Part TWO: Heretical Teaching Rooted in Gnostic Beliefs of Surrounding Culture

It is suggested that 1 Tim 2:12 was addressing heretic teachings coming out of Gnostic thought. Gnosticism has been called a religion of rebellion, for it constitutes an ‘upside-downing” of the Old Testament, mounting opposition to some of the Old Testament’s most basic beliefs.

It is often argued that Gnosticism as a movement only came into being during the 2nd century AD, and so, the false teachings opposed in 1 Timothy could not have been Gnostic. Alexandria in Egypt is where Gnosticism first arose–likely in the second century BC–and it spread from there. Gnostic heretic Cerinthus brought a form of Gnosticism to Ephesus by the late first century, but it is not clear exactly when he did so; therefore, it is not certain whether Paul would still have been alive when Cerinthus arrived. But even if 1 Timothy was written before his arrival, it is still possible that some particular Gnostic beliefs–as opposed to a fully developed Gnostic movement like that of Cerinthus–could have spread as far as Ephesus during Paul’s lifetime, given these beliefs would have been in existence in the Mediterranean world for centuries by the time of the writing of 1 Timothy. We shall now look to see if the text of 1 Timothy contains any clues suggesting that the heretical teachings Paul is attacking are indeed Gnostic beliefs.

In Part ONE, we saw that in 1:4, Paul speaks out against becoming involved in endless genealogies; the question of origins was desperately important to the Gnostics, and the need to understand one’s origins meant the production of genealogies. Further, 1 Tim 6:20 gives a warning to beware of “oppositions of so-called knowledge (Greek ‘gnosis’)”; Gnostics claimed that they had special secret knowledge. This verse also warns against “nonsense which sets itself against God,” which is interesting in light of the fact that Gnostic writings are characterized by material that looks like nonsense (e.g. long strings of repetitious nonsense syllables).

The issue of “nonsense” is also brought up in 1 Tim 5:13. This verse addresses younger widows in the Ephesian church, and is usually translated to depict these somen as “gossips”, but the Greek carries more of the sense of “babbling nonsense.” This verse also calls these younger widows “busybodies”. The Greek word here is ‘periergoi’ which, in Acts 19:19, carries the sense of “those practicing magic” which is significant for our purposes because some Gnostics were heavily involved in magic. Further, in the ancient world, women in particular were thought to be purveyors of magic.

It is significant that these indications of Gnosticism are connected here to the younger widows of the Ephesian church, for elsewhere in the letter, the heretical teachings are also connected to women. In 1 Tim 4:7, where Timothy is told to avoid tales that are “opposed to God” (Gk ‘bebelos’), these tales are specifically designated as “pertaining to old women” (Gk ‘graodies’), an interesting point given that from the earliest times in Asia Minor, female religious officials known as “old women” kept alive the ancient myths. And the charge that the false teaching involved “myths” is repeated several times in the Pastoral Epistles (i.e. 1Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus).

One other point of contact between the text of 1 Timothy and Gnostic thought is the treatment of Eve in 1 Tim 2:13-14; the whole of Part SIX is dedicated to this point.

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