We’ll be looking in the next several posts at the Greek word, translated as “quietness” or “silence” in most English Bibles, that Paul uses in 1 Timothy when he says that “a woman should learn in hēsuchia.” Our premise is that if we can understand what Paul wants women to do when he gives this positive command, this will help us understand what he doesn’t want women to do when he gives the negative prohibition about teaching and authority that immediately follows.
I’d actually like to begin here with the verb hēsuchazō that comes from the same Greek root as the noun hēsuchia, because the use of this verb in the New Testament gives us a good idea of the essential idea behind the root.
In some contexts hēsuchazō clearly means “to keep silent” in the sense of saying nothing. For example: “Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?’ But they remained silent” (Luke 14:4). However, in other contexts, this cannot be the meaning, because the people who are said to have done whatever this word implies are then depicted as speaking!
In Acts 21:14, for example, Paul’s friends are trying to convince him not to go to Jerusalem. Luke records, “And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased (hēsuchazō) and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.” This is the ESV translation; the NIV has “we gave up” for hēsuchazō. In other words, Paul’s friends stopped arguing.
Similarly, in Acts 11, when Peter is answering to the apostles and believers in Jerusalem for the way he has shared the gospel with Gentiles, hēsuchazō is used to describe how Peter’s description of God giving the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles evoked a response not of silence but of agreement: “When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.’” Once again this is the ESV; the NIV says, “they had no further objections.” In other words, once again, they stopped arguing.
More generally, it appears that hēsuchazō describes a situation in which people don’t say something they have in mind and otherwise might say, but choose not to. This certainly applies to the first example, of the Pharisees, who don’t think it’s lawful to heal on the Sabbath and who don’t want Jesus to heal the man, but who are hesitant or afraid to say so, perhaps because of the crowd that is apparently also present in this home.
This understanding also applies to the other two uses of hēsuchazō in the New Testament.
Luke says about the women who wanted to prepare Jesus’ body for burial, “On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment” (Luke 23:56). In this case there was something they wanted to do, rather than to say, but they deferred, out of respect for the Law.
And Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “We urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you (1 Thessalonians 4:11). We see from the parallel instruction in 2 Thessalonians, which uses the noun hēsuchia rather than the verb hēsuchazō, that the concern here is for diligent work in place of idle gossip: “For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (2 Thessalonians 3:12). In other words, once again, there’s something the Thessalonians would like to say (unfortunately, gossip about others). “Living in hēsuchia” means not saying this, out of respect for others’ privacy and reputations and as an expression of Christian character.
The adjective hēsuchios, which comes from the same root, is used twice in the New Testament, with similar meaning. In 1 Timothy, shortly before Paul makes the comments we’ve been discussing, he writes: “I urge . . . that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for . . . those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet (hēsuchios) lives.” This instance, in which Paul urges prayer, further confirms the argument that the root does not describe silence, the absence of speech or sound.
The only other NT occurrence of the adjective hēsuchios also comes in a context of relating to authority and it also precludes a meaning of the absence of speech or sound. Addressing women, Peter tells them, “your beauty . . . should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet (hēsuchios) spirit . . . for this is the way the holy women of the past . . . used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord.”
These two occurrences of hēsuchios highlight the gospel emphasis on inner transformation rather than compliance with outward requirements. (Why couldn’t a church just say, “We urge all of our women to cultivate a gentle and quiet spirit, and we urge all of our men to be considerate and respectful, and we’ll leave the rest up to the Holy Spirit”?)
In our next post we’ll look at the one other use of the noun hēsuchia in the New Testament, and also meet another Greek root that’s used very similarly. Once we’ve explored the uses of both roots, we’ll then be in a position to explore the implications for what Paul writes in 1 Timothy about women learning in hēsuchia.