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Introduction to Paul's First Letter to Timothy

Julian Spriggs M.A.

1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus are often called the 'Pastoral Letters', because they address church organisation. However this description can hide that fact that each letter addressed a very specific historical situation in the churches in the first century.


There had been no question about the authorship of the Pastoral Epistles until the early nineteenth century, when the first attack came from Schiermacher (1807) and J.E.C. Schmid (1804). Since then, many others have followed suit. Some have denied Pauline authorship, but have sought to retain a few fragments.

There is consistent support for Paul being the author from the church fathers: the first letter of Clement (AD 96) alludes to the pastorals, as does Ignatius (AD 110). Polycarp's letter to Philippians (AD 115) quoted 1 & 2 Timothy, notably the love of money ... (ch 4, cf. 1 Tim 6:10). Irenaeus, who was a pupil of Polycarp also attributes them to Paul, saying “Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy” (Against Heresies 3:3:3). The 'Acts of Paul' (AD 160), as well as Clement of Alexandria (AD 190) and Tertullian (AD 200) all say that the pastoral epistles were by Paul. The Muratorian Canon (AD 170) also includes the pastorals: “He (Paul) wrote, besides these, one to Philemon, and one to Titus, and two to Timothy, in simple personal affection and love indeed.”

The heretic Marcion did not recognise them as Scripture. However, Tertullian in 'Against Marcion' said that Marcion rejected them because of the references to church discipline and quotations of the OT. The Gnostic teachers also rejected them. They are also omitted in P46, the earliest manuscript of Paul’s letters.

Since the end of the nineteenth century, scholars have suggested they were by an unknown author in the second century. However, these three letters contain many specific references to places, people and events. Small detailed characteristics of Paul would not be copied by an imitator. Others have said the letters are not by Paul, but contain genuine personal fragments from Paul. However there are too many personal details for this to be true, like the references to Timothy's mother and grandmother (2 Tim 1:5). The cloak at Troas (2 Tim 4:13) would mean nothing to anyone other than Timothy. Also no one knows how the fragments would have been kept, and who put them together. Another suggestion is that Paul was the author, but he used an amanuensis who was given a free hand, possibly Luke.

One of the main reasons for doubting Paul’s authorship are differences in vocabulary, grammar and style. A high proportion of words are not found in other of Paul's letters or any other NT book. Some key Pauline words are omitted, other words are used in a different way. A number of suggestions have been given to explain these differences: one is the use of a secretary, or the natural variations of an intelligent writer, or different subject matter. Another is the large number of quotations in the Pastorals. It appears that Paul quoted some earlier material, which influenced the vocabulary, and style. There are many quotations which are often introduced with, or concluded by, "the saying is sure" (1 Tim 1:15,17, 2:5-6,13-14, 3:1,2-3,16, 4:8-9, 5:18,21, 6:12-13,15-16, 2 Tim 2:11-13,19, Titus 1:12, 3:3-7). It would be natural for these not to be in Paul's style or vocabulary. If these are omitted, the remaining portions show no significant difference from Paul's other letters in style, vocabulary or grammar.

Some have suggested that Luke served as Paul’s secretary. He was the only person remaining with Paul (2 Tim 4:11), and some medical terminology is used in the letters: morbid craving (1 Tim 6:4), drinking wine for stomach (1 Tim 5:23), and gangrene (2 Tim 2:17). There are also other similarities with Luke’s writing. Otherwise there are many very characteristic Pauline phrases in these letters.

Scholars have often claimed that the doctrine is from a period later than Paul, that there is a changed picture of God, the emphasis on grace and faith for salvation is altered to more of an emphasis on good works. Others have noted that the church organisation is more advanced, so must be from a later time than Paul. One example is 1 Tim 3:6, where bishops must not be new converts, but how long does this mean?

It is thought that the false teaching combatted in the pastoral letters is a second century Jewish-Christian Gnostic heresy (Gnosticism or Marcionism), therefore they must be written later. Until recently it was mentioned that gnostic ideas did not exist until the second century. Today it is generally acknowledged that some gnostic ideas had already penetrated Judaism before the advent of Christianity. The dualistic thought behind gnosticism was already present when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians and Colossians in the fifties and sixties of the first century. The letters address a Jewish and dualistic attitude to the material world. They address Jewish legalism, mentioning the teachers of the law (1 Tim 1:7), the circumcision party (Titus 1:10), and quarrelling over laws (Titus 3:9), myths and genealogies (1 Tim 1:4,14). They also address asceticism, particularly the prohibition of marriage and foods (1 Tim 4:3), and the spiritualisation of the resurrection (2 Tim 2:18).

Another problem is their historical setting, as it is impossible to fit these letters into the historical account of Acts. Paul's Roman imprisonment in Acts 28 was probably from AD 60-62. So we are left with the question: when was Titus left in Crete, or Timothy left in Ephesus? We have to remember that the book of Acts is not a complete life history of Paul. Many episodes are omitted (2 Cor 11). It is most likely that Paul was released in AD 62 and was then free for three years of travel and ministry, before being rearrested, tried and executed sometime after AD 64.

The first Roman imprisonment (Acts 28) was more like house arrest, where Paul had freedom to preach the Gospel, and have visitors. The charges against him were relatively mild, and would not lead to the death penalty. In his letter to the Philippians, he had the assurance that he will live, and the expectation of his release (Phil 1:25, 2:24), and even requests Philemon to prepare a guest room (Phm 22). Under Roman law, an appeal to the emperor must be heard within two years, after which the prisoner must be released. Luke says that Paul was held in Rome for two years (Acts 28:32), so it is unlikely that the first Roman imprisonment lasted as long as until AD 64. There is strong tradition that Paul was killed by the sword as a Roman citizen during Nero's persecution after the fire of Rome in AD 64.

From the church fathers, there is an early and strong tradition for two separate imprisonments in Rome. Clement, wrote a letter to the church in Rome in AD 96. He says that Paul reached the limits of the West (probably Spain), where Paul wanted to preach the Gospel (Rom 15:24). “Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects. Thus was he removed from the world, and went into the holy place, having proved himself a striking example of patience.” (1 Clement 5:7)

The Muratorian Canon, from AD 175-200, mentions that Paul left Rome on a journey to Spain. “Moreover, the Acts of all the Apostles are comprised by Luke in one book, and addressed to the most excellent Theophilus, because these different events took place when he was present himself; and he shows this clearly, that the principle on which he wrote was, to give only what fell under his own notice, by the omission of the passion of Peter, and also of the journey of Paul, when he went from the city of Rome to Spain.”

Eusebius, writing in AD 222, said that Paul was martyred on his return to Rome. "Paul is said, after having defended himself, to have set forth again upon his ministry ofpreaching and to have entered the city (Rome) a second time, and to have ended his life by martyrdom. Whilst a prisoner he wrote the second epistle to Timothy, in which he both mentions his first defence and his impending death." (Ecclesastical History 2:12:2)

It appears that this second imprisonment was in much more severe conditions, as alluded to in 2 Timothy: Onesiphorus was not ashamed of Paul's chains (1:16-18). All had deserted Paul at his first defence (4:16), and he was at the point of being sacrificed (4:6-8). He had probably been condemned to execution, so was writing to Timothy, handing over his apostolic commission, before he was martyred.

A possible reconstruction of Paul's last three years

It is very difficult to make an accurate reconstruction of Paul’s final journey. But from the evidence in his letters, this is a possible suggestion:

Paul was released after house arrest in Rome for two years (AD 62). Either his appeal to the Emperor was successful, or his case never came to court. He then made a trip to Spain, but with limited success. Some claim that he also travelled to Britain, as this was known as the 'end of the world'. He returned to Ephesus, where he stayed with Timothy, then travelled to Crete, where he left Titus (Tit 1:5). On return to Ephesus, he handed leadership of the church over to Timothy. He travelled north to Troas, where he left his cloak and books, and to Macedonia, probably Philippi (1 Tim 1:3), where he wrote 1 Timothy, with the intention to return to Ephesus (1 Tim 3:14, 4:13). He spent winter in Nicopolis (western Macedonia) (Tit 3:12), where he wrote to Titus in Crete, the letter being carried by Zenas and Apollos. At some point he was arrested and taken to prisoner to Rome, possibly in Ephesus (2 Tim 1:15f). He was taken to Rome with companions, Trophimus was left sick at Miletus (2 Tim 4:20). Perhaps he travelled via Corinth, where Erastus left behind (2 Tim 4:20). Once in Rome, many deserted him, including Demas (2 Tim 4:10), and Alexander the coppersmith, who did harm (2 Tim 4:14). Luke alone remained (2 Tim 4:11). After being condemned to die, he wrote 2 Timothy, handing over his apostolic commission, before being martyred by the sword in Rome.

Why was the letter written?

The Pastoral Letters (1 & 2 Timothy, and Titus) are often regarded as manuals for church organisation, and little notice is taken of the historical situation of the letter. However, there is a specific historical setting for all three letters. Paul made his purpose clear when he wrote to Timothy: "I urge you, as I did when I was on my way to Macedonia, to remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine" (1:3).

It appears that Paul had left Timothy in Ephesus as his representative, to deal with false teachers in the church. This is a similar situation to Titus, who was left in Crete also to deal with false teachers there.

What was the problem in Ephesus?

The city of Ephesus is mentioned many times in the New Testament, and many NT letters were written to the church there. (Ephesians, 1 Timothy, Revelation, 1,2,3 John). Paul established the church in Ephesus on his third missionary journey (Acts 19). This was when there was a riot caused by the loss of trade by makers of statues of Artemis. At the end of his third journey, he called the elders of Ephesus to meet him in Miletus, where he warns them about false teachers who will come, even from among themselves, "I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them." (Acts 20:29-30). For more information about the city of Ephesus, see the Ephesus and the Ephesus Photographs pages.

The Letter to the Ephesians was written a few years later, while Paul was in prison in Rome (Acts 28). In the Book of Revelation, the risen Jesus praised the church in Ephesus saying, "I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers, you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false" (Rev 2:2). By the time John wrote Revelation, including a letter to Ephesus, they had dealt with the false teachers, but it seems that they were rather lacking in love.

What was the spiritual situation in Ephesus?

The Roman province of Asia has been described as a Religious Disneyland, with a multitude of different pagan religions. Ephesus was an important centre of the worship of the Greek goddess Artemis, the goddess of fertility, and sex, believed to be the goddess from whom all life originated. The temple of Artemis in Ephesus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The riot in Ephesus because the sales of statues of Artemis had dropped (Acts 19). The people cried, "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!" (Acts 19:28, 34), and the town clerk described the city like this, "the city of the Ephesians is the temple keeper of the great Artemis and of the statue that fell from heaven" (19:35). Ephesus was widely known for its glorification of the mother goddess Artemis. In contrast to other parts of the ancient world, the primary deities in the province of Asia were female. It was the female religious officials who kept the ancient myths alive.

Matriarchal Theology

The dominance of female deities probably led to some matriarchal teaching spreading in the church. Some were probably claiming that woman was created before man, in contradiction to the Genesis account, so woman was the source of all men. They also claimed that Eve was the source of divine revelation in the Garden of Eden, because she ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. They also revered the snake in Eden (Satan), because it gave Eve knowledge.

The false teachers in Ephesus

Who were they?

Two specific individuals are named, Hymenaeus and Alexander, who made a shipwreck of their faith, and Paul had turned them over to Satan (1:20). Paul later informed Timothy that Hymenaeus, together with Philetus had swerved from the truth by claiming that the resurrection had already taken place (2 Tim 2:17-18). There was a Jew named Alexander who tried to make a defense for Paul before the rioters in Ephesus (Acts 19:33-34). Paul later told Timothy that Alexander the coppersmith did Paul great harm, and strongly opposed the message (2 Tim 4:14-15). However it not certain whether these were the same people as in Paul mentions in 1 Timothy,

Paul refers to the false teachers as "certain persons" (1:3,6,19). They had been true believers but they turned from the true faith. Several times Paul says they had turned away from the Gospel to something else: they had swerved from, wandered away from the faith (1:6), they had made a shipwreck of their faith (1:19), they had departed from the faith (4:1), and had missed the mark as regards faith (6:21).

They were teaching incorrect doctrines (1:3), teaching the law without understanding it (1:7). They had also rejected conscience (1:19), and their conscience was seared (4:2). It appears that money was also a problem, their godliness had become a means of gain (6:5), and their love of money had caused them to wander away from faith (6:10). Paul sees a Satanic influence in the false teachers, describing them as being in the condemnation of the Devil, and in the snare of the Devil (3:6-7), saying they are deceitful spirits, teaching doctrines of demons (4:1), and straying after Satan (5:15). They also have ungodly character, being liars (4:2), puffed up with conceit, craving for controversy and disputes about words (6:4)

Because of the instruction that is so clearly laid out for bishops and deacons (ch 3), and the charge of Timothy to discipline elders (5:17-22), it seems that some of the elders in the church were false teachers. It is likely that they were using women, especially young widows to propagate the false teaching, which would explain the cautions about enrolling widows. It is possible that the false teachers were female elders, or at least one specific individual woman. This is would fit with what Paul had warned in his speech to the elders in Miletus, that, "savage wolves would come, even from among yourselves" (Acts 20:29).

What did they teach?

It is difficult to identify precisely what the false teachers were teaching. Paul describes it as a different doctrine (1:3), and it appears to involve some sort of mystery teaching, "what is falsely called knowledge" (6:20). They were teaching endless genealogies (1:3) and silly myths (4:7). They promoted speculation and vain discussions (1:4). There was also anger and quarrelling in church (2:8). They were teaching legalism (1:7), particularly abstinence from foods, and forbidding marriage (4:3).

What effect were they having in the church?

The following were part of the church life: speculation (1:4), vain discussions (1:6), anger and quarrelling (2:8), slander, base suspicions, and dissension (6:4), wrangling among men (6:5) and godless chatter (6:20). There was probably some exclusiveness, which Paul answered by his emphasis on all (2:1-7), and God being the Saviour of all (4:8).

It does seem that the women were a problem in the church, some were 'loud' in their appearance and dress (2:9), some were not given to good deeds (2:10). They were not learning in silence, with a quiet heart attitude, meaning that they were noisy, loud, busybodies, rebellious and overbearing (2:11). They were teaching that which contradicted men (2:12), and usurped the authority of men (2:12), which probably means they were domineering over men. There was also a lack of modesty (2:15). The young widows were a problem in the church: they were self indulgent (5:6), idlers (because they were supported by church), gadding about from house to house, gossips (probably spreading false teaching), busybodies, saying what they should not (5:13), and some had strayed after Satan (5:15).