Wansbrough on the Pastoral Epistles

By Chuck Bumgardner

wansbrough intro ntHenry Wansbrough, a Roman Catholic biblical scholar, is notable for his work as the general editor of the New Jerusalem Bible (1985). Having published over twenty books throughout his scholarly career, he has now produced Introducing the New Testament (London: Bloomsbury, 2015). In roughly 400 pages, Wansbrough covers the NT in five sections: Preliminaries, Gospels and Acts, Paul’s Life and Letters, Catholic/Universal Epistles, and the Book of Revelation. Wansbrough’s scholarly acumen clearly underlies his work, but the volume seems to be aimed toward a lay or college level; there are frequent sidebars, but no footnotes/endnotes. My purpose here is to summarize Wansbrough’s work on the PE in this recent volume.

Wansbrough’s discussion of the three PE under “Paul’s Life and Letters” spans a mere eight pages, and is organized into three sections: authorship, situation, and order in the community. His discussion of authorship does not explicitly stake out his position, but he seems to agree with the scholarly majority which doubts Pauline authorship, though 2 Timothy may perhaps “stem from Paul” (303). If authentic, the PE could only fit Paul’s ministry after Acts, and must reflect Paul as a “broken,” “fearful” “old man,” “unable any longer to think through his magnificent old doctrinal formations” (304). Wansbrough connects the testamentary character of 2 Timothy with “the genre of farewell speech of a great leader” and such examples as The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and provides a brief comparison of 2 Timothy with Paul’s farewell speech to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. Regarding challenges to authenticity, Wansbrough highlights the “elementary advice” which Paul provides to Timothy and Titus, and the non-mention of “so many distinctive Pauline interests” (305).

The situation of the PE is characterized by false teaching, which Wansbrough uses all three letters to describe (not distinguishing between that in Ephesus and that in Crete). The “myths and genealogies” might involve pagan myths, Jewish haggadoth, or proto-Gnostic demiurges. In the end, little can be known about the false teaching. On the other hand, various hints point to what the writer considers “sound doctrine”; this usually involves “salvation and the way to salvation” (306), and is often contained in trustworthy sayings. The letters must be read against the background of mystery religions and/or the imperial cult, where the Emperor was “Savior” and “Lord,” and language of “epiphany” was used.

As to order in the community, Wansbrough finds the PE to enjoin conventional Hellenistic morality, “the virtues of public and private life stressed by Greek and Roman contemporary writers on morals, centered on moderation and restraint, piety and godliness” (308). In 1 Timothy 2, “institutional morality is re-affirmed, in that a woman should not have authority over a man,” which must be understood “against the background of the position of women in the societies of the time” (308); in a related sidebar, Wansbrough does not make the typical appeal to Gal 3:28 against 1 Timothy 2:9-15, but instead highlights 1 Cor 11:11-12 in this role. There is an “incipient institutionalization” in the PE, and Wansbrough discusses in turn overseers, widows (who are enrolled for alms; nothing is specified about an office), elders (Wansbrough distinguishes episkopoi from presbyteroi), and deacons (“no argument for or against the ordination of women to the diaconate in the early Church can be based” on 1 Tim 3:11) (310).

In sum, Wansbrough has set forth a fairly standard critical take on the PE. His “further reading” list, oddly, gives only a single volume: Frances Young, The Theology of the Pastoral Letters.