How Should 1 Timothy 2:12 Be Translated? Is Authenteō Positive or Negative?

The NIV 2011 caused quite a bit of controversy by translating authenteō in 1 Timothy 2:12 as “assume authority over” which is purported to be a neutral interpretation of the famous passage rather than the more traditional “have authority over.” The problem with this neutral approach is that the Bible is not neutral when it comes to the issue of whether women can teach men when the church is gathered together and on every other controversial topic. This translation philosophy shows a lack of fear of God and respect for his Word. Denominationally neutral translations are motivated by a desire to profit off of God’s Word rather than please him (2 Cor 2:17). I am afraid many readers of the new NIV will assume that “assume authority over” is a negative thing because they live in an egalitarian culture that despises authority. Many of them will interpret this verse to mean that this is only a prohibition against women teaching men in a domineering way rather than a prohibition against all teaching of men in the church rooted in the order of creation and primogeniture.

But what does authenteō actually entail in this verse? I will argue in this article, assisted by the work of H. Scott Baldwin, Andreas Köstenberger, Al Wolters, and George Knight III, that the verb is being used positively to describe the authority and teaching involved in serving as a Christian pastor over men (Heb 13:17; 1 Pet 5:5). Those who argue for authenteō having a negative connotation in 1 Timothy 2:12 cite the KJV’s translation of the verse: “to usurp authority over a man” and other older translations. But the translators who worked on those translations did not have access to the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae which is a searchable digital library of every ancient Greek text known to man. Translating authenteō is difficult because it is a hapax legomenon or word that only occurs once in the New Testament so we are dependent on other Greek literature to establish the semantic domain of the word (the different ways in which a word can be used based on context). But with the TLG, we have the ability to do what previous generations could not and better translate the word into English.

H. Scott Baldwin in the first edition of Women in the Church lists 80 occurrences of authenteō in Greek literature and Wayne Grudem republishes them in his Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth. Of these 80 occurrences, 39 of them are used in a positive manner to describe a legitimate use of authority, 20 of them are used in a neutral sense to describe authority which is neither good nor bad in and of itself, and 21 times the verb describes a negative illegitimate use of authority. Therefore, it cannot be said that authenteō is a negative verb and therefore it should be translated as such in 1 Timothy 2:12 when there are many instances of it being used positively in Greek literature. It is disingenuous for anyone to claim such and it displays either a lack of awareness of Greek literature or outright deception. Therefore, how authenteō should be translated in 1 Timothy 2:12 must be determined by the context and not simply word usage.

Positive ways that authenteō are used include: the authority of human government in punishing evildoers (Philodemus, Rhetorica), a human ruler in deciding legal cases (cited by George W. Knight III), the authority of a master over his slave (Hippolytus, On the End of the World), the authority of God over creation (Eusebius, On Ecclesiastical Theology), God’s administration of judgment (Eusebius, Vita Constantini), the compelling of the Holy Spirit (Athanasius, Testimonies from Scripture), the bishop of Rome exercising authority over a dispute (Basil, Letters), being in charge of a marriage as the husband (Chrysostom, In Genesium), Peter’s authority over the other apostles (Chrysostom, In Acta Apostelorum), Jesus compelling Lazarus to be raised from the dead (Chrysostom, In Martham), Jesus taking charge of healing the leper (Chrysostom, By the Lake of Genesareth), the use of authority over men in the church associated with teaching and writing that women cannot have (Didymus Caecus, Dialogue), and many others that I don’t have space to write out here. The closest parallel use of authenteō to 1 Timothy 2:12 is by Eusebius of Alexandria in his sermons when he uses the term to describe the authority of an elder in the church which a deacon cannot use: “The deacon ought to accomplish everything in accordance with the intention of the elder, and for the rules and for the needs of the church; not to exercise authority over (authentein – the same infinitive form as in 1 Timothy 2:12) the people, but to do everything by the command of the elder.  But the elder being at hand, neither does he have authority to banish or to do the like.” Notice that authenteō is rephrased later as “the command of the elder” and “the authority to banish” reserved for church elders since a deacon was not a position of leadership or authority in the patristic period or the New Testament but one of service.

The reason why authenteō should be understood positively in 1 Timothy 2:12 to describe the task of Christian preaching is that the verb is associated with teaching. Both infinitives are connected together and refer to one activity. The authority of this verse is the authority that is within the sphere of Christian teaching and preaching. The congregation is to submit to the preacher of God’s Word because he is preaching God’s Word, the Bible, not his own words. The context of the passage is the local church where men lift up their hands in prayer. To say that “to teach” here is negative because Paul uses authenteō is circular reasoning since it has already been established than authenteō can be used either negatively or positively based on context. Andreas Köstenberger has demonstrated, based on the syntax of this verse in comparison to other Greek literature, that when one infinitive prefaced by a negative adverb is followed by another infinitive with a negative conjunction in-between them, both infinitives are either positive or negative. That means if “to teach” is positive, then “to have authority over” is also positive. A study of how Paul uses teaching in his epistles demonstrates that he views it as a high and holy calling worthy of respect and submission (1 Tim 3:2; 4:11; 6:2; 2 Tim 2:24). Teaching in Paul’s epistles is always a positive thing unless it is explicitly qualified by another negative term which he does not do here. Because teaching is positive, having authority over is likewise positive.

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