Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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 of an unnamed gentile man. She was also the mother of Timothy, a young man mentioned by name twenty-four times in the New Testament.

Acts 16:1-4 contains the first mention of Timothy in the New Testament, 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. Lois may have chosen the name for her daughter with the hope she would have the strength and perseverance to be victorious in life.

Timothy’s grandmother 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 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 (Acts 16:4). The fact that he 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. It is unlikely Timothy’s father would have known the Torah, the Jewish sacred scriptures.

It is also 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, 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 to later accept Paul’s invitation to join him in ministry.

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

Lois and Eunice were probably 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 women’s influence. Paul acknowledges that Lois and Eunice 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 in life, and perhaps shame, 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 experienced even more 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). And 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” (Εὐνίκη) contains the word nikē (νίκη) which means “victory” with the prefix eu (ευ) which typically gives the sense of “well” or “good.” So “Eunice” means “good victory” or simply “victorious.”
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 lōiōn (λωΐων) which means “better (more desirable, more agreeable).” Lōiōn is sometimes paired in ancient Greek literature with ameinōn (ἀμείνων) as both words share similar senses. Ameinōn means “better (stronger, braver).” And both words are used as comparative adjectives for agathos (“good”). (Lōistos (λώϊστος) is used as a superlative of agathos meaning “best.”)

[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 practised 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.

© Margaret Mowczko 2020
All Rights Reserved

You can support my work for as little as $3 USD a month.
Become a Patron!

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)


Related Articles

Paul and Women in a Nutshell
Qualified for Every Good Work (2 Timothy 2:2; 3:16-17)
What Timothy Knew About Paul’s Theology of Ministry, and 1 Timothy 2:12
Timothy and Epaphroditus – Philippians 2:19-30
Leading Together in the Home
Beauty, Marriage, Motherhood, and Ministry
King Lemuel’s Mother: The Other Proverbs 31 Woman

artigos em portugues sobre igualdade entre homens e mulheres no lar e na igreja

9 thoughts on “Lois and Eunice’s Faith and Family

  1. Thanks for your great thoughts.

    Just want to point out that Timothy’s father could have been a Gentile God-fearer, this seems much more likely to me than a pagan Gentile. However, Jewishness in Scripture is determined by the father being a Jew. In some sense, Timothy was a “half-Jew” because of his mother. In order to become a (full) Jew, Timothy would need to go through the conversion process to become a Jew including circumcision; then he would have all the rights and responsibilities of being a Jew, including entry into more areas of the temple.

    1. Hi Don, We really only know one thing about Timothy’s father, which is that he was a Greek, a Gentile. However, Luke usually identifies God-fearers (sebomai) in Acts (Acts 13:43, 50, 16:14, 17:4, 17, and 18:7). So if Timothy’s dad was in any way an adherent to Judaism, I think Luke would have said something.

      Also, if he was a God-fearer, it doesn’t make sense that he wouldn’t have had Timothy circumcised as a baby. But Jewish communities in different places in the Roman world had differing customs. Perhaps the Jews in Lystra were especially pedantic about which baby boys could be circumcised, and it wasn’t enough to have a devout and ethnically Jewish mother and a God-fearer for a father.

      Having said this, it doesn’t seem to have been an impediment for Paul. Paul may have truly acted in the place of the father when he had Timothy circumcised.

      1. Since being a Jew is traced thru the father being a Jew (and not the mother) in Scripture and during the 1st century, I think it makes a lot of sense that his father would not have him circumcised, as that would assume something that was not true. God-fearers were allowed in synagogues to learn and if and when Timothy wanted to convert to become a Jew once he could make his own decisions, he could. The sages taught that God-fearers had a share in the “age to come” so it was not seen as a horrible situation to be in.

        1. Not all Jewish opinion regards matrilineal descent as a late adoption. https://judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/26064/when-did-the-switch-to-matrilineal-descent-occur

        2. Shaye J.D. Cohen has published his investigation of matrilineality in Judaism in the paper “The Origins of the Matrilineal Principle in Rabbinic Law,” AJS Review 10.1 (Spring, 1985): 19-53. (Source: JSTOR)

          Cohen makes the following comments.

          Regarding the paucity of evidence: “Few texts of the Second Temple period indicate the status of the offspring of unions between a Jewish woman and gentile man.” p.27.

          Regarding Act 16:1-4: “[W]as Timothy a Jew with a gentile father or a gentile with a Jewish mother? The latter is supported by the simple phrase “for they all knew his father was a Greek.” Patristic exegetes unfamiliar with the rabbinic matrilineal principle had no doubt Timothy was a gentile.” p. 28.

          “The Apocrypha, the pseudepigrapha, the Qumran scrolls, Philo, Paul, Josephus and Acts are not familiar with the rabbinic matrilineal principle.” p.29.

          “With the emergence of the [newish] possibility that women could convert to Judaism on their own [and not just through marriage to a Jew], the matrilineal principle could develop. The process is underway in the second half of the Second Temple period but is not complete until the second century.” p.29. (my italics)

          So it seems matrilineality was accepted by some Jews in the first century CE, but more universally from the second century onwards.

          In the second section of his paper, Cohen discusses what the Mishnah says on this subject. He summarises this on page 52.

          “[T]he children of an Israelite mother and a gentile father (either slave or free) are mamzerim, Jews of impaired status.” p.52.
          However, “The Talmudim declare these children to be not mamzerim but full and legitimate Jews” p.52.
          He adds, “the transition from biblical patriliny to mishnaic matriliny cannot be dated before the period of the Mishnah itself.” p.52. (That is, it cannot be dated before the first and second centuries CE.)

          In the third section, he discusses five ideological reasons for why Jews may have switched from patrilineality to matrilineality, plus a couple of social reasons.

          As an aside, Cohen notes, “Paul thinks that either a Christian father or a Christian mother could ‘consecrate’ the children to Christ (1 Cor. 7:14).” p.28.

  2. Here’s my stupid story!! Years ago, we adopted two sweet old lady cats who were littermates. Their original names were pathetic, so we renamed them Lois and Eunice. They were such wonderful girls, but we needed another, so we got our first Ragdoll, named him Timothy! Well, those old gals taught Timothy well!! He held them in great esteem! But then at 15 months, Timmy laid down on the floor and died one Sat morning, the results of a genetic heart defect that was too common in Ragdolls back then. Later we got another boy kitten, debated naming him Second Timothy, but just couldn’t! We did name him for BT Roberts, though.

    Not quite on topic, but those cat names gave us ample opportunity to talk of egalitarian Christianity! They were much loved. The girls wound up with diabetes. Eunice died at 13, but Lois made it to 18.

    1. 🙂 I laughed out loud when I got to the BT Roberts bit. Great man, though. I hope to write about him one day.

  3. Hi Marg, thanks for highlighting this family. I think of these ladies and the many Proverbs that speak of the mother’s role in teaching her children. I have been chastised for carrying out discipline and teaching Godly ways to my children in the past. The argument used was that it is my husband’s job and I need to let him fail at it so that God can step in and convince him to take on his responsibilities. I could never accept that, and I don’t see how anyone who has actually read the Bible, could. My kids are now almost grown, have a good relationship with their dad and with God, and they are really cool and considerate people. I thank God for letting Lois and Eunice feature in Paul’s writing

    1. That sure is a convoluted argument!

      Jesus’s burden is light. It’s not supposed to be complicated. (I’ve written about this here.) Sadly, common sense and kindness are lacking in too many interpretations and applications of Bible verses, especially when it comes to so-called gender roles.

      I was also the one in our family who primarily taught our children, two sons, about God, for the simple reason that I was better at it. And I’m happy to say that we have great relationships with our two (grown) sons and their families.

      Blessings, Jenni.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Marg's Blog

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

 

Loading

Join Marg's Patreon

Would you like to support my ministry of encouraging mutuality and equality between men and women in the church and in marriage?

Archives