Monday, April 23, 2012

The Opponents in the Pastoral Epistles #2

The quest to understand and identify the opponents has left many an interpreter confused.  The simple fact is that our data is incomplete, and we do not have a full profile of these "opponents".  However, that does not mean we are completely ignorant about them, and today I'd like to propose that the opponents were Christians. 

We may draw from several strands of evidence within the letters to come to this conclusion.  Firstly, 1 Tim 1:6-7 speaks of those who have "deviated" [ἀστοχήσαντες] from the faith.  Then, in 1:19-20 the author speaks of Hymenaeus and Alexander, as those who have shipwrecked the faith.”  This suggests that they had faith, or were faithful, but now this has been destroyed.  The result of this shipwrecking of faith, is that they have been "delivered to satan so that they may learn not to blaspheme.” 

The second letter to Timothy speaks in a similar fashion of those, namely Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have “swerved from the truth” [2:18]  This suggests that they had the truth, but have now abandoned it in favour of a different view.  In 3:8 the author uses Jannes and Jambres as an illustration of the opponents who have a "corrupt mind and counterfeit faith". 

Thus, we may conclude that the opponents identified within the letters to Timothy were at one stage part of the Christian community in Ephesus, and were at one stage considered fellow Christians. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Purpose of 1 Timothy

1 Tim 1:3-7 - a working translation.
Just as I urged you to remain in Ephesus, as I was going into Macedonia, so that you may command/instruct certain people a) not to teach a different/divisive doctrine; b) not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies which give rise to useless/empty speculation rather than focussing on the work/economy of God [“the way God has organised life”] which is by/through trust/faithfulness.

The goal of [this] instruction is love from a pure heart; a conscience that is good; and trust that is sincere, which some have missed out on by turning to meaningless conversations; desiring to be teachers of the law and yet not having understanding about that which they are so confident in communicating.

1 Timothy, like Galatians, opens without a “thanksgiving” prayer. The prayer is delayed until 1:12-17, where Paul gives thanks as it relates to his own experiences and mission, and not for Timothy and the audience. Rather, what we find in this opening section is the programme for the letter as a whole. Here we have mention of the decisive issue that will shape our entire understanding of this letter, and how it must be understood within its specific context, dealing as it does with the specific issues at hand. Timothy is charged with protecting the gospel, and the community created by the gospel, because there are some within the community who have turned.
The key to understanding the letter lies in taking seriously that Paul’s stated reason in 1:3 for leaving Timothy in Ephesus is the real one; namely, that he had been left there to combat some false teachers, whose asceticism and speculations based on the Law are full of empty words, engendering strife and causing many to go astray. [Fee, God's Empowering Presence, 757.]
This is a corrective letter, much like 1 Corinthians and Galatians. This suggests that as we read this letter, and each section that makes up this letter, we should constantly be aware of this major issue currently plaguing the Christian community in Ephesus. This problem forms the matrix within which we are to read and understand Paul’s letter.

Theological Presuppositions and Authorship Issues

In discussing issues of the authorship of the New Testament writings, I often hear the claim that if one accepts a high view of Scripture, one should never entertain thoughts of pseudonymity (the view that someone other than the named "author" has written the particular writing in question).  The converse of this, is that only "liberals" embrace ideas of pseudonymous writings in the New Testament canon. 

And yet I wish to suggest that it is not as simple as, holding to view "A" of Scripture, that therefore one automatically holds to view "Z" of authorship. I know quite a few scholars who have a very high view of Scripture and it's authority, and yet for evidential reasons cannot accept that Paul wrote certain letters within the canon. Howard Marshall is perhaps the best example of someone who holds to a high view of Scripture, and yet does not think Paul wrote the Pastoral Epistles.  Equally, I know of so-called "liberal" scholars who do not have a high view of Scripture and yet hold to the view that some of the disputed writings were in fact written by the named author. 

One cannot come to a conclusion on the issue of authorship, based on a theological presupposition.  That is an invalid move.  How can a theological conclusion change a historical event/process? 

The reason the writings of the New Testament are considered authoritative is because they are understood to be inspired by the Spirit. It is on the basis of their divine inspiration that they are authoritative, and not on the basis of the specific human author that was an inspired instrument (although, historically speaking, it seems likely that many of the writings were chosen because of who authored them [could Hebrews be the exception?]). While these specific writings are inspired they are also human products, in that human processes--including language, style, rhetoric, etc., are part and parcel of these writings. Pseudepigraphy could also be a part of that historical process that gave birth to the writings known as the New Testament.   As Paul Trebilco notes,
We should note that pseudonymous writing was not considered improper in the ancient world, and was common in Judaism.  If the Pastorals are by someone other than Paul the author, who stands in the Pauline tradition and has been considerably influenced by Paul, would be applying the Pauline tradition to new problems in some Pauline churches in his own day, and would be expressing what he believed Paul would have said.  However, because he saw himself as faithful to Paul's understanding, he wrote in his name.  Scholars argue that this was in no way to attempt to deceive; rather it was a way of acknowledging his indebtedness to Paul's theology. 
[Paul Trebilco, and Simon Rae, 1 Timothy. Asia Bible Commentary Series. (Singapore: Asia Theological Association, 2006), 3.]
Conclusions concerning the authorship of a particular writing should be judged on the external and internal evidence of each specific writing, and not assumed due to a theological presupposition.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Opponents in the Pastoral Epistles #1

Despite the numerous scholarly attempts to ascertain both the nature of the disease and the author’s precise definition of “healthy teaching,” the issue remains unresolved because the author’s purpose was not to draw a profile of this disease, but to warn against it. The primary focus is not the nature of the heresy, but the moral consequences of both healthy and unhealthy instruction. [Thompson, Moral Formation according to Paul, 200-1.]

The origin of this "disease" is found in those who are commonly referred to as the "opponents".  The opponents of Paul/Timothy/Titus in these letters are addressed throughout the letters, but more specifically in 1 Tim 1:3-7; 1:19-20; 4:1-3, 7; 6:3-5; 6:20-21; 2 Tim 2:14-18; 2:22-26; 3:1-9; 4:3-5; Titus 1:10-16; 3:9-11. While we are not able to draw a profile of the details of the false teaching and the opponents, there are certain things that we can know about them. What follows is an engagement with the evidence and argument presented by Paul Trebilco in The Early Christians in Ephesus from Paul to Ignatius.

Trebilco, notes that “Much of what the Pastor writes about the opponents is general; in fact it seems very likely that much of the language used in a number of passages against the opponents is typical of the polemic that philosophers used against the Sophists” [Trebilco, 209-10]. 
The conclusion Trebilco draws from this similarity, with Towner, is that we therefore cannot be certain that the description given, for example in 2 Tim 3:2-5, actually describes said opponents because this is a standard description.  Towner notes that "By and large the purpose of this catalogue was to identity the opponents as belonging to the apostates of 'the last days'" [Towner, The Goal of Our Instruction, 28]. 

While these conclusions are sound, I wonder if there is not more to the comparison.  What if the author of these writings is using a standard critique of the Sophists in an analogous way.  Perhaps the author wants the audience to realise that he is a true "philosopher" unlike the Sophists who seek to take advantage of people.  Perhaps the author wishes to denounce the opposition by this very comparison, that his Philosophy is "sound" and "healthy" (using language from the Philosophers (see Malherbe, "Medical Imagery in the Pastoral Epistles"), and that his opponents teaching is a "disease" that stems from a corrupt source, and produces corrupt lives. 

Perhaps these descriptions are not merely part of the standard critique, but do help us to understand the author's reasons for using this specific polemic. 

Friday, April 06, 2012

Crucified for Fellowship

In a beautiful statement, Marcus Borg describes the meaning of Jesus' acts of table-fellowship.

Jesus’ practice of table fellowship and his teaching concerning issues related to table fellowship contravened the understanding of Israel as a holy, separated community.  In this context, table-fellowship cannot be described simply as festive celebration and acceptance, but as a political act of national significance: to advocate and practice a different form of table fellowship was to protest against the present structures of Israel.  Moreover, there was more than protest – an alternative program was advocated for the people of God in their historical existence.[1]

A significant part of the reason Jesus was crucified, is for these kinds of acts.  They may look innocent to us, but because they are a part of Jesus' larger mission, they must be seen in relationship to one another.  

[1] Borg, Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus, 120-21.