What does the end of the world and Biblical inspiration have to do with one another? Let me put it in context: This article is part of a series regarding the scriptures. Today we’ll look specifically at the claim of inspiration found in Timothy. What does that have to do with the end of the world? There is a surprising connection.
“But what about 2 Timothy 3:16?” That has frequently been the response as we have explored new ways of reading the scripture. This is one of the favorite scriptures that is often used to argue for an inerrant point of view. (What is meant by inerrancy was clarified here: The Error of Inerrancy)
2 Timothy 3:16 All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness … (NKJV)
Possibly the most shallow way in which this scripture can be understood, is that every statement in scripture is backed by God as correct. We have already shown that there are many contradictory statements and opposing theologies present in scripture.
Alternatively we can acknowledge that the scriptures teach us both good and bad ways of thinking about God. When the name of god is used to justify the slaughter of children or the enslavement of people, we can recognize that people are creating a god in their own image to justify their behavior. When we see that Jesus would rather suffer our violence than partake in it, we can recognize the radical inversion of our own ideas.
The scriptures are therefore the story of human ideas about god being undone by God’s self-revelation. As we work through our own projections (which we call God), God patiently continues to expose every one of these ideas as not-God … until the fullness of time in which God unveils Himself in flesh – not text. In every religion and philosophy, word remains word – religion remains a theory and philosophy remains a guess. But in Jesus Christ, the Word is made flesh, reality is revealed – God’s thought is concluded in human life. The ultimate destiny of the Word, was never a book or an institution, but the image and likeness of God displayed in human life.
And so the whole story, all of scripture, the good and the bad, the correct and incorrect … all of it is part of God’s communication with us and is beneficial for correction. Scriptural contradictions are therefore expected, for scripture corrects itself.
But now I want to broaden our perspective of 2 Tim 3:16 beyond simple alternative interpretations. Let’s start this by asking: who wrote 2 Timothy?
That’s a no-brainer you might say – its right there in chapter 1 verse 1: Paul. However, from the earliest times there were disputes about authorship. Why?
I do not claim that the information I’m about to expound is unique. It might be new to many who read this, and I may communicate it in a new way, but it has been available for a long time. References are supplied.
Almost all scholars agree that Paul was the author of these seven letters: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon. These letters share the same phrases, the same vocabulary, and importantly the same theological ideas.
However, concerning 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, many are convinced that Paul was not the Author. Of the 848 words used in these letters, 306 do not occur in any of Paul’s others letters.(1) What is even more interesting is that most of these unique words – about two thirds – are used by second century Christian writers. That implies that the author of these letters lived after Paul, most probably in the second century.
More importantly, it is the ideas and theology contained in this letter that are most revealing. As far back as 1807, the German Theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, stated that the arguments these letters make against ‘myths and genealogies’ are typical of second-century Gnostics. In short the problems addressed by these letters are not found in first century Christianity but are prevalent in a different era.
Why are there such different ideas in these different eras? Well, imagine being shipwrecked and barely making it to shore with a few other survivors. After the initial chaos, making sure all survivors have been found and all supplies gathered … the group will probably settle right there on the shore expecting to be found soon. This expectation of the immanent arrival of a rescue mission would profoundly influence the behavior of the group.
However, as days turn into weeks and weeks into months … and hope begins to fade, a new strategy for survival would be needed. The island would have to be explored for food and water. It might even be more beneficial to settle somewhere else instead of on the shore. All these difficult decisions would create conflict and highlight the need for leadership. If the group is to survive in such a hostile environment, each would have to find their place and fit into the hierarchy of this evolving community. This might even lead to the group splitting into multiple groups.
The first Christians had much in common with the group that expected the immanent arrival of a rescue party. Paul spoke of the urgency of the time they lived in as follows: knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. (Rom 13:11,12)
Paul, being Jewish, knew that the resurrection was an event that would occur at the end of time – the end of our world as we know it. The resurrection of Jesus was therefore a clear sign that the end had come. In 1 Corinthians 15:20 Paul refers to Christ’s resurrection as the first fruits of those who have died. The phrase first fruits was used to describe the celebration that happened on the evening after the first day of harvesting. The rest of the harvest would be gathered the next day – not the next year, much less two centuries later.
And so second century Christians could be compared to those survivors on the beach who have finally realized that the rescue party they were expecting, is probably not coming. They realized that they were stuck on this island for the foreseeable future and as such they had to find new ways of surviving.
Hierarchy and Leadership.
You probably noticed that in Paul’s authentic letters he does not address the leaders of the congregations. The letters are simply addressed to the faithful – the community of believers at Corinth or whatever location the letter was sent to. The reason is simple: there were no leaders.
It is not as if these groups did not have issues. Boy did they have issues!
“…sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles (1 Cor 5:1). Some of the brothers were taking one another to court etc.
Yet, Paul does not set up a structure of leadership to deal with it, but rather tells them – the whole community – to sort it out. They have the Spirit of God with all the gifts necessary to deal with such problems.
Paul was in effect writing to that band of survivors on the beach, saying, do what is necessary to keep yourselves together for a little while longer. In the morning – soon – Jesus will be back and all these issues will be history in any case.
However, when we get to the pastoral letters a very different message emerges. These letters are written to leaders and they are concerned with hierarchy. Who qualifies as leaders? These letters even have titles for these leaders. 1 Tim 3:2 speaks of bishops – a term absent from Paul’s vocabulary and as far as we know, absent in first century Christianity. These letters are concerned with behavior and for each person to find their place within this newly organized community of faith.
These letters can be compared to messages sent to those survivors who have settled in for the long haul. They have realized that they are here to stay and that means difficult decisions need to be made and conflict will abound if they don’t put the proper structures in place. This new realization profoundly affected second century Christians and it is evident in how their theology changed as well.
The changing meaning of faith.
The word faith was obviously very important for Paul. In his authentic letters it always refers to a relationship of trust. Whether it’s translated ‘the faithfulness of Christ’ as many are arguing for, or as ‘faith in Christ’, the central idea remains the same: a relationship of trust.
For many second century Christians the meaning of the word faith changed to mean a body of teaching, a set of statements that had to be believed. It is significant that the three pastoral letters use the word faith in this way. Faith is hardly used to describe the faithfulness of Christ, but rather as ‘the faith’ … a faith that is handed over from generation to generation (2 Tim 1:5). These letters also refer to ‘faithful sayings’ (1 Tim. 1:15).
Why this change in meaning? By the second century there were so many groups that claimed to be Christian but believed very differently from one another. It was a pressing problem to root out wrong beliefs and establish the one and only right belief.
Lets continue our analogy of the survivors on the island. There might have been enough survivors to form a few different groups once the leadership battles began. People had to choose which group they wanted to be part of. There were many theological battles in the second century and the teaching you held to became ever more important to determine what group you were part of. Every group obviously believed that their faith was the faith.
In 1 Corinthians 7 – one of Paul’s authentic letters – he makes his opinion regarding marriage clear. He thinks it would be wise and preferable for people to follow his good example and remain single. The urgency of the times, which is in fact the end of time, means that marriage is really a distraction. However, he also acknowledges that some are weak, leading to sexual immorality and so reluctantly makes allowances for marriage.
By the time Timothy is written, one cannot even be a leader in the church if you are not married! Something fundamental has changed. This author is no longer concerned with the urgency of the end of time as we know it, but rather with establishing healthy family structures … and every other type of structure that would make management of these groups easier. That brings us to the view of woman in Timothy.
One of the most revolutionary aspects of first century Christianity, was the way in which it destroyed the culturally accepted boundaries between slave and free, Jew and Gentile, male and female.
This new understanding that acknowledged equal value in every person meant that the slave and the master could sit in the same gathering as equals – equally forgiven, equally loved. Many woman found their value and a new identity in this new way of living – following Christ. If fact, the reason why woman teaching and woman leadership were such hot topics in Paul’s letters, is because it was happening in these communities. And such counter-cultural events had to be addressed. Paul’s view is probably most clearly stated in Gal. 3:23 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
The author of Timothy however, settles for a much more acceptable (for that time) and less disruptive view than Paul’s:
Woman should be silent, submissive, pregnant … and in the kitchen. And regarding the question that was alive and well in Paul’s day – the question of woman in authority, it has been decisively answered by the time of the writing of Timothy. It is simply and obviously not allowed! Don’t you remember what trouble that got us into in the first place. Eve was deceived, not Adam. We wouldn’t want a repetition of those disastrous decisions. But the women should not feel too bad. There is still a way of salvation available for them – bearing children. Yeah … that should do it … or wait, one more thing: Please dress modestly and avoid wearing make-up … and control yourself … and be holy … and do good works … I think that should cover it all.
… in like manner also, that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, but, which is proper for women professing godliness, with good works. Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. Nevertheless she will be saved in childbearing if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control. (1 Tim 2:9-15)
Now I know there have been attempts to interpret these scriptures so as to harmonize them with Jesus and Paul’s teachings. Some translations have tried to soften the tone … or in some instances change the plain meaning. Such attempts might be sincere but they are misguided at best, dishonest at worst.
Let me give one example. Some have translated verse 15 to say: “she will be saved through the birth of a child.” The interpretation then given, is that the verse refers to the birth of Jesus. If you read that whole portion, can you honestly say that was the intention of the author? But when one is committed to the idea that all scripture says the same thing and that there are no contradictions, then such misinterpretations will abound.
So what does all this information have to do with 2 Tim 3:16 and the end of the world?
Well firstly, it is obvious that the changing eschatology (theories about the end) between the first and second century affected many other parts of their theology and focus. A new situation raised new questions … questions that Paul did not directly answer and so new letters were needed to address new problems.
Bart Ehrman summarizes the situation as follows: Paul’s churches were split in lots of ways, as we have seen. One of the splits involved issues of sex, sexuality, and gender. Some Pauline Christians thought that women should be treated as equals and given equal status and authority with men, since Paul did say that “in Christ there is neither male nor female” (Gal. 3: 28). Other Pauline Christians thought that women were equal with men only “in Christ,” by which they meant “in theory,” not in social reality. These Christians were keen to tone down Paul’s own emphasis on women, and one of them decided to write a set of letters, the Pastorals, that authorized his view in Paul’s name. He had other issues he wanted to address as well: the nature of the leadership in the church, the need to suppress false teaching, the relations of slaves and masters, parents and children, and so on. He packaged all of these sundry issues in a set of letters and wrote them in the name of Paul, forging them to provide them with the authoritative voice they needed. (Ehrman, Bart D. (2011-03-22). Forged: Writing in the Name of God–Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (p. 104). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.)
Many forged letters were rejected from the canon of scripture … because they were forged. One of the telltale signs of a forgery, was its claim to be divinely inspired. Some of these manuscripts warn that not one word of the text be changed – lest disaster strike you etc.
So I think it is significant that the letter of 2 Timothy – the very letter that many scholars think was forged – is the book that makes a claim about inspiration, that none of the other letters written by Paul makes. In fact, in Paul’s authentic letters there are places where he explicitly tells us that he is simply giving us his opinion.
How does this information enrich my appreciation of the scriptures … including the pastoral letters? Well, an approach that sees the scriptures as conversation means I don’t feel obliged to simply agree with Timothy regarding the view of woman expressed in it.
These books also teach me what a living relationship with Christ can be degraded to, if a trusting relationship is replaced by the faith in a set of doctrinal statements. It shows me how quickly the adventure of living moment by moment in a joyful expectation of God’s involvement in my life can disappear if replaced by a dead set of rules that ensure good behavior.
It teaches me that despite Christ’s example of self-giving love, despite the way he restored the value of every person he met, including woman, his message can still be perverted by those who are more concerned about their place in the hierarchy, than about following Christ example.
It means I don’t have to reinterpret the original greek words to force Timothy to say what I perceive the gospel to be – I can simply acknowledge that its message is not the same as that of the other Pauline writings.
So did the Bible get it wrong concerning the topic of the end of the world? Well, the Bible does not contain only one theology about the end, but multiple theologies.
The first Christians might have been wrong regarding the exact nature and timing of the events concerning Christ’s return, but in a surprising way they were more right about living with an expectation of Christ’s immanent return than what we imagined. Their encounter with Christ Jesus meant that they expected a future radically different from their past. The kind of fear-mongering end-of-the-world messages that are often proclaimed in the name of Jesus, have little to do with the living, joyful expectation that Jesus is about to change everything in this world … and I am part of that change.
Change is only scary to those who want things to remain the same. For the victims, the outcasts, change is salvation. If we, as Jesus, can identify with victims then maybe we’ll become more excited about the end of the world as we know it. I don’t know if the metaphor of Jesus returning on a cloud any moment now is as appropriate today as it was then. But certainly, the expectation that God is about to change this world, that Jesus is the one through whom this will be done and that we are part of that change is certainly as relevant today as it was then.
Can you see how a different approach to scripture opens up so many more possibilities?
- A. N. Harrison, The Problem of the Pastoral Epistles (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1921).
Read the rest of The Scriptures Series here.