Paul’s Letters to Timothy and Titus

Paul’s Letters

to Timothy and Titus


These three letters are often thought of as instructions from the apostle Paul towards the end of his life as to how ecclesias should be organised for all time to come. The letters themselves give good reason, however, to question this interpretation, and indicate an emergency response to particular problems which had arisen in Ephesus and Crete.[1] In assessing, therefore, the teaching given, the context is once more crucial but as in Corinthians there is the difficulty that while Paul, Timothy and Titus knew precisely the situation in the ecclesias there, we do not.



It is easy to underestimate the importance of knowing the right context, and all the facts of the situation. Automatically we tend to assume we can easily pick the context up when we read the words of Scripture. A modern example may warn us to proceed with caution.

On one occasion in the 1980s the electoral chances of Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada were jeopardised by the portrayal of his wife as an empty-headed, unreliable companion. This image of her was boosted by the publication of a close-up photograph in which she was waving her arms foolishly in the air and appeared to be the worse for drink. Some time later the complete photograph was published. It had been taken when she had tripped on a flight of stairs and was attempting to regain her balance. A split-second, isolated shot by a photographer widely misled the public.

In assessing the context of Paul’s letters, particularly where he is dealing with issues which have been reported to him but which he does not state in his reply, we must be careful not to misunderstand. In these letters we possess the message which God wished Paul to convey to the people he addressed. We who read at a distance of over 1,900 years are unlikely to pick up so accurately what is being said unless we acquaint ourselves with the whole background. It is not possible to do this, so we will always be handicapped by seeing only part of the overall picture. Nevertheless, there is much that can be observed.


The Context of Timothy and Titus

These letters are written to deal with major problems in Ephesus and Crete, but Paul does not write directly to the ecclesias there. The danger of which Paul had warned the Ephesian elders had been realised.

... from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.                   (Acts 20:30)

If Paul had written directly to the elders, they would probably have ignored his letter. So, he worked through Timothy, as he explained at the beginning.

As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations rather than the divine training that is in faith.... Certain persons by swerving from these have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions.                                                                                                            (1 Timothy 1:3-7)

False teachers had thoroughly corrupted the true teaching and practice of the gospel in Ephesus, and much the same had happened in Crete. Paul’s response was to commission Titus to appoint responsible elders in each town in Crete, but this was not possible in Ephesus where elders had been in place for some years and were themselves among the promoters of false teaching and practice.

Paul wrote to Timothy as an interim measure because he could not immediately go to Ephesus himself.

I hope to come to you soon but I am writing these instructions to you so that, if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.                                                           (1 Timothy 3:15)

Since Timothy was already one of Paul’s well-attested fellow workers (Romans 16:21, 1 Corinthians 16:10), and had been previously sent by Paul on a similar mission (1 Cor. 4:17), presumably Paul wrote in this way to give his written authority to the instructions Timothy would give in Ephesus.

The “household of God” (KJV “house of God”) means the believers as a community, not the church building or a meeting of the ecclesia. It was necessary for these believers to be given (or given again) correct standards of behaviour. Although it is often assumed that Paul was giving instructions on how to run meetings of the ecclesia, this is an assumption which cannot be demonstrated from the text. The contents of the letters to Timothy and Titus refer mostly to everyday behaviour and the personal morality of believers. Paul dealt with issues of immediate concern in the critical situation at Ephesus: the men were to stop quarrelling; women were to behave modestly; an overseer was to be faithful to his wife, not to be a drunkard, not to use violence, not to be quarrelsome or a lover of money; deacons were not to be addicted to wine; younger widows were to re-marry properly and use their energies running a household; only widows aged 60 or over were to be put on the list; elders who ruled well were to receive double pay; no unsupported accusation was to be heard against an elder. The pursuit of wealth had already ruined the lives of some, and Paul warned of greed, and trying to use religion to make a financial profit.

Such things as these are not written unless each one mentioned is an existing problem which requires a solution. On a more personal level, Timothy was told to drink some wine for his health. These details indicate how much of Paul’s letter was directed towards specific situations in Ephesus. There are eternal principles behind Paul’s teaching, but much of the detail is specific to the occasion and the need. It is difficult to imagine ecclesias in a worse state than those described here.


False Teaching, False Teachers, and False Authority

The precise errors are not clearly specified, but the evidence suggests:

(a) Both male and female teachers were giving false teaching.

... charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine...

(1 Timothy 1:4)

“Certain persons” is inclusive language (as also in 1 Timothy 1:6).

(b) There was emphasis on myths and genealogies. These led to speculation rather than godliness.

... charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations rather than the divine training that is in faith.

(1 Timothy 1:4)

(c) The Jewish Law was involved, though those desiring to be its teachers did not understand it properly, and pursued Jewish myths.

Certain persons ... have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions.            (1 Timothy 1:6-7)

... there are many insubordinate men [“rebellious people”, NRSV], empty talkers and deceivers, especially the circumcision party....   

... giving heed to Jewish myths or to commands of men [“those”, NRSV] who reject the truth.                                                      (Titus 1:10-14)

... avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels over the law, for they are unprofitable and futile.                       (Titus 3:9)     

(d) There was a major problem of people expressing an abusive authority in teaching others. The NRSV translates as follows:

There are also many rebellious people, idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision; they must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for sordid gain what it is not right to teach.                                                                          (Titus 1:10-11)

“Insubordinate men” in RSV is translated “rebellious people” in NRSV. “Insubordinate” is the opposite of “submissive”. It suggests a dominating attitude and a direct rejection of accepted Christian teaching, behaviour and practice. The word “men” does not occur in the Greek in the above phrases. Again, this is inclusive language, covering male and female. These teachers, both male and female, “must be silenced”, instructs Paul.

(e) It was not understood that immoral behaviour was incompatible with the new life in Christ.

Now we know that the law is good, if any one uses it lawfully ... understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers ... and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.

(1 Timothy 1:8-10)

(f) Moral behaviour was rejected and God was blasphemed.

By rejecting conscience, certain persons have made shipwreck of their faith, among them Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.                  (1 Timothy 1:19-20)

(g) They paid attention to “deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons”.

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons....

(1 Timothy 4:1)

(h) Marriage was forbidden. Various foods were not to be eaten.

... [they] forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.                                                                    (1 Timothy 4:3)

(i) These false teachers were keen on controversy, and saw a chance in their religious activities to make financial profit.

... a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among men [“those” NRSV] who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.        (1 Timothy 6:4-5)... they are upsetting whole families by teaching for base gain what they have no right to teach.                                                          (Titus 1:11)

(j) Myths or fables were attractive to some people.

Have nothing to do with godless and silly myths.... (RSV)

... refuse profane and old wives’ fables....      (KJV 1 Timothy 4:7)

(k) Some of this false teaching was taught by younger widows.

... they learn to be idlers, gadding about from house to house, and not only idlers but gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not....                                                                          (1 Timothy 5:13)

 (l) Some have been drawn away from the Faith.

... some have already strayed after Satan.                  (1 Timothy 5:15)

God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.                                                     (2 Timothy 2:25-26)

(m) Some claimed to have special knowledge, though “knowledge” was not a true description of it.

Avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge (gnosis), for by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith.                                                           (1 Timothy 6:20-21)


Turning Christian Teaching Upside Down

The closing comment by Paul gives a useful clue to the probable nature of some of the false teachings, for Christianity was challenged for several centuries by various brands of heresy which came to be known as Gnosticism. Certain believers claimed to have superior knowledge (gnosis) beyond ordinary believers. Gnosticism flourished as a heresy particularly from the second to fourth centuries. There is debate as to when it began, but ideas such as were developed in Gnosticism do not spring suddenly out of nowhere, and a first century AD (or even BC) origin makes good sense.

A vast amount of literature from the ancient world details the various teachings of Gnosticism. The discovery of many Gnostic writings at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945 has thrown more light on the subject than was previously available.[2]

Gnosticism had connections with Jewish thought, but pagan and Jewish stories and myths became mixed together. A distorted interpretation of the Old Testament was the result. The God of the Hebrew Scriptures was considered evil because He created a material world. He was regarded as an inferior demi-god, which could explain why Paul uses the word “blaspheme” of the activities of Hymenaeus and Alexander. The Gnostics were greatly interested in origins (“myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations”). They believed in a series of intermediate powers (“deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons”). Gnostic speculations involved a re-write of Genesis. The serpent, regarded as an embodiment of ‘the female spiritual principle’, was regarded as a benefactor of the human race by helping Adam and Eve to discover true knowledge (gnosis) contrary to the ‘false’ teaching of their Creator. Eve (“the mother of all living”, Genesis 3:20) was identified with Artemis (whose great Temple was in Ephesus) and with Isis (salvation goddess from Egypt) and with Cybele (‘the great mother’ of pagan fertility religion). Eve was considered, therefore, as having a primacy over Adam. She played a key part in giving him life and in instructing him.

The spirit-filled woman came to him and spoke with him, saying “Arise, Adam.” And when he saw her, he said, “You are the one who has given me life. You will be called ‘the mother of the living,’ because she is my mother, she is the female healer, and the wife and the one who gave birth.”                                           (Nag Hammadi Codex II, Tractate 4

                                                The Hypostasis of the Archons, 89.11-16)

It was believed that Cain was good, Abel bad. If, as some maintained, the God of the Old Testament was evil, then commands like “Thou shalt not commit adultery” should be deliberately disobeyed. Morality was therefore reversed. These myths were not simply “old-wives’ fables” of a traditional folklore, but involved a direct challenge to Christian belief.[3] Hence the description: “godless” or “profane”.

Have nothing to do with godless and silly myths.... (RSV)

... refuse profane and old wives’ fables....      (KJV 1 Timothy 4:7)

Differing and contradictory views were held among the false teachers. Not only were they leading believers astray but, as could be expected, they were indulging in bitter wrangling with each other.

In addition to this context which can be deduced from the content of Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus, two aspects of the pagan world are also relevant.


Artemis and the City of Ephesus

Ephesus was a centre for the worship of Artemis (“Diana of the Ephesians”) – “she whom all Asia and the world worship” (Acts 19:27). According to Greek mythology, the city of Ephesus had been founded by the Amazons, famous women leaders who had slain their men-folk. Hence they had the epithet “manslayers”. Artemis herself was a huntress and had engineered the death of the hunter Actaeon who came across her when she was bathing. According to mythology she slew many others. Originally Artemis to the Greeks was a different goddess to Artemis in Ephesus, but the qualities attributed to each became assimilated. Paul’s criticism of prevailing attitudes at Ephesus echoes these myths. Is it simply a coincidence?

... the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers.

                                                                                    (1 Timothy 1:9)

“Manslayers” is the exact word used of the Amazons who gloried in their defeat of the men. In mythology Artemis exercised power over men. Artemis was also the goddess to whom women appealed to save them through childbirth.

It is not surprising that believers in Ephesus risked being influenced by this pagan atmosphere, nor that problems arose over women dominating men.



The ‘New’ Woman

In the Roman world of the first century, some women were adopting a new lifestyle, caring more for pleasure outside marriage than for husband, home, or children. Roman legislation sought to control such behaviour which was rightly considered damaging to society. The type of clothing which women wore indicated more than wealth and personal taste. By wearing gold or jewellery a woman was seen as sexually promiscuous.

It is necessary for the free and modest wife to live with her lawful husband adorned with quietness ... she ... must reject garments shot with purple or gold. For these are used by hetairai [prostitutes] in soliciting men generally. ... the ornament of a wife is her manner and not her dress. And a free and modest wife must appear attractive to her own husband, but not to the man next door, having on her cheeks the blush of modesty rather than of rouge and powder, and a good and noble bearing and decency and modesty rather than gold and emerald. For it is not in the expenditure on clothing and looks that the modest woman should express her love of the good but in the management and maintenance of her household, and pleasing her own husband.

                        (Melissa to Clearete, P. Haun, II, 13 lines 1-42)[4]

The reference to clothes and decoration (1 Timothy 2:9) is not simply to do with extravagant expense or personal self-image. This adds further background to the problem confronting Paul and Timothy.

With these kinds of context in mind, and with the reservation that we nevertheless know very little about the actual events in Ephesus, let us examine 1 Timothy regarding the work of brothers and sisters.



[1] “Reflections on Church Order in the Pastoral Epistles, with Further Reflection on the Hermeneutics of ad hoc Documents” by Gordon D. Fee, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol 28, No 2 (June 1985) pages 141-151.

[2] “The manuscripts were produced in the fourth century, but all of the texts are clearly translations from Greek originals. The original Greek compositions date most likely from the second century and the early third century, although there are debates over whether some texts might have originated in the first century, e.g. The Gospel of Thomas.” Dictionary of Later New Testament and its Developments, Gnosis, Gnosticism, 3.4.1. (IVP, 1997)

[3] The descriptions of Adam, Eve and the Serpent are complicated in the Gnostic literature, and they vary from book to book. We have given only a brief explanation above. For the full context and a further translation see The Coptic Gnostic Library, edited by Bentley Layton, Nag Hammadi Codex II, 2-7, Vols. 1 & 2 (1989), published by E. J. Brill under the auspices of The Institute for Antiquity and Christianity.

[4] Roman Wives, Roman Widows – The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities, Bruce W. Winter (Eerdmans, 2003), quoted from pages 72-73. This is a letter from the Pythagorean School of philosophy. It is a copy on a 3rd century AD papyrus of a letter which is reckoned to be much earlier.

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