Part 3: The Heresy in the Ephesian Church

Paul’s Reason for Writing to Timothy 

Paul declares his primary reason for writing to Timothy right at the beginning of his letter. After a customary greeting Paul writes:

“. . . stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false [or, other] doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. 1 Timothy 1:3-4a (NIV 2011, underlines added)

1 Timothy 2:12 in Context: The Heresy in the Ephesian ChurchPaul was concerned because “the pure and sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5) he had brought to Ephesus was being tarnished and corrupted. Men and women within the Ephesian church were teaching and spreading doctrines that were different to Paul’s teaching, and so he wrote to Timothy—who was ministering in Ephesus at that time—and advised him about these people and their doctrines.

It is possible that some of these false teachings were influenced by myths related to the Ephesian goddess Artemis. Paul may have been referring to these myths when he told Timothy to “shun the profane and old-womanish myths” (1 Tim. 4:7).[2] [More about Artemis in Part Two.]

Wherever the gospel has gone, many new believers have found it difficult to quickly and completely let go of long-held beliefs and ancient superstitions, especially as religious beliefs and practices were usually closely interwoven with the local culture and daily customs of family and community life.

One way of dealing with new beliefs is to syncretise them with old beliefs. In Roman Catholicism, for example, many of the “Madonnas” or “Our Ladies” started off as local pagan goddesses that were later morphed into “Marys” when Christianity came.[3] There is no evidence for this in ancient Ephesus, but, in a few ancient documents, we see that some Christians were conferring on Eve an almost divine status. We will come back to Eve below.

Hellenism and Syncretism 

During the Hellenistic period (c. 320–30 BC), the classical forms of Greek religion were increasingly influenced by foreign religions, especially Near-Eastern religions with their elements of initiation, mysteries, salvation, and asceticism. And the great goddess, or feminine principle, was universally sovereign.[4] A resurgence of interest in Greek philosophy also had an influence on religion. In the Hellenistic Greek world, and later in the Roman Empire, both Greek and Eastern religious ideas, as well as philosophy, influenced local indigenous cults, including the Ephesian cult of Artemis.

The merging of different religious practices and ideologies (syncretism) was a feature of the Hellenistic period. This syncretism paved the way for various schools of thought known as Christian Gnosticism. Gnosticism threatened more orthodox expressions of Christianity in the second and third centuries AD.[5] I strongly suspect the false teaching in the Ephesian church involved a syncretistic, or perhaps an early Gnostic, heresy, one that may have had nothing to do with the Ephesian’s beloved goddess Artemis.[6]

Christian Gnosticism and the Early Church

The word “Gnosticism” comes from the Greek word gnosis which literally means “knowledge”.[7] Gnostics believe that it is special knowledge that brings salvation. This knowledge is secret and esoteric, however. It is only accessible to the elite few who can achieve transcendence through knowledge, or acquaintance, of the divine.

Tertullian (160-220) identified the false teaching in the Ephesian church as an early, emerging form of Gnosticism. In his description of a developed Gnostic heresy, Tertullian used Paul’s own expression of “myths and endless genealogies”, and he added, “which the inspired apostle [Paul] by anticipation condemned, whilst the seeds of heresy were even then shooting forth.”[8] Irenaeus, writing in about 180, also identified the false teaching in the first-century Ephesian church as a kind of Gnosticism.[9] However, it is possible that Tertullian and Irenaeus were projecting the Gnostic heresies of the late second century back on to the late first-century Ephesian church.

Nevertheless, the “endless genealogies” that Paul mentions in 1 Timothy 1:4 could refer to a concept similar to that of the complex series of emanations, or aeons, that is a feature in some later Gnostic teachings.[10] These aeons were seen as a series of links between the supreme God and humanity. Rather than numerous aeons, however, Paul states in 1 Timothy 2:5: “There is one God and one mediator between God and humanity—the human being Jesus Christ.”[11]

Various ideas of Christian Gnostics were borrowed from Greek philosophy and pagan faiths, which were blended with Christian concepts. While the heresy in the Ephesian church may have incorporated some pagan beliefs or practices from the cult of Artemis, there is no concrete evidence of this.

Gnostic Interpretations of the Genesis Creation Accounts

Early Christian Gnostics, most of whom were Jewish, incorporated aspects of Judaism and the Old Testament Law, or Torah, into their beliefs. The Law was also misused by some in Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:6-11).[12]

The teachings Irenaeus attributes to the Gnostics includes ‘retellings of the Genesis stories of the creation, Adam and Eve, and the fall.”[13] The ancient Gnostic texts found in Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945 confirms Irenaeus’s observations. These texts show that the creation stories were interpreted freely and allegorically. For example, “Gnostics often depicted Eve—or the feminine spiritual power she represented—as the source of spiritual awakening.”[14] Eve as “spirit” was frequently seen as bringing life when united with Adam’s “soul”.

There are several surviving Gnostic creation accounts that give Eve primacy over Adam.[15] Moreover, Eve was a heroine to the Gnostics because she desired knowledge (gnōsis) (Gen. 3:6).

Paul closes his first letter to Timothy with one final exhortation concerning this serious issue of a Gnostic-like heresy:

O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you, avoiding profane chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called “knowledge (gnōsis)” which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith. Grace be with you.” 1 Timothy 6:20-21 (NASB, underline added.)

All this information so far may be helpful if we want to understand the meaning and significance of 1 Timothy 2:12 and the verses surrounding it. In Part Four we begin going through 1 Timothy 2:11-15, verse by verse.


Endnotes

[1] Note that “certain men” used in the NIV 1984 translation of this verse is not a completely accurate translation from the Greek. A more faithful translation would read “certain ones” or “certain people”. The new NIV (2011) has translated it as “certain people”. Women were among those spreading profane stories and myths in the Ephesian church (e.g., 1 Tim. 5:13-15).
Cynthia Westfall notes, “Historically, older women are often the story bearers of the culture, and they transmit the culture from generation to generation through myths, fairy tales, and lore that are repeated in front of the hearth and at bedtime.” Cynthia Long Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 302-303.

[2] Paul uses the word “profane” (bebēlos) a few times to describe the false teaching in Ephesian church: 1 Timothy 4:7; 6:20; 2 Timothy 2:16. See also 1 Timothy 1:9. Bebēlos is used five times in the New Testament: four times in 1 Timothy, and once in Hebrews 12:16. It means ungodly, profane, and heathenish. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 215) used the same expression as in 1 Timothy 4:7, “old wives tales” (“old womanish myths”), in reference to occult practices. (Paedagogus, Book 3, Chapter 4)

[3] Luther H. Martin notes that the fusion of Mary with a pagan goddess is exemplified in the case of Isis. The Hellenistic mysteries of the Egyptian goddess Isis became universal in the Greco-Roman world, and survived until the imperial prohibition of pagan religions in the fourth century AD. Martin writes, “In one sense, however, Isis survived even Christian dominance, for together with her divine son Horus, she is remembered in the sentiment and iconography of Roman Catholic Mariology.” Luther H., Hellenistic Religions: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 72.

[4] Luther H. Martin, Hellenistic Religions: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 81.

[5] Scholars are increasingly reluctant to call syncretistic religious beliefs before the second century AD “Gnosticism”. In the context of the letter to the Ephesians, which, like the letters to Timothy, was written in the late first century, Clinton Arnold is wary about the calling the heresy in Ephesus “Gnosticism” but concedes:

A total dismissal of all Gnostic interpretation of Ephesians would not be a proper conclusion to draw . . . . Even if the thoroughgoing dualism characteristic of fully developed Gnosis cannot be demonstrated before A.D. 135 . . . , other streams of religious influence (with permutations already in process) may have existed which had a profound impact on developing Gnosis. One or a number of these merging streams may have been converging in the first century forming the beginning of Gnosis.
Clinton E., Ephesians: Power and Magic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 12.

[6] Gnosticism rapidly grew at the same time, and in many of the same places, where the gospel was advancing. It would develop into highly organised and complicated mythological systems during the second and third centuries. However, the beginnings of gnostic-like beliefs are evident in New Testament. Several New Testament letters address various problems associated with gnostic-like beliefs, in particular, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, 2 Peter and John’s letters.

[7] David Brakke writes about the broad use of the term gnōsis in antiquity:

Multiple religious and philosophical movements and teachers claimed to offer gnōsis, that is, acquaintance with God and higher truths. The Christian author of 1 Clement rejoiced that Jesus Christ had brought “immortal gnōsis,” and he prayed that the blessed person would have “the ability to declare gnōsis.” [1 Clem. 36:2; 48:5; see also 40:1; 41:4.] The Letter of Barnabas refers to Christian teaching as “the gnōsis that has been given to us.” [Barnabas 19:1; see also 5:5; 9:8.] Neither of these works contain doctrines that either ancient heresiologists or modern scholars would attribute to Gnosticism. . . They illustrate that an emphasis on gnōsis cannot be a defining feature of “Gnosticism,” for the claim to provide gnōsis was common and expected.
David Brakke, The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual and Diversity in Early Christianity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 30.

Brakke does, however, discuss that it was unusual for a group to call themselves, or be called by others, gnōstikoi (i.e. “Gnostics”).

Before Irenaeus wrote in 180 CE, the adjective gnōstikos (having to do with gnōsis) was not applied to people but to capacities, intellectual activities, or mental operations: a “gnostic” activity or capacity was one that led to or supplied gnōsis, that is, knowledge that was not merely practical but theoretical, immediate, even intuitive. . . to call people gnōstikoi, however, was not common but innovative . . . this new usage came into being with a new social group, people we can call the Gnostics and the Gnostic school of thought (or sect or movement).
Brakke, The Gnostics, 30-31.

See pages 19-28 of Brakke’s book to see a discussion on what characteristics are needed for an ancient Christian sect or school of thought to be included in the category “Gnostic”.

[8] Tertullian provides a detailed account and refutation of the Valentinians, a group who borrowed ideas from Gnostics, in Against the Valentinians (c. 200-220), and writes in chapter 3: “. . . as soon as he finds so many names of aeons, so many marriages, so many offsprings, so many exits, so many issues, felicities and infelicities of a dispersed and mutilated deity, will that man hesitate at once to pronounce that these are ‘the fables and endless genealogies’ which the inspired apostle by anticipation condemned, while these seeds of heresy were even then shooting forth?”

[9] Irenaeus wrote a five-volume work (c. 180) in which he identified and refuted several sects, or systems, of Gnosticism. This work is commonly called Against Heresies; however its true, or full, title is: On the Detection and Overthrow of the Falsely-called Knowledge (Greek: Gnōsis) Irenaeus exactly copied Paul’s expression from 1 Timothy 6:20, “falsely-called knowledge”, for the title. This work opens with Irenaeus remarking on “endless genealogies”, a phrase copied from 1 Timothy 1:4. Irenaeus recognised traits of Gnosticism in 1 Timothy.
Eusebius (263–339) also used Paul’s phrase of “falsely-called knowledge” when he mentions “the league of godless error [that] took its rise as a result of the folly of heretical teachers.” (Ecclesiastical History, Book 3.32.8) According to Eusebius, this occurred following the deaths of the first successors of the twelve apostles.

[10] Some heretical groups supposedly traced their origins back to Cain and Seth, the sons of Adam and Eve. Do the endless genealogies refer to this? In his words against the Cainites, Irenaeus mentions that they were keen to prove that their origin was derived from certain “mothers, fathers, and ancestors.” (Against Heresies 1.31.8)

[11] 1 Timothy 2:5 also addresses a Gnostic belief termed Docetism, which is that Jesus Christ did not really come in a human body of flesh but only seemed to be human. Also, the preceding verse states that God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). The salvation Paul taught was for everyone: it was not reliant on secret knowledge and was not for the few who could achieve transcendence. Furthermore, God is portrayed positively in 1 Timothy, and not like the distant god of the Gnostics who was not nice.

[12] Some strains of Judaism were influenced by the teachings and practices of Jewish sorcerers and exorcists who were well known in the Greco-Roman world, including the cities of Asia Minor such as Ephesus. These apostate Jews combined Judaism with the occult (Acts 13:6-11; 19:13-19; cf. Simon Magus in Acts 8:9-15).

[13] Brakke, The Gnostics, 36.

[14] Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve and the Serpent (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 68.

[15] Gnostic texts from Nag Hammadi that give Eve primacy include: Apocryphon of John, Gospel of Philip, Hypostasis of the Archon, Thunder: Perfect Mind, and Apocalypse of Adam. These texts were penned in the second and third centuries, after First Timothy was written. More on these Gnostic texts here.

© 8th of December 2009; revised the 5th of August 2010; Margaret Mowczko


« Part Two: Artemis of Ephesus and her Temple

» Part Four: 1 Timothy 2:11-12 – Phrase by Phrase


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