Reading in Church— Paul's Advice

In a previous post I have talked about lectors, and the reference to them in Mark and Revelation, now I want to focus on one particular, and particularly important Pauline text— 1 Tim. 4.13.    The translation of this verse varies widely from one English translation to the next, and that is in part because of the lack of understanding about oral texts and how texts function in oral cultures.   Paul is giving succinct advice of what Timothy should be busy doing in his absence when it comes to activities in the Ephesian Church (on the provenance of the Pastorals see my Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians Vol. One IVP).  He says the following: “until I come, devote yourself to/officiate ‘the reading’, the ‘paraklesis’, the teaching.   The last term is not in dispute, and whatever else one wants to say about it means that Timothy is expected to teach the converts in Ephesus, assume authority over them in such a role in view of the absence of Paul.  When Paul arrives, he will take over.

But what about those other two terms, and what about the verb itself— prosecho has a range of meanings— ‘pay attention to’ ‘ devote oneself to’ but in a context of some public function and in particular in a pedagogical context (which the term ‘teaching’ makes clear here) it means something more like officiate or preside over, with the implication that the person in question will have much the same role as say an elder or a president of a synagogue would.  There can be little doubt, on the basis of the Pastoral Epistles that there was considerable carry over from the structure of worship in the synagogue and the earliest Christian meetings. They were at no point entire charismatic free-for-alls, nor were they purely ‘organic’  in the sense that people would lead or speak as the Spirit prompted on the occasion.  No, the Pauline co-worker was in charge in this case, and he was to attend to, officiate or simply do the teaching.   Back to the other two objects of that verb ‘devote yourself to’.

The first term simply means ‘reading’, something which the NRSV rather redundantly translates as ‘public reading’, and then entirely gratuitously adds to the Greek ‘the scriptures’, a phrase which occurs in no manuscript at all.  All reading in the context of a meeting like this is of course reading out loud and so a public reading.  But what is ‘the reading’ that Timothy is called to do or officiate?   It is certainly possible that it is the OT (see 2 Tim. 3.16) but if so it is surprising Paul does not say so more clear.  One would have expected him to tell Timothy to read he graphe, the usual term for the written Scriptures.  But this he does not do.   Now we know for a fact that Paul’s letters were read aloud in the congregations, perhaps usually by his emissary co-worker, but not always  (see 2 Cor. 7.8; Col. 4.16; 1 Thess. 5.27; 2 Thess. 3.14).  It is perfectly possible that ‘the reading’ in question is Paul’s letter, and the reader is the lector, namely Timothy or someone he assigns the text to.   But there is one more term of importance here, one more noun to decipher.

That noun is paraklesis and while it can certainly be rendered ‘exhortation’ which is a specific form of preaching, it is more likely that the noun should be translated in its broader sense of ‘preaching’.   This then might provide us with a sequence of events— first the reading of either Scripture or a Pauline letter (which not incidentally Paul saw as just as much the living Word of God as the OT or his own preaching— see 1 Thess. 2.13), then the preaching, and then finally the instruction based on the reading and preaching.  Interestingly enough, this seems precisely to have been the order of things in a synagogue service— the reading, then the homily, and then some final teaching and indeed dialogue about what had been said and taught.     Among other things this of course implies not only that Timothy could read, but that he was capable of preaching and teaching as well, and Paul wants him to get on with it,  or at least to make sure it gets done.

One of the great myths about earliest Christianity is that it was originally ‘formless and void’ until the second and later century churches said ‘let their be hierarchial structure and ecclesiology— and lo there was structure and ecclesiology’.   This is frankly false as the Pastoral Epistles, and indeed other Pauline epistles make quite clear.  There was and indeed has always been a tension between Spirit and structure in the church, and the trick is to neither quench the Spirit, nor overly rigidify the structures.  What is new about the ekklesia compared to the synagogue is the new spiritual gifts, the charismata, but the existence and use of those gifts in worship did not rule out, nor run roughshod over the structures taken over from the synagogue in the earliest Christian meetings any more than the spiritual gifts ruled out the effect of the household structures on such meetings.

Think on these things.  

  • http://www.gracecommentary.com Jeremy Myers

    I agree that the ekklesia followed the pattern of the synagogue.

    But do you think that this means that we too must follow the same pattern? In other words, is there anything sacred about the synagogue pattern that must be retained through the centuries and across cultural boundaries?

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi Jeremy: Excellent question. What is descriptive may not be prescriptive. I do think that there is a positive repeated pattern to be noticed and followed, namely that we should have deacons, elders, and overseers/bishops. In other words I think there is a hierarchial leadership structure not merely described but mandated in the N.T. And clearly the church of the 2nd-4th century agreeed. They all had bishops and the like, in the East, West, and South Mediterranean.

    BW3


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