“Gnosis” in the NT: 1 Tim 6:20-21

1 Timothy 6:20-21

“O Precious-to-God {Timothy}, you must keep watch (over) th(at which is) placed alongside [paraqh/kh] (you), turning out of (the way) the free [be/bhlo$] (and) empty voices, and the (thing)s set against (it) from the falsely-named ‘knowledge’ [gnw=si$], which some (person)s, giving a message upon (themselves) about the (Christian) faith [pi/sti$], were without (true) aim.”

This is perhaps the only passage in the New Testament which can truly be called anti-gnostic—i.e., opposed to gnostic teaching. Whether the author of 1 Timothy (whether Paul or pseudonymous) is addressing an early form of the Gnosticism known from the 2nd century A.D. is a separate question. If the letter is Pauline and/or relatively early (c. 60-65 A.D.), then this is highly unlikely. However, things have clearly moved a step or two beyond Paul’s concern to check the Corinthians’ emphasis on spiritual knowledge (cf. 1 Cor 1:18-2:16ff; 8:1-3ff). There is conceivably a connection with the Jewish Christianity represented by the opponents Paul addresses in 2 Cor 10-13, but this could only be called “gnostic” in a very loose sense. It can be no coincidence that 1 Tim 6:20 is the only occurrence of the word gnw=si$ (gnœ¡sis, “knowledge”) in the letter—indeed, within the Pastoral letters as a whole—while it is relatively frequent in the undisputed letters (21 times, including 16 in 1 & 2 Corinthians), often in a positive sense. Here, it is entirely negative, marked by the qualifying adjective yeudw/numo$ (“falsely-named”), to distiguish it from true religious knowledge. At the very least, the author is referring to Christians who claim to have a certain knowledge, and, presumably, rely upon the use of that word—which would explain why the author does not otherwise use it himself. The noun is also absent entirely from the Johannine writings, even though the related verb ginw/skw (“know”) is used quite often (82 times). Some commentators have thought that the Christians who produced these writings were combating an incipient form of Gnosticism (cf. 1 John 4:1-6, etc).

Especially significant is the use of the word paraqh/kh, derived from the verb parati/qhmi (“set/put along[side]”), and which I discuss briefly in the last section of  Part 4 of the series “Gnosis and the New Testament”. In the Pastoral epistles the verb and noun are both used in the special (figurative) sense of the collected body of Christian teaching—of Gospel and Apostolic traditions—which have been passed down (from Paul and the first Apostles) and put into the care of trustworthy ministers (such as Timothy). It is this “trust”, this carefully preserved Tradition, which is set against the so-called “knowledge”. Actually, there appear to be two forces against which the minister must contend; he is to “turn out of [the way]” (i.e. “turn aside”, the verb e)ktre/pw):

    • “the free/loose ’empty voices'” and
    • “(thing)s…of the falsely-named ‘knowledge'”

Possibly these are a hendiadys, two expressions for a single concept, or two labels referring to a single group. The first phrase makes use of two words. The first (a) is be/bhlo$, “free”, in the sense of “freely accessible”, and, in a religious context, often indicating something that is “profane”; it is certainly used in a pejorative sense here, perhaps with the connotation of “loose-lipped”, i.e. freely and carelessly uttered. The second (b) is kenofwni/a, “empty voice”, i.e. empty or hollow sounding, but probably best taken literally here—the voices of the people who say these things are “empty”, void of anything true or real. This same expression, using both words, also occurs in 2 Tim 2:16:

“But stand about [i.e. away from] the free (and) empty voices, for (more) upon more they cut (the way) toward a lack of reverence (for God)”

It follows directly after the expression “the account of truth” in v. 15, with which it is set in contrast. The adjective be/bhlo$ also occurs in 1 Tim 1:9 and 4:7.

The second phrase includes two elements: (a) the noun a)nti/qesi$, derived from the same verb as the base of parati/qhmi, only instead of something put alongside (into one’s care), it signifies the opposite, something set against it (in opposition to it); and (b) the expression “falsely-named knowledge”, with the adjective yeudw/numo$. Those who are characterized by these descriptions, and who oppose or threaten the true faith and tradition, are defined further in 1 Tim 6:21:

    • tine$ (“certain, some”)—that is, some Christians
    • e)paggello/menoi (“giving a message upon [themselves]”)—middle voice (reflexive) participle of the verb e)pagge/llw; these people announce (lit. give a message) concerning themselves
    • peri\ th\n pi/stin (“about the faith”)—the word pi/sti$ usually means specifically trust (or faith/belief) in Christ, but here it would seem to signify more properly the Christian faith (religion); however, it may also indicate the profession of faith in Christ by these persons
    • h)sto/xhsan (“they were without [true] aim”)—the verb a)stoxe/w is derived from the adjective a&stoxo$ (“without aim”), i.e. a bad shot, missing the mark

In other words, these people claim to be Christians, professing Christ and speaking about the faith, but are actually in error and ‘miss the mark’. From the standpoint of the author (Paul), it is a matter of the entire Christian faith being at stake, and an urgent need to preserve the true faith and (apostolic) tradition. The comprehensiveness of this understanding is indicated by an brief examination of the other occurrences of the verb parati/qhmi and noun paraqh/kh:

    • 1 Tim 1:18:
      “This message given along (to me) I place alongside (for) you, dear offspring [i.e. child] Timothy, according to the (thing)s foretold [i.e. prophecies] brought out before(hand) upon you, that you might fight as a soldier in them, (doing) the fine work of a soldier”
    • 2 Tim 1:12, continuing on from v. 11, speaking of the “good message”, i.e. the Gospel (“unto which I was set” as a preacher, apostle and teacher…)
      “…through which cause I also suffer these (thing)s—but (yet) I do not have (any) shame brought upon me, for I have seen [i.e. known] the (one) in whom I have trusted and have been persuaded that he is powerful (enough) [i.e. able] to keep/guard the (thing) set alongside (for) me unto [i.e. until] that day”
    • 2 Tim 1:14 (note the connection between the paraqh/kh and the Spirit):
      “you (too) must keep/guard th(is) fine (thing which has been) set alongside (us), through the holy Spirit housing [i.e. dwelling] in us”
    • 2 Tim 2:2:
      “and the (thing)s which you have heard alongside me through many witnesses, these you must place alongside trust(worthy) men who will be capable/qualified to teach others also”

The chain of transmission is clear: to Paul, then to Timothy, and then, in turn, to other trustworthy ministers. Timothy himself has received the tradition not only from Paul (“the whole/healthy accounts which you heard [from] alongside me”, 2 Tim 1:13), but from “many witnesses” (2:2). This emphasizes that the tradition has been transmitted within the Community of believers as a whole (on the motif of witnesses to the Gospel, cf. Lk 1:2; 24:48; Acts 1:8, 22; 5:32; 10:39ff; 13:31, etc., and note Heb 12:1).

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