Pastorals and the Canon: Closing Thoughts with 2 Timothy 3:10-4:22

Raphael, St Paul Preaching in Athens
St Paul Preaching in Athens, painting by Raphael, 1515, Wikimedia Commons

Studies in 1, 2 Timothy, Titus—Lesson 25

by Reta Halteman Finger

Our series on the Pastoral Epistles ends with Paul’s final instructions to his “beloved child” in 2 Timothy 3:10–4:22. Here again, “Paul” shifts back to addressing “Timothy,” using the second person singular (Greek: su) instead of the plural humeis (unlike in English, where “you” is both singular and plural). “Paul” uses his life of faithfulness amid persecution as an example for “Timothy” to follow (3:10-11), warning him in testamentary style that things “will go from bad to worse” (3:13), and “people will not put up with sound doctrine (lit. “healthy teaching” in 4:3-4).

Challenging an oft-quoted verse

Christians who stress the inerrancy and inspiration of both testaments of our Bible often refer to 2 Timothy 3:16—“all scripture is inspired by God….” But there are two problems with such an interpretation. First, when 2 Timothy was written (late first or early second century), the only scriptures the early Christians had were the scrolls of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. Eventually, all thirteen letters attributed to Paul were read in church worship, but they were not considered “scripture” until much later. The development of the New Testament canon was a long process not officially completed until 367 CE.

The second problem is that the original Greek of 2 Timothy 3:16 does not affirm total inspiration of scripture either. English translations usually say something like, “All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness (NIV). The NRSV is similar, except the footnote includes an alternate and more accurate translation of the original Greek text: “Every scripture inspired by God is useful for….” The Greek text implies that only particular scriptures inspired by God are profitable for teaching, etc. Now that the Pastoral Epistles are part of our “scripture,” we can easily see that 2 Timothy 4:13—“bring me the cloak I left in Troas”—is not useful for teaching, correction, or training in righteousness!

The nagging question of authorship

In an earlier lesson in this series, I commented on David Barr’s suggestion that parts of 2 Timothy read like fragments of real letters from Paul. He refers to 2 Timothy 4:6-18 as “either words from a letter of Paul or the work of an extraordinary imitator.” The reference in 4:13 to the books and parchments “is perhaps too clever for an imitator” (New Testament Story: An Introduction, p. 195).

I am open to that possibility, but Paul could not have written these details from captivity in Rome (as those who hold to Pauline authorship assume from Acts 28:30-31). Look up and click on this map of the Roman Empire. If Timothy is in Ephesus (in what is now western Turkey), and Paul left a cloak, books, and parchments in Troas, it is unrealistic to ask Timothy to walk to Troas and bring these things to Rome, which is about a thousand miles away and would involve weeks of travel by land and sea.

It only makes sense that, if Paul wrote this fragment to Timothy, it was at least five or six years earlier while he was missionizing in Asia Minor or Macedonia. That would also explain why Titus is in Dalmatia instead of Crete, and why Paul tells Timothy to greet Prisca and Aquila who had lived in Ephesus for a time (Acts 18:24-26), but who, ironically, are now in Rome! If this is so, the pseudonymous author of 2 Timothy would have added this earlier fragment to his letter to make it sound more authentic.

(As an aside, if that fragment is Paul’s, I am curious about his “books and parchments” in verse 13. Were they parts of our Old Testament? Were they early Christian letters that were never preserved, or isolated stories from Jesus’s life? We will never know!)

A patriarchal hierarchy

Amid all his greetings in 2 Timothy 4:9-22, the author mentions 17 names, but only two of them are women: Prisca and Claudia. In the three Pastoral Epistles combined, 27 men are named (six of them more than once), but only five women, each mentioned once: Prisca, Claudia, Lois, Eunice, and Eve. Four names are either neutral or positive—but the fifth, Eve, was the woman bringing sin into the world! (1 Tim 2:14).

Annette Huizenga concludes that “the world of the Pastorals is mostly populated by male actors.…Along with 1 Timothy and Titus, the entire letter [of 2 Timothy] rests on the patriarchal perspective that men ought to be in charge of their households and likewise…manage the community of believers. Therefore, because Paul is depicted as the original and continuing head-of-the-household-of-God, he functions as the role model for his male successors” (Wisdom Commentary, p. 131).

The concept of order pervades all three Pastoral letters. The church is modeled after Roman household structure instead of a family of sisters and brothers. Good standing in the larger community has replaced the concept of freedom in Christ. Slaves of any gender must honor and submit to their masters (1 Tim. 6:1-2). Paul’s preference for believers remaining single (I Cor. 7:25-35) has shifted to women being saved through childbearing (1 Tim. 2:15) and alpha men taking charge of their households as well as the church community (1 Tim. 3:1-13).

Barr summarizes the issues dealt with in the Pastorals with the following list (p. 200). Notice how all or most of the items imply male-dominated hierarchy.

What a different emphasis from the freedom proclaimed in Galatians! Or the cross-and-resurrection-centered theology of 1 Corinthians! Or the longing for Jesus’s return in 1 Thessalonians!

Questions for discussion or reflection

  1. How do you compare these letters with Paul’s undisputed letters of Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon?
  2. In the time since the Pastoral letters were written, how far towards gender justice and racial equality do you think our culture has come?
  3. Are any of these letters used or taught in your church experience? If so, in what way?

Sources used

Barr, David L. New Testament Story: An Introduction. Fourth edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009.

Huizenga, Annette. 1-2 Timothy Titus. Wisdom Commentary, Vol. 53. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016.

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.

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