Women, Adorn Yourselves with “Sobriety” (1 Timothy 2:9)


In 1 Timothy 2:9, Paul says believing women are to adorn themselves with sophrosunes (σωφροσύνης).

The King James Version reads: “In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety (sophrosunes); not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array.”

About a year ago, I decided that I needed to get a better handle on how sophrosunes was used. When I began my investigation, I was startled by what I found.

Comparison of English Versions

A comparison of major English translations reveals a surprising lack of consensus about the meaning of sophrosunes:

KJV:       sobriety
ASV:      sobriety
NASB:    discreetly
LEB:       self-control
ESV:       self-control
HCSB:    good sense
NIV:        propriety
NLT:        decent (?)
RSV:       sensibly
NRSV:    decently
CEB:       sensible
NET:       self-control

Several things stood out to me about this data:

  1. the NASB is alone in translating it “discreetly”;
  2. self-control (ESV, LEB, NET) and sensible (RSV, CEB, HCSB) are the front-runners;
  3. decent (NRSV, NLT) and sobriety (KJV, ASV) trail next.

The word sophrosunes occurs only three times in the NT: Acts 26:25 (where it means reasonable) and twice in Paul: 1 Tim. 2:9, 15. It does not occur in the canonical LXX.

Significant Uses of Sophrosunes Outside of Scripture

Since sophrosunes occurs so infrequently in Scripture, I needed to look outside of the NT for help in discovering its meaning.

4 Maccabees has an extended discussion of reason and its relation to sophrosunes. The following statements are striking in providing a perspective on this word:

  • 4 Maccabees 1:3 “… reason rules over those emotions that hinder sophrosunes, namely, gluttony and lust,… ”
  • 4 Maccabees 1:30 “For reason is the guide of the virtues, … rational judgment is sovereign over the emotions by virtue of the restraining power of sophrosunes.”
  • 4 Maccabees 1:31 “sophrosunes then, is dominance over the desires.”
  • 4 Maccabees 5:23 “[our philosophy] teaches us sophrosunes, so that we master all pleasures and desires,…”

Other extra-biblical authors use sophrosunes in similar ways. For example, Plato describes it in these ways:

  • sophrosunes … consists in not being excited by the passions and in being superior to them and acting in a seemly way …” (Phaedo 68c).
  • sophrosunes is a kind of beautiful order and a continence of certain pleasures and appetites, as they say, using the phrase ‘master of himself’…” (Republic 430e)
  • “We all agree that sophrosunes is a control of pleasures and desires …” (Symposium 196c).

Josephus uses this term in his version of the Joseph and Mrs. Potiphar story. He ascribes Joseph’s refusals of Potiphar’s wife’s attempts to seduce Joseph to his sophrosunes (Ant. 2.48). Potiphar, on the other hand, mistakenly believes his wife to be “a woman of a becoming modesty and sophrosunes” (κοσμιότητα καὶ σωφροσύνην αὐτῇ; Ant. 2.59).

In telling the story of Balaam, Josephus says that Balaak sent out his prettiest women whose beauty was most likely to conquer the sophrosunes of those who behold them (Ant. 4.129).

Similar uses of sophrosunes may be found in the apocryphal Testament of Joseph, 4:1, 2; 6:7; 9:2, 3; 10:2, 3; as well as Jos., Ant. 18:66 and Philo, Sac., 1:25-26.


Based on the foregoing study, it appears that Paul was calling Christian women to beautify themselves with a self-control that refuses gluttony and lust (4 Macc 1:3), masters the passions, pleasures, and desires (4 Macc 5:23), and produces chastity (Jos., Ant. 2:48, 2:59), prudence (Jos, Ant. 11:217; 12:198; 17:247), and appropriate behavior (Plat., Phaedo 68c).

Now there’s a gem whose beauty outshines any external adornment! I suspect that Paul, under inspiration, forbids women to adorn themselves with extravagant hairstyles, gold, pearls, and expensive clothing precisely because such things mitigate against the cultivation and expression of the inward beauty of sophrosunes.



Originally posted at Exegetical Thoughts and Biblical Theology.

Philip Brown
Philip Brownhttp://apbrown2.net
Dr. Philip Brown is Graduate Program Director and Professor at God's Bible School & College. He holds a PhD in Old Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University and is the author of A Reader's Hebrew Bible (Zondervan Academic, 2008).