What Can We Learn from Cornelius Sulla?

Cornelius Sulla was a Roman General that fought wars against a King named Mithridates in Asia Minor in the 1st century BC, just before the New Testament time period. In these wars, the followers of Mithridates did some pretty horrendous things to Romans. In the city of Tralles, Romans were dismembered and killed in a local temple. Those responsible were called “authentai.”[1] Mithridates ordered the “slaughter” of Romans. The Greek verb used to describe this order was “authentesonta.”[2] Students of New Testament Greek are likely aware that Paul used a form of the same word in 1 Timothy 2:12; he used “authentein.”

When the wars against Mithridates were over, and Rome had prevailed, Cornelius Sulla became a Consul in Asia Minor. He enacted legislation to punish violent crimes against Roman citizens. He especially prohibited violence against Romans that was carried out in a religious context.

Anatolians had some religious beliefs that were very peculiar and offensive to Romans—especially to Roman men. The chief deity throughout Anatolia (Asia Minor) was female. She was known as “the Mother of the Gods.” She was given various titles by different people groups over time. Anatolians called her Cybele, Greeks called her Artemis, Romans called her Magna Mater. This divine mother didn’t like men. Most of the world’s problems in her mythology were attributed to male sexuality. Male gods were guilty of rape and adultery. Her priesthood was made up exclusively of women or men who had made themselves eunuchs in public, bloody rituals.[3] Roman law-makers, like Cornelius Sulla, didn’t like these rituals because they risked killing the man, and because they deprived a man of future offspring. This was also viewed as a form of disempowering Rome, since the Empire required a steady supply of male offspring for its military power.[4]

Cornelius Sulla’s laws against actions that might kill Romans prohibited people from being “secariis” or “veneficis”—murderers or poisoners.[5] Sulla, as a Roman legislator, wrote in Latin. Had he written in Greek, he would have been prohibiting people from being “authentai”–the very word used to describe the violence against Romans that he confronted in the Mithridatic Wars.

What does this have to do with New Testament studies?

There are many indications in 1st Timothy that Paul was concerned about a form of ascetic Gnosticism that was based on mythology. In chapter 1, he discusses false teaching based on myths (verses 3 and 4), and names a man who taught a Gnostic version of the resurrection (verse 20, see also 2 Timothy 2:16-18). In chapter 4, he prohibits a teaching that was ascetic–forbidding marriage and the eating of certain foods (verses 1-5). In chapter 6, he warns against the “profane and vain babblings that are falsely called knowledge,” or “gnosis” in Greek (verses 20-21, see also 2 Timothy 2:16-17).

The work of a third century writer, Hippolytus of Rome, demonstrates that early Gnostics in Asia Minor drew inspiration for their ascetic beliefs from mythology concerning “the Mother of the Gods,” also known as Cybele. These Gnostics viewed the ritual castration of Cybele’s priesthood as a metaphor for the renunciation of the body and its passions. They taught that a man must “put to death” the body and its appetites in order to receive spiritual “gnosis” (knowledge) from God. This type of false teaching parallels Paul’s stated concerns in 1st Timothy. In other words, Paul may have been prohibiting the false teaching of Gnostic asceticism that was based on mythology related to the goddess Cybele.

The “mysteries of Cybele” (a name for the secret rites of the Cybele cult) shared certain beliefs and practices with the “Eleusian mysteries” in Greece. In the Eleusian mysteries, men chemically castrated themselves by taking hemlock. Like physical castration, this practice also risked killing the man. It also cut a man off from having future offspring. This use of hemlock was expressly prohibited by Cornelius Sulla’s law. Those guilty were referred to in Latin as “venificis.” In the Greek language of the New Testament period, Flavius Josephus used the word “authenten” to refer to a man who was responsible for the death of another man by poison. Those who sacrificed offspring to false gods and goddesses in the Wisdom of Solomon, chapter 12, are called “authentas.”

The use of hemlock was also referred to in New Testament Greek as a form of “perierga.” Perierga, often translated “sorcery,” is mentioned in an Ephesian context in Acts 19:19. In 1st Timothy 5:13, young widows are prohibited from going house to house engaging in “foolish talk,” and being “periergoi.” Most English translations assume here that Paul is simply talking about young women being “gossips and busybodies.” If, however, he is warning against “foolish talk”–like “the profane and vain babblings that are falsely called knowledge” (1 Tim. 6:20 & 2 Timothy 2:16)–then he may also be prohibiting “perierga” in the sense of encouraging the use of hemlock to suppress the passions. Ascetic Gnosticism taught that spiritual awakening was achieved by suppressing the body’s natural appetites—foolish talk that encouraged “perierga.” Paul’s comments to young widows in Ephesus are very similar to a well-known Pythagorean proverb that encouraged young women to marry and manage a household rather than succumb to the mysteries of Cybele.[6]

What can we learn from Cornelius Sulla? That words like “authentein” (1 Timothy 2:12) and “periergoi” (1 Timothy 5:13) might not have anything to do with “exercising authority” or being “gossips and busybodies.” Understood in the context of Gnostic asceticism based on the mythology of Cybele, Paul may have been prohibiting teaching that was foolish, false and risked being responsible for the death of a man (authentein andros).

This “death” may have been metaphorical, as in “putting to death” the body and its passions. For example, in the 1st century AD, Philo Judaeus used “authentes” metaphorically to refer to hypocrites who “put to death” the better part of themselves. This death may have been spiritual, as in the death that followed Adam and Eve’s first sin, which resulted from satanic deception. This death may have been literal, if men were encouraged to renounce their masculinity or their bodily passions by practicing physical or chemical castration.

Studying the life and times of Cornelius Sulla gives us a snapshot of important cultural and religious issues leading into the New Testament era.  This snapshot can provide us with context that can help us better understand the world of the apostle Paul.


1. Appian of Alexandria’s Mithridatic Wars

2. Philip B. Payne’s “Man and Woman, One in Christ,” p. 362

3. Helga and Bob Edwards, “The Equality Workbook: Freedom in Christ from the Oppression of Patriarchy,” chapter 5

4. “Becoming Male in the Middle Ages,” eds. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Bonnie Wheeler, p. 22

5. J. B. Rives “Religion and Law: The Case of the Lex Cornelia de Secariis et Veneficis”

6. Lynn Roller, “In Search of God the Mother: The Case of Anatolian Cybele,” p. 231


Why I Believe Paul Wasn’t Prohibiting Women from Teaching or Exercising Authority in the Church

A Brief Overview of Paul’s Language and Context in 1st Timothy:

In a brilliant doctoral thesis, Courtney Jade Friesen demonstrates that much of the language found in the Greek Septuagint Bible can also be found in Euripides’ tragic plays.  These Greek tragedies were popular at the time the Septuagint was written.  In particular, Friesen highlights that ritual violence in a religious context is represented by the same language in both sources (Friesen 2013). In the Septuagint, we find that parents who sacrifice their offspring to the gods and goddesses of Canaan are referred to as “authentas” (Wisdom of Solomon 12:6). In Euripides “Iphigenia in Aulis,” the sacrifice of a child to the goddess Artemis is referred to using the word “authentaisin.”

How does this relate to Biblical Equality? The apostle Paul quotes from the Greek Septuagint frequently. He was evidently very familiar with its language. In 1 Timothy 2:12, he prohibits teaching that is connected with “authentein.” “Authentein” is the infinitive verb form of the nouns “authentas” and “authentaisin” found in the Septuagint and in Euripides’ play.

What is Paul talking about?

It’s important to remember that in his letter to Timothy, Paul is prohibiting the false teaching of asceticism. Teachers in Ephesus were forbidding marriage and the eating of certain foods. Paul refers to this teaching as “demonic” (see 1 Timothy 4:1-5). Paul is encouraging Timothy to guard the gospel against something falsely called knowledge—gnosis in Greek (see 1 Timothy 6:20-21).

St. Basil of Ancyra, a priest who served in Asia Minor in the 4th century A.D., reported that the churches of this region (where Ephesus is located) were filled with eunuchs. Many men had castrated themselves, thinking that renouncing “the body and its passions” was necessary to please God. We read about an early instance of this in a 2nd century work entitled, “the Acts of John.” In this account, a young man from Ephesus castrates himself in a fit of remorse over committing adultery. He is rebuked by John (the Lord’s disciple) who tells him it is not the body that leads to sin, but rather temptation arising from the heart. Though Basil wrote in the 4th century, the problem he was attempting to address had started much earlier (see Daniel F. Caner’s, “The Practice and Prohibition of Self-Castration in Early Christianity”).

In addition to pointing out that ascetics in the church of Asia Minor were castrating themselves, Basil points out why they were doing this. He reports that they were following the example of the priests of Cybele. New priests of the goddess Cybele would offer her their genitals in a bloody ritual that took place once each year. The Greek name for this goddess was Artemis (see Philippe Borgeaud’s “Mother of the Gods”).

During the first century, when Paul wrote his letter to Timothy, Roman law viewed depriving a man of his offspring via castration as a form of murder. To practice castration in religious ritual was viewed as sacrificing one’s offspring to the deity (see Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficis).

And so, in 1st Timothy 2, when Paul tells the church to live at peace with the Roman authorities (verses 1 & 2), tells men not to be angry (verse 8), and tells women not to teach or “authentein” a man (verse 12), I believe he is prohibiting the false teaching of extreme asceticism that was associated with the ritual castration of men (see “Apostle’s Warning”).

I believe it is also important to recognize that offerings made to Artemis/Cybele were meant to appease the goddess so that she might “save” women in childbearing (see 1 Timothy 2:15). Rather than looking to the goddess, Paul encourages women to seek salvation in Christ, through faith and holiness. Artemis/Cybele mythology also taught that life and purity came from women, while evil came from men, especially from male sexuality. Early ascetic movements in the church that borrowed from this mythology claimed that it was good for Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge (gnosis), and that all life came from the womb of a virgin mother (see the doctrines of the Ophites, who called themselves “Gnostics”).  Paul reminds the Ephesians that a man (Adam) was also a source of life, and that it was wrong for Eve to eat from the forbidden tree (see 1 Timothy 2:13-14).

*I recognize that many attempts have been made to understand the difficult portions of 1st Timothy. My intention is not to dismiss any other evidence-based views, but rather to add information to an important conversation that has a direct impact on how women experience themselves, God and the Christian faith. I hope that the information is helpful.


Trouble in Translation: 1 Timothy 2:12 & 1 Timothy 5:13-14

English translations of 1st Timothy have Paul telling women that they may not “teach or exercise authority over a man.” (1 Timothy 2:12).  They also have him telling women to get married so they won’t go from house to house being “gossips and busybodies” (1 Timothy 5:13-14).

What’s wrong with these translations, aside from their sexism?

First of all, Priscilla was commended by Paul for teaching a man “the way of God more accurately” (Romans 16:3, Acts 18:26). She was teaching in Ephesus, the very destination of Paul’s letter to Timothy.  Is Paul directly contradicting himself in his letters?

Probably not.

Throughout his letter to Timothy (see chapters 1, 4 & 6) Paul warns against “false teaching,” not “women teaching.”  The nature of the teaching was the problem, not the sex of the teacher.

English translations of 1 Timothy 2:12 also have Paul prohibiting female “authority,” yet the Greek word typically translated as authority (exousia) isn’t used here.  Paul uses “authentein.” In the Greek Septuagint Bible–frequently quoted by the apostle Paul–this word refers to those who “murdered” their children in ritual sacrifices to false gods and goddesses.  The word used is “authentas” (Wisdom of Solomon 12:5-6).

Here is the passage in English: “They killed children without mercy and ate the flesh and blood of human beings. They were initiated into secret rituals in which parents murdered (authentas) their own defenseless children.”

The same word is used again in the Greek Septuagint Bible to refer to a decree issued by Ptolemy IV against the Jews, after they would not permit him entry into the Holy of Holies of the Temple in Jerusalem.  As a result of Ptolemy’s decree, Jews would be segregated, branded and put to death. The word used to describe this situation is “authentias” (3 Maccabees 2:28-29).

Here is the passage in English: “That entrance to their own temple was to be refused to all those who would not sacrifice; that all the Jews were to be registered among the common people; that those who resisted were to be forcibly seized and put to death; that those who were thus registered, were to be marked on their persons by the ivy-leaf symbol of Dionysus, and to be set apart with these limited rights (authentias).”

According to Harvard University’s Online Library of Classics, the historian Polybius used “authentes” to refer to a man named Cassander who was a “murderer.” Similarly, according to the University of Chicago’s online Greek Lexicon, the word “authentas” was used by another historian, Diodorus Siculus, in reference to men who supported a violent attack on the Roman Senate and “murdered” the Senate guard.

Why in the world would Paul be warning Timothy about “authentein andros” (murder or violence against a man) in Ephesus?

In his letter, Paul explains that the false teaching he was worried about was ascetic (it forbade marriage and the eating of certain foods). He also refers to it as “demonic” and warns against those who pay attention to “myths” (1 Timothy 1:3-4, 4:1-5).

Early Christian writers Hippolytus of Rome and Basil of Ancyra connect the rise of ascetic teaching in the church of Asia Minor to the influence of mythology concerning the goddess Cybele.  She was worshiped in the caverns under Ephesus during the New Testament era and through to the 4th century A.D.. All of her priests were castrated. Ascetics in the church viewed this ritual castration as an act that symbolized the renunciation of the body and its passions.  Hippolytus writes about an ascetic sect in the early church that imitated Cybele’s priests metaphorically.  In other words, they lived as if they had been castrated.  Basil comments on the growing number of Christian men who were imitating Cybele’s priests literally.  In other words, they literally removed their genitals.  Basil expresses his concern about the growing number of eunuchs in the clergy and laity.  Earlier reports of Christians embracing the literal practice of castration can be found in the writing of Justin Martyr and in the Apocryphal Acts of John, where a young man from Ephesus castrates himself in a fit of remorse over committing adultery.  (An excellent article on this topic is Daniel F. Caner’s: “The Practice and Prohibition of Self-Castration in Early Christianity.” An excellent resource on the influence of Cybele mythology on the early church in Asia Minor is Philippe Borgeaud’s “Mother of the Gods: From Cybele to the Virgin Mary.”)

Under Roman law of the 1st century A.D. (the Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficis), depriving a man of his offspring through the act of castration was viewed as a form of “murder.”  In other words, the castration of men was regarded as a form of “authentein.”

In Ephesus, was “false teaching” (asceticism) connected with “violence/murder against a man” (authentein andros)?   Yes, it was.  It appears likely that Paul is warning against this teaching and the associated practice.  Only one English translation of the Bible comes close to expressing this meaning:

“Moreover, in the area of teaching, I am not allowing a woman to instigate conflict toward a man.   Instead, she is to remain calm” (1 Timothy 2:12, International Standard Version).

If the word “violence” is substituted for “conflict,” I believe the translation would be even more accurate. It would then read as follows:

“Moreover, in the area of teaching, I am not allowing a woman to instigate violence toward a man.  Instead, she is to remain calm.”

Leland Wilshire (2010) points out that the word for “calm” here is typically the opposite of “instigating violence” (Insight into Two Biblical Passages).

Recognizing problems in the translation of 1 Timothy 2:12 can help us notice a similar problem in 1 Timothy 5:13-14.  Was Paul really warning young widows not to become “gossips and busybodies”?

Probably not.

In Paul’s original language and context, the words that he chose meant that women should not go from house to house engaging in “foolish” talk associated with “the magical arts.”

The first word Paul uses in 1 Timothy 5:13 “φλύαροι” is also used in the Greek text of 4th Maccabees 5:11 to refer to “foolish” philosophy:

“Will you not awaken from your foolish (φλυάρου) philosophy , dispel your futile reasoning, adopt a mind appropriate to your years, philosophize according to the truth of what is beneficial?”

The second word Paul uses in 1 Timothy 5:13 “περίεργοι” is also used in Acts 19:19 to refer to those who practiced sorcery, in Ephesus–the destination of Paul’s letter to Timothy:

“A number who had practiced sorcery (περίεργα) brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly.  When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas.” (NIV)

Paul was not telling young widows to get married and stay at home so that they would not be “gossiping busybodies.” He was telling women in Ephesus not to go from home to home teaching foolish philosophies and practicing divination.

In 1st Timothy 5:14 Paul does endorse marriage, but to understand his words correctly requires that we remember the spiritual context he was addressing.  Priestesses of the goddess Cybele were expected to remain single and set apart for her.  To marry a man was to betray the goddess, and there could be fatal consequences.  Women who married and became pregnant were afraid that the goddess might kill them in childbearing (c.f. The Cult of Divine Birth in Ancient Greece, by M. Rigoglioso).  I believe this context helps us to understand Paul’s comments in 1 Timothy 2:15, where he addresses the concerns of women worried that they might die in childbearing.

Priestesses of Cybele would serve the goddess alongside castrated men.  In their mythology, the renunciation of marriage and reproduction was a prerequisite for receiving special knowledge “gnosis” from the goddess.  In 1 Timothy 6:20, Paul warns Timothy against “profane babblings” that are falsely called “gnosis.”

In his first letter to Timothy, Paul is telling women in Ephesus to forsake false teaching and the various practices associated with it.  In 1 Timothy 2:12 the practice was “authentein andros”–supporting or instigating violence against a man.  In 1 Timothy 5:13-14, the practice was “the magical arts” or divination.

In 1 Timothy 5:14, Paul is also telling women that they can express their sexuality in marriage without fear of reprisal from the goddess.  The notion that Paul might be telling all women to get married is quickly dispelled by a glance at his comment in 1 Corinthians 7:8: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am” (NIV).

So, are Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:12 and 5:13-14 truly sexist?  Do they really prohibit women from teaching or exercising authority?  Do they presume that unmarried women will go from house-to-house as gossiping busybodies?   In their original language and context, Paul’s words do not convey such a message.  Rather, they consistently warn against a false teaching prevalent in Ephesus that was connected with a renunciation of the body and its appetites in pursuit of spiritual knowledge.


1 Timothy 2:12 and the Early Church’s Struggle Against Ascetic Teaching

Concerning the struggle of the early church against extreme forms of asceticism, author Gary Taylor provides the following important background information:

Most important, the [Dead Sea] scrolls confirm the testimony of ancient historians that a radical hostility to human sexuality was one feature of sectarian Judaism in the Palestine Jesus inhabited. Many scholars believe that the Qumran community was celibate; certainly, they prohibited sexual intercourse anywhere in Jerusalem. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus reported that members of the Essene sect “disdain marriage,” and that in order to maintain their numbers they were forced to “adopt other men’s children.” This claim is confirmed by another contemporary, Philo of Alexandria (“They eschew marriage…. No Essene takes a wife”), and by Pliny the Elder (“it has no women and has renounced all sexual desire,” creating “a race in which no one is born”). Like some of their Jewish contemporaries, some early Christians believed that all “sexual intercourse is polluted.”

“Woe unto you,” says the Book of Thomas the Contender, “who love intimacy with womankind and polluted intercourse with them! Woe unto you who are gripped by the authorities of your body!” (144:8-11). “It is fitting to mortify the flesh,” says the Gospel according to Philip (82:28). In the Gospel according to Thomas, Jesus is said to have said, “If you do not abstain from the world you will not find the kingdom” (27) and “Woe to the soul that depends on the flesh” (112).

Some of these Gospels were eventually dismissed as apocryphal, some of these views dismissed as heretical; the Church did everything it could to reduce the proliferating Christianities of the first centuries to a single official genus. Most believers contracted and consummated marriages, lived in the world, depended on the flesh. Nevertheless, as Peter Brown and Susanna Elm have comprehensively demonstrated, permanent sexual renunciation and lifelong virginity were profoundly important values in the first centuries of Christianity. In the eastern Mediterranean world that Jesus knew and helped to shape, a radical rejection of human genitality was certainly imaginable. Philo of Alexandria, in a lost work, allegedly asserted, “It is better to eunuchize yourself than to rage madly for unlawful sexual intercourse.” The works of Philo were widely read by second century Christians, as were the Maxims of Sextus; Sextus urged readers to “cast away every part of the body that misleads you to a lack of self-control, since it is better for you to live without the part in self-control than to live with it to your peril.” It’s a short step from abstinence to amputation. [Taylor, G. (2002). Castration: An Abbreviated History of Western Manhood. NY, New York: Routledge.]

Why am I writing about radical asceticism in the early church on a blog about women’s equality?

Because this appears to be the actual focus of Paul’s concern in his first letter to Timothy; and I believe it is of paramount importance that we understand this context if we are to correctly understand his letter.

In 1st Timothy 1:3-4, Paul warns against false teachers who devoted themselves to myths and endless genealogies. They claimed to be teachers of the law, but did not know what they were talking about (1 Timothy 1:7). They taught a doctrine of asceticism that vilified the body and its passions; followers had to abstain from marriage and the eating of certain foods (1 Timothy 4:3). Paul refers to this teaching as demonic (1 Timothy 4:1), and he encourages Timothy to guard the gospel against opposing ideas that are falsely called “gnosis,” meaning knowledge (1 Timothy 6:20).

Ascetic Jewish communities claimed that their teaching authority came through their study of “endless genealogies.” They taught that the body must be renounced through continual fasting from various foods and through celibacy. Their renunciation of the body allegedly gave them access to special revelation knowledge (gnosis) from God. To demonstrate to themselves and others that they had embraced this radical renunciation of “the flesh” they insisted upon circumcision for all male adherents (c.f. B. Edwards, Let My People Go: A Call to End the Oppression of Women in the Church, Revised and Expanded). Philo of Alexandria, in praise of ascetic Jewish communities in Egypt, compared them to the sexless attendants of the mythological goddess Cybele (c.f. Philo, “On the Contemplative Life”).

In the early church, a similar radical renunciation of the body—and especially sexuality—was also taught. It was symbolized not through circumcision, but rather through ritual castration.  In the following comments, author Daniel Caner attempts to highlight the pervasive nature of this practice:

In his Apology Justin martyr tells how a young man in Alexandria petitioned the Roman prefect for permission to be castrated. Permission was denied, but Justin’s apologetical use and evident approval of the effort itself are striking. The youth intended, so Justin writes, to persuade non-Christians that sexual promiscuity was not a secret rite…among Christians, and he cites the incident to demonstrate that some Christians forgo marriage altogether and live completely in continence [sexual abstinence].

Written in the middle of the second century c.e., this is the earliest documentation of the impulse exhibited by certain early Christians towards self-castration as an expression of Christian Chastity. Two centuries later Basil of Ancyra devoted several sections of his treatise On the True Integrity of Virginity (ca. 335-58) to the same practice. Unlike Justin, however, Basil hardly considers this evidence of a man’s continence: on the contrary, those who “perversely” castrate themselves “by this very deed make a declaration of their own licentiousness….”  [His thinking was that those who castrated themselves remained slaves of lust in their hearts.]

The practice and prohibition of self-castration in early Christianity has only received passing historical notice in conjunction with studies of the interpretation of Matthew 19:12 [where Jesus talks about eunuchs] or the debate over Origen’s alleged self-castration. These studies, like the orthodox treatises from which the evidence must be drawn, tend to marginalize self-castration as a rare act on the “lunatic fringe” of early Christian asceticism. Their view needs modification. Though testimony is scanty, sources from the fourth century indicate that by then self-castration had become a real problem in the nascent Church. Basil, for example, excuses his discussion of it by asserting a need to “check the many such eunuchs” who had “already grown prominent in the Church.” A more general concern appears in the Nicaean Canons and the so-called Apostolic Constitutions which contain statutes against self-made eunuchs both among the laity and the clergy. The authors of these canons perceived self-castration as an indication of certain Christian teachings they deemed heretical. This paper argues instead that self-castration should be viewed more generally as a practice of early Christians who, prompted by their understanding of Matthew 19:12 and other influences (not necessarily by alliance to a heretical group), embraced radical corporeal asceticism as a fundamental part of Christian devotion….

Eunuchs were no new breed to the Roman empire of the Christian era. Castration had long been the physical mark of slavery (of slaves brought in from outside the empire) and of religious devotion in the so-called oriental cults. Although Domitian and Nerva had banned castration within the borders of the empire and Hadrian had made it a capital offense for both castrator and castrated…the practice continued, as it had for hundreds of years, among the “Galli” priests and devotees of Cybele (Magna Mater), Atargatis and the Scythian goddess….

Basil, writing near Phrygia suggests the affinity of Christians who castrate themselves with the “Greeks in the past,” i.e., the Galli of the region, [the self-emasculated priests of Cybele].

Self-castration became associated with the “dualist” doctrines espoused by Marcion, Tatian et al., which tended to denigrate the body as the nagging link between the human soul and the evils they believed inherent in the material world.

Epiphanius of Salamis observed by 377 that “not a few” monks in Egypt had “dared to make themselves eunuchs.” He described one Transjordanian sect, the Valesians, who “are all castrated except for a few…when they take someone as a disciple, as long as he has not yet been castrated he does not partake of animal flesh. But once they have persuaded or forced him to be castrated, then he partakes of anything whatsoever…. They not merely discipline their own this way, but often impose the same on strangers passing through, entertained by them as guests.” Ephiphanius adds that “most of these Valesians had been in the Church up to a certain time, until their madness spread, and they were expelled.” Thirteen years later John Chrysostom inveighed against those who had mutilated themselves around Antioch.

The practice of self-castration thus persisted despite its condemnation in early Church regulations. Both the Council of Nicaea (canon 1, 325) and the authors of the Apostolic Constitutions (canons 22-24, drawn up perhaps at Antioch, ca. 380) banned such men from entering the clergy; the latter also punished the laity who castrated themselves with three years’ excommunication. [Caner, D. (Nov., 1997). The Practice and Prohibition of Castration in Early Christianity, Vigiliae Christianae, Vol. 51 No. 4, pp. 396-415. BRILL. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1583869]

If self-castration was such a widespread symbol of radical asceticism in the early church, why doesn’t Paul prohibit it in his first letter to Timothy?

He probably does.

In the first century A.D., throughout the Roman Empire, castration was prohibited as a form of murder, under the Legis Corneliae de sicariis et veneficis: The Law of Cornelius Sylla against murderers and poisoners.

Under Sylla, those who castrated themselves or others were exiled and would forfeit rights to all property. Later under Hadrian, the crime of self-castration was punishable by death. [Gaii Institutionum Iuris Civilis Commentarii Quatuor, Gaius, trans. Edward Poste, London, Oxford at the Clarendon Press. M.A., M.DCCC.LXXV]

Why was castration viewed by Roman law as a form of murder? Possibly because their understanding of human reproduction was taken largely from the philosophy of Aristotle, who viewed male “seed” as containing the human soul, while the “matter” (i.e. soil) that became the soul’s body was provided by the woman:

The semen from the male is the cause of the offspring (Aristotle, On the Generation of Animals, Book 1 chapter 20).

While the body is from the female, it is the soul that is from the male (Aristotle, On the Generation of Animals, Book 2 chapter 4).

Since the embryo is already potentially an animal but an imperfect one, it must obtain its nourishment from elsewhere; accordingly it makes use of the uterus and the mother, as a plant does of the earth (Aristotle, On the Generation of Animals, Book 2, Chapter 4).

The Roman philosopher Cicero said that “If Plato’s prose was silver, Aristotle’s was a flowing river of gold” [http://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/aristotle].

According to this prevailing Roman worldview, to castrate a man was to murder his offspring.

That may all be morbidly interesting, but where in 1 Timothy does Paul ever allude to the murdering of a man’s offspring?

In Psalm 106, we read the following horrifying story of Israel’s idolatry in the land of Canaan:

They worshiped their idols, which became a snare to them. They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to demons. They shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was desecrated by their blood. (36-38, TNIV)

The story of the Canaanites’ original idolatry can be found in Greek, in a book of the Septuagint known as “The Wisdom of Solomon”:

They practiced magic and conducted unholy worship: they killed children without mercy and ate the flesh and blood of human beings. They were initiated into secret rituals, in which parents murdered their own defenseless children. (12:4-6)

The parents who murdered their own offspring are referred to in the Greek text as “authentas.”

In 1st Timothy 2:12, Paul prohibits something he refers to as “authentein.” He prohibits this alongside a form of teaching (“didaskein”).  It is entirely possible that he is prohibiting the teaching (didaskein) of extreme asceticism that was universally symbolized by the practice of “authentein andros”: ritual violence against a man, which was viewed by Roman law as murder.

To make the significance of Paul’s word choice (authentein) more apparent, it may help to point out that the Roman law against “sicariis“–if written in the Greek of the Septuagint–would be the law against “authentas.”  “Sicariis” is Latin for “murderers.”  According to Hippolytus of Rome, “Sicarii” was also the name given to a sub-sect of Jewish ascetics who forcibly circumcised–and sometimes killed–Gentile men (The Refutation of All Heresies, Book IX, Chapter XXI).

But doesn’t “authentein” mean “to exercise [usurp or assume] authority”?  In 1 Timothy 2:12, wasn’t Paul prohibiting women from wrongfully taking authority from a man?

Probably not.

In the Wisdom of Solomon, “authentas” refers to “murderers.” In Polybius Histories, “authentes” refers to a man who “perpetrated a massacre.” In the Histories of Diodorus Siculus, “authentas” refers to those who “support a violent attack” on the Roman Senate and carry out the “murder” of the Senate guard. In fact, in a study completed by Leland Wilshire of 329 instances of the use of some form of “authentein” in ancient Greek literature, most of those examples through the New Testament era referred to someone who committed or supported a violent crime, usually murder. [Wilshire, L. (2010). Insight Into Two Biblical Passages. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America]

In 1 Timothy 2:12, why would Paul prohibit “a woman” from teaching a radical form of asceticism that was almost universally symbolized by ritual castration? You may recall from earlier paragraphs that radical asceticism in the church allegedly drew inspiration from mythology connected with the “oriental cults”; especially the cult of the goddess Cybele. The Cybele cult was traditionally dominated by women. Anyone in Ephesus blending the gospel with this mythology was likely to be “a woman.” (c.f. Apostle’s Warning: Restoring Paul’s Original Message in his First Letter to Timothy)

How then did “authentein” ever become associated with a woman “exercising, usurping or assuming authority” over a man? I believe the writings of John Chrysostom provide an important clue. As mentioned in an earlier paragraph, Chrysostom did take a very vocal stand against the practice of ritual castration in the church. He was not, however, particularly worried about asceticism. He knew that castration had been viewed as murder under Roman law, but this was not his main concern either. His problem with eunuchs was that “They are dominated by women, gynaikodouloi. They are…soft, effeminate, irrational, and slavish.” [De Wet, C. (2015). Preaching Bondage: John Chrysostom and the Discourse of Slavery in Early Christianity, Oakland California , University of California Press, P. 267].  And so, a practice that symbolized extreme asceticism in the early church, and was referred to by Roman law as a form of murder, was criticized by John Chrysostom–one of Christianity’s earliest patriarchal theologians–as making men into the slaves of women.

In their book entitled, “I Suffer Not a Woman,” authors Richard and Catherine Clark Kroeger (1992) also highlight that ritual castration was viewed by some as a direct undermining of male authority:

One other aspect of sex reversal is worthy of mention. This is the reversal experienced by men who castrated themselves in the service of the mother goddesses, most notably Cybele, the Syrian Goddess, and Artemis of Ephesus. Ritual castration was specifically called “depriving of power.” Those who had sacrificed their manhood were said to have been transformed into women and thereafter were considered feminine. (p. 94)

In spite of John Chrysostom’s perspective—and the emerging tradition against female authority in the church–I believe that in prohibiting “teaching” (didaskein) alongside “authentein andros” in 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul was warning that the gospel of Jesus Christ must not become confused with a radical asceticism that was almost universally symbolized by the ritual castration of men.


The False Teaching Confronted by Paul: What was it? Where did it come from? Why is this relevant to biblical equality?

In 1st Timothy chapter 4, the apostle Paul confronts a false teaching that he portrays as ascetic.  In other words, someone was teaching that the body and its appetites are evil and must therefore be renounced.  A third century A.D. writer named Hippolytus said that those who taught this message called themselves “Gnostics” (Refutation of All Heresies, Book IV). 

How did the Gnostics create their ascetic gospel?

They interpreted “the mysteries” of Cybele (the mother of the gods) through the lenses of Plato’s philosophy, and then combined the resulting worldview with stories found in the Bible.

What were the Mysteries of Cybele?

In an appeal to the Roman Senate on behalf of persecuted Christians, Justin Martyr (born 100 A.D.) described Cybele’s mysteries in the following terms:

“And whether they perpetrate those fabulous and shameful deeds — the upsetting of the lamp, and promiscuous intercourse, and eating human flesh— we know not; but we do know that they are neither persecuted nor put to death by you, at least on account of their opinions…

But as for us, we have been taught that to expose newly-born children is the part of wicked men; and this we have been taught lest we should do any one an injury, and lest we should sin against God, first, because we see that almost all so exposed (not only the girls, but also the males) are brought up to prostitution. And as the ancients are said to have reared herds of oxen, or goats, or sheep, or grazing horses, so now we see you rear children only for this shameful use; and for this pollution a multitude of females and hermaphrodites, and those who commit unmentionable iniquities, are found in every nation. And you receive the hire of these, and duty and taxes from them, whom you ought to exterminate from your realm. And any one who uses such persons, besides the godless and infamous and impure intercourse, may possibly be having intercourse with his own child, or relative, or brother. And there are some who prostitute even their own children and wives, and some are openly mutilated for the purpose of sodomy; and they refer these mysteries to the mother of the gods, and along with each of those whom you esteem gods there is painted a serpent, a great symbol and mystery. Indeed, the things which you do openly and with applause, as if the divine light were overturned and extinguished, these you lay to our charge; which, in truth, does no harm to us who shrink from doing any such things, but only to those who do them and bear false witness against us.” (Justin Martyr, 1st Apology, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0126.htm)

Justin explains that Christians do not celebrate immoral “mysteries” involving prostitution, the exposure of newborn children or the mutilation of men for the purpose of sodomy.  He states, however, that these practices are “found in every nation,” done “openly and with applause,” and that they are done in honor of “the mother of the gods.”

Jude may have written the following words of warning against those who attempted to bring such mysteries into the Christian faith:

“For some godless people have slipped in unnoticed among us, persons who distort the message about the grace of our God in order to excuse their immoral ways, and who reject Jesus Christ, our only Master and Lord. Long ago the Scriptures predicted the condemnation they have received.

For even though you know all this, I want to remind you of how the Lord once rescued the people of Israel from Egypt, but afterward destroyed those who did not believe.  Remember the angels who did not stay within the limits of their proper authority, but abandoned their own dwelling place: they are bound with eternal chains in the darkness below, where God is keeping them for that great Day on which they will be condemned. Remember Sodom and Gomorrah, and the nearby towns, whose people acted as those angels did and indulged in sexual immorality and perversion: they suffer the punishment of eternal fire as a plain warning to all.

 In the same way also, these people have visions which make them sin against their own bodies; they despise God’s authority and insult the glorious beings above….

With their shameless carousing they are like dirty spots in your fellowship meals. They take care only of themselves. They are like clouds carried along by the wind, but bringing no rain. They are like trees that bear no fruit, even in autumn, trees that have been pulled up by the roots and are completely dead. They are like wild waves of the sea, with their shameful deeds showing up like foam. They are like wandering stars, for whom God has reserved a place forever in the deepest darkness…

Show mercy toward those who have doubts; save others by snatching them out of the fire; and to others show mercy mixed with fear, but hate their very clothes, stained by their sinful lusts.” (Jude 4-23)

How did a mystery cult renowned for sexual immorality, the exposure of unwanted children and the emasculation of men become the basis for Gnostic asceticism in the early church?

The Gnostics assumed that they had been given special “revelation knowledge” (gnosis) regarding the proper interpretation and application of these mysteries.

Hippolytus of Rome explains their methodology:

“What the assertions are of the Naasseni, who style themselves Gnostics, and that they advance those opinions which the Philosophers of the Greeks previously propounded, as well as those who have handed down mystical (rites), from (both of) whom the Naasseni taking occasion, have constructed their heresies…”

Hippolytus explains that the Gnostics (self-titled) interpreted the mystical rites of the Cybele cult through the lenses of Greek philosophy; judging from their literature, they were especially fond of Plato.

A Platonic version of the mysteries saw the emasculation of Cybele’s priests as a metaphor for what every man must do in order to pursue spiritual enlightenment.  He must “renounce the flesh” (the evil of the body and its appetites) to be restored to that which is spirit alone.  The flesh was symbolized by male genitalia.  The spirit was symbolized by the mystical goddess.

When the Naassenes combined Platonism and the mysteries of Cybele with the Bible (Old Testament stories and the words of Jesus), they became known as a heretical cult within the early church.

In the following quote, you can see how they interpret the castration rites of Cybele along Platonic lines, and then add portions of the Old Testament along with Jesus’ own words to create their “Gnostic gospel”:

“If, he [the Naassene] says, the mother of the gods emasculate Attis, and herself has this (person) as an object of affection, the blessed nature, he says, of the supernal and everlasting (beings) alone recalls the male power of the soul to itself…

According to this account of theirs, the intercourse of woman with man is demonstrated, in conformity with such teaching, to be an exceedingly wicked and filthy (practice). For, says (the Naassene), Attis has been emasculated, that is, he has passed over from the earthly parts of the netherworld to the everlasting substance above…

If you hasten to fly out of Egypt, and repair beyond the Red Sea into the wilderness, that is, from earthly intercourse to the Jerusalem above, which is the mother of the living…

For mortal, he says, is every generation below, but immortal that which is begotten above, for it is born of water only, and of spirit, being spiritual, not carnal. But what (is born) below is carnal, that is, he says, what is written. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit [John 3:6]. This, according to them, is the spiritual generation. This, he says, is the great Jordan [Joshua 3:7-17], which, flowing on (here) below, and preventing the children of Israel from departing out of Egypt— I mean from terrestrial intercourse, for Egypt is with them the body—Jesus drove back, and made it flow upwards.” (Refutation of All Heresies, Book IV, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/050105.htm)

And so, the practices of a very immoral mystery cult ironically became a metaphor for ascetic Gnosticism within the early church.  Castration was no longer associated with prostitution and sodomy.  It now became a metaphor for the renunciation of the flesh, thanks to the “revelatory gnosis” claimed by the Naassenes.

This context may help us to understand the following comments in Paul’s first letter to Timothy:

“It must be remembered, of course, that laws are made, not for good people, but for lawbreakers and criminals, for the godless and sinful, for those who are not religious or spiritual, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the immoral, for sexual perverts, for kidnappers, for those who lie and give false testimony or who do anything else contrary to sound doctrine.  That teaching is found in the gospel that was entrusted to me to announce, the Good News from the glorious and blessed God.” (1 Timothy 1:9-11)


“The Spirit says clearly that some people will abandon the faith in later times; they will obey lying spirits and follow the teachings of demons.  Such teachings are spread by deceitful liars, whose consciences are dead, as if burnt with a hot iron.  Such people teach that it is wrong to marry and to eat certain foods. But God created those foods to be eaten, after a prayer of thanks, by those who are believers and have come to know the truth.  Everything that God has created is good; nothing is to be rejected, but everything is to be received with a prayer of thanks, because the word of God and the prayer make it acceptable to God.” (1 Timothy 4:1-5)

The Gnostics based their ascetic philosophy on a Platonic interpretation of Cybele’s mystery rites.  The rites themselves were immoral and connected with violence (the exposure of children and the ritual emasculation of men).  According to Justin Martyr, these practices continued through the New Testament era.

At the same time, however, Gnostic sects were beginning to view Cybele’s rites metaphorically.  They re-interpreted them as a symbol of renouncing the flesh in pursuit of spiritual “gnosis.”

The mystery cults and their ascetic counterparts were evidently both problems for the early church.  Understanding this very real historical context can help us better understand the intended message of the biblical authors.

For instance, when the apostle Paul writes to Timothy prohibiting something he calls “authentein,” I wonder how many complementarian scholars recognize that this word is first used in conjunction with the “mystery rites” of fertility gods and goddesses in Canaan:

“they did horrible things: they practiced magic and conducted unholy worship;  they killed children without mercy and ate the flesh and blood of human beings. They were initiated into secret rituals in which parents murdered (authentas) their own defenseless children…

It was not enough to be wrong about the knowledge of God. They lived in a state of evil warfare, but they were so ignorant that they called it peace.  They murdered children in their initiation rituals, celebrated secret mysteries, and held wild ceremonial orgies with unnatural practices.  They no longer kept their lives or their marriages pure.  A man might kill another by an act of treachery or cause him grief by committing adultery with his wife.  Everything was a complete riot of bloody murder, robbery, deceit, corruption, faithlessness, disorder, falsehood, harassment of innocent people, ingratitude, moral decay, sexual perversion, broken marriages, adultery, and immorality.  The worship of idols, whose names should never be spoken, is the beginning and the end, the cause and the result of every evil.  People who worship them lose control of themselves in ecstasy, or pass off lies as prophecies.” (Portions of Wisdom of Solomon 12 & 14, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Wisdom+12&version=GNT)

This description of the mystery rites practiced in ancient Canaan reads very much like Justin Martyr’s description of the mysteries of Cybele.  In both cases, fertility gods or goddesses were celebrated through sexual immorality and ritual violence.  Those who engaged in such practices then claimed the ability to prophesy on behalf of their deity.

It is the mysteries of Cybele that formed the foundation of the type of ascetic heresy confronted by Paul in 1st Timothy.  Should we be surprised that he prohibits something he calls “authentein”?  Given the context; no, I think it is to be expected.  Both the mysteries of Canaan and the mysteries of Cybele engaged in ritual violence.  In many examples of ancient Greek literature (LXX, Polybius, Diodorus Siculus, Flavius Josephus) “authentein” (or a derivative) was used to refer to either committing or supporting acts of violence, often murder.  “Authentein andros” as used by Paul, therefore, could be a reference to ritual violence against men.  The ascetic gospel of the Naassenes was based on interpreting ritual castration as a metaphor for spiritual rebirth.

In 1 Timothy 2:12, is the apostle warning us about the dangers of “women exercising authority”?  No, I don’t think so.  I believe that he is warning the church not to confuse the message of Jesus with an ascetic blend of pagan mythology and Greek philosophy.  I wonder if we have listened…


I just finished reading about another Gnostic sect that patterned its rituals after the mysteries of the “mother of all.”  Epiphanius refers to them as the Phibionites.  Quoting Paul directly from 1 Timothy 6:20-21, Epiphanius warns the church to “turn away from [their] profane and vain babblings that are falsely called knowledge (gnosis).”  He also says that members of this sect are indeed the persons described as false teachers in the book of Jude.  Further he connects them to the teachings of Nicolas, who was followed by the Nicolaitans mentioned in the book of Revelation by John.

Like the Naassenes this sect viewed human reproduction as essentially evil; it led to the entrapment of more souls by “matter.”  Also like the Naassenes they called the God of the Bible Ildabaoth, and portrayed him as subordinate to the divine mother.  Unlike the Naassenes, they did not avoid sex.  Rather, they practiced the “mysteries of Cybele” more fully, involving all forms of sexual immorality, but then either prevented or aborted conception.  Aborted fetuses were presented to the gods as an offering.  I won’t say what was done with seminal fluid.  It’s satanic.  And so, another Gnostic sect, based on the mysteries of Cybele, and this time the members of the cult were “authentas” in the exact sense of the word as it was used in the Wisdom of Solomon.

For more information on this, I would recommend the following resource, but I would caution that it is extremely graphic and profoundly disturbing: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1582042?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

A portion of the text is available at the following blog: http://www.roger-pearse.com/weblog/2013/12/05/epiphanius-on-the-borborites-or-phibionites/

The next time someone tells you that Paul prohibited women from “exercising authority” over men; I believe you can safely reply that this is an uninformed interpretation.  He was evidently responding to Gnostic cults who based their beliefs and practices on the mysteries of Cybele.  These practices included “authentein.”  Refer them then to the ritual violence perpetrated by the “authentas” in the Wisdom of Solomon 12:6; and to the ritual violence performed by the Phibionites.  Then explain to them that “authentein andros” (ritual violence against men) became a metaphor for the ascetic belief system of the Naassenes.

If I can find this information, hopefully others will too; and we can rid ourselves of interpretations of Paul that are wrongly used to oppress women.  Perhaps then we can turn our attention to the apostle’s actual concerns: domination of one sex by the other, genital mutilation, the worship of sex on the one hand, the demonization of sex on the other, the destruction of children as a result of sexual idolatry.



Paul and the Ascetics: False Teaching in Ephesus

The mythical figure of Attis epitomized various ascetic philosophies in the 1st century A.D. and onward.

The priests of Attis and Cybele were compared to Jewish ascetics by Philo in the 1st century A.D.. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/yonge/book34.html

Attis was a central figure in the Gnosticism of the Ophites in the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D.. http://www.sacred-texts.com/gno/gar/gar15.htm

Attis was again a central figure in the Emperor Julian’s Neoplatonism of the 4th century A.D..  http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/toj/toj04.htm   Julian was initiated into the “mysteries” of Cybele in the caverns of Ephesus (c.f. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume 2, By Edward Gibbon).

Why did Attis serve as such a symbol of ascetic spirituality?  The answer is found in the myth.

Accoording to Ovid (1st century B.C.), Attis had promised himself to the goddess Cybele.  This was to be a spiritual devotion, a love without passion.  Attis betrayed his oath and married a nymph.  In the act of consummating the marriage he was driven mad by the goddess, castrated himself and then died:

“He lacerates his body with a sharp stone, practicing on himself they type of bloody mortification that the galli (Cybele’s priests) will later imitate.  He lets his long hair down, thus designating the spoiling of his betrayed virginity, and is heard uttering, ‘I deserved it, I am paying exactly for my error with the price of my blood. Oh! May the parts that have made me do wrong, yes, may they disappear!’  He removes the burden from his groin, and no sign of his virility remains.” (as cited in Borgeaud, Mother of the Gods, 2004, p. 42)

Attis epitomizes the notion that the physical body is the source of evil in humanity.  This is the core belief of ascetic spirituality.  We find this theme in all of the ascetic philosophies mentioned above (Jewish Asceticism, Gnosticism, Neoplatonism).

In Philo’s exegesis of the story of Joseph, he portrays Joseph as a eunuch and “paragon of self-control.”  “It is better to be made into a eunuch than to rage after sexual intercourse.”  https://www.academia.edu/1007837/Eunuchs_and_Gender_Transformation_Philo_s_Exegesis_of_the_Joseph_Narrative

Castration is compared to the Jewish rite of circumcision.  Philo views both as symbolic of liberating the spirit from the passions of the flesh.

In Philo’s description of the Jewish ascetic community known as the “Therapeutae,” he praises their renunciation of the body in pursuit of spiritual wisdom.  Philo compares their spirituality to that of the Corybantes, the sexless attendants of Cybele.

Other communities of ascetic Jews, called the Essenes, also renounced the body through celibacy and fasting.  They insisted upon circumcision for male adherents.  According to Hippolytus, one group of Essenes would even circumcise Gentiles overheard to be speaking of God or the Law.  Gentiles who refused to undergo the procedure would be killed (c.f. Refutation of All Heresies, Book 9, Chapters 13-22).  The Essenes claimed spiritual authority by tracing “endless genealogies” back to the priesthood of Zadok (c.f. Edwards, B. Let My People Go: A Call to End the Oppression of Women in the Church, Revised and Expanded).

The Romans passed legislation against both ritual castration and the circumcision of non-Jews in the 1st century B.C., calling these practices a form of “murder” (c.f. Lex Cornelia de Secariis et Veneficis, in Wyner Mark, E. The Covenant of Circumcision: New Perspectives on an Ancient Jewish Rite).  The law was strengthened by Emperor Hadrian and made a crime punishable by death.

In an article entitled “The Practice and Prohibition of Self-Castration in Early Christianity,” Daniel Caner explains that extreme asceticism did find its way into the early church.  It was accompanied by the practice of self-castration.  Caner demonstrates that the practice was in fact widespread, and that numerous church leaders (including the Council of Nicaea and the authors of the Apostolic Constitutions) eventually attempted to curb it.  Both the mythology surrounding Attis and the ascetic views of Philo are described as influential.  St. Basil specifically connected castration in the church to the example set by the eunuch priests of Cybele.  One notable reference to the behavior is found in the apocryphal “Acts of John,” in which a young man castrates himself in a fit of remorse over committing acts of adultery and murder.  The young man was from Ephesus.  The apostle John is reported to have said to him, “He that put it into thine heart, young man, to kill thy father and become the adulterer of another man’s wife, the same made thee think it a right deed to take away also the unruly members” (c.f. Acts of John, Paragraphs 47-54).

This is the world Paul lived in when he wrote about asceticism in his first letter to Timothy.

He warns against “false teaching” based on “myths” (1 Timothy 1:3-4).  He says that the teachers “forbid marriage and the eating of certain foods” (1 Timothy 4:3). They also trace endless genealogies (1 Timothy 1:4).  Paul encourages men to pray “without anger” (1 Timothy 2:9).  He reminds that the law is against “murderers” (1 Timothy 1:9).  He encourages the church to be at peace with the authorities (1 Timothy 2:2).  He asks Timothy to guard the gospel against what is falsely called “gnosis,” knowledge (1 Timothy 6:20-21).  He tells “a woman” not to teach or “authentein” a man (1 Timothy 2:12).

In the Greek Septuagint Bible, “authentas” (Wisdom 12:6) is used to represent those who engage in ritual violence (murder) in the worship of idols.   If Paul is using the word “authentein” in a similar fashion, he would be prohibiting a woman from a false teaching symbolized by “authentein andros” the “murder, castration, or forced circumcision of a man.”  Ascetic Judaism at the time was symbolized by circumcision.  Sometimes this was even forced on Gentiles.  Those who refused were murdered.  Jewish ascetic communities were compared by Philo to the priests of Cybele and Attis, who castrated themselves in memory of Attis.  Philo’s views and the mythology surrounding Attis did influence the emergence of asceticism and the practice of castration in the early church, notably in Ephesus.  Roman law in the New Testament period referred to forced circumcision and ritual castration as “murder.”

Should the church today continue to view Paul’s concerns in his first letter to Timothy as a warning against “women” teaching or “exercising authority”?  No, I don’t believe we should.  Rather, I believe we should recognize that his concern was about a “false teaching” that was certainly ascetic in nature, and quite possibly symbolized by some form of ritual violence against men.


It should be noted that Cybele was connected with women and childbirth (c.f. Earth Deities in Myths and Legends, An Illustrated Guide to their Origins and Meanings).  Paul makes reference to being “saved in childbearing” in 1 Timothy 2:15.

It should also be noted that the Gnosticism based on the myth of Attis portrayed the human soul as created by a female deity.  Male sexuality was equated with “the lower nature,” a material prison for the soul.  Eve was also said to be given the fruit of knowledge (gnosis) by “the Son of God,” who was said to be present in the serpent. http://www.sacred-texts.com/gno/gar/gar15.htm Paul reminds Timothy of the actual Genesis account in 1 Timothy 2:13-14.



Distorting Evidence to Rationalize the Subordination of Women: “Women in the Church, 3rd Edition”

A recent edition of a book being promoted by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood concludes that Paul is clearly prohibiting women from “exercising authority” in the body of Christ.  Knowing the Council’s patriarchal stance, this is not surprising.

The book draws on evidence from two well-known complementarian scholars: S.M. Baugh and Albert Wolters.

Baugh provides information about what he claims to be the “context” of Paul’s letter to Timothy.  This is not the first time Baugh’s research has been used in a complementarian text.  In Wayne Grudem’s book, “Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth,” Baugh says that there is no evidence of any lingering matriarchal beliefs or practices connected with Amazon legend in 1st century Ephesus.  Baugh dismisses the testimony of Diodorus Siculus, Pausanius and Gnaeus Pompeius Trogus (among others) concerning the historical foundation for Amazon legend.  He also overlooks or is unfamiliar with archaeological evidence that supports these historians’ accounts.  Baugh is also evidently unfamiliar with the pervasive presence of the Cybele cult throughout the Roman Empire during the New Testament period.  Cybele was the goddess of Amazon legend, who had a renowned sanctuary in Ephesus.  She was venerated as the Mother of all of the gods.  She could only be served by women or castrated men.  The beliefs and practices associated with her cult were clearly matriarchal.

Drawing from numerous historical and archaeological sources, I’ve provided a sample of the very evidence Baugh denies, in the following two articles:



In addition to being present in Ephesus, during the 1st century, the Cybele myth and its associated practices formed the foundation of the Gnostic teaching of the Naassenes (see articles above for details and sources).  1st century A.D. writer Philo of Alexandria associated her mythos with the beliefs and practices of ascetic Jews. In the 4th century A.D. the Roman Emperor Julian was initiated into the “Mysteries” in caves under Ephesus.  He then composed the now famous, “Hymn to the Mother of the Gods”; namely, Cybele.

Baugh seems to overlook the heterogeneity of Ephesian culture during the Roman era, focusing only on a selective body of evidence that appears to confirm his beliefs.  To me, this has the strong appearance of what is known to researchers as “confirmation bias.”

Baugh also accuses egalitarians of confusing myth with history (Apostle to the Amazons, pp. 154-155).  He does not seem to recognize that egalitarian scholars clearly focus on the influence of goddess “myths.”  Though there was some historical basis for these myths, it is the mythology that egalitarians focus on.

cybele-myth1.jpgThere is no confusion of fact with fantasy.  Also, the false teaching that Paul was concerned about in Ephesus came from those who would “devote themselves to myths” (1 Timothy 1:4).

While Baugh provides a selective view of  Ephesian culture, Albert Wolters provides a semantic study of Paul’s use of the word “authentein.”  Claiming that “authentein” means authority in a positive sense, Wolters asserts that another typical meaning attributed to word–“murderer”–is rarely used in the New Testament era.

To support his position, he refers to the use of “authentes” in Polybius’ Histories, and “authentas” in the historical work of Diodorus Siculus.  Wolters says that in both of these sources, noun forms of “authentein” are used to mean that a person is merely the “doer of an action”:

“The  third  sense  of authentes is very  rare.  In  fact,  the  meaning ‘doer’  is attested only three times (some would say four) before AD 312, and occurs only in conjunction with the genitive of a noun designating an activity. One example is found in Polybius (first century BC), and the other two in Diodorus Siculus (first century  BC),  all  three  designating  the doer  or  perpetrator  of  an  action.”

Wolters then goes on to suggest that the “doer” of an action is actually the “master” of the action, which is really just another way of representing “authority”:

”The rarity and lateness of ‘authentes’ ‘doer’, as well as its exclusive association with the genitive of words denoting action, give reason to believe that this usage of the word is only seemingly distinct from that of  ‘authentes’ ‘master’. The doer or initiator of an action is conceived of as the master of that action, the one who is in charge of the action.”

It is difficult for me to imagine how Dr. Wolters divorced the use of “authentes” in Polybius’ from the meaning of “murderer.”  Polybius is writing about a man named Cassander.  Cassander was not merely the “doer” of “an action.”  He was in fact the “perpetrator” of “the Massacre at Moronea.”  In fact, he was a “mass-murderer.”  And yet, Wolters has used this example of “authentes” to support his theory that the word must mean some form of positive authority.

I find the apparent level of bias here to be stunning.

Moving to his mention of Diodorus Siculus, the word “authentas” is used to denote men who hid swords under their togas as they prepared for a violent attack on the Roman Senate.  “Authentas” is typically translated “supporters” here, and it was the attack on the Senate they were “supporting.”  Furthermore, their first act upon arriving at the Senate was to “murder” the Senate guard.  These men, like Cassander, were in fact “murderers,” as well as the “supporters” of violence.

And yet, here again Wolters claims that “authentas” is not associated with “murder.”  He claims it is yet another example of “authority,” someone being the “master” of his own actions.

(See photograph of Polybius)

Polybius authentes 1
The full account of Gracchus’ “supporters” and their attack on the Roman Senate can be found online at Harvard University’s Loeb classics.

Also, in contrast to Wolter’s assertion, neither Cassander nor Gracchus was the “master” of his own actions.  Cassander was acting under the orders of King Philip of Macedon.  Gracchus supporters, waited for his signal before murdering the Senate guard.

The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood seems to believe that this new edition of “Women in the Church” will firmly establish the notion that Paul is prohibiting women from exercising positive forms of authority in the church, simply because they are women.

I’m confident that anyone who looks closely at relevant evidence will see that nothing could be further from the truth.