Another Postscript on Wright’s Remarks

Doug Wilson adds a postscript to his earlier remarks about N. T. Wright’s misinterpretation of key biblical texts concerning gender roles. In particular, Wilson turns his guns on Wright’s translation of 1 Timothy 2:12, and in light of this I would add a postscript to my earlier remarks as well. According to a 2004 conference address, Wright offers this translation:

I’m not saying that women should teach men, or try to dictate to them; they should be left undisturbed (1 Tim. 2:12).

My main point of contention here is that Wright employs an English idiom that has no basis in the Greek text. The idiom is the one that starts with, “I’m not saying that…”

In English, “I’m not saying that” is a cagey expression that one uses to conceal rather than to reveal a particular course of action. For example, if a politician says in an interview “I’m not saying that I am running for reelection,” we all know that neither is he saying that he won’t run for reelection. “I’m not saying” simply indicates that the politician isn’t ready or willing to show his cards yet on that question.

Is that how Paul is speaking in 1 Timothy 2:12? In the Greek text, it’s reasonably clear that Paul is not speaking this way. Yes, there has been a great deal of controversy about the interpretation of this text, but Wright introduces a novelty here that really hasn’t been a part of that conversation.

The term that Paul actually uses here is the Greek word epitrepo. In the NT it typically means “to allow” or “to permit.” It’s a word that describes what an authority will or will not permit a person to do who’s in a subordinate position (cf. Mt 8:21; 19:8; Mk 10:4; Lk 8:32a; 9:59, 61). It’s the same word that’s used in 1 Corinthians 14:34, “Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says.”

Likewise in 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul is saying that he does not allow/permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man. Whatever one wants to say about the meaning of “teach” or “exercise authority”—and believe me, there’s been a ton of ink spilled over this—the meaning of epitrepo is fairly straightforward. It means to allow or to permit.

Wright’s translation completely obscures the certainty with which Paul makes this prohibition. Consider the meaning of Wright’s translation: “I’m not saying that women should teach men, or try to dictate to them.” In this interpretation, it’s as if Paul is not weighing-in at all on the matter of teaching and authority. He’s just trying to tell folks not to bother the women while they’re trying to learn. This interpretation is so far afield from Paul’s actual words, we must conclude that Wright’s translation distorts what St. Paul really said.

If this is Wright’s interpretation, it’s no wonder that he so quickly dismisses 1 Timothy 2:12 as relevant to the debate about gender roles within the church. If he were right, this verse would be tangential to the conversation. But he’s not right, and that’s why for almost everyone else studying this 1 Timothy 2:12 is still right at the center of things.


  • Jes Womack

    I hope you won’t consider this off topic.
    As you know by now, I’m just a layperson…but am a hungry student of the Word and am raising two kiddos who are hungry and dedicated to truth as well.

    Right now we’re reading a biography on the life of William Booth, and have just learned that Catherine Booth stood up in the middle of one of his services in church, walked down the aisle, and took the pulpit. He permitted it, but was clearly shocked.

    This stirred up some deep conversation for us, as I’ve always taken this passage of Scripture to literally mean that within the church, (and at home) a woman isn’t to teach men.

    As a Bible study leader, this is just a line I’ve drawn in cement for myself. I won’t do it.

    Yet I’m deeply confused by the number of conservative SBC churches that now allow it.

    Am I missing something, or being legalistic?

    One ministry leader explained that this passage means a woman isn’t to lead “her man,” but even that begs the question….if she’s not to lead her man, then what could possibly be appropriate about her leading someone else’s man?

    Would you mind taking a minute to expound? I’d be deeply thankful.

    Hope you and your family had a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  • BruceSymons

    Since context is so crucial in any reading of a text, why don’t you _discuss_ the context that Wright set up in his paper rather than relying on the supposed meaning of individual words?

    • Denny Burk

      Bruce, that would go beyond what I wanted to do in this short blog post. There are a myriad of issues that can and must be addressed in order to properly interpret this passage. Believe me, I’ve waded deeply in this literature, and I know what I’m talking about here. Having said that, it was only my aim to tackle one narrow slice of that. So yes, I agree that there is more to say. It just wasn’t my intention to say it all again here.

  • Kevin Peacock

    The context of the quote if it helps.

    “When people say that the Bible enshrines patriarchal ideas and attitudes, this passage, particularly verse 12, is often held up as the prime example. Women mustn’t be teachers, the verse seems to say; they mustn’t hold any authority over men; they must keep silent. That, at least, is how many translations put it. This, as I say, is the main passage that people quote when they want to suggest that the New Testament forbids the ordination of women. I was once reading these verses in a church service and a woman near the front exploded in anger, to the consternation of the rest of the congregation (even though some agreed with her). The whole passage seems to be saying that women are second-class citizens at every level. They aren’t even allowed to dress prettily. They are the daughters of Eve, and she was the original troublemaker. The best thing for them to do is to get on and have children, and to behave themselves and keep quiet… [Read the rest here,

  • Don Johnson

    The very first thing to see is that discussing 1 Tim 2:12 as if it were a unit of atomic truth is flawed from the start. This is for 2 reasons:

    1) the pericope is at least from 1 Tim 2:8-2:15 (as both Wright and Burk know) and so that is the miminal teaching unit to discuss, else one is taking text from its immediate context with no assurance of getting it correctly understood. At least Wright discusses this amount of text, so while one might quibble with some of his translation choices, at least he gets the minimal amount of text to discuss correct. I think the pericope continues thru 1 Tim 3:13, but that is another discussion.

    2) The verses 1 Tim 2:11-12 form an inclusio, so Paul is telling us to treat them as a single data unit.

    The challenge of this entire pericope is making translation/interpretation choices that make the whole thing make sense and conform with other teachings in Scripture. There are many choices for each word/phrase and SOME of them end up with an egal interpretation and SOME of them end up with a comp interpretation. So which is more correct depends on OTHER Scripture and how one understands that.

  • MarieP

    Honest question: How is the phrase “I’m not saying that” always a “cagey expression” in English? Wouldn’t it depend on the person saying it? My pastor actually used it twice this morning in Sunday School. I don’t believe there was anything cagey about it. Don’t worry, I’m not saying that I am defending Wright’s interpretation 🙂

    • Stephen Beck

      It’s cagey in the way Denny described. The translation is effectually saying (pun!) “I am not saying women should teach….but I am definitely also not saying women should not teach.” But that is the exact opposite of the clear meaning of the text, “I do NOT permit women to teach.”

      • mariep

        Ah, thanks! So, it really isn’t contingent upon whether or not the expression is cagey, but whether or not it reflects the text (which I’m in agreement it doesn’t).

    • Stephen Beck

      Sorry, another note: perhaps there are ways to use the phrase “I’m not saying that” in a non-cagey way, but the response of a hearer to someone using the phrase should always be, “Well, what are you saying then?” It’s generally unclear and inefficient communication.

      So, for Wright, he is taking the clear statement of Paul, “I do not permit” and changing it to an unclear statement, “I am not saying that…” And he did so without even a comment, much less a full justification, that he was going to muddy the water, which is most of Doug Wilson’s objection.

  • Tim Roques

    As someone who is English, may I point out that “I’m not saying that” is not a cagey expression. Perhaps it could be used in that way but of itself it is not cagey but trying to be helpfully qualifying.

  • dr. james willingham

    As a Southern Baptist from the perspective of egalitarianism, I have not weighed in on this issue, preferring to view the conflict from afar, seeing that it is so messy and simply not cognizant of facts outside the narrow framework of interpretive filters. Likewise, there is a depth to Holy Scripture, the source of the new light to which John Robinson made reference (as in “who knows what new light is getting ready to break forth from God’s word>”), of whch complementarianism is simply unaware.. Reference is made to I Cors.14:34 which has a parallel in I Cors.14:28 where the speaker in tongues is counseled to silence, if there is no interpreter present. In the light of I Cors.11:5ff, it is clear that there is an exception to 14:34 even as 14:28 had an exception within its statement. If the words of I Tim2:12ff and I Cors.14:34ff are absolute, there would be no allowance for a woman to make her profession of faith or to take part in any disciplinary or other undertakings of a church, but even in the 1700s John Gill noted in his comments on the issue that a woman can speak as in the cases referenced. While our modern feminism movement muddies the water by its ill-conceived rule over man motivation, there is a strain of reality in the mistreatment and abuse that has often been visited upon women by men using complementarianism as a cover for hostility. In addition, there would be no exceptions of women having something to say and being approved of God to say it in Scripture, if the rigid complementarian system was the intended truth of God. As one young pastor said to me, “Don’t you believe the Bible? Have you not read where God told Abraham to do what Sarah said?” Duh! And then there are all of those prophetesses and the lady and her husband of note among the apostles as well as the masculine term Deacon being used of Phoebe. Also Paul’s fellow laborers in Phils.4 along with the mention of eldresses in I Tim.5 after the warning to not rebuke an elder, but the translators simply use the term aged women, avoiding the little problem that the context seems to call for eldresses, if the first case (vs.2) is an elder.. In any case, the equaltiy of the saints is plainly implied in our Lord’s teachings as brothers and sisters in the family of God, as members of the ekklesia, a well-known body of that day, one marked with the freedom of each member to participate in its deliberations. Only in the case of Christ’s ekklesia women were also members whereas the Greek ekklesias to my knolwedge only had male citizens as members. Complementarianism of the scriptures is functional, not cast in stone. Dr. Piper in a comment on his blog tells of his mother acting in the place of the father, and having all the authority of the same, when the latter was away on evangelistic crusades. There are times, when the woman must have the authority to act in the place of a man as in the case of absence or in case of decease. Now God has the right to make an exception to His own rules….as He does in the case of our salvation, which is an exception to His law on sin and judgment and punishment, the exception we call grace, which is so humbling. Having seen the awful and wilfull evils that have been perpetrated under the guise of complementarianism, including no less than the terrible sin and wickedness of incest as well as spousal abuse, it seems evident that we have to put checks on complementarianism, just as our Lord says in Mt.18 that the ultimate authority is the ekklesia not the presbuteroi.

  • Tim Shepherd

    Denny understands NTW thus: “In this interpretation, it’s as if Paul is not weighing-in at all on the matter of teaching and authority. He’s just trying to tell folks not to bother the women while they’re trying to learn.”
    In fact if you consult the Wright article, it is clear that is not what Wright is saying at all. In fact, it is hard to see quite how Denny has understood Wright to be saying this.
    What Wright said was “It can equally mean (and in context this makes much more sense): ‘I don’t mean to imply that I’m now setting up women as the new authority over men in the same way that previously men held authority over women.’”
    Thus the rogue NTW translation is not an appeal to the men to leave the women alone but a repudiation of any tendency to place the men under the authority of the women.
    This does not make the translation right but it does mean the Denny’s description of it is wrong.

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