New Testament Words and Verses
I Timothy 1:8-11, Mixed Messages
I so much want to try to coax some useful and usable meaning from the Pastoral Epistles! After all, they are supposed to be more practical than theological, close to the real lives of real people, filled with pragmatic and sensible advice. That was the understanding with which I approached I Timothy. I wasn’t deterred by studying I Tim. 1:1-6, even though I was a bit disappointed by words that increasingly made no sense to me: “teaching other doctrines” or following “myths/fables” and “endless genealogies” or engaging in “meaningless discourse.” If the words made sense at one time, they certainly are too general to make any sense in 2023.
But after reading today’s passage, I must say that my preliminary assessment of I Tim. was far too generous. The four verses today are neither conceptually clear or measured in their condemnation. They read like the screed of one who has little capacity for making helpful distinctions but much skill in screaming at his audience. I do appreciate, however, the variety and rarity of some of his words.
Well, the claims I made need to be backed up, so let’s begin with translating 1:8-9a.
Οἴδαμεν δὲ ὅτι καλὸς ὁ νόμος, ἐάν τις αὐτῷ νομίμως χρῆται, εἰδὼς τοῦτο, ὅτι δικαίῳ νόμος οὐ κεῖται, ἀνόμοις
“For we know that the law is good, if someone makes use of it lawfully. Knowing this, that the law is not applicable for the righteous but for the lawless. . .”
The first line looks like it comes right out of Romans 7. Paul says there “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good (Rom. 7:11). Paul’s point in Rom. 7 is that the law is good but sin takes the opportunity to work through what is good to expose the sinfulness of humanity. Sin, which dwells within a person, is the culprit in twisting humanity’s good intentions to sinful actions. Paul’s argument in Romans 7, actually, is quite subtle as he considers the law, sin, human intention and action, and the conundrum of wanting to do good but finding that one does evil. Romans 7 is difficult fully to understand. It is a paean to theological complexity.
I Tim. 1:9 begins at the same place as Rom. 7:11, but quickly asserts a point that is unclear. The law is good if someone uses it lawfully. What? It would seem to me that the law’s existence and goodness is irrespective of how it is used. Paul doesn’t so qualify the value of the law in Rom. 7. And, what does it mean to use the law “lawfully?” Because the word νόμος and its opposite appears four times in fewer than 20 words here, one can assume that our author wants to “play” on the word.
But his play falls flat. The law is good if used lawfully. Paul wouldn’t agree with that. Rather, the law is good regardless of how it is used. It is people who are sinful or sin that has the power to work through the good thing to render people helpless. Law has a substantial, independent, and good existence apart from the way it is used by people.
Then, the passage says that the law is not applicable (literally “does not lie for”) the righteous, but for the lawless. What could this possibly mean? My reading of Paul is that the law is applicable for all; it isn’t just something that applies to a few people. Paul believes that all people have to deal with a powerful, eternal, God-given reality called the law. But these verses in I Tim. 1 seem to suggest that the only purpose of the law is to condemn people. How about as a guide for life? Well, once the ideas of the first two verses have little to commend them we wonder if things will improve in the rest of the passage. To our consternation, we discover that in the next verses the author just seems to borrow a page from Hellenistic ethical writers and pile up nouns and adjectives of people he condemns, whether or not the offenses he mentions have any relation to reality. Well, that’s a big claim; let’s move to the rest of the passage.
I Tim. 1:9b-10b
ἀνόμοις δὲ καὶ ἀνυποτάκτοις, ἀσεβέσιν καὶ ἁμαρτωλοῖς, ἀνοσίοις καὶ βεβήλοις, πατρολῴαις καὶ μητρολῴαις, ἀνδροφόνοις πόρνοις ἀρσενοκοίταις ἀνδραποδισταῖς ψεύσταις ἐπιόρκοις,
“[but the law is applicable] to the lawless and those unable/unwilling to submit to authority, to the ungodly and sinners, to the unholy and the profane/worldly, to murderers of father and murderers of mother, to killers of men, to sexual sinners, to those engaged in homosexual relations, to those who kidnap and enslave others, to liars, to those who break their oaths. . .”
It is almost as if the author was thinking about what he was about to write and said to himself, ‘Hm. . how does the law actually work and what is its value? Well, it has no value for the righteous people (i.e., those in faith), but for others it is applicable—and it no doubt condemns them.’ But rather than just saying, ‘For all the rest, the law points out one’s sinfulness and that one needs to repent,’ or something like that, the passage proceeds to give the most outlandish and unrealistic and vicious list of possible sinners. It is so ridiculous that any person reading it would have to smile, especially after realizing that the author is just trying to indiscriminately clobber all kinds of people, with little regard to careful discrimination of categories of sinners.
For example, the law is applicable to “the lawless.” That, actually, is a semi-clear statement, though I disagreed with it—believing that the law has something to say to everyone. Well, not being content to just give us the category of “lawless,” our author piles up five more generic categories of people, each of which can be differentiated from its predecessor and following term in no way that I can determine. We have “those not subject to authority/insubordinate”; we also have the “ungodly”. Stop for a moment. Can you in any way define these terms so that they actually delimit categories of humans or categories that differ from the preceding or the following?
Well, now that he has muddied the waters, why not stir them up some more, after dumping more piles of dirt into the water? For then we go to categories of the “ungodly.” Hm. . .how does the “ungodly” differ from the “lawless?” Well, never letting lack of clarity deter, he goes on to include “sinners.” Wow. More bad people, but I am having a bit of trouble differentiating sinners from the lawless, much less the ungodly. Well, we still have two more general categories to go: “the unholy” and “the worldly/profane.” Let’s put ‘em all next to each other and see if they can clearly be differentiated. We have:
LAWLESS INSUBORDINATE UNGODLY SINNERS UNHOLY PROFANE
Each of these is subject to alternative translations, also. The law applies to these people. I can just hear the desperate cry of a person..’Hm.. . .I know I am not lawless or insubordinate. I am not ungodly or a sinner or unholy, but DANG! I think I am profane or worldly. I just couldn’t sneak through the divine sieve! I stand condemned!’
Moving to Specific Categories
As if this wasn’t enough—that is, a list that really is no list because there is no way to distinguish any of the first six categories from each other, then the author decides to focus on specific sins that make the law relevant to people. Well, let’s imagine. We might want to start with something like, ‘Those who don’t love their neighbor consistently' or something that would be a large enough dragnet to catch people, but what do we have? The first three categories are “killers of fathers” and “killers of mothers” and “killers of men.” I suppose the third category covers those who either are not their individual mothers or fathers, lest they think, ‘hm. . I will avoid killing mother and father and then be off the hook, but DRAT! I just became guilty because I killed Mr. Greenjeans down the street.’
Well, you might argue that the category of parent-killers is pretty small, even though many teens have vowed to kill their parents. So, why does he list parent killers? Is he speaking metaphorically? Nothing so far gives us the slightest confidence that the author knows what a metaphor is, much less how skillful to employ one when writing. So, the law applies to those who kill their fathers. Ok…3 or 4 people a year in a wide area. To those who kill their mother. . .ok. . another 3 or 4, maybe fewer because it is harder to kill mom than dad. At this rate if we want the law to apply to everyone, we will have to have thousands of categories of deeds. And, all this emphasis on killing. Why does the Holy Writer dash first to murder? IS this the way to influence and try to get intelligent people to say, ‘Yes, you have SUCH a point. . .?’
So, he finally gets off the murderers, but then gets to those who have practiced sexual sin, especially those who have engaged in “pornographic” activity, whatever that really entails, as well as homosexual activity. Then, he condemns those who kidnap and enslave people. The one thing that can be said so far about our author is that he uses extremely rare words to get his point across. Most of the terms are NT hapaxes but truth be told, they are also extremely rare in the big LSJ. Our list ends up with liars, which is seemingly a little more common than killers of mothers, and then perjurers, or those who go back on their oath (literally).
If I have it right, these are the people to whom the law applies. The first six words cannot be distinguished, and the next eight refer to few people, even though many people might fit into the category of liars at least at one or another point of their lives.
The author tries to end this little section in verse 10b-11 by first introducing a catch-all statement (‘if someone does something else that isn’t included in the list’) which is contrary to the Gospel of the blessed God. He can mention the blessed God all that he wants but, in my judgment, he has ruined his credibility by his list of fourteen groups of people, at least six of whom can’t be distinguished from one another, and eight of whom do more to excite risibilities and wonderment than any kind of nodding or knowing concurrence. But this is the Word of God. What can one say?
In closing I will admit that I am greatly appreciative of the words that our author uses. Rarely have I seen six synonyms for ungodliness next to each other without some literary official throwing a flag and penalizing 15 yards for literary piling-on. I can memorize them and have a list at the ready to use in many situations where frustrations or other feelings overtake me. I can unleash the words in my mind or even in my actual words, and no one will know what I am saying. Further, I am terribly grateful for his introducing the relatively rare words for killing of father and mother—especially combining the father/mother with the verb for “thresh” or “cudgel” something to come up with words for matricide and parricide. I appreciate his use of the rare verb for enslaving—making a man into a bound foot—which is a particularly vivid way to characterize slavery. So, I am grateful for the words, though I have to confess the ideas don’t resonate.
II Timothy 3:1-4
Back to NT Page