Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Almsgiving is the ‘the commandment’ in 1 Timothy

The new issue of New Testament Studies includes my short article, “Almsgiving is ‘the Commandment’: A Note on 1 Timothy 6.6-19”.

Here’s a link to the full text.

There are two thorny problems in 1 Timothy 6:6-19. First, why does the author interrupt two discussions of money with a charge to Timothy to “keep the commandment”? Second, what on earth is “the commandment”? In this article I argue that there is one surprisingly simple solution to both of these questions.

In Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and various rabbinic texts ‘the commandment’ refers to almsgiving. This idiom also has precursors in earlier texts such as Sirach. If one reads 6:6-19 on the hypothesis that the author was employing this idiom the whole passage snaps into focus. Verses 6-10 describe how the pursuit of money can lead to spiritual ruin. In vv.11-16 Timothy is given the antidote to such ruin. He is to A) flee from the love of money, B) pursue instead righteousness, godliness etc., and C) take hold of eternal life (ἐπιλαβοῦ τῆς αἰωνίου ζωῆς) and keep the commandment until Christ appears. Verses 17-18 repeat this advice, adapting it to apply to the rich. They are A) not to be proud because of their money nor put their hope in it; B) rather, they should put their hope in God, and C) give their money away in order to take hold of true life (ἐπιλάβωνται τῆς ὄντως ζωῆς). If “the commandment” here refers to almsgiving then the author would simply be telling Timothy the same thing that Timothy is to tell the rich: instead of pursuing money, pursue eternal life and give alms. The idiom of almsgiving as ‘the commandment’ not only explains why the author simply speaks of ‘the commandment’ with no further clarification; it also fits hand in glove with 6.6-19 as a whole.

Also, check out the article by Duke’s own Robert Moses in the same issue. "Jesus Barabbas, a Nominal Messiah? Text and History in Matthew 27.16-17.


  1. Congratulations, Nathan!

    I'm a little surprised that 1 Tim is on your radar screen. When did you come across the idea?

  2. Thanks Stephen. I noticed it while doing research on "treasure in heaven" for my dissertation on Matthew.

  3. Very interesting, Nathan, and thanks for posting on this. In 1 Tim 5:8 (as well as in 1 Tim 6:11-16) the author takes it for granted that being in the faith implies acts of generosity. Do you think that interpreters of these passages have suffered from a protestant doctrine that sees faith and action as distinct categories? Did you find anything interesting in the ancient commentary on the passage?

    Yerushalmi Horayot 3.4 also came to my mind. This text, referring to Abba Judah's generosity, says that he "performed the law with a good eye" (a good eye symbolized generosity, as the wider context also indicates).

  4. I haven't seen anything that would suggest a faith vs. action paradigm has interfered with interpretation of "the commandment." On the other hand, many exegetes seem a little squeamish about the redemptive almsgiving in 6:17-19.

  5. Amazing what you can learn from the Hebrew roots, I recommend R. Moshe Feinstein's five-volume English midrash on the Chumash for starters.
    Will blow your mind.

  6. Well done, Nathan. If anyone wishes to explore the Hebrew root 'asah in relation to the origin of Essenes ('osey hatorah--self-designation in Qumran pesharim) here's some bibliography:
    1532 Ph. Melanchthon in J. Carion, Chronica. Wittenberg, 1532. f68v:
    Essei / das ist / Operarii / vom wort Assa / das ist wircken.
    1548 Paul Eber, Populi Iudaici Historia.
    1550 The Thre Bokes of Cronicles... London. declare the
    straitnesse and severitie of lyfe with the dede, and would be called
    Essey, that is workers or doers, for Assa, whence the name commeth,
    sygnifieth to worke...
    1557 David Chytraeus [Kochhafe], Onomasticon.
    1559 M. Flacius Illyricus et al. Ecclesiastica Hist., Magdeburg
    Centuries. Basel.
    1560 Cooper's Chronicle, London.
    ?1566 M. Victorinum ed, Jerome Opera. Rome, Ep. 22 note.
    [1573-75 Azariah dei Rossi. Me'or Enayim. Mantua.]
    1583 J. Scaliger, De Emendatione Temporum. on hallucination.
    1605 Scaliger, Elenchus Trihaeresii. different view.
    1619 Sixtinus Amama ed. De Sectis Iudaicis..., Arnheim.
    1674 J. Lightfoot, Horae Hebraicae et Talmudicae, on Lk. xv, 7.
    1680 Johann H. Willemer. Dissertatio...Essenis....
    1699 J. Leusden. Philologus.
    1703 J. Triglandius ed., Trium Scriptorum...Judaeorum Sectis...Delft.
    107: factores legis.
    1743-4 J.C. Happach. De Essaeorum Nomine. Coburg.
    1748 Joh. Carpzov.
    1839 Isaak Jost, Die Essaer..., Israelitische Annalen 19, 145-7.
    1858 S. Cohn; David Oppenheim, MGWJ 7, 270-1; 272-3.
    1862 L. Landsberg, Allgemeine Zeitung des Judenthum 26/33, 459.
    1864 C. D. Ginsburg, The Essenes [from Leeds Proceedings 1862 & Cyclopedia arts.].
    1875 J. Lightfoot, Saint Paul's Epistles to the Colossians...appx.
    1881 A. B. Gottlober, ...B$M KT H(SS(N(R )W (SS((R HaBoker Or [Warsaw]
    1881 Rev. Et. J. 3, 295.
    1894 Kruger, Theologische Quartalschrift 76 [&1887, 69]
    1938 H.M.J. Loewe in Encyclopedia Britannica (14th) 718.