I confess I see hermeneutics as more of a jigsaw and less of a card game--it’s not so much about playing a trump card as it is about putting together the pieces.
While I do believe each of the criteria mentioned in the OP are relevant, I’ll attempt to describe which I believe carries the most weight in understanding Paul’s meaning in 1 Timothy (and especially 1 Timothy 2).
I’ll use 1 Timothy 2:9 as a model for answering this question, and then apply those findings to see how well they fit with the more challenging verses.
1 Timothy 2:9
Translation: verse 9 presents relatively little translation difficulty.
Audience: the audience for this particular instruction is evidently more than just Timothy (since he’s a man), but is the audience just Timothy’s congregation or a larger group? I suggest our best hope of answering this question comes through the cultural context.
Cultural/historical context: Here I believe we can make some significant headway. Timothy is leading the church in Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3), a major city in its region, where Paul himself had lived for more than 2 years (see Acts 19), and home to the Temple of Artemis/Diana--one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world and a hotspot for the cult of Diana (e.g. see Acts 19:23-28).
In some expressions of the lore, believers in Diana saw her as the goddess of pregnancy, and would seek her protection during childbirth (see here). The cult of Diana connection is interesting because verse 9 is specifically calling out hairstyles the prostitutes of the cult of Diana were known for (see John Stott's work here p. 84). While I find nothing in scripture that departs from the counsel for modesty (and much that supports it), the very specific details on grooming appear to be geared towards a specific piece of cultural/historical context.
Verse 9 summary: the single most valuable key to understanding the verse is that the church in Ephesus is being counseled: don’t associate with the cult of Diana. (In fact, don’t even look like them aka avoid "all appearance of evil”). Paul provides general counsel: be modest, and then a specific cultural/historical application: don’t dress like the cult of Diana.
Cultural/historical context as a clarifier for translation and audience
Let’s now examine the subsequent verses based on the model above.
Audience: I propose that Paul is following a similar method in verses 10-12 as used in verse 9--he’s providing general counsel with a specific cultural/historical application. I’ll run with this hypothesis unless/until it proves faulty. In this sense, the audience is important, but unhelpful to our hermeneutics unless we know the cultural/historical context.
Translation: There is certainly something to be said for abrasive choices in translation here:
The verb sometimes translated “to exercise authority over” is αὐθεντέω; it is found nowhere else in the New Testament, and could more appropriately be translated “to domineer” (see an excellent summary by Dottard here).
The word here is ἡσυχία which connotes being tranquil & calm. It does not mean speechless—that would be better expressed with σιγή (see here). It is noteworthy that the related word ἡσύχιος (again, tranquil) is applied to men & women in verse 2.
But even softening the translation does not entirely clarify Paul’s message--is he really saying women cannot teach? How can he say that given his conflicting counsel in other settings? (e.g. Romans 16:1-7)
I propose that a better translation may soften the message, but it doesn’t really explain the message.
Let’s go back to our cultural/historical context--a letter written to the leader of the church of Ephesus.
Paul discourages flaunting one’s apparel. As John MacArthur observed:
The expensive dresses worn by wealthy women could cost up to 7,000
denarii. Pliny the Elder, a first-century Roman historian, described a
dress of Lollia Paulina, wife of the Emperor Caligula, which was worth
several hundred thousand dollars by today’s standards (Natural History
9.58). Dresses of the common women could cost as much as 500–800 denarii. To put that into perspective, the average daily wage of a
common laborer was one denarius. Because of the extreme expense, most
women probably owned only two or three nice dresses in their lives.
For a wealthy woman to enter the worship service wearing an expensive
dress would shift the focus of attention to her. It could also stir up
envy on the part of the poorer women (Or their husbands).
(see MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1995). 1 Timothy (p. 79). Chicago: Moody Press,
as cited by Gregory Brown here)
In a society that didn’t have cars or technology to show off, clothing was all the more a status symbol--Paul wants the saints in Ephesus to know that is not what worship is about.
Paul speaks multiple times of the importance of tranquility & calmness on the part of Christians (men & women). Paul had lived in Ephesus and knew the people and the culture. Thus, we can reasonably infer, based on the specific focus given to it, that irreverence was a real problem among Timothy’s flock--in fact, Timothy may have even asked Paul for counsel on how to deal with it (that Paul would in his letters respond to specific inquiries is exemplified, for example, by 1 Cor. 7:1).
Based on what we know of Ephesus at the time, including the riot induced against Paul (Acts 19:28-29,34), and its associated rampant pride (Acts 19:27), irreverence in Ephesus is not difficult to imagine.
Paul teaches that women should not domineer men. Paul (though both a man and an apostle) didn’t use domineering to get things done either. He made great sacrifices for those he taught and practiced the principles taught by Jesus:
25 But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes
of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great
exercise authority upon them.
26 But it shall not be so among you: but
whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister;
27 And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: (Matthew
Note the historical context of Roman rule conveyed by these verses. Domineering wasn’t appropriate in a Christian community, whether by women or men. That Paul specifically mentions this in his counsel to women, then, means that this was a problem among one or more women in Ephesus.
Furthermore, let us consider again the cult of Diana. Were there former temple prostitutes in Timothy’s congregation? It is almost a certainty that some Ephesian Christians had in their past participated in the cult. I do not wish to besmirch this page with ugly details, but if any had carried over into their Christian life domineering, degrading, immoral practices from the cult of prostitution, there was no place for that behavior in a true disciple of Christ.
Paul says “I suffer not a woman to teach”. The switch from plural to singular here is as interesting as it is perplexing--some of my thoughts on the matter here. It may be that one woman in particular in Ephesus is being disruptive. Or perhaps the problem was bigger than that.
Whether this counsel was to one woman or more, Paul appointed overseers to the churches he founded, and expected them to be respected by members of the church. If there were members of the congregation who took authority unto themselves--or taught contrary to what was preached by duly appointed leaders--the gender of the disrupters was irrelevant.
We see this problem show up multiple times in early Christian history, such as Clement’s plea to respect the officers left in place by the apostles (see 1 Clement 44, some of these individuals had been deposed by their churches), and in Ignatius’ stress on the importance of structure and roles & responsibilities in the church.
We do not know the precise concern from Timothy had that prompted these words, but the general applicability of Paul’s statement is that we should act in the capacity God has given and respect those He has appointed.
Furthermore, as Gregory Brown has pointed out:
When Paul calls for women to learn, it is an imperative—a command—in
the original language. Paul commands the women to learn (see
This is noteworthy--unlike many cultures of the time, Paul wanted women to learn! There may have been few women at the time who were literate, but that didn’t mean Paul rejected the contributions and teaching of faithful women (consider his praise for Priscilla). The cultural/historical context shows Paul is decidedly not anti-woman. He appreciates the distinct roles, responsibilities, and gifts God has given to men and women, to Jew and Gentile, to the person assigned to teach and the person asked to learn, etc.
If translation takes priority in our interpretation, we’re still left with a Paul who says things that contradict his teachings elsewhere, particularly the surprising phrase “I suffer not a woman to teach.”
If audience takes priority in our interpretation, we could assume anything we like about them, or write off everything Paul says (literally anywhere!) as irrelevant any time it’s inconvenient. Appealing to the audience is helpful...if we know something about the audience.
I proposed running with my cultural/historical hypothesis until it proved faulty--it made it through the analysis of the most challenging verses, so at the very least I suggest we do not have grounds to reject it.
I suggest that the cultural/historical background forms the backbone of a clear rendering of Paul’s teachings in 1 Timothy 2. The cultural/historical background is not a “trump card” that renders translation or audience moot, but rather, a contextual anchor that makes the translation, knowledge of the audience, and the overall message work.
Given what we know about Ephesus during the lifetime of Paul--and perhaps even more importantly, what Paul knew about Ephesus--the counsel provided in this chapter appears to offer general principles followed by context-specific applications, such as:
- General principle: dress modestly
- Context-specific application: don’t dress like the cult of Diana
- General principle: be reverent at church
- Context-specific application: some in Timothy’s congregation,
apparently one or more women in particular, need to be told their
current behavior is not reverent
- General principle: God has given different roles to different people;
God has given different roles to men & women
- Context-specific application: Domineering of appointed teachers needs
to stop; the context strongly implies one or more women in Ephesus
had been acting in a domineering way. The men who had been given the
assignment to teach ought to be respected.
Some have suggested Paul did not write 1 Timothy and so much of the question is irrelevant. For evidence to the contrary, suggesting Paul did write 1 Timothy, see here and here pp. 74-78
Adam & Eve
The OP mentioned the discussion of Adam & Eve late in chapter 2. I acknowledge some ambiguity in verse 15, but I consider the following interpretation plausible and relevant.
Verses 13 & 14 are about Adam and Eve. If they are the antecedents for verse 15, “she” is a reference to Eve and “they” means Adam & Eve. Then Paul might be saying something like this:
Redemption from the Fall will come because Eve will safely carry into the world descendants, from whom will come her Savior. Christ is of the seed of Eve, and so her Salvation is indeed a result of her motherhood. Her role as a mother is a critical part of God’s plan to offer salvation to her and to the entire human family.
What about the “they”? Adam isn’t off the hook here. Eve does the child-bearing, but both mother and father have a sacred duty—together—to bring up their family in “faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” The righteous branch of their posterity, from which Christ will come, is borne by Eve, but is to be raised & taught by both Adam and Eve.