New Testament Words and Verses
I Timothy 1:1-7, Getting Our Bearings
I have always loved the Pastoral Epistles, not necessarily for the reasons many might love them—as providing “true advice” or “helpful teaching” about how to organize a congregation or as expressions of intimacy between partners in Gospel work, but simply for the language that is used. I think I can perceive, even in the first few verses of this book, a language which not only doesn’t have Pauline echoes but takes us into a different world, especially in describing opponents. Though oversimplified, Paul sometimes will simply call opponents “dogs” (Phil. 3:2), but in I Tim. the language seems to come much more from the world of “heresy” or “false teaching.” More on that below.
Reading I Timothy I:1-2
The greeting uses a few phrases that both have a Pauline echo but also take us into different worlds from Paul. Paul is an apostle of Jesus Christ “by command” (κατ’ ἐπιταγὴν) of “God our Savior” (θεοῦ σωτῆρος ἡμῶν). Though the word for “command” and the corresponding verb (επιτάσσω) appear several times in Paul’s writings (though επιτάσσω only once—Phil. 8), the phrase “according to command” is unusual, appearing only in Rom. 16:26 in the closing lines of that epistle. But the phrase in Romans is interesting to pause upon. κατ’ ἐπιταγὴν τοῦ αἰωνίου θεοῦ (“according to the command of the eternal God”) in Rom. 16:26 is identical in structure to the “according to the command of God our Savior” of I Tim. 1:1. Similar modes of thinking, even though we don’t know at this juncture if I Tim. 1:1 is either meant as an imitation of the Apostle or is “genuine Paul.” We don’t know at this stage.
“Christ our hope” is a also a unique and arresting phrase. Then, when the author refers to Timothy as a “genuine child in the faith” (γνησίῳ τέκνῳ ἐν πίστει), it makes us think of Paul’s address to his γνήσιε σύζυγε or “genuine/true yokefellow” (γνήσιε σύζυγε) in Phil. 4:3. Lots of “echoes” of Paul at this point.
Moving on to 1:3-4
But then, when the instructional section begins at 1:3 we enter into a different intellectual space. The author begins with a mention of a trip to Macedonia which at first might encourage us to think back to the mental struggle of Paul in Phil. 1 as he was trying to decide where to go or whether he will be released from prison, but soon we are in the world of false teaching and strange myths. The words might be useful to quote (I Ti 1:3-4):
μὴ ἑτεροδιδασκαλεῖν μηδὲ προσέχειν μύθοις καὶ γενεαλογίαις ἀπεράντοις,
“Not to engage in a different teaching nor to propagate tall tales and boundless/endless genealogies”
All the significant thoughts in these brief eight words either are expressed by NT hapaxes or they appear nowhere else in Paul. For example, the first word, ἑτεροδιδασκαλέω, simply means “to teach different (things)” and here appears in the context of the author’s urging Timothy to instruct others not to teach these “different things.” The word is in need of immediate clarification, which then follows: “not to latch onto/pay attention to myths/tall tales and boundless/endless genealogies.” I took care to give alternate translations in order to show how strange these words sound to our ears today.
The “different teaching” would be related to “myths” and “genealogies.” We haven’t a clue as to what this might mean, but to me it assumes a process of development where competing ideologies can take on the label or name of “myth/fable” or “genealogy.” I like the notion of “boundless” connected with “genealogies,” though alternate translations of the underlying verb περαίνω include to ‘finish” or “accomplish” or “to be finite.” Interestingly, the verb περαίνω can be coupled with μύθος to express a speech or talk that just goes on and on. That our author uses the alpha privative and then the combination of these two words might be a faint echo of a deeper literary tradition. In any case, the language, though alluring, is both opaque and non-Pauline. Never does he seem to be interested in μύθος; that concept just appears in the other Pastoral Epistles and once in II Peter. Genealogies are even scarcer, occurring only elsewhere in Titus 3:9, where “strifes” and “quarrels” are also in view. Interestingly, the “strifes” of Titus 3:9 are ζητήσεις, whereas the “contentions/strifes” that appear in the next few words in I Tim. 1:4 are ἐκζητήσεις. The language, therefore, is non-Pauline, but it breathes the air of other literature of controversy and attack.
Continuing the Attack Mode in 1:6-7
Instead, the author wants to people to focus on the “economy/stewardship” of God (οἰκονομία) of God. That word only appears in the parable of the unjust steward in Luke 16 and one reference in Col. 1. We think we are finally out of the attack mode in verse 5, as we are given a nice threefold expression emphasizing sincere faith and good conscience and a clean/pure heart. But this doesn’t last long, as the allure of attack is just too strong, and so our author immediately takes the offensive in 1:6f., piling up hapaxes in a pleasant show of eloquence.
The unnamed opponents are people who miss the mark, though the unique word used to describe this process has nothing to do with the Greek amartano, but rather picks up on the word στόχος, a “target.” These are people who have missed the target, and they have turned aside (verb is ἐκτρέπω, which uniquely appears in the Pastorals and Hebrews) into vain speaking, also a hapax (ματαιολογία, meaning “meaningless discourse” or “foolish speaking”).
So, we are getting a brief taste of the Pastoral Epistle approach to life. It will have a dimension of attack, focusing on negative characterizations of people we don’t know, who are doing things we aren’t familiar with, and whose attack is of such a general nature that the only redemptive thing about the language are the interesting word formations. But the care for the faith, in the first (and many subsequent) century had to do with strongly standing up to people with whom one disagreed. No nice ‘agreeing to disagree’ in the earliest days of Christianity. You were right and they were simply speaking in vain mythologies or missing the target. Come to think of it, maybe not much has changed in faith discourse in 2023.
I Timothy 1:8-11
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