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Introduction to Paul’s Pastoral Epistles

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 General Info

Of the thirteen canonized letters penned by the Apostle Paul (fourteen if we include Hebrews, whose author is unknown but attributed to Paul by some scholars), the three addressed to Timothy and Titus (1-2 Timothy and Titus) are generally known as the "Pastoral Epistles".  Much of the information in our Introduction to the Pauline Epistles will also apply here, but this section will primarily include details and specifics which are unique to, or emphasized by these three books.

Traditionally, the Pauline Epistles were typically subdivided into the church letters (Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians and 1-2 Thessalonians) and the individual letters (1-2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon).  In the eighteenth century however, scholars began referring to 1-2 Timothy and Titus as the "Pastoral Epistles" due to the large portions of the letters dealing with church forms and practices.

The corresponding books receive their title from the letter’s recipient, namely Timothy and Titus.  Though not pastors in the modern sense of the term, they functioned as Paul’s representatives to various churches he had planted, Timothy primarily at Ephesus and Titus at Crete.

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Author and Date

Until the nineteenth century, there was almost unanimous agreement that these letters were written by Paul.  In the past couple of hundred years however, some have questioned Paul’s authorship based upon differing styles, vocabulary and doctrinal emphasis as compared with his other epistles.  Another objection is that the pastoral events can’t be easily placed within the Acts accounts.

To address the latter objection first, the book of Acts ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome about 62 AD (Acts does not report Paul’s death).  Some Bible scholars place the writing of 2nd Timothy during this time, with Paul’s execution at the end of that imprisonment.  This would place the writing of 1st Timothy and Titus sometime before, during a time that Paul was travelling freely.  Reliable historical church tradition however, such as 1Clement 5:6-7 (late first century), Eusebius, Church History 2.22 (325 AD), and others indicate that Paul was released and went on a fourth missionary journey (possibly to Spain and elsewhere), during which he wrote 1st Timothy and Titus (probably from Macedonia) between 62 and 64.  He then returned to Rome, was arrested again and wrote 2nd Timothy from his prison cell shortly before being martyred during Nero’s persecution of Christians (about 64-67 AD).

Regarding the differing styles, vocabulary and doctrinal emphasis, the pastoral epistles were written later than the other letters in an unique period of Paul’s ministry, addressed distinctively differing situations, and probably with the use of different scribes (see Pauline Epistles – Author).  Greek was the native language of the early church fathers, who being familiar with Paul’s other letters, also undisputedly ascribed these letters to Paul.  In addition, the theology is consistent with the other letters, and the church associations are no more advanced (another common objection) than portions of Ephesians or Philippians.

Therefore, since there is no compelling rationale otherwise, it is reasonable from the internal and external evidence, and the testimony of the early church to affirm Paul as the author of the Pastoral Epistles.  For more information on the life of Paul, see our Short Biography.

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Historical Background

After his three missionary journeys (~46-57 AD), on which Paul and his companions planted numerous churches in the Middle East and what is now Central and Eastern Europe, many of his letters were already written and some were now circulating among various churches.  The church was growing and the Gospel was spreading, but at the same time, rabbinic Jewish opposition was increasing. 

For a religion to operate legally, approval from the Roman government was required.  Christianity was currently operating as a faction of the approved Jewish religion.  Jewish opponents were lobbying the Roman authorities, arguing that the Christian movement was not a Jewish sect and should be declared an illegal religion.  This strategy would eventually be successful, leading to the massacre of Christians during the reign of Nero, when Peter would be crucified and Paul, being a Roman citizen, would be beheaded (~64-67 AD).

Thus, when Paul was released from his first Roman imprisonment (Acts 28) about 62 AD, he was very mindful of the fact that his earthly ministry was nearing its end.  In addition, while some Jewish Christians still demanded that Gentiles be bound by the Judaic laws, new heresies also began to develop, such as Hellenism (blending with the Greek religions and culture) and early forms of Gnosticism (religion based on special knowledge).  Consequently, Paul knew he needed to leave additional instructions for the churches before his death.

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See the Timeline for the Pauline Epistles.

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

Knowing that his life on earth was nearing its end, Paul primarily wrote these epistles to guide Timothy and Titus to provide direction relating to the pastoral care of the local churches.  Paul and his missionary companions had planted many churches throughout the previous years, and Timothy and Titus now served as administrators, developing and establishing the forms, procedures, and strategies for the operation and continued growth of the churches.  Timothy ministered predominately at Ephesus and Titus at Crete, but the letters address subjects and issues that were meant to apply to other pastors and leaders for the vital health of all churches and their individual believers, even in our modern times.

See Introduction to the Pauline Epistles for more information on the major topics.  In particular, the Pastoral Epistles stress God’s sovereignty, Christ as Savior, the teaching of sound doctrine, and godly living. Paul also advises the leaders to be bold while dealing with controversies and false teaching.

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 Interpretation Hints and Challenges

See Interpretation Hints to the Pauline Epistles for guidance on better understanding the letters of Paul.

In the Pastoral Epistles, Paul has much to say about dealing with false teachers, but we are not told the exact nature of their ideology.  We can however, watch for clues as to some of their elements, such as Judaizing (1Tim 1:7, Tt 1:14), ascetics and legalism (1Tim 4:3), early forms of Gnosticism (1Tim 6:20-21), immorality (Tt 1:16), end times errors (2Tim 2:18), and other characteristics.  Paul frequently admonished Timothy and Titus to strongly respond, making corrections based upon the true doctrine of Christ (1Tim 6:12, 2Tim 2:13-14, Tt 1:13-14,), but to allow the use of patience (2Tim 2:23-26).

We should not interpret the letters to Timothy and Titus as a handbook or instruction manual for controlling all aspects or bylaws of the modern local churches, but they do provide some insight into the organization of the early churches and some of the challenges they faced.  They also offer much valuable guidelines for the church today, particularly with respect to the choosing of leaders, proclaiming the true Gospel, teaching sound doctrine, and manifesting the character of Christ as an example for others.

While organization and administration is important, the foundation for church policy and growth must be based upon the right handling of the objective truth of God’s Word (2Tim 2:15).  The exact type of church government can vary as long as the church is built upon the foundation of the prophets and the apostles, with Christ as the chief cornerstone (Eph 2:20).

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