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The Book of Books Book Club weekly blog
 

I & II TIMOTHY, TITUS, PHILEMON

The first three letters here are collectively known as the Pastoral Epistles for their focus on how Timothy and Titus should order and care for the churches they are charged with pastoring. Scholars today largely agree that they were not written by Paul, but rather use his name and the detailed greetings to attribute his authority to them. They are, in my opinion, among the least interesting writings of the entire Bible - except for some of the really lovely language you'll find, much of which has found its way into our liturgies and prayers - especially because their patriarchal perspective on households and churches does not endear them to contemporary progressive audiences. Second Timothy is the most intriguing because of its deeply personal tone, as of one writing a farewell letter or even a will – especially seen in the famous passage in 4:6-8: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness...."


There are two perspectives I find helpful in reading these letters. First, remember that there were many "alternative" understandings of the Christian message being offered in the latter part of the first century and beginning of the second – hence the emphasis in these letters on the true gospel and eschewing false teachings. Second, there is to me a note of accommodation to the surrounding culture – a narrowing of gender roles, an acceptance of social class and status, a focus on behaving in seemly ways – that contrasts with reports about how the early Christians scandalized Roman society by crossing such boundaries. I wonder if these letters aren't urging Christian communities to create less controversy by conforming to some of the standards of the society around them. This would particularly seem true regarding the role of women suggested here, which is in direct contradiction to Paul's own acceptance of specific women having leadership positions (I Tim 2:11-12 echoes Paul in I Cor 14:34-35, but the latter is a passage now generally accepted as not belonging to the original letter and not from Paul's hand).


The Letter to Philemon is authentically Paul – the only example we have of a letter from him addressed to an individual. It is a delicately worded negotiation on behalf of Philemon's slave, Onesimus, who has been converted by Paul to the faith. It is unclear whether Onesimus has run away, or been egregiously delayed in completing a task set for him by Philemon, but Paul is calling upon the master to forgive the unspecified wrong, welcome Onesimus home, and then return him to Paul to assist him while he is in prison. Is there a hope that Onesimus, now a fellow Christian, might be freed by Philemon? Or does Paul just want to use his influence to smooth the slave's return to his owner's good graces? It is hard to tell – but this brief and enigmatic letter opens a lovely window into the complications of a first-century community of faith.


See you on Zoom on Wednesday!