Lost in Translation: 1 Timothy 2:9-14 [Paper/Exegesis]

What happens when you’re suddenly asked to write an exegesis on a particular set of biblical verses? I did so for a RMA course on Religious Texts and Interpretative Practices, and you’ll be able to find the result in this post.

Lost in translation: 1 Timothy 2:9-14 and the ambiguities of Biblical (inter)textuality
Exegetical exercise Religious Texts
Tim Bouwhuis (UU)
(Instructor: Christian Lange)

Bible texts never appear completely isolated. Specific verses and the meaning(s) that are imposed on them become starting points for scholarly inquiries that can and should play out on different levels. To meet and engage with this challenging expectation, this paper concerns an effort to discuss different text versions of 1 Timothy 2:9-14, a set of verses that is known best for its assumed gender inequality, in relation to particular questions on etymology/lexicography, translation and interpretation.

To begin with, which particular words from the Greek text of the New Testament (NA 28) can and should be highlighted because of their potential to disrupt and ambiguate? And how does this potential become visible in neatly selected Greek lexicons and four specific Bible translations? Secondly, how and to which extent do the translations of these words display or hint towards different shades of interpretation and meaning? Whereas this paper’s first section is strictly limited to the domain of 1 Timothy 2:9-14, the second part features an attempt to ‘open up’ the world of the text: the intended focus on shades of interpretation and meaning invites to involve reflections on intertextuality and the historical and cultural context.

Master or murderer?

One might have noted that I used the verb disrupt in my introductory question on the performative potential of the text, even before I also mentioned a more neutral alternative (ambiguate). It is no coincidence that a loaded verb like this has been foregrounded. The two Greek words that I will highlight in this first section are by no means neutral or ‘innocent’: they both imply hierarchy and difference. Questions of ‘power’ are inevitable, since they are already inherent to the etymology (highlighted for the first word) and/or the lexicography (highlighted for the second) before matters of interpretation and meaning are at play. The etymology of the first Greek word, ὑποταγῇ (v.11), appositely demonstrates this. ὑπο means ‘under’ or (from) ‘below’, indicating a binary with the opposite presupposition (από πάνω is ‘above’ or ‘from the top’). The conjugation ταγῇ, then, is derived from the Greek verb τάσσω, which refers to the act of putting something or someone in or on a specific place/position.[1] The two words combined constitute the noun ‘subjection’ or ‘submission’.[2]

The lexicography of the Greek word αὐθεντεῖν (third person plural of αὐθεντέω) (v.12) is striking. The noun αὐθέντης, clearly recognizable as the derivative of the full verb, translates both ‘lord’ or ‘master’ and ‘murderer’.[3] Obviously, there is a huge gap that separates mastering and murdering. In the Greek lexicons that I used for the full verb, I did not find any references to the ‘radical’ translation of the noun.[4] But the differentiating lexical translations display a tension between (what I conceive as) shifting intensities; in the Greek NT Lexicon, αὐθεντέω is translated ‘[to] exercise authority over’, whereas Fribergs Analytical Greek Lexicon and Gingrichs NT Lexicon use ‘domineer’ respectively ‘domineer over’. Gingrich even incorporates [to] ‘have total authority over’ as an option for translation.

The impossibility of neutrality

Let us now turn to a concise reflection on the four Bible translations that I selected for this paper. In first instance, I will draw a quick comparison between the Greek-English lexicons and the standardized King James version of the New Testament (1611/1769). Which lexicon translations (if any) of ὑποταγῇ and αὐθεντεῖν are used in the KJV, and does this have any preliminary implications for the interpretation part? I continue with a comparative paragraph on three Dutch Bible translations: the standardized Statenvertaling (1637), the revised edition of the Statenvertaling (2010) and a more popularized or accessible translation (NBV or Nieuwe Bijbelvertaling, 2004). Again I am particularly interested in the preliminary implications of the translations of ‘submission’ (v.11) and [to] ‘domineer’ (v.12), working from the assumption that these words already defy neutrality claims before they are involved in larger processes of (inter)textual meaning making and interpretation.

The KJV uses ‘subjection’, one of the Lexicon definitions, as a translation for ὑποταγῇ. The translation of αὐθεντεῖν is more striking: 1 Timothy 2:12 reads ‘to usurp authority’, which has a negative connotation due to the meaning of the verb ‘usurp’ (to take illegally or by force).[5] It already implies that some women could [under specific circumstances] strive towards usurping the authority of men, something that is strictly forbidden. In Dutch translations, commencing with the Statenvertaling, we do see an interdiction for women to rule or master men (a conjugation of the verb ‘overheersen’ is used), but this interdiction is formulated as a general prohibition rather than a ‘threat’ (as suggested by ‘usurp’). The italic addition of ‘ik wil’ (i.e. ‘I want (her to learn in silence)’) in both the Statenvertaling and the HSV emphasizes that it is the man who imposes his will and authority on the women. The NBV replaces ‘ik wil’ with ‘ik sta haar (niet) toe’ (i.e. allow), ‘overheersen’ with ‘gezag hebben over’ (having authority with regard to) and ‘stil’ with ‘bescheiden’ (modest). Both alternatives have a softer connotation, but note that there is an important distinction between silence and modesty. I take it that the translators have made efforts to weaken the case for a rigid interpretation of v. 11 and 12, because the focus on silence and male authority shifts towards the regulated modesty and obedience of the woman.  

The centrality of 1 Corinthians and the challenge of Galatians

An apt starting point for a reflection on the intertextuality of 1 Timothy 2:9-14 can be found in its reception history. Interpreters and exegetes have frequently linked 1 Timothy 2:9-14 to 1 Corinthians 14:33-35[6]:

34 Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.

 35 And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church. (1 Cor. 14:34-35 KJV)

Indeed, a rather superficial reading of the text already establishes some connections between these two verses and 1 Timothy 2. The central topic of discussion is the position of women within the congregation, and the texts deal with their submission/expected obedience, the demand that they are silent (1 Corinthians) or learn in silence (1 Timothy) and the power relation between women and men [in this particular context]. Some of the interpreters have gone this far to suggest that the text of 1 Corinthians 14 is the actual basis for 1 Timothy 2:11-14 [15].[7] The reasoning behinds this narrowly defined relation transcend the principal similarities in (con)text and meaning. Philipp H. Towner has argued that the established relation with 1 Corinthians frequently serves as a helpful argument in favor of a strengthened emphasis on Pauline authorship[8]. ‘’Where the letter is regarded’’, he states, ‘’as the work of a Paulinist’’, the 1 Timothy text is often used to challenge one of Paul’s significant statements in the letter to the Galatians[9]:

28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28 KJV)

I will get back to this text when I discuss different interpretative traditions of the pivotal verses from 1 Timothy, but a brief side note on the presumed authorship of the different epistles may help to clarify, in the first place, why it is either helpful or important for interpreters to understand 1 Timothy 2:9-14 within the larger framework of the Pauline tradition (i.e. the text is either written or authorized by Paul). John Rogerson has pointed out that the Pauline authorship of the so-called ‘Pastoral epistles’ (the letters to Timothy and Titus) has been questioned since the early nineteenth century because of the letters’ different vocabulary, their doctrinal outlook and presumed circumstances of writing, especially in comparison to the presumably ‘genuine’ Pauline epistles (Romans, Galatians and 1 and 2 Corinthians).[10]  The question, now, is one of textual and interpretative alignment or juxtaposition: as we have seen, the confirmed ‘Pauline’ text of 1 Corinthians 14 seems to correlate contentwise with the text of 1 Timothy 2, whose Pauline authorship is questioned. This first observation is taxing when we take into account that the other confirmed Pauline text (Galatians) supposedly contradicts 1 Timothy 2:9-14. The proclaimed equality (‘ye are all one in Christ Jesus’) of Galatians 3 can easily be juxtaposed to a troublesome status quo of inequality between men and women within 1 Timothy.[11] Interpreters tend to reach their final impasse here: since Galatians and 1 Corinthians are considered Pauline, both the confirmation and the denial of 1 Timothy as a text explicitly belonging to the Pauline tradition raises issues that cannot be overcome so easily.   

Back to Genesis

How does this contested authorship merge and intertwine with expanding questions of (historical) context and interpretation? It is rather impossible to circumnavigate around the installment of gender roles here, especially when the verses 13 and 14 enter the debate. Towner has pointed out that v. 13 is a dense retelling of Genesis 2, in which the use of the Greek word ἐπλάσθη (1 Tim. 2:13 NA28) (to form) mirrors the text of Gen. 2: 7-8.[12] Moreover, the Greek word ἠπατήθη (1 Tim. 2:14 NA28) (to deceive) refers back to the snake deceiving Eve in Gen. 3:13.[13] The textual allusion to the Old Testament invokes a particular question of authority: why is Genesis an intertextual associate of the 1 Timothy text? In pondering on this question, I want to argue that one’s answer is strongly dependent on his or her corresponding interpretation of the gender installment in 1 Timothy. Towner convincingly sketches two juxtaposing interpretative positions before he pleas for his own ‘middle voice’; it is this particular line of thought that I will follow in the remaining part of this second section.

The first interpretative tradition is designated traditionalist and hierarchalist. Interpretations of 1 Timothy can be considered hierarchalist if they conceive of 1 Timothy 2:11 and 12 as a set of texts whose authority is affirmed by the allusion to Genesis in v. 13 and 14. In other words, the verses 13 and 14 are then held to supply grounds for 11 and 12 through their intertextual character.[14] The sequentiality of divine creation (man is created first) is used to opt for the ‘first is best’-principle, that helps to explain why the men teaches while the women have to remain silent.[15]

Problems of (contextual) interpretation

In the second interpretative line of thought, the 1 Timothy text is considered deficient because it interferes with the liberalization principles of Galatians 3:28. According to Towner, this effort is mostly a feminist reconstruction, in which the equality advocated by Paul is stressed in order to [primarily] downplay v.14.[16] This particular point already suggests that Towner judges the feminist perspective for being too ideological and ‘using’ text(s) on its own terms.

Towner’s third position, then, is one that suggests a pluralistic perspective on the text and an open attitude to the world beyond the text. Towner himself phrases his middle voice as an attempt to create ‘a hermeneutical starting point’ for the [historical] reassessment of the role of women in ministry.[17] To strengthen the case for a historically grounded perspective, Towner references and uses an article (2000) and a subsequent book Roman Wives, Roman Widows (2003) of New Testament scholar Bruce W. Winter, in which the author points to the emergence of a ‘’new’’ kind of woman of 1st century Roman society.[18] He states that ‘’some women of means and position (…), supported in some cases by free-thinking males, flouted traditional values governing adornment and dress and sexual propriety. (…) The emergence of this movement was so disturbing to the status quo that Augustus issued legislation against it’’.[19] Towner argues that the existence of this ‘’new woman’’ helps to explain why the church authorities might have wanted to restrict or limit the role of women in the private settings of the churches. If you perpetuate this particular point of view, the measures that are described in the 1 Timothy text were not taken from a conviction of divinely inspired inequality, but rather because there was an internal ‘threat’ of disturbance that had had to be counteracted for the sake of precaution.[20]

Whereas Towner criticized the hierarchalist perspective and feminist reconstruction for their ideological motives, his own adherence to the work of Winter is equally problematic when it is regarded as an implicit argument to understand the reactionary and conservative response of the authorities through a specific reading of the text. Towners hypothesis that women could have perfectly taken up new roles within the congregation, were it not for the detrimental effects of their heresies, has a morally judging undertone.[21]


It has not been my intention, though, to state here which claims of authorship, meaning and interpretation are (in)correct. Instead, I have aimed to elaborate on some of the stirring complications that may arise once a text (or better: a specific translation of that text) enters the worlds of interpreters, form criticists, exegetes and other human entities, who might be equally willing to uncover the mysteries of the text for once and for all. Even before their intervention, the text can often be considered ‘loaded’, as I have intended to demonstrate through the use of ὑποταγῇ and αὐθεντεῖν in 1 Timothy 2:11 and 12. Written and conceived within a particular historical context, single words can open up an entire discourse, one that easily surpasses the boundaries of the verse, the epistle and the Bible as a canonized corpus of texts. 1 Timothy 2:9-14 is no singular text case. It is a compelling question of influence, implication and scope; a stimulating invitation to look beyond.

Final wordcount: 2283 (references/notes and bibliography not included)


Hupperts, C. Woordenboek Grieks-Nederlands. Leeuwarden: Eisma Edumedia B.V., 2011.

Rogerson, John. An Introduction to the Bible: Revised Edition. London: Equinox Publishing Ltd, 2005.

Towner, Philip H. The Letters to Timothy and Titus. Downers Grove: IPV Academic, 2006.

Winter, Bruce W. Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appaerance of New Women and the Pauline Communities. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.

Winter, Bruce W. ‘’The ‘New’ Roman Wife and 1 Timothy 2:9-15: The Search for a Sitz im Leben’’. Tyndale Builletin 51.2 (2000): 285-294.

On the translations & lexicons:

I have used the following Bible translations for this paper: NA 28 Greek NT Text, King James (1611/1769) with Codes, Statenvertaling (1937), Herziene Statenvertaling (2010), Nieuwe Bijbel Vertaling (2004).

I have used the following Greek Lexicons: Friberg, Analytical Greek Lexicon, Gingrich, Greek NT Lexicon (GIN), Danker, Greek NT Lexicon (DAN), Hupperts, Woordenboek Grieks-Nederlands (not to be found in Bible Works).

[1] Other synonyms are ‘to arrange’ or ‘to impose order’.

[2] Other translations are ‘obedience’ and ‘subordination’.

[3] Mentioned in: C. Hupperts, Woordenboek Grieks-Nederlands (Leeuwarden: Eisma Edumedia B.V., 2011), 89.

[4] The Greek NT Lexicon (DAN) mentions αὐθέντης, but it is translated ‘one who takes matters into one’s own hands’.

[5] Oxford Dictionary. ‘Usurp’. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/usurp. Accessed January 15th, 2018. See also: ‘I suffer’ in the same verse

[the perspective of the man]

, which has a similarly negative connotation.

[6] Philip H. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus (Downers Grove: IPV Academic, 2006), 193.

[7] Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, 193.

[8] Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, 193.

[9] Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, 227.

[10] John Rogerson, An Introduction to the Bible: Revised Edition (London: Equinox Publishing Ltd, 2005), 29.

[11] And, of course, within 1 Corinthians as well.

[12] A point that should be brought in here is that Towner states (that) the Genesis allusion is novel and not used before; he wonders why Paul would strive towards an argument made via Genesis. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, 226-27.

[13] Another New Testament reference can be found in 2 Corinthians 11:3: 3 But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. (2 Cor. 11:3 KJV)

[14] Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, 198. 226-27. Towner himself is not convinced: ‘’I do feel the traditional understanding of the text fails to account for a more fundamental liberating and egalitarian trajectory within the gospel that determines the Pauline program of mission’’. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, 236.

[15] ‘’Am I not greater than you? For I was created on the third day and you on the sixth’’. Exodus Rabbah 21:6, referenced in Towner 226-27. A New Testament-affirmation of the hierarchy is often derived from 1 Peter 3:1: 1 Peter 3:1 Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; (1 Pet. 3:1 KJV)

[16] Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, 199, 227.

[17] Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, 199.

[18] Winter as referenced in Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, 196.

[19]   See also: Bruce W. Winter, ‘’The ‘New’ Roman Wife and 1 Timothy 2:9-15: The Search for a Sitz im Leben’’, Tyndale Bulletin 51.2 (2000), 285-294. It is interesting to look into the KJV translation (‘to usurp authority) of ‘autentein’ again with this contextual information in mind.

[20] Towner adds to these observations that this particular topic of preventing disturbances has to be embedded in a larger cultural frame of (the) governing (of) expectations of the behavior of women, not only in the churches but also in the private spheres of the household. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, 190, 192, 196.

[21] Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, 194, 200.

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