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The Pastoral Epistles

The Pastoral Epistles are three short letters in the New Testament: First Timothy, Second Timothy, and Titus. Now we call them the Pastoral Epistles because in these letters, Paul or someone writing as Paul, is instructing Timothy and Titus, his two young protégés on how to be pastors, how to be overseers to the church. Now for much of the church’s history it was accepted and assumed that Paul had written all three of these letters; but in the last century and a half or so, that consensus has changed.

Let me talk about two issues that have caused historians some problems with these letters. The first is the author of First Timothy and Titus seem to be obsessed with ordering things and ordering people. So, both of these letters have, what we call, a household code; and a household code is an ancient Roman moral code saying: In the household this is what the husband should do, this is what the wife should do, this is what the children should do, this is what the household servant should do. We have those inserted into First Timothy and Titus.

There are also passages on ordering a church: These are the requirements for elders, these are the requirements for deacons, this is how widows should behave. So, in First Timothy and Titus we have these passages saying, “This is how everyone needs to act in the Christian community.” We don’t see passages like that in the other Pauline Epistles.

The other issue is the view of women in these passages. In the contemporary Christian context where there are debates about who can be a pastor or a priest, some of the most restrictive passages used and debated in these contexts come from First Timothy, especially, but also Titus. The authors of these texts are very restrictive on their views of women; and scholars look at this and say, “That doesn’t exactly match with what we see in, say, Galatians or First Corinthians or Romans.” So, how could Paul say both of these things? These issues give scholars some hesitation.

There is one other thing I should mention about the Pastoral Epistles and that is Second Timothy’s place. Should we consider Second Timothy with First Timothy and Titus or is it separate? Because the letter is actually quite different. While First Timothy and Titus is trying to organize everyone, Second Timothy is really focused on you, Timothy. How do you prepare yourself to be a good overseer, to be a soldier of Christ, to be a good preacher, how do you prepare yourself? Not so much concerned with everyone else.

Now the name Second Timothy can be misleading. It’s called Second Timothy, not because it’s a sequel of First Timothy, but because that’s where it fell in the order of Pauline letters which were put in order when they were edited together early in the church by length. So, Romans is first in your Bible because it’s longest; Philemon is last because it’s shortest, Second Timothy is shorter than First Timothy but longer than Titus; and, because of the order of letters, it often gets grouped in with the other two and as historians we have to pick that apart a little bit and say, “Do these three letters hang together or do First Timothy and Titus go together and maybe a Second Timothy is something we treat separately.”

  • David L. Eastman

    David L. Eastman is Sherrill Chair of Bible at the The McCallie School in Chattanooga,TN. In his research he employs archaeological, textual, liturgical, and artistic evidence for the study of early Christian constructions of identity, the cult of the saints, and the reception and expansion of the apostolic histories. He is the author of Paul the Martyr: The Cult of the Apostle in the Latin West (Society of Biblical Literature and Brill, 2011) and The Deaths of the Apostles: The Ancient Martyrdom Accounts of Peter and Paul (SBL Press, 2015).