Dr. Platypus

Home » +Apostles' Teaching » Bible » New Testament » The Pastoral Epistles

The Pastoral Epistles

We’re talking about the Pastoral Epistles in class today, so it was a happy coincidence that Brant Pitre of Singing in the Reign is musing about the perennial questions of authorship and the identity of the opponents in these three fascinating letters. Brant notes that, according to Titus 1:9-10, the opponents here are the same as in Galatians: those of the circumcision (I’m sorry, but “the circumcision party” conjures up some very strange images in my mind). I partly agree.

I’m one of that rare breed who thinks the Pastorals may very well be authentically Pauline, although I don’t lose a lot of sleep over it one way or another. In class, we’ll discuss the arguments both ways, although I’m mostly pursuaded by Luke Johnson’s case in The Writings of the New Testament (Fortress, 1999):

  • Chronology. Pseudonymity advocates wonder how the data in the Pastorals can possibly be squared with what we already know about Paul’s missionary activity. Johnson reminds us that we actually know relatively little. Acts gives only a selective and highly stylized rendering of Paul’s travels, and that the letters provide only fragmentary bits and pieces of data. Just as 2 Corinthians, for example, tells us about imprisonments we would ot have otherwise known of, the Pastorals may well provide accurate information about missionary activity we would not have suspected.
  • Style/Language. The Pastorals obviously contain many words not found in the other Pauline letters, yet there are real differences even among the three Pastorals. 2 Timothy’s vocabulary in particular is remarkably close to the undisputed Paulines. I find it interesting that people whose native tongue was Koine Greek apparently didn’t raise linguistic or stylistic objections to attributing the Pastorals to Paul. Paul may have used an amanuensis in composing the Pastorals. At any rate, stylometric analysis has generally concluded that the database isn’t really big enough to reach a firm conclusion here.
  • Church Structure. Another sticking point is the implied ecclesiastical structure in the Pastorals, which many see as far more ordered and hierarchical than the undisputed Paulines. But is this accurate? We must admit there is nothing about church order or structure in 2 Timothy. What structure there is in the other letters does not strike me as particularly elaborate. It corresponds rather well to what we know of Hellenistic synagogue structures of the first century and to prevalent Greco-Roman patterns. And the order is not so much prescribed as presupposed. The writer (whoever he is) doesn’t give us “job descriptions” as much as moral qualifications for offices apparently already understood. The undisputed Pauline letters refer by title to the same offices found in the Pastorals, elders/overseers and deacons (Php 1:1; Rom 16:1) and explicitly recognize the role of authority figures in the church (1 Cor 16:15-17; Gal 6:6; 1 Thess 5:12).
  • Theology/Ethics. The Pastorals use words like “faith,” “law,” and “righteousness” in ways that seem alien to the undisputed Pauline letters. But we must not assume too high a degree of uniformity within Pauline Christianity. Each community would have had a unique context that shaped its experience and expression. Therefore, for example, the “household” theme is prevalent in Paul, but developed differently in different communities. If the Pastorals represent a more “Greek” mode of presentation in contrast to the more “biblical” mode in Galatians or Romans, then we must remember that Paul also used a more “Greek” mode in 1 Thessalonians and Philippians. His style was affected by his subject matter, his audience, and the traditions on which he relied. Timothy and Titus, it must be remembered, both had Greek backgrounds and were ministering in Greek cultural centers.

The final point of contention is with the opponents in the Pastorals, which is Brant’s main issue, and how Paul deals with them. Paul of the undisputed letters is usually keen to refute his opponents on biblical and other grounds; Paul of the Pastorals seems content merely to slander them and warn against following them. The writer of 1 Timothy does, however, clarify theological points several times (1:8; 4:3-5, 7-8; 6:5-10) and the genuine Paul is not immune from the use of slander against rival teachers (2 Cor 11:13-15; Gal 5:12; 6:13; Php 3:2). What is distinctive about the Pasroals is not the presence of polemic but the shear amount of it, its largely stereotypical nature, and its literary function.

As for the religious or theological orientation of the opponents, that there is actually little in the “composite sketch” of these opponents that is not also found in the undisputed letters:

  • Dietary regulations (1 Tim 4:3; see Rom 14:2; Gal 2:11-14; cf. Col 2:16; Acts 15:28-29?)
  • Forbidding marriage (1 Tim 4:3; see 1 Cor 7:1)
  • Overly-realized eschatology (2 Tim 2:16-18; see 1 Cor 4:8; 15:12)
  • Emphasis on knowledge (1 Tim 6:20-21; see 1 Cor 1:5; 8:1; 2 Cor 11:6)
  • Myths and genealogical speculations (1 Tim 1:4, 6-8; 4:7; 2 Tim 4:4; see 2 Cor 11:22? Php 3:5-6?)
  • Claims to be “teachers of the law” (1 Tim 1:7; see Gal 2:11-14?)

I’m not entirely sure there isn’t a Gnostic component to this sketch, however. Although full-blown Gnosticism is a late first (Cerinthus) or second century (Valentinus) phenomenon, Birger Pearson theorizes that these diverse movements have roots in pre-Christian Alexandrian Judaism. It is not inconceivable that some judaizing groups in the church embraced pre- or proto-Gnostic elements. Earle Ellis in fact sees the opponents in the Pastoral Epistles as such a hybrid, holding to a form of the same “judaizing” tendencies that had plagued Paul’s ministry from the beginning. This faction

combined a demand for Gentile adherence to the Mosaic regulations and an ascetic ritualism with a zeal for visions of angels and, at least in the Diaspora, with Gnosticizing tendencies to promote an experience of (a distorted) divine wisdom and knowledge, and to depreciate matter and physical resurrection and redemption (cf. 1 Cor 15:12 with 2 Tim 2:18). At times their vaunted asceticism produced an arrogance primed for a subtle sexual licentiousness (cf. Gal 4:9; 5:13-21; Col 2:18, 23 with 1 Tim 4:3; 2 Tim 3:6-7; Tit 1:10, 15). While Paul argued that in the messianic age the OT ethical laws remained valid but its ritual laws were passé (Col 2:17; cf. Gal 4:9-10) and were no longer binding (Rom 10:4; 13:8-10; Gal 3:24-25), his opponents argued that the ritual laws remained binding and yet they vitiated the ethical commands by their conduct.

In the Pastorals the gnosticizing judaizers were known as “the circumcision party” (Tit 1:10) and continued their claim to be “teachers of the Law” (1 Tim 1:7), although they apparently no longer stressed, as in Galatians, the duty of circumcision. They forbade marriage, promoted food laws and claimed to impart a spiritual “knowledge” (gnosis) whose source was, in the words of an oracle applied to them, demonic spirits (1 Tim 4:1-3; 6:20). They represented on stage of a continuing counter-mission, which appears in Ignatius (Magn. 8:11; Trall. 9; ca. AD 110) as a kind of “Judaism crossed with Gnosticism” (Lightfoot) that denied not only Christ’s resurrection but also his physical incarnation and death, and which later in the second century developed or merged into the full-blown Gnostic heresies. While some of the opponents originated in the mission “the circumcision party,” others were teachers in Pauline congregations and defectors from a Pauline theology, including former associates or coworkers (1 Tim 1:3-5; 2 Tim 1:15-16; Tit 1:10-11). (E. Earle Ellis, “Pastoral Letters,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne et al. [InterVarsity, 1993] 662-63)

There’s a reasonable argument to be made for the authenticity of the Pastorals (although, as I’ve already stated, the question isn’t keeping me up at night). That argument isn’t weakened if one tends to see Gnostic tendencies in the opponents addressed in these letters.



  1. “I’m one of that rare breed who thinks the Pastorals may very well be authentically Pauline”

    And you wonder why you get labeled as “very conservative”?


  2. SingingOwl says:

    Interesting stuff. I guess I’m very conservative too. 😉 It all depends on who you’re talking to, doesn’t it?


Comments are closed.



%d bloggers like this: