Sunday, March 2, 2008

First Timothy

First Timothy, Second Timothy and Titus are together known as the “pastoral epistles.” Each of these letters claims Paul as the author and each is concerned with leadership and with teachings that seem to deviate significantly from the Christian teaching of Paul. All these letters have a similar content and style.

Those who argue for Paul’s authorship do so by arguing that Paul was released from prison in Rome and engaged in a second period of ministry unrecorded in any of our sources. It was during this second period of his work that he wrote I Timothy and Titus. When he was arrested a second time, he wrote II Timothy from prison. It was this second imprisonment which led to his execution.

In all likelihood, Paul never left Roman custody and imprisonment, and was probably executed in about 64 CE. The martyrdom of Paul about 64 CE meant that one of the most important leaders of early Christianity was gone, but the Pauline tradition was continued by his disciples and associates. According to Acts, Ephesus had been a center of Paul’s missionary efforts, from which he and his coworkers established churches in the surrounding regions of Asia Minor. There is considerable evidence that after Paul’s death a group of Christian leaders who looked back to Paul as the primary apostolic leader of the church continued to interpret and adapt his message to later contexts. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

1Timothy is a letter of exhortation designed to combat the dissident teaching of insiders and the suspicion of outsiders at Ephesus…. The letter is replete with conventional philosophical polemics, commendations on irreproachable behavior, and images of the church as the household of God. Like the other Pastoral Letters, the letter regards any deviation from its own counsel to be false teaching…. If the letter is pseudonymous, or written by someone using Paul’s name… the name “Timothy” may simply represent someone in a later generation entrusted with the responsibility of transmitting Paul’s theological legacy with care and accuracy. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible)

What arguments weigh in on whether or not Paul wrote this letter, and the other pastoral epistles? We have already mentioned the difficult chronology usually associated with arguing for Paul’s authorship. It is also to be noted that in the earliest lists of Paul’s letters, these writings do no appear. “The vocabulary and style are very different from the undisputed letters of Paul, but resemble that of the church fathers from the second century” (People’s New Testament Commentary). “The church situation depicted seems to be later than that of Paul. Church organization has become more institutionalized.” (same source)

More scholars seem to argue against Paul’s authorship than for it. If Paul did not write them, the date and circumstance of their composition are more in doubt. They were probably written anytime between 90 and 150 CE, from Ephesus and were intended to be read in public at church gatherings.

I Timothy 1

I Timothy 1:1-2: As with other letters purported to be written by Paul, this one claims his authorship and identifies an intended recipient. Ironically, the concluding greetings in each letter are plural. Paul has never referred to God as “savior,” but this writer does so six times. Paul refers to Jesus as “savior” only once (Philippians 3:20).

I Timothy 1:3-11: The concern is raised at the outset about persons teaching “different doctrine.” The Pauline understanding of the Christian faith was considered normative by the author and his associates. He understands his own reinterpretation of Paul to be legitimate, to stand in the authentic Pauline tradition, and that of his opponents (who also appealed to Paul as their authority) to be deviant. (People’s New Testament Commentary) Such statements about concern for different doctrine make us uncomfortable. Christian history is strewn with examples of doctrinal disputes that ended in violence, and we do not want any part of that. I have used the image of elasticity to describe Christian faith. Christian faith has an elasticity to it. It can admit of some variation. But it is not infinitely elastic. One would have a difficult time, I think, arguing that reincarnation, for instance, is a Christian doctrine. It is appropriate to draw some boundaries around what is Christian and what is not. Unfortunately, our history has often also claimed that only Christians are good, and only Christians can genuinely know God. Therefore when we drew the boundary around Christian we also drew the boundary around goodness and genuine relationship with God. I believe Christian faith is elastic enough to include the idea that people other than Christians can be genuinely good, and that people other than Christians can have a genuine experience of God and God’s grace and love. That is debatable to be sure, but it helps me deal with the idea that some boundaries should be drawn around Christian faith. The author here is arguing for such boundaries.

What the author is arguing against is not clear. To label something a myth in the first century was “a typical philosophical slur” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). “Myth” can have positive connotations, as well, and did in earlier Greek philosophy, but not at the time of the Pastoral epistles. The author argues that those who teach a different doctrine are engaged in myth-making and idle speculation. Instead, true teaching is aimed at forming a whole person – nurturing love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith. Those who have other aims are engaged in meaningless talk and don’t even really understand what they say. The writer of this letter is not terribly generous to his opponents! In that, perhaps he fails in his own criterion of love.

These other teachers apparently appealed to the law, the Jewish scripture for their teaching. The author affirms the goodness of the law, in a way that indicates that some of Paul’s issues with the law were long past. The goodness of the law is found in its restraining function – it is intended to keep people in line. The writer lists a number of things that are shown to be wrong through the right use of the lay. The term “sodomites” referred to “the active male in a homosexual act” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). It is unclear that the term used here has much relationship with what we understand to be homosexuality today. Sexual practices in the Greco-Roman world are still a matter of study and debate. Many early Christians shared Paul’s view that same-sex sexual expression was illegitimate because everyone was heterosexual. But what if this is not the case – would the early church writers have then had a different view of homosexuality? To condemn all homosexuality on the basis of this one verse seems an inappropriate use of the verse. The point the writer is making is that the law is oriented toward controlling behavior, and he supplies a list for illustrative purposes. Those teachers he opposes may have used the law in a very speculative manner.

I Timothy 1:12-20: The author uses the story of Paul to make some points about the Christian life and Christian leadership. The author expresses the wonder of God’s overflowing grace, recalling that this grace transformed the life of Paul – from one of opposing the purposes of God and of violence to a life of faith and love in Jesus. The initial section ends with a doxology. The author encourages a younger teacher, noting that some others have “suffered shipwreck in the faith.” Certain persons are mentioned by name. Apparently these persons were expelled from the community (handed over to Satan).

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