Lois and Eunice in the Bible

Eunice’s Family in Lystra (Acts 16:1-4)

Eunice is a devout Jewish woman mentioned briefly in the Bible. She was the daughter of Lois and the wife or widow of an unnamed gentile man. She was also the mother of Timothy, a young minister mentioned by name twenty-four times in the New Testament.

Acts 16:1-4 contains the first mention of Timothy, and it mentions his mother.

Paul went on to Derbe and Lystra, where there was a disciple named Timothy, the son of a believing Jewish woman,[1] but his father was a Greek. The brothers and sisters at Lystra and Iconium spoke highly of him. Paul wanted Timothy to go with him; so he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, since they all knew that his father was a Greek. Acts 16:1-4 CSB

The author of Acts, traditionally thought to be Luke, does not give her name here, but we know from 2 Timothy 1:5 that it was Eunice, a Greek name meaning “conquering well” or “good victory.”[2] It is a strong and optimistic name. It could be that she was born in challenging circumstances and that her mother Lois chose the name because she hoped her daughter would have the strength and perseverance to be victorious in life.

Lois is not mentioned in Acts, but she may well have been a support during her daughter’s marriage. It is difficult to work out why a pious Jewish woman would have been married to a Greek man, that is, to an uncircumcised pagan man.[3] The marriage may have reflected poorly on Eunice and her family, and been a cause of shame and unease in their local Jewish community.

Eunice and Timothy’s Uncertain Situation

Eunice lived in Lystra in the Roman province of Galatia (modern-day Turkey). Like the other Jews in the area, she was a Hellenised Jew and spoke Greek. Her son’s name, Timothy, is Greek and means “honouring God” or “honoured by God.” There is little doubt Eunice would have had the God of the Bible in mind when her son was named, even if her husband didn’t.

With a Jewish mother and Greek father, Timothy’s status as a Jew is uncertain, and he may not have been completely accepted by the Jewish community. Despite Eunice’s Jewish faith, Timothy had not been circumcised as a baby. Perhaps her husband had forbidden it. Or maybe the Jewish community had denied Eunice’s request for her baby boy to be circumcised because his father was a Gentile.

Eunice’s husband is not named in the New Testament but, apparently, everyone knew that Timothy’s father was a Greek man (Acts 16:4). The fact that the man is barely mentioned suggests he was either deceased or divorced from Eunice when Paul came to Lystra and took Timothy under his wing. Whether he was dead, divorced, or still part of the family, he was almost certainly not a Christian.

Lois and Eunice’s Jewish Faith and Teaching (2 Tim. 3:15)

Because he was not circumcised, Timothy could not have been a full member of the Jewish community. Nevertheless, Lois and Eunice shared their faith with him, and they saw to it that, from a very young age, he learned the sacred Jewish scriptures.[4]

In a letter Paul later wrote to Timothy, the apostle alludes to Lois and Eunice, as well as to himself, as “those who taught” Timothy.

“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed. You know those who taught you, and you know that from infancy you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are able to give you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” 2 Timothy 3:14-15 CSB

Craig Keener notes that “in Jewish circles, fathers bore primary responsibility for sons’ education in the Torah, but a mother could assume responsibility for this education if the father was unavailable.”[5] This was the case for Eunice’s family, as Timothy’s father did not know the Torah, the Jewish sacred scriptures.

It’s unlikely that Lois and Eunice had access to scrolls of scripture (as depicted in the illustration above). Scrolls were prohibitively expensive, and books had yet to be invented. The women would have taught Timothy from memory. (Rote learning from memory was common in oral-based, rather than literary, societies.) They probably ensured he learnt from others too, perhaps from tutors attached to a synagogue in Lystra.

Timothy could have followed his father’s example and observed pagan rites, but he accepted the Jewish faith and teaching of his godly mother and grandmother. This prepared him to accept the good news about Jesus and then Paul’s invitation to join him in ministry.

Lois and Eunice’s Christian Faith and Influence (2 Tim. 1:5)

Lois and Eunice may have been won over to the gospel through the ministry of Paul and Barnabas when the missionaries visited Lystra in around 48 CE (Acts 14:6-20). Timothy may then have accepted Christianity through the influence of Lois and Eunice. Paul acknowledges that the women became Christians first before Timothy.

“I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.” 2 Timothy 1:5 CSB

When Paul returned to Lystra a couple of years later, this time with Silas, he saw Timothy excelling as a Christian disciple, perhaps more evidence of his mother’s and grandmother’s influence. Paul decided to take Timothy with him on his mission as a student minister, but not before taking on a fatherly role by having him circumcised.[6] Timothy was now a full member of the Jewish community. He would also prove to be a faithful minister of the gospel who worked closely with Paul. The apostle speaks warmly about Timothy in his letters; he regarded him as “my true son in the faith” (1 Cor. 4:17; 1 Tim. 1:2, 18; cf. Phil. 2:22)

It is likely that Eunice faced many challenges, and perhaps shame, in her life, but she would have known relief and joy when her son was circumcised so that he could be a full member of the Jewish community. She would have known relief and joy when Paul became a father, teacher, and mentor to her son. And despite the inherent hardships, she would have been gratified that Timothy was serving God as Paul’s ministry partner and envoy.

Conclusion

Because of her strong godly influence in family life, supported by Lois, Eunice achieved victory over difficulties, and she received honour in place of shame. Paul honours both Lois and Eunice, acknowledging that they had been Timothy’s teachers. These women, together, enabled Timothy to become a man of God who was equipped to face his own challenges, including the challenge of heterodox and deceptive teaching in Ephesus (2 Tim. 3:13-17).

Whether we have a supportive community, or not, and whether we have a supportive spouse, or not, we can be like Eunice. We can be a godly influence in our children’s lives and teach them the holy scriptures that will make them “wise in a way that leads to salvation through faith that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15 CEB). Furthermore, perhaps more than ever, we need godly grandparents like Lois who will encourage and support younger generations in the faith.


Footnotes

[1] Eunice is described in Acts 16:1 with two adjectives: Ioudaia, which means “Jewish,” and pistē, which can mean “faithful” or “believing” depending on the context. “Believing, Jewish woman,” as in the CSB, makes good sense of the Greek if we think Luke is trying to convey that she is both Jewish and a Christian believer. But if he is contrasting her with her Greek husband, which is entirely possible, “faithful Jewish woman” may be the intended meaning.

[2] “Eunice” contains the word nikē which means “victory.” The name Lois (Λωΐς) is not found in any surviving ancient document before its appearance in 2 Timothy 1:5, and it is rare afterwards. “Lois” may be derived from the Greek word λωΐων which means “more desirable, agreeable, better.”

[3] The marriage was probably arranged by Eunice’s father, but this still raises questions as Jews frowned upon inter-ethnic marriages.

[4] These writings would have been the Greek version of the Old Testament.

[5] Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary: Volume 3: 15:1-23:35 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014) (Google Books)

[6] Craig Keener points out that “Timothy’s circumcision is here explicitly a missionary strategy not a concession to others’ mistaken standards of salvation or holiness. Paul specifically said that he practiced Jewish customs and submitted to Jewish law to reach Jewish people (1 Cor. 9:20).” Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary: Volume 3. (Google Books)
Paul opposed the circumcision of Gentile converts to the gospel; he did not oppose the circumcision of Jews.

Image Credit

Excerpt from a woodcut illustration of Lois and Timothy. The illustration is found in The Bible in Picture and Stories by Louise Houghton (New York: American Tract Society, 1899), 228. (Source: Internet Archive; Public Domain)

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