Review of Pastoral Epistles Commentary

Review of Pastoral Epistles Commentary January 22, 2020

Christoph R. Hutson 

First and Second Timothy and Titus
(Paideia; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2019)
Available from Baker

By Michael F. Bird (from my SBL paper in 2020)

There are many find commentary series available, probably too many, but the Paideia is among the best for the economic size of the volumes, the first-rate contributors involved, and the mix of clarity and insightfulness which its commentators generally show. Christopher Hutson’s volume on the PE I believe ranks among the very best of that series and offers an excellent contribution to the study of the PE which will ensure it is a noticeable wave rather than a mere drop in an otherwise growing ocean of secondary literature in Pauline studies. In addition, to the commentary itself, the inset boxes are full of great contextual information that will help readers and Hutson’s discussion of theological issues in each section shows that he is not lazy in asking the ever-important “so what?” questions and by doing so provides a tremendous aid to real contemporary readers of the PE who seek discern how best to serve God and what is faith seeking understanding.

I am quite aware from experience that writing a commentary on a biblical text is a taxing and testing enterprise, because you need to find something new to say even though you don’t have something new to say about everything before you. Moreover, as a reviewer, I’m supposed to do more than offer accolades and affirmation and be – in the best sense – critical and prosecutorial in my review of said commentary, which means it falls to me to play the part of a grumpy Talmud to Hutson’s colourful Mishnah.  To that end, I want to offer some brief comments on Hutson’s overarching approach to the purpose of the PE, his handling of the authorship question, and then look at a couple of his comments on the text.

First, as for the purpose of the PE, Hutson says it is “a collection of letters for young ministers and how to be effective ministers of Christ Jesus” (p. 1). Here I think one should differentiate purpose from utility. Notwithstanding the purpose of the individual letters, I think the purpose of the PE as a whole is to function as a kind of canonical capstone to the Pauline letter collection, to highlight certain aspects of Paul’s legacy, to define the nature of Pauline Christianity, and to contribute to the veneration of Paul as Christ’s apostle to the Gentiles. That said, I am sympathetic to Hutson’s take here because, as a seminary professor, the main use I have for the PE is none of the things I just mentioned, but for ministerial formation for Christian leaders, clergy, chaplains, missionaries, and laity. In classes filled with ordinands, the PE stands out for defining the content of orthodox faith and for defining the character required for Christian service. The PE are among the best resources in the canon for ministerial formation and they naturally lend themselves to that role. But I doubt whether that is the purpose of the pastoral letters individually or even of their redactors and/or collectors. I think Hutson might have confused the PE’s purpose with the PE’s utility in the reception history and contemporary usage.  Added to that, Paul could engage in exhortation like a Seneca, but I’m less inclined to see in Seneca’s moral epistles as the best analogy to the PE given that Paul’s life – whether real or imagined – is not that of a philosopher bequeathing his tradition to his pupils, but of the apostle and martyr engaged in the mist of mission and preparing for martyrdom, preparing to take his stage among the champions of faith (pp. 6-7). In the end, though, I’m certainly glad that Hutson has written this principally for “ministerial students” (p. 27) who I am sure will benefit immensely in their discernment and preparation for ministry by reading this very helpful commentary on the PE.

Second, on the authorship question, I confess to remaining vexed by the PE. There are parts which, to my mind, sound authentically Pauline and reflect a real situation in Paul’s own career. Then there are other parts of the PE that do sound like second-century veneration of the apostle (e.g. 1 Tim 2:7) or else betray a latter provenance, esp. with the warning about the heresy “falsely called knowledge” in (1 Tim 6:10). Added to that, 2 Timothy has always had better odds on authenticity than, say, Titus. I’m not sure the PE are a “transparent forgery” (p. 2), but neither do I think we have these letters from Paul’s hand without an intervening process of redaction or compilation. Hutson’s approach somewhat skirts the issue, avoiding both “arrogant academics or pious dogmatists” with his insistence that the “Pastoral Paul” is either Paul or else an author who wants them to be read “as if from Paul” (p. 2).  On the one hand, this is a workable solution for commentary writing, it is certainly safer, having a bob both ways as we’d say in Australia. But, we have to accept that in reality there is a difference between reading the PE in light of Paul’s latter years during the Neronian pogrom in Rome and reading the PE in light of debates with Valentianism, Marcionism, and the growing institutionalization of the church into “early Catholicism” in the second century. I think a little more is at stake in interpretation here and, diplomatic as it might be, one might have to nail the colours to the mast and fly them in the commentary. I’d prefer either “Paul” or “the Pastor” to a hybrid “the Pastoral Paul.”

Third, in individual texts, Hutson demonstrates that he is a wise and judicious exegete. One has to mention, of course, 1 Tim 2:12-15, this is the “main event” as they would say in boxing. Hutson recognizes that a prohibition of words towards women in teaching authority in the church is made, and he notes that “this verse is the slender column that supports the entire stained-glass ceiling above which women are not allowed to rise in many churches” (p. 75). His own approach is to see the prohibition as largely reflecting the situation in Ephesus and perhaps attributable to the rise of the “new Roman women” (as Bruce Winter calls them) who pursued a mode of independence against the patriarchal mores of their culture. Hutson believes that women are expected to learn in subordination to teaching authority so that, potentially, they can take their position in church authority. As such the prohibition has been applied far wider than the Pastoral Paul intended. I think that is a cogent and defensible reading of the text. Coming to 2 Tim 3:16-17, Hutson takes the standard view that theopneustos means “God-breathed,” in the sense that it originated with God (p. 195). I think that may well be the case, but there is a minority view worth considering, championed by Luke Johnson and Jack Poirier, that the word means “life-giving,” that is to say, Scripture is a means of divine life through divine instruction. Finally, concerning Tit 3:4-5, he understands the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit” to reflect one event, not two separate moments, whereby “God and the Holy Spirit are active in baptism,” which, brings a wry smile to the lips of Anglican who finds himself in full agreement with a more sacramental reading of the text (p. 244).

My assessment is that Chris Hutson is to be congratulated for volume that is a deposit of decades of scholarship on the PE, it is a concise and cogent commentary, rich in historical detail, not sensational but sober, and willing to ask the hard questions of theological interpretation at key points. I do not believe that the PE were intended for ministerial formation, however, with a commentary such as this one, it is certainly easier to use the PE for contemporary ministerial formation for those seeking a place of service in Christian churches.

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