ON AUTHENTEIN IN 1 Timothy 2:12
The debate around Women’s Ordination in the Anglican Church continues to rage, as thinkers on both sides continue to contend in the unhappy arena created by the “dual integrities” model enshrined in our provincial constitution. When arguments become entangled in the thickets of complex details, it can be useful, as Fr. Gerald McDermott has recently done, to clear the ground and start afresh with the big picture. But then such a move is seen as being neglectful of the complex details, as Fr. Esau McCaulley subsequently responded. I admire and respect Fr. McCaulley, and don’t want to leave the impression that those who oppose Women’s Ordination are without an answer when faced with the complex details of exegesis that he brings forward. Moreover, Fr. McCaulley invites a continued careful discussion, based on submission to Scripture and the a priori commitment that Scripture is intelligible:
“I am not saying that the Bible is a mass of contradictions and we can’t figure any of this out. I am saying that making sense of all these texts is not simply a matter of listing them. It is about engaging the various interpretations, weighing the merits of each, and trying our best to articulate our understanding of ministry in the light of those texts.”
Amen. In that vein, and as a fellow Anglican who believes “it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another” (Article XX), I would like to zoom in on what I believe to be the lynch-pin of the whole debate: the word authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12.
I hope all Anglicans would agree with the following Syllogism: IF — (I am not here assuming the point) — if it were the case that authentein ultimately means simply having authority, and if the Ephesian situation into which 1 Timothy is addressed is not that unique but is comparable to the situation faced by the rest of the Church, in the late first century as well as the late twenty-first, then it would be the case that the prohibition on women teaching and having authority in 1 Timothy 2:12 would be an interpretive key for expounding the rest of Scripture in a non-repugnant key: The female prophesying in 1 Cor 11, the female co-laborers in Philippians 4:2-3, Prisca in Acts, etc. — are all to be understood more as “catechists” “small-group leaders” and “teachers” than “priests” and “preachers” in the way those words signify today, since “priest” and “preacher” are roles that fall under “teaching and having authority over men” in the Church today, which 1 Tim 2:12 forbids if the above conditions are indeed the case.
So to the lynch-pin I shall turn, seeking to establish these two premises, with the hopes that, given the above proposition, if I can make the case convincingly, the foundation — at the level of exegetical details — may perhaps begin to be laid for the resolution of “dual integrities” into integrity.
For this work, I do not profess to any novel scholarship, rather, it seems to me that much excellent scholarship remains sequestered in scholarly and denominational silos. If the relevant scholarship is brought together in one place, organized according to Anglican epistemological principles, I believe a clearer solution can be seen to help unfreeze the deadlock on the issue of Women’s Ordination in the Anglican Church.
ON THE NON-UNIQUENESS OF EPHESUS
The first thing to be established is that 1 Timothy is not being written into a highly unusual situation. If it was highly unusual, then there is the possibility (pace, the letter still being canonical Scripture) that the prohibition on women teaching and exercising/usurping authority was a local pastoral consideration and not a directive for the church universal. It is worth noting that there is not a single prohibition in the entire New Testament that the Church has rejected, on the grounds of it being a “local matter”. With positive injunctions it is a more complex story, but with prohibitions, to make an exception for 1 Timothy 2:12 is to make a hermeneutical move that is sui generis, I.e. shaky ground to be standing on.
Nevertheless, the contention has been made (and is often assumed) that Ephesus was a very unique setting in which women had exceptional authority and that this local cultural norm was infiltrating the otherwise decent relating between men and women in the Church. The Temple of Artemis (in Ephesus) which had female “clergy” is often pointed to as a signal indicator of Ephesian uniqueness.
But was it really unique? S.M. Baugh in A Foreign World: Ephesus in the First Century makes the case very convincingly that it was not. It startles me that this paper, contained in Women in the Church (Third Edition, Eds. Köstenberger and Schreiner, Crossway, 2016) is not cited more frequently, because the quantity of primary text data presented is nigh unarguable in its defense of Baugh’s conclusion,
“Ephesus was in most ways a typical Hellenic society…Like other Greco-Roman city-states, its society was generally patriarchal.” (p. 60)
This is over and against the modern feminist interpreters who might leave
“the impression that ancient Ephesus was some fanciful gynocracy.” (p. 50)
While women in the ancient world were not universally the kitchen-maids of feminist folk-history, it was still the case that even in Ephesus men held positions of civic honor in ratios approaching 100:1, that the temple of Artemis was not independent but still under the rule of the Roman government, etc.
Moreover, there were priestesses in many cults, throughout the Roman Empire, and religious devotion was as pluriform and variegated in Ephesus as in all other cities. In other words, there is very little to distinguish Ephesus from its wider religious milieu.
There is nothing in the Sitz im Leben of 1 Timothy that would suggest an extraordinary circumstance prompting extraordinary behavior in the Church as a matter of course.
I point readers to Baugh’s excellent essay for further details supporting the case.
EPHESUS COMPARED TO THE PRESENT DAY
If feminist scholars cannot substantially distinguish Ephesus from its milieu, then a fall-back manoeuvre might be to lump it together with its milieu in its un-enlightened thinking about women and their roles, and then make the contrast with 21st century understandings of the same. However, this approach also falls flat when the actual details of life in a large Roman city in the mid first century are teased out, as they have been by Bruce Winter in his seminal Roman Wives, Roman Widows (Eerdmans, 2003).
What Winter demonstrates with ample archeological and primary source evidence throughout the entire book is that the first century saw the rise of the then-called “new woman”. That, in the face of great prosperity across the empire and the concomitant decadence, traditional gender roles were being challenged by influential women who started a movement of sorts (A sociologist might say because the traditional roles were no longer “needed” for economic stability). In Neronian Rome (the era of 1 Timothy), the “new women” were asserting themselves in unprecedented numbers as lawyers and political figures across the empire, and traditional mores of courting and sexuality were being flouted, along with the newly acquired titles of respect.
“The ‘new’ wife or widow in the late Roman Republic and early Empire was the one whose social life was reported to have been pursued at the expense of family responsibilities” and who engaged in “the new activities that certain women of means engaged in outside the family and in the wider society, both in business and in the public place.” (Roman Wives, Roman Widows, 4-5) “These new women had an unsettling influence on the status quo” (Ibid., 38)
This is the world into which 1 Timothy was written. Does it sound familiar? It sounds a lot like the West since the 1960s. In other words, if Paul’s words to Timothy were appropriate then, they are a fortiori appropriate now.
In other words, the letters to Timothy are universal, they are applicable to the whole church, across time and space, and are not merely products of Ephesian oddities.
Having established this, let us now turn to the crux of the matter, the greek word αὐθεντεῖν (authentein), the infinitive form of the verb authenteo, that occurs in 1 Tim 2:12.
The ESV renders 1 Tim 2:12 as “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority (authentein) over a man.” Let’s examine the validity of this translation.
OF AUTHENTEIN AND AUTHORITY
Scholars who believe the Bible does not prohibit women in ordained ministry believe that the word in this case should be translated more pejoratively, such as “usurp authority” or even “to domineer”, and that St. Paul is only ordering them not to exercise this abuse of authority, not authority in itself. Fr. McCaulley alludes to this long-standing discussion when he writes,
“What is the difference between that word [αὐθεντεῖν] and the more common ἐξουσία?” [exousia, the word most used in the NT for ‘authority’]
In other words — implying that there is a difference, that the Bible doesn’t forbid women exercising authority (exousia) only bad or ursuped authority (authentien).
Now, the majority consensus among Biblical scholars is that authentein is best rendered as simply “authority”, witness NRSV (hardly a ‘conservative’ creation): “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man.”
But there has been a challenge to this interpretation, lately fueled by a disproportionately influential paper by James Hübner (also cited by Fr. McCaulley), that asserts the pejorative quality of authentein — that it is not a “neutral” word. (Cynthia Westfall’s recent treatment is hopelessly obfuscated by her lengthy appeal to a particular linguistic theory, and I think this accounts for the popularity of the Hübner article).
Since authentein occurs nowhere else in the New Testament (a hapax legomenon), NT scholars appeal to the usage of the word in other previous or near-contemporary Greek writings.
The second edition of Women in the Church had a good essay on this question, but it was blown out of the water by the dissertation Al Wolters supplies in the third edition (which came out after Hübner’s article).
Against the works of Westfall, Hübner and others, Wolters spends sixty pages turning over every linguistic stone in an effort to recover a strong probable sense of the meaning of the word authentein. His conclusion is definitive: it is a neutral word meaning simply ‘authority’, which I invite the reader to examine for themselves.
However, since both Hübner and Wolters possess more faculty than I do in analyzing the Greek, and I am therefore unable to personally arbitrate between their competing conclusions, It is worth pointing out that even if Hübner et al. are right (and I do not think they are), this doesn’t accomplish their desired purpose of egalitarianizing 1 Tim 2:12, but just as easily makes the case for Paul’s prohibition on women stronger, since it could very reasonably be synthesized that St. Paul sees women having authority in the church as ipso facto being an usurpation. If authentein is pejorative, it may be pejorative because the thing itself (women having authority over men) is looked down upon. This certainly seems to be the only explanation for why the translators of the KJV in 1611 would render it, “usurp authority”, a fact not sufficiently reckoned with in Hübner’s discussion.
Acknowledging this irony, it is still worth establishing that authentein is not pejorative in sense, and, to help us decided between the competing presentation of scholars (Wolters et al. versus Hübner et al.), as Anglican students of the Bible we can ask the question, “How was it understood by the Tradition of the Early Church?” In the terminology of biblical lexical studies, “what is the post-history of authentein?” How was the word later used by Church Fathers who read 1 Tim 2, most of whom were themselves native Greek speakers? We would expect the meaning of the word as it sits in 1 Tim 2:12 to have an effect on its usage in the later church, and, moreover, when missional circumstances prompted the translating of the New Testament books into other languages, the semantic footprint is sure to reveal itself.
For Anglicans who inhabit a church and an an ecclesiology that emphasizes organic continuity with the past, and for whom the Church Fathers (and Church Tradition generally) is a weighty factor in interpretation, this post-history would prima facie be of even greater weight than scholarly re-constructions of a words’ meaning based on fragmentary pre-1st century textual evidence.
Wolters unearths the relevant details of the post-history of authentein, but writing as he does within a Reformed/Evangelical circle — where historical-grammatical criticism is de rigeur — he intentionally under-appreciates the gravity of the data (p.89), and further weakens the strength of the presentation by allocating usage into “columns” that are too subtle in their differentiation. Allow me to present it for the re-evaluation of an Anglican readership:
POST-HISTORY PART 1: THE FATHERS
Across nearly 100 uses of the verb authenteo, the Church Fathers almost exclusively use the word in a normal, non-pejorative sense.
The majority (51) of these usages have a connotation of “acting on one’s own authority” (Women in the Church, p.97)
In many cases it is used to describe the way in which Jesus in his earthly ministry did only that which he saw his Father doing, such as St. John Chrysostom’s comment on Jesus’ prayer before the raising of Lazarus,
“Therefore, he [Jesus] who had raised countless dead men with a mere word, also added a prayer when he was calling Lazarus…‘I said these things because of the crown standing around, in order that they might believe that you sent me.’ And he neither does all things as one acting on his own authority (authenton)…nor does he do all things with prayer…as though he were weak and powerless.” (Chrysostom’s 16th Homily on Matthew)
The verb is also often used to describe the authority that God has (which could hardly be seen as pejorative!), such as Eusebius of Caesarea, who, commenting on the Trinitatian Baptismal formula writes,
“The Father being sovereign (authentountos) and bestowing grace, the Son administering this grace…etc.”
Summing up his evaluation of patristic use of the word, Wolters concludes, “…we are hard pressed to find a pejorative meaning anywhere.”
It should come as no surprise then that when a church father directly comments on 1 Tim 2:12, he rules out all female authoritative-teaching, not “merely” those who were doing so in a disruptive way (as if authentein had an exclusively pejorative sense). Here is St. Chrysostom again, from his fourth homily on Titus [emphases mine],
“ ‘But I do not permit a woman to teach.’ But listen to what Paul added: ‘Nor to have authority (authentein) over a man.’ For to men it is permitted to teach both men and women from on high; to women he permits the word of exhortation at home, but nowhere does he allow them to preside, or does he let them hold an extended discourse. For this reason he added the words, ‘nor to have authority (authentein) over a man.” (quoted in Women in the Church, p. 88)
POST-HISTORY PART 2: EARLY TRANSLATIONS OF THE BIBLE
When we look at early translations of the Bible we see authentein in 1 Tim 2:12 being translated into words that, with only one exception (the Syriac Peshitta, which was corrected in later Syriac editions), are words that would be glossed in English as ‘authority’ without a pejorative sense.
The various Old Latin translations (predecessors to St. Jerome’s Vulgate) render it with: Praepositam (“commander”), dominare, dominari (“lord”), principari (“ruler”). Jerome selected dominari. (I wish it didn’t need to be said that the false-friend of “dominate” is not a part of the semantic range of latin’s dominari, which is simply the word, “Lord”, the most common title for Jesus in Latin, and in patristic Christian latin, takes on a flavor of servant-leadership)
Sahidic Coptic: erjoeis (“lord”); Boharic Coptic: ethreserjoj (“lord”), etc. (Wolters, 85)
When Bible translations were abounding in the fourth and fifth centuries, Christian scholars began to realize the need for lexica and dictionaries, to assist the effort. One of the most prestigious of these early lexica was produced by no less a luminary than St. Cyril of Alexandria (375-444). So, what gloss does he give under the entry for authentein? Here it is:
N.T. *A8259: αὐθεντεῖν : Ἐξουσίαζειν (Exousiazein, Exousia) 1 Tim 2:12. (quoted in Hesychius, cited by Wolters, 88)
So St. Cyril would answer Fr. McCaulley’s rhetorical question, “What is the difference between that word (authentein) and the more common ἐξουσία?” by saying “There isn’t an important difference.”
In sum then, the post-history of authentein further solidifies consensus critical scholarship of today, that authentein does not have a pejorative sense, and therefore, we cannot mirror-read a disruptive-teaching into the Ephesian setting to which 1 Tim 2:12 is being written. Therefore, the prohibition of women “teaching and authentein” is a simple prohibition of wielding authority by means of authoritative teaching generally.
If the above argument about the non-uniqueness of Ephesus and the non-pejorative meaning of authentein is sound and acceptable, then it appears that the Biblical command in 1 Timothy 2:12 “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man.” is to be understood in its plain sense, and that it is binding upon the universal Church. This is God’s command to his Church. Receiving this, since it is one of the essential functions of priest to teach with authority (I leave apart here, the question of what is intended in the deaconal ordination, a topic for a future time), for the Anglican Church to ordain women to the priesthood is to go against the commands of God.
I would like to hear the best argument to the contrary. If it is unpersuasive, I pray that collectively we would come to oneness of mind on this issue.