Note: updated 2/5/2013 to reflect one more observation on the article made by a friend.
The latest issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, volume 55 (December 2012), has a number of interesting articles for NT students (forgive my bias towards New Testament studies; it also has some decent non-NT related articles as well!) We have K. G. Beale's article on Matthew's citation of Hosea 11:1 and my friend Joe Greene's article on the Holy Spirit and God's temple in the NT as well as others (including some sort of debate on 1 Corinthians 10:13 and free will!). What especially caught my eye, however, is Moyer Hubbard's article on 1 Timothy 2:15 ("saved through childbearing"), what I've long considered to be the most difficult verse in the New Testament to interpret.
Hubbard is a NT prof at Talbot School of Theology (Biola). His well-written article does not advance a new thesis, but rather provides new and improved arguments for a particular view on this passage. I'm almost convinced of his arguments (his view is not a view that I've held to in the past), though there are a few areas I would like to see developed better. The reader especially interested in this notoriously difficult debate should make sure they get a copy of the latest JETS (or at least this article) for themselves rather than relying on my own summary and (sort-of) analysis.
Summary of Hubbard's article
Hubbard's thesis is that 1 Tim 2:15 should be translated ""But she will be kept safe through the ordeal of childbearing" (p. 743); in other words, it is not a reference to salvation or the Savior per se (the other two common views), but rather the act of giving birth to a child.
The first two sections deal with the meaning of sozo ("to save") in the New Testament and in Paul's letters. He correctly argues that sozo in the NT can mean both save and rescue (i.e., non-soteriological). He counters the common objection that Paul's usage of sozo is strictly soteriological by pointing to 2 Timothy 4:18 and 2 Cor 3:15. The former relies on his analysis of the preposition eis combined with sozo, while the second depends on his assertion (following BDAG) that the word here simultaneously works on both the spiritual and the physical level. Thus, for 2 Cor 3:15, the phrase "saved through fire" "is intended to be heard on two levels, as the climax of the metaphor (the foolish builder escaping through the billowing flames) and as its application (saved, albeit through dangerous circumstances)" (p. 749).
In the third section, Hubbard examines "The Literary-Theological Context of 1 Timothy 2:15." In the process, he critiques the other common views on this passage. Against the view that this passage means "although Eve transgressed, women can be saved through childbearing," Hubbard objects that this does not explain why Paul brings up the issue of childbearing in the first place and that it would allow for a non-Pauline "theological conundrum of salvation by works" (pp. 750-751; more on this later). Regarding the second common view, that the passage is actually referring to "the childbirth" (i.e., the coming of the Messiah), he quickly dismisses this by arguing that such a highly technical and unprecedented meaning would not be easily picked up by the reader: ". . . with this interpretation, one must postulate a meaning for this word that is completely unattested" (p. 752). Also, key in this section is how Hubbard points out that 1 Tim 2:15 can be directly linked back to the curse of the pain of childbearing in Genesis 3 (Paul is using a cognate noun of the LXX reference to childbirth in Genesis 3:16).
In part 4, "The social-historical context of 1 Timothy 2:15," Hubbard focuses on the very real danger of child mortality (and maternal mortality) in the 1st century. In part 5, Hubbard discusses the function of the preposition dia in the phrase "saved/delivered through childbearing." He argues that dia here is used as "attendant circumstances" rather than "means," and he cites 1 Corinthians 3:15 as a clear instance of Pauline usage where dia is used with sozo to refer to preservation "through difficulty." For the 5 instances that sozo with dia refer to "saved by means of," Hubble argues that ". . . the only reason we know this--is because the phrase attached to sozo dia makes its meaning obvious beyond doubt: saved by means of Christ's death, the cross, faith, etc." (p. 757)
In part 6, Hubbard deals with the most serious objection against his thesis, namely that good Christian women do indeed die in the process of childbearing. Hubbard argues along the lines of 1 Tim 2:15 being a more generic "proverbial promise of blessing" such as found in 1 Peter 3:10 (i.e., not every single person who guards his tongue lives a long life) and Ephesians 6:2-3 (not every obedient child lives a long life). Also as support of this, Hubbard takes verse 3:1, "this is a faithful saying," as belonging to the previous verse. In other words, "This is a faithful saying" = "the blessing pronounced in 2:5" (p. 759).
Section 7 deals with the suggestion that "childbearing" in 1 Tim. 5:14 represents [citing Douglas Moo] "the general scope of activities in which Christan women should be involved." Hubbard argues, contra Moo and others, that "A synecdoche is an easily recognizable, virtually transparent figure of speech in which the whole is represented in terms of its parts, or vice versa" (p. 759) and that "childbearing" (teknogonia) here most likely does not qualify. For Hubbard, "If teknogonia is being used as a synecdoche, it is probably the most opaque and obscure example in biblical literature," in addition to the fact that it makes sense as a reference to just the act of childbearing (p. 760).
Finally, in section 8, Hubbard defends his contention that "saved [soteriologically] by means of childbirth" is un-Pauline. He acknowledges that exegesis must precede theology, but suggests that this particular sense simply does not fit with what Paul says elsewhere.
In conclusion, Hubbard argues that, in light of the context and his exegesis, the expression in 1 Tim. 2:15 means "God will be faithful to those who are faithful, and he will keep you safe even through this harrowing ordeal of childbirth" (p. 762).
First of all, this is an excellent contribution to the discussion, and I am almost convinced by Hubbard's arguments ("almost," for now; with some more thought I may be totally convinced). His linking of 1 Tim 2:15 to the language of the LXX in Genesis 3:16 is very convincing and one of the strongest parts of his argument, in my opinion.
However, for me, it all hinges on section 6 of the article, "1 Timothy 2:15 as a Proverbial Promise of Blessing." If Hubbard can convince me of that, then the article has won me over. More work needs to be done here, however. It's one thing to point out that there are general statements of blessing in Scripture that are not applicable to every single individual; it's another thing to prove that 1 Timothy 2:15 falls into that category, and I think Hubbard could have devoted some more effort into this and into the "Faithful Saying" of 3:1 (there's been some significant literature written on the function of the "faithful sayings" Paul's writings, literature which I don't see Hubbard citing. He downplays the importance of 3:1 for his argument, when in reality this may be the key piece that brings some of us over to his side).
On the other hand, I am very sympathetic to his rejection of the soteriological interpretation of "saved through childbearing." A straight-up reading like that does seem to indicate salvation by works (specifically, giving birth!) If we argue that it means something like "saved eschatologically by adhering to the good works of motherhood that stem from genuine conversion," then this dies the death of a thousand qualifications and is way too nuanced an interpretation, in my opinion.
Furthermore, there's a critique of the "saved [soteriologically]" position I would like to bring up: namely, it only applies to married woman or mothers in general. What about single ladies? (in the sense of "those who have never become mothers") Paul himself elsewhere extols the virtue of singleness for both men and women, yet here he's saying that a woman is saved by means of giving birth? [or "adhering to her proper role as a wife," or whatever] The single women are left out! I guess they can't be saved then (forgive my facetiousness). This problem completely disappears in Hubbard's view, since single women miss out on the pain of childbearing anyway, and the context overall is focusing on the specific consequences of the woman's fall (including the pain of childbirth). Although, this needs more thought, because on second thought even Hubbard's view might exclude single women from the blessing when single women, it could be argued, are also in view in verses 9-12, unless we argue that it's more about the relationship of a husband to wife?? Hmmmm. Okay, I need to think this one through a bit more. Dear reader, please don't hold me to anything I just said in this particular paragraph, at least not yet!
Anyways, one final critique regarding the article. I wish Hubbard had given the "saved through the Childbirth [i.e., Christ's coming]" view a bit more thought. He dismisses it in a single paragraph, and personally I think it's worthy of a more thorough examination. It's been my preference ever since reading George Knight's commentary in the NIGTC series, though I fully acknowledge that it's a difficult view to defend exegetically.
So there you have it: Hubbard's article is well-worth reading and meditating on. Whatever positions we come to, however, we must approach the text in humility. Scripture can be very difficult, good people can disagree, and even the brightest scholars are bound to be wrong once in a while! Let's not let the difficulties of 1 Tim. 2:15 cloud over the Scripture's many clearer themes and more important doctrines.
Updated note: one more quibble. As a friend and fellow ph.d. student points out, Dr. Hubbard hardly touches on the last clause of 1 Tim. 2:15--"if they continue . . ." This is disappointing, since surely that clause has a bearing on how we should interpret the phrase "delivered through childbearing." While I'm sure that Hubbard can accommodate the role of that clause within his view, he needs to deal with it much more thoroughly before he has a fully convincing argument.