Does what Paul tells women to do in 1 Timothy show what he doesn’t want them to do?

So far we’ve looked at Paul’s comments in 1 Timothy from the perspective of those who say there should be restrictions on what women can do in the church.  We’ve seen that these interpreters believe Paul forbids women to teach or hold authority on the basis of the principle of primogeniture.  I’ve offered several reasons why I don’t think this is what Paul is saying.  But what then is he saying?

I’d argue that we can get a great insight into what Paul doesn’t want the women in Ephesus to do (and likely, by extension, other women in other places) by considering what he does, by contrast, want them to do.  He says, after all, in effect, I want them to do this and not that.  As the ESV puts it:  “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” (As you can see by comparing other translations, the word rather is not in the Greek, but the ESV helpfully supplies it to bring out the meaning.)

Most specifically, Paul says that he wants a woman to learn “in hēsuchia” and that, rather than relate to men in the ways forbidden, women should “be in hēsuchia.”  The 1972 RSV, of which the ESV is a revision, translates this word as “silence”: a woman should “learn in silence” and “keep silent.”  The 1973 and 1984 editions of the NIV said instead that a woman should learn in “quietness,” but then, at the end of the statement, still said that she should be “silent.” The TNIV changed this reading to “be quiet” and the 2011 NIV has retained this wording.  So we can see that English translations are moving away from the idea of silence to something having more to do with attitude and demeanor.

In the next several posts I’d like to explore how the term hēsuchia is used elsewhere in the New Testament.  This will give us some very useful insights into Paul’s meaning in 1 Timothy.

But here I’d like to observe—marvel, actually—at how there has been, well, silence about the matter of women’s hēsuchia in 1 Timothy on both sides of the debate about restrictions.  All of the energy has been concentrated on defining what it means for a woman to “teach or have authority”; I haven’t seen anything that addresses, in more than a passing way, what Paul means by hēsuchia.

It’s very interesting to me how closely parallel Paul’s comments here in 1 Timothy are to what he says in 1 Corinthians:

“The women should keep silent in the churches.  For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission” (1 Corinthians, ESV).

“Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness.  I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent ” (1 Timothy, RSV)

So why aren’t Paul’s comments in 1 Timothy seen as another notorious “women must keep silent” passage that we all (wink, wink) know we don’t have to take at face value and apply universally?  Is it because we would have to wrestle with whether to take the comments about teaching and authority at face value if we acknowledged the elephant in the room and admitted that, at first glance, it sounds as if Paul is forbidding women to speak in church in two places, not just one?  We see how important it is to ask whether this is actual “silence” or some kind of “quietness” instead.  So we’ll dive right into the word study next time.

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