Studies in 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus—Lesson 5 (1 Timothy 2:1-8)
by Reta Halteman Finger
Ever since first-wave feminism with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and friends, Christian opponents of women’s equality would trot out 1 Timothy 2:9-15 as their strongest biblical argument for keeping women silent and submissive to men. Plenty of them are still at it! My plan for this lesson was to briefly skim over the first part of 1 Timothy 2 and then confront this regressive paragraph head-on!
But the act of reading commentaries—who by their nature must comment on every paragraph! —convinces me otherwise. So we will look first at 1 Timothy 2:1-8. Verses 9 to 15 will wait until Lesson 6. To really “get” this letter, we must understand the author’s political and cultural context and his train of thought. (Remember—no chapter divisions existed in the original manuscript!)
After dealing with internal opponents in the first chapter and naming two men he has completely given up on in 1:20, “Paul” proceeds with the instructions he promised to “Timothy” in 1:18. First of all, prayer! All kinds of prayer: supplications, intercessions, thanksgiving! Strongly stressed is that the prayers are made for everyone (2:1). God “desires everyone to be saved” (2:4). There is only one God, and only one mediator, Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all (2:6). Thus, Paul sees himself as a “herald and an apostle” and a “teacher of the Gentiles” (2:7). Regardless of what he will say about women, our author is quite inclusive when it comes to salvation for everyone!
In the meantime, what happened to those “lawless and disobedient” fellow church members (1 Tim.1:9-10), with their speculative “myths and genealogies” from the last lesson (1:4)? Jouette Bassler thinks that the author has temporarily pushed them into the background and will return to them again in chapter four (Abingdon Commentaries, p. 49.) Benjamin Fiore somewhat disagrees. The author’s concern “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity” (2:2) contrasts with his opponents’ profane and unruly behavior. In that sense, Fiore thinks there may be a hint of polemic about this emphasis on quietness (Sacra Pagina, p. 62).
Annette Huizenga, however, ignores this question and instead emphasizes the Roman socio-political context of these instructions. Though Timothy is first addressed as an individual, she then imagines public meetings where this letter would certainly have been read to various house churches in Ephesus. Since only 10-15 percent of men could read, and far fewer women, the letter would likely have been read by a wealthier, male head-of-household with some education (Wisdom Commentary, p. 10). Even this oral reading, then, subconsciously promotes the oikonomia—patriarchal household order—described earlier in these lessons on the Pastoral Epistles.
Praying is more complicated than you think
At the top of the list of those persons whom believers should pray for are “kings, and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life” (2:2). Notice that prayers are for kings, and not to kings. This contrasts with Roman imperial religion, where many emperors were considered divine after death, “so that offering sacrifices and prayers at temples built for them and their family members became a popular practice for currying imperial favor (Huizenga, p. 12). This was especially true in the cities of Asia Minor such as Sardis and Ephesus (where this letter’s recipients lived).
For monotheists like Jews, this was always a problem. They addressed their God as “Lord,” “Savior,” and “Father”—the same titles Roman pagans used for their emperors. (Although God is called “Savior” in 1 Timothy 1:1 and 2:3, Jesus is never named “son of God” in the letter, perhaps because the current emperor was called divi filius (son of god) on Roman coins and inscriptions.) At times Jews were excused from emperor worship, but this resistance became more acute when Gentiles who joined Christ-believing house churches or synagogues also refused obeisance to Roman emperors.
There is a letter (ca. 111-113 CE) from Pliny, a governor in northern Asia Minor to Trajan, the current Roman emperor, in which he asks for advice. Pliny explains that if he found Christ-believers not bringing offerings and worship to the appropriate temples, he would arrest and interrogate them. If they renounced their Christian beliefs, he let them go; otherwise they presumably were executed. Emperor Trajan approved.
Remembering the Ephesian church’s internal struggle with “unruly” members in chapter one, the author of 1 Timothy is probably concerned for Christ-believers’ safety. Thus, rather than promoting risky public disagreements, he calls for prayer for those in authority, so that believers may lead a “quiet and peaceable life” (2:2).
The inclusive gospel
Coming back to the question of salvation for all, we find a “liturgical fragment” in verses 5-6a (noted by Bassler, p. 52). Besides one God, there is only one mediator between God and humans—the human Jesus. Huizenga sees political implications here, for an additional function of emperors was as mediators: “their role as chief priest (Pontifex Maximus) of the empire, a role ‘given’ to them by virtue of military victories, amassed wealth, and unchallenged political authority” (Huizenga, pp. 13-14).
In striking contrast to an emperor’s assumed role as mediator between the divine and humans because of his military conquests, Jesus as mediator generously and nonviolently gives up his life as a ransom (v. 6a) for all—Jews, Romans, and “barbarians” alike. “Paul” then continues with these alternate political overtones by calling himself a “herald” (a diplomatic messenger between warring parties) and an “apostle” (one sent as an ambassador or envoy) (Huizenga, p. 14).
Who prays, and how?
Verse 8 transitions into the section featuring women’s role in the oikonomia of the church. Men alone pray publicly and peaceably, with hands outstretched. The next lesson will examine women’s roles in this conflictual, hierarchical Roman context.
Questions for discussion or reflection
- Does the Paul of the undisputed letters or the Paul of Acts sound like someone who promotes a “quiet and peaceable” life? (See, for example, Acts 17:1-9.)
- In times past, various Mennonite and Brethren denominations have tried to observe “quiet and peaceable” lifestyles by non-participation in local or national politics. Is this the appropriate response when living in a democracy instead of in an autocratic regime like the Roman Empire?
- Do you think the emphasis on the phrase “for all” means universal salvation? Or simply the invitation to salvation for everyone?
Bassler, Jouette M. 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus. Abingdon New Testament Commentaries. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996.
Fiore, Benjamin, S. J. The Pastoral Epistles. Sacra Pagina Series, Vol. 12., MN: Liturgical Press, 2007.
Huizenga, Annette. 1-2 Timothy Titus. Wisdom Commentary, Vol. 53. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016.