Lois, Eunice, and Timothy: The Rhetorical Strategy in 2 Timothy in the Light of Social Exclusion of the First Christians

Some decades ago, anthropological research drew our attention to honor and shame as core values in Mediterranean social systems. Knowledge of honor and shame turned out to be a valuable lens for studying New Testament texts too. More specifically, on the theme of suffering for being Christian, the studies of John H. Elliott and David A. deSilva are representative. They argued that honor terminology and discourse sometimes testifies to discrimination or social exclusion of the early Christians by their non-Christian environment. In some New Testament documents, one can detect a rhetorical strategy that encouraged Christians to endure the negative social consequences of belonging to a minority group, most notably by radically redefining the content of what is honorable. Such a strategy aimed at preserving the loyalty of these Christians to their identity in Christ, or rather, to Christ himself. This paper contends that the insights of Elliott and deSilva offer an insightful background for interpreting 2 Timothy. Sensitivity to the social mechanisms they describe can lead to a fresh interpretation regarding the function of some passages of the text. As early as the first chapter of the letter, the notion of shame occurs three times, each time in close relation to the mentioning of Paul’s imprisonment. This observation leads to the expectation of a more elaborated honor discourse regarding the theme of suffering in this letter. First, in the main part of the paper, the honor discourse connected to the theme of suffering in this letter will be sketched from a synchronic point of view, based on a method deSilva provided for. It will be shown that 2 Timothy, in fact, contains two lines of honor discourse, a ‘heresy-line’ and a ‘suffering-line’. Both lines seem to be connected by an encompassing concept of pistis (faith, trust). Second, the relevance of these findings for the historical embedding of 2 Timothy will be briefly illustrated by revisiting the function of Paul’s mentioning Lois and Eunice in the thanksgiving period of the letter. Sensitivity to honor discourse in 2 Timothy reveals a rhetorical strategy that aims to encourage Timothy to endure possible negative social consequences of his belonging to the Christ group. Over and against society’s sentiment regarding imprisonment and suffering in general, Paul radically redefines suffering for the gospel as an honorable token of loyalty (pistis) to Christ. Doing so, he hopes that Timothy will fight against a false sense of shame and stick to his identity in Christ and his task of proclaiming Paul’s gospel over and against heretic teaching. Interpreting 2 Timothy with a sensitivity to this kind of rhetoric can also lead to a fresh interpretation regarding the function of some passages of the text. For instance, the abundant presence of kinship language in the opening and thanksgiving period seems to fulfill another function than was previously held, which in turn bears on the question of the historical embedding of 2 Timothy.