Cherry-Picking & Breadcrumbs: Reading 1 Timothy, Part 3

It has been a while since I posted. Family and holiday events have filled the last couple months. Plus, I enjoyed a trip south with my DIL to attend January Adventure held at the spectacular Epworth Retreat Center on St. Simon’s Island in Georgia featuring guest speakers Brian McLaren and Wil Gafney. I plan to write about that experience soon.

You may want to review Part 1 and 2 of this series before reading Part 3.

Before investigating the 40 + infinitives in 1 Timothy it is important to take a look at how Greek grammar and infinitives function. Next, we’ll brush up on the work of translation. Then I’ll focus a bit on two infinitives from 1 Tim 2:11,12.  

In Part IV of this series (I know…when will this come to an end?) I plan to present more work on the infinitives of 1 Timothy that reveal my take on Paul’s overall concern for the church in Ephesus (and churches in every generation) that moves beyond how to function in the local church service.


Few of us enjoy grammar and even fewer of us have a strong background in grammar. Grammar is tedious and painful. Yet, grammar is foundational to understanding how language works. I’m not an expert by any means, but have come to realize it is important to know a bit more than I do, especially when it comes to translating and interpreting the Bible in order to determine how we are to function as a Christ-followers in today’s topsy-turvy world.

Language at first appears to be simple. After all, I’m using language in this blog post and for the most part my English readers understand what I am saying.

Language is also complex. It can easily be an impediment to communication for those who even share the same mother tongue. When the hearer/reader misunderstands what the speaker/writer says – the result is a breakdown in communication. Social media is a testament to this very thing!

But it also hits closer to home. After 40 years of marriage to the same fella, I often find myself responding with a raised eyebrow, “Is this what you are saying (by repeating what I heard him say with my own words)?” Or, better still, “Is this what you mean (offering what I think he meant to say with entirely different words, and a bit more body language tossed in for effect!)?” And this is between two folks who dearly love one another, speak the same mother-tongue, and share cultural similarities!

On to the Greek Infinitive . . .

A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, by Dana and Mantley, (1927; 1955):

  • There is no other part of speech more widely used in the New Testament (pg. 208).
  • As a verbal noun it can “perform a large number and variety of functions,” with both the verb and noun sense present with one more prominent than the other ( pg. 214).

Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar, by William Mounce, (2003):

  • The Greek infinitive is a non-declinable verbal noun with no time significance but aspect, usually discerned from a finite verb.
  • The present infinitive indicates a continuous action.
  • The aorist infinitive indicates an undefined action.
  • The perfect infinitive indicates a completed action with ongoing implications (pg. 302-7).

It’s Still Greek to Me, by David Allen Black, (1998):

  • Infinitives are used to complete a thought begun by a verb, such as be able, want, wish, begin, try, seek, avoid, ask, allow, hinder, owe, and so on
  • It explains adjectives, nouns, and pronouns
  • It can express indirect discourse
  • It can behave like the subject or object of the verb
  • It is used to determine purpose and result
  • It is used to give the cause
  • It is rarely used to express a command (116-18). 
  • The present active infinitive is used when progressive, repeated, or habitual action is described (Black, 119). 

Key for our later discussion of infinitives in 1 Timothy are these concerns: 

  • Due to “the limitations of English it is usually impossible to carry these nuances into English,” so when translating the present active infinitive, the translator “may at first want to use ‘continue’ in [the] translation” in order to convey the nuance of the infinitive to the reader (Mounce, 302). 
  • Yet, the Greek infinitive is typically translated in English by adding the word “to”in front of the verb – for example, to walk; to run; to teach; to stand, etc. However, the English reader cannot easily determine when the to + verb infinitive is continuous, completed, or undefined and must sort it out from the textual context. 


It took me a while to realize that Bible translators did not simply replace one word from the Hebrew or Greek language with an equivalent word from the mother-tongue (in my case, English) in order to express an equivalent meaning into the translated text. 

I should have known better – after all, I had spent time studying Conversational German while living in Austria and some phrases did not easily translate without a bit of finessing on my part.

But for some odd reason – when it came to Scripture –  that reality flew out the window. It was as if I assumed Scripture dropped mysteriously from the sky – or magically flowed through the ink that flowed from pen to paper – rather than the Holy Spirit working with and through the mind, language, and cultural context of each individual author. 

In my early classes of elementary Greek – while learning the process of translation – I found myself constrained by the notion that there mustbe a word-for-word correlation when translating from Greek to English. I tried in vain to force my English translation to strictly adhere to the Greek word-order in the text and wondered why. 

Why? Perhaps the words from Revelation 22:19 kept ringing in my ears. After all, haven’t we all been taught that curses fall upon the one who adds words to or takes words away from the Bible. Now that’s an example of how literal reading of the text easily leads to a misappropriation of meaning! 

I’m not as naïve as I once was and now realize it is often necessary to use multiple words in English to better convey the meaning of that one Greek word – and it’s not so disturbing to acknowledge that this may be lacking. My faith is no longer rattled as before – in all honesty it is strengthened. 

But, this also requires a bit (a whole lot!) of interpretationon the part of the translator which then expects a whole lot of trust on the part of the reader in the translating team. (That opens up an entirely different discussion about which Bible translation is the best or most faithful to the Greek text – which I will not enter into at this time!)

It is a relief when language works simply. For example: ‘dog’ means ‘dog’, and a ‘rose’ is always a ‘rose’ in any language. But the complicated concepts – abstract ideas, emotive issues, and even light-hearted jokes – do not translate as smoothly from language to language.

Add to this the fact that every language has its own quirky way of expressing things. If the goal is that the reader understands the text then those ‘idiomatic expressions” must be paraphrased rather than translated word for word. Don Stewart’s article at Blue Letter Bible explains this further. 

Some languages – such as English – have definite (the) and indefinite (a, an) articles, while other languages do not – such as Russian and Latin. Some languages have grammatically-gendered terms used in German, French, and Greek languages. 

Since English is not a gendered language this creates all kinds of problems for today’s modern translator and factors into rethinking ways theology about humanity and deity developed. 

In “Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne,” author Wilda Gafney – in my estimation a brilliant and tenacious scholar who courageously digs deep into Hebrew Scriptures – has this to say about translation:

” … translation is the result of this mysterious and nearly indefinable process, which is both art and science. The science is linguistic: lexical, philological, taxonomic, syntactical, grammatical, euphemistic, and, more than occasionally, idiosyncratic. The art is what I and each translator bring to each project from ours selves: subject-matter knowledge and culture –  race/ethnicity, gender and its performance, religious and/or ideological identity and commitment, appreciation for and facility with language, and internal sense that something is or just sounds right, and perhaps unnamed and unknown personality traits” (pg. 283).

Let no one fool you into thinking otherwise  – translation work is a serious and daunting business for the professionals, and certainly for an amateur as myself! 

I soon came to realize that it is often necessary and even appropriate to use multiple words. Short paragraphs would at times be even more helpful, but of course this is too cumbersome. After all, I like owning a slim, leather Bible to carry to church with me! 

If this subject matter of translation has piqued your interest, please take a look at Scott Munger’s short, but helpful booklet from the International Bible Society (1999), “Bible, Babel and Babble: The Foundations of Bible Translation,” that explains more about the work of translation.  

Another of Munger’s publications, “Women, The Church, and Bible Translation: Key Passages, Issues, and Interpretive Options,” presented at SIL’s Bible Translation Conference back in October, 2013, is also helpful. You can download it here.

Now the Good Stuff: To Dance or Not to Dance? Greek Present Active Infinitive

Transferring the verbal aspect of a Greek infinitive into the English language is difficult. As I said above, English readers of 1 Timothy face the additional challenge of ascertaining when the ‘to + verb’ infinitive is an ongoing action (present)a completed action (perfect)or an undefined action (aorist)

For example, if I asked you in English “to dance,” how do you know whether I want you to dance for a moment, or if you should become a dancer, or if I am merely asking you to embrace dancing as a means of celebration? 

If I tell you NOT to dance, how can you decide if I intend that you never dance again, or that you not dance in a particular situation, or that you should not ever become a dancer who competes on the popular Dance With the Stars program? 

If you currently dance poorly, perhaps I am merely asking you to cease dreaming of dancing on the show UNTIL you have acquired the skills to dance well enough to enter the competition.

Let’s move to 1 Timothy. If the Greek infinitive happens to be a Present Active Infinitive with the verbal aspect of an occasional, habitual, or ongoing activity, how should it be translated in order to convey that meaning more clearly to English readers?

What if Paul meant, “If you currently teach poorly, perhaps I am merely asking you to cease dreaming of teaching UNTIL you have acquired the skills to teach well enough to enter the fray?” This is worth considering.

I hope you’re getting the drift of my concern. Since Paul used specific infinitives in the letter to 1 Timothy, it behooves Bible teachers and church leaders to explore where the infinitives may lead us and why!

It may be easy to translate the PAI didaskein and authentein by simply adding ‘to’ before the verbs, but has the lack of understanding of how the infinitive functions inadvertently contributed to our misapplication of 1 Tim 2:11-12?

Could this be the crux of our problem in 1 Timothy 2:11-12? Paul used specific infinitives on purpose. It behooves Bible teachers to determine which verbal aspect they present (continuous, undefined, or completed) and why.

This is especially important to those of us who minister within the Stone-Campbell Christian Churches/Churches of Christ.  In 2013, Christian Standard – a principal magazine for the Restoration churches – published two articles, “Women Preaching,”and “Should Women Preach?, in which it was argued a woman could preach occasionally.

In 2014, The Blade Online, responded with The Case for Occasional Women’s Preachers by disagreeing with the conclusion that the text indicated women could indeed occasionally preach. 

Later that year in 2014, ICOM (a national missionary convention for Restoration churches) hosted two workshops –“Bossy Women and the Bride of Christ: Reclaiming Leadership for the Church,” and “Are We Preaching a Different Bible,” in which both presented opposing views of a woman’s role in church leadership by using the same text. 

This reveals a deep problem within the Restoration church’s hermeneutic –  which is poignantly captured in John Mark Hick’s 2019 independently published book, Searching for the Pattern: My Journey in Interpreting the Bible

I ask myself why do I keep struggling with 1 Timothy. Why not move on to something less controversial? Deep in my own heart, I believe we are missing the mark when it comes to how we apply 1 Timothy in our churches today. This is why I am committed to find a resolution, and which is why I hope that following the infinitives in the letter – what I affectionately call breadcrumbs –  will one by one, lead us to a better understanding of what is taking place in Ephesus.

2 thoughts on “Cherry-Picking & Breadcrumbs: Reading 1 Timothy, Part 3

Add yours

    1. Thank you for asking. I haven’t posted a 4th in the series on Cherry-Picking and Breadcrumbs. I just now reread Part 3 and realize I should have followed up with part 4. This is a personal journey. It takes time and emotion to deconstruct the ways and I’ve been taught to apply those texts — and then to reconstruct my understanding — especially when I desire to be faithful to the text and the context in which the letter was written. Two other posts share my thoughts on what I think was going on in the church at Ephesus –‘Paul’s Remedy for Deception’, and ‘Polytheism in Ephesus.’ Hope that is helpful.

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