Salvation Through Childbirth

Among the odder verses of the letters of Paul is 1 Tim 2:15, which many people interpret as saying that women will be saved, in some sense, through childbirth.  This is an interpretation which strikes many Protestants as oddly in tension with salvation by grace, and it seems especially odd to Christian women who, for a variety of reasons, are not likely to give birth (such as nuns, single women, and infertile women).  Here are a few common Bible versions of the verse, taken from a range of different families of Bible translations:

  • NIV: But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
  • NASB: But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint.
  • RSV: Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
  • NLT: But women will be saved through childbearing, assuming they continue to live in faith, love, holiness, and modesty.
  • Douay-Rheims 1899 American: Yet she shall be saved through childbearing; if she continue in faith, and love, and sanctification, with sobriety.

On the other hand, reading it through again today in Greek, I noticed something I hadn’t previously: the first verb is singular (“she will be saved”) while the latter is plural (“they continue”).  Here are a few versions that preserve the swap:

  • KJV: Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.
  • ESV: Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.
  • NRSV: Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

What’s going on here?  Is this just bad grammar on Paul’s part (hinted at by the dash in the ESV)?  Or does this mean something?  Well, the typical rule with reading the Bible is that pronouns usually (not always) point to the most proximate referent from the preceding context.  So who is “she” in vv. 13-14?  All versions basically agree:

  • 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.

In other words, the closest feminine referent to v. 15 is not women in general, or “the woman” in the abstract, but Eve specifically.  Could the “she” who “will be saved through childbirth” be not women in general, but Eve?  What would this mean?

Well, Paul is recounting the story of the Fall in Genesis 3.  The curse on Eve in Genesis 3:16 is pain in childbirth, and immediately after the expulsion from Eden the Genesis account turns to Eve’s childbirth.  On the other hand, already in Genesis 3:15, the so-called protevangelium, enmity is foretold not only between the serpent and the woman, but between their offspring, and it is foretold that the woman’s offspring will crush the serpent’s head, though his heel is bitten by the serpent.  Genesis 3:15 has often been interpreted as the earliest hint of the suffering of a man born of a woman (indeed, perhaps born of a virgin, without a father, for “the seed of the woman” is a rare phrase in Hebrew) in order to defeat the ancient enemy of humanity.  Thus Eve’s childbirth ultimately introduced the Savior, Christ, into the world, by whom she and all of us must be saved.  In looking at versions for this post, I noticed that Eugene Peterson’s The Message seems to be leaning toward this sort of interpretation, although it still seems to distinguish between the woman giving birth and Eve:

  • The Message: Adam was made first, then Eve; woman was deceived first—our pioneer in sin!—with Adam right on her heels. On the other hand, her childbearing brought about salvation, reversing Eve. But this salvation only comes to those who continue in faith, love, and holiness, gathering it all into maturity.

I don’t have all my questions about 1 Tim 2:15 answered.  (In particular, what is the relationship between the two halves of the verse, and, if this is referring to Eve’s salvation through the birth of the Savior, what is the “if” doing there?)  But I am leaning towards interpreting the first pronoun as a reference again to Eve, perhaps an initial step on a trajectory which a little over a century later led to the typology of Mary as the second Eve in the works of Irenaeus.

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5 comments

  1. Excellent post! Very interesting topic, and one that always results in the head being scratched more than usual 🙂

    Perhaps it means that ‘she’ (i.e.; Eve – the mother of all humanity) will be saved by ‘they’ (i.e.; all those who continue from her – the human race in general, but for Paul more specifically those born again ‘in’ Christ) ‘if’ they continue in faith and love and holiness, and modesty, in the sense that all who commit themselves to such a life and particularly those who are a new creation in Christ, become part of that great redemptive process which renews or makes up for what happened in that great original fall from grace.

    As you point out, the role of the Blessed Virgin as the New Eve can be related to this in the sense that it is through her that the Redeemer is brought into the world, and so she can be seen as a sort of catalyst for the work of redemption that corrects the original calamity. She gives birth to Christ, whose mystical Body we later become part of, and join in His redemptive work by continuing in faith, love and holiness (by His grace of course).

  2. I’m surprised that a significant fraction of translations transpose the singular “she” to the plural “women”. That really does create problems in interpretation that identifying “she” as Eve solves quite nicely. I wonder what the basis of the translators is for doing that.

    1. I suspect it’s a tradition of interpretation which refers the “she” to an abstract “woman.” This seems to be, although I’m not fully sure in light of confusing syntax, the direction of Matthew Henry’s commentaries, which in some ways represent a widespread (or at least widely available) Protestant interpretive tradition. From an “abstract woman” referent, translations might move to plural “women” in light of contemporary American English’s suspicion of singular collective nouns (we have largely replaced sentences that used to begin, “Man does…” with “People do…”). But that’s just a guess.

  3. I too have always been puzzled by this verse. I find your possible interpretation compeling yet share the same question as Alex as it seems likely the translators know what you know about the grammar and construction of the text. Still, it is seldom mentioned that our original parents share our same need of the Savior. How would you, dear theophiletos, render this verse from the Greek, informed by your hypothesis, yet true to the text?

  4. So a painfully literal rendering of the verse could be, “And [he/she/it] will be saved through the childbirth, if they remain in faith and love and holiness with sober-mindedness.” The word “the” before “childbirth” is surprising, since Greek often omitted the definite article after a preposition, but it need not mean that a specific childbirth is meant (the definite article in Greek sometimes indicates the phenomenon in the abstract). There is no pronoun in the first part of the verse, only a verb that indicates that the subject is singular. Since the nearest singular subject is Eve, we supply “she” as the grammatical subject.

    But I still don’t know who the “they” in the second half of the verse is, or how their remaining with these virtues relates to the first half of the verse. The standard Bible translation assumes that this is a grammatical slip, and both the first and the second half refer to women in general. Mkenny114 above has a suggestion, but I’m not persuaded by it.

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