The Best Part

My late professor, the eminent Brevard Childs, used to say, “The Old Testament is best part of the BIble. . . except for the New Testament.” I have used that line myself, but usually adapted to my role as a lecturer in New Testament Introduction classes: “Mark’s Gospel is the best in the New Testament. . . apart from Matthew.” “The Pauline Epistles are the best part of the New Testament. . . except for Hebrews.” And so on.
Yesterday morning I got up, got out of bed, and would have dragged a comb across my head if there were anything there to comb, and staggered in to the office to wrap up my preparation to give a lecture on the Pastoral Epistles at 9:00. (The Pastorals are 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus; they’re called “Pastoral” because they address topics of special relevance to pastoral ministry.) On my way out the door, I noted on Facebook that I was “trying to wake up before thrill-packed lecture on the Pastoral Epistles.”
While I was teaching, visiting the Hunterian Gallery’s Mackintosh House with Margaret (and dreaming about acquiring some Mackintosh-like furnishings when someday we have a bigger flat and enough income to afford furniture), then grocery shopping, then collapsing in a heap from carrying the heavy groceries home, then rehearsing my parts for last night’s sung Mass and Compline, then taking Margaret out for a special dinner at Antipasti — while all that was going on, my friends Judy Stack-Nelson, Frank Witt Hughes, and Greg Carey started a heated conversation in the comments thread (and Daniel Kirk commented about it on my Twitter feed, too). At the end, Frank asked, “What thrilling things did you say about the Pastorals before you took your wife on a date?” Rather than sequester my answer in the comments thread of an obscure FB post that the FB corporation owns, I figured I’d respond over here. I’ll say roughly what I lectured about, and will try to address some of the points Judy and Frank and Greg brought up in their comments.
I’ve lectured on the Pastorals at least a dozen times before, so I have enough notes to go on for two or three hours. The trick is to keep focused on the particular points that pertain to the defined objectives of the course as I’m teaching it this time. My device for doing so is to begin each lecture by stipulating four things I want to emphasize. I don’t give out my lecture notes, but I post the “four things” on the course website; that way, the class will have a skeleton on the basis of which to flesh out their notes or recollections or doodles, and I know that I have about ten minutes to spend on each topic, plus a little time for gathering and dismissing and so on.
When I was setting up the four things for the Pastorals, though, I realized that my notes on the letters dealt almost exclusively with authorship, ecclesiastical structures, and gender interests. I wanted my fourth point to involve Christology, so I started sifting the letters and my library for sensible things to say about the Christology of the Pastorals, and found that taking up this question drew me more deeply into these texts than I’d ventured for a long time, and led me to wish I had occasion to work through them more completely. As it turned out, I didn’t have time to spell out a fourth point (for the time being, the website just says “Christology” for Thing Four, which isn’t very helpful, but I’ll flesh it out later this weekend.
What I did say: I began by noting that the vast preponderance of the scholars with whom we’re dealing (we’re using Bart Ehrman’s textbook, BTW) regard the Pastorals as pseudonymous through and through. I explained some of the reasons for that judgment: the vocabulary departs noticeably from Paul’s usual repertoire, the setting of the letters doesn’t jibe smoothly with what Paul and Acts say about Paul’s travels, the ecclesiological settings seem strikingly different from those in known Pauline churches, the letters’ relation to women seems less generous than Paul’s own, and the Christology of the letters differs in intriguing ways from the usual letters.
I deal at greater length with the church structure of the Pastorals: how they devote great energy to detailing the qualifications of episkopoi and diakonoi and widows, while Paul otherwise shows little interest in that sort of discourse. At the same time, the qualifications in view aren’t distinctively Christian: these figures are supposed to be reputable good citizens. And where Paul does evince concern about the impression outsiders might conceive of his communities, he’s concerned that they might think that unintelligible tongue-speaking might reflect poorly on the congregation’s worship — not so much that the members might not be upstanding public citizens with demonstrably conventional values. Moreover, since the letters don’t allot Timothy or Titus any specific office themselves, on what basis should anyone listen to them? Are we to assume that a collective of bishops, presbyters, deacons, and widows would be waiting eagerly to see what un-officed Timothy tells them to do? (I don’t assume that the laying-on of hands in 2 Tim 1:6 constitutes “ordination,” since the author doesn’t describe it specifically as such).
Then I talk about the ways that the Pastorals exemplify “gender panic,” the hyperbolic concern that women constitute a danger to everything that the guys have been putting together. The Pastorals frame women’s roles more restrictively, more unsympathetically, and more conventionally than (undisputed) Paul does.
That led me to the theology of the Pastorals, where I was fascinated by the intricacies of the topic, and I still don’t sense that I have a satisfactory overview of the letters’ perspective. On one hand, the Christology shifts markedly from Paul’s constant explicit emphasis on the cross (the Pastorals don’t mention the cross or the verbal forms pertaining to crucifixion once, but at several points seem to shy away and substitute euphemistic circumlocutions such as “the noble confession,” 1 Tim 6:12f) toward a theology where Christ functions as the divine-human mediator between the immortal, invisible God who is hid from our eyes in light inaccessible.
Anyway, short of talking through the entire lecture, that’s the essence of what I said. I wrapped up by noting that some scholars think that Paul wrote (or authorized) them all, some think that Paul wrote none, and some observe differences between 2 Timothy and the others that warrant more a nuanced verdict on authorship. Relative to the discussion between Judy and Frank, I see some importance in helping my students recognize that the secondary sources they read will generally assume that Paul didn’t write these, and to explore why one would say so. At the same time, I want to help the students read their New Testaments well, so I do try to focus on the letter as they read it, the differences they can easily note between the Pastorals and the undisputed letters — not on the reconstructed ethos of a hypothetical pseudepigrapher.
But the effect that reading any New Testament text carefully has on me is to provoke me to wish I had sufficient time and concentration to devote a year or two to plumbing its subtler nuances. Because, after all, the New Testament is the best part of the Bible. . . apart from the Old Testament.

3 thoughts on “The Best Part

  1. Perhaps one positive thing that you could point out is a sort of parallel between the earlier Jesus material in some parts of the synoptic tradition (and maybe elsewhere), followed by material that relates to Jesus in a rather less direct way. That’s what I have in mind for the Pauline corpus: the authentic letters of Paul, followed by a sort of “left-wing” Paulinism in Colossians and Ephesians, to which the writer of 2 Thessalonians responds in that letter. Then you have the “old wives’ tales” as perhaps preserved by the Acts of Paul and Thecla (Acts of Paul 3), with the rejoinder in 1 Timothy.

    I am really not sure what to do with 2 Timothy.

  2. If we have the opportunity to meet again in Atlanta, I should very much like to hear about your time with Childs. He influenced me from a distance at a pivotal point in my study, and is on a growing list of people with whom I wish I had shared a meal. BTW, there should also be a FB request coming your way, you are hard to track down.

  3. I too have some doubt that 2 Timothy is pseudonymous; the anguish of prison experience seems pretty compelling — although of course many in the early church were in prison at one time or another. I need to read a bit more widely in the commentaries, I guess.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *