Studies in 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus—Lesson 3 (1 Timothy 1:1-7)
by Reta Halteman Finger
In the U.S. these days, we’ve been hearing a lot about “fake news.” We’ve probably heard or read plenty of it, and perhaps some or all of us have been fooled into believing some of it some of the time! But although the first two lessons of this series have raised questions of authorship, the Pastoral Epistles are not fake news! Behind “Paul’s” instructions to “Timothy” and “Titus” were actual Christian churches situated in the Roman Empire probably during the late first century CE. Even if Paul, Timothy, and Titus were no longer physically alive, their personages lived on in churches originally planted by these three missionaries. Our job is to re-create these contexts as well as we can and then figure out how—or if—these admonitions still apply in our very different time and places. We begin by examining 1 Timothy 1:1-7.
Hidden assumptions in a personal greeting—1 Timothy 1:1-2
“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope, to Timothy, my loyal child in the faith: grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord (NRSV).
Every Greco-Roman letter began with a salutation from the sender(s) to the recipient(s). Of the 13 letters attributed to Paul in our canon, Paul is the undisputed author or co-author of seven of them (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon). Scholars disagree to varying degrees concerning Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, and the three Pastorals—with Colossians considered most likely Pauline, and the Pastorals least likely.
In seven of these first ten letters, Paul includes one or two co-authors. Timothy is listed as co-author in six of these ten letters. He is identified as either “our brother” (2 Corinthians, Colossians, Philemon), a co-“servant” with Paul (Philippians), or named along with another sender, Silvanus, without description (1, 2 Thessalonians). Although Paul is always listed first, there is no status distinction between him and co-authors. They are equally “brothers” or “servants.”
In contrast, not only is Timothy the recipient in 1 and 2 Timothy, but now he is called “my loyal child in the faith” (1 Tim 1:2) or “my beloved child” (2 Tim 1:2). On one hand, this shows affection, but it also asserts a difference in status. Now Paul is a father to Timothy, which implies Timothy is younger and less experienced.
Thus, even in this greeting we find a certain hierarchy: God the Father (of the whole world) and Christ Jesus our Lord (of the church), followed by Paul, an apostle “by the command of God” (1 Tim. 1:1), and Timothy, Paul’s child. “In this way,” notes Annette Huizenga in her commentary, “the very beginning of this letter primes the reader for a particular social context: the patriarchal Roman household. Paul is an older authoritative man who is likened to a father of the younger Timothy who is his legitimate apostolic son, his heir, and his successor” (Wisdom Commentary, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, p. 2).
Instructions for dealing with opponents
In a Roman household, inheritance always passed from father to son (not to daughters). So Paul has an inheritance for Timothy: the “instruction” (1 Tim 1:5, 18), also called “the sound teaching” (1:10). In Paul’s absence, Timothy functions as the head of the church(es) in Ephesus. Omitting his more typical thanksgiving (cf. 1 Cor 1:4-9), Paul wastes no time giving Timothy authority over “certain people not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:3), which is apparently related to “myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations” (v. 4).
Who are these “certain people”? They are not named, but according to Jouette Bassler, this is “a frequent tactic in this letter and in other polemical writing of the period” (see 1:6, 19; 4:1; 5:15, 24; 6:10,21) “The effect,” she continues, “is to portray the troublemakers as shadowy figures…and to obscure their actual numbers and influence” (Abingdon Commentary, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, p. 38). They appear to be members or former members of the church, and not outsiders, since Timothy has authority over them.
We do not know if these teachers were men or women, since the Greek uses the generic masculine form, but Huizenga notes that, when specific opponents are named, they are always men (e.g., 1:20). But since the author does not permit women to teach (1 Tim 2:12), if they do so anyway, he may assume that whatever they teach is a “different doctrine” (1:3).
These “certain people occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies” (1:4). Bassler suggests this might have meant “cosmological secrets or…speculative interpretations of Jewish scripture.” But contemporary Greco-Roman philosophers would also discredit their opponents’ ideas by calling them “myths” (p. 39). The author contrasts this with “the divine training that is known by faith” (1:4b).
What is “divine training”?
The word translated as “training” is oikonomia, from which we get our English word “economy.” It comes from the Greek word oikos, meaning “house” or “household,” and nomos, meaning “law.” It refers to household management. (Remember your high school Home Economics class?) Philosophers wrote treatises titled Oikonomia, which would include “advice on marriage, child-rearing, and slave supervision, as well as agricultural practices and family religious observances” (Huizenga, p. 4). Here again we catch a glimpse of the “well-trained” Roman household, where everyone from the patriarch-father down to the lowliest slave has her or his role in the social hierarchy and knows how to behave accordingly (see also 1 Tim 3:15).
In the next lesson, we will again discuss what “some people” teach (1:6-7) and how that relates to “the law” and to the “lawless and disobedient” (1:8-11). In the meantime, ponder these questions.
Questions for discussion or reflection:
- What does the word “faith” mean as it is used in 1 Timothy 1:2,4, 5? Does it refer to faithfulness or does it refer to a body of beliefs that collectively could be called “the faith”?
- Read 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 and Galatians 3:25-28. How does the oikonomia described above compare with the theology from these examples in two of Paul’s undisputed letters? What significance do you see in this comparison?
Bassler, Jouette M. 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus. Abingdon New Testament Commentaries.: Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press,1996.
Huizenga, Annette Bourland. 1-2 Timothy, Titus. Wisdom Commentaries: Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016.