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In order to clarify who is a “widow in need,” Paul provides a description of a widow who is worthy of support (5:9-14). To a very large extent Paul’s description of a “proper widow” is consistent with wisdom literature (Prov 31, Ruth, perhaps also Judith).
She is not less than sixty years of age. Unlike the modern world, the age of sixty is quite old in the first century. No one really knows why Paul chose this number, Roman law used fifty as the definition of a widow who should be supported by public funds. It is possible Paul has in mind Lev. 27:7 which makes a distinction for vows after age 60.
She was a faithful wife, “the wife of one husband.” The phrase here cannot mean, “only married once” since Paul is telling younger widows to remarry. Potentially they could be widowed a second time and find protection in the church.
She has a “reputation for good works.” The woman is “well known” in the Christian community for living the sort of life that reflects her faith. Perhaps an example of this might be Tabitha / Dorcas in Acts 9:36, she was “always doing good and helping the poor.” Paul expands “good works” with four brief statements on what these good works might include.
She has brought up children. On a practical level, this distinguishes the “proper widow” from the young widow in the next paragraph. This women was faithfully married and has already raised a family.
She has shown hospitality. Proper hospitality is considered a virtue in the ancient world and was one of the criteria for an elder in 1 Tim 3:2. In fact, the letter of 3 John concerns proper hospitality towards traveling teachers in Ephesus.
She has washed the feet of the saints. Of the four phrases, this is the most difficult, although it may be related to showing proper hospitality. Rather that participating in the ritual of foot washing in the church, Paul is thinking of one element of showing proper hospitality in her home.
She has cared for the afflicted. To care for the poor is part of being a virtuous person in Judaism, and there is ample evidence that Greco-Roman women often participated in charity work. It is possible that Paul has in mind people who are facing persecution, but helping the poor is likely the main point.
She has devoted herself to every good work. This last line of the description returns to the idea of good works. To be “devoted” (ἐπακολουθέω) means something like “model oneself after.” 1 Peter 1:21 uses the word for following in Jesus; footsteps; here the widow has followed after good works, modeling her life after the sorts of things demonstrate her faith in a tangible way.
Does this list mean that Paul would not support an older widow who did not have this kind of a reputation? I doubt that Paul intended for the church to let lazy widows die of starvation! Jesus did not demand that people become perfect before he would talk with them or heal them. This description is the ideal, like the Proverbs 31 woman. In describing the ideal, Paul may be encouraging women in the congregation to aspire to this sort of a reputation. Paul sets up a definition of a “widow who is in need.” She does not have a family to care for her or other means of support (a managed dowry), she has already raised a family and is unlikely to remarry.
In Paul’s view, the church ought to care for people who cannot care for themselves or have no other means of support. The problem with a section of scripture like this is that it is very difficult to apply since the cultural situation has changed radically over church history.
The church must care for genuine needs of the poor and needy. Caring for the widow, orphan, refugee, etc. has always been an important ministry of the church. This care for the needy is found throughout the Hebrew Bible, the teaching of Jesus and the ministry of Paul and the other apostles. The early church excelled in caring for people that society would not. There are many sad examples of abuse of the system in history, both from the church and from the poor, but these tragedies ought not deter the church from their responsibility to care for those in need.
The church must be wary of people who want to avoid responsibility. The reason Paul works at defining a “proper widow” is that the church resources are limited. If there is no standard, then the limited resources will be stretched thin and genuine needs will be overlooked.
To neglect this responsibility is a shame on the church in the community. One of the greatest condemnations of the church by the world is that we spend too much money on our beautiful buildings and nothing on “real ministry.”
Having described the “quiet life” as a Christian virtue, Paul now discusses two potential disruptions of that quiet life.
First, men are command to pray without anger or quarreling (v. 8). It seems odd that people would pray in the church “in anger,” perhaps continuing arguments they were having in the act of prayer. The noun Paul chooses here (διαλογισμός) does in fact focus on differences of opinion which can develop into an argument. In Luke 9:46 it is used for the disciples arguing among themselves over who was the greatest, in Phil 2:14 Paul uses it in conjunction with grumbling.
It is possible that some people were using public prayers to condemn their opponents, continuing their dispute in prayer, when the opponent cannot respond immediately. (“Lord, open the eyes of my rather dull brother in Christ so that the Holy Spirit will teach him that clearly I am right and that he is wrong, may he repent soon of the sin of his stupidity in disagreeing with me over this minor point of theology….”)
Second, women are warned to dress modestly (v. 9-10). While this might seem to be a different topic, Paul is still talking about things which potentially cause disorder and chaos in during prayer. Paul makes a contrast between external adornments (jewelry, clothing hair styles) and godly, good works.
Paul does not forbid people from looking good in public, nor is Paul commanding woman not fix their hair, use makeup or wear jewelry. What he is concerned about is an over-emphasis on external beauty. The hair style Paul mentions is preferred by the fashionable, wealthy women, even though it is the exact opposite of the hairstyles found in public statues of Imperial women. He describes the jewelry as “costly,” one of the stronger terms he could have used in this case. Paul is not saying that women should not wear any jewelry, but that it should not be overly expensive.
Bruce Winter points out that “jewelry epitomized sumptuousness” and was often associated with a shameful woman. He quotes Juvenal: “There is nothing that a woman will not permit herself to do, nothing that she deems shameful, when she encircles her neck with green emeralds and fastens huge pearls to her elongated ears” (Satires, 6.458-59, cited by Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, 208). These clothes are adorned with gold and pearl, two very valuable items in the ancient world. (The great whore of Babylon is adorned with “gold and pearls” (Rev 17:4). Jesus used a “pearl of great price” as an analogy for the value of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt 13:45).
If someone is wearing expensive clothing, real gold and pearls, they would be dressed like royalty! In Paul’s churches there are supposed to be no difference between rich and poor. A woman dressed like this is flaunting her wealth, or flaunting her family’s wealth.
Remarkably, this advice does not vary much from that found in Plutarch, in his “Advice to a Bride and Groom.” Like Paul, Plutarch points out that external adornments are nothing compared to a virtuous woman:
For, as Crates used to say, ‘adornment is that which adorns,’ and that adorns or decorates a woman which makes her more decorous. It is not gold or precious stones or scarlet that makes her such, but whatever invests her with that something which betokens dignity (σεμνότης, 1 Tim 2:2), good behaviour (εὐταξία), and modesty (αἰδώς, 12 Tim 2:9). Plutarch, Praecepta Coniugialia 26 (Moralia II, 141e).
The real problem with this verse is defining “modest dress.” It is possible that one person’s modesty will offend someone. The same thing is true for wearing expensive clothing: is this a question of Walmart vs. Kohls vs. Target vs. the trendy shops at the mall? I imagine Amish women get accused of immodesty for wearing the wrong color snood. Think about the difference between what a teenage girl wants to wear and what her father wants her to wear! What I think is too fancy and expensive is going to differ dramatically from someone else.
It is also important to read this text as applying to both men and women. If a man spends an inordinate amount of attention on his clothing, hair, and makeup, if he is focusing on his external appearance and not putting on godly, good works, then he is just as much of a distraction as a woman. This is not the problem in Ephesus (men have other problems), but the application seems to be clear.
Paul does not give all people permission to point out what they think is an immodest display, or a person wearing expensive clothing. He is urging people to think about the effect that their clothing might have on other people when they wear it in a worship service. There is no permission given here for you to be peevish about what other people wear.
The controlling idea is living a quiet, dignified life, whether women or men are in view. In both cases Paul wants his congregations to worship in peace, without distracting from the proper focus of worship, the One God who wants to draw all people to himself.
1 Timothy 2 is one of the most difficult passages in the New Testament, primarily because of the potential abusive applications of the second half of the chapter. It has been used to silence the voice of women in the church, despite the very clear Pauline teaching that in Christ there is neither male to female. Perhaps the situation is clouded by American political debate over feminism and the role of women in the church. Before getting to the really controversial section, I want to set the context of the chapter.
Paul’s main point in 1 Timothy is that the church ought to conduct itself in a way that is honoring to God and attractive to outsiders. In order to honor God, Paul insists that Timothy guard the truth of the Gospel and train others to keep that deposit of truth faithfully. In this section of the letter, Paul tells Timothy that the local church must conduct meetings in such a ways as to gain the respect of outsiders. On the one hand, this means praying for authorities, but more problematic is Paul’s concern that the behavior of some members of the congregation run the risk of repelling the outsider, the Greek or Roman who needs the Gospel.
The reason Paul gives is that the Christian community would be seen as dignified and worthy of respect (v. 3-4). Paul wants his churches to be models of a dignified “quiet life.” What is a peaceful (ἤρεμος) and quiet (ἡσύχιος) life? This sounds a bit Amish from our modern perspective, but these two words are Greco-Roman virtues. Socrates was a model for the Greeks of calm in the face of peril, (Theon, Progymnasmata, 8; Rhet. Graec., II, 111, 27 f.) and rulers ought to be calm (Xenoph. Ag., 11, 2. 6. 20; Isoc. Or., 2, 23; TDNT 6:646).
In a Greek papyri dated to the sixth century A.D. (P Oxy I. 1298) a father repudiates a betrothal because he wishes that his daughter “should lead a peaceful and quiet life” (εἰρηνικὸν καὶ ἡσύχιον βίον διάξαι, MM, 281). While this is dated well after the writing of 1 Timothy, a similar use of the The word appears in PsSol 12:5: “May the Lord protect the quiet person who hates injustice; may the Lord guide the person who lives peacefully at home.” This is a Jewish text, probably reflecting the Pharisees, predating Paul by about 100 years. The writer parallels one who is quiet (ἡσύχιος) and lives peacefully (although the more common εἰρήνη is used).
Paul also describes this idea life as “godly and dignified in every way.” Both words would be idea virtues in the Greco-Roman world as well as the Christian or Jewish. The word “godly” is the common word εὐσέβεια, and was used by Diogenes Laertius (third century A.D.) for “the pious follow sacrificial custom and take care of temples” and was common used in the Aeneid to describe “pious” people (BDAG).
The word translated ‘dignified” (σεμνότης) The word is often translated with the Latin gravitas. It is often associated with “denotes a man’s visible deportment.” When Josephus retells the story of Saul and the witch of Endor, she recognizes the king because he carries himself like a king; in retelling the story of Pharaoh’s first encounter with Joseph, Philo comments that the king was impressed with Joseph’s dignity (Philo, Jos. 257, cf. 165).
This command is not unusual in the Pauline letters. “live a quiet life” is similar to Paul’s exhortation in 1 Thessalonica 4:1-12. In that context, there were individuals who were not working to provide for their own needs. The ultimate motivation for living in a quiet, dignified manner is that the outsiders will see this and “come to a knowledge of the truth.”
Since the quiet, dignified life was a virtue in the Greco-Roman world, any chaos or discord in the church would drive people away from the Gospel. With this “quiet dignified life” in mind, Paul then turns to a problem in the Ephesian churches which is disrupting that kind of life and potentially bringing shame on the church. This problem appears to center on some women in the Ephesian churches who are not living a “quiet dignified life.”
The letter of 1 Timothy begins with a description of the sort of teaching which Paul cannot tolerate in his churches. It is remarkable that Paul launches into a section on the opponents so soon in the letter, the only thing quite like this in Paul is Galatians. This indicates that the problems in Ephesus are intense.
They teach a “different doctrine.” This is not a difference of emphasis, but rather a teaching that is contrary to what Paul taught in the Ephesian churches. This Greek ἑτεροδιδασκαλέω is only used in Christian literature for a strange or divisive teaching.
Ignatius, To Polycarp 3:1 Do not let those who appear to be trustworthy yet who teach strange doctrines baffle you. Stand firm, like an anvil being struck with a hammer. It is the mark of a great athlete to be bruised, yet still conquer. But especially we must, for God’s sake, patiently put up with all things, that he may also put up with us.
The noun Paul uses is only found in the Pastoral letters, In classical Greek, ἕτερος meant “another of a different kind” and ἄλλος meant “another of the same kind.” Paul chooses to call a different kind of teaching, as he did in Gal 1:6–9. There the church was turning to a “different gospel” which is really no gospel at all.
This helps us understand the urgency of the situation. This is not a legitimate variation on a theological matter (Calvinism vs. Arminianism), but rather a form of teaching that is outside the definition of what it means to be Christian. By following the opponents, members of the local Ephesian churches are in danger of not being Christians at all, since they do not hold tenaciously to the core of the gospel Paul has already taught them.
They devote themselves to “myths and endless genealogies.” A “myth” almost always has a bad connotation in Greek. The false teaching is described as myth in 1 Tim 4:7, 2 Tim 4:4, Titus 1:14, and 2 Peter 1:16. The noun appears in Sirach 20:19 for the stories which are “on the lips of the ignorant.” Sib.Or. 3:226 includes myths along with the words of the seers, sorcerers, soothsayers, and “the deceits of foolish words of ventriloquists.”
“Genealogies” may refer to some rabbinical speculation. This is the view of the earliest interpreters of this passage (Ambrosiaster and Jerome), as well as many modern commentaries. The same word appears in Titus 3:9. But it is possible that this is another way of describing a myth, since some Greek mythologies were “myths cast in genealogical form” (BDAG).
The phrase appears twice in the pastoral letters,(1 Tim 1:4; Titus 3:9) and may refer to the sorts of books which were popular in the Second Temple Period, haggadic midrash (allegorical reinterpretations of the Old Testament) such as Philo of Alexandria or books like books like Jubilees and Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities which sought to “update” the biblical stories to the Greco-Roman world.
The genealogies are “endless.” The noun ἀπέραντος can refer to something that appears to be unlimited (the sea, 1 Clem 20:8, 3 Macc 2:9), but also to arguments that go on and on. Polybius used the word for “tiresome detailed enumeration” (1, 57). Maybe this is a word which could describe reading the tax code – it seems to go on forever in endless, meaningless detail.
The “promote speculations.” The verb ἐκζήτησις only appears in Christian writings. The word appears to mean something like over-investigating things which do not really merit investigation. The verb appears a few times in Greek literature, meaning to investigate something in (perhaps) a legal context, to demand an accounting for the blood of an innocent murder victim (LXX 2 Kings 4:11)
They have “swerve” and “wandered” into vain discussions. The ESV’s “swerve” tries to get the idea of the verb ἀστοχέω, which means to miss something that was aimed at (στοχάζομαι means “to aim). This can be a mistake, but combined with “wander” it would be better to see this as an intentional departure from the truth.
To “wander” (ἐκτρέπω) is maybe a bit of a soft translation here. The verb means to turn, perhaps with a bit of violent connotation. Luke the English word “turn,” this word is used in medical texts for turning an ankle, to “be wrenched” or to “be dislocated.”
“Vain discussions” (ματαιολογία) are empty, fruitless talk (the noun will appear in Titus 1:10). In Poimandres 144 the word appears in parallel to πολυλογίας, “many words” (MM). There are some people who can talk endlessly without ever saying anything (think of a politician’s answer, there are many words without ever really answering the question!)
They desire to be teachers without understanding what they are saying. This is the best clue that the opponents are Jewish, the noun “teacher of the law” (νομοδιδάσκαλος) is found in Acts 4:34 for Gamaliel and Luke 5:17 for the a category of teacher in parallel with the Pharisees. Both are clearly Jewish teachers of the law. But these opponents only desire to be “teachers of the Law,” without really knowing what a teacher of the Law is! Perhaps these are Hellenistic Jews who have a bit of training in the interpretation of Scripture, but are not really doing it correctly.
A major theme of the Pastoral letters is correctly handling Scripture. It is not that the individual Christian cannot read the Scripture with clarity, but that the person who tries to be a teacher is “more responsible” than the rest for what they teach. This responsibility means that they the person who styles themselves as a “teacher” needs to fully understand the implications of what they are saying, since they could very well lead a congregation astray. If the teacher is already wandering off, then it is likely his congregation will follow.
They make “confident assertions” without understanding. Likewise, they are confident what they are saying is true (διαβεβαιόομαι), but they do not really understand what they are saying. In Titus 3:8 Paul will use this verb when he quotes a “trustworthy saying.”
The speculations of the opponents prevent them from fulfilling their “stewardship of God in faith.” The noun translated “stewardship” (οἰκονομία) is associated with household management. The elders or deacons who are engaged endless, pointless teachings are not fulfilling their calling to be the stewards of the local churches, they are “bad stewards” who are in danger of being replaced.
One of the problems for reading the Pastoral Epistles is the identity of the “opponents” in Paul’s churches. Paul seems to have a group of elders in mind who are in rebellion against his Gospel, What is more, the opponents in Ephesus are like the people predicted to come in the “later days.” Jesus also described false messiahs and prophets who would come claiming to be messengers from God. First and Second John both describe teachers with wrong views about Jesus as “antichrist.”
The idea that the “last days” have arrived in common in the New Testament, the earliest church believed that Jesus could return at any moment. In this they were correct. In 2 Thess 2 Paul teaches that in the last days there will be an apostasy, a falling away from the truth. In the last days, this falling away will be so intense that people will choose to believe the Man of Lawlessness, the Anti-Christ, rather than the truth of the gospel. Did Paul actually believe that he was living in the last days? I think that he did, but every generation of the church have had at least some people who thought they were in the last days!
But this text cannot be directly applied to any particular modern false teaching in order to declare that we are “in the end times.” Certainly Jesus can come back at any moment, and there are plenty of people teaching all sorts of things in the name of Jesus that are simply not in line with the truth. But that is the condition of all of church history!
Paul describes the opponents in Ephesus as sub-Christian. They have Christian like ideas, but when examined in the light of the truth they are in fact not Christian at all. Paul is not dealing with a group of people who have a honest difference of opinion on a theological issue. His opponents in Ephesus have rejected key elements of the gospel which separate them from the truth.
They have abandoned their faith. The verb Paul uses here (ἀφίστημι) is the same as 2 Thess 2, but also Acts 5:37 to describe a messianic pretender who led crowds astray. In Deut 7:4 it is used for turning away from God to worship other gods. These opponents have rejected the core truth of the Gospel (1 Tim 3:16) and can no longer be described as within the faith.
They follow “deceitful spirits” and hold to the “teachings of demons.” This seems like a strong polemic, the sort of thing that we would not say about an opponent today. But there are a number of Pauline texts that describe real spiritual warfare. In 1 Tim 3:6-7, for example, Paul warns that a leader in the church ought not be a recent convert, since it is possible for him to become prideful and fall into the devil’s snare.
They are hypocritical liars. Combining hypocritical and liar indicates that their teaching appears to be well-intended, but it is in fact false. This indicates that the opponents are not simply fooled into teaching something that is false, they are choosing to maintain a lie for some reason (Towner, The Pastoral Epistles, 291).
Their conscience has been seared with a hot iron. There are two ways to read this line. First the phrase may refer to someone who has told a lie so many times that they believe it, that there conscience no longer functions as it ought. They are numb to the truth, etc. Second, it is possible that this refers to being branded. The verb (καυστηριάζω) can mean sear, but it can also refer to branding someone with a hot iron. “The imagery suggests crime published with a branding mark on the perpetrator” (BDAG). In either case, their conscience has been destroyed by the “doctrine of demons” that they no longer know if they are teaching the truth or not.
I am not sure it is possible to identify the opponents from these four items alone. What is certain is that there are people in Paul’s churches in Ephesus who have defected from the Gospel in such a way that the are not Christians at all. Timothy is warned about these people and told to appoint elders who cling tenaciously to the gospel and are truly godly.
First and Second Timothy and Titus are usually described as “pastoral epistles.” The standard view of these three letters is that Paul is writing to individuals who he has placed in a leadership position overseeing churches. The three books were first called “pastoral epistles” by Paul Anton in 1726. The description has become so common that nearly every commentator on the books has described the letters as “church manuals” or “advice to young pastors,” etc.
Timothy has taken on additional responsibilities as a superintendent over several churches planted by Paul. First Timothy is therefore letter is personal advice to Timothy on how to organize the church, as well as other ministry related issues. The second letter written to Timothy is to ask him to come to him in Rome, and to bring Mark with him, but the pastoral emphasis is still the main theme. In Titus, the content is very similar to First Timothy, elders are described, and various potential problems are addressed.
Gordon Fee, however, has called this description into question. As Fee notes, if these are “church manuals” they are not particularly effective ones. We end up with far more questions about the church after reading them! It seems hard to believe that such a wide variety of church structures and styles would all call upon these letters to validate their ecclesiology, if in fact Paul intended them to be read as “manuals for doing church.” Furthermore, he states “It is a mistaken notion to view Timothy or Titus as model pastors for a local church. The letters simply have no such intent” (147)
The key, for Fee, is to read seriously what Paul about his reason for writing the letters in 1 Tim 1:5 and 3:15. In the light of Paul’s speech to the elders from Ephesus in Acts 20:17-35, it would appear that the purpose of the letters might very well to be false teachers in the Ephesian community.
1 Timothy 1:3 As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer
1 Timothy 3:15 …if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.
Acts 20:30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.
These verses do not concern organizing the churches from scratch, as if Paul has done just a bit of church planting and Timothy is sent in to finish the job, like a modern evangelist with a followup team. There seems to be a serious false teaching that has caused the church at Ephesus serious problems. The problem is internal (Acts 20:30), people from the inside have begun to teach things opposed to Paul’s message. As Fee puts it, “What we learn about church order in 1 Timothy is not so much organizational as reformational” (146).
This observation may help with the most difficult problem of 1 Timothy. If Fee is correct and the problem is straying elders, does this effect the way we look at the prohibition of woman teaching and exercising authority in 2:11-12?
Bibliography: Gordon D. Fee, “Reflections On Church Order In The Pastoral Epistles, With Further Reflection On The Hermeneutics Of Ad Hoc Documents” JETS 28 (1985): 141-151.
Ephesians is one of the books in the Pauline collection which is frequently assumed to be pseudonymous. Despite the fact that Paul refers to himself four times in the letter (1:1, 3:1, 4:1, and 6:19-22), the majority of scholarship in the last 150 years denies the authenticity of the letter. Rather than written by the “historical Paul,” the letter was created in the late first century, perhaps as a companion to the book of Acts.
While there are many variations on this argument, many introductions to Paul reject the letter as authentic on the basis of vocabulary, style, and theology. For many, the letter does not sound enough like Romans, Galatians, or 1-2 Corinthians to be accepted as authentic. Usually the letter of Ephesians is thought to be a post-Pauline compendium of Paul’s theology. It was written by a disciple of Paul (“Paul’s best disciple,” Brown, 620). Sometimes the reconstruction of the circumstances are quite complex. For example, Goodspeed suggested that Onesimus returned to Philemon, was released from his slavery and eventually became the bishop of Ephesus. After Acts was published, there was a great deal of interest in Paul, so Onesimus gathered all the various letters Paul sent to the churches of Ephesus as an introduction to Paul’s theology. As Brown says, this is interesting but “totally a guess.”
There are some differences between Ephesians and the other Pauline letters. For example, the common Pauline term brethren is missing (except 6:23), and the letter never calls the Jewish people “Jews” in the epistle, even though the Jews are an important part of his argument. More surprising is the fact that the verb “to justify” is not used, even though while it is common in Galatians and Romans and might have been useful in the argument of 2:11-22.
Does it matter if Paul did not write the letter himself? If the letter contains the actual “voice of Paul” then the letter can be considered Pauline. By way of analogy, in the study of the Gospels there is a great deal of discussion over the words of Jesus. When I read the words of Jesus in my ESV Bible, can I know that these are the real words of the historical Jesus? The answer which satisfies me is that the words of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels are true “voice of Jesus,” even though they are not the actual words Jesus’ words were originally spoken in Aramaic, translated to Greek and then to English for me to read!
In the same way, even if Ephesians was not written by Paul, the true “voice of Paul” can be found in the letter. As it happens I think Paul did write Ephesians, albeit much later in his life during his Roman house arrest. The letter was intended to go to all the house churches in Ephesus and there is no burning problem which Paul has to address (as in Galatians or Corinthians). This explains why the letter is generic in terms of theology and practice.
Considering Ephesians to be an authentic Pauline letter may change the way we envision Paul’s theology. While Romans and Galatians are concerning with justification and the struggle to define the Church as something different than Judaism, Ephesians is a witness to the universal church which includes Jews and Gentiles in “one body.” Unity of the church seems to be Paul’s main theme in the letter. Rather than drawing lines, Paul is arguing for unity among those who are “in Christ.”
How might taking Ephesians seriously change the way we think about various elements of Pauline Theology?
I read an article by Denny Burk in JETS a few years ago which was a decent summary of anti-Imperial readings of Paul, although I think that he has lumped N. T. Wright along with Richard Horsely and Hal Taussig. To me, Wright is not doing the same sort of work as Horsely, even though there are some similarities. Both make the same sorts of observations concerning Paul’s alleged use of imperial language, but Horsely and Taussig take the issue much further than Wright by applying Paul’s anti-Imperialism to the imperialism of the United States.
The increased interest in the impact of the Imperial cult in Asia Minor in the first century has driven anti-imperial readings of Paul. In the first century, Caesar was described as Lord (κύριος) and god in art and coinage. Since he was the one who brought peace (εἰρήνη) into the world, the emperor should be thought of as the savior (σωτήρ) of the world. News of the Emperor was announced as “good news” (εὐαγγέλιον). This imperial propaganda was pervasive and could not be avoided, although most people in the first century would have simply accepted the equation of “Caesar as God” and moved on with life.
Paul preached the good news that Jesus was the Lord and savior of the world, the one who brings peace. For those of us with Christian ears, these words are all quite familiar . But to anyone who heard them in the first century Roman world they were just as familiar, but applied to Caesar, not Jesus! By calling Jesus Lord, it is argued, Paul is setting up an implicit anti-Roman narrative. Once words like gospel, Lord, savior, and peace are taken as anti-imperial, then other less common Pauline concepts are seen through this lens, such as the language used for the return of Christ in 1 Thess 4:13-18.
For the most part, the implications of these anti-Imperial readings of Paul for reading Ephesians is to confirm the non-Pauline nature of the book. It is thought that Ephesians lacks the anti-Imperialism of Romans or other certain Pauline letters, This is evidence of a later, more pro-imperial writer. This is a major factor for Crossan and Reed in their In Search of Paul. Ephesians is not considered to be Pauline because of the reversal of the egalitarianism evident in Romans and Galatians.
But as Wright says early on in his Paul: A Fresh Perspective, “The argument recently advanced (in North America particularly) that Ephesians and Colossians are secondary because they move away from confrontation with the Empire to collaboration with it is frankly absurd.” The reason for this “absurdity” is that Ephesians is just as anti-Imperial (according to Wright) as Romans 13 or any other certain Pauline text. In fact, if there is actually an anti-empire subtext in the choice of terms Paul uses to describe Jesus and his mission, the Ephesians ought to be considered right at the heart of Pauline anti-Imperialism. I suspect the section on submission of wives drives Ephesians out of the Pauline corpus for most of the anti-Imperialist scholars.
What elements of Ephesians might be considered “anti-imperialist”? What benefit is there in reading Ephesians 1-2 in this way?
Burk, Denny. “Is Paul’s Gospel Counterimperial? Evaluating The Prospects Of The Fresh Perspective” For Evangelical Theology,” JETS 51 (2009): 309-338.
Galatia struggled with Gentiles who wanted to keep the Law and Corinth struggled with Gentiles who did not sufficient “depaganize” and allow Christ to transform their moral behavior. In Colossae, it appears that the problem was a Jewish mystic, possibly exorcist who advocated “secret knowledge” which only the spiritual, insiders could obtain. Possibly this esoteric, secret knowledge was the true nature of Jesus Christ, or perhaps how to use Jesus’ name as a powerful tool for dealing with other spiritual beings.
This is a very pragmatic Christianity which attempts to hide knowledge of the real facts until the believer is sufficiently “prepare” to receive it. While I am not sure that the Colossian heresy was a “mystery cult” in the true sense of the word, there seem to have been some initiation for the believer before he was “let in” on the true state of things.
For Paul, Christianity is not at all an exclusive religion which hides doctrine from the outsiders. In fact, everyone is welcome and the whole gospel is preached from the very beginning. There are some deeper, more difficult doctrines, but there is nothing which is a secret. This is one of the real differences between Christianity and many of the other “mystery cults”popular in the first century (and today!) It really is easy to understand the basics of Christian claims and beliefs, whether you like them or not.
Paul therefore goes to the root of the problem and lays out in the introduction to the letter exactly who Jesus is. All the “secrets” are laid out before the reader and there is no question who Jesus is by the end of 1:20.
- Christ as the image of the invisible God. By saying that Christ is in the image of God, he affirms that he is an accurate picture of what God is, and in fact, he is God. Bruce once said “To call Christ the image of God is to say that in Him the being and nature of God have been perfectly manifested—that in Him the invisible has become visible.”
- Christ as the firstborn of creation. This title for has been a very troublesome exegetical point since it appears that Jesus is a created thing, the first thing that God created. But if this phrase is read against the background of the Hebrew Bible, the word “first born” is actually an expression of position – the son chosen to the the heir as opposed to the naturally born first son. A bit later Paul calls Jesus the“firstborn from among the dead,” an obvious non-literal use of the word “firstborn.”
The point that Paul is getting at is that Christ has made things, so it is pointless to give honor and worship to those things. All honor and worship is due Christ, not anything created. The command is therefore to worship Christ as God, something that would be idolatrous if Christ is a created thing himself. The centrality of Jesus is therefore the starting point for theology in Colossians, but also for ethical and moral teaching and proper worship.
Bibliography: F. F. Bruce, “Colossian Problems: Part 2: The “Christ Hymn” of Colossians 1:15–20″ BibSac 141 (1984): 99-111
Chronologically, Romans 16 provides the earliest glimpse at the character of the churches in the city of Rome before Paul arrived. Christianity came to Rome through the synagogues. It seems likely that Jews who heard the gospel while in Jerusalem at Pentecost returned to Rome and continued to fellowship in synagogues until at least A.D. 49, when Claudius “expelled the Jews.” Paul wrote Romans in the second half of the 50′s to already existing congregations which have separated from the synagogues or were formed outside of the synagogues of Rome.
Evidence for the church developing out of the synagogue is found in Romans 16. Aquila and Priscilla are Jewish, as well as Andronicus, Junian and Herodion who are identified as Jewish (7, 11), the names Mary and Aristobolus may also indicate a Jewish origin.
According to Acts 18:2 and Seutonius, Claudius 25.4, Jews were expelled from Rome in A.D. 49 (although Dio Cassius dates the edict of Claudius to A.D. 41, Acts and Seutonius both agree with the early date). Just who was expelled is debated, it is hardly possible to have the whole population expelled given a Jewish population of 30,000 at the time. It is possible just the ringleaders were expelled, people such as Aquila and Priscilla.
Perhaps only a single synagogue engaged in the rioting over Chrestus and was completely expelled. The bottom line is that by 49 there were lively debates among Jews over who Jesus was and these debates were violent enough to attract the attention of the authorities. Romans implies that some Jews returned by the mid-50′s, specifically Aquila and Priscilla. By the time Paul writes Romans, there are Jewish Christian congregations, perhaps mixed Jew and Gentile congregations, and maybe a purely Gentile Christian congregation.
How many congregations of Christians existed in the mid-50′s can be determined from Romans 16, Peter Lampe argues for at least five different Christian “islands,” but probably as many as eight, based on the following data:
- The phrase “those with them” plus a proper name is used five times in Romans 16 (5, 10, 11, 14, 15). This may indicate Paul knows of five separate house churches in Rome.
- There are other Christian names listed who probably did not belong to the same congregation (or they would be listed with the others), so at least two more could be implied.
- Paul lived in Rome in a rented house, likely constituting an eighth congregation.
- There is no central meeting place for these congregations. Paul hosts at least one in his house, perhaps others met with him at other times for instruction and debate. It is not too much of a stretch to imagine Paul engaged in the sort of ministry he had in Ephesus, teaching and debating the scriptures in an informal “school” at times when people could visit – afternoons and evenings.
- In addition, there is nothing which requires a “church” to meet only on Saturday or Sunday, in ten different locations at general the same time. It is possible that ten congregations meet at various times and in various places during the week, and even some individuals attending multiple churches.
The congregation size of a house church would vary depending on the home in which the church met. I would suggest that the churches initially met on the analogy of a Synagogue, where ten men coming together to study the scripture constituted a synagogue. If this is the case, by the time Paul arrives in Rome in the early 60′s, there could have been only a few hundred Christian in a city of millions.
Yet in only a few years Christianity has grown to the point that Nero can use the “strange superstition” as a scapegoat for his fires. By the 90′s Christianity has spread to even the imperial family, forcing Domitian to persecute Christians in Rome.
Bibliography: Peter Lampe, From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003).