You’ve heard it said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Well, the same is true with regard to scholarship. Those who are unaware of the most recent scholarly work on a given issue will be greatly handicapped in discussions of that issue. This is true, among other things, regarding the proper interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12.
In our book Women in the Church, originally published in 1995, my collaborators and I set forth the proposal that the passage means exactly what it says—imagine that!—which is, Paul says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man,” the implication being that women ought not to occupy the office of elder or overseer in the church (cf. 1 Tim. 3:2).
In keeping with sound hermeneutical procedure, Women in the Church looked at the passage from every conceivable angle, including historical-cultural background, literary genre, lexical study, semantic analysis, exegesis of the passage in context, hermeneutics, world view, and the history of scholarship.
At the heart of the book were the two chapters devoted to lexical and semantic analysis. In the former, the likelihood was suggested that “exercise authority” (Grk. authentein) carries a neutral or positive connotation, but owing to the scarcity of the term in ancient literature (the only NT occurrence is 1 Tim. 2:12; found only twice preceding the NT in extrabiblical literature) no firm conclusions could be reached on the basis of lexical study alone.
Complementing the lexical analysis was the syntactical study of the phrase “not . . . to teach or have authority,” which yielded the unequivocal conclusion that both terms, “teach” and “have authority,” carry the same force, whether positive or negative, when joined by the coordinating conjunction “or” (Grk. oude). This was demonstrated by a plethora of examples both from the NT and extrabiblical Greek literature.
Since the word “teach” regularly in the Pastorals is presented as a positive activity (see esp. 1 Tim. 4:11; 6:2; 2 Tim. 2:2), and one in which Timothy and other church leaders are called to engage, it was concluded that a negative force of “teach” in 1 Tim. 2:12 is highly unlikely, especially since a different word, heterodidaskalein, “to teach falsely,” is used elsewhere in the same epistle (1 Tim. 1:3; 6:3). Thus lexical study, supported by semantic analysis, strongly indicated the correctness of the conventional reading adopted by virtually all translations, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority.”
Since the publication of the first edition of Women in the Church in 1995, both complementarian and egalitarian scholars have reviewed the work, whether in book reviews or commentaries. In the second edition of Women in the Church, which appeared in 2005, I take up the last decade of scholarship on the syntax of 1 Timothy 2:12 and review all the responses to my syntactical study (see Women in the Church, 2d ed., pp. 74–84).
Here is what I find. Major recent commentaries, such as William Mounce’s Word Biblical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, concur with the findings of Women in the Church and have incorporated them into their discussion. With the exception of Linda Belleville, even all the egalitarian scholars who reviewed my chapter on the syntax of 1 Timothy 2:12, agree with my conclusion! This includes even those, like Kevin Giles, who are vehemently opposed to the overall message of the passage and its implications as interpreted in the book. Tellingly, Giles, for example, argues that the author of the Pastorals here probably broke the rules of Greek grammar!
Egalitarian scholars such as Alan Padgett, Craig Keener, and, it appears, also William Webb likewise concur with the construal of the syntax of 1 Tim. 2:12 in Women in the Church. Perhaps most remarkably, a German reviewer, Judith Hartenstein, writes,
My theological position is very different from that of Köstenberger. Nevertheless, I often find his analysis of texts and exegetical problems convincing and inspiring, especially if he uses linguistic approaches. . . . . Likewise, I agree with Köstenberger’s reading of 1 Tim 2. Köstenberger shows that the text demands a hierarchy between men and women and is meant as normative teaching. But with a different, far more critical view of the Bible, I need not accept it as God’s word. (It helps that I do not regard 1 Timothy as written by Paul.)
To be sure, this does not mean that every disagreement with my construal of the syntax of 1 Timothy 2:12 necessarily stems from an errantist stance toward Scripture. Nevertheless, it shows that interpreters’ presuppositions frequently tend to override the actual exegesis of the passage. Yet, unlike in Hartenstein’s case, this often remains unacknowledged.
A case in point is I. H. Marshall. In his 1999 ICC commentary on the Pastorals, Marshall at the outset indicates his acceptance of the findings of my study by noting that it has “argued convincingly on the basis of a wide range of Gk. usage that the construction employed in this verse is one in which the writer expresses the same attitude (whether positive or negative) to both of the items joined together by oude.”
Yet Marshall proceeds to opt for a negative connotation of both terms “teach” and “have authority,” because he says false teaching is implied in the reference to Adam and Eve in verse 14. This, however, is hardly the case. More likely, Paul’s concern was with women being the victims of false teaching, not its perpetrators (see esp. 1 Tim. 5:14–15). Also, Marshall fails to adequately consider the above-mentioned point, that teaching is virtually always construed as a positive activity in the Pastorals and that it should therefore be construed positively also in 1 Timothy 2:12.
In my updated chapter in the 2d edition of Women in the Church, I detail several other problems with Marshall’s interpretation (regarding which see pp. 75–76, 84). The noted commentators William Mounce and Craig Blomberg, likewise, have ably critiqued and refuted Marshall’s position. We should also note that Marshall does not believe Paul wrote the Pastorals but rather that someone else wrote it under Paul’s name (he calls this “allonymity”) and that Marshall practices a sort of content criticism of the Bible according to which he identifies a central core of its teaching—in the case of gender roles, the reference in Galatians 3:28 to there being no more male nor female in Christ—and on this basis rules out other passages which he considers to be in conflict with this central core—such as 1 Timothy 2:12! In light of these larger presuppositions, it should not surprise us that Marshall the exegete finds ways to circumvent what appears to be a considerably more likely reading of the passage, where both teaching and having authority are positively construed.
With this we have come full circle. Those who are unaware of the history of scholarship on a given issue are likely to repeat the mistakes of the past. The challenge is not for us to find a scholar who happens to agree with us and then pit “our” scholar against those supporting the views of others. Rather, we ourselves have a responsibility to study to show ourselves approved by God, rightly handling the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15).
For the complete survey of recent scholarship on the syntax of 1 Timothy 2:12, see Women in the Church (2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 74–84; see also my survey of the first edition of the book, “The Crux of the Matter: Paul’s Pastoral Pronouncements Regarding Women’s Roles in 1 Timothy 2:9–15,” Faith & Mission 14/1 (1997): 24–48.