Defusing the 1 Timothy 2:12 Bomb: What Does Paul Mean by Authority (Authentein)

Gail Wallace


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Defusing the 1 Timothy 2:12 Bomb was a post I almost didn’t write for two reasons: 1) I was pretty sure much of this would be “old news” to readers, and 2) thousands of pages have already been written, so it is not likely that opinions are going to be swayed by one post.  But I was compelled to write because this verse continues to be used as a “weapon” to keep an all-male church leadership structure in place in many churches.

The response was encouraging. Women like Felicia shared their frustration over how this verse is used to discourage them from fulfilling their call to ministry: “I have had this text used against me as a female minister. Sometimes it really does feel like someone is hurling a bomb at me.”  There was a lot of great discussion in the comments section of the post about the word “authentein” which is usually translated as “authority”. What follows is the section on “authentein” from the original post for reference, followed by comments from readers that took the discussion to the next level.

On “Authentein” (from the original post)

Before we conclude that this passage is “clear” we must consider the limitations of our English translations. The most problematic issue is the rendering of the verb authentein as “authority”. This unusual Greek verb is found only once in scripture and rarely in extrabiblical texts, where it is usually associated with aggression. Authentein is translated as “domineer” in the Latin Vulgate and New English Bible and as “usurp authority” in the Geneva and King James Bibles.

A study of Paul’s letters shows that he regularly used a form of the Greek “exousia” when referring to the use of authority in the church (see 1 Cor 6:12, 7:4, 1 Cor 6:12, 7:4, 9:4-6, 9:12, 11:10, 2 Cor 2:8, 10:8, 13:10, Col. 1:13, 2 Thess 3:12, Rom 6:15, 9:21).  So it is strange that some modern versions translate this simply as “authority”. Considering the context, it is likely that he was objecting to something other than the legitimate use of authority.

Reader Comments on Authentein

James wrote: The Greek word the writer discusses, authentein, is a verb in the grammatical form “present infinitive active” of the Greek word authenteo. Yes, this word occurs once in the NT, but Moulton and Milligan (“Vocabulary of the Greek Testament”) shows the well-established secular use with the meaning “master, autocrat.” The verb form (as in 1 Timothy 2:12) means “to domineer,” (Robertson, “Word Pictures”). The translation “have authority over” accurately reflects the common use of the word in normal (Greek) writing and conversation. Since the secular use is frequent and well-established, and Paul uses the word according to the established use, then the translation is correct, and with so many uses in the (Greek) vernacular it may be used with other Scripture to form the doctrine of the church. As the church has done consistently until the late 19th century.

This is a typical complementarian interpretation. The problem is that the sources James cites are outdated and incomplete.

More current scholarship shows that the meaning in secular use is well-established, but not in the way James suggests, as these readers pointed out:

Tim Peck responded: I don’t think Moulton and Milligan (published in 1923) and Robertson’s word pictures (published in 1927) are the most up-to-date semantic resources to establish the meaning of authentein. Both of these works rely heavily on how this word is used by the patristic writers centuries later rather than its usage contemporary to the writings of the apostles.

Leland Wilshire (one of my former professors) did an extensive study of this word using the TLG computer database back in the 1980s and found that it was indeed rare (314 occurrences in the entire Greek corpus the TLG database covered) and that at times carried connotations of violence, such as suicide and murder (see his article “The TLG Computer and Further Reference to Authenteo in 1 Timothy 2:12″ New Testament Studies 34/1 [1988]). This is why many contemporary scholars (who have access to far more texts than Robertson and Moulton and Milligan had) suggest that this word connotes abuse of authority, domineering, etc.

I provided additional information that Bob Edwards posted in a previous discussion:

“Regarding studies on authentein, a comprehensive study was published in 2010 by Wilshire, using the Thesaurus Linguae Graeca, an online computer database containing 306 uses of authentein or its derivatives throughout the entire history of Greek literature (a 1200 year span). Such a large sample has frankly never been available before in human history. In other words, it’s a landmark study.

Wilshire acknowledges that Grudem accessed the same database, but did so before it was complete. Most work prior to the completion of the database relied on printed lexicons, which contain very small samples in comparison. Small samples are much less likely to be representative samples. In other words, generalizing from a small sample is risky, inadvisable, etc. One study, for example, concluded that authentein must mean authority used a lexicon containing only 6 examples.          

Meanings for authentein in the TLG between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D. (a 400-year span with the New Testament period at its center) include the following:

– “doer of a massacre”
– “author of crimes”
– “perpetrators of sacrilege”
– “supporter of violent actions”
– “murderer of oneself”
– “sole power”
– “perpetrator of slaughter”
– “murderer”
– “slayer”
– “slayer of oneself”
– “authority”
– “perpetrator of evil”
– “one who murders by his own hand”

(Polybius, Diodorus Siculus, Philo, pseudo-Clement, Appian of Alexander, Irenaeus, Harpocration, Phrynicus, as cited in Wilshire, 2010).”

Tim Fall added this insight: “Translating it as not allowing women to dominate a man makes much more sense in the Ephesian context, where the Artemis cult (with its pagan priestesses) prevailed.”

Paul Neeley referred us to this article that brings up an additional point. It seems that after conducting his landmark study Wilshire actually rejected the idea that “authentein” refers to the use of authority at all, either positive OR negative: 

Wilshire concludes that authentein might best be translated “to instigate violence.”[82] Women in Timothy’s congregation, therefore, are to neither teach nor instigate violence. He bases this conclusion upon a study of every known use of the word authentein (and its cognates) in Greek literature from the years 200 B.C. to 200 A.D.

Bible translator Scott Munger (VP Translations, Biblica) emailed us a link to his helpful article, Women, the Church, and Bible Translation, which gives detailed examples of how the choices of translators support differing interpretations. He reminds us that no translation is truly literal, since words have multiple meanings and translators have to choose from a number of possibilities.

Conclusion: Paul was NOT referring to normative authority.

In a second letter, Paul instructs Timothy to “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15b). One implication of this verse is that our interpretations should continually be reevaluated based on the best biblical scholarship and translation methods available to us. On the matter of “authentein”, the scholarship supports the interpretation that if Paul did indeed mean authority here, he was referring to a negative and unusual use of authority.

It seems to me that the leaders of the complementarian camp already know they have lost this particular theological debate. Maybe that’s why they have redirected their attention in recent years to other arguments. Unfortunately, the damage is already done, and so it is important to push for better interpretations of “authentein”.

We’ll close with some insightful comments by Mark Neale, who wrote:

“The thing that I find amazing is that literate and intelligent people still default to these defunct and horribly damaging interpretations of Scripture…This corrupt attitude to women is in my view a symptom of a much deeper problem that is allowing much of the modern church (in the West at least) to slide into a state of irrelevance. Too often we project the image of a sexist, authoritarian institution trying to send people back to 18th-century cultural values, rather than the vibrant, loving, serving community of the King; a people who show the world the way forward into God’s new creation.”

Thanks to all who participated in the discussion for moving this important conversation forward.

More on authentein:

Insight into Two Biblical Passages: Anatomy of a Prohibition 1 Timothy 2:12 (this is a link to the 2012 Kindle version of Wilshire’s study)

Lost in Translation: A Look at 1 Timothy 2:12 (by Bob Edwards)

Can Women Teach? (part 2 of a series by Ian Paul)

First Timothy 2:12, the Ordination of Women, and Paul’s Use of Creation Narratives (by John Jefferson Davis)

First Timothy 2:12 in Context (one in a five-part series by Margaret Mowczko)

LCMS Report on Authentein (by Suzanne McCarthy)

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  • Great blog Gail! I wish more Christians were informed of this information. Too many of the Lord’s handmaidens are bond up by wicked traditions. Very impressed with your material!

  • GREAT resource here!!!! Someone needs to notify Grudem that his data is incomplete and therefore unreliable. 🙂

  • There is a LOT more concern that the definition of authentein. One needs to keep any text in its immediate context, scholars call this the pericope or teaching unit. I think the pericope is 1 Tim 2:8-3:13. One needs to do one’s best to understand the entire teaching unit as a unit.

    Another aspect is that Timothy was Paul’s spiritual son, so they would be expected to have a large shared context and this context is one we do not share, as we are not Timothy; so we are left to read over Timothy’s shoulders as it were, doing as best we can, but some things are just unclear, contra claims of clarity.

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