5 BIG Surprises in The Letters to Timothy and Titus with Robert Yarbrough
Robert Yarbrough is professor of New Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, coeditor of the Baker Exegetical New Testament Commentary series, and coauthor of the widely used textbook Encountering the New Testament.
“As you worked through the biblical text,
what surprised you?”
1) The frequency of coming up with options rather than answers.
Take Timothy’s “good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Tim. 6:12). Linda Belleville suggests this is a profession of faith before local authorities. C. K. Barrett (like Calvin long ago) supposes this refers to Timothy’s steadfastness through many years of service, not a one-time statement. Aquinas links the statement to Timothy’s ordination as bishop. Dibelius and Conzelmann think it could refer either to ordination or to baptism. Howard Marshall thinks it was simply Timothy’s confession of Jesus as Lord.
Commentary writing often reveals that we know for sure less than we may think. This realization hit me often in digging into supposedly well-known passages of the Pastorals.
2) The strength of the evidence for Pauline authorship.
A generation ago Raymond Brown stated that 80-90 percent of modern scholars view the Pastorals as written after Paul’s death—and therefore not by Paul. It is hard to tell if that percentage has changed. What has changed is the fresh appearance of plausible contrarian considerations of a question considered long closed by many. I was encouraged to go along with the authorship claim contained in the first word of all three Pastorals—”Paul”—not only by my own researches (including careful consideration of Adolf Schlatter‘s two commentaries) but by arguments advanced by Luke Timothy Johnson, M. Klinker-De Klerck, Phillip. Towner, Andreas Köstenberger, Eckhard Schnabel, Stanley Porter, and others.
3) The appeal of these letters to first-generation Christians under social duress.
Since 2014, and while writing the largest share of this commentary, I have taught key portions of what I was writing in the Cape Flats of South Africa. The audience has been pastors, their wives, other church workers, and motivated laity. These leaders (mainly) are economically disenfranchised, heirs of the apartheid system that listed them as “colored.” Their neighborhoods are racked by drug wars, violence, and poverty.
Their introduction to Christianity was through “Christian” programming beamed in by satellite. Most have passed through, and jettisoned, a health-and-wealth construal of the gospel message. In the Pastorals they find a commendation of Christ, of forgiveness and spiritual renewal, of the church, of redemptive suffering, and of hope with which they resonate deeply. The fervor of their reception of a rigorous but straightforward reading of the Pastorals in line with other Pauline letters encouraged me in the theological and pastoral tack that made sense to me from my own New Testament research and pastoral experience going back some 40 years.
4) The letters’ aptness for those in the trenches of pastoral labor.
A major section of the commentary’s introduction treats Paul’s work ethic in the Pastorals. Despite cultural stereotypes to the contrary, and the bad examples of some idle and unscrupulous church leaders that appear in every generation, those who have persevered in gospel ministry know how arduous it is—how utterly exhausting, and not just once in a while, but just about every Sunday, at times. Weeks that add in funerals and unpleasant meetings may multiply the load.
Adjectives like bruising, frustrating, intimidating, discouraging, and unproductive are how ministry often seems. Such words describe what Paul seems to have projected as Timothy’s circumstances as he wrote. Titus’ personality seems to have been different, as was Crete in comparison with Timothy’s Ephesus. But Titus’ mandate would have pushed him to the limits of exertion no less than Timothy’s did. No wonder ministers and serious students of Scripture, in general, will often own Bibles that are heavily underlined and notated when one turns in them to these letters.
The closer one reads the Pastorals, if one has been in the ministry, the more one senses that the author knows exactly what those called to pastoral labor struggle with, rejoice in, and need encouragement toward.
5) The letters’ theological, even devotional, richness.
Scholarship has long viewed the Pastorals as a jarring step down and away from the vibrancy of truly early Jesus followers. In Dibelius‘ view, the Pastoral key-word eusebeia (godliness) was evidence of pagan thought and a testimony to post-apostolic and bourgeois religion. Many readers and commentators over the years have concurred. But this is not what I found in my long hours of research and reflection.
Perhaps I was divining what is not there. But after some years of seeking a fuller grasp of these 242 verses (1 Timothy 113 + 2 Timothy 83 + Titus 46) than I had previously attained, I have to say that they are as profound a testimony to apostolic apprehension of and devotion to God as any comparable portion of the New Testament.
Whatever the reception of this commentary, I am bullish on the increasingly high regard in which I suspect the expanding world church will hold these epistles as “church” continues to take shape in new stretches of Africa and Asia and Latin America along the lines the Pastorals direct and enable.