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The 1 Timothy 2:12 Conundrum: I Do Not Permit a Woman to … (????) AUTHORITY….

12th in a series.

This one is a bit tricky. So bear with me.


Compare how two different Bible translations translate 1 Timothy 2:12(a):

I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man…. (ESV).
I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man…. (NIV).

So, which is better? Which is more correct? To “exercise authority” or to “assume authority?” The first has a rather positive view of authority. The second? Well, I am not sure.

It could be “assume authority” in the sense of what is rightfully yours to have. In other words, “authority” is a good thing. However, it could also mean to “assume authority” in the sense of what is not rightfully yours, to “have your own way over somebody else,” by force or trickery perhaps, something that is quite negative. Either way, Paul does not want a woman to possess that kind of authority, whether that kind of authority be positive or negative.

But which kind of authority is it? Positive or negative?

If it is positive, then that pretty much rules out any legitimate case whereby a woman can have authority over a man. If it is negative, then it means that a woman should not exercise authority in a wrong, or otherwise overbearing manner. But is the reverse true, that there might be a case where a woman is permitted to exercise authority in a good and positive way, over a man?

Mmmmm…..

Why is this idea of authority, so…. well, uh…. vague, when you compare these two translations? As it turns out, the Greek word behind our English “authority” is this controversial word: authenteo. It looks sort of like the word for “authority” in English, but when the Bible normally talks about “authority,” in the most positive sense possible, you find different Greek words, like exousia, that clearly has a positive connotation, and exousia is used multiple times in the Bible.

But when it comes to authenteo, many Bible scholars get stuck. The reason is because authenteo only appears this one, single time in the whole of the Bible (authenteo is a verb, authentein is the noun). So, to figure out what it means, Bible scholars have to search through Greek writings, outside of the Bible, for how to properly translate it. This is where the current debate flairs up.

What follows is a little tour through Bible translation history, as it shows just how difficult it has been to translate this unique word. This might be a bit difficult to follow, so do not stress out too much, if you get lost here. This is mainly a prelude for something that needs to be said, towards the end of this post…So you can just skim down towards the end, if you find yourself scratching your head too much….

Saint Jerome (347-420 A.D.). Translator of the Latin Vulgate.

In Search of the Authentic “Authenteo!”

Back in about the late 4th century, the early church father and Bible translator, Jerome, used the Latin word dominare, when translating this word in this verse, in the Latin Vulgate.  The Latin Vulgate translation has pretty much been the most well-known and authoritative Bible translation in the Western world, until the time of the Protestant Reformation, and has remained highly influential among Roman Catholics, until the last few decades. In the Latin Vulgate translation of 1 Timothy 2:12, this dominare typically has a rather positive meaning, as in to “exercise authority,” though in some admittedly limited contexts, it has a negative meaning.

At the start of the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic scholastic Bible translator, Erasmus, used the Latin word usurpare, instead of dominare, according to the Latin dictionary he used, when translating this verse. This usurpare is what eventually made its way into the classic King James Version (KJV) of the Bible:

But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man… (1 Timothy 2:12a KJV).

In other words, Erasmus, and consequently, the KJV translators who followed him, gave us a translation that delivers a different sense of the meaning of the text. Many would say that “authority,” rightly belongs solely to the man. Therefore, for a woman to make a claim of “authority” would be an usurpation of true and proper authority.

On the other hand, women preachers, and those who supported them, over the past few hundred of years, who knew nothing but the King James, often interpreted the passage something like this:

” Well, I am teaching/preaching, but I am not doing so in a manner that ‘usurps authority,’ since the whole idea of ‘usurping authority’ is a bad thing, and teaching/preaching the Gospel is always a good thing! To usurp authority is to try take something that really does not belong to you. Of course, Paul would condemn that. But if God gives the gift of preaching to a woman, this is not the usurpation of authority, but rather, the granting of genuine, good, and proper authority.”

Okay. So, what does this word authenteo really mean?

You would have to go back further than either Erasmus or Jerome to figure that out, back to the world of the New Testament, as close as possible. Unfortunately, the examples of its usage in classical Greek texts, within a few hundred years of when the New Testament was written, shows a wide variety of meanings.

For example, one possible, though somewhat rare meaning, is that of to “murder” someone. Okay. Let us try that out, in this passage:

I do not permit a woman to teach or to murder a man…. 

Wow! That is pretty pejorative!! I am so glad that Paul would condemn that.

Well, the context really does not work for that here, but the wealth of alternatives requires biblical scholars to dig deep into finding out the most viable, responsible answer.

Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536), by Holbein. Influential scholar of medieval Christian humanism (credit: Wikipedia)

Complementarian and egalitarian scholars, who know Greek literature of the New Testament period and surrounding, land on different sides of the debate, once they have done all of the lexical analysis. The discussion among scholars in recent years appears to be favoring a complementarian approach, though egalitarians beg to differ.

The egalitarians think that Erasmus largely got it right, but that Erasmus did not go far enough in demonstrating that authenteo/authentein is primarily a negative concept. Paul was instructing women not to usurp authority that was not properly hers. But it did mean that women can, in the right circumstances, have authority in an appropriate way. What are those “right circumstances” for us today? For most egalitarians, the same circumstances would apply equally to men as well as women.

Complementarians tend to side with Jerome. Paul did not intend for women to exercise authority at all. Only men designated as overseers, or elders, can do that (though some say that men more generally exercise such authority, but this distinction is heavily debated among complementarians themselves).1

A lot folks are probably somewhere in between.

An Illustration to Consider

If you got lost following anything above, you can tune back in now…..

Let me take a moment to get to the real meat here, and highlight an illustration that parallels something I said in the previous blog post about “teaching,.” This is something that really needs to be focused on, for complementarians to think about, and for which might help some egalitarians out.

It has to do with what follows 1 Timothy 2, for in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Paul specifically lays out the qualifications for elders, or overseers. It would be reasonable to conclude that what Paul means by “authority” in 1 Timothy 2:12 has to deal with the office of elders, or overseers, and not just about any joe-shmo guy who strolls into church any Sunday morning.

Yet some complementarians believe that 1 Timothy 2:12 argues that women should not be in any church leadership position, where they might be giving direction to a man. It does not matter who this man is, nor who the woman is. This reasoning assumes that such leadership implies the exercise of “authority,” which would be pretty much along the same lines as the idea, that women should never be in a position, whereby they are “teaching” in a mixed setting; that is, when men are present.

There is a problem with this thinking that needs some critical analysis. Consider a military analogy. Suppose an army general tells his field commander, to get the troops together, to “take that hill to the north.” Then the field commander gets the troops out there, but then decides, “You know, I want to change tactics, and take that hill to the south instead.”

If the field commander does this, he could be charged with insubordination, and acting on his own authority. But if the field commander follows the instructions of the general, and takes the north hill, then that field commander is not acting on his own authority, but rather on the authority of the general, the field commander’s elder.

Likewise, if a man or woman in church leadership, who is not an elder, acts in a manner contrary to the teaching and/or authority of the elders, then that man or woman is acting on their own authority, and should be disciplined. However, if that man or woman in church leadership, who is not an elder, executes their talents in a manner consistent with the authoritative direction of the elders, then they are acting on the authority of the elders, and not on their own authority.

Is this not true? I know many complementarians who might argue against the point of my illustration, but it might be worth rethinking their objection. If it is the elders, who ultimately hold the spiritual authority in a local church, then should we not be grateful for those men and women who faithfully serve under that spiritual authority, with their many gifts and talents, and leadership gifts? To assume that a woman, who is being faithful as a leader in the church, under the authority of the elders, is somehow acting out on their “own authority,” whenever men are present…. well…. that just seems like a really strange way of reading 1 Timothy 2:12.

Can someone convince me otherwise that I am in error?

You see, this stuff can get really complicated, which is why we need to show a lot charity with one another in our discussions.

Over the last few blog posts, we have examined three of the most difficult words in just one verse, 1 Timothy 2:12. But the real clincher, depending on how you look at it, deals with why Paul makes this statement, in this verse. We find his reasoning in the following few verses of this passage, which we will examine next time….

Notes:

1. The whole debate centers around a person’s understanding of “authority,” which can be an exceedingly elusive topic to nail down, which is quite reminiscent of the discussion of what constitutes “teaching,” also addressed in 1 Timothy 2:12. For the egalitarian, the way to resolve the debate over “authority” is by saying that 1 Timothy is only addressing a particular, unique situation in Ephesus, that is not applicable for today, namely that women were misusing their authority to promote false teaching within that particular church in Ephesus. Therefore, anyone, male or female, can exercise authority in the church, as long as it is not overbearing, etc. For the complementarian, the discussion is a lot more complicated. Who is it then who exercises authority in a local church? For Daniel Wallace, whom I highly esteem and respect, men in general exercise authority,  and women simply do not. A woman may teach only women, or they may teach a mixed group of young people. A woman may even teach a group of college students. But beyond the age of college students, a woman may not teach any older men. Well, how does one exactly determine the cut off, as to what is the appropriate age? Why the college age? On what grounds? We hear the same type of argument promoted by pastor John Piper. For Piper, even if the elders affirm a woman’s teaching gift, they are not to use it in a mixed setting (men and women) in a church. British pastor Andrew Wilson disagrees, arguing that Scripture allows for cases whereby a woman may address a mixed gathering, to exhort the people, as long as the elders bestow their blessing. Southern Baptist theologian Tom Schreiner offers two different responses, one whereby he endorses the idea of women addressing a mixed-group, on occasion, and another response, whereby he favors John Piper’s approach contra Andrew Wilson. Wilson then responds and summarizes the issues at stake. Complementarians are not in agreement. So, what is “teaching?” And what is “authority?” Elusive topics indeed. 


Was Luther’s Bible the First German Language Bible?

A German language Bible, authorized by “Good King Wenceslas,” predated Luther’s German translation of the Bible by over one hundred years.

The story may sound familiar. Martin Luther had been condemned as a heretic and traitor, after standing before the emperor, with his legendary, “Here I stand, I can do no other” speech, at the Diet of Worms, in 1521. He managed to leave Worms, only to be abducted by friendly supporters, and hidden in the Warburg Castle, for two years. There Luther, who had taken on the name of “George,” was able to complete his translation of the New Testament in German.

Finally, the German people had a Bible, in their own language, in which they could read and study the truths contained in God’s Word…. or so, many people think. This narrative is based on the common, yet mistaken impression, that no vernacular Bibles existed in medieval Europe, prior to the Reformation. But the story is not quite that simple, and Martin Luther himself is partly to blame for this misinformation.

As evangelical apologist and theological Alister McGrath writes, “no universal or absolute prohibition of the translation of scriptures into the vernacular was ever issued by a medieval pope or council, nor was any similar prohibition directed against the use of such translations by the clergy or laity.” (The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation, p. 124). Rather, the difficulty was that the medieval church frowned upon unsupervised access to the Bible in native languages.

Think of it like the challenge of making a small modification to a home in many localities in America today. Sure, you can add an extra small room to your house, but the process of getting a building permit, in some places, can be a real hassle. You originally thought that adding some lumber and drywall here and there would be no big deal. But after you have spent hours and hours, dealing with the building inspector, your homeowner’s association, etc., you begin to wonder, why bother with it? Just leave the house well enough alone!

Likewise, in the medieval period, getting access to a German language translation of the Bible could be a real pain. Unlike outright bans to vernacular Bibles in England, that even there were not always successfully enforced, you could legally get access to a German Bible, but only if the church hierarchy approved of it. Plus, there was always the de facto Bible translation of medieval Europe, the Latin Vulgate, that you could read…. assuming you had some proficiency at Latin, which was relatively rare.

The printing press revolution of using movable type changed the situation, in the decades prior to Luther’s first German New Testament. Texts like the famous Gutenberg Bible, though still in Latin, were becoming increasingly available. But some early German translations, such as the Wenceslas Bible of the 1390s, and the 1466 Mentelin Bible, were becoming more readily available, too. Some scholars say as many as 18 German translations of the Bible were available to German Christian readers before Luther.

In Luther’s characteristically immoderate, over-stated fashion, you get the idea that German Bibles before his time, as a Bible professor, were hard to come by. This may have been Luther’s personal experience, but it hardly reflected the actual facts of history, broadly across medieval Europe. Looking back on his life as a monk, in a 1538 sample of Luther’s “Table Talk,” the great Reformer claimed this:

“Thirty years ago, no-one read the Bible, and it was unknown to all. The prophets were not spoken of and were considered impossible to understand. And when I was twenty years old, I had never seen a Bible. I thought that the Gospels or Epistles could be found only in the postills [lectionaries] for the Sunday readings. Then I found a Bible in the library, when I first went into the monastery, and I began to read, re-read and read it many times over and reread the Bible many times.”

By the time Luther had finished his complete Bible, including the Old Testament, in 1534, Luther’s celebrity status had totally undercut the efforts of Rome to control “supervised” access to the German Bible. Furthermore, unlike previous German translations, that relied on translating from the Latin Vulgate to the vernacular German, Luther made use of new reference works, such as Erasmus’ Greek New Testament. Luther was able, to at least partly, translate the Bible from the original languages, such as Greek, directly into German.

Luther’s campaign to “get back to the Bible,” in order to correct the contradictions of the papacy and church councils, is what generated a greater interest in reading vernacular Bibles. Luther’s “revolution” broke the default trust the average Christian had with papal and church authority, in medieval Europe. Instead, Luther encouraged Christians to read the Bible, and trust the Bible only as the authoritative source for Truth. As a result, the Reformation encouraged people to read and study the Bible for themselves, and they did so using newer, vernacular Bibles.

It is this effort to appeal to the original languages and earlier texts, driven along by Martin Luther’s popularity as a public figure, that helped Luther’s Bible to essentially become THE Bible for many German-speaking Christians. Western civilization has not been the same since.

For a rather contrarian take on Luther’s influence on the German language, and the priority of his translation, read this essay by the University of Alberta’s Albert C. Gow. A nice, 1-minute summary of Luther’s impact, through his translation of the Bible into German, is given here, in this video by the Museum of the Bible.


Erasmus and His Revolutionary Greek New Testament

Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536), by Holbein. Influential scholar of medieval Christian humanism (credit: Wikipedia)

As we remember the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of his Ninety-Five Theses, to the Wittenberg church door, we must not forget the contribution of Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam. Without Erasmus’ breakthrough in the study of the New Testament, Luther’s protest against indulgences might never have happened.

Erasmus, an illegitimate son of a Dutch priest, was a well educated young man, when his mother died. His guardians stole his inheritance, and thus, poverty forced him to enter monastic life.  It was a terrible experience, and he hated being a monk.

Historian Diarmaid MacCulloch believes that Erasmus had a same-sex, physical attraction to a fellow monk, and the frustration and moral anguish that this caused, prompted him to find some way out of the monastery. Erasmus was unusually gifted with languages, and he was able to receive a special papal dispensation, to relieve him from his monastic vows. Instead, he was able to focus all of his energies as a single man into scholarship. He became an author, widely read throughout Europe, largely due to the new invention of movable type in printing.

Adagia (1500) was a collection of ancient Latin and Greek proverbs, including memorable phrases like “to walk the tightrope,” “a necessary evil,” and “to sleep on it.” In Praise of Folly (1511) was an attack on superstitious religiosity among medieval Europeans, satirically describing various excesses of the veneration of saints and Mary, and the bizarre collections of relics. For example, did milk really ooze out of the marbled, statued breasts of the Holy Virgin, in shrines across Europe? Erasmus contemptuously thought this to be utterly ridiculous.

The last page of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament. The Dutch scholar had no Greek access to the last six verses in the final chapter or Revelation, so he had to back-translate those verses from the Latin into the Greek.

Erasmus considered himself to be a humanist scholar, in the sense of wanting to recover the classics. In those days, humanism was a Christian movement. The humanist mantra during this medieval period was the Latin, ad fontes, or “back to the sources.” Erasmus’ greatest achievement, with respect to the coming Protestant Reformation, was his work on developing an authoritative Greek text of the New Testament.

Prior to the age of Erasmus, the ancient Greek sources standing behind the official Latin translation of the Bible for Western Christians, the Vulgate, were obscured in complete disarray. A Spanish project to reconstruct the original text of the Bible, the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, was underway, and it inspired Erasmus to work on the New Testament. Delays in the Spanish project soon gave Erasmus the opportunity to step forward, and make his mark on history.

When he completed the first edition of Novum Instrumentum omne (1516), it became a best seller among scholars all throughout Europe. Erasmus’ work, through successive editions, was pioneering in the field of textual criticism, the study of the original text of the Bible. Novum Instrumentum omne became the basis for the textus receptus, the Greek text that nearly a century later guided the King James Version translators for the English Bible.

What jolted scholars is that Erasmus’ Greek text revealed that various errors had crept into the official Latin Vulgate. Some of these errors that Erasmus exposed had potentially explosive theological implications. Here is a sample:

  • The Vulgate used the word sacramentum to describe marriage in Ephesians 5:31-32. Erasmus thought the Greek musterion simply meant “mystery.” Perhaps, marriage was not really a “sacrament” after all?
  • For Matthew 4:17, the Vulgate read, “Do penance, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Erasmus thought that the word “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand,” was closer to the original Greek text.
  • Medieval theologians had argued that the Virgin Mary was a reservoir of grace, that could be tapped into as necessary. The Vulgate had read the angel Gabriel’s declaration to Mary, in Luke 1:28 as “the one who is full of grace.” Erasmus, on the other hand, had it as “the one who has found favor.”
  • Then there was the whole controversy of the Comma Johanneum, in 1 John 5:7-8, that has been discussed before here at Veracity.
Luther Discovers Erasmus

The inwardly conflicted, German theology professor, Martin Luther, bought his copy of Erasmus’ work, shortly after it was published. Luther was immediately amazed and absorbed the work of the Dutch humanist. The lack of a clear theology from the Bible, to support the medieval practice of granting indulgences, stood out for Martin Luther. For if “doing penance” was central to the doctrine of indulgences, and “do penance” was not in the Bible, as Erasmus showed in Matthew 4:17, then the theology of Rome was in serious trouble. By the end of the following year, 1517, Luther’s protest against the “sale of indulgences” would spark the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation.

However, despite Luther’s debt to the work of Erasmus, the great scholar of the Netherlands would never go as far as Luther did in seeking reforms within the medieval church. Luther soon came to believe that the entire edifice of Papal Rome’s theology was built on a crumbling foundation, contrary to the teaching of Scripture. Erasmus, on the other hand, only believed that the actual practices of Christian piety, as derived from the Roman church, were being abused. He did not think that the undergirding theology of the Church had been corrupted.

Some had their suspicions of Erasmus, but throughout his whole life, this influential scholar remained in good standing with the church of Rome, despite his criticisms of excesses in various devotional practices. Erasmus would never embrace the revolutionary spirit of a Martin Luther.

Erasmus eventually came into head to head conflict with Martin Luther over the issue of predestination, Erasmus affirming a higher place for human free will, in cooperating with the grace of God, than what Luther would allow. But the Wittenberg reformer severely rebuked the Dutch humanist, thus breaking the cordiality of their relationship.

But it is difficult to imagine how Martin Luther might have gone as far as he did, without the scholarly work of Erasmus to support him. For that reason, Erasmus remains a central figure in the history of the 16th century Reformation, one of the greatest Bible scholars in the history of the Christian movement. That is pretty remarkable for someone, born out of wedlock, who was cheated out of his inheritance, and who wrestled with same-sex desire.

This blog post inspired by reading Alister McGrath’s Reformation Thought and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation: A History.


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