Reading: 1 Timothy 1
Our Sunday School lesson has already breached the question of authorship asking if it really matters if Paul actually wrote Timothy — from the start of this lesson it reminds us that the majority of contemporary Bible scholars doubt that Paul wrote I or II Timothy. The lessons also talk about a possibility that Paul may have lived longer than tradition suggests. One of the questions for discussion is whether who wrote Timothy matters.
I thought now would be a good time to answer this. When I read scripture, there are a few lenses that I use to understand it. The first lens to attempting to discern what the passage means to the author and the original audience. Whether or not this is to Timothy from Paul is of the utmost importance for this level of communication.
The next thing I look at is what caused this writing to be preserved, and ultimately accepted as scripture. Everything that we consider scripture has been recognized as valuable to us for centuries. There was something that caused people to keep reading it in the churches, continue to meditate on these words. These writings meant something to the earliest Christians, they continued to mean something throughout Church history, and they mean something to us now. These passages shape our faith and our culture.
No matter who wrote this section of scripture — it is recognized by the church as scripture. We believe that what it says has lasting value. Even though I cannot speak of the context of this writing with certainty, I can speak of what it means to the church and how we learn from it. There is a reason the epistles to Timothy are scripture; they are scripture because the message in them remains relevant to the church. In a very real sense, scripture isn’t scripture because it is a historic artifact — scripture is scripture because of its continued value to the religious community.
Who is Timothy?
Even if this letter is a fictional communication from the Apostle Paul to an early church leader, it is important to know that the names mentioned in the letter are real. Timothy and Paul were real people, and the author of I and II Timothy were well aware of who these people were, and what they were to the church. Even if historical Timothy did not receive this letter, those who originally read the letter would know who Timothy was.
Timothy was a convert to Christianity that Paul met while he was on a preaching tour in what is now Turkey. Timothy had Jewish ancestors on his mother’s side, but was not circumcised as a child because his father was Greek, and was only circumcised because Paul encouraged it so that he might be accepted by Jews when he traveled with Paul. Timothy was familiar with the scriptures, and he along with his mother and grandmother because early members of the Christian community.
Timothy traveled in ministry with Paul, and eventually because a leader of the Christian community in Ephesus — tradition tells us that he was the first Bishop of Ephesus. I and II Timothy are both letters from Paul to this leader of the Christian community in Ephesus offering advice to a young leader of a new religious community in a city that is the center of worship for the goddess Artemis.
Myths and Genealogies
In the opening advice, Paul tells Timothy to keep people from teaching other doctrine, and occupying themselves with endless myths and genealogies. Taking this at face value, I must assume that Paul is discouraging the church from harmonizing the local belief system with Christianity. If I accept the idea that this is a fictional letter, then the purpose is likely to speak against a speculative system like Gnosticism that focuses on esoteric knowledge of names and relationships.
This days, I know that many people are judged by their family, focusing on one’s ancestors rather than the person themselves. There are a couple examples that stand out to me; one is the Graham family, another is the Falwell family. While there are several members of Billy Graham’s family that have followed in his footsteps, went to seminary, went through the ordination process, and became ministers, none of them are their grandfather. It is too easy for us to try to force people into the mold of their ancestors if we know them well; but the truth is, we have to judge people on their own merits and not the merits of their parents. If we expect Billy Graham’s grandchildren to be what he was, we are setting them up to fail. There is neither a successor or a replacement to Billy Graham — and it is unfair to expect a grandson to be his grandfather.
Another example that comes to mind is that of Jerry Falwell Jr. As you might know, Jerry Falwell Sr. was a Southern Baptist minister who was also a political activist and was among the founders of Liberty University. While I don’t want to get into Falwell’s political activism, I do want to point out that Liberty University grew to become a major university with over 15,000 students on campus and a large range of academic programs including not only a seminary but professional degrees in medicine and law.
Jerry Falwell Jr. was a lawyer who served on the board at Liberty University, and after his father’s death was made president of the university even though he lacked experience in education and he also did not have a background in ministry like the founders or the current president. It would be fair to say that he was hired purely for the name “Jerry Falwell”, and that he was not expected to be an educational administrator, nor to represent the school to the Church group that supported it; if he were expected to take an active administrative role, he would not have nearly enough time to do those things he is well known for. If he was able to not embarrass the school, he would have succeeded in his position. Unfortunately, he rather publicly showed that he could not live up to the standards the school sets for its community of faculty, staff and students and embarrassed the school in multiple ways over the past few years. This past month the board pushing him out for the good of the school has been a major news item. If the board members at Liberty would have considered qualifications rather than genealogies when they selected a president, then the reputation of one of the largest Christian universities in the United States would not have been tarnished.
What the law is good for
No matter who wrote this, they correctly identified one of Paul’s theme’s — the law is very limited. The law does not justify a person, it does not make a person good or moral, it does not save a person. The law is good, because if you do not steal because the law says not to you will not be a thief; but that is not enough to make a person moral.
Any harm that the law prevents is a good thing; but if I need to law to tell me not to steal or murder I am not a good nor a trustworthy person. It is likely I will do as much harm as the law allows, and feel morally justified as I do this harm. Ultimately, I need to reach the point where my motivation is to do good, and I do not need to be told not to steal because I would not consider theft.
Mercy and forgiveness are necessary
When we look at the story of Paul, we see persecutor of Christians who participated in their murder. Now, Paul saw what he was doing as necessary, and as a Pharisee he considered himself as being under and within the law. When Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus, he realized that what he did in ignorance was profoundly wrong. When we look at the gospel that Paul taught, one of the biggest parts of it is radical forgiveness. Even though Paul was very wrong, Jesus forgave him and called from him to repent and live a new way. The Christian community faced calls to forgive Paul and to accept him into the community, even though his actions caused much harm and suffering.
One of the most important messages to the church is that we believe in salvation from sin through repentance and forgiveness. If we believe in such a salvation, we need to make room for people to change, to grow. If we believe that Jesus came to save us from our sin, we need to make room for people who have been saved from sin. For all of us who have messed everything up, it is good news that Jesus is about restoring us and saving us from our sin — and it is also good news that our Lord has called the Church to be a community of the forgiven who encourage one another to do better.