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.