A ransom for all: a formulaic claim (1 Tim 2; Pentecost 15C)

This week the lectionary offers us an excerpt from the second chapter of the first letter to Timothy, attributed by tradition to Paul, “a herald and an apostle, a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth” (1 Tim 2:7). The passage is 1 Tim 2:1–7.

Just before making this authorial statement, the author offers one of the assorted short, formulaic statements about “the faith” that pepper the three pastoral letters: “there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:5–6). (The other instances of such formulaic statements are at 1:15; 3:1; 3:16; 4:9–10; 6:15–16.)

Ransom is a term that we associate with the forced kidnapping of a person and the demand for a payment in order for them to be released. This is not the way the term is used in biblical texts, where payment in return for release of a captive is not in view. Rather, the orientation is towards the idea that there is a significant cost involved in the process of ransoming.

The Greek word used here is antilutron, a compound word comprised of the prefix anti- (in the place of) and the noun lutron. This noun also appears in a saying of Jesus, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

The noun lutron comes from a verb, lutrein, which means “to release”. It was a common term for the payment needed to secure the release of slaves, debtors, and prisoners of war. The noun, translated as ransom, occurs in the Septuagint. It identifies the price paid to redeem a slave or captive (Lev 25:51–52) or a firstborn (Num 18:15). It also indicates the price to be paid as recompense for a crime (Num 35:31–32) or injury (Exodus 21:30). In these instances, it translates the Hebrew word koper, which has the basic meaning of “covering”.

Another form of that word appears in another form in the name of the Great High Holy Day in Judaism—Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (see Lev 16:1–34; Num 29:7–11). On that day, as the cloud of incense covers the mercy seat (kapporeth, Lev 16:13), the mercy seat is smeared with the blood of the sacrificed bull (16:14) and then the blood of the goat which provides the sin offering (16:15). According to Leviticus, it is these actions which “shall make atonement (kipper) for the sanctuary, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel, and because of their transgressions, all their sins” (16:16).

The process of atonement in the Israelite religion was to cover up, to hide away from view, the sins of the people. This is developed to some degree in the fourth Servant Song of Deutero-Isaiah, when the prophet honours the servant because “he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities” (Isa 53:5). His life was understood as “an offering for sin” (53:10) which “shall make many righteous” (53:11). Indeed, as the Song ends, it affirms that “he bore the sin of many” (53:12). The Song resonates with the language and imagery of righteous suffering as the means of dealing with, and perhaps atoning for, sins.

That notion is further expounded in a later text which provides an account of the way that a righteous man, Eleazar, was martyred as a means of ransoming the nation during the time of upheaval under Antiochus Epiphanes (175–167 BCE). “Be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them”, he prays; “make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs” (4 Macc 6:28–29).

The idea then appears in New Testament texts which describe the effect of the death of Jesus for those who have placed their trust in him. Paul uses ransom language tells the saints that they were “bought with a price” (1 Cor 6:20; 7:23). He also uses apolutrosis, a compound word but from the base word lutrein, to describe the redemption which was accomplished by Jesus, both in a formulaic way (1 Cor 1:30) and in a more discursive manner (Rom 3:24; 8:23).

The term recurs in later letters which likely were not written by Paul (Col 1:14; Eph 1:7, 14; 4:30), as well as in the Lukan redaction of the final eschatological speech of Jesus (Luke 21:28). In another late first century work, providing an account of Paul by an author at some remove from him, the book of Acts, Paul was said to have declared of the church that God “obtained [it] with the blood of his own Son” (Acts 20:28).

It was the combination of such passages that led the third century scholar, Origen of Alexandria to develop an idiosyncratic theory of the atonement (the way that Jesus enables God to deal with human sinfulness). Origen’s ransom theory of atonement reads Genesis 3 as an account of Adam and Eve being taken captive by Satan; this state was then inherited by all human beings. The death of Jesus is what enables all humans to be saved; the means for this was that the blood shed by Jesus was the price paid to Satan to ransom humanity (or, in a variant form, a ransom paid by Jesus to God to secure our release).

However, none of these texts require this overarching theological superstructure to make sense of what they say. Origen’s ransom theory held sway for some centuries, but was definitively rejected by the medieval scholar Anselm of Canterbury. It is not a favoured theory of atonement in much of the contemporary church (though it is still advocated in various fundamentalist backwaters). Certainly, none of this should be attributed to the saying we find at 1 Tim 2:5–6.

See also

An example to those who come to believe (1 Timothy 1; Pentecost 14C)

The first letter to Timothy contains a basic letter framework: a short opening address (1:1–2) and a brief closing exhortation and benediction (6:20–21), but no thanksgiving or personalised greetings. The body of the letter alternates between condemnation of false teachers (1:3–2:15; 4:1–5.2; 6.2b–19) and instructions for good order within the church (3:1–16; 5:3–6:2a).

These instructions relate specifically to leaders who are identified as overseers (3:1–7), servants (3:8–13), widows (5:3–16) and elders (5:17–19); these led to orders of ministry within the later church (bishop—priest—deacon). That threefold structure is not exactly evident in this, or other, New Testament texts; not until the letters of Ignatius of Antioch in the early decades of the second century do we encounter this precise structuring.

(See the letters of Ignatius to the Magnesians 2: “with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me, entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ”; and to the Smyrnaeans 8: “wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church”.)

So the first letter to Timothy is actually a treatise, addressing two key matters: living a blameless life and believing the right doctrine. The purpose of the letter is to order the community to ensure that this way is followed; the figure of Paul is set forth as the exemplar in these matters (1:16) and Timothy provides a further example (4:12). The offices of overseers (bishops), servants (deacons), elders (presbyters), and widows are in place to ensure that people live a godly life and adhere to the true faith.

The letter has begun with a warning about “certain people” who teach a “different doctrine” that the author characterises as involving “myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training that is known by faith” (1:3–4). Some chapters later, the author sounds a more strident note, with a description of “liars” who follow the teachings of “deceitful spirits” and “demons” (4:1–2), expressed in “profane myths and old wives’ tales” (4:7). To accept such teachings, it is claimed, is to “follow Satan” (5:15).

Paul himself, in his own letters, can demonstrate a caustic tongue and a critical attitude towards those who advocated differently from himself. In writing to the Galatians, for instance, he accuses them of being fools who have been bewitched by deceivers (Gal 3:1); he attacks them for biting and devouring one another (5:15); he criticises them for urging Gentile converts to be circumcised and to adopt full adherence to the Torah (5:2–4; 6:12–13). In his letter to Philippi, Paul mounts a strenuous invective against “the dogs … the evil workers … those who mutilate the flesh” (Phil 3:2), whom he later calls “the enemies of the cross of Christ” (3:18–19).

In his second extant letter to the Corinthians, he caricatures the “superapostles” as fools (2 Cor 11:19) who boast beyond their limits (10:12–18), preaching “another Jesus than the one we proclaimed … a different spirit from the one you received … a different gospel from the one you accepted” (11:4). He sees them as “ false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (11:13); they have fostered “quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder” as well as “impurity, sexual immorality, and licentiousness” amongst the Corinthians (12:20–21). These are not words designed to foster a gentle, reflective spiritual meditation; this is full-on partisan polemics!

The same ethos appears in this letter, to Timothy; but the polemic is intensified, the arrows are sharpened, and the affirmations are hardened into strong dogmatic assertions. In contrast to the “different doctrine” of others, the letter writer believes in “the sound words of Jesus” (6:3) and “the words of the faith and of sound teaching” (4:6); he passes them on to Timothy “through the laying on of the hands of the elders” (4:14).

In this letter, the “glorious gospel of the blessed God” (1:11) is formalised as “the faith” (1:2, 19; 3:9, 13; 4:1, 6; 5:8; 6:10, 12, 21) or “the truth” (2:4, 7; 3:15; 4:3; 6:5). This faith is summed up in short, succinct sayings which are “sure and worthy of full acceptance” (4:9; we can see examples at 1:15; 2:5–6; 3:1; 3:16; 4:9–10; 6:15–16).

This is a step or three beyond the more fluid and flexible ethos of the authentic letters of Paul, where he is working out his theological commitments in the context of the cut-and-thrust of contextual debate. Here, “the faith” is a complete package, standing in its own right, to be believers, or rejected. The formulaic sayings state the dogmas that mist now be accepted.

These sayings are set within a defensive framework, for as Timothy receives a message of “faith and truth” (1:18; 2:7), he is to “guard” it (6:20) to ensure that he can hand it on to local leaders (4:6, 11), for this how they will be saved (4:16). The church is “the household of God” which acts as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (3:15). The leaders described in chapter 3 must ensure that the communities they serve will reject any differing viewpoints and “hold fast to the mystery of the faith” (3:9).

So we see that the central concern of the letter is to ensure obedience and pass on the essential teachings of the faith, under the leadership of designated office bearers in local churches, in order to refute the false teachings and immoral lifestyle to which they have been exposed.

See also

To the saints [not just in Ephesus] who are faithful (Ephesians 1; Pentecost 7B)

This Sunday, we start a series of readings from the letter to the Ephesians. Your Bible may state that it is “Paul’s letter to the Ephesians”. Indeed, when you read the opening words of the letter, the first thing you note is that the letter says that Paul wrote it (Eph 1:1a). Then it goes on to say that the letter was written to “the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus” (1:1b).

What do we know about the situation in Ephesians, to which this letter is addressed? This letter is not like many of the letters of Paul, where we can glean much information from those letters about the faith community in the city to which it is addressed (Corinth, in Achaea; Thessaloniki and Philippi, in Macedonia; the region of Galatia; and Rome, in Italia). We know little, if anything, about the situation in Ephesus from this letter.

The letter does not begin with a thanksgiving. In most letters by Paul, the thanksgiving identifies the key characteristics of the community to which the letter is sent, as well as the issues which will be canvassed later in the letter. Instead, here there is a lengthy blessing in which a grand theological statement is developed (1:3–14), before a brief thanksgiving is offered for the faith and love of the recipients (1:15–16).

This opening blessing (1:3–14) is the reading set for this Sunday. In the CEV, there are no less than 12 sentences in these 12 verses; in the GNB, there are 10 sentences. In the NIV, there are 8 sentences in this passage, whilst the NRSV offers it all in 6 sentences. (Decades earlier, the RSV had also used 6 sentences for the whole.) In the KJV, there are just 3 sentences, although a punctuating colon (:) appears on six occasions, with a further three semicolons (;).

Fred Sanders’ translation (in 4 sentences) of Eph 1:3–14.
For a poetic paraphrase of this section of Ephesians by Sanders,
see https://scriptoriumdaily.com/ephesians-and-the-god-sized-gospel/

But in the original Greek, this whole passage is just one long sentence — a main clause (“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”, 1:3), followed by a long series subordinate clauses, setting out what this God has done: “who has blessed us in Christ … who predestined us in love for adoption … in him we have redemption … according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us … making known to us the mystery of his will … according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ … in him we have obtained an inheritance … In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit”.

These parallel charts (left in English, right in Greek)
show the syntactical structure and the relationship
of each subsidiary clause
in the long single sentence in Eph 1:3–14
(accessed at http://www.teleiosministries.com/ephesians.html)

Incidentally, the ASV grasps the mantle, rendering all 12 verses in one long, complex sentence (with numerous colons and semicolons interspersed). It reads very heavily in English. At the other extreme, The Message (more of a paraphrase than a translation, in my mind) takes no less than 16 sentences to translate it (in expanded, colloquial form). And the NCB takes a poetic approach,,putting the whole section into unrhymed verse, using 6 sentences for the whole poem.

(You can check out these, and more, translations, at https://www.biblegateway.com)


So this blessing sets out a number of wonderful claims about Jesus—as God works through him, we have redemption, the forgiveness of trespasses; we are adopted as his children, grace is lavished upon us, revealing the mystery of his purpose; and he offers the promise of an inheritance. The blessing ends with a final exultation, “to the praise of his glory” (1:14b).

There is nothing in these opening verses—this one, long sentence—to give any indication of the specifics of the particular situation in Ephesus. And, it must be said, the existence in this letter of this mammoth long sentence—along with other complex multi-clause sentences in later section (1-9, 11-15, 19-22; 3:1-13, 14-21; 4:1-6, 7-16) is a very strong suggestion that the document was not actually written by the apostle Paul.

Like this general opening blessing, the elements which follow also have broad, generic qualities, as the general prayer which is offered (1:15–16) veers off almost immediately into further theological exposition (1:17–23).

The end of the letter also offers no clues as to what is happening in Ephesus. The final section actually replicates, almost completely word-for-word, some of the greetings at the end of Colossians, in an abbreviated form, suggesting a later writer imitating the style of an earlier letter—but in a rather clumsy way, simply copying word-for-word.

Colossians concludes, “Tychicus will tell you all the news about me; he is a beloved brother, a faithful minister, and a fellow servant in the Lord. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, so that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts; he is coming with Onesimus, the faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you.” (Col 4:7–9).

Compare this with the final greetings in Ephesians: “Tychicus will tell you everything. He is a dear brother and a faithful minister in the Lord. I am sending him to you for this very purpose, to let you know how we are, and to encourage your hearts.” (Eph 6:21–22). It is so similar, with the same structure, and many phrases in common. (If I were looking for plagiarism—which I once did as part of a job that I had—I would rate this as a direct copy.)

Did the author of this sermon-letter actually know Tychicus? Or did he simply copy something that was at hand, to lend an air of “authenticity” to the document?

In the body of the letter, we find indications a few sparse details. We learn that Paul is a prisoner (3:1; 4:1) and that the recipients are Gentiles (2:11; 3:2). But that’s it. Not much at all to go on. After that, the final prayer and grace (6:23–24) is likewise entirely generic. These are very slim clues to work from, if we want to reconstruct a picture of the community to which the letter was sent.


Another clue emerges from the first verse of the letter, for it contains a striking textual variant. Although we commonly read the letter as sent “to the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus” (1:1), a number of early manuscripts of this letter omit “in Ephesus”. This is a most important phrase, as it identifies the people purportedly addressed in the letter.

Whilst we traditionally read the letter as being addressed to “the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus”, it is far more likely that the original document was addressed to “the saints who are faithful in Christ Jesus”—a generic, all-encompassing orientation, rather than a letter to specific group of people in a particular place.

from Bruce Metzger’s Textual Commentary on the NT
at https://rdrdbiblestudy.com/bible-versions-102-textual-criticism/

Indeed, one early Christian writer knew this document as a letter “to the the Laodiceans”—not to the Ephesians!

An important fact that sits alongside this claim, and validates the idea that this was not a context-specific letter, but a widely-offered sermon, is the observation that the letter contains no other indications that it is specifically related to the city of Ephesus and the community of faith established there.

We can find references to people being “blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming” (3:14) and to those who “deceive you with empty words” (5:6), but these are no more than generalised description of opponents.

The main content of the letter reflects the general situation developing in the early churches, as Gentiles have found their place alongside Jews within the communities. It gives no clues of a specific context which is grounded in a particular community of faith.

The body of the letter reads more like a sermon, offering general theological teaching and ethical instruction. It’s highly likely the letter wasn’t sent by Paul to believers in Ephesus, but originated later in the first century, after the lifetime of Paul, as a sermon setting out the fundamentals of the teaching that began with Paul, and was handed on by those who followed him in proclaiming the good news to gatherings of believers.

The theological teaching in the letter—sermon provides doctrinal instruction about the divine plan, beginning in the opening blessing and prayer (1:3–23), followed by sections explaining the role of Jesus Christ (2:1–10); the inclusive nature of the church, in which Jews and Gentiles are brought into one body (2:11–3:6); an excursus on Paul’s role (3:7–21); and further reflections on the church (4:1–16).

Paul is presented as the one who reveals God’s plan, which had been hidden until his ministry (3:1–12). Key concepts in this plan include wisdom (1:8, 17; 2:10; 5:15), mystery (1:9; 3:3–5, 9; 5:32; 6:19), God’s will (1:1, 5, 9, 11; 5:17; 6:6), revelation (1:7; 3:3, 5) and fullness (1:10, 23; 3:19). These elements underline the assessment that this letter—sermon showed significant developments and elaborations of ideas, when compared with the authentic letters of Paul.

Like Colossians and the three Pastoral Epistles, Ephesians testifies to a more enculturated church, from a period later than the time in which Paul was active—a time and place in which the way of Jesus has begun to merge with the dominant ethos of the society. The sharp edges of The Way have been softened; the clear focus of the teachings of Paul, the energetic preacher of good news, has become blurred and fuzzy under the weight of pressures from the dominant Greco-Roman culture.

Although the rhetoric of this letter purports to present a distinctive Christian ethic, in fact it is becoming much more strongly influenced by hellenistic ethics. It demonstrates the way that the radical movement initiated by Jesus gradually becomes domesticated, institutionalised, and less distinguishable from the dominant culture.


See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/18/what-do-we-know-about-who-wrote-the-letters-attributed-to-paul-3/

This blog draws on material in PAUL: an exploration of the writings of the apostle, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014)