Sunday, January 4, 2015

2 Timothy: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include artwork by famous artists.

Paul’s second letter to his friend Timothy is also the second of the so-called “Pastoral Letters,” because they concern themselves with correct church leadership, teaching, and practice.  Scholars today generally believe that Paul did not write this letter.  Rather, it was written by a later Christian in his name, to give the text authority.  Scholar Tal Ilan describes this phenomenon in the ancient world: “Their attribution to Paul—a common practice in ancient writing in which ‘writings falsely ascribed’ or ‘pseudepigrapha’ are attributed to known authors—is intended to give them apostolic authority.”

Orthodox Icon of St. Timothy

Two main themes emerge from the second letter to Timothy (an early missionary, leader, and companion of Paul): endurance amidst persecution, and the importance of correct doctrine.  Throughout the letter, the author encourages Timothy to stand firm in his faith and to “join me in suffering for the gospel.”  He writes, “Share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus” and “all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”  The author urges Timothy to view Paul himself as an example of one who endured despite persecution: “What persecutions I endured!  yet the Lord rescued me from all of them.”

So, who is doing all this persecuting?  Is it the Roman government?  Is it Jewish religious opponents?  Pagan philosophers?  It seems, throughout the letter, that the main persecuting is happening within the church itself, which leads me to the next major theme of 2 Timothy: the importance of correct doctrine.

If, like me, you grew up going to church, it is easy to get the impression that the “gospel message” of Jesus is singular—something that everyone basically agrees upon.  However, in the early centuries of Christianity, there was widespread disagreement about the meaning and message of Jesus.  Scholar Bart Ehrman has written extensively on this turbulent period in early church history, before there were any official creeds, church councils, or even an agreed-upon list of books in the New Testament.  Ehrman’s books Lost Christianities and Lost Scriptures chronicle the theological “losers” in these early ideological battles over the meaning and message of Jesus.  Indeed, many of the early “church fathers” like Irenaeus of Lyons and Eusebius of Caesarea spent much ink and effort arguing against (and, ironically, persecuting) those whom they perceived as “heretics.”

In 2 Timothy, it appears as though the author is writing to combat and correct what he sees as false teachings (and teachers) in some churches of his day.  Actually, the author spends more time calling out specific false teachers than explaining in a clear way what correct teaching is.  He calls out two guys from Asia named Phygelus and Hermogenes who have “turned away from me.”  He calls out two other dudes named Hymenaeus and Philetus as having “swerved from the truth.”  He even calls out “Alexander the coppersmith” who did him “great harm.”  The author of 2 Timothy appears to be using the pen-name of Paul to condemn people with whom he disagrees.  What is most frustrating, however, is the fact that the author doesn’t give a clear explanation of what the right teaching is!  

As a reader, I am left wondering: what is the gospel that the author is so keen on defending?  Only one place does he give a very brief explanation.  In 2:8 he writes, “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel.”  Is this the whole gospel?  Is this all that one must believe?  For all its rage against false teachers, 2 Timothy is frustratingly scant on correct teaching.  It’s almost as if correct teaching is some secret, inside knowledge that the author isn’t keen on explaining in detail.  Come on, man!  Give us the goods!  I suppose it was this frustration, and the challenge of “heretics” that compelled the church to establish “creeds.”  If you read these books without preconceived “creeds” in mind, they are super ambiguous.

The First Council of Nicea (325 C.E.)--an early attempt at Christian consensus on correct belief.

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