Commentary on 1 Timothy 2:1-7
There are three key historical reference points that can be very helpful in understanding this week’s passage concerning prayerful life: prayer life in the ancient Jewish context, the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and the influence of Gnosticism.
First, what did the 1st century Jewish prayer life—with which Paul, Timothy, and other early Jewish church members might have been familiar and which they were very likely to adopt and adapt for the Christian prayer life—look like? According to the Jewish prayer book (the Siddur) and the tradition, which Jews still practice, prayer (meaning “service of the heart”) was offered three times a day; morning (Shacharit), afternoon (Mincha), and evening (Arvit). Some scholars believe that this ternary practice of prayer is based on the examples from King David (Psalm 55:17, “Evening and morning and at noon I utter … ”) and prophetic Daniel (Daniel 6:10; “ … to get down on his knees three times a day to pray to his God … ”). During the Babylonian exile and onward, the prayer practice was more formalized as a substitute of the temple worship, along with the development of various communal prayer books. Communal prayer—praying together—has been preferred to individual prayer seeking personal gains from God.
The fall of Jerusalem (70 CE) and its temple (the Second Temple), was a pivotal moment for the Jewish prayer life. Jews went into diaspora all around the Mediterranean Sea, with no central, national worship site, namely the Temple. Admittedly, there had been Jewish Diasporas even before the fall of Jerusalem, but this time things were radically different, at least in two ways. The temple, as well as the nation itself, was completely destroyed, with a massive number of Jews leaving or fleeing from the capital. In the stead of the temple, now regional text-based synagogues would provide religious services. Above all, Jews no longer had their own nation or king or any national legal entities like the Sanhedrin. They would now live under the mercy of regional kings, proconsuls, magistrates, or the Roman emperor at the top.
During this early development of the church (70 CE and onward), Gnosticism (meaning “having knowledge”) emerged as one of the most influential heretical streams of the Christian faith. Among others, Gnosticism’s denial of the full humanity of Jesus, stark dualistic understanding of the spiritual and the material (or of God and the world), and rejection of the Trinitarian understanding of God were major threats to the orthodox formulation of Christianity. Biblical scholars agree that the New Testament writers, even though influenced by gnostic thoughts to the extent that those thoughts might have been integrated in their writings, were well aware of the dangers of Gnosticism and left their opposition to it here and there in the New Testament, implicitly or explicitly.
The aforementioned historical reference points shed significant illumination on understanding the given passage. At the beginning the author says, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” This is a very practical matter to the readers, both the diaspora Jews and the Greek Christians, yet especially for the Jews who have lost their own national sovereignty and associated securities (for example, the military or police system). The kings and others in high political positions are the real ones who provide social stability, legal protection, and safeguarding from frequent foreign invasions, local pirates, and regional insurgences. Therefore, the diaspora Jews were in their daily life expected to keep fine collaboration with those governing entities. Again, this is a very practical matter for everyone. Thus, why not offer supplications, prayers, and intercessions for them as well as for the welfare of the community?
When the author states, “ … there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human … ,” he seems to have Gnosticism in mind, gradually penetrating Christian communities around the Mediterranean Sea. In this short statement, any dualistic understanding of God and the world (humankind) is refuted, while Jesus’ full humanity, along with his divinity (“one mediator between God and humankind”), is upheld again. In this passage, it is very interesting to see that the author urges his readers to invoke (the name of) Jesus, the mediator, in prayers for probably—this is very likely—unbelieving gentile Greek kings and those in high political positions. Simply put: prayers for the sake of unbelievers! This seems to be a high-level, sophisticated repeal of any kind of dualistic understanding of faith and the world or even belief and unbelief; belief is not an exclusion of unbelief and vice versa. Under God’s dominion, the author seems to teach us that all things are entangled in a complex web, which we ought to be able to see and live through with “godliness and dignity” in this world (verse 2).
All this does not mean outright adoption of the world (or the unbelieving culture) into the formulation of Christian faith. As Gnosticism—false (secular) teachings—are refuted and denied, not all of this world will go with the Christian faith. Still, the author argues for the monotheistic idea of God, “one God” in verse 5, which flies in the face of the prevailing Greco-Roman polytheistic religious ethos, not least of which is represented by the emperor himself claiming to be the son of gods and thus to be worshiped. Another example is found later in 1 Timothy 6 where the love of money is discussed as “a root of all kinds of evil” (verse 10). Thus, as a whole, 1 Timothy seems to be a statement of fine balance between mistaken dualistic ideas about the world and swift wholesale adoption of the world. The author seems to encourage the readers to see the best example of this balance in Christ Jesus, the only mediator between God and humankind.