Posted by: mattcolvin | December 16, 2011

Ben Witherington, Greek, and Women in the Church

This is a repost on some of the Greek fudging that advocates of women’s ordination to the pastorate engage in. Ordinarily, I put re-posts in my archives, with the same date of publication as they had on Fragmenta, but in this case, I’m making an exception in light of the recent blogosphere discussion of Junia, etc.
In case anyone is wondering, Ben Witherington is mistaken when he suggests that Paul’s use of ἐπιτρέπω in 1 Ti. 2:12 is an ephemeral true present in force: “I am not [now] permitting a woman to teach…” (sc. “but I will do so later!”). Quite the contrary, the verb ἐπιτρέπω ordinarily indicates the granting of a permission that would not otherwise obtain:

  • Acts 26:1 “Agrippa said to Paul, “It is permitted for you to speak for yourself.” Context: a formal self-defense before Agrippa and Bernice. Paul did not previously have permission to speak until he was granted it by Agrippa.
  • Hebrews 6:1-3 “Therefore, setting aside the account of the beginning of Christ, let us press on to completeness…not laying again the foundation…And this we will do if God permits.” Understood: if God doesn’t, the author won’t.
  • Matthew 19:8 “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of the hardness of your heart.” Yes, and what would it have meant for Moses to say, “I do not permit you…”?
  • Mark 5:13 and Luke 8:32 “And He gave them permission [to enter into the herd of swine].”
  • Mark 10:4 “They said, “Moses permitted [a man] to write her a writ of separation and divorce her.”
  • John 19:38, “And Pilate permitted [Joseph of Arimathea to take the body].” Had he not done so, Joseph would have tried to bury it at his peril.
  • Acts 27:3 “And Julius, treating Paul kindly, permitted him to go to his friends and get care.”

It is interesting that the only two times this verb appears with a negative are in the two passages at issue, 1 Ti. 2:12 and 1 Cor. 14:33-36 — the so-called “texts of terror” about women and their role in the church. I trust that my little survey of the times it appears in the positive are sufficient to demonstrate that its NT meaning is “to give permission to do X”, where X is an activity that may not be done without permission. The natural assumption, therefore, is that Paul is not granting women dispensation to talk in church — and that no such dispensation has ever existed. In other words, this “I am not permitting” is not equivalent to “Yeah, I know you women are used to talking in the church, but I am all of a sudden not permitting it.” The word ἐπιτρέπω, as you can see above, is not used that way. Otherwise why would Paul preface his remarks in 1 Cor. 14:33 with “as in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches.”

Witherington is also making an unwarrantable claim about Greek when he says, regarding “women shall be saved through childbearing” that “The phrase in question says ‘the childbearing’ referring to a particular one, and there is the odd toggling in the Greek between the singular childbearing and the ‘they’ who are saved through this. Last I checked multiple women cannot give birth to a single child. This means Paul is referring to a particular childbearing– namely the birth of Jesus through Mary.”

This, while an old interpretation and certainly possible, is not compelled (pace Witherington) by the presence of the Greek article in διὰ τῆς τεκνογονίας. Despite that article, it is still perfectly idiomatic Greek for “the [general activity of] childbearing.” Indeed, that is the normal meaning of the word; I can find no instance of τεκνογονία being a term of art for the Virgin birth.

It is also unwarranted for Witherington to complain of the impossibility of multiple women engaging in singular “childbearing.” The Greek word functions just like the English, and so there is no more problem than there would be with plural men engaging in singular “turkey-hunting” or “back-slapping.” (The objects included in those compound nouns are also singular, yet everyone understands that we are dealing with a so-called “corporate” singular. So too would the Greeks. Indeed, in Mt. 19:8, mentioned above, Jesus speaks of “the hardness of your (plural) heart (singular).” English does not usually distribute singulars over plurals; Greek does.


  1. […] (16/12/11): Matt has reposted some remarks on the subject of Ben Witherington’s exegesis of 1 Timothy 2:11-15, and pertinent to the present discussions. There have also been extensive discussions in the […]

  2. Matt,

    I think you know that none of this matters since there is no chance that authenteo could refer to church leadership anyway. It seems to mean, “to be the master of”, or “to coerce” someone.

    • Maybe. It’s a hapax legomenon before post-Biblical usage. There are some rather ridiculous Christian egalitarian attempts to bring sexuality into it based on etymologically fallacious reasoning from cognate words. Here’s a good starting point for thinking about this word.

      What’s certain is that διδάσκω means to teach. And that Paul affirms a standing prohibition on women doing it.

    • OK, so take ‘to be the master of’ as a possibility – which is not at all unreasonable since I have the impression that the verb is denominative from αὐθέντης – then we have ‘A woman should learn in quietness in all submission; and I do not permit a woman to be teaching, nor to to be the master of a man, but to be in quietness.’ Does this really not speak at all to the question of whether a woman can serve as an elder in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ?


  3. Matt,

    Please allow me to record that you are not allowing me to respond to your last comment.

    • Yes, I am done interacting with you, Suzanne. It is clear that no amount of proof will do for you, nor will any refutation make you reconsider. You are operating from a position — egalitarianism — that I consider heretical.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: