My post for this week at bible.org:
In his first letter to Timothy, Paul told his protégé, “As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus so that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith (1 Tim. 1:3, NASB, emphasis mine).
English-speaking evangelicals are three to four times more likely than the population at large to use male wording when the original author had “people” in mind. And 1 Timothy 1:3 is an example of an instance in which it hurts us to do so. While we know the word “men” can really mean “people,” we still tend to read the word “men” in 1 Timothy 1:3 as “males.” And that leaves us thinking that males were the ones doing all the teaching, including falsehood, in Ephesus.
Yet the word rendered “men” in 1 Timothy 1:3 is indeed the neuter pronoun tisin. Tisin carries no suggestion of male or female (as the NET Bible’s rendering, “people,” correctly suggests). So Timothy was to teach certain people not to teach strange doctrines.
We know that some of the younger widows were teaching false doctrine, because two chapters later, Paul writes the following description of them: “And besides that, going around from house to house they learn to be lazy, and they are not only lazy, but also gossips and busybodies, talking about things they should not” (1 Tim. 5:13).
When we read that women were “going from house to house,” we usually envision girlfriends hanging out at each others’ abodes and telling tales. But the phrase “house to house” is similar to how Luke describes the church meeting “from house to house” in Acts 2:46 and 5:42. And if we understand “house” here as a church gathering, that affects how we later read that some Ephesian heretics were worming their way “into homes” (2 Tim 3:6). Consider the possibility that young widows were teaching heresy from church gathering to church gathering.
Now, the consensus of contemporary translators has been to describe these women as the stereotypically charged “gossips and busybodies,” suggesting that the content of their speech is people’s personal business that is none of their own. But interestingly, the same phrase rendered “gossips and busybodies” could instead be rendered as “those who practice magic.”
And there are two good reasons to go with this latter option. First, Paul’s follow-up epistle to Timothy actually mentions two magicians by name. Paul wrote, “Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so also these teachers oppose the truth. They are people of depraved minds, who, as far as the faith is concerned, are rejected” (2 Tim. 3:8). The scriptures never mention Jannes and Jambres elsewhere. But we do find these two men in extra-biblical works. And in such contexts the men are among the Egyptian magicians who opposed Moses.
The second reason for going with “those who practice magic” is that it fits the context better. We know one of the major false teachings in Ephesus at the time related to magic. Indeed, Ephesus was Magic Central in the Roman Empire at the time of the earliest Christians.
In the Book of Acts, written presumably by Luke after he spent time in Ephesus, we find a story about magicians in Ephesus who converted to Christianity, and in that context the same word (the one translated in 1 Timothy as “busybodies”) appears (Acts 19:19). The former magicians, upon trusting in Christ, brought out the expensive books of their trade and created a conflagration—the original Bonfire of the Vanities, if you will.
According to Clinton E. Arnold in Power and Magic: The Concept of Power in Ephesians, magicians in Ephesus charged exorbitant prices for love potions. People would also pay large sums to create curses using a combination of what was known as the “Ephesian letters”—probably a set of individual letters that people would throw like dice and to create combinations for magical spells.
Magic was actually looked down on in Rome—so much so that in 16 B.C. Rome had expelled all magicians from the city. Years later Vespasian (ruled AD 69–79) outlawed astrology, too. Yet because of his friendship with a famous Ephesian astrologer named Balbillus, Vespasian let Ephesus continue holding “sacred” games in Balbillus’s honor. Apparently the one place where Rome went easy on magic was Ephesus.
Putting all this together we see that Paul is likely warning Timothy about young widows who are going from church to church teaching about magic—something they should not speak about.
Because we’ve come to the text with the preconceived notion that women don’t teach, and certainly not in house churches, we’ve reasoned that Paul can’t be talking about women when he refers to false teachers. And because we tend to think of gossip as a particularly female vice, our stereotype affects both our translation and our interpretation options. We think that men taught false doctrine at church, while women were busybodies in living rooms.
But both men and women were guilty of teaching false doctrine. And both men and women were guilty of believing it. The same is true today. Paul says as much in 2 Corinthians 11:3 when he tells the entire church that he is concerned that, as Eve was deceived, so they all might also be.
The text of 1 Timothy suggests that women were doing more than privately slandering. They were probably going from “house to house” teaching spiritual content that was false. And Paul left Timothy in Ephesus to instruct some people, including them, that they must stop (1 Tim. 1:3).
Some think the Bible teaches that women are more likely to gossip than men. They think women are more likely to stick their noses in others’ business than men. And they base such thinking on Paul. Paul gets a reputation for being no friend of women when, in fact, he truly was. It is our own stereotypes, not Paul’s, that have led us to misunderstand him.
Does Paul think women are more prone than men to gossip? Nothing in the text suggests such an idea. Indeed, gossip is not a female weakness; it is a human one. Sticking our noses into others’ business is not a female weakness; it is a human one. And teaching false doctrine is not a male weakness; it is a human one. Let us be careful to avoid projecting gender stereotypes onto the Scriptures. Otherwise, we may fail to hear warnings intended for us all. See Lloyd K. Pietersen, “Women as gossips and busybodies? Another look at 1 Timothy 5:13,” Lexington Theological Quarterly 42 no 1, Spr 2007: 19–35, for a full treatment of this option. Arnold, C. E. Ephesians: Power and Magic. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1992.