Learning to thrive in the new life Jesus offers us – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

Chastity, Salvation, and 1 Timothy 2:15

Chastity, Salvation and 1 Timothy 2:15 (Saved through Childbearing)

The Theme of Virginity in the Acts of Paul and Thecla 

A couple of weeks ago I read the Acts of Paul and Thecla. This work of fiction dates to around 150 AD and is thought to have been written by an elder somewhere in Asia Minor. It was well known in the early church, and several prominent early church fathers refer to it (Tertullian, Jerome, Methodius and others) which indicates its widespread influence.[1]

The repeated theme of virginity and chastity is striking in the Acts of Paul and Thecla. This theme is apparent from the beginning of the novel where Paul brings the “word of God” in a house church in Iconium. This “word of God” is mostly about chastity and self control (or self restraint-egkrateia), which is associated with resurrection. Thirteen beatitudes constitute Paul’s message, four of which are specifically about chastity:

Blessed are those keeping their flesh chaste, because they will be a temple of God.
Blessed are those with self control (egkrateia), because God will speak to them.
Blessed are those having wives as though not having them (i.e. being married and celibate), because they will receive an inheritance from God.
Blessed are the bodies of virgins, because their bodies are pleasing to God and they will not lose the reward of their chastity; because the word of the Father will be a work of salvation to them in the day of his Son, and they will have rest for ever. (Sections 5-6)

The last beatitude links virginity with salvation. Paul’s supposed message is that the life of a good Christian is a life of celibacy, and that chaste living has a bearing on our salvation and on our resurrection.[2] Thecla, the virgin par excellence, embraces this teaching and resolutely remains a virgin despite bitter opposition and mortal danger. And she later becomes a teacher and preacher endorsed by Paul.[3]

The Theme of Not Having Children in the Egyptian Gospel 

Other early Christian writings also extol the virtue of celibacy, and they explicitly connect it with not having children. In the days before relatively safe and widely available contraceptives, having children was an expected result of the sexual union of husband and wife. Several Christian documents which promoted virginity and celibacy, by extension, also promoted not having children, since becoming pregnant and bearing a child was a clear indication that the mother, or couple, were not practising celibacy. One of these documents is the Gospel of the Egyptians.[4]

The Gospel of the Egyptians does not survive as a whole, but several early Christian authors quote from it, giving us glimpses of its content and ethos.

Ron Cameron writes,

“Despite the paucity of the extant fragments, the theology of the Gospel of the Egyptians is clear: each fragment endorses sexual asceticism as the means of breaking the lethal cycle of birth and of overcoming the alleged sinful differences between male and female, enabling all persons to return to what was understood to be their primordial and androgynous state. This theology is reflected in speculative interpretations of the Genesis accounts of the Creation and the Fall (Gen. 1:27; 2:16-17, 24; 3:21), according to which the unity of the first man was disrupted by the creation of woman and sexual division. Salvation was thus thought to be the recapitulation of Adam and Eve’s primordial state, the removal of the body and the reunion of the sexes.” [5]

Clement of Alexandria is one person who quoted selections from the Gospel of the Egyptians and provided commentary on them. In Stromata 3.9.66 (written around 200) he provides this quotation: Salome said, “How much longer will people (anthropoi) continue to die?” . . . The Lord answers: “So long as women bear children.” Salome answers, “I have done well, then, in not bearing children.”

This particular quotation is also found in several other surviving early Christian documents including Second Clement, a few of the non-biblical Acts of certain apostles, and the Gospel of Thomas. Another saying contained in the Gospel of Thomas gives a different account of an incident recorded in Luke 11:27. Jesus’ supposed statement in saying 79 in the Gospel of Thomas highlights the supposed ideal of celibacy and not having children:

“A woman from the crowd said to him, “Blessed is the womb which bore you and the breasts which nourished you.”
[Jesus] said to her, “Blessed are those who have heard the word of the Father and have truly kept it. For there will be days when you will say, ‘Blessed is the womb which has not conceived and the breasts which have not given milk.'” (Logos 79, Gospel of Thomas) [6]

Asceticism and Gnosticism in 1 Timothy

Saved through childbearing (1 Timothy 2:15)The person, or community, who compiled the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas had Gnostic sympathies which included encouraging asceticism. Tertullian, in his work against Gnostics (written sometime around 200), mentions 1 Timothy in the context of the teaching of the Gnostic teachers Marcion and Apelles. Tertullian writes, “Instructing Timothy, [Paul] attacks those who forbid marriage. This is the teaching taught by Marcion and his follower Apelles.” (Prescription Against Heretics 33) Apparently Marcion did not allow married converts to be baptised.[7]

Irenaeus, in his work opposing Gnostic heresies (written about 180), mentions the school of the Gnostic teacher Saturninus, which had strong words to say against marriage: “They say marriage (gamein) and procreation (gennan) are from Satan. Many of those, too, who belong to his school, abstain from animal food, and draw away multitudes by a feigned temperance of this kind.” (Against Heresies 1.24.2 cf. 1 Tim 4:3)

C.K. Barrett wrote that behind the Pastoral Letters of the New Testament (which includes First Timothy) there is an attack on Paul and his teaching “by those Jewish Gnostic Christians whose heretical kind of Christianity lurks in the background of the Pastorals.”[8] Gnosticism was a “dualistic transcendent religion of salvation” that swept across the Roman Empire and was a real threat to apostolic Christianity.[9] Christian Gnosticism syncretised (or combined) Greek philosophical and pagan religious ideas with Christian and Jewish teaching. Celibacy was a major tenet of several strands of Gnosticism.

There are several indications in First Timothy that the heresy being addressed in the letter was an early form of Gnosticism, or syncretism. One of these indicators is 1 Timothy 4:3 where Paul states that some in the church at Ephesus were forbidding marriage. This heretical teaching is behind Paul’s advice that younger widows remarry (1 Tim. 5:11-15). I also believe that Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 2:12-14 addressed Gnostic-like heresies which included false, unbiblical ideas about Adam and Eve. Furthermore, it is likely that Gnostic-like beliefs are squarely behind Paul’s corrective teaching on salvation in 1 Timothy 2:15.

 “The Childbirth” or “Having Children” in 1 Timothy 2:15?

Yet she will be saved through childbearing (tēs teknogonias) provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty. 1 Timothy 2:15 NRSV

1 Timothy 2:15 is an enigmatic verse and several interpretations have been put forward to explain its meaning. Some scholars suggest that this verse is about physical safety during the childbirth process.[10] A few English translations of 1 Timothy 2:15 convey this idea (e.g. NASB; Darby Translation, Moffat Translation, Weymouth New Testament).

Another interpretation of verse 15 is that “childbearing” should be translated as “the childbirth” (tēs teknogonias) and that it refers to the birth of Jesus Christ, through whom salvation comes. (The ISV, and footnotes in NEB and NLT, convey this idea.) Those who propose “the childbirth” interpretation highlight the connection between the birth of Jesus Christ and the seed of the woman promised in Genesis 3:15. However, while two verbs in 1 Timothy 2:13-14 are borrowed directly from the Septuagint’s version of Genesis 2: 7-8, 15 and 3:13, 1 Timothy 2:15 has no clear linguistic connection with Genesis 3:15.[11]

The definite article is also highlighted in “the childbirth” interpretation. Abstract nouns, however, are commonly used with a definite article in Greek and these articles are usually left untranslated in English translations. So the definite article may not be significant. Some also make the argument that we can’t be sure of the precise meaning of teknogonia.[12] Yet, the cognate infinitive teknogonein appears a few chapters later in 1 Timothy where it is simply translated as “to have children” or “to bear children” (1 Tim. 5:14).

I personally have difficulty accepting the validity of “the childbirth” interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:15 because elsewhere in 1 Timothy, Jesus and salvation are mentioned plainly. I agree with Margaret Davies when she says, “Had Christ’s birth been the subject, the name Christ Jesus would have been highlighted, as in 1:15 and 2:5.”[13] Nevertheless, I believe that salvation, rather than safety, is the meaning in 2:15.[14]

I suspect “Gnostic, or semi-Gnostic, ideas” are the impetus for Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 2:15.[15] It is plausible that in this verse Paul was assuring a married woman (or women) in the Ephesian church that if she renounced celibacy, had sex with her husband and became pregnant, she would not jeopardise or lose her salvation. Rather, “she will be saved.”[16]

Furthermore, I suspect Paul’s message in 1 Timothy 2:15 is that salvation, while not dependent on celibacy and remaining childless, is dependent on continuing in faith, love, holiness (hagiasmos) and modesty, or self-control (sōphrosunē), which are “expressions of a saved life”.[17] Holiness and self-control are also ascetic ideals. By associating these expressions and ideals with childbirth, Paul shows that marriage, sex, and procreation are not opposed to the pious virtues of holiness and modesty, as many Christians, including Jewish Proto-Gnostic Christians, were teaching in Ephesus and many other parts of the Roman world.

Paul’s teaching about marriage and having children in 1 Timothy 2:15, 4:3-4 and 5:11-15 (cf. Tit. 2:4-5) is distinctly different to the teaching attributed to him in the Acts of Paul and Thecla.[18] And it is the antithesis of the teaching found in many Gnostic and semi-Gnostic Christian documents that circulated widely in the first and second centuries, documents which strongly promoted virginity and chastity as saving virtues.

More about the basis for this interpretation is in my article The Consensus and Context of 1 Timothy 2:12 here.


Endnotes

[1] The Acts of Paul and Thecla is a work of fiction and contains several literary devices typical of the romance novels of the day. Nevertheless, some thought that Thecla was a real person. Since other characters in the story, Paul and Queen Tryphaena, were real people, some have thought that Thecla was also a real person even if her real story was overshadowed by exaggerated and fabricated embellishments. She was even sainted by the Roman Catholic Church, but her sainthood was revoked in 1969. An English translation of the Acts of Paul and Thecla is here.

[2] Tertullian (who was born around the time the Acts of Paul and Thecla was written) also connects chastity (or continence) with salvation. In Ad Uxorem 1.7 he wrote, “We have been taught by the Lord and God of salvation that continence is a means of attaining eternal life. In Ad Uxorem 1.8, he adds, “ . . . virgins, because of their perfect integrity and inviolate purity, will look upon the face of God most closely . . .” Tertullian, The Treatises on Marriage and Remarriage, translated and annotated by William P. Le Saint, Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 13 (New York: Paulist Press, 1951) 19, 21. Nevertheless, Tertullian does not forbid marriage, especially first marriages.

[3] Dibelius and Conzelmann write, “The position which Thecla assumes in the Acts of Paul as teacher and preacher is very relevant” to the context of 1 Timothy. They also note that certain virgins held privileged positions in Gnosticism. Martin Dibelius and Hans Conzelmann, The Pastoral Epistles (Hermeneia) (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1972) 48.

[4] Two ancient works are called by the name The Gospel of the Egyptians. The one referred to in this article is the Egyptian gospel originally written in Greek, not Syriac.

[5] Ron Cameron, ed., The Other Gospels: Non-Canonical Gospel Texts (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press 1982) 49. (Source)

[6] Texts and information on the Gospel of Thomas can be found here.

[7] Tertullian, “Early Latin Theology”, S.L. Greenslade (transl. & ed.) Library of Christian Classics V (1956), 54, footnote 71. (Source)

[8] C.K. Barrett, The Pastoral Epistles (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963) 15.
Dibelius and Conzelmann, saw the author of First Timothy as someone “who had to withstand the mighty assault of syncretistic and ascetic tendencies and movements” of the second generation of Jesus’ followers. Dibelius and Conzelmann, Pastoral Epistles, 49.

[9] Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1963) 32.

[10] Craig Keener writes, “It may thus be that Paul’s promise that the women will be brought safely through childbirth is seen as a relief from part of the curse, from which believers will not be completely free until they share fully in the resurrection.” Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women, & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013) 119.

[11] Lynn Cohick writes that teknogonia “is rather elastic and can indicate pregnancy, delivery or raising the child.” Lynn H. Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009) 138.

[12] The verbs plassō (to form or mold) and apataō (to deceive, cheat, or trick) are found in the pertinent verses of Genesis 2 and 3 (LXX) and in 1 Timothy 2:13-14.

[13] Margaret Davies, The Pastoral Epistles (Epworth Commentaries) (Westminster, London: Epworth Press, 1996) 21.

[14] Frances Young and others connect pistos ho logos, which can be translated as “this is a faithful saying”, with salvation.

The pastoral epistles (1 Tim 1:15; 3:1 (referring back to 2:15); 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:11; Titus 3:8) are “punctuated by ‘faithful sayings’. Sometimes it is difficult to determine whether the standard phrase ‘faithful is the saying’ refers to what has gone immediately before or what follows immediately after, but what is evident, I submit, is that the formula is invariable attached to a statement about salvation. This would suggest that the phrase does not simply signal a reliable Pauline tradition, or a secure doctrine but rather heralds an assurance of the gospel.”
Frances Young, The Theology of the Pastoral Letters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) 56.

[15] This is suggested by Dibelius and Conzelmann who also provide some of the references I quote in this article. Pastoral Epistles, 48-49.

[16] I suspect that 1 Timothy 2:12-15 was aimed at a particular married couple in the church at Ephesus. Accordingly, here is my expanded paraphrase of 1 Timothy 2:15 is:

But she [possibly the woman in 1 Tim. 2:12] will not lose her salvation if she has children, provided they [possibly the man and the woman of 1 Tim. 2:12] continue in faith, love, holiness and modesty (or, self-control).

[17] Davies, Pastoral Epistles, 19.

[18] Benjamin Fiore brings up the Acts of Paul and Thecla in his commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, and writes: The Acts of Paul and Thecla extols the extreme against which the Pastoral Epistles are reacting: chastity, emancipation from a wife’s role, ascetical abstinence, realized resurrection. Benjamin Fiore, The Pastoral Epistles (Sacra Pagina Series) (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007) 67.


Related Articles

What must a woman do to be saved? (1 Timothy 2:15)
Five part series: The Context of 1 Timothy 2:12
The Ephesian Heresy
Gender Equality in Second Clement
Adam and Eve in Ancient Gnostic Literature
A wife has no authority of her own body? (1 Cor. 7:4)
Is Motherhood the highest calling for women? 

Posted January 27th, 2016 . Categories/Tags: Equality and Gender Issues, The "Difficult" Passages, , , , ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

20 comments on “Chastity, Salvation, and 1 Timothy 2:15

  1. Cassandra Wright says:

    The Shakers didn’t think that marriage was necessary after their concept of the return of Christ. I often think of how that contradicts so much of what Paul is talking about in Timothy, and how gnostic some of the Shaker’s theology was. The confusion in sexuality and child birth is a classic heresy.

    • Marg says:

      “The confusion in sexuality and child birth is a classic heresy.”

      Nicely put. The early church fathers (many of whom were educated in Stoic philosophy) didn’t read the Bible carefully enough and promoted the idea that sex, especially enjoyable sex, was incompatible with holiness and piety. 🙁

      • judy says:

        My Catholic relative was truly taught by her church that she should never have sex WITH HER HUSBAND for the sake of lust, but only to procreate children…I can only pity him after they stopped having children a long time ago. This idea is alive and well in Papal teaching.

        • Marg says:

          Such a shame. 🙁 That idea comes from Stoic philosophy, not from God or the Bible.

          • Cassandra Wright says:

            I am wondering if we need to be sure we are defining “lust” the same way. To me, lust is a negative thing, based on selfishness where sex is all about me and my drives. I would have no concern about my partner’s needs. Whereas desire is more about the idea of doing something special as a couple where both persons’ needs are considered. So the way I see it, sex for lust is not good. It can result in abuse and rape. However, a married couple in love should desire each other.

            I don’t agree with the idea of sex being only for procreation, and I do not believe that the Bible teaches that in any way. In the OT, the woman was considered unclean for the first 7 days of her cycle, then she was sent home with expectations of having relations with her husband. Since the peak of fertility in a 28 day cycle would be about days 12-16, if sex was only to be for procreation, it would have made more sense to have her be unclean until closer to that time, during which desire would build until a pregnancy would be pretty much guaranteed. Paul talks about being available to each other except for a mutually agreeable time of abstinence for prayer.

            This is one area where I heartily disagree with the Catholic church, and one of the many reasons I am not a Catholic.

          • judy says:

            agree…my Sister in law seemed to interpret it this way, as a Roman Catholic…she seemed definitely to believe she and her husband should only have sex to procreate…and since they had their last child, I guess that is it for him…

        • Angelina Degelder says:

          I would agree with the ‘not for the sake for lust’ part – for the sake of love is Biblical.

          • judy says:

            The argument about not having sex just for lust in a marriage was
            that if it wasn’t for procreation it was for lust.

  2. Guy Coe says:

    This background may also lay behind the statements in 1 Corinthians 7, which affirm sexual congress as a matter of mutual interest (even obligation) which should not be deprived by either husband nor wife from the other. By the end of the passage, Paul acknowledges both singleness and marriage as gifts.

    While it seems we are a bit far afield of Genesis’ command to be fruitful and multiply, in times of persecution or distress, these attitudes on virginity and/or celibacy are understandable.

    “Now concerning the matters you wrote about. Yes, ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual contact with a woman.’ But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital responsibility to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a set time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer; then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. This I say by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all men were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. Now to the unmarried and to the widows I say that it is good for them if they remain single, as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with sexual passion.” – 1 Corinthians 7:1-9 http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1Corinthians7:1-9&version=MOUNCE

    • Marg says:

      Hi Guy, I’m amazed that celibacy and asceticism is already seen is such an early document as 1 Corinthians.

      Asceticism in Christianity seems to be tied to a theology of an already realised resurrection. This seems to be the theology held by some in the Corinthian church.

      While Paul thinks celibacy is good, he certainly doesn’t push it, and he doesn’t equate it with holiness. He merely states that being single frees a person to serve God more.

      • Cassandra Wright says:

        When you look at this section in light of not just asceticism but of Gnosticism, it makes a lot of sense. The Gnostics were very confused in their teachings on sex, especially about procreation. Many of them would have thought that abstinence would prevent more evil little bodies from coming into the world, and would have preferred that. Paul was battling Gnosticism, and this speaking in favor of mutually fulfilling sex between a married couple.

  3. Ian Paul says:

    Margaret, thanks for this—how fascinating!

    Hace you read Rodney Stark’s Rise of Christianity? He argues from the documentary and statistical evidence that one of the distinctives of the early christian movement (in contrast to Paganism) was a symmetrical sexual ethic, commitment to marriage, and commitment to child-rearing.

    He argues that this was a major contributor to church growth—biological growth. This fits well with the emphasis in Paul you have hear.

    • Marg says:

      Yes I read it quite a while ago, not cover to cover though. I’ve been meaning to borrow it again. He makes some excellent observations.

      There certainly seems to be a diversity of thought and practice in the early church. In Ignatius’ letters (circa 115) we see that the church in Smyrna already had a recognised group of celibate women (IgnSm 13:1 cf. IgnPol 4:1). On the other hand, many churches may well have promoted a “normal” family life.

      Interestingly the cognate verb of teknogonia (a word crucial in understanding 1 Tim. 2:15) occurs in the letter to Diognetus 5:6: “They marry like everyone else and have children (teknogonousin), but they do not expose their offspring.” The author wants Diognetus to know “Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity” (Ep. Diog. 5:1). Throughout chapter 5 he explains that the lifestyle of Christians is similar (and therefore non-offensive and non-threatening) to their non-Christian neighbours.

  4. judy says:

    very interesting take on these verses! One always wonders what piece of the context puzzle is missing in our mis-interpretations of so much scripture…

    In the end, how can one argue that God is ever in favour of putting anyone into bondage or any situation that deliberately puts them into a state of oppression (or indeed puts anyone on a pedestal for that matter)? Yet it is part of Complementarianism to assume that women are lesser in some way or another.

    Talking about that pedestal…how often men say women seem to be determined to be taken down off ‘that pedestal’ while, in the same breath, they insist on our submission to them! Truly they speak with forked tongue ☺

  5. […] Paul does not contradict Jesus. That is because neither Paul nor Jesus connect Salvation with supposed gender roles. I believe that Jim has misunderstood Paul’s meaning and intention in 1 Timothy 2:15. [More on this verse here.] […]

  6. […] Different strains of Gnosticism emphasised either sexual licentiousness or asceticism.[6] Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 2:15 in effect, cleverly corrects both Gnostic extremes.[7] On one hand, he doesn’t want the Ephesian women to become ascetic and then be concerned if they slip up and have sex and become pregnant. On the other hand, he doesn’t want couples to be promiscuous; he wants them to have self restraint. [More on 1 Timothy 2:15 here.] […]

  7. […] The collection of documents known as the Acts of Paul mentions several female ministers, most notably Thecla of Iconium. The apocryphal Corinthian correspondence was at some point also included in the Acts of Paul. […]

  8. […] Some suggest that Paul is speaking about a married couple in verses 11 and 12 (and 15). This may well be the case. I suspect, however, verses 11 and 12 (and 15) are speaking about a woman much like “Jezebel” who was teaching and leading astray Christians in the church at Thyatira (Rev. 2:20ff). Paul’s remedy for such a situation is that a woman must learn, quietly (1 Tim. 2:11). […]

  9. […] [3] Margaret MacDonald writes that some women in the church at Corinth were leaving their marriages and divorcing their husbands in order to pursue religious purity. Early Christian Women and Pagan Opinion: The Power of the Hysterical Woman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 137. Asceticism became popular at an early stage of Christianity. (More on early Christian asceticism here.) […]

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