Studies in 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus—Lesson 8 (1 Timothy 2:15)
by Reta Halteman Finger
“Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty. This saying is sure!” (1 Timothy 2:15)
Last month (April 2019), my friend Berry and I visited Israel to walk the Jesus Trail in the region of Galilee and spend a few days in Jerusalem. It happened to coincide with the Jewish Passover, so we saw a number of Orthodox Jewish families journeying to or within Jerusalem for the celebrations. Besides observing husbands in black hats and side curls, we saw their wives as they tried, sometimes frantically, to keep track of four or five young children scurrying about.
While waiting for me at the airport, Berry saw a little girl of about three who temporarily got left behind and was crying. Berry stayed with her until the harried mother of five reclaimed her lost sheep. Throughout our visit, we were both incensed to observe how often fathers of these families seemed emotionally removed, as though it was beneath them to assume the responsibilities of child care.
Though most Orthodox Jews probably do not read the Pastorals (another name for the Pastoral Epistles), the entire paragraph of 1 Timothy 2:8-15 obviously derives from religious and cultural traditions similar to those Berry and I observed on our trip—traditions that establish very different lifestyles for men and women. In this lesson, I will note what some commentators consider to be the hardest verse in the Bible to understand, 1 Timothy 2:15, because of the question it raises: in what way are women “saved through childbirth?” Read this lesson in connection with Lesson 7, which discusses additional instructions to women in 1 Timothy 2:9-14. 1 Timothy 2:15 is meant to give hope after the preceding verses where the serpent of Genesis 3 deceives the woman but not the man.
For conservative scholars who believe Paul himself wrote the Pastoral Epistles, figuring out what he meant here becomes a pressing issue. If salvation comes through Christ, as other Pauline letters affirm, what can salvation through childbearing mean? In Paul, Women Teachers, and the Mother Goddess at Ephesus, Sharon Hodgin Gritz devotes her doctoral dissertation to 1 Timothy 2:9-15 and lists several options for interpreting verse 15a.
In Gritz’s first option, the term refers to the Incarnation, Christ’s birth. But this is a big stretch. The text refers to childbearing as an activity; Jesus saves by his life, death, and resurrection, not by his birth; and this makes Mary’s role in salvation ambiguous. Option rejected.
Second, verse 15a could be translated, “she will be kept safe through childbirth.” Since a woman’s childbearing is connected to the curse of Genesis 3:16, the author of 1 Timothy promises her “exemption from the curse’s worse and heaviest effects” (Gritz, p. 141). But the reality is that many godly women have died in childbirth.
Third, the salvation is spiritual rather than physical (Gritz, p. 142). Women receive eternal salvation in spite of the curse of pain in childbirth. But this view is too complex, in that one has to “read into” the verse and recall the curse of Genesis 3:16.
Fourth, most commentators hold some variation of the view that “woman will be saved and find her greatest fulfillment by faithfulness to her proper role—motherhood” (Gritz, pp. 142-43). Nonfeminist male commentators are happy to accept the interpretation that keeps women out of leadership in church or home. But as a church leader herself, Gritz changes the translation to conform to 1 Corinthians 14:34-36. She translates: “I do not allow a wife to teach or exercise authority over her husband but to remain quiet” (Gritz, p. 158). (In Greek, the same word is used for “wife” and “woman,” and “husband” and “man.”) In that case, a woman must remain single or choose a husband carefully if she is to exercise all her spiritual gifts!
(Many scholars suspect that 1 Cor. 14:34-36 is a snippet added later from the time period of the Pastoral Epistles. Some early Greek manuscripts include it in the margin or at the end of chapter 14, since it contradicts 1 Cor. 11: 5 and interrupts the flow of chapter 14.)
Is Gnosticism the culprit?
In 1992, a year after Gritz’s book came out, evangelical feminists Catherine and Richard Clark Kroeger published I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:9-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence. A classics scholar, Catherine Kroeger delves into the pagan background of Ephesus, but the Kroegers argue that the specific heresy plaguing the Ephesian church at this time was Gnosticism. This pushes the Pastorals’ dating beyond the lifetime of Paul to as late as 175 CE. The Kroegers prefer a date in the late first century, after Paul’s death.
The church fathers opposed the Gnostics and destroyed their writings, but in 1945 a whole library of Gnostic texts was discovered in Egypt (Kroeger and Kroeger, p. 60). Gnosticism distorted the Hebrew Scriptures and taught that all matter was evil; only spirit was good. Thus, Gnostic theology devalued the body and rejected marriage, sexual relations, and childbearing. The Kroegers view 1 Timothy 2:11-15 as a response to women who were teaching Gnostic heresy in the churches and opposed childbearing.
The Acts of Paul and Thekla
But James Aageson’s 2008 commentary counters the Gnostic proposal by observing that this earlier thesis is not supported by textual evidence nor by recent scholarship. He sees the idea in 1 Timothy 2:15 that women “will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty” as “strange,” but at the same time “likely pointing to the need to mind one’s place in the order of social expectations.” Although God is still the savior, people need to be taking hold of this salvation “in faith, in correct teaching, and in proper behavior” (pp. 26-27).
Aageson instead refers to the second century apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thekla, where Thekla resists conformity to patriarchal norms by teaching the gospel and refusing marriage. Aageson does not know if the Pastorals were written to oppose Thekla, or if they just “represent quite different manifestations of the developing Pauline tradition” (p. 200). In contrast to Thekla, the Pastorals’ concept of the household of God is modeled after the Greco-Roman household, as noted earlier.
Although the NRSV puts “the saying is sure” into the next chapter, both Annette Huizenga and Jouette Bassler believe it belongs at the end of 1 Timothy 2:15. “Every other time the phrase occurs in the Pastorals it is attached to a theological statement about salvation or eternal life”: 1 Timothy 1:15; 4:8-9; 2 Timothy 2:10-11; Titus 3:6-8. (Huizenga, pp. 29-30; Bassler, p. 61).
In any case, one saying is sure: you won’t find find 1 Timothy 2:15 on any Mother’ Day cards!
Questions for discussion and reflection
- Which of the above explanations makes the most sense to you, and why? What sources would you add?
- Why do you think the author of 1 Timothy wanted the church to model itself after the Greco-Roman household? What are the demographic implications? How might these instructions to women compare with Jesus’s call to discipleship in the Gospels?
Aageson, James. W. Paul, the Pastoral Epistles, and the Early Church. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008.
Bassler, Jouette M. 1 Timothy 2 Timothy Titus. Abingdon New Testament Commentaries. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996.
Gritz, Sharon Hodgin. Paul, Women Teachers, and the Mother Goddess at Ephesus. New York, NY: University Press of America, 1991.
Huizenga, Annette. 1-2 Timothy Titus. Wisdom Commentary. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016.
Kroeger, Richard Clark and Catherine Clark Kroeger. I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence. Grand Rapids: MI: Baker Book House, 1992.