I TIMOTHY’S VICE LIST
by Elodie Ballantine Emig
The most natural place to turn, after an examination of Paul’s vice list in I Corinthians, is to his vice list in I Timothy. Since the early 19th. century, it has been alleged that Paul couldn’t possibly have written the Pastorals. The most common objections are:
- The writing style and word choices are different from Paul’s earlier letters.
- The Pastorals don’t fit with what we know of Paul from Acts.
- The heresy combated is second-century Gnosticism.
- The church is too developed for the first century.
- The theology of the Pastorals lacks Paul’s distinctives.
- The Pastorals are not contained in the oldest (mid-third-century) codex we have of the Pauline epistles.
Before briefly answering these objections, I must state my conviction that the burden of proof is on the scholar who denies Pauline authorship to books regarded as genuine for eighteen centuries. I Timothy claims to have been written by Paul, and it was preserved and canonized on that basis. If someone else wrote it, I want proof, not mere suggestion, moreover a motive for the falsification.
1. The Pastorals taken together, much less taken individually, are not long enough for statistical studies to be meaningful; the sample size is too small. Even so, the differences in purpose and subject matter between Paul’s earlier correspondence and the Pastorals can account for the change in vocabulary. I certainly vary my word choices depending on to whom, or for what purpose I am writing.
2. Acts does not go beyond Paul’s “first” Roman imprisonment, but Paul did. There is nothing that demands that Paul was martyred at the end of the imprisonment of Acts 28. Given the opinions of Agrippa and Festus, that Paul had done nothing worthy of death or imprisonment (Acts 26:31), there is reason to believe that Paul was released, left Rome and went east.
3. The Pastorals do not say enough about the heresy(s) they combat to pin-point full-blown, second-century Gnosticism. There were early forms of Gnosticism already plaguing the Colossians, and we know from I John that the area around Ephesus had problems with incipient Gnosticism some thirty years later. The heresy at Ephesus, which I Tim. addresses, seems more Jewish than Gnostic in character anyway.
4. There is nothing in the Pastorals to demand a developed episcopate with “a single bishop” who “has primary authority in the church, with elders and deacons under him” (Fee, 20). Paul uses the terms elder (presbyteros) and overseer (episcopos) interchangeably and doesn’t make much of a distinction between the roles of overseers and deacons. The Pastorals fit the early to mid 60’s when church polity was developing rapidly, better than the rigid second century.
5. The Pastorals were written to Timothy and Titus, long-time companions of Paul who were well acquainted with his theological distinctives. Timothy did not need a discourse on justification by faith alone, but encouragement and advice as he tried to deal with very specific church problems. Also relevant to the question of authorship is the fact that there is nothing in the Pastorals which could be described as anti-Pauline.
6. The Chester Beatty Papyrus, our oldest Pauline codex, is incomplete. It is possible that the Pastorals were squeezed onto the missing sheets. If they were not, it does not necessarily follow that they were unknown in the third century.
This all matters because, if Paul didn’t write I Timothy, it was accepted into the canon of the New Testament under false pretenses. Moreover, if I Timothy does not really belong in our canon, its teaching is not binding upon us. For those who hold to the authority and inspiration of Scripture, this seemingly arcane debate about authorship is vital. Quite frankly, if Paul didn’t write I Timothy, I don’t particularly care what it has to say about homosexuals, or women teaching, or anything else. (Those who hold to pseudonymous or deuteron-Pauline authorship can at least affirm with Robert Gagnon “that Paul’s opposition to homosexual behavior continued in the early post-Pauline churches” [Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 332].) Since I am persuaded that Paul did write it, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, I am compelled to care about what it says.
Because I touched on a number of background issues, in no particular order, treating the objections above, it might be helpful to reorganize and supplement the material. Paul was released from his first Roman imprisonment after the Acts narrative ended, about A.D. 62. Because he had changed his mind about going West to Spain, he returned with two close friends to Asia Minor (Philem. 22). At least he and Titus ended up on Crete, where he left the latter in charge, and went on with Timothy towards Macedonia.
Apparently they stopped in at Ephesus to check up on things. This is not surprising since Ephesus was a key church to Paul’s missionary strategy and one about which Paul had given a disturbing prophecy. Paul and Timothy found the church in serious trouble and the prophecy of Acts 20:30 being fulfilled, “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw the disciples after them.”
With some sense of urgency, Paul went on to Macedonia from Ephesus. But because the Ephesian church was in mortal danger, after he excommunicated the chief trouble makers, Alexander and Hymenaeus, he left Timothy there to deal with what remained of the problem of elders teaching heresy (wolves from among them, speaking perverse things). Once he was settled, Paul wrote both Titus and Timothy from Macedonia to help them cope with their respective situations. I Timothy, then, is a personal letter from an apostle to his emissary, but a personal letter we can assume Paul intended to be read publicly. The purpose of the letter was to encourage and equip Timothy in his struggle to rid the church of heresy and to let the Ephesians know that he had Paul’s full support as he did so. (The substance of my chronology comes from Gordon Fee’s introduction to his commentary on 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus in the New International Bible Commentary (Hendrickson, 1984) series.)
Again, expecting to be read not only by Timothy, but also by the entire church (or house churches), Paul wrote to encourage Timothy and give him authority to “command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and end- less genealogies” (I Tim. 1:3). For whatever reason, Paul did not see fit to make the nature of the heresy much clearer than this. Still, it would be good to list what of its distinctives we can define with some certainty.
Gordon Fee is surely correct in his assessment that the heresy had “a behavioral as well as a cognitive dimension” (Gordon Fee, “1 And 2 Timothy, Titus,” in New International Biblical Commentary, ed. W. Ward Gasque (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1988), 8). It also seems evident, from all three Pastorals, that behavior was more of an issue to Paul than the actual content of the heresy. From the very beginning of his letter to Timothy, Paul was concerned with the lack of love in the Ephesian church (I Tim. 1:5ff.). Rather than loving one another, at least some in Ephesus had turned away from a “sincere faith” to “meaningless talk” (I Tim. 1:6), “controversies and quarrels about words” (I Tim. 6:4), “godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely knowledge” (I Tim. 6:20). Not only were they conceited, divisive and argumentative (I Tim. 6:4), but they were going to opposite extremes in their understanding and practice of Christian liberty.
Probably because the heresy was so speculative (I Tim. 1:4; I prefer to take ekzeteseis as speculations (NASB, RSV) rather than controversies (NIV)), it led to a variety of behaviors. Donald Guthrie makes an extremely compelling point when he says, “The teaching was dangerous, more because of its irrelevance than because of its falseness” (Donald Guthrie, “The Pastoral Epistles,” in Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, ed. Leon Morris (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 42. Its irrelevance may also account for the fact that Paul is annoyingly vague in discussing it. Apparently it was enough for him to write its content off as meaningless drivel and focus his energies on correcting the activities of its proponents. And again, some of these activities were diametric opposites. Irrelevant speculation led some to shun marriage and certain food (I Tim. 4:1-4), and others, it seems, to wanton living (I Tim. 5:20-22; it is not clear from the context what sin Paul has in mind, only that it is ongoing).
In terms of the “cognitive” content of the heresy, we can only generalize. Some scholars believe the heresy was full-blown Gnosticism. Although Paul does mention “what is falsely knowledge,” there is nothing in his letter which demands that it be taken as “gnostic” knowledge. In fact, the myths and genealogies of chapter 1 have far more in common with rabbinic Judaism than with second-century Gnosticism. We can be positive that however much of an incipient gnostic element it contained (II Tim. certainly points to dualism and a disdain for the material world), the Ephesian heresy had a strong Jewish bent. Because the false teachers set themselves up as teachers of the Law (I Tim. 1:7), we can understand myths and genealogies as references to “allegorical or legendary interpretations of the O.T. centering on the pedigrees of the patriarchs” (J.N.D. Kelly, “The Pastoral Epistles,” in Harper’s New Testament Commentaries, ed. Henry Chadwick (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1960), 44). This makes far more sense than an allusion to Gnostic emanations, concerning which the terms myths and genealogies are never elsewhere used. So we are left with a Hellenistic Jewish heresy concerned more with speculation and profit (I Tim. 6:5) than with the gospel as preached by Paul.
As we turn our attention to the vice list in chapter 1, we need to consider the false teachers as would-be teachers of the Law. Though Paul does not explain exactly what these people are teaching with their myths and genealogies, he is extremely clear on one point. These teachers have entirely missed the point of the Law. In characteristic fashion, Paul digresses from his polemic against the false teachers to discuss the Law. He makes the case that although these teachers do not know what they are talking about, because they use the Law as it was never intended to be used, the Law is good. The Law ought not to be used to create myths and genealogies, but as God intended it to be used. Along similar lines to what he has said about it in Romans and Galatians, Paul argues that the Law was given to restrain evil. In verse 9, Paul says that the Law was laid down not for the righteous, but for the lawbreakers. Thus begins the vice list.
With the Law, in particular the Decalogue, in mind, Paul proceeds with his list of those for whom it was given: “for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers and mothers; for murderers, for adulterers and homosexuals, for slave traders and liars and perjurers …” (I Tim. 1:9-10). Many scholars see the two tables of the Decalogue behind Paul’s list. The first set of vices, joined by and, are said to refer to the first table of the Law, where the final six refer to the second table (Neil J. McEleney, “Vice Lists of the Pastoral Epistles,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 36 (1974): 207). In other words, from “lawbreakers” to “those who kill their mothers and fathers,” Paul has the first five commandments, or those regarding God and parents, in view. From “murderers” to “perjurers” he has in mind the sixth through ninth commandments, or those which “bear on mutual human relationships” (Ibid.).
Even though Paul has strayed from his main point, his vice list is well tailored to fit his digression on the Law. Or to look at things from a slightly different angle, even Paul’s digressions are well crafted. Rather than rehearse some current list for the sake of ease, Paul has written his own to demonstrate human need for the first nine of the Ten Commandments. (Perhaps he thought he had sufficiently dealt with the tenth in Romans; or, more likely, he decided to keep to the external, visible sins addressed by the second table of the Decalogue.) In the pairs joined by and, he treats ungodliness in rather general terms until he gets to matricides and patricides. Here he has certainly chosen the extreme sin against the fifth commandment, and most scholars interpret his words as hyperbole. When he addresses the second table of the Law, his examples seem quite reasonable: a murderer breaks the sixth commandment; adulterers and homosexuals, the seventh; slave traders (or kidnappers – literally, man stealers), the eighth; and liars and perjurers, the ninth.
Having finished his list proper, Paul tacks on for good measure that the Law was given “for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me” (I Tim. 1: 10b-11). Then he goes off on another digression in thanksgiving to Christ for his call to the gospel ministry. In 1:18 he returns to his main point, to his charge to Timothy to deal with the false teachers.
We are left with the question of why Paul included homosexuality, arsenokoitēs (for a discussion of the meaning of arsenokoitēs, see my article on I Corinthians), on his vice list. Given the fact that the list reflects the Decalogue fairly generally, it is impossible to answer the question with certainty. There is no indication from the rest of the letter that homosexuality was particularly on his mind; so we are left to speculate (one hopes not meaninglessly). My best guess is that when addressing people in a city steeped in Hellenism and known for its homosexual population a century later (Guthrie, 72), Paul made sure to include both ends of the adultery spectrum. Both heterosexual adultery, homosexual practice and, I suspect, a great deal in between are offenses against the seventh commandment. Believe it or not, I think Paul was just trying to be inclusive.
Robin Scroggs and more recently Albert Harrill (JBL, 1999), however, have defined arsenokoitēs in terms of andrapodistēs rather than just pornos. Harrill makes the case “that andrapodistai (literally, ‘men-stealers’) was a derogatory term applied to slave dealers who were notorious for procuring slaves through illegal means for sordid gain. … [That is] they sold effeminate slaves to houses of prostitution” (in Gagnon, 333). Given this narrow definition, pornoi are male prostitutes, arsenokoitai are the men who sleep with them, and andrapodistai are the men who sell them. The chief problem with this approach is that there is nothing in I Timothy to warrant such precise definitions; range of meaning has to be determined by context. We must also ask whether it is reasonable to expect that Timothy and the Ephesian church would have put the three terms together at all (pairs make more sense the way the list flows), much less together as references to the male-prostitute slave-trade. Perhaps more to the point, Philo and rabbinic Judaism considered homosexuality to have been a violation of the seventh commandment and kidnapping (rather than slave trade per se) a violation of the eighth.
Where it may be impossible to say why Paul included homosexuality (all the more so, specific variations thereof) on his vice list, it is quite possible to say that his having done so is significant. At the very least, we can deduce from its inclusion that Paul believed homosexuality was as much a violation of the Decalogue as lying or stealing. So although we find the sole mention of homosexuality in the Pastorals in a digression, it remains important. That Paul discussed homosexuality, however briefly, in Romans 1 is not terribly surprising. But that it is mentioned in I Timothy, almost off-handedly, indicates that its sinfulness was absolutely taken for granted by Paul.