Interpreting 1 Timothy 2:8-15 -- By: Craig S. Keener

Journal: Priscilla Papers
Volume: PP 12:3 (Summer 1998)
Article: Interpreting 1 Timothy 2:8-15
Author: Craig S. Keener


Interpreting 1 Timothy 2:8-15

Craig S. Keener

Craig Keener is author of Paul, Women & Wives and The IVP Bible Background Commentary, available from the CBE Book Service.

No one takes all of Paul’s writings completely literally Egalitarian and nonegalitarian scholars alike agree that some of Paul’s writing is conditioned by the time and place in which he lived. So how do we distinguish between passages that are situation-specific, and those that should be universally applied? Regarding 1 Timothy 2:8-15, egalitarians share the same basic approach to interpretation: We recognize that knowing the first-century background can make a significant difference in understanding the biblical text.

The Interpretation Question

Nearly all nonegalitarian scholars will grant the relevance of context to some extent; everyone recognizes the usefulness of cultural background in biblical interpretation. However, the nonegalitarian approach to cultural context is simply not consistent. For example, I began Paul, Women & Wives with a chapter explaining the cultural background of head coverings and Paul’s arguments in 1 Corinthians 11:2-17. Paul uses one of the same arguments in this passage (the prior creation of Adam) that he uses in 1 Timothy 2. A nonegalitarian writer approvingly cited my treatment of 1 Corinthians 11:2-17 (for which I am grateful), acknowledging that head coverings are not a transcultural requirement. But he then curiously proceeded to categorically deny that one could take a similar approach to 1 Timothy 2!

The typical nonegalitarian method of interpreting 1 Timothy 2 is not feasible. Earlier Pauline letters specifically support women’s ministry as prophets, ministers of the Word, and at least once an apostle (Rom 16:7). But if one takes 1 Timothy 2:11-12 literally (most nonegalitarians today take it with only selective literalism), it altogether prohibits women teaching men the Bible! Thus (as in head coverings), most nonegalitarians today do recognize some difference between the first-century meaning and the modern application; they simply will not take the implications of this difference as far as egalitarians do.

To harmonize 1 Timothy 2 with Paul’s earlier letters one must adopt one of four approaches:

(1) Read all other Pauline passages in light of a not-very-literal interpretation of this one (so most traditional interpreters)...

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