Background to the Pastoral Epistles

The background to the Pastoral epistles is a matter of some speculation. The letters to Timothy and Titus are collectively called the “pastoral epistles” and are usually described as “letters to young pastors” on topics of church organization. This common way of describing these letters misses the obvious fact that by this point neither Timothy nor Titus could be called “young,” nor are they ever really described as pastors in the letters.

Both men are described as personal representatives of Paul and both men are given the task of dealing with some sort of theological deviation from Paul’s gospel which likely includes some practical, moral failure on the part of elders and deacons in Ephesus (and potentially Crete). First Timothy is less of a manual that could be subtitled “how to be a pastor” than directions to Timothy on how to deal with a serious problem plaguing Paul’s churches in Ephesus.

This is how I would reconstruct the situation behind First Timothy. In this post, I am more interested in placing these letters into Paul’s career at this point than describing the “opponents” who are implied by the letter.

  1. Paul spent about three years in Ephesus (Acts 19). During this time he would have established churches in the city and trained others who planted still more churches. Colossians is evidence that at least one other city near Ephesus was evangelized by a Pauline disciple. Revelation 2-3 mentions 6 churches in addition to Ephesus which may have been established as a result of Paul’s three years of ministry in Ephesus.
  2. While it is impossible to know how large the church was in Ephesus when Paul left, we do know from Acts that enough people had joined the Christians that they were an economic threat to the silversmiths who made small models of Artemis (Acts 19).
  3. In Acts 20, Paul’s final words to the Ephesian elders predicts that there will be some among the Christians who fall away from sound doctrine and practice. The connection between Acts 20 and the pastorals has led scholars such as C. F. D. Moule to suggest that Luke himself is the author of the letters. Luke intended them as an epistolary conclusion to his Luke/Acts. For a review of this argument, see Hagner, The New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2012), 623.
  4. Paul traveled to Jerusalem where he is arrested at held under house arrest in Caesarea for two years. He is then transferred to Rome after appealing to Caesar. He is in Rome under house arrest for two years. This is where the book of Acts ends. In all, Paul is away from Ephesus for at least five years before he wrote First Timothy, perhaps two or three years more than that.
  5. Paul is released from prison after Acts 28 and continues his ministry, likely into Spain but perhaps visiting churches he established in the earlier parts of his ministry. Somehow he learns his fears for the Ephesian churches have come true and some elders / leaders have moved away from Paul’s teaching and practice. The nature of the problems in the Ephesian churches may be a division between “Pauline congregations” and Jewish-Christian congregations.

Timothy was sent to Ephesus to encourage the congregations to “guard the deposit” which had been given to the churches. As Bill Mounce points out, Timothy was not a pastor, or elder, or bishop in these Ephesian churches. He was “an itinerant apostolic ‘delegate’” (The Pastoral Epistles, lviii; citing Jeremias).Timothy has already been sent to difficult situations as Paul’s personal representative, he was sent to both Thessalonica (Acts 17) and Corinth to continue Paul’s work.

6 thoughts on “Background to the Pastoral Epistles

  1. Timothy was a constant companion of Paul during his ministry (TTP,). Paul had a great influence on Timothy’s life. Raised by his Jewish mother and grandmother, Timothy had a strong faith in God before meeting Paul. He accompanied Paul on his travels. He also was a co-sender of at least 6 of Paul’s letters (TTP,). He was the recipient of two of the letters that form the New Testament. 2 Timothy is one of the last letters Paul wrote before he was martyred (ESVSB, 2335). Paul’s letters to Timothy are indicative of a teacher/pupil or mentor and mentee relationship. Paul offers instruction mixed with doses of encouragement. It is obvious throughout the letters that Paul cares deeply for Timothy. He calls Timothy, “my child” in 1 Timothy 1:18 and his “beloved child” in 2 Timothy 1:2 and he remembers him “constantly in my prayers” (2 Timothy 1:3). If Paul’s two letters to Timothy give any indication, their relationship was much deeper than a working relationship.

  2. The Pastoral epistles are different from other Pauline letters in that they are written to one specific person, not a group or church. These books are also sometimes considered “church manuals” even though they do not give that much instruction on church set up and function. One thing that I thought was very interesting that you taught in class was the speculation that these letters are not actually written by Paul himself, but are psyudonymous, writtine in Paul’s name after his death. I had never heard of this, or questioned it before. It was also very interesting to hear the statistics about the words used in the letters. Even with these suggested alternatives, I do not doubt Pauline authorship. Given that he is writing to very different circumstances, and from very different circumstances, it does not seem strange to me that his vocabulary would change. It is helpful to note the different stages Paul had been through, from planting churches in Ephesus, his prediction that some would turn away, his continued travels and arrests, and how he hears of the troubles in Ephesus and desires to send Timothy to correct the church. Paul deeply cared for this church. He spent about three years there, which for Paul was a long time. He was likely heartbroken to hear of their problems. Having sent Timothy to be his representative in difficult situations before, I’m sure that Paul wanted to choose the best person he could to help this church. He had spent so long there, it was likely dear to his heart and he wished to see it thrive.

  3. It may be a little stretch to call Timothy itinerant for this stage in his ministry. By the 2nd epistle, Paul goes as far as to send Tychicus to him to free him up. He also has oversight over complaints about bishops and deacons. So while Timothy has a role different than the bishops and deacons he’s installing, he’s overseeing them directly, and, if tradition is to be believed, he’d do so for the rest of his life.

  4. The Pastoral Epistles play an important part in the creation and formation of the church. While the churches themselves have already been established, there has always been contention in who wrote them. However, as explained by Longenecker, and the one that fits with me says that Paul was thus released, went to Spain and several other locations, was arrested again, and finally wrote 2 Timothy before he was to be executed (Longenecker, Thinking Through Paul, p. 290). While I do not doubt that Paul wrote the Pastoral Epistles, there is admittedly some evidence to support that he potentially did not. However the evidence from other scholars, as well as Paul making comments on potential previous areas he has been to, make it more and more likely that Paul wrote them.
    If not 1 Timothy and Titus, then at least 2 Timothy, which really appears to be Paul describing to Timothy what he should do after Paul has been executed. This is a very personal letter to Timothy, and describes that Paul is about to be killed. It is very hard to mount the fact that this is not Paul writing this letter, and if this letter was written by Paul, then there is good proof and evidence that the other two letters were written by him as well.

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