Exegetical extras: Timid Timothy?

Exegetical extras are interesting facts about or alternative interpretations of a particular Scripture passage. They’re here for interest value or to stretch our thinking. Just because something appears here doesn’t mean I’m persuaded it’s correct, just intrigued… Exegetical extras will be posted whenever I come across something interesting. And maybe a bit too nerdy for most.  

I don’t know if you’ve come across the conventional wisdom that Timothy was a bit timid. That’s the view of most commentaries. Why? Take a look at Paul’s second letter to Timothy:

2 Tim 1:7-8  For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God.

In understanding these verses, it’s common to do “mirror reading” – that is, to assume that the mention of “power, love and self-discipline” implies that Timothy lacks these, and that because “timidity” is mentioned, this is his problem. On this reading, Timothy needs to allow his spiritual gift to dominate over his natural reluctance to speak and act with confidence.

More broadly, verse 8 suggests that Timothy was tempted to be ashamed of Paul and his imprisonment, and to hold back out of fear from coming to see him (cf. 2 Tim 4:9, 21). It’s also common to infer a timid disposition from 1 Tim 5:23, frequent ailments somehow being linked with timidity, and the exhortation in 1 Tim 4:12 to let no one despise his youth.

1 Tim 5:23  Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.
1 Tim 4:12a Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young…

But is this mirror reading justified? Christopher Hutson thinks not (‘Was Timothy Timid? On the rhetoric of fearlessness’. Biblical Research 42 (1997): 58-73.) He writes this:

‘To suggest that an exhortation such as “be strong” reveals anything at all about the personality of the exhortee is unwarranted … We should be wary of a tendency among some interpreters to infer a complete personality profile for Timothy from the merest scrap and then to read this profile into everything that is said about him’ (Hutson, p58).

To that, I would add Joshua 1:6-9, which is not read as though Joshua is lacking in strength and courage!

Josh 1:6 Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them. 7 “Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you…. 9 Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Hutson then gives two significant reasons to reject the traditional view:

(1) It contradicts positive portrayals in Acts & Paul:

  • In Acts 16:2-3, Timothy is ‘well spoken of’.
  • In the face of hostility he stays in Thessalonica and Beroea (Acts 17:14-15; 18:5 – possibly Timothy alone in Thessalonica if we read 1 Th 3:2,6 into this).
  • He’s the leader of the delegation in Acts 19:22.
  • He’s the co-author of four of Paul’s letters (2 Corinthians, Philippians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians).
  • He’s praised by Paul to the Thessalonians (1 Th 3:2-3), and sent back to strengthen/exhort them.
  • He’s held up as an example – Paul’s isopsuchos (‘soul-mate’) Phil 2:20 and son/heir Phil 2:22.

But what about 1 Cor 16:10-11?

1 Cor 16:10-11 When Timothy comes, see to it that he has nothing to fear while he is with you, for he is carrying on the work of the Lord, just as I am.
No one, then, should treat him with contempt. Send him on his way in peace so that he may return to me. I am expecting him along with the brothers.

Does this mean: watch out for Timothy’s sensitive nature? Go easy on him? So why would Paul send him into the lion’s den that is the Corinthian church?

The traditional translation of verse 10 (NIV, above) is ‘see that he has nothing to fear among you’. (For Greek nerds: βλέπετε, ἵνα ἀφόβως γένηται πρὸς ὑμᾶς.) Hutson argues for an equally plausible alternative: ‘watch out, as fearless he will be toward you’, which makes sense of the ‘therefore do not despise him’ in the next verse. He is an envoy of Paul, coming with Paul’s full authority (cf. earlier in the letter 1 Cor 4:16-21).

(2) The genre of ancient moral exhortation suggests a different reading of 2 Tim 1:7. Cowardice is used in moral exhortation as a hypothetical, shameful course of action. It doesn’t imply that the hearer was cowardly, or even tempted toward cowardice. Rather, it contrasts honourable actions to be pursued and dishonourable ones to be avoided. Paul has suffered persecution, but has taken the honourable and courageous course of action. Timothy is being exhorted to follow Paul’s example in the face of hostility, for which cowardice is the foil.

Plutarch, Mor. 74B, says that an imputation of cowardice to a ‘spirited and courageous man’ might effectively ‘give an impulse toward what is noble and turn [him] away from what is shameful.’ 

This fits with the broader, deliberative genre of 2 Timothy: the aim is to contrast alternative future actions and their consequences, rather than praise or censure an audience for their current attitudes and actions.

So anyway, this view seeks to rehabilitate Timothy from the traditional reading as being timid and weak. Maybe I’m a touch biased because of the name, but I think it makes sense!

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