This week, the lectionary takes us to the second letter addressed to Timothy (2 Timothy). This letter, one of three known collectively as the Pastoral Epistles, comes closest in form to the authentic letters of Paul amongst those three letters.
2 Timothy has an opening address (1:1–2) and thanksgiving (1:3–7) and closing greetings (4:19– 21) and benediction (4:22) which follow the pattern found in the letters that are widely accepted as authentic to the historical Paul. The body of the letter (1:8–4:18) contains exhortations to Timothy to follow the example of Paul (1:8–14; 3:10–4:5) and to carry out his role as a teacher (2:1–13), and warnings regarding false teachers (2:14–3:9).
There are personal notes from Paul (1:15–18; 3:10–11; 4:9–18), including a most notable mediation on his achievements and expression of hope regarding his future beyond death (4:6–8). These sections give the letter much more of an “authentic” feel than 1 Timothy and Titus, although there is debate about their origin and purpose.
Some scholars claim they were fragments of earlier authentic letters inserted into this framework late in the first century; others assert that they prove that Paul himself wrote this letter. See
Some features give the letter the quality of a “farewell testament”, in which the life and achievements of Paul are summarised for his followers. Compared with the other two “pastoral” letters, there are no instructions regarding church order, a greater frequency of personal comments, and a more personal tone throughout the letter.
The opening section of this letter, which forms the second reading in next Sunday’s lectionary offerings (1:1–14), exhorts Timothy to “hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1:13), and “guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us” (1:14). Sound teaching refers back to the reference in the earlier letter to Timothy, “the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God” (1:Tim 1:10–11; also 4:6), as well as to “the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching” that Titus is told will ensure “sound doctrine” (Tit 1:9).
Those other two letters advocate such “sound teaching” in polemical contexts. In 1 Timothy, it is to counter the influence of “the lawless and disobedient, the godless and sinful, the unholy and profane” (1 Tim 1:9); in Titus, it is to contradict “many rebellious people, idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision” (Tit 1:9). In 2 Timothy, those being combatted by “sound teaching” are “those in Asia [who] have turned away from from me” (2 Tim 1:15), including two specifically named, Phygelus and Hermogenes; later in the letter, there is mention of “people of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith” who “oppose the truth” (3:8).
Each letter indicates that churches were involved in entrenched contested and argumentative situations; the need for “sound teaching” is clear in such situations. The articulation of formulaic statements, as well as the development of a more structured leadership, makes sense in these times.
It points to the way that the church will develop in the future, with more clearly defined leadership and authority structures, as well as clearly-articulated statements of doctrine which mark “what is right” and can then be used to exclude “those who are wrong”—what scholars have called the development of “ early Catholicism”.
So it is that the initial inclusive community ethos that Paul reflects (“all are one in Christ”) shifts to communities with increasingly demarcated boundaries. This is evidenced throughout 2 Timothy: “guard the good treasure” (1:14); “have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies” (2:23); beware of those who “can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth” and thus “oppose the truth” (3:7–8); shun those with “itching ears [who] will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires” (4:3).
So knowing who is inside, and thus who is outside, becomes increasingly important—in contrast to Paul’s own encouragement to his converts to engage with outsiders at every opportunity (1 Thess 4:9–12; 1 Cor 14:20–25; Col 4:5–6).