The apostle Paul’s first letter to Timothy is an urgent warning against a form of false teaching that was finding its way into the church community of Ephesus–the capital of Lydia in Asia Minor.
Specifically, Paul warns against false teachers who devoted themselves to myths and endless genealogies (1 Timothy 1:3-4). They claimed to be teachers of the law, but did not know what they were talking about (1 Timothy 1:7). They taught a doctrine of asceticism that vilified the body and its appetites; followers had to abstain from marriage and the eating of certain foods (1 Timothy 4:3). Paul refers to this teaching as demonic (1 Timothy 4:1), and he encourages Timothy to guard the gospel against opposing ideas that are falsely called “gnosis,” meaning knowledge (1 Timothy 6:20).
Paul also prohibits “a woman” from teaching or engaging in something he called “authentein” against “a man” (1 Timothy 2:12). Along with this prohibition, he makes reference to the salvation of women in childbirth (1 Timothy 2:15), and briefly reviews the story of humanity’s creation and fall into sin (1 Timothy 2:13-14).
Since Erasmus compiled his Greek/Latin Bible in the 16th century, “authentein” has been understood to mean “exercise authority.” Erasmus used the Latin expression “auctoritatum.” He used Jerome’s Latin Vulgate of the 4th century to aid his translation. Jerome translated “authentein” into the Latin “dominari.” This can mean “to dominate” or “to exercise dominion.” Erasmus’ Bible became the basis for the first English translations of 1 Timothy 2:12 as a prohibition against female authority (Wilshire, L.E. 2010. Insight into Two Biblical Passages: Anatomy of a Prohibition 1 Timothy 2:12, the TLG Computer, and the Christian Church. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc.).
An important question must be asked: “Do these translations of Jerome and Erasmus reflect Paul’s intended meaning when he wrote to Timothy prohibiting authentein?” Frankly, I don’t believe they do.
To help us understand what this word meant to the apostle Paul, I think it is helpful to examine the Bible he quoted from in his epistles; namely, the Greek Septuagint (http://www.bible-researcher.com/quote01.html).
In the Septuagint, 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.”
Similar uses of this word can be found throughout the Greek literature of the New Testament era. Writing in the same time period as the apostle Paul, Diodorus Siculus used the word on three separate occasions to mean: “perpetrators of sacrilege,” “author of crimes,” or “supporters of violent actions.” Also writing in the 1st century A.D., Flavius Josephus used the term twice to mean: “perpetrator of a crime” and “perpetrators of a slaughter.” In the same period, Philo Judaeus used the term once to mean “being one’s own murderer” (Wilshire, p. 28).
Why would Paul use this word in his letter to Timothy? In other instances of the New Testament where Paul talks about “exercising authority,” he uses the term “exousia.” Were violent crimes or rituals being performed in or around Ephesus in the worship of false gods or goddesses, just as they were in the passage from the Wisdom of Solomon? Historically, the answer to this question is a straightforward “yes;” child sacrifices were indeed performed in this area of the world by a matriarchal culture that worshiped a goddess named Cybele.
A historian from the 1st century B.C., Pompeius Trogus, had this to say about the culture and its customary violence towards males:
“[The women]…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” (as cited in Yardly, J. 1994. Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, p. 29).
Another historian from this time period, Diodorus Siculus, offers a similar commentary:
“Beside the river of Thermadon, therefore, a nation ruled by females held sway, in which women pursued the arts of war just like men…. To the men she [the nation’s Queen] relegated the spinning of wool and other household tasks of women. She promulgated laws whereby she led forth the women to martial strife, while on the men she fastened humiliation and servitude. She would maim the arms and legs of male children, making them useless for service in war” (as cited in Murphy, E. 1989. The Antiquities of Asia: A Translation with Notes of Book II of the Library of History of Diodorus Siculus, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, p. 58).
This culture’s “contempt for the male sex” is highlighted in their spiritual mythology. Historian, John Ferguson, explains:
“The most familiar name of the Asiatic mother in the Roman world was Cybele, and to her the [following] myths are attached. At Pessinus the story was told how the Great Mother was sleeping in the form of a rock. Zeus tried to rape her, but spilled his seed on the ground. Still, she, who is the ground, bore a child against her will, a bisexual monster named Agdistis. Dionysus set himself to tame this creature, drugging him with wine, and tying his male sex-organs to a tree so that on awakening he castrated himself. From the blood sprang an almond (or in some versions pomegranate) tree. The daughter of the river-god Sangarius plucked fruit from this and placed it in her lap, from where it impregnated her. Her father tried to kill her, and to expose the baby on birth, but each time Cybele intervened, and the child grew into the handsome boy Attis. Cybele fell in love with the lad; we often see him standing by her throne on coins and medallions of the second or third century AD, or on a fine bronze plate now in Berlin, or riding with her in her lion-drawn chariot, again on coins or on the superb dish (patera) from Parabiago in Milan, where they are surrounded by sun, moon, earth and sea, time and the seasons. Their love was doomed. The goddess caught Attis in infidelity and drove him mad, so that he castrated himself under a pine-tree and bled to death. But this is not the end; in the Roman ceremonies the festival of mourning (tristia) was followed by a festival of joy (hilaria). The old year is dead, but the new year lives and Attis rises again” (Ferguson, J. 1970. The Religions of the Roman Empire. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, pp. 25-26).
In this mythology, the female Cybele is depicted as life-giving and pure. Male gods Zeus and Attis are authors of sexual sin. Attis is caught in an act of sexual infidelity. He atones for this by castrating himself. He dies as a result of this act, liberating him from the limitations of “the flesh;” he then rises again, now purified of his male sexuality.
New priests of the goddess Cybele would re-enact this mythology every year in an annual rite of self-emasculation:
“On the Day of Blood (24 March), the cult priests, in mourning for Attis, flagellated and castrated themselves, and ran through the streets proudly holding their bloody genitals, which they eventually threw into a house. The honored household was then duty bound to supply the emasculated priests with women’s clothing and ornaments, which they would wear for the rest of their lives. Many spectators, caught up in the intense emotionality of the occasion, the frenetic music of cymbals and drums, and the sight of flowing blood, followed the priests’ example and castrated themselves. This day of sorrow and irrevocable sacrifice was followed by the Day of Joy, the Hilaria, which celebrated Attis’ resurrection” (Favazza, A.R. 2011. Bodies Under Siege: Self-mutilation, Nonsuicidal Self-injury, and Body Modification in Culture and Psychiatry. Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, p. 159).
Renouncing their masculinity enabled these men to be embraced by the goddess as her spokesmen. After the ritual, they would reportedly fall into a trance-like state and begin to prophesy. Romans who witnessed this referred to the priests as “interpreters of the divine word” (Favazza, 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 if they had difficulty in childbirth (Farnell, L.R. 1977. The Cults of the Greek States: Volume II. New Rochelle, NY: Caratzas Brothers, Publishers, p. 444).
This religious sect in Asia Minor possessed a number of the characteristics of the false teachers Paul was writing to warn Timothy about. They were forbidden to marry and commanded to abstain from certain foods. Their renunciation of the body through ritual castration allegedly enabled them to receive special knowledge (gnosis) from their goddess. Their practices were rooted in mythology, and elsewhere in the New Testament Paul refers to idol worship as demonic (1 Corinthians 10:20-21). Women who worshiped this goddess did so in the hope that they would be saved if they experienced difficulty in childbirth (c.f. 1 Timothy 2:15). The matriarchal sexism of this mythology stands in stark contrast to the creation account found in Genesis, cited by Paul, in which Adam is also a source of life, and Eve plays a role in humanity’s fall (c.f. 1 Timothy 2:13-14).
I’ve been asked if there is any evidence that the priests of Cybele were continuing to practice ritual emasculation during the New Testament era. A thorough review of available literature demonstrates that this practice was known throughout the Roman Empire from the 3rd century B.C., when Cybele was formally recognized as a goddess of the state, at least to the time of Emperor Julian (361 A.D.), who praised the annual rite, calling it a “holy and inexpressible harvest’ (Julian, Oratio V, 168D, as cited in Henig, M. 1984. Religion in Roman Britain, London England: BT Batsford Ltd., p. 97). For a period of time, Rome attempted to outlaw the practice of self-castration in a law called the Lex Cornelia:
“The relevant laws banning the creation of eunuchs are included within the Lex Cornelia about murderers and poisoners; a law primarily aimed at punishing premeditated and intentional murder…. However, the bounds of the law expand also to cover…Jews who circumcise anyone who is not another Jew. By this reasoning, genital mutilation is a kind of murder; it is equivalent in the eyes of the law to actions deliberately taken with the intention of causing the death of a human being, even though the victim is intended to survive the procedure. The law clearly covers both voluntary and involuntary castration, thus providing uncharacteristically strong protections against this particular bodily injury that do not apply to other amputations. Indeed, it is even possible to be punished more harshly for voluntarily having one’s self castrated than for accidentally killing another person” (Jones-Lewis, M.J. 2015. The Heterosexualized Eunuch in the Roman Empire, online). A thorough overview of Rome’s attempts to legislate against castration in and around the New Testament era can also be found in Elizabeth Wyner Mark’s book entitled, “The Covenant of Circumcision: New Perspectives on an Ancient Jewish Rite.”
Despite legal prohibitions against self-castration, we find evidence that the priests of Cybele continued the practice:
“Two other historical anecdotes from the late second and early first centuries B.C….concern the first unequivocal evidence for self-castration in honor of the Magna Mater [Cybele] and the Roman reaction to it. In 101 B.C., a slave of a certain Servilius Caepio castrated himself in the service of the Mater Idaea; as a result he was exiled from Rome and forbidden ever to return. In itself this need not indicate total condemnation of the cult, for exile was a comparatively mild punishment for a slave. The second anecdote is more telling; in 77 B.C., a slave named Genucius received an inheritance from a freedman named Naevius Anius. Genucius, a priest of the Magna Mater, was a eunuch and was ultimately denied his inheritance on the grounds that he was neither man nor woman. Moreover, Genucius was not even allowed to plead his own case, lest the court be polluted by his obscene presence and corrupt voice. Valerius Maximus, who describes the incident, reinforces his account with a strong tone of moral condemnation, the first we note, of the eunuch Galli in Rome. Roman approval of the goddess did not extend to her eunuch priests” (Roller, L.E. 1999. In Search of God the Mother: The Cult of Anatolian Cybele. Berkeley CA: University of California Press, p. 292).
So, we have evidence that the practice was longstanding throughout the history of the Roman Empire, and that it continued even when legally prohibited. We also see that self-castration was viewed as the “crime” of “self-murder,” even if the victim/perpetrator survived. The reader may remember that “authentein” in the Greek literature of the apostle Paul’s day meant: being “one’s own murderer,” or the “perpetrator of a crime.” It could also mean one who supported this kind of action.
Historical accounts by Philo of Alexandria, Flavius Josephus and Pliny the Elder share compelling evidence that the asceticism of the Cybele cult strongly influenced the beliefs and practices of a sect within Judaism known as the Essenes. Specifically, the Essenes encouraged celibacy, fasted from wine and rich foods, and believed that their denial of the body and its passions granted them access to special revelation knowledge (gnosis) from God. After fasting from all bodily indulgences (sex, food and sleep) they would receive what they called the secret allegorical meanings behind Mosaic Law. They considered themselves to be “teachers of the law,” and they supported this claim by tracing “endless genealogies” of their leaders, allegedly back to the priesthood of Zadok.
Jones points out that the Essenes’ understanding of the rite of circumcision may also have been distorted by the ascetic beliefs and ritual castration of Cybele’s priests (Jones, A.H. 1985. Essenes: The Elect of Israel and the Priests of Artemis. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc.). Similarly, Elizabeth Wyner Mark demonstrates that influential Jewish thinkers, such as Philo of Alexandria, associated Jewish circumcision with ritual castration, viewing both as symbolic of the attainment of freedom from the body and its passions:
“In a number of little-known passages, Philo portrays the biblical character Joseph, conventionally a model of the idealized statesman, as a eunuch…. This portrayal is especially provocative, because in these cases the interpretation does not derive from negative hermeneutic play on the complexities of Joseph’s…character, but is instead aimed at depicting Joseph as a paragon of self-control and abstinence…. In his writings, Philo consistently uses the same language of ‘excision’ to describe both castration and circumcision as symbols of the separation of soul from body and of the rejection of physicality…. Within Philo’s Platonizing framework…castration, similar to circumcision, provides an apt metaphor for spiritual progress. For Philo, all circumcised Jewish men have in some respects undergone an alteration to their reproductive organs as a ritual of sanctification to ensure their inclusion in a sacred community” (Wyner Mark, E. 2003. The Covenant of Circumcision: New Perspectives on an Ancient Jewish Rite. Lebanon, NH: Brandeis University Press, pp. 78-82).
Philo wrote his comments in support of circumcision, castration and asceticism in the same time period that the apostle Paul was writing his warnings against this very belief system.
A 3rd century work by St. Hippolytus, entitled “The Refutation of All Heresies,” highlights another possible connection between the Essenes and Paul’s prohibition against “authentein.” Hippolytus explains that the Essenes were divided into four sub-sects. One of these was known as the Secarii; they were given this name because of their practice of forcibly circumcising non-Jewish men, or “slaughtering” those who refused to comply:
“But the adherents of another party, if they happen to hear anyone maintaining a discussion concerning God and his laws–supposing such to be an uncircumcised person, they will closely watch him, and when they meet a person of this description in any place alone, they will threaten to slay him if he refuses to undergo the rite of circumcision. Now, if the latter does not wish to comply with this request, an Essene spares not, but even slaughters” (Book IX, Chapter XXI).
The reader may remember that “authentein” can refer to those who perpetrate a slaughter. It may also refer to ritual violence or murder. This form of forced circumcision against a non-Jew was also specifically prohibited under the Roman Lex Cornelia de sicariis et venificis (the law against murderers and poisoners) referred to earlier.
I provide a detailed review of the evident influence of Cybele mythology on the beliefs and practices of the Essenes in my book entitled, “Let My People Go: A Call to End the Oppression of Women in the Church, Revised and Expanded.”
St. Hippolytus also clearly indicates that the mythology of Cybele and Attis, along with its priestly rite of castration, formed the foundation for Gnostic teaching in the early Christian church:
“Perhaps because it was written in Greek, or perhaps because of doctrinal reasons or religious politics, this work by St. Hippolytus was not known in the western part of the Christian Mediterranean. Book 5, which is of particular interest to us here, was found only in the nineteenth century, at Mount Athos, along with six other books. For us, the Refutation of All Heresies is a privileged source, revealing what could have most likely developed at the end of the second century in terms of applied comparativism. In his itinerary of errors, Hippolytus’ outraged gaze fell on the Naassenes, a Gnostic sect who acquired their name from a curious etymology, he says, combining the Hebrew naas (serpent) and the Greek naos (temple)…. The fact that the Naassenes privileged Attis, the Mother of the gods [Cybele], and the ritual of the galli demonstrates their clear interest in the metroac ritual celebrated in March, which was evidently known to them in an Anatolian version. One of the names under which they identified Attis was Papas, which directly relates to the well-documented cults in Phrygian epigraphy during the first centuries of the empire” (Borgeaud, P. Lysa Hochroth trans., Mother of the Gods: from Cybele to the Virgin Mary, Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, p. 102).
According to the Naassenes’ belief system, the castration of Attis freed “the soul from the earthly zones, the inferior areas of creation” (Borgeaud, p. 105). The rite of castration was therefore viewed by this Gnostic sect as symbolic of the spiritual journey that every Christian must undergo—the liberation of the spirit from matter. This is how they made sense of Jesus’ death and resurrection. They saw it in terms of freedom from the body and its “inferior” appetites.
To summarize available historical data, we have clear evidence of ascetic cults in Asia Minor that commanded people abstain from marriage and certain kinds of foods. They taught what the apostle Paul would have referred to as false teaching. Their beliefs and practices were based on mythology that was dualistic, hierarchical and profoundly sexist. Some of those influenced by this mythology claimed to be teachers of the law. They claimed to have secret knowledge (gnosis), and attempted to legitimize their authority by appealing to endless genealogies. This belief system influenced the foundation of a Gnostic sect within the early church known as the Naassenes. They based their understanding of Jesus’ death and resurrection on the myth of Attis, whose castration was re-enacted annually, even though under Roman law it was a crime compared to murder. It is also the case that a branch of an ascetic sect within Judaism (the Secarii) was forcing Gentile men to undergo circumcision. If the men resisted, they were killed. According to the Septuagint and the Greek literature of Paul’s day, the apostle’s language in 1 Timothy 2:12 therefore likely prohibits “self-murder,” “sacrilege,” “perpetrating a crime,” “perpetrating a slaughter,” or the “supporting of violent actions.” This language is an accurate reflection of the crime of self-castration that formed the basis of the Gnostic asceticism Paul was evidently warning Timothy about. It also accurately reflects the crime of forcible circumcision and/or murder perpetrated against Gentile men by an extremist branch of the Essenes.
Rather than preventing women from exercising authority, abounding evidence suggests that the apostle Paul was prohibiting the teaching and practice of ascetic spirituality that was symbolized by ritual violence against men.
If evidence supporting this view of Paul’s letter to Timothy is indeed so abundant, why has the church historically understood 1 Timothy 2:12 as a prohibition against women in authority? Borgeaud suggests that important information may not have been widely available to the Western church because of “doctrinal reasons” and “religious politics.” Interestingly, Borgeaud highlights the similarities between Naassene Gnosticism and neo-Platonism (p. 104). Influential theologians and Bible translators including Origen, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, Erasmus and John Calvin all admittedly made sense of the Bible through the interpretive lenses of neo-Platonic philosophy. I provide detailed evidence of the manner in which this dualistic, hierarchical and sexist philosophy has historically distorted the church’s understanding of the Bible and the Christian faith in my book entitled, “A God I’d Like to Meet: Separating the Love of God from Harmful Traditional Beliefs.”
Like the spirituality of the Cybele cult, neo-Platonism was also dualistic, ascetic, hierarchical and sexist. Men rather than women, however, were placed at the top of the neo-Platonic hierarchy. In contrast to any form of hierarchical paradigm, the apostle Paul teaches us that there is neither male nor female in Christ (Galatians 3:28). All are called to love one another and serve our Lord not according to sex, but rather in accordance with the gifts we are given by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:4-11).
My prayer is now that the church will let go of long-held traditions based on philosophies that are foreign to the Bible. May we consider the available evidence with open minds and humble hearts, and may the Spirit of God bring freedom and healing to us all. In the name of Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.
“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces.” (Colossians 2:8)
By request, I have made an expanded version of this blog (with additional information and references) available in the form of a book, available here in paperback and Kindle formats: http://www.amazon.com/Apostles-Warning-Restoring-Original-Message-ebook/dp/B01BT8AAJ2/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1455866417&sr=8-1 (link is to the book’s second edition)
I recently completed the second edition of the book to include additional research that I found compelling, and to present the text in proper APA format. The additional research includes a quotation from Tatian in the 2nd century A.D. about ongoing ritual violence associated with the worship of Artemis. It also includes a sample from Polybius’ Histories, in which he uses the word “authenten” to refer to the “perpetrator of a massacre.” I then share some additional information about Rome’s perspective on Cybele/Artemis worship, and how the Empire viewed the cult as a threat to male authority. Finally, I’ve included some information shared by Richard and Catherine Clark Kroeger about how the ritual castration of Cybele and Artemis’ priests was viewed as “depriving men of power.” The last two pieces of research may help us understand how a prohibition against violence done to men by a female-dominated ascetic cult could later be viewed as a usurpation of male authority. I hope that readers find the blog and the book thought-provoking and informative.