The First and Second Letters to Timothy

  • Luke T. Johnson
  • Apr 1, 2001
  • Series: Volume 4 - 2001

Luke T. Johnson, The First and Second Letters to Timothy. Anchor Bible 35A. New York and London: Doubleday, 2001. $40.00. xiv + 494 pp. ISBN 0-385-48422-4.

All of a sudden, the Anchor Bible has been producing a flurry of outstanding New Testament commentaries (see my earlier reviews in this year's Denver Journal on the volumes on 1 and 2 Thessalonians and on Philemon). Luke Johnson, New Testament professor at the Chandler School of Theology in Emory University, Atlanta, has written two much shorter and more popular commentaries on the Pastoral Epistles, so his views come as no surprise. But the format of this series enables him to defend and expand on them significantly. Because Jerome Quinn contributed the Anchor Bible volume on Titus (1990) just before his death (and because he thus was unable to finish his original assignment on 1 and 2 Timothy), Johnson treats only two of the three Pastorals here.

He does not see that as a weakness, however, believing that previous commentaries on all three have often underplayed the distinctives of each. Trying to rectify that deficiency is one of seven explicit distinctives of this commentary. The other six are an unparalleled history of pre-nineteenth century interpretation, a sharp theological and sociological critique of the emerging nineteenth and twentieth-centuries' interpretive consensuses, a robust defense of Pauline authorship (by one who is clearly not a "card-carrying evangelical"), numerous insights from the study of Greco-Roman rhetoric, the identification of the subgenre of 1 Timothy as a mandate letter to a delegate and 2 Timothy as a personal parenetic letter, and frequent extended quotations of primary source material relevant to interpretation.

In his lengthy introduction, Johnson notes that theological biases led nineteenth-century commentators to eliminate numerous epistles of Paul as inauthentic in order to preserve an "authentic Paul" that fit their ideologies. He notes the large number of commentators who never accepted pseudonymity for the Pastorals, but also how neglected their arguments have been. Most recent liberal scholarship has assumed rather than defended inauthenticity. But once one recognizes the literary forms of these writings, many of the distinctives in vocabulary, style and content are explained. The so-called more developed church order reflected in these epistles is largely illusory; both the undisputed Paulines and the Pastorals have the same range of data scattered across the spectrum from informal and charismatic to formal and institutionalized. 1 Timothy is especially close to 1 Corinthians in this and other respects, including the kind of false teaching opposed--overly realized eschatology and overly world-denying or ascetic ethics. As for the problems of dating, Johnson believes 1 Timothy can be fitted into the period of Paul's Macedonian ministry on his third missionary journey and that 2 Timothy fits what for him is Paul's one and only Roman imprisonment, also reflected in Acts 28.

Throughout his commentary on both letters, Johnson regularly draws attention to the parallels between 1 and 2 Timothy and the undisputed Paulines. In the first one and one-half chapters of 1 Timothy alone one finds that 1:8-11 comports well with Paul's understanding of the purpose of the Law elsewhere (see esp. Gal. 3:19-25), that 1:15 matches Paul's awareness of how sinfully opposed to God he had become before his conversion (see esp. 1 Corinthians 15:9), and that his emphasis on Jesus as the unique mediator of a universally available salvation in 2:4-5 meshes closely with texts like Romans 3:27-31 and 11:26-32.

Johnson's discussion of 2:8-15 is remarkably brief, given the enormous literature on this passage and on gender roles in the New Testament more generally. On the one hand, with more conservative evangelicals, he sees 2:13 as a genuine creation ordinance, suggesting that Paul saw his teaching as timelessly binding, especially in light of his parallel uses of creation in 2:5 and 4:4 as a grounding for clearly universal principles there (praying for all people and the goodness of God's created order). On the other hand, betraying his Catholic presuppositions, Johnson feels believers today have the right to take a different tack, because the Scripture is only part of a believer's authoritative database for ethical decision-making. Betraying his less than fully conservative Catholicism, he also seems to suggest that the historic (and current) Catholic requirements of an all-male priesthood ought to change, appealing in part to the strong affirmation for the teaching ministry of Lois and Eunice in 2 Timothy 1:5. One unique (and somewhat implausible) feature of Johnson's exegesis is his suggestion that the faithful saying of 1 Timothy 3:1a is not v. 1b but 2:15.

Turning to Paul's treatment of overseers and deacons in 1 Timothy 3:1-16, Johnson further distances himself from classic Catholicism, and seems more in touch with the apostolic era, by translating episkopos (usually "bishop" or "overseer") merely as "supervisor" and diakonos (usually "deacon") merely as "helper." He rightly stresses that the criteria for these two categories of leaders are largely qualities that should characterize all mature Christians, but which sadly then as now seem to be in short supply. The puzzling sequence of affirmations in 3:16 he understands as a couplet and a chiasm: incarnation and resurrection go together, followed by references to exaltation, missionary work, missionary work and exaltation.

Paul's instructions to Timothy in chapter 4 to be a good model fit the uniform emphasis in antiquity that teachers must prove morally exemplary so that their students can imitate them in all situations in life. "The widespread unwillingness in contemporary Western culture to provide direct and unambiguous moral instruction or to assume responsibility for acting in a manner that can be exemplary for others would have been unintelligible in antiquity" (p. 255)! The instruction about widows and elders that comprises most of chapter 5 suggests that some elders were supplementing their income "at the expense of the community's shared possessions" and using some of that money "to support those women whose flagrant behavior was bringing the church into disrepute and danger" (p. 287). Chapter 6 thus stresses both the proper use of finances as a key area Christian leaders must model and the renunciation of the asceticism of the false teachers in favor the stressing the goodness of God's creation, including financial blessings on his people, when shared generously with others.

2 Timothy finds its closest Pauline parallel in Philippians, also written from prison in Rome when Paul was becoming more aware of the possibility of his martyrdom. The numerous personal touches here are particularly hard to square with pseudepigraphy but fit well with Greco-Roman protreptic discourse--texts which focus on the imitation of good character models. 2 Timothy "proposes that ministry is not a career choice, but a call from God to become holy. Neither is ministry a body of lore to communicate or a set of skills to exercise, but a matter of living in a certain manner that expresses one's deepest convictions in consistent patterns of behavior." And especially given the role of suffering in this letter (see esp. 3:12), "Ministry, furthermore, is not measured by success, but by fidelity. . . . Not one of these truths is supported by present-day culture. Few of them are supported by the church" (p. 330)! Johnson's introductions to the two epistles, with his treatments of their authenticity, subgenre and theology, alone justify the steep price of the volume.

The parallels between Romans 9 and 2 Timothy 2, especially with respect to predestination, are explored more fully and accurately than in most commentaries. Johnson betrays his ignorance (or misunderstanding) of major evangelical doctrines of Scripture, however, when he finds them radically mistaken in their approach to the inspiration of the Old Testament in 2 Timothy 3. The references to women in these chapters suggest that the problem group in Ephesus for Timothy are the more well-to-do ladies who have the leisure time to keep on learning various philosophies but do not have appropriate outlets (or the appropriate mastery of their studies) so as to teach. The sound (literally "hygienic") teaching throughout these two letters draws on standard medical metaphors used in other philosophical literature as well.

These brief comments provide only a sample of some of Johnson's highlights. As usually in recent Anchor Bible volumes, there appear virtually exhaustive bibliographies, so that it is a bit odd that Johnson betrays no awareness of the major commentaries by Marshall (ICC rev., 1999) and Mounce (WBC, 2000), when he does acknowledge the even more recent contribution by Quinn and Wacker (ECC, 2000), even if only to say it came out too late for him to use it. Typographical errors seem quite infrequent; indexes, both detailed and accurate. The occasional theological disagreement that most evangelicals will have with Johnson here or there hardly diminishes the value of the volume overall, which may in fact be more helpful and user-friendly in format for the busy pastor or teacher than any of the above three more thorough studies. We are reminded once again of what is true in other arenas as well in our strange, contemporary "mix and match" theological world, namely, that moderate Catholic scholarship is often more of an ally of evangelicalism than our more liberal Protestant counterparts. All in all I highly recommend this commentary.

Craig L. Blomberg
Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary, Denver, CO
April 2001