Earlier this year I was confronted with one of those questions that prompted a strong desire in me to change the subject. I was able to avoid the question for a while but it kept coming up in different situation with different people. The question was something like this: “What does Paul mean when he writes ‘I do not allow a woman to have authority over a man”? In other words, “What does it mean to αυθεντειν a man?” I didn’t want to give a definite answer until I, at a minimum, did a casual study of the passage. However, the more I looked at I Timothy 2:9-15 and specifically I Timothy 2:12, the more it seemed that almost every word, structure and grammar point of I Timothy 2:12 is debated (διδασκειν δε γυναικι ουκ επιτρεπω ουδε αυθεντειν ανδρος, αλλ’ ειναι εν ησυχια.). We can add to this debate issues concerning cultural scope, audience and OT background. Following is a list of just some of the questions that came to my mind:
- Is Paul talking about women or wives?
- If what Paul says in 2:9ff is strictly cultural and applies only to first century Ephesus, what textual clues tells the reader that this is so?
- Are the instructions for men in 2:1-8 also not relevant for today or do they only apply to first century Ephesus?
- Since we know that Paul had no problem with women prophesying and praying at public Christian gatherings, what does he mean by the term typically translated “remain quiet”?
- Are the two infinitive two separate actions or does one compliment the other? In other words, is there one or two prohibitions here?
- What does he mean by the prohibition “to teach”?
- What does he mean by the verb typically translated “to have authority over a man”?
- How is Paul using the Old Testament in 13-15?
- When Paul writes what is usually translated something like, “a women shall be saved by the bearing of children…” what does he mean?
At this point, I was distracted for a couple of months because we were moving back to Odessa, Ukraine. However, now that we are here in Odessa and I am having trouble sleeping, I think it is a good time to finish some of my thoughts.
After reading several commentaries, the most common translation of αυθεντειν ανδρος I read was “have authority over a man” or the like. Kostenberger and Schreiner are a good representation of this translation and the rational behind it. They looked at 85 different uses of the word in both the verbal and noun form from the New Testament, Old Testament, secular material and early church fathers. Their research spanned a timeframe that includes the OT usages up to the sixth century AD. Here is an example of their conclusions.
Upon analyzing these eighty-five currently known occurrences of the verb αυθεντεω, it becomes evident that the only unifying concept is that of authority. Four outworkings of authority are reflected in the distinct meanings of the verb.
If out of the 85 known uses of the word “the only unifying concept is that of authority”, I was convinced that “have authority over a man” was a good translation of what Paul meant. Further, as I continued my research, Douglass Moo convinced me that I was on the right track. He says,
Translations of this Biblical Greek hapax range from the simple “have authority” (NIV; NASB) to the more nuanced “dictate” (Moffat) to the remarkable dissimilar “engage in fertility practices.” …While the evidence is not extensive, the information outlined above allows for the fairly certain conclusion that αυθεντεω in I Tim. 2:12 must mean, “have authority.” This is the meaning of the verb in one of the two pre-Christian occurrences, in the second century, and in the Church Fathers. Furthermore, whatever the etymology of the noun be, it is clear that its meaning in the Hellenistic period was most often “master, authority.”
I have a lot of respect for both Kostenburger and Moo and their arguments were ringing true. Moo makes a very strong statement when he says “…that αυθεντεω in I Tim. 2:12 must mean ‘have authority.” It is both the only unifying concept and Moo added that “This is the meaning of the verb in one of the two pre-Christain occurrences.” Case closed – the meaning must be “have authority”. Then I decided to read one more commentary.
I had never heard of Leland Wilshire, but I picked up his book. He had a suggestion that messed with my thinking. He suggested that since the only significantly unclear use of the word αυθεντεω was Paul’s use, we should limit our lexical study of the word to citations during the four centuries surrounding the New Testament period. This made a lot of sense to me. It seems more than reasonable that 200 years before and after Paul should provide us with a good idea of the semantic range of the word during Paul’s lifetime. Languages and the range of word meanings are always in flux. There are many examples of how words change their meaning over time or how their range of meaning widens or narrows over time. Sometimes this can even happen during a generation. I myself can think of several examples of words that have changed meanings during my lifetime. I read Wilson’s analysis and followed his advice. I made a timeline of the 85 occurrences, who used them and what the word meant. I was surprised at the results and found myself persuaded by Wilshire’s arguments. He says in part:
An analysis of this list shows that one can find very few citations during this four century period surrounding the New Testament that have the meaning of “exercising authority,” “holding sway or using power,“ or “being dominant” (the one citation from papyrus #1208 is in a variant form authentekotos and the word in Ptolemy is the variant authentesas). Although one faces a frustrating mixture of contextual meanings at the time of the New Testament, the preponderant number of citations from this compilation have to do with self willed violence, criminal action, or murder or reference to the person who does these actions.
As I looked at my timeline, I couldn’t help but agree with Wilshire’s analysis. I am not sure how he defines “very few citations”. There are some usages that fall into the semantic range of “have authority”, but even most of those are second/third century. As I further considered the data of that 400 year period, two things became very clear. First, from the second century BC to the second century AD, the word αυθεντεω had a wide and somewhat bizarre semantic domain. The idea of “exercising authority” is included in the range of meaning, but so are ideas like the following (I will try to list them in semantically connected categories):
- doer of a massacre, murderous, slayer, murderer
- killer of self, being one’s own murderer, suicide
- criminal, author of crimes, perpetrator of a crime, supporters of violent actions
- perpetrator of sacrilege
- builder of a tower
- sole power, authority, to control, to dominate, to exercise one’s one jurisdiction, master
Second, starting in about the fourth century AD, where most of the 85 examples are from, the meaning is almost exclusively connected with authority. This is not to say that the data was somehow skewed in favor of the meaning “have authority”. It is simply that around the fourth century the word became more common.
That tells me a couple more things. First, before the fourth century, the word was not a common word. Second, something happened in the fourth century that both made αυθεντεω more common and narrowed the meaning of it to ranges connected with authority. Third, during Paul’s time, the range of meaning of the word was very broad indeed. Fourth, if we look at about 1000 years of evidence, the majority of meanings is “have authority”. However, the majority of those usages occur 350 to 400 years after Paul. If we remove the later usages, then we have no clear single meaning. So where does that leave us?
Paul chose to use this word in place of his usual word for “authority”. If we assume that he did this intentionally, it is reasonable to assume that the word αυθεντεω had a nuanced meaning that better fit what he wanted to communicate than his usual word εξυσια. That fact alone throws doubt on the meaning of authority for αυθεντεω. Second, we cannot come to a confident conclusion that Paul meant, “have authority” simply based on the number of uses. During his time, the meaning of the word was not that clear or set. Third, if Paul did indeed mean something like “have authority,” he probably had a nuanced meaning that this word communicated. What is the nuanced meaning? Good question. I’m not sure, but it probably has something to do with violence and authority.
So, what have I learned here? Maybe I should first say what I have not learned. I have not learned a clear meaning of what it means to αυθεντειν ανδρος in Paul. If I have contributed in any way to this discussion, I think, what I have done is ruled out that “to αυθεντειν a man” means simple to “have authority over a man.” Whatever Paul is saying is, at a minimum, more nuanced than that and possible quite different.