say that because of the gospel of Jesus the old ways of organizing male and female roles had to be rethought from top to bottom, with one feature of that being that the women were to be encouraged to study and learn and take a leadership role, you might well want to avoid giving the wrong impression. Was the apostle saying that women should be trained up so that Christianity would gradually become a cult like that of Artemis, where women did the leading and kept the men in line? That, it seems to me, is what verse 12 is denying. The word I’ve translated “try to dictate to them” is unusual, but seems to have the overtones of “being bossy” or “seizing control.” Paul is saying, like Jesus in Luke 10, that women must have the space and leisure to study and learn in their own way, not in order that they may muscle in and take over the leadership as in the Artemis-cult, but so that men and women alike can develop whatever gifts of learning, teaching and leadership God is giving them.

What’s the point of the other bits of the passage, then?

The first verse (8) is clear. The men must give themselves to devout prayer, and must not follow the normal stereotypes of “male” behavior: no anger or arguing. Then verses 9 and 10 follow, making the same point about the women. They must be set free from their stereotype, that of fussing all the time about hairdos, jewelry and fancy clothes—but they must be set free, not in order that they can be dowdy, unobtrusive little nobodies, but so that they can make a creative contribution to the wider society. The phrase “good works” in verse 10 sounds bland to us, but it’s one of the regular ways people used to refer to the social obligation to spend time and money on people less fortunate than oneself, to be a benefactor of the community through helping public works, the arts and so on.

Why then does Paul finish off with the explanation about Adam and Eve? Remember that his basic point is to insist that women, too, must be allowed to learn and study as Christians, and not be kept in unlettered, uneducated boredom and drudgery. Well, the story of Adam and Eve makes the point: look what happened when Eve was deceived. Women need to learn just as much as men do. Adam, after all, sinned quite deliberately; he knew what he was doing, he knew that it was wrong, and he deliberately went ahead. The Old Testament is very stern about that kind of action.

What about the bit about childbirth? Paul doesn’t see it as a punishment. Rather, he offers an assurance that, though childbirth is indeed difficult, painful and dangerous, often the most testing moment in a woman’s life, this is not a curse which must be taken as a sign of God’s displeasure. God’s salvation is promised to all, women and men alike, who follow Jesus in faith, love, holiness and prudence. And that includes those who contribute to God’s creation through childbearing. Becoming a mother is hard enough, God knows, without pretending it’s somehow an evil thing.

Let’s not leave any more unexploded bombs and mines around for people to blow their minds with. Let’s read this text as I believe it was intended, as a way of building up God’s church, men and women, women and men alike. Just as Paul was concerned to apply this in one particular situation, so we must think and pray carefully about where our own cultures, prejudices and angers are taking us. We must do our best to conform, not to any of the different stereotypes the world offers, but to the healing, liberating, humanizing message of the gospel of Jesus.

(Hat tip: a post by BW16 alerted me to this translation by Wright.  I don’t agree with some of BW16’s analysis, but I found his discussion of this verse to be interesting.)

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    September 5, 2011 7:24 pm

    Tim Wright has taken a very supportive stand on women’s ordination. I truly appreciate it. But I do have to smile a bit at his translation of authenteo as “being bossy.” That term has the connotation of referring especially to women. Men aren’t mocked for “being bossy/” if they are bossy, then we say that the man is “controlling.” But surely, men are not usually called “bossy” – or have I missed something. (ten times more google hits for bossy women than for bossy men).

    In any case, authenteo refers to taking over someone else’s position, or being the master or slave owner, or having control in a dictatorial way, but it is not gendered rhetoric in Greek.

  2. September 5, 2011 7:51 pm

    I think that in part this is due to “ssy” adjectives being associated with stereotypes that are not usually considered traditionally masculine: sissy, missy, hussy, wussy, prissy, saucy, sassy, dressy, etc. There are some exceptions, of course, (e.g., “messy” seems neutral to me), but I think that that the English phonetics “ssy” overlaps with certain gender references.

    However, when I hear the term “bossy woman,” I think of the Yiddish term בלבוסטה (woman in charge of the house) which has only positive overtones. Now admittedly, this term is badly antiquated and sexist (from an era when women were expected to be homemakers) but it is interesting to me that modern writers are reclaiming the term within the framework of feminism or egalitarianism — e.g., see here and here. So to my ears, “bossy woman” sounds a lot nicer than “controlling man.”

  3. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    September 5, 2011 10:51 pm

    “sissy, missy, hussy, wussy, prissy, saucy, sassy, dressy, etc.”

    You left out a few – fussy and hissy for example, as well as those I won’t mention. [Um, just joking. I love that it’s possible to edit comments.]

  4. September 6, 2011 1:02 pm

    Let me guess — your favorite French impressionist composer is Debussy.

  5. Peter Waller permalink
    September 19, 2011 8:05 am

    I agree completely that Pauls letters are written within a cultural setting of the time.
    In the gosples the term “Jews” means the jewish authorities not jews in general.
    It struck me after being married for many years, having daughters, that it is easy to use language in this abreviated form.
    Paul meant by women, was uneducated women who went from their fathers household to their husbands without anything other than staying within the family home setting.
    This would have been the majority situation so to use the term “women” would have meant all these things. It would be inconceivable to say someone with such a limited experience could teach or have authority over someone who was schooled, had a business and had to make their way in the outside world.
    The anti women stance goes back to simply reflecting a cultural stereo type, and it is easier to oppress a weak group. For sincere christians to not see how words have a setting and meaning is simply not to understand language itself.
    What astonishes me today is simply how bigotted and blind to love so many are who profess to follow the king of love and the humblest man who ever lived.

  6. September 19, 2011 1:47 pm

    Peter, thanks for your perceptive comments.


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