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The Epistles to Timothy

Updated on November 28, 2016

The Epistles to Timothy are two books in the New Testament that purport to be letters addressed by the Apostle Paul to his younger colleague, Timothy. Because these letters and that addressed to Titus chiefly contain instructions for pastors, the three are commonly called the Pastoral Epistles.


The fundamental historical question about all three Pastoral Epistles concerns their authenticity. If they are from Paul, they provide important information about the final period of his life and thought. In the 20th century, however, many scholars have denied that Paul could have written them, chiefly because (1) the Pastorals diverge considerably from the undisputed letters of Paul in vocabulary and style and also in general theological outlook, placing greater emphasis on "good works"' and orthodox belief; (2) the church order assumed in these letters seems more highly developed than it probably was in Paul's day; (3) the heresy they condemn fits best with a 2nd century date; (4) the situations of Paul, Timothy, and Titus indicated in the Pastorals cannot be easily reconciled with data in Acts and in the other Pauline Letters, and (5) firm evidence of the use of these letters in the church appears rather late (near the end of the 2nd century).

Some scholars seek a middle ground between flatly affirming and flatly rejecting Pauline authorship. Some, for example, urge that these epistles were composed by a secretary who worked on the basis of general instructions from Paul. Others argue that the letters were written some years after Paul's death by one who had access to fragments of genuine letters of the apostle, and that he wove those fragments into his compositions.

The whole problem is famous for its complexity and difficulty. A fully adequate solution to it has yet to appear. Probably, however, the epistles to Timothy and the one to Titus are best regarded as the work of someone who used Paul's name because he believed himself to be faithfully presenting Paul's message for the writer's own time (II Timothy 1:13; 2:2). He was probably a church leader who wrote for the enefit of fellow leaders near the beginning of the 2nd century in the area of Asia Minor.

Circumstances of Composition

These letters reflect an era when church leaders needed their duties more sharply defined, ordinary believers required plain moral instruction, and heretics threatened to divide or conquer whole congregations. The heresy (or heresies) to which the epistles allude evidently combined Jewish and Gnostic features. The writer mentions claims to extraordinary knowledge (gnosis) and "godless chatter" about myths and genealogies. Advocating a kind of fanatical dualism, the heretics claimed to be living already in the resurrected state (II Timothy 2:12) and oerhaps favored moral libertinism.


Although some time probably elapsed between the writinig of the two epistles (II Timothy may have been written first) they overlap so much in substance that it is best to consider the content of the two together. The author carefully describes the qualifications for several established church offices (bishop, deacon, and widow), and underlines the responsibility of bishops to maintain "sound doctrine". By establishing doctrinal authorities, the early church was in part seeking to cut the ground out from under heterodox teachers.

The writer recommends various measures against heretics, ranging from warning to excommunication. He attempts no detailed refutation of their ideas but castigates them for idle specula ion and immorality. Likewise he offers no sustained exposition of what he regards as right belief but only pithy reminders of its essential content. Sometimes these are in the form of quotations of primitive creeds or hymns, as, for example, in I Timothy 3:16 and II Timothy 2:8,9-11. The distinctive Pauline doctrine of justification by grace is insisted on, together with the corollary that God desires all men to be saved.

In opposition to the heretics, the writer affirms the goodness of the material world, the dignity of marriage, and the edibleness of all foods. The lives of believers, he declares, must be pure, disciplined, and respectable. He lists special duties of different classes of Christians (wives and husbands, slaves and rich men) and demands that church leaders set examples of integrity. He notes that believers have positive obligations toward society at large and the state, but reminds his readers that they must be ready if need be to endure persecution as Paul did.

Noteworthy for both moral passion and practicality, these epistles offer vital evidence of the growth of church organization and the struggle against heresy. The fact that they were written in Paul's name facilitated theirĀ  acceptance, and they in turn helped assure his lasting influence on the mainstream of Christianity.


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