The Meaning of Authenteo: A Must-Read Word Study in the Gender Roles Debate

The role of women in the church has been the subject of many passionate debates over the last several decades. Perhaps the most debated verse in this controversy has been 1 Timothy 2.12. The most debated word in this verse is the Greek word “authentein”, which comes from the Greek verb “authenteo”. In our English translations, this word is commonly translated as “exercise authority” (ESV, NASB), “have authority” (NKVJ) “usurp authority” (KJV), or “assume authority” (NIV).

I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather she is to remain quiet. (1 Tim 2.12, ESV)

It is sometimes argued that “authenteo” refers to a specific kind of negative or violent authority; perhaps something closer to what we might call “dominate”, “control”, or “bully”. If this is the case, it could suggest that Paul was not simply restricting women from exercising any general type of authority, but rather he was only restricting those women who would attempt to completely dominate an assembly in a loud, assertive, overbearing, and controlling manner.

For example, in the book “Women in the Church’s Ministry”, R. T. France translates the verse “I do not allow these ignorant women to batter the men. They are to stop shouting and calm down.” I’ve seen this basic argument appear in numerous blogs posts in recent years.

As Christians wrestle with the meaning and application of this particular verse, I recommend the book “Women in the Church: An Interpretation and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9-15, 3rd Edition” by Andres Kostenberger and Thomas Schreiner. In this book, Al Wolters has written an entire chapter on the meaning of the word authenteo. In this chapter, Wolters convincingly demonstrates that the word “authenteo” has neither negative nor violent connotations (“domineer”), nor does it refer to “assuming” or “usurping” previously unpossessed authority. He thus defends the widely accepted translation, “have authority.”

Here is a summary of some of Wolter’s helpful insights.

Related Greek Words

It is rightly observed that the verb “authenteo” almost certainly derived from the noun “authentes.” “Authentes” was a noun that was often used to mean “murderer.” Here, however, many tend to run into confusion. Although the noun “authentes” can in many instances mean “murderer”, it should be noted that the noun was used in two very different, very distinct ways. In some contexts the noun refers to a murderer. In other contexts the word refers to a master. In other words, “authenteo” was a homonym. For an English example of a homonym, think about the words “ear” (of grain) and “ear” (of hearing).

Wolters writes:

It is a serious error to assume that the meaning of one (and the meaning of its derivatives) must be understood in light of the other. After all, no one thinks that an ear of grain has connotations of hearing… By the same token, it is a basic methodological mistake to assume that we should understand the verb authenteo in light of both “authetentes”/“murderer” and “authentes”/“master”, leading to the conclusion that it [authenteo] means “instigage violence.” (p. 68-69)

Occurrences of Authenteo before 312 AD

The most significant evidence for the meaning of the word “authenteo”, apart from the immediate context of 1 Timothy 2, is how the word was used in other contexts around the same time. The difficulty with the word “authenteo” is that it appears very rarely – only seven (or possibly eight) times – prior to 312 AD. Wolters provides a detailed analysis of each of these occurrences. Based on this survey, Wolters demonstrates a range of meaning which includes “have authority”, “be superior to”, “originate”, “rule” and “act on one’s own.”

The Immediate Context

Even if we had no other occurrences of “authenteo” we could still guess based on the immediate context that the verb has something to do with the positive exercise of authority. When Paul writes “teach or exercise authority”, joining the two verbs together with a conjunction, it indicates that either both words are positive or both words are negative. Since the verb “teach” is generally used as a positive term, this indicates that in all likelihood, “authenteo” was likewise understood as a positive term.

Translations Made in Antiquity

Wolters then observes the ways 1 Timothy 2:12 was translated in antiquity by surveying multiple Latin, Coptic, Gothic, and Syriac translations. In these ancient translations, “authenteo” was translated by using words that carried meanings such as “command”, “lord”, “rule”, and “head”.

Some have pointed to the way that some Latin translations chose to translate “authenteo” with the Latin word “dominari” to suggest that the word referred to negative exercise of authority (similar to the English word “domineer”). But Wolters observes that unlike the English word “domineer”, the Latin word “dominari” carried a neutral or positive sense, simply meaning “rule”, “reign” or “govern.” In fact, the same word was used in Latin translations to describe the rule of God (Judg. 8.28; 2 Chron. 20.6; Ps. 59.13) and the rule of the Messiah (Rom. 14.9).

Early Christian Exegesis

Wolter’s in-depth word study also surveys the way “authenteo” was understood by early Christian authors such as Origin, John Chrysostom, and Cyril of Alexandria, showing that these early Christians understood 1 Timothy 2:12 to be written in reference to the same kind of leadership and authority that is exercised in teaching. In other words, unlike many modern scholars, these early Christians did not understand the word “authenteo” to refer to a specific negative type of authority.

Occurrences of Authenteo after 312 AD

Although Wolter’s cautions against trying to understand Paul’s usage of “authenteo” based on how the word was used centuries after Paul, his work also includes a detailed survey of the uses of the word all the way into the late middle ages.

From this survey, it appears the word had a fairly wide range of meanings, but the word always refers to the exercise of authority in some way.

1 – “To be a master, be sovereign, have authority, reign” (Used this way 29 times from 1st Century BC to 10th Century AD)

2 – “Be master of, have authority over, be superior to” (Used this way 10 times from 1st Century AD to 12th Century AD)

3 – “To act on one’s own, to act on one’s own authority” (Used this way at least 51 times from the 2nd Century AD to the 10th Century AD)

4 – “To act on one’s own authority against (another authority), overrule, defy (the authority of)” (Used this way only 5 times, all in the 6th century)

5 – “To instigate or initiate” (Used this way only 4 times in the 4th and 5th centuries)

6 – “To instigate or initiate” a belief or action by a personal agent (Used this way only 4 times from the 1st century BC to the 8th Century AD)

7 – “Give authorization” (Used very frequently from the 6th Century AD through the late Middle Ages, used as technical legal terminology, and occurs only in discussions of Roman Law)

In conclusion of the survey, Wolters writes “we are hard-pressed to find a pejorative meaning anywhere.” (p. 110)

Two Dubious Kinds of Evidence

Wolter’s also cautions against two less than helpful lines of argument. One is an argument from epytimology (the history of the word formation). Not only is epytimology a poor guide for understanding word meaning, but scholars have achieved no consensus on what the epytimology of authenteo actually is.

Secondly, Wolters warns against using a speculative reconstruction of the background of 1 Timothy 2:12 as evidence. He writes:

Since Paul in this text forbids women to teach and exercise “authority” of some kind and tells them instead to be quiet and submissive, we can reasonably assume that he is addressing a situation in Ephesus where women were doing (or proposing to do) what he is here prohibiting. But this reasonable assumption is often expanded into the broader claim that women were doing these prohibited things in an aggressive or overbearing manner and by so doing were disturbing the church. However, the text, in fact, gives no evidence for such a reading. We have no reason to believe that the women in Ephesus were teaching and exercising authority in an aggressive or overbearing way. The women may very well have been teaching and exercising authority (or proposing to do so) in a responsible and nondisruptive manner… The negative portrayal of the Ephesian women teachers as strident demagogues is, in fact, a speculative reconstruction of the situation in Ephesus at the time, and cannot be used as evidence that “authenteo” carries a pejorative sense. (p. 112)

A Very Important Word-Study

Through his in-depth word study, Wolters powerfully argues that “authenteo” did not carry a negative sense, and was overwhelmingly used in a positive or neutral sense. While the debate surrounding 1 Timothy 2:12 and the role of women in the church will not likely disappear anytime soon, Wolters has certainly offered some valuable research and serious arguments that deserve consideration. Before Bible students argue that “authenteo” refers to a negative type of authority, they will first need to seriously wrestle with Al Wolter’s research and be prepared to provide sufficient evidence to demonstrate the Wolter’s conclusions are incorrect.

While the entire book has many helpful insights, I agree with Kostenberger when he writes “Al’s chapter alone warrants the production of this third edition.” (p. 20). The book can be purchased on Amazon here.