They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Timothy, The Unlikely Disciple: Part Two

From the study in our first lesson, we learned that Timothy’s mother, Eunice, was a Jewess and a believer, but Timothy’s father was a Greek. We will never know the story behind this relationship. Why did Eunice marry a Greek? Why did this devout Jewish woman get involved with a non-believer? From a twenty-first century perspective that doesn’t sound like anything that would be a real problem. We tend to think of it more like marrying someone from a different faith or maybe a mixed racial marriage, both of which are fairly common to us today. But, in first century Judaism, the consequences of a Jewish woman having a child by a Greek man were enormous. Deuteronomy 23:2 says, “No one born of a forbidden marriage, or his descendants, may enter the assembly of the Lord, even down to the tenth generation”. Timothy was a product of a forbidden marriage! As a Jewish baby he should have been circumcised on the eight day, but Acts 16:3 says that he was still uncircumcised. Because of the Deuteronomy passage, his rabbi would not have been able to circumcise him. Timothy would have definitely been different than his Jewish playmates. He would have been ostracized and singled out by other Jewish families – cut off from God’s covenant family. In fact, he would have been called a “momzer”, which is a Jewish slang word for a bastard. Jews weren’t even supposed to eat with a Gentile, enter their home, or engage in commerce with them. Through no fault of his own, Timothy would have been an outcast and made fun of by the people of his village. He would not have been educated at synagogue school with the other Jewish boys. He would not have been able to read Torah with them or participate with them during any of the Jewish festivals. When it was time for him to marry, he would not have been able to marry a Jewish girl, only another momzer or a Greek. Because of his mother’s sin, Timothy was seemingly destined to be on the outside, looking in, for the rest of his life. Somehow, though, Timothy was able to rise above this label of an outcast as we will see from other references. He must have had a fire in his chest, a difference that let him overcome his handicaps in life.

Paul, when he wrote to Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:5 said, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois, and in your mother, Eunice, and I am persuaded now lives in you also”, and in 2 Timothy 3:14-15, said, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from who you have learned it, and how from infancy you learned the Holy Scriptures…” How did he learn and receive this strong faith that Paul saw? The father was always the head of the Jewish home and was responsible for teaching the children Torah (See Deuteronomy 6:1-8). Unfortunately, Timothy’s father would have never filled that role. Timothy’s grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice must have been awesome teachers and must have had great knowledge of the Holy Scriptures that they were able to pass on to Timothy. Since he probably didn’t have access to scrolls, he must have memorized huge portions of the Text from his mother and grandmother. He must have been a quick learner and very smart. Acts 16:2 says that Timothy was well thought of by the brothers in both Lystra and the neighboring town of Iconium. Somehow, with all the cards stacked against him, he had risen above the obstacles of his early childhood.

Every Jewish boy’s dream was to be able to study under a famous rabbi. By the age of 15, most boys were relegated to learning the family trade. Only a few of the best and brightest were able to continue their studies with a rabbi. With Timothy’s background, it was only a pipe dream to think that he would have a chance to be asked to study with a rabbi. Then rabbi Paul comes back through Lystra again! Why? Is it possible that he was thinking about that young boy with a fire in his chest that he met a couple of years ago? Can you imagine the expression on Timothy’s face when Paul asked him, ”Come follow me. I think you can be like me.” Can’t you see Timothy running to tell his mother and grandmother? “I’ve been picked by rabbi Paul! He wants me to follow him!” Never in Timothy’s wildest imagination did he think that he would get to be a disciple of a rabbi like Paul! He was a “momzer”, an outcast! Timothy was an unlikely candidate for a disciple. He wasn’t supposedly qualified for a leadership role. Yet, Paul saw something in Timothy, a perseverance, a “never quit” attitude in the face of unfavorable obstacles, that made him think that Timothy could be what it took to be a disciple of Rabbi Jesus. Timothy not only became a follower of Paul and Rabbi Jesus, but he became one of the key figures in all of Christianity. To see what heights Timothy rose to, part three of our study will next look at Timothy’s life as he attempted to be like his father in the faith, Paul.

Timothy, The Unlikely Disciple

One of the central figures of the New Testament story is Paul’s adopted son in the faith, Timothy. Two books of the New Testament canon were written by Paul to Timothy (1 & 2 Timothy) and he is mentioned in almost every other Pauline letter in some capacity. He is Paul’s most faithful companion and follows him all over Asia Minor, Greece, and even to Rome itself. Who is this young man who Paul called, “my true son in the faith” (1 Timothy 1:1) and “my dear son” (2 Timothy 1:1)? What do we know about him and what more can we learn by searching the scriptures and doing some historical research? In our first lesson, let’s look at Timothy’s hometown and his family background.

Although we do not officially meet Timothy until the start of Paul’s second missionary journey in Acts 16, Paul and Barnabas visit Timothy’s hometown of Lystra on their first trip to Galatia in Acts 14. Paul and Barnabas were mistaken for Greek gods there (see “The Gods are Back”) and then later Paul was stoned and drug out of town and left for dead by an angry mob. Timothy would have certainly been present at these events and aware of this visit from these odd strangers in his hometown. A bit of background of the hometown environment that Timothy would have grown up in is very helpful in understanding what kind of person Timothy might have been. Lystra was a backwater town in the district of Lycaonia; essentially the middle of nowhere in Roman times. The word, ”Lycaonia” means ”wolf land” and gives an idea of the area’s remoteness. There were no main Roman roads in the area and it was basically out-of-your-way-to-anywhere in the province of Galatia. It was twenty miles on foot to the next decent sized town of Iconium (Acts 14:1-7). The people there were so “back woods” that they had never even adopted the universal Greek language as their common tongue. They still spoke their native Lycaonian dialect (Acts 14:11). In addition to the Lycaonians, from what we can tell from Scripture and other sources, the town also had a few retired Roman soldiers living there as well as a small Jewish population. In conclusion, Timothy would definitely have more been more comfortable in a rural setting than in the big city.

In Acts 15:36, some two years after their first visit to Lystra, Paul suggests to Barnabas that they go back and check on the towns and people that they witnessed to on their first missionary trip. Paul, this time along with Silas, goes to Timothy’s home town at the beginning of his second missionary journey. We first meet Timothy by name in Acts 16:1-3, when, after arriving back in Lystra, the Text says that Paul wanted to take Timothy along on the missionary journey with them. As stated previously, Timothy was almost certainly present when Paul had come through two years earlier. He had witnessed the, “The Gods are Back” fiasco and had seen Paul stoned and left for dead and then get up and come back into his city again (Acts 14: 19-20). Most scholars think that he was probably 10-12 years old when Paul came through the first time and a young teenager when he came back two years later. It is only conjecture, but it is certainly probable that Paul had seen Timothy earlier and had his eye on this young man and his possibilities in the faith. What did Paul see? What was Timothy’s family like? What made him a candidate to be a disciple and Paul’s closest companion?

From Acts 16:1 we learn that Timothy had a strong Jewish background on his mother’s side. The text said that his mother was a “Jewess” and a “believer”. The word, “believer” means not only a follower of the Jewish God, YHVH, but also in his son, Yeshua. We can only assume that she became a believer in Messiah Jesus through the teaching of Paul and Barnabas – as that would have most likely been the first time that they would have heard the gospel story. We learn Timothy’s grandmother and mother’s name in 2 Timothy 1:5, Lois and Eunice. Although we do not know Timothy’s father’s name, we also learn in Acts 16:1 that his father was a “Greek”. The fact that the Bible says that he was a Greek and no faith was mentioned suggests that he was not a follower of YHVH or a believer in Messiah Jesus. As a twenty-first century reader, we don’t think anything of this “mixed marriage” between Timothy’s Jewish mother and his Greek father. But, as we will see in our next lesson, this fact is very significant and carried tremendous consequences for young Timothy.

The Gods are Back!

Baucus & Philemon Entertain Zeus and Hermes

Towards the end of their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas were forced to flee from Iconium (Acts 14:5-6) into the rural and relatively uninhabited countryside of the province of Galatia. After traveling on foot for over twenty miles in “no-man’s land”, they came to the rural outpost of Lystra. Lystra was in the district of Lycaonia, which means, “wolf land” and was a backwater location. The people were so backwards there that they still spoke their original Lyconian dialect and had never learned Greek or Latin.

Upon arriving in town, Paul saw a lame man who was crippled from birth and had never walked. Paul spoke to the man and realized he had the faith to be healed, so he told him to stand on his feet and walk. Miraculously the man was healed and the people in Lystra who witnessed the miracle went crazy! They began to shout, “The Gods have come down in human form! The Gods have come down in human form! They called Barnabas, Zeus and Paul, Hermes and tried to worship and sacrifice animals to them! Paul and Barnabas had to rush into the crowd and stop them saying, “Don’t do this! We are men just like you!” What was going on here? What was happening in this strange story in rural Galatia? Knowledge of Greek mythology surrounding this area of Lycaonia, makes this story extremely fascinating and will give us an understanding as to why the towns people were so excited. Listen to the ancient legend that was supposed to have taken place right here in this area many years before:

Zeus and Hermes decided to leave the heavens one day and visit Lycaonia to see how friendly the people were. Disguised as mere humans they entered the city and began knocking on doors and requesting food and lodging. Everyone was extremely unfriendly and no one would give them the time of day. They were rejected thousands of times. Finally, at the edge of town, the gods encountered an old woman and her husband, named Baucus and Philemon. They quickly welcomed the strangers into their simple home and offered them all the food and drink they had. They even tried unsuccessfully to catch and kill their only goose to eat, to the extreme amusement of the strangers. They entertained their guests wonderfully until nightfall and then the old couple gave the strangers their bed and they slept on the floor. When morning came, Zeus and Hermes revealed their identity to the old couple. They told them the story of what had happened the day before with the towns people. Zeus and Hermes then completely wiped the town off the map and put a lake in it’s place. On the shore of the lake, they built a castle for Baucus and Philemon. They also gave them one wish and their wish was to be together forever. The gods granted them their request, so that when they finally died, they would turn into and oak and linden tree that were entwined together.

When you know this story, the text quickly begins to make sense. When the Lycaonians witnessed an obvious miracle, they knew the gods were back in town! “The gods are back”, they thought, “We can’t mess up again! Let’s handle this the right way this time!” They rushed to shower gifts and kindness to the gods that had once again visited their small city. Barnabas must have been the more imposing of the two, because they assumed he was Zeus, the supreme god and the one that they had a temple to in town (Acts 14:13). Hermes was the messenger god, so Paul must have been the one doing most of the talking! You can really get a great mental picture of what that scene must have looked like. Paul and Barnabas probably had no idea about the legend and didn’t know what in the world was happening. You can imagine how they tried to stop them when they didn’t speak the Lycaonian language! There must have been some really tense but also comical moments!

This is another great example of how knowing the culture makes such a difference in understanding some of the Bible stories. The Bible events took place in time and space and they had their cultural mores, customs and stories that were passed down, just as we do. It is so exciting to be able to learn some of these and thus unlock some interesting details of the narrative that would otherwise be unknown. This Bible passage from Acts, which on first reading seems to make little sense, becomes a fascinating story of the culture and times of the people that Paul and Barnabas were trying to reach with the good new of the God of the Bible and his son, Jesus, the Christ.