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In 1 Timothy, Paul says:

1 Timothy 2:15 (ESV)
15  Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

Does the "she" refer to Eve, or all women? And does the "they" refer to the same object as the "she"?

The New International Version seems to think that it applies to all women:

1 Timothy 2:15 (NIV)
15  But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

But a natural reading of this doesn't seem to agree with most Scripture, including:

Galatians 3:28 (NIV)
28  There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

How should 1 Timothy 2:15 be interpreted?

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I have read it was a play on words and directed toward women who were following Artemis at the time. – user6591 Dec 29 '14 at 16:03
I thought it was - because we 'can' bear children,..then..(see my answer below) – Hello Dec 31 '14 at 6:26
the way the question is asked, challenges the apostle Paul's statement – Hello Dec 31 '14 at 6:32
we aren't saved by having children ourselves, this isn't what this verse means – Hello Dec 31 '14 at 8:13
up vote 22 down vote accepted

Who is "she"?

To answer your first question, the "she" in verse 15 probably refers back to the she in verse 12 ("she must be silent"). For "she" to refer to Eve would seem like a digression. It's better to think Paul stays on point.

What does it mean for her to be "saved through child bearing?"

Having read numerous attempts at a reasonable interpretation, I've found Andreas Köstenberger's exegesis the most convincing. The article is for the CBMW, and anyway the issue is emotionally charged, so it's important to me that his arguments stick close to the text. And indeed, he surveys a number of texts; here are three key ones:

1 Timothy 4:16 - Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.

1 Timothy 5:14-15 - So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander. Some have in fact already turned away to follow Satan.

1 Corinthians 7:5 - Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

First, as you remark, a natural reading of the word "saved" doesn't allow this passage to agree with the rest of Scriptures. So we should look at possible defintions. One possibility comes from 1 Timothy 4:16 above. It's plain from that verse that Paul does not think that in the final judgment Timothy's listeners will be saved on the basis of Timothy's careful watch of his own life and doctrine. Rather the idea is probably better seen in a place like 6:20-21: "Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and in so doing have wandered from the faith." Therefore, we might understand "save" as in the sense of "protect someone from wandering from the faith."

Second, then, we ask how does "childbearing" protect anyone from wandering from their faith? The phrase "to have children" in 1 Timothy 5:14 is the only other instance of this term in the New Testament. And here we see it alongside a couple other verbs: "marry" and "manage their homes." It's possible then that Paul's use of childbearing in 2:15 is a shorthand for this larger idea. In the passage in chapter 5, the young widows are in danger of bringing judgment on themselves by being idlers and gossips and busybodies. To protect them from this, Paul counsels that they marry, have children, and manage homes. This will keep Satan from getting a foothold in their lives.

We see a similar pattern in the 1 Corithians 7 passage. Paul is concerned that by depriving one another couples will give opportunity to Satan to tempt them towards sexual immorality. Paul therefore recommends that they come together as a married couple as a means of protection. Thus while we wouldn't say anyone is saved in the final judgment because they had regular intercourse with their spouse, people might be saved from the temptation to go after shrine prostitutes and their idols and so forsake the faith.

Similarly, childbearing is not what saves a woman in the final judgement. A woman is saved in the final judgment like anyone else (their is no Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female...): through faith. Yet in this life, childbearing is a gift to help save her from making shipwreck of that faith.

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This is great - I've never thought about it that way. – Eric May 10 '12 at 14:36
Excellent interpretation. – alainlompo Mar 22 '15 at 18:23

Bible scholar Ben Witherington argues that the peculiar phrasing of this verse—the singular "she" in the subject combined with the plural "they" after the verb, as well as the form of τῆς τεκνογονίας, literally "the childbearing"—points to a particular birth, namely, the birth of Jesus.

Moreover, the context indicates that Paul is addressing a specific group of women here. Verse 9 refers to women "with braided hair, with gold and pearls and expensive clothes", in other words, high-status women.

In pagan temples these women would have had the right to teach others, simply because of their status. Just like Eve, who had not received proper instruction about the forbidden fruit (only Adam had received the instructions from God, according to the Genesis text, and Eve's response to the serpent indicates that either Adam had relayed the instructions incorrectly or Eve had misheard or misunderstood him), took it and ate and offered it to Adam, these women wanted to offer their wisdom without getting proper instruction.

Mary, on the other hand, submitted to the will of God and gave birth to the one who saves us all. Paul wants these high-status women to follow Mary's example rather than Eve's.

If Witherington is right, then "she" in verse 15 refers specifically to these domineering high-status women, but also more broadly to all women, "if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control." They are saved through Mary's child-bearing, through the birth (and death) of Jesus, and they are exhorted to follow Mary's example of obedience to the will of God.

Witherington acknowledges this interpretation is far from obvious, but insists that it makes the best sense given the cultural context in which this letter was written:

You will notice that all of this interpretation comes after the fact. You might never deduce some of this simply from reading the mere words in the passage above. Unless the text is studied in its historical literary, rhetorical, religious etc. contexts we are bound to distort its meaning and misuse it. A text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean.

The only proper hedge against misuse of such controversial texts like this is careful detailed study of the text in its immediate context, in the context of the Pastorals (noting for example how elsewhere in these documents Paul talks about older women who are mature Christians doing some teaching), in the context of Paul's letters in general, and in the context of Ephesus and the social world to which these words were written.

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This is an interesting argument, but it is based on a flawed understanding of Greek. The Greek phrase translated "childbearing" is τῆς τεκνογονίας, literally "the childbearing". This is misleading; ὁ, ἡ, τό ≠ the. The Greek article is not a definite article. It adds definiteness, but there are ways of adding greater definiteness (e.g. using ἐκεῖνος). Moreover, it must be understood that in English we have several ways to denote definiteness, including omitting the article. "Childbearing" is not a looser translation of ἡ τεκνογονία than "the childbearing". – Kazark May 18 '12 at 17:36
@Kazark: Gill's commentary (linked in your answer) makes this same case, that this refers to a specific birth: "and the sense is, that notwithstanding the fall of man by the means of the woman, yet there is salvation for both men and women, through the birth of Immanuel, the child born, and Son given; at whose birth, the angels sung peace on earth, good will to men; through the true Messiah, the deed of the woman, through the incarnate Saviour, who was made of a woman, there is salvation for lost sinners: he was born of a woman, and came into the world in order to obtain salvation for them". – Bruce Alderman May 18 '12 at 20:20
Good point. However, he doesn't base his analysis on the Greek article, and so evades my criticism. – Kazark May 18 '12 at 20:37
@Kazark: It turns out Witherington doesn't either, at least not exclusively. Witherington says the unusual structure of the sentence, including using "she" in the subject and "they" following the verb, contributes to his conclusion that this is intended to point to Christ's birth. – Bruce Alderman May 20 '12 at 5:12
Thanks for adding this answer, Bruce. – Soldarnal May 21 '12 at 2:50

Calvin and Gill agree that "she" refers to all women. Both take the through to be circumstantial rather than causal; that is, with the sense of passing through rather than by. Having just mentioned how the woman was deceived first, and therefore has the curse of the pain of childbearing upon her, Paul quickly moves to giving comfort that women who persevere in the faith by performing their womanly duties will be saved, and not men only.

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In Genesis 3:17-19, God had cursed the ground because of the sin of Adam, and therefore the earth receives the disobedient curse. Thus the ground produces thorns and thistles and is thus "disobedient" to the cultivation of the land by Adam (mankind), whose sweat of the brow is the turmoil that results. The Apostle Paul accounts for the disturbances of the earth (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, etc.) as to the "groanings" of the earth because of this curse (Rom 8:19-22).

The woman is cursed with the pain of childbearing (Gen 3:16). That is, she is not only pained with the physical turmoil of bearing children at the moment of birth, but of bearing the brunt of the burden of child-rearing or -raising (since the man must go out and till and scrounge the ground for food). Children too therefore will seek to be "disobedient" as a part of their nature of disobedience, and therefore cause turmoil to the mother first and foremost. Finally, her desire is for her husband (Gen 3:16), which is the reversal of the authority of man to woman (the created order). That is, contrary to her nature as created by God, she will seek to rule the man, whose turmoil will be his relationship to his wife.

So the sin of Adam threw everything upside down: the woman will seek to rule the man, the children seek to rule the mother (and father), and the ground seeks to thwart man, who walks on the ground, which is cursed.

The context of the passage of 1 Tim 2:13-15 is therefore an acknowledgement of the created order, and its subsequent upset by sin with a specific emphasis on the effect to the woman (Eve, "who was deceived"). In other words, if the believing (female) Christian concerned subordinates herself to the teaching of the Word of God, she will mitigate the collective effect of the Fall on herself. Again, the emphasis here is not limited to childbirth per se, but to her experience as a woman (mother, wife, daughter, and sister in Christ). So, if she is disobedient and disregards the Word of God and its delineation as to God's created order, then she is going to experience the pain as a rebellious daughter to her parents; and/or as a mother with rebellious children; and/or as a wife in a relationship with her husband, whom she does not respect, and for whom the man is not going to be loving. So the emphasis is not restricted to physical "childbirth," because (again) Paul uses the phrase "childbirth" as a figure of speech (called a "metonymy" in hermeneutics) for the collective effect of the Fall on the woman.

So the scope of the Apostle Paul in context here is wider than simply the idea of giving birth to children after 9 months of pregnancy, since the Fall as a whole is in view in the context. So "childbirth" is a "metonymy" for the effect of the Fall on a woman's life. The Apostle Paul is essentially saying in plain English that for the believing female Christian, outright disregard for the Word of God concerning the created order therefore only will serve to throw gasoline on the fire.

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"Women will be saved through child-bearing".

The obvious meaning that stands out in this passage is that;

1) women have been gifted with the unique role of contributing to, then carrying the newly formed human being, and giving birth to him or her

2) because of this role, and because Mary was a "woman", who contributed to, then carried the newly formed Jesus to term, then gave birth to him,

3) all women can be therefore saved, through childbearing, How so? Because "our role" through Mary, brought about the birth of the unique Jesus Christ, who was God's salvation plan extended to everyone, including women. (and especially women, because without us, through Mary, Jesus wouldn't have come into the world as the son of man.)

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to further clarify, our ability to child-bear, as women - brought 'Salvation Himself' into the world, so this is how we women are saved, 'through childbearing' and men can be saved too, because of this – Hello Dec 31 '14 at 6:29

I've recently studied the 1 Timothy 2:11-15 passage and am looking at this perhaps very differently than what I've seen others may be focusing on, given the context in the chapter. I'll be brief...

I think the verse that is the key verses for the chapter is 2:2,3 - the rest is all about helping that cause. Actually, the Apostle is adamant about not violating that cause ("I urge", "I want", "I do not permit"). He is not mad at men or women here, he is jealously safeguarding both and the church as a whole. Let me explain.

These admonitions above are the Apostle's commitments to hold together a new liberating faith so that it could continue to speak that faith in Christ to a hostile culture. His sense of how Christian liberated women could again (just like Eve began Adam's and our destruction) undo God's purposes for the Church was so acute that he issued stern exhortations. One to men about not arguing and being holy, and to women about propriety. Propriety is defined in Webster's as "behavior that is accepted as socially or morally correct or proper". When he says "women will be saved through childbearing", I believe he meant that they would be physically saved from harm, as the culture would more readily accept them. In that culture, unbridled liberality would have been not only unacceptable, but also physically dangerous to the women - and to the message to the community by the Church as a whole. Just as the Apostle did not crusade against slavery, likely for the same reasons (leading to the demise of his mission), he also wasn't about to lead a women's rights campaign at that point of their culture for both Jews, Greeks and Romans.

So, the passage in Genesis is not used to show that man is above woman, but that just about how the same destruction caused by Eve's being deceived could also destroy the Church. There is room to grow this thought, but I think that is enough for now.

Also, this passage isn't about roles or being saved through childbearing or being saved by the Christ-child, but about saving the mission of the church during that specific time.

The implications of this for now? The Church and each one of us must put the Mission first, the Great Commission. Propriety means living in such a way, by the Spirit of Christ, that our lives individually and in community speak of peace, quiet, godliness and holiness. Let the world hate us for the same message it also hated Jesus - but not from either extreme legalism (arguments about all those gray areas/doctrines) or liberalism (I don't know how we could be more liberal than our present day culture, so we may be safe here :) )

Another implication of these thoughts is that this passage, interpreted in this way, is not a proof-text on roles at all. The whole direction of the chapter is not at all about that issue. In fact, what may be viewed by women who read this passage as objectionable and from a woman-hater, instead should be viewed as the Apostle trying to preserve the lives of women, knowing well his times and the nature of man. There was a desperate need to intervene - not only to curtail the possibility of bad doctrine, argumentation and deception, but for the safety of the Church and its people in Christ.

I'll look forward to your thoughts on this and hope I've provided enough thought to share from what is perhaps a different way of viewing this section.

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