The letter begins with a description of the sort of teaching which Paul cannot tolerate in his churches. It is remarkable Paul launches into a section on the opponents so soon in the letter, the only thing quite like this in Paul is Galatians.This indicates that the problems in Ephesus are intense.
They teach a “different doctrine.” This is not a difference of emphasis, but rather a teaching that is contrary to what Paul taught in the Ephesian churches. This Greek ἑτεροδιδασκαλέω is only used in Christian literature for a strange or divisive teaching.
Ignatius, To Polycarp 3:1 Do not let those who appear to be trustworthy yet who teach strange doctrines baffle you. Stand firm, like an anvil being struck with a hammer. It is the mark of a great athlete to be bruised, yet still conquer. But especially we must, for God’s sake, patiently put up with all things, that he may also put up with us.
The noun Paul uses is only found in the Pastoral letters, In classical Greek, ἕτερος meant “another of a different kind” and ἄλλος meant “another of the same kind.”1 Paul chooses to call a different kind of teaching, as he did in Gal 1:6–9. There the church was turning to a “different gospel” which is really no gospel at all.
This helps us understand the urgency of the situation. This is not a legitimate variation on a theological matter (Calvinism vs. Arminianism), but rather a form of teaching that is outside the definition of what it means to be Christian. By following the opponents, members of the local Ephesian churches are in danger of not being Christians at all, since they do not hold tenaciously to the core of the gospel Paul has already taught them.
They devote themselves to “myths and endless genealogies.” A “myth” almost always has a bad connotation in Greek. The false teaching is described as myth in 1 Tim 4:7, 2 Tim 4:4, Titus 1:14, and 2 Peter 1:16. The noun appears in Sirach 20:19 for the stories which are “on the lips of the ignorant.” Sib.Or. 3:226 includes myths along with the words of the seers, sorcerers, soothsayers, and “the deceits of foolish words of ventriloquists.”
“Genealogies” may refer to some rabbinical speculation. This is the view of the earliest interpreters of this passage (Ambrosiaster and Jerome), as well as many modern commentaries. The same word appears in Titus 3:9. But it is possible that this is another way of describing a myth, since some Greek mythologies were “myths cast in genealogical form” (BDAG).
The phrase appears twice in the pastoral letters,(1 Tim 1:4; Titus 3:9) and may refer to the sorts of books which were popular in the Second Temple Period, haggadic midrash (allegorical reinterpretations of the Old Testament) such as Philo of Alexandria or books like books like Jubilees and Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities which sought to “update” the biblical stories to the Greco-Roman world.
The genealogies are “endless.” The noun ἀπέραντος can refer to something that appears to be unlimited (the sea, 1 Clem 20:8, 3 Macc 2:9), but also to arguments that go on and on. Polybius used the word for “tiresome detailed enumeration” (1, 57). Maybe this is a word which could describe reading the tax code – it seems to go on forever in endless, meaningless detail.
The “promote speculations.” The verb ἐκζήτησις only appears in Christian writings. The word means something like over-investigating things which do not really merit investigation. The verb appears a few times in Greek literature, meaning to investigate something in (perhaps) a legal context, to demand an accounting for the blood of an innocent murder victim (LXX 2 Kings 4:11)
They have “swerve” and “wandered” into vain discussions. The ESV translates the verb ἀστοχέω as “swerve,” which means “to miss something that was aimed at” (στοχάζομαι means “to aim). This can be a mistake, but combined with “wander” it would be better to see this as an intentional departure from the truth.
To “wander” (ἐκτρέπω) is maybe a bit of a soft translation here. The verb means to turn, perhaps with a bit of violent connotation. Luke the English word “turn,” this word is used in medical texts for turning an ankle, to “be wrenched” or to “be dislocated.”
“Vain discussions” (ματαιολογία) are empty, fruitless talk (the noun will appear in Titus 1:10). In Poimandres 144 the word appears in parallel to πολυλογίας, “many words” (MM). There are some people who can talk endlessly without ever saying anything. This is like a politician’s answer, so many words without ever really answering the question!
They desire to be teachers without understanding what they are saying. This is the best clue that the opponents are Jewish, the noun “teacher of the law” (νομοδιδάσκαλος) is found in Acts 4:34 for Gamaliel and Luke 5:17 for the a category of teacher in parallel with the Pharisees. Both are clearly Jewish teachers of the law. But these opponents only desire to be “teachers of the Law,” without really knowing what a teacher of the Law is! Perhaps these are Hellenistic Jews who have a bit of training in the interpretation of Scripture, but are not really doing it correctly.
A major theme of the Pastoral letters is correctly handling Scripture. It is not that the individual Christian cannot read the Scripture with clarity, but the person who tries to be a teacher is “more responsible” than the rest for what they teach. This responsibility means the person who considers themselves as a teacher or authority needs to fully understand the implications of what they are saying. They could lead a congregation astray. If the teacher is already wandering off, then it is likely his congregation will follow.
They make “confident assertions” without understanding. Likewise, they are confident what they are saying is true (διαβεβαιόομαι), but they do not really understand what they are saying. In Titus 3:8 Paul will use this verb when he quotes a “trustworthy saying.”
The speculations of the opponents prevent them from fulfilling their “stewardship of God in faith.” The noun translated “stewardship” (οἰκονομία) is associated with household management. The elders or deacons who are engaged endless, pointless teachings are not fulfilling their calling to be the stewards of the local churches, they are “bad stewards” who are in danger of being replaced.
Although it is impossible to state who these false teachers were with any certainty, they appear to be Christians teachers who claim to be teachers and authorities who promote ideas which are dangerous to the theology and practice of Timothy’s churches. the opponents in 1 Timothy come from inside the church, just as Paul predicted in Acts 20:29-31.