Studies in 1, 2 Timothy, Titus—Lesson 21 (Titus 2:1-15)
by Reta Halteman Finger
On a surface level, Titus 2:1-15 is not hard to understand. The author is writing his protégé, the overseer of the Christian believers of Crete, in order to provide ethical instructions for how these believers should relate to each other within their own households. Although the NRSV titles this chapter, “Teach Sound Doctrine,” the first verse (2:1) literally tells “Titus” to speak of “healthy teaching.” (From the Greek word, hugieia, we get our term “hygiene.”) Though “ethical teaching” seems more fitting in our language, the term “doctrine” seems out of place, like a formal theological statement of faith. Not until the last full paragraph are ethics connected to theological terms like grace, salvation, hope, and redemption.
The entire chapter concerns five groups of people in the churches of Crete: older men, older women, young women, young men, and slaves of these households. The slaves presumably also represent a range of ages and genders, but they all have the same role: to “give satisfaction in every respect [to their owners] . . .not to talk back, not to pilfer” (vv. 9-10).
The task of interpreting
As I have mentioned before, a major principle of biblical interpretation is to first find out what a text meant in its original historical context before we can figure out what a text means today. At this point, we can make several deductions from what we already know before looking at historical sources
- The four groups of Christian believers on Crete represent roles in a typical Roman household. They are not slaves, since the latter are mentioned separately.
- Neither older nor younger men are asked to submit to anyone (vv. 2, 6-8).
- Younger women are asked to submit to their husbands and be good managers (but not servants) in their households (v. 5).
- The word “self-control” is used several times in this text (NRSV), directed especially to the young men. This implies that families represented here must have been relatively well-off and thus have had more leisure time than most classes of people in the Empire.
- Although slaves must prove their faith through “complete and perfect fidelity” to masters (vv. 9-10), there are no reciprocal obligations from masters or other household members toward their slaves.
- This one-way parallel can be seen in the other family and household relationships as well. Older women should teach younger women to love their husbands and children (v. 4), but there is no comparable instruction to men to love their wives.
- Only older women are warned of alcohol addiction. (v. 3).
What questions arise in your mind about these statements? How are they similar or different from other ethical instructions in Pauline letters? Now add the above observations from Titus 2 with some additional background:
Women on the island of Crete
In Roman Wives, Roman Widows, Bruce W. Winter’s research on the status of women on the island of Crete itself highlights how, as early as 450 BCE, women had more legal rights than either Athenian or, later, Roman women. Any property a woman brought to her marriage was her own, even in the case of divorce or widowhood. Strabo, a Greek philosopher and historian writing around the beginning of the Roman Empire, noted that Cretans included in their constitution the belief that “liberty is a state’s greatest good, for this alone makes property belong specifically to those who have acquired it” (Strabo, Geography, 10.4.22; quoted in Winter, p. 142). They also worshiped several goddesses and called Crete their “motherland,” rather than the more conventional “fatherland.”
Winter notes that the island of Crete was one of the last strongholds to fall to the Roman Republic in 71 BCE, and that it gradually became Romanized. Conversely, however, Rome eventually copied the practice that women could retain their own property (p. 144).
Roman politics and morals
In A Feminist Companion to the Deutero-Pauline Epistles, an essay by Lilian Portefaix, “Good Citizenship in the Household of God,” discusses the later political and moral climate throughout the Roman Empire. As the Christian faith spread in many areas, it often was perceived as a political threat in this era. The imperial cult had gained strength in Asia Minor during the reign of Domitian (81-96 CE), and the emperor Trajan (98-117 CE) feared any kind of association or club that might turn into political rebellion or slave revolt. As Portefaix concludes in her essay, “Not only women but also slaves and leaders of the church on various levels were encouraged to adapt themselves to the social pattern of Roman society in order to escape persecution” (p. 157).
Both Winter and Portefaix discuss many more details, including the decline of religion and morality in the early Empire. Roman women were asserting themselves more in public life and in business, but they were expressing more sexual freedom as well.
Although Titus 2:1-15 never mentions sexual practices, Winter reports that unmarried men (and some young wives as well) were participating in “after dinner” sexual promiscuity—which may be a reason temperance and self-control (Greek, sōphrōn) are mentioned so often (vv. 2,5,6,12). (For more details on various sexual practices in the ancient Roman context, see Lessons 14-17 on Romans 1:24-27 in my series on hermeneutics and “clobber texts” on this website.)
Questions for discussion or reflection
- How do you interpret the “healthy teaching” of Titus 2:1-15? What practices do you think are no longer ethical? What do you affirm and agree with in this chapter?
- How do instructions to older and younger women in Titus 2:1-15 compare with 1 Timothy 2:9-15?
- If you as a reader are a descendant of slaves, how do you react to Titus 2:9-10?
- Do you use an overall method of biblical interpretation—or do you pick and choose what you like and ignore the rest?
- What do you think about the modern “Titus 2 Woman” movements in their varied expressions? (See, for example, here and here.)
Huizenga, Annette Bourland. 1-2 Timothy, Titus. Wisdom Commentary. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016.
Portefaix, Lilian. “’Good Citizenship’ in the Household of God: Women’s Position in the Pastorals Reconsidered in the Light of Roman Rule,” in A Feminist Companion to the Deutero-Pauline Epistles, edited by Amy-Jill Levine. Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 2003, pp. 147-158.
Winter, Bruce W. Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003.