It All Began with a Hapax in a Haystack

In my Bib Research class in 2014, the professor assigned the task of selecting a scripture passage that would form the foundation for our final research project. I began listing subject after subject— theological matters that were of interest to me, while doggedly steering clear of all women’s issues. 

But a thought niggled its way into my mind. With graduation around the corner I faced a conundrum: What could a woman possibly do with all the training received to complete a BA in Biblical Research? Where might this investment of my time and study of the Biblical languages, and of course all my financial investment, lead me? 

Dare I dream of teaching on an academic level? What of holding a position as leader in the church? At that time ‘preaching’ was off the table as my mind was settled that a woman was not allowed in this domain. But did that restriction extend beyond the confines of the physical church building? I had no satisfactory answer and was compelled to sort this for myself. Thus, began the treacherous work of translating and researching one of the most restrictive passages for women in the New Testament: 1 Timothy 2:8-12.

The Authority Invested in One Word

One component of my project required extensive examination of a significant word from the Greek text of 1 Timothy 2:8-12. Two words were of importance to me: hēsychia, typically translated “silence” in 1 Tim 2:11 and the word authentein in 1 Tim 2:12. I chose to research authenteinbecause I found this particular word bears the burden of defining the parameters for women in the local church and beyond. I expected the study to be brief and looked forward to moving on to the more important matters. Instead, this became the important matter!

The word authentein is translated from the Greek into our English Bible in a variety of ways: 

  • usurp authority in KJV
  • have authority in NRSV
  • assume authority in NIV
  • and exercise authority in NASB.  

This seems simple enough, right? Right here in the text we read the word translated into the English language by language specialists. But here is where I ran into trouble. You see, this particular word is used only once in the NT.  

Hapax in a Haystack

The Greek word authentein, used only once in this letter to Timothy is identified as a hapax legomena—the fancy term for a word used only once in the entire New Testament. This creates a problem for the translator. When a word is found elsewhere in the biblical text the translator has insight into the meaning of a word. 

This raises other important issues. How do translators find the meaning of these hapaxes when they are not found elsewhere in the Bible? How can they determine a Greek word’s meaning in order to find a suitable word that has an equivalent meaning in our language? 

This is time-consuming work. Translation-specialists scour ancient, contemporary literature tracking down these hapaxes to determine how the word was currently used or had been used in the past. Before the use of computers this was done the old-fashioned way—traveling to libraries, locating classic literature, securing physical texts– then spending months reading and digging in hopes of stumbling upon the word!

Thank goodness, today’s powerful, internet search engines do the work in minutes. Once the word is found in multiple sources the translator is enabled to compare and contrast the uses and then settle on an English word that correlates to the meaning found within those external sources. 

Other methods are also used. One method is to cull clues about the word in question by considering the context of that word within the entire text. Another method is to track how the word has been translated throughout history. Some are content with these approaches. I find both of these somewhat unreliable. Why? We used to believe we could be absolutely objective, but that is not the case. Those working with the text in the past, just as those of us today, myself included, come to the text, and the word in question with presuppositions formed that tend to tweak our vision to see what we want to see. 

Suffice it to say that trying to find the precise definition that biblical scholars can wholeheartedly agree upon for this word is indeed like trying to find a hapax in the haystack! There is no agreement among scholars as to the exact meaning of this word or as to what it means for women in the church. What type of ‘authority’ was the text dealing with? Why did Paul, as the author of this letter (many believe he is not the author–which is another issue I may address later), use this word instead of another of the Greek words used for authority? Who were the women in question who were being silenced? Why were they restricted from ‘teaching’? The key lies with the meaning for the word authentein. And that is a tale too long to recount in a blog post that is already too long!

My Heart is Free!

In retrospect, had I been aware of what I would find, I might have chosen a less-troublesome topic or a more winsome word. I’m glad I didn’t. My long-held convictions about a woman’s place in the church came crumbling down, and rightfully so. These ideas were not founded on God’s word but upon cultural expectations. I was catapulted into a dangerous trek through the whole counsel of the God’s word and after years of study am now able to bring order to the chaos that flooded my heart and mind. 

The sleepless nights wrestling with God’s plan for me and for other women has been well rewarded. I close with Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians 3:17, from the Basic English Version: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there [my] heart is free!” Free to serve without guilt wherever God calls me to serve–in the home as a mother and wife and certainly as a proclaimer of God’s Word in or out of the pulpit within the Body of Christ.

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