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Today's Study

1 Timothy 2:13-15: Salvation Through Childbirth?

When the writer of 2 Peter claims that there are some passages in Paul's writings which "are hard to understand" (2 Pet 3:16), it is easy to imagine that he had 1 Timothy 2:13-15 in mind. The passage has been more intensely debated and analyzed than almost any other single text in the Bible. Rather than exploring all the suggestions and possibilities, I will seek to focus on the central issues and attempt to understand the main point of the passage within the situation Paul is addressing.

Since 1 Timothy 2:13 begins with the connective particle "for . . . ," it is clear that the following sentences are a continuation of what precedes. Thus this text gives Paul's biblical reflections that provide a rationale for his prohibition against women's teaching and usurping authority in the church (1 Tim 2:11-12), discussed in the previous chapter.

The conclusion of that discussion was that Paul was addressing problems of heresy in the church at Ephesus and that the women in this congregation were strongly captivated by these false doctrines or were vocal proponents. Their teaching led to the questioning and rejection of culturally accepted norms and roles for men and women, causing difficulties for this young congregation within its social context. Paul is concerned that their witness to the truth of the gospel is thereby undermined. He is concerned with "propriety" (1 Tim 2:9, 15), that is, socially acceptable behavior; with the possibility of being "disgraced" in the sight of outsiders (1 Tim 3:7); and with giving "the enemy no opportunity for slander" (1 Tim 5:14; 6:1).

Paul's restrictive admonitions regarding women must be understood within this particular historical situation. They are therefore not to be understood as divine imperatives, applicable universally to all women in all cultural contexts and historical circumstances. Rather, they are authoritative apostolic counsel, given for the correction of abuses in a particular situation that threatened the truth of the gospel and the viability of a young church in an antagonistic environment. The transcendent principle standing behind Paul's particular instructions is the imperative of the gospel (applicable in all cultural contexts), namely, God's intention that "all be saved" (1 Tim 2:4; see also 1 Cor 10:33).

Insofar as specific expressions of their new freedom in Christ resulted in the undermining of social conventions (as in rejection of marriage and domestic responsibilities), the undermining of truth (as in teaching of false doctrines) and a domineering presence (as in usurping authority from the designated leaders of the church), women were threatening the church's credibility and therefore its missionary effectiveness. That is the reason Paul imposes limits.

But why does Paul ground all this in Scripture? Why argue for priority for the male on the basis of Genesis 2? Why does he reason from the woman's participation in the Fall (Gen 3) to a restricted role for her in the church? And finally, what is the point about women being saved through childbearing?

Answers to those questions begin to emerge when we recognize an essential truth of Paul's life: He was a rabbi who had been transformed into a follower of Christ. As a trained rabbi he became a disciple of Jesus and an apostle to the Gentiles. His training as a rabbi--gained as a student of Gamaliel, one of the great rabbinic teachers in first-century Palestine (Acts 22:3)--was placed at the service of the interpretation and articulation of the gospel. Thus Paul's writings are thoroughly pervaded by scriptural citations or allusions.

One of the chief functions of the rabbinic tradition was to respond to the broad range of concerns within the community of faith, from the most minute aspects of everyday life to the deepest theological issues. Over hundreds of years of such rabbinic reflection on the biblical text (our Old Testament), a massive body of biblical interpretations accumulated. Some of this material is reflected in the Jewish intertestamental literature, including the Apocrypha, a group of writings that was part of the Greek Old Testament read by the early church. Paul was heir to that tradition.

At critical points, where the essence and integrity of the gospel was at stake, Paul uncompromisingly broke with that tradition, as his Lord had done during his earthly life. But in matters that were not at the heart of the gospel, or when he gave instructions for particular situations, he sometimes used interpretations of Old Testament texts that were familiar to him from that tradition.

When we read 1 Timothy 2:13-14, we realize two things immediately. First, Paul does not quote the biblical passages directly. He gives us rather a particular and partial understanding of the meaning of those passages. Second, the situation which he is addressing is a limited, local situation that calls for a limited, partial use of the biblical material.

The reason he instructs women to be silent, not to teach and not to usurp authority over men (1 Tim 2:12) is because Adam was formed before Eve (1 Tim 2:13). The Genesis 2 creation narrative is of course referred to here. Within the synagogue, which provided a model for early church life and structure, male dominance was traditionally certified by a reading of the chronological sequence of Genesis 2 in terms of male priority.

It is clear that Paul does not intend this interpretation of Genesis 2--which he uses here to give authority to his instructions--to be applied universally. For in 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul argues for women's head covering, also on the basis of the chronological sequence in Genesis 2 (1 Cor 11:8-9), he then goes on to admonish his readers that the origin of both male and female is in God, and that since the creation every male emerges from, and is therefore preceded by, a female (1 Cor 11:12). In this argument, Paul goes beyond the traditional rabbinic interpretation based on chronological priority to the heart of the Genesis 2 narrative. For its focus is on the fact that the male, in his chronological priority, is pronounced as "not good" (Gen 2:18). It is the creation of the female as one "corresponding to him" that saves the male from his aloneness.

Thus a traditional interpretation of Genesis 2 is addressed to a specific, limited situation. And it is authoritative primarily for that situation. If women were creating havoc in the congregation by rejecting socially accepted roles and were grasping for authority, especially those who were peddling heretical teachings, then it was natural for Paul to emphasize biblical texts and interpretations that affirmed culturally and religiously accepted views of female roles.

A further argument for women's restricted place, given in 1 Timothy 2:14, is that Eve was deceived and became a sinner, while Adam was not deceived. Here, as in the appeal to Genesis 2 above, Paul refers to a truth expressed in Genesis, this time in the story of the Fall in Genesis 3. In Genesis 3:13, Eve says that "the serpent deceived me, and I ate." From this the rabbinic tradition reasoned that women were by nature more vulnerable to deception than men. That view of womanhood was widespread in Judaism. Philo, the important Alexandrian Jewish scholar who was a contemporary of Paul, expressed the view that since woman "is more accustomed to be deceived than man" and "gives way and is taken in by plausible falsehoods which resemble the truth," the proper relation of a wife to a husband is epitomized in the verb "to serve as a slave." In the apocryphal work The Wisdom of Ben Sirach (25:24), the author concludes that "from a woman sin had its beginning and because of her we all die."

Yet, side by side with this emphasis in Jewish tradition was the acknowledgment of Adam's full responsibility. In 2 Esdras 7:118 there is the lament "O Adam, what have you done? For though it was you who sinned, the fall was not yours alone." Paul also knew this part of the tradition, for in Romans 5:12-14 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 he makes Adam, rather than Eve, responsible for the entrance of sin. The basis for this emphasis in the interpretation is of course material from Genesis 3, where Adam is with Eve at the fateful moment (Gen 3:6), where God holds him responsible for reaching beyond his limits (Gen 3:11), and where he was deceived, just like Eve, into transgressing God's command (Gen 3:17).

In light of the above data from both Genesis 3 and other Pauline texts, the phrase in 1 Timothy 2:14 "Adam was not deceived" is particularly problematic. For it is clear that he was in fact deceived, just like Eve. Some interpreters have concluded that Paul has here simply reverted to the dominant rabbinic interpretation that focuses on the woman's deception, letting man off the hook. But that is pitting Paul the rabbi against Paul the Christian; I do not think this is either legitimate or necessary.

Paul is always the rabbi who has been baptized into Christ. And in his fellowship with Christ his rabbinic learning is also baptized. As such, it is placed into the service of his missionary work. And this work of the gospel determines the use he makes of rabbinic interpretations of Old Testament material.

His interpretive method and its application in the particular situation at Ephesus does not mean that he shared with his rabbinic tradition the view that women were inherently more deceivable. This is confirmed by the fact that Paul uses Eve's deception in 2 Corinthians 11:3-4 as an illustration of the possibility that allbelievers in Corinth, both men and women, may be deceived and led away from faith in Christ. Thus we see that Paul uses the Eve tradition variously, depending on the problem being addressed.

Once again, it is apparent that the needs of the situation in Ephesus dictated Paul's use of various aspects of the scriptural tradition which, on the whole, was considered authoritative. Since women in Timothy's congregation seem to have been prominent among those who "have wandered away" from the faith and its appropriate expression in life (1 Tim 1:3-7), or those who "have in fact already turned away to follow Satan" (1 Tim 5:15), or those "who are loaded down with sins and swayed by all kinds of evil desires" (2 Tim 3:6), Paul's partial use of the Genesis material and its application to this particular situation is quite understandable.

A final difficulty of this text is the statement that "women will be saved through childbearing" (1 Tim 2:15). What is the meaning of this statement, and how does it function in the context of the whole passage?

First, if there is one truth which Paul spent his entire ministry driving home to his listeners and readers, it is this: that salvation is not gained by the performance of functions and duties or the exercise of specific roles, but by faith in Jesus Christ. It is therefore impossible to conclude that Paul is speaking about personal salvation. That is, women are not saved by any other means than men.

Second, 1 Timothy 2:15 is the conclusion to the entire paragraph. In 1 Timothy 2:9-14 the specific instructions to women are restrictive and negative. Verse 15 begins with the word "but" (or, better, "yet"), and what is said is apparently intended as a positive affirmation. The various restrictions imposed on women are now qualified. They are not absolute norms, essential conditions determined by gender. Rather, they are necessary adjustments in light of the historical situation in which the missionary effectiveness of the young churches was at stake.

In Timothy's situation, heretical teaching undermined the validity of marriage. We are not told why. But on the basis of 1 Corinthians 7, where marriage seems to be rejected by the superspiritualists who despise physical, bodily reality, we can conclude that the heretical teaching viewed marriage, and its specific expression in the bearing of children, as negative, or as unworthy of those who were truly spiritual and members of a new community of "saved" persons. Over against that heretical teaching, Paul may be affirming that the bearing of children, which is a woman's natural procreative, life-giving function, does in fact not keep her from full participation in the community of the saved.

Thus women are and will be saved, even as they perform those domestic and maternal roles expected of women in the social-historical context, but rejected by the heretical teachers. It is possible that the heretical teachers and the women who had been deceived by them saw a rejection of normal domestic and maternal roles as evidence that they were truly saved and spiritual. Such a situation makes Paul's strong and difficult restrictive injunctions to the women in Ephesus absolutely necessary, for the heretical teaching and its consequences represented a comprehensive misunderstanding and denial of the gospel.

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For further information on the literature dealing with 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and related biblical texts, see Alvera Mickelsen, ed., Women, Authority & the Bible (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1986).

Examples are (1) Jesus' rejection of rabbinic regulations regarding sabbath observance--which were based on the fourth commandment (Ex 20:8-11)--by focusing on the heart of God's compassion for broken humanity (Mk 3:1-6; Jn 5:2-18) and (2) Paul's rejection of Jewish Christians' attempt to impose ritual requirements, such as circumcision, on Gentile converts, by affirming that salvation is purely by God's grace and the response of faith (Gal 2:11-16).

See note 1 in comment on 1 TIMOTHY 2:11-12, where the meanings of the significant Hebrew words in this verse are discussed.

Philo Questions on Genesis 1.33 (Loeb Classical Library).

The NIV correctly indicates in a footnote that the Greek text reads: "She will be saved through childbearing." In the previous verse the subject is Eve, the singular, representative of womanhood. That singular subject determines the personal pronoun of 1 Timothy 2:15, "but she will be saved." However, the sentence goes on in the plural, "if they continue in faith." It is thus clear that Paul sees Eve as representing all women.

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by Dale Larsen and Sandy Larsen

Though the busyness and challenges of daily life can make it easy to put showing gratitude low on our priority list, Scripture continually reveals how important it is for God's people—in good times and bad. This eight-session LifeGuide® Bible Study reminds us of what God has done, reorients us around God's grace, and helps us enjoy good gifts instead of taking them for granted.