Pursuing Partnership Part 18B: What Does the Bible Say? The Interpretive Difficulties in 1 Timothy 2

By Heather Althoff, ThM (Dallas Seminary), LifeWay Church – Missions Pastor.

This article is part of the series Pursuing Partnership: Men and Women in Ministry.

Part 18B: What Does the Bible Say?  The Interpretive Difficulties in 1 Timothy 2

The Disputed Passages: A Second Look at 1 Timothy 2:8–15

Last week I began our look at 1 Timothy 2:8–15 by encouraging us to acknowledge that this passage is extremely difficult and unclear – even in the estimation of scholars who have studied it for years. Despite a couple of statements that seem clear in their English translations, there are a number of hurdles that must be overcome when seeking Paul’s meaning in these verses.

Context

Considering the context of Paul’s words to Timothy in these verses, both culturally and within the book itself, are a good starting point for understanding. First, culturally, there are several potential ramifications of Timothy serving the church in Ephesus when Paul wrote to him. The church family in Ephesus was a complex mix of Jews and Gentiles, as evidenced from the accounts in Acts 18 and 19. We see potential pagan and Jewish influences in the false teaching that is disrupting the church under Timothy’s leadership. Ephesus was also the center of the Artemis of the Ephesians cult, with a major temple center affecting several aspects of daily life. Understanding the nature and teachings of this cult may also shed light on the issues Paul deals with in his words to Timothy.[1]

Second, literarily, it is important to understand that the main issue being addressed in 1 Timothy is that of false teaching. Already, by the time of Acts 20, Paul could see a problem coming, and warned the Ephesian elders, “Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.” (Acts 20:30, NIV). 1 Timothy seems to confirm that Paul was right to worry. While some have suggested that this letter was meant to be a manual on church operations (and, thus, have interpreted its contents as an outline of roles within the church), more than fifty percent of the letter is devoted to false teaching and false teachers. This book is corrective in nature, and instructions should be interpreted in light of Paul’s main concern.

False Teaching

So, if Paul’s main concern in 1 Timothy is false teaching, what was the nature of the false teaching and who was propagating it?  The short answer is, “We don’t know.” Many have seen Jewish influence in features listed in chapter 1: myths, genealogies, speculations not from faith, meaningless talk, and inappropriate applications of the law, as well as abstaining from certain foods in chapter 4. Others see proto-gnostic ideas of duality that resulted in license for sexual immorality and remaining unmarried.[2] These ideas would have appealed to widows, as chapter 5 implies this false teaching did.

Still others see the false teaching connected to a corrupted version of Genesis 2–3.[3] Strange creation stories taught by Christian Gnostics and their forerunners have been found in ancient documents, some versions claiming that Eve gave life to Adam, and Adam was the one deceived. And finally, some see false teaching that could be directly tied to the Artemis of the Ephesians cult.[4] This cult was entirely run by females, with males playing only minor and subservient roles. Artemis of the Ephesians was thought to have appeared first, being superior to her male consort, unlike the biblical story of Adam and Eve where Adam appears first, and neither is superior, as shown by their sin. Artemis of the Ephesians was also closely associated with childbirth and the mother’s safety during that dangerous ordeal, potentially shedding light on the difficult statement about women being saved through childbirth. Again, there are tantalizing connections with each of these possibilities, but we must be honest about our lack of certainty about exactly what false teaching was being taught among the Ephesians.

False Teachers

Similarly, we must admit that we do not know who was teaching the false doctrine. Some, like Douglas Moo, claim that “there is no evidence in the pastoral epistles that women were teaching false doctrines.”[5]  Others, like I. Howard Marshall in his Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, argue that there are “strong indications that women were involved in the heresy, and therefore teaching false doctrine.[6] If the false teaching was connected to the Artemis cult or a corrupted creation narrative, it would certainly make sense that a woman was teaching it. Here is some of the evidence cited for women’s involvement in the false teaching:

  • In verses 11–12, there is a shift from plural to singular when speaking of women. It is possible that Paul is speaking about a specific woman that he does not permit to speak.
  • Throughout 1 Timothy, Paul uses parallel language to describe women and to describe false teachers.[7]
  • Paul refers to false teachers using terms that normally encompass both men and women, such as “anyone,” “someone,”[8] or “person.”[9] These are sometimes translated using terms like “men,” “man,” or “he,” but these translations hide the inclusiveness of those terms.[10]
  • In 1 Timothy 5:13, the description of women includes the term phylaroi, often translated “gossips.” The root of the word is foolery or nonsense. Some argue that it is hard to imagine Paul saying that they had “turned aside to follow Satan” (5:15) simply because they were gossips, and it is more likely that is had to do with false teaching.[11]

Ultimately, there is no proof text to act as a silver bullet. Depending on your theory of the false teaching (and your view of whether women were teaching in church gatherings in the early church), you may lean one way or the other. While it is good and right to continue to seek understanding, it is also important to acknowledge just how much we don’t know about the situation in Ephesus to which Paul speaks in 1 Timothy.

Next week, we will focus our efforts solely on verses 11–12, and numerous difficult words and phrases that we encounter.


[1] For insight into the significant work being done concerning Artemis of the Ephesians, see Sandra Glahn’s articles in Bibliotheca Sacra. Sandra L. Glahn, “The Identity of Artemis in First-Century Ephesus,” Bibliotheca Sacra 172, no. 687 (July 2015): 316–34; and Sandra L. Glahn, “The First Century Ephesian Artemis: Ramifications of Her Identity,” Bibliotheca Sacra 172, no. 688 (October 2015):  450–69.

[2] Philip Payne, Man and Woman: One in Christ (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity, 2009), 302–303.

[3] Marg Mowczko, “An Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12 That Joins the Dots of 2:11-15,” blog post on margmowcsko.com, August 30, 2017, https://margmowczko.com/interpretation-of-1-timothy-212/.

[4] Glahn, “The Identity of Artemis” and “The First Century Ephesian Artemis.” Again, Sandra Glahn shows several connections between the issues of 1 Timothy and the Artemis cult in Ephesus.

[5] Douglas Moo, “What Does it Mean Not to Teach or Have Authority Over Men?” Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds. (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991), 190.

[6] I. Howard Marshall, Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles (New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 466.

[7] Payne, Man and Woman, 300. See the chart of parallel statements.

[8] See 1 Timothy 1:3, 1:6, 1:8, 1:19, 4:1, 5:24, 6:3, 6:10, and 6:21.

[9] See 1 Timothy 5:24, 6:5, and 6:9.

[10] For a full explanation, see Payne, Man and Woman, 299.

[11] Payne notes that neither LSJ nor BDAG list gossip as a meaning for phylaroi.


This article is submitted by Wendy Wilson of Missio Nexus and of Women’s Development Track.  Women’s Development Track is a Missio Nexus member.  Member organizations can provide content to the Missio Nexus website. See how by clicking here.

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