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First-century Ephesus: the historical background to Paul’s words to Timothy

The Claim

It has been claimed by some egalitarians that the 1st century historical background of Paul’s first letter to Timothy includes a ‘proto-Gnostic’ and Ephesian fertility cult. This is then used to interpret Paul’s instructions concerning women. Catherine and Richard Kroeger are the egalitarians most well known for this historical reconstruction.[1]

The Facts

The most important fact is that Timothy was in Ephesus, not Paul.  This means that when Paul says ‘I suffer not a woman to teach’, he is speaking from his understanding of the position of sisters, he is not saying ‘When I am in Ephesus I don’t permit the sisters to teach’, or ‘I don’t permit the sisters in Ephesus to teach’.  Paul’s words therefore are based on the Scriptural passages and principles to which he makes explicit reference, not to any specific environment in Ephesus.

Scholarly Commentary

Scholarly reception of the Kroegers’ reconstruction has been overwhelmingly negative. Their proposal has been rejected by both complementarian and egalitarian scholars.

*   The Kroegers claim a ‘proto-Gnostic’ background and Ephesian fertility cult forms the context of 1 Timothy

‘It is precarious, as Edwin Yamauchi and others have shown, to assume gnostic backgrounds for New Testament books. Although the phrase, “falsely called knowledge,” in 1 Timothy 6:20 contains the Greek word gnosis, this was the common word for knowledge. It does seem anachronistic to transliterate and capitalize it “Gnosis” as Kroeger does.’[2]

‘Kroeger and Kroeger thus explain v. 13 as an answer to the false notion that the woman is the originator of man, with the Artemis cult in Ephesus, that had somehow crept into the church, possibly by way of the false teaching. However, this explanation cannot be substantiated (except from later Gnostic writings.’[3]

‘Scholer’s particular comment is also generally the case, that there is “no clear or particular evidence that connects this heresy [of 1 Timothy] with any pagan worship in Ephesus and its sexual activities and connotations” (1984:199 n 19).’[4]

‘Thus, Richard and Catherine Kroeger have argued that the opponents taught the priority of Eve over Adam and that Eve enlightened Adam with her teaching.11 Similarly, Gritz argues that the restriction on women teaching was related to the influence of the cult of Artemis among the addressees in Ephesus.” However, both works go considerably beyond the evidence in their reconstructions of the opponents’ teaching and its supposed connection with the context of Ephesian non-Christian religious life.’[5]

‘As a classicist, however, her [Catherine Kroeger] own contributions are reconstruction of a background and choices from linguistic options viewed as appropriate to that background. Both have been discredited.’[6]

*   The Kroger’s claim Ephesus contains evidence of serpent worship related to the worship of the goddess Artemis (Diana), in a pagan theology similar to the Genesis narrative concerning Eve and the serpent, only with the serpent and Eve depicted favourably

‘Kroeger presents a wide range of material relating to the pervasive presence of the serpent in ancient religion. Here again, caution is needed. The serpent motif was so common that we must not read too much into its appearance. Its presence in the Timothy passage is only an inference. Kroeger develops a network of phenomena without carefully explaining how closely these items truly are to each other and to the text in 1 Timothy.’[7]

‘The artifacts mentioned by the Kroegers bear witness to widespread beliefs which had nothing to do uniquely with Ephesus, nothing to do with Judeo-Christian imagery about Satan/Devil and the serpent, and were certainly not a possible “allusion to the Garden of Eden story in one form or other” (p. 168).’[8]

‘One must recognize, though, that their portrayal of Ephesus is inspired by an eccentric reading of 1 Tim 2:12.’[9]

*   The Kroegers claim Paul’s use of didaskō (‘teach’), is intended to command that women not teach men error in the congregation, rather than they not teach men in the congregation

‘But in contrast, neither of the Greek words used for the content of teaching (didaskalia, didache) is used in the verse under consideration. The two nouns occur a total of seventeen times in the Pastorals and could easily have been used here.

Kroeger’s task is to explain how one can maintain that the verb didasko “prohibits the erroneous teaching” when Paul, who could have said clearly, “I do not permit women to teach error,” omitted any such reference to the content.  Then, too, the verb itself is usually used in connection with good, rather than with erroneous, teaching in the Pastorals. To propose that the verb refers in a special way to the content, and specifically to erroneous content, goes beyond the natural meaning of the text.

Also, while the verb teach is used absolutely, without an object expressing content, it does have a subject, woman, which is not mentioned in Kroger’s initial thesis statement at all.

In summary, the Greek reader of this text would naturally understand the emphasis of the first words to be “I do not permit a woman to teach,” whereas Kroeger proposes to demonstrate that its emphasis is ” I do not permit a woman to teach error.”’[10]

*   The Kroegers claim Paul’s letter to Timothy is attempting to deal with local Ephesian religious practices involving sex, castration, and the worship of fertility goddesses

‘My evaluation of their work will be organized into three sections: 1) Erroneous information; 2) Problematic evidence; and 3) Methodological fallacies.’[11]

‘The most serious issue of methodology in I Suffer Not a Woman is the authors’ frequent neglect of primary sources of Ephesian archaeology and history.

It is perplexing that the Kroegers’ views about Ephesus, about Artemis, and about the role of women in the city’s life are so uninformed by the appropriate corpora of inscriptions, coins, and scholarly literature about the city’s excavations. ‘[12]

‘The Kroegers often string sources together even when these are separated by centuries and perhaps hundreds of miles. On occasion ancient literature is cited with little regard for the propensities of the author or the context in which the statements were made.’[13]

‘In conclusion, irrespective of one’s sympathy for the pain and frustration of women who have been oppressed by the “traditions of men,” irrespective of one’s sympathy for some of the goals of I Suffer Not a Woman, this publication does not present a cogent and defensible way to circumvent or neutralize 1 Tim 2:11-15.’[14]


[1] ‘Kroeger and Kroeger thus explain v. 13 as an answer to the false notion that the woman is the originator of man, with the Artemis cult in Ephesus, that had somehow crept into the church, possibly by way of the false teaching.’, Marshall & Towner (egalitarians), ‘A Critical And Exegetical Commentary On the Pastoral Epistles‘, International Critical Commentary, p. 463 (2004)

[2] Liefeld (egalitarian), ’1 Timothy 2:12 – A Classicist’s View’, in Mickelsen, ‘Women, Authority & The Bible‘, p. 246 (1986).

[3] Marshall & Towner (egalitarians), ‘A Critical And Exegetical Commentary On the Pastoral Epistles‘, p. 463 (2004).

[4] Strelan (egalitarian), ‘Paul, Artemis, and the Jews in Ephesus‘, p. 155 (1996).

[5] Grenz & Kjesbo (egalitarians), ‘Women In The Church‘, p. 119 (1995).

[6] Holmes (egalitarian), ‘Text In A Whirlwind‘, p. 26 (2000).

[7] Liefeld (egalitarian), ’1 Timothy 2:12 – A Classicist’s View’, in Mickelsen, ‘Women, Authority & The Bible‘, p. 247 (1986).

[8] Oster, review of ‘I Suffer Not a Woman. Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence’ by Richard Clark Kroeger and Catherine Clark Kroeger, in Biblical Archaeologist (56:4.226), Nomadic Pastoralism: Past and Present (December, 1993).

[9] Baugh (complementarian), ‘The Apostle among the Amazons’, Westminster Theological Journal (56.1.155), (Spring 1994).

[10] Liefeld (egalitarian), ’1 Timothy 2:12 – A Classicist’s View’, in Mickelsen, ‘Women, Authority & The Bible‘, p. 247 (1986).

[11] Oster, review of ‘I Suffer Not a Woman. Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence’ by Richard Clark Kroeger and Catherine Clark Kroeger, in Biblical Archaeologist (56:4.225), Nomadic Pastoralism: Past and Present (December, 1993).

[12] Ibid., p. 226.

[13] Ibid., p. 226.

[14] Ibid., p. 227.

  1. daniel
    July 3, 2014 at 8:58 am

    looking for secular sources in ancient near east related to “feelings” orientation on this issue to show that they did in fact understand such. thanks dan

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