The Sin of “Authentein”

Many are aware that 1 Timothy 2:12 is a verse often used to prevent women from “exercising authority” in the church. Some are also aware that the English expression “to exercise authority” originated as a 16th Century A.D. translation of the Greek verb “authentein.” For decades now, scholars have been debating the possible meaning of this verb, since it is found only once in the New Testament.

To help us understand what this word meant to the apostle Paul, I think it is helpful to examine the Bible he often cited in his epistles; namely, the Greek Septuagint (http://www.bible-researcher.com/quote01.html).

In the Septuagint (LXX), a noun form of “authentein” is used in following passage:

“Do you remember the ancient inhabitants of your holy land? You scorned them for their unholy ways, for their sorcery and profane rituals, their callous killing of children, their cannibal feasts on human flesh and blood. They practiced secret rituals in which parents slaughtered their own defenseless children” (Wisdom of Solomon 12:3-6, TIB).

The parents in this passage, who slaughter their children in profane rituals to false gods, are referred to as “authentas.”

Why would Paul use a verb form of this word in his letter to Timothy? Were child sacrifices being performed in or around Ephesus in the worship of false gods or goddesses? Historically, child sacrifices were indeed performed in Ephesus and the surrounding area by a matriarchal culture that worshiped a goddess named Cybele:

“They…dismissed all thought of intermarriage with their neighbours, calling it slavery rather than marriage. They embarked instead upon an enterprise unparalleled in the whole of history, that of building up a state without men and then actually defending it themselves, out of contempt for the male sex…. Then, with peace assured by their military success, they entered into sexual relationships with surrounding peoples so that their line would not die out. Males born of such unions they put to death, but girls they brought up in a way that adapted them to their own way of life…. After conquering most of Europe, they also seized a number of city-states in Asia. Here they founded Ephesus” (Pompeius Trogus, 1st Century B.C., as cited in Yardley, 1994, p. 29).

According to historians Ferguson and Farnell, the female-dominated culture in Ephesus viewed the male sex with contempt because masculinity was seen as a source of evil. Femininity, on the other hand, was seen as the source of life and purity. These views were reinforced by the culture’s creation myths. In the New Testament era, Cybele was still worshiped by a female-dominant culture, and they still viewed men with contempt. Although male children were no longer put to death, any men desiring to serve the goddess had to be purified of their masculinity through ritual castration. After this public rite, these men would sometimes fall into a trance-like state and begin prophesying for the goddess. Romans who witnessed this referred to the men as “interpreters of the divine word” (Favazza, 2011, p. 160). In addition to undergoing ritual castration, and shunning marriage, these men fasted from certain foods. Female worshipers looked to Cybele as the goddess who would save them in childbirth (Farnell, 1977, p. 444).

In Paul’s letter to Timothy, he warns against false teaching and mythology (1 Timothy 1:3). He connects this false teaching with those who shun marriage and forbid the eating of certain foods (1 Timothy 4:3). Those who practice this ascetic lifestyle claim to have access to special knowledge (gnosis) that Paul refers to as doctrines of demons (1 Timothy 6:20 & 4:1). Paul addresses the issue of being saved in childbirth (1 Timothy 2:15). He reminds Timothy that Adam was a source of life, and that Eve played a role in humanity’s fall (1 Timothy 2:13-14); this creation account directly contradicts the creation mythology of Cybele.

Paul also forbids the teaching and practice of “authentein” (1 Timothy 2:12). In this context, like that of the Wisdom of Solomon, it appears that “authetein” refers to ritual violence performed in the worship of a false god, or in this case the goddess Cybele, who was called Artemis by the Greeks.

Does the linguistic and historical data available to us support the idea that “authentein” should be translated into English as “to exercise authority”? No, I do not believe it does. Rather, I think it supports the notion that Paul is forbidding the teaching and practice of ritual violence.  In the case of Ephesus, this violence was done to men.

Appendix 1: What other authors say about “authentein.”

Catherine Clark Kroeger: “Authenteo, with its connotations of murder and of “sexuality related to death,” may imply a ritual action, for the mysteries contained both sex and death.  Possibly there was a ritual subjection to female dominance in order to gain purification…” (Women, Authority and the Bible, 1986, p. 244).

Leland E. Wishire: Between the 2nd century B.C. and the 2nd century A.D. Greek authors outside of the biblical text used a form of “authentein” in the following ways:

-Polybius used the word authenten, 2nd century B.C., to mean the “doer of a massacre.”

-Diodorus Siculus used three variations of the word (authentais, authenten, authentas), 1st century B.C. – 1st century A.D., to mean “perpetrators of sacrilege,” “author of crimes” and “supporters of violent actions.”

-Philo Judaeus used the word authentes, 1st century B.C. – 1st century A.D., to mean “being one’s own murderer.”

-Flavius Josephus used the words authenten and authentas, 1st century A.D., to mean “perpetrator of a crime” and “perpetrators of a slaughter.”

-The apostle Paul used the word authentein once during the same time period as Diodorus, Philo and Josephus.

-Appian of Alexander used the word authentai three times, and the word authenten twice, 2nd century A.D., to mean “murderers,” slayer,” “slayers of themselves” and “perpetrators of evil.”

-Harpocration used the word authentes, 2nd century A.D., to mean “murderer.”

-Phrynichus used the word authentes once, 2nd century A.D., to mean “one who murders by his own hand.” (Insight Into Two Biblical Passages, 2010).

Appendix 2: Comparison of Bible verses from the Septuagint and 1 Timothy

The Bible Paul was reading (LXX) included a book called The Wisdom of Solomon. In it, we find the following verses:

τέκνων τε φονέας ἀνελεήμονας καὶ σπλαγχνοφάγων ἀνθρωπίνων σαρκῶν θοῖναν καὶ αἵματος, ἐκ μέσου μύστας θιάσου καὶ αὐθέντας γονεῖς ψυχῶν ἀβοηθήτων, ἐβουλήθης ἀπολέσαι διὰ χειρῶν πατέρων ἡμῶν
(http://www.ellopos.net/elpenor/greek-texts/septuagint/chapter.asp?book=29&page=12)

Here is an online English translation:

And also those merciless murderers of children, and devourers of man’s flesh, and the feasts of blood, With their priests out of the midst of their idolatrous crew, and the parents, that killed with their own hands souls destitute of help

Here are Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:12

γυναικὶ δὲ διδάσκειν οὐκ ἐπιτρέπω, οὐδὲ αὐθεντεῖν ἀνδρός, ἀλλ’ εἶναι ἐν ἡσυχίᾳ.
(http://www.ellopos.net/elpenor/greek-texts/new-testament/timothy_1/2.asp)

Speaking to a culture that had a history of sacrificing male children (in Ephesus) and was currently sacrificing male genitalia to an idol, why do we think Paul was talking about “authority” here?

I do not believe he had “authority” in mind.  “Authority” as a translation does not appear until Erasmus’ 16th century Latin “auctoritatem” (Wilshire, 2010).  English Bibles based on this Latin edition translated the word as “authority.”  The King James, for example, follows this tradition.

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