1 Timothy 6:13 is Not an Interpolation

In an earlier post I noted how the number of New Testament interpolations – meaning a word, phrase, or verse added to a writing by someone other than the author – Doherty entertains to advance his Jesus Myth theory has grown from two to eight. None have any textual support for them, including the one I address here, 1 Timothy 6:13:

12 Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, and you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who testified the good confession before Pontius Pilate, 14 that you keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Argument for Interpolation

The main argument that Doherty makes as to why verse 13 is an interpolation is that a reference to Jesus’ confession before Pilate is inappropriate following the reference to Timothy’s “good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” Doherty, and other real New Testament scholars, thinks that the author refers to Timothy’s baptism or his ordination as a minister. Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle, page 299. In either case, the witnesses were likely fellow Christians. Because of this, Doherty claims that the reference to Pilate as a witness is an inexact parallel and therefore must have been added by a later writer.

Jesus’ situation on trial before Pilate is scarcely the same as Timothy’s at his baptism, or even at an ordination. Timothy’s confession is before God and friendly witnesses; Jesus’ is not, and it puts Pilate in parallel to God, which is at best inappropriate, at worst irreverent. Jesus’ declaration before Pilate is presumably a statement about himself, which is an awkward equivalent to the believer’s declaration of faith in Jesus.

Ibid., at 299.

Doherty also argues that the account of Jesus before Pilate in the synoptic Gospels cannot be what the author of the passage has in mind because “Jesus barely says anything.” Ibid., page 300. Thus, Doherty assumes the passage must draw on the Gospel of John’s more robust account of Jesus’ interaction with Pilate. He further argues that the parallel is "awkward" because Timothy is confessing Jesus whereas Jesus is confessing Himself. Finally, Doherty argues that because verse 16 states that “no man has seen or can see” God that Jesus could not have appeared before Pilate.

Problems with the Argument

Doherty's arguments are replete with errors of substance and methodology.

1. Timothy Likely Did Confess Christ Before Hostile Witnesses

It cannot be ruled out that Paul is referring to a time in which Timothy confessed Christ before a hostile audience. Doherty claims that “No such event … appears in the genuine Pauline letters.” Ibid. This argument reveals much that is problematic in Doherty’s methodology. Just because it does not appear in Paul’s letters does not mean such an event did not occur. Indeed, given that Timothy was a companion of Paul and fellow preacher of the Gospel, it would be surprising if Timothy had not faced challenges to his faith and had to make decisions and professions in the face of opposition.

Moreover, there is evidence from an “undisputed” Pauline letter indicating that Timothy proclaimed his faith before a hostile audience, and was imprisoned for it. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is written from “Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Jesus Christ.” It is well established that this letter was written from Paul and Timothy while they were in prison, most likely in Rome. (For example, 1:7 refers to “my imprisonment”). Furthermore, the Letter to the Colossians – which I and many scholars take to be authentic – also refers to Paul and Timothy being imprisoned. So, if the “parallel” demands an episode in which Timothy proclaimed Jesus before a hostile audience, there is every reason to think Timothy had done just that.

2. The Parallel is Appropriate for the Context

Doherty exhibits a second flaw in his methodology by elevating the form of a supposed parallel over its substance. The author is not writing a school paper on exact parallelology; he is trying to make a point. The point is not that Timothy appeared before a hostile audience, but that he should persevere in the faith despite opposition. This theme is central to 1 Timothy generally and to the relevant passages in particular. The author is urging Timothy to “fight the good fight,” keeping “faith and a good conscience,” whereas others have “suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith.” Timothy is facing opposition from false brethren and has suffered persecution with Paul in the past. Timothy is instructed to “take pains” to show that he is progressing in the faith. In v. 4:16, Timothy is told, “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things; for as you do this you will insure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.”

The instruction to persevere through opposition and challenges reaches a crescendo when we come to verse 6:13. Timothy is instructed to flee from evil things and again is told to “fight the good fight.” Vs. 11-12. When referring to Timothy’s prior confession of faith, he is instructed to “take hold of it.” Why take hold of it? To move forward in that faith despite the challenges of Christian life. It is at this crescendo of emphasis on overcoming opposition and enduring in his initial proclamation of faith that the author draws on the example of Jesus. Jesus endured through great opposition, even proclaiming his identity before Pilate.

It would not be helpful for the author to try and come up with an example of a benign proclamation of Jesus’ identity before friendly witnesses, as Doherty supposes Timothy did back at his baptism. That would be standing still. The author is concerned with Timothy’s progressing in the gospel through challenges, overcoming them while fighting the good fight. You do not prepare someone for challenges by telling him everything will be fine and all those who hear the gospel will love him; you do it by preparing them for the challenges that will certainly be faced. This is just what the reference to Pilate accomplishes.

Drawing on Jesus’ perseverance through challenges to encourage Timothy is in keeping with another of 1 Timothy’s themes; the humanity of Jesus. As Philip Towner notes, the beginning of the letter “places the heaviest accent on the humanity of Christ.” The Letters to Timothy and Titus, page 180. In verse 1:15 the author stresses that Jesus “came into the world” to act on behalf of men. To save “all men,” as the author later states. Then in verse 2:5 the author stresses that Jesus is the mediator between man and God precisely because he was a man. It is because Jesus is a human and entered this world that He is such a fitting example for Timothy (and all Christians). So a reference to Jesus’ confession before Pilate is a particularly apt comparison for encouraging Timothy to follow the example of Jesus and persevere through challenges by "holding fast" to his past confession of faith.

3. The Confession is the Same

Doherty also argues that the example of Jesus before Pilate is "awkward" because Timothy is confessing Jesus while Jesus is confessing Himself. Unfortunately, Doherty again misses the point of the passage. The focus is on persevering while holding fast to the confession of Christ. Jesus held fast while confessing Himself and Timothy is urged to follow Jesus' example. Thus, Jesus is an appropriate example because he 1) persevered, 2) made the same confession as Timothy about Jesus' identity, and 3) was human Himself.

4. Pilate is Not God

Doherty commits a substantive error in claiming that the author of verse 13 somehow puts Pilate in the place of God. This is simply a misreading of the text. To the extent the verse are parallel, Pilate is related to the witnesses of Timothy’s prior confession. The reference to God is the author’s own. It is Paul who charges Timothy before God to endure in his confession. In verse 13, no one is charging another before Pilate to endure in the faith. Thus, the witnesses in verse 12 were witnesses to Timothy’s prior confession, Pilate was a witness to Jesus’ confession, and God is the witness to Paul’s charge to Timothy.

5. The Image of the Invisible God

Doherty commits another substantive error by referring to the statement in verse 16 that “He who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light; whom no man has seen or can see.” According to Doherty, this means that Jesus has never been seen. But this reading would prove far too much. For if Jesus literally has not and cannot be seen, how does Doherty explain Jesus' expected appearance? Doherty believes that Christians affirmed Christ’s imminent coming into the world (though he thinks it a first rather than second coming). Indeed, 1 Timothy itself explicitly affirms this doctrine just prior to this verse. Paul charges Timothy “keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” V. 14.

The reference to God not being seen is a typical Jewish reference to the overwhelming Glory of God and His transcendent Nature. Man cannot stand to be in the unbridled presence of God. God is elevated above man and is not like the visible idols or men who claim to be God. This is a common theme throughout Pauline literature, including an earlier reference in 1 Timothy: “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever.” V. 1:17.

It is clear that there is no contradiction between the notion of an invisible God and the incarnation in Jesus. Just the opposite. God is invisible but Jesus manifests His image. So God remains invisible yet His image is before mankind by the coming of Jesus Christ. As the author of Colossians wrote, “And He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation.” 1:15.

So, nothing in the statement about not being seen means that Jesus could not have confessed before Pilate.

6. The Synoptics are Sufficient But Do Not Stand Alone

Doherty’s argument that the scene in the synoptic Gospels is an inadequate basis upon which the author of 1 Timothy could speak of Jesus being an example of a "noble confession" is difficult to take seriously. The point is not Jesus’ or Timothy’s eloquence, but the steadfast confession of Christ’ identity. Even if all Paul knew about the scene before Pilate was what is recorded in the synoptic Gospels, it would be a sufficient basis for his use of that scene. Of course, Doherty simply assumes that all the author of 1 Timothy could have known about such a scene is recorded in the synoptic Gospels and that no other traditions about that event existed at that time (which Doherty places around 125 AD). This is a common methodological error on Doherty's part: he fails to understand that ancient writers like modern ones typically have more knowledge than they reveal in one letter. Although Paul and other NT letter writers reveal some knowledge of Jesus’ teachings and Passion, no one could seriously conclude that they reveal all that they knew or heard in each letter.

Also, Doherty’s claim that the Gospel of John could not have been available to the author of 1 Timothy is substantively flawed. Doherty dates 1 Timothy as late as 125 AD, which is actually the latest of the dates for authorship of the Gospel of John that is entertained by critical scholars. The majority of scholars date the Gospel of John to the end of the first century; many even earlier. Furthermore, it is simplistic to assume that the traditions in the Gospel of John did not exist until that Gospel was written. It is much more likely that the Gospel of John reflects traditions and knowledge already in circulation when it was written. Indeed, all of the Gospels for the most part reflected existing traditions and knowledge rather than created new ones.

Thus, the author of 1 Timothy – whether Paul or a later writer – certainly could have had access to a fuller account of Jesus’ appearance before Pilate. But even if he did not, what is recounted in the synoptic Gospels is all the author needed to make use of the example Jesus set by a steadfast confession in the face of opposition.


Given the lack of any textual evidence that 1 Timothy 6:13 was not original to that book, Doherty must produce substantial alternative evidence that the passage is an interpolation. This he fails to do. Indeed, as we have seen, the evidence from context strongly affirms the appropriateness of the reference to Pilate as part of the original text.


Kevin Rosero said…
What I find strange about Doherty's argument is how it is self-contradicting. If making an analogy with Jesus' trial is inappropriate or irreverent, then an interpolator would be discouraged from making it. This is all the more true if the analogy, as Doherty claims, would have been regarded as strange or awkward to its readers in all the ways that he describes.

Normally in an argument for interpolation, you don't provide several ways in which the interpolation itself would have been discouraged, while providing little reason for the interpolation to take place.

Doherty provides one motive: he says that Jesus' trial would have come to mind to a later interpolator because by that time a tradition had arisen about Timothy being persecuted by authorities, like Jesus. But as you note, the tradition about Timothy being imprisoned was already in place, according to Doherty's own timetable, by the time that 1 Timothy was originally written.

It does seem that the original author of 1 Timothy had natural reasons for thinking of Jesus' trial when encouraging Timothy, or readers, to persevere in their own trials of faith. In his book, Doherty writes that one might wonder why the original author would make such an analogy, but it's not really hard to see. It's a shame he did not explore, even briefly, how the original author might have seen Jesus' trial as useful to the purpose of the letter.

This is one of those cases, I think, where the questioned passage looks strange if we try to impose logic on it. It looks like an imperfect parallel precisely because it was not perfect; the author simply had natural reasons for wanting to press it.
Anonymous said…
Theories of massive interpolation seem to rest on the idea that human beings are perfectly consistent, always speak in one voice or style, always produce impeccably smooth and coherent writing and above all NEVER CHANGE THEIR MINDS ABOUT ANYTHING.

If historians 1000 years from now are anything like Earl Doherty, if they came across my writings (on my blog, in school essays, etc.) they'd probably conclude I was 15 different people:)
Jason Pratt said…
JD: {{Theories of massive interpolation seem to rest on the idea that human beings are perfectly consistent, always speak in one voice or style, always produce impeccably smooth and coherent writing and above all NEVER CHANGE THEIR MINDS ABOUT ANYTHING.}}

This is another way of noticing that theories about massive interpolation are mainly aimed against one very particular kind of divine inspiration claim, btw.


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