The letter of I Timothy addresses what was happening in the church in Ephesus, situated on the west coast of Asia Minor (what is now Turkey), and depicts a church under siege by heretical teaching that was resulting in bitter disputes. This is clearly evident in an exhortation right in the opening of the letter to “stop certain people from teaching a different doctrine“ (1:3). The specific content of this heretical doctrine is not specified in this verse, but the following verse provides at least some idea of its nature when it makes reference to “fables and endless genealogies.”
The reference to “genealogies” suggests that the heresy was related to the issue of “origins and first causes” that was very prominent in the surrounding pagan religions, an issue that involved using long genealogies to trace one’s line back to one’s origin. The goddess Isis is relevant in this regard, for she was represented as proclaiming herself “the one who was in the beginning, the one who first came into existence on earth.” Further, she was said to have generated a son without male assistance and declared, “I have played the part of a man though I am a woman,” thus representing woman and her seed as first cause.
Isis was originally an Egyptian goddess, but worship of her eventually spread to all parts of the Mediterranean world, including Asia Minor. In fact, Isis became connected to–and virtually indistinguishable from–a goddess of Ephesus named Artemis, so much so that Isis was sometimes called “Artemis-Isis”.
Artemis was the most powerful expression of a pagan movement that could be called worship of the “Great Mother of the Gods” which had developed for millennia in Asia Minor. Artemis was considered greater than any of the male gods. Her prominence was so great that she was the most worshipped of all the gods, with shrines for worshipping her not only in Ephesus, and not only in Asia Minor, but in every city throughout the Mediterranean region. It was believed she was the mother of the gods and men, and from her all life came. The temple of Artemis in Ephesus was so prominent that it is still considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and women acted as priestesses for Artemis at this temple.
Also significant to our look at Ephesus is the fact that it, and the surrounding region, had a sizable Jewish presence; estimates put their number in this area at as many as seventy-five thousand. The Jews of Asia Minor were not strict in keeping themselves separate from the culture of their surroundings, as evidenced by their adoption of foreign religious practices, and the adoption by the surrounding papan peoples of some elements of Judaism. Is it possible this openness to the surrounding foreign religions among the Jewish followers of Jesus in Ephesus was at the root of the heretical teachings addressed in the letter of 1 Timothy? This will be explored in Part TWO.