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1 Timothy 1:3–4 in the Memory of Irenaeus, Tertullian, Athanasius, and Chrysostom

Beyond Canon Collaborative Research Group, Universität Regensburg, 93040 Regensburg, Germany
Religions 2023, 14(9), 1123;
Submission received: 17 July 2023 / Revised: 12 August 2023 / Accepted: 22 August 2023 / Published: 31 August 2023
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Hermeneutics: Contextual Approaches to Biblical Interpretation)


In this article, I discuss reception history, its place within the history of historical critical methods, and social memory theory. I apply a reception historical lens buttressed by social memory theory to 1 Timothy 1:3–4. I show that the historical circumstances of this passage’s reception problematize using early understandings of it to reconstruct the referent behind “myths and endless genealogies”. I first show how the phrase “myths and endless genealogies” is ambiguous in the historical setting of the author. Then, I demonstrate that Irenaeus, Tertullian, Athanasius, and Chrysostom use this phrase against very different groups; however, all of these authors use 1 Timothy 1:4 for a (perceived) problem against their present group.

1. Introduction

Recently, scholars have shown an increasing interest in the reception history of the Pastoral Epistles (see, e.g., Hübenthal 2008; Tobias 2015; Yarbro Collins 2011; Zamfir 2015; Hunter 2015; Sommer 2015). When discussing the reception of individual books or passages in the pastorals rather than the corpus as a whole, 1 Timothy has featured prominently.1 However, much of this attention has focused on the instructions to women in 1 Timothy 2:9–15 or the portrait of Paul mediated through 1 Timothy (see, e.g., Yarbro Collins 2011; Zamfir 2008, 2015). Although there are sporadic mentions of specific receptions of 1 Timothy 1:4, there are currently no studies dedicated to the reception of 1 Timothy 1:4. Further, when the reception of 1 Timothy 1:4 is mentioned, it is often used to help understand the referent of “myths and endless genealogies” mentioned in the text, but the historical and social conditions of those receptions are not analyzed, thus leaving out important context of this discussion. In this article, I will discuss the early reception history of 1 Timothy 1:4 and show that using these early receptions of the passage overlooks important historical factors that problematize the ability of these receptions to shed light on 1 Timothy 1:4.
In order to accomplish this goal, I will employ a reception historical approach underpinned by social memory theory. I will first analyze the place of reception and social memory theory in the history of historical criticism. I will then briefly describe 1 Timothy 1:4 and the current interpretations of “myths and genealogies” among scholars and then examine the reception of this passage by Irenaeus, Tertullian, Athanasius, and Chrysostom.

2. Historical Criticism and Reception

What biblical scholars call historical criticism is a group of methods that attempt to analyze biblical texts in their historical contexts, whether those contexts be literary, cultural, linguistic, etc. (Collins 2005, p. 4; Smith 2023, p. 37). Indeed, the multiplex nature of this approach is why I have labeled it “historical criticisms” in the plural.2 These methods emerged in the nineteenth century in Europe and spread to North America, eventually becoming the dominant mode of biblical interpretation in academic circles.3
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, scholars developed the classic “criticisms” associated with historical critical analysis, such as textual criticism, form criticism, source criticism, redaction criticism, etc. However fragmented these approaches may seem, John Barton identified in the 1990s four common elements present in historical critical methods (Barton 1998) The first is a preoccupation with questions of origins, or to use Barton’s terminology, “genetic questions” (Barton 1998, pp. 9–10). In other words, historical critics are concerned with knowing when a text was written, by and to whom it was written, and the various stages of its development (Barton 1998, p. 9). Similarly, the second element of historical critical methods Barton identified was a desire to discern the “original” meaning of a text (Barton 1998, pp. 10–11). Thus, the intended meaning of the author and that of a text’s first readers is paramount, not meanings derived by modern readers (Barton 1998, p. 10). A third element Barton identified is a fixation on historical reconstructions (Barton 1998, p. 11). The fourth of Barton’s elements was the disinterested scholar (Barton 1998, pp. 11–12).
Historical critical methods, conceived along the lines Barton identified, came under heavy criticism in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries such that many of these commitments could no longer be held in these forms. The most controversial of them is perhaps the notion of an objective, disinterested interpreter. Persons are always embedded in an historical moment, a particular culture, and certain space (Anderson 2019). For this reason, contemporary historical criticisms, as Shively Smith says, “do not falsely impersonate singularity or objectivity” (Smith 2023, p. 48).
Further, historical criticisms have expanded to include new methodologies and incorporate new theoretical insights. Important for this article is that reception has become a major focus of historical critical inquiry.4 The ways biblical texts were interpreted over the course of their development and transmission are now viewed as important sites of historical investigation in their own right and not simply for what light they may shed on the original meanings of the texts. Within reception historical analyses, social and cultural memory theory has recently emerged as an important theoretical framework, to which I will turn my attention below.

2.1. Social Memory Theory

Social memory theory is a growing area of study that can be described as the study of “the social and cultural dimensions of individual and collective articulations of the inherited past in the present” (Shedd 2021, p. 26). Maurice Halbwachs essentially inaugurated the modern study of social and cultural memory by focusing on the ways memory is socially structured by the needs of the present group (Halbwachs 1992, pp. 39–51; Keith 2015). He notes that memories can only operate with tools derived from the present group, i.e., words and ideas (Halbwachs 1980, p. 51). Rememberers are therefore located within “social frameworks”, and these frameworks (re)structure the past in light of the present (Halbwachs 1992, p. 40). As Chris Keith puts it, “Thus, the present group environment structures the (re)construction of the past even for the individual” (Keith 2015, p. 360) Because of this dependence upon structures derived from the group, all memory is social (Keith 2015, p. 360; Halbwachs 1992, pp. 38–39).
Building upon Halbwachs’s theory, Pierre Nora noted that groups must create aides for memory to endure (Nora 1989, p. 12). Societies must create sites where memory is recorded and passed on, which he termed “lieux de mémoire” or “sites of memory” (Nora 1992, p. xvii). Lieux de mémoire can encompass any number of things, texts, monuments, etc., that are symbolic for a community’s identity and important for recording and transmitting memory. These sites are essential for enculturating individuals into the community’s founding myths and thus are sites where the community buttresses its identity.5 Through the course of commemoration, lieux de mémoire are imbued with memory, and the site becomes an agent of memory itself (Nora 1989, p. 7). The group continually returns to these sites and receives, re-remembers, and reconceptualizes them along new lines amenable to the needs of the group (Nora 1989, p. 20). Thus, lieux de mémoire are not singularly determined by their creators but have meanings independent of their creators as needed by the group.
Scholars have critiqued Halbwachs and Nora over their strict bifurcation between history and memory.6 Nora himself went so far as to claim that history and memory were in opposition to each other (Nora 1989, p. 8). The issue of the relationship between memory and history has given rise to two camps—the presentist camp, typified by Nora, who focuses solely on the present (re)construction of memory, and the continuity camp, typified by scholars such as Barry Schwartz, who instead reserves a place in his understanding for a complex relationship between the “past as it actually happened” and memory (Schwartz 2000, esp. xi–x; see, Keith 2015, p. 363). Nonetheless, Nora’s analytic of lieux de mémoire has proved useful to memory theorists, even his staunchest critics (see, Assmann 2006, pp. 8–9). As Jan Assmann, an advocate of the continuist approach, says,
The interaction of symbol and memory is a continuous process being played out at every level. That applies in particular to “memory of the will”. Whenever we think about something that we do not want to forget under any circumstances, we invent memory aids that range from the famous knot in our handkerchief to our national monuments. Such aides-mémoires are also the lieux de mémoire, memory sites in which the memory of entire national or religious communities is concentrated, monuments, rituals, feast days and customs. In short, the entire panoply of things that go to make up what Halbwachs called tradition and which he contrasted with mémoire vécue and tradition, communication and tradition (Assmann 2006, pp. 8–9).
In this way, Nora’s analytic of lieux de mémoire has remained helpful for analyzing the relationship between symbol (or site) and memory.
In addition to memory not occurring spontaneously or continuing without aides, memories do not occur within a vacuum; instead, they are constructed along lines needed for the group and the maintenance of that group’s identity (Said 2000, pp. 8–9). Aleida Assmann describes well the formation of collective memories: “Collective memories are produced through mediated representations of the past that involve selecting, rearranging, re-describing and simplifying, as well as the deliberate, but also perhaps unintentional, inclusion and exclusion of information” (Assmann and Shortt 2012, pp. 3–4). In other words, memories never fully nor completely faithfully present the past in the present, but instead they represent the past after passing through cultural processes that necessarily alter those memories. She further states, “What we encounter as reality is in fact the product of an act of interpretation. Thus, it follows that the relationship between the past and the present is constantly changing” (Assmann and Shortt 2012, p. 4). These processes, as Assmann has indicated, are not neutral, nor is their deployment. Because of the inherent malleability of memory and the importance it plays within group identity, the changing and re-presenting of memories to the group impacts the group identity itself.
To briefly summarize, social memory theory focuses on the social and cultural dimensions of remembering the past in the present. Memory is necessarily social in nature as the present group context structures the shape of all remembrances. Memories do not occur spontaneously and require aides, or lieux de mémoire, to endure, and these lieux are important sites where the group returns time and again to retrieve and reconceptualize the memory associated with them. These lieux de mémoire function as crucial sites for forming and supporting the group’s identity.

2.2. My Practice of Interpretation

In the following interpretation of 1 Timothy 1:3–4, I will proceed with a reception historical analysis employing social memory theory as described above using the following steps: (1) Interpret 1 Timothy 1:3–4 in its historical context. This step also involves describing how modern scholars understand 1 Timothy 3–4 and placing my interpretation within the larger scholarly discussion. (2) Analyze how other writers understand and use 1 Timothy 3–4. For the present study, I have selected four ancient authors—Irenaeus, Tertullian, Athanasius, and Chrysostom. This analysis will involve situating Tertullian’s and Chrysostom’s uses of 1 Timothy within their historical and literary contexts. (3) Use social and cultural memory theory to explain how and why these ancient authors understand 1 Timothy 1:3–4 in the ways they do.

3. 1 Timothy 1:3–4

First Timothy 1:3–4 says, “Just as I urged you to remain in Ephesus while I was going to Macedonia, command certain persons not to teach what is false and not to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which cause useless speculation rather than godly training which is in faith”.7 Here, the author provides “Timothy” with two injunctions to deliver to his people. The first is to tell certain persons not to deliver false teachings, and the second is to instruct these persons not to be preoccupied with “myths and endless genealogies”. It is on this second command, particularly the mention of “myths and endless genealogies”, that I will concentrate as it has had different interpretations throughout its reception.
Philip Towner has described the phrase “myths and endless genealogies” as one that “resists precise interpretation” (Towner 2006, p. 109). The terms themselves are vague largely due to the lack of descriptors present in the passage and their ubiquitous use in antiquity. Plato, in his Timaeus, uses these two together by calling Solon’s genealogies “myths” (τὰ γοῦν νυνδὴ γενεαλογηθέντα, ὦ Σόλων, περὶ τῶν παρ᾽ ὑμῖν ἃ διῆλθες, παίδων βραχύ τι διαφέρει μύθων).8 Menander Rhetor, writing in about the 3rd c. CE, also brings the two terms together and even further notes that some do not consider myths and genealogies to differ (Menander Rhetor, Διαίρεσις τῶν ἐπιδεικτικῶν 338.6). Polybius, writing in the 3–2 c. BCE, in his Histories also links the two words with the phrase τά τε περὶ τὰς γενεαλογίας καὶ μύθους (Polybius, Histories Although this is a small sampling of the uses of these terms in Greek literature, they suffice to show that these terms were, as Lyn Kidson has noted, a traditional pairing.9
The vague nature of these terms has not hindered scholars from identifying them with certain groups from antiquity. One major line of thinking has identified this phrase as indicative of Gnosticism (see, Holtzmann 1880, pp. 126–59; Lütgert 1909, p. 63; Haufe 1973, p. 329). Under this paradigm, the “myths and genealogies” refer to speculation upon the complex systems of Aeons found among early “Gnostics”(Haufe 1973, p. 329). This interpretation is possible if one sees that which is “falsely called knowledge” (ψευδώνυμος γνῶσις) in 1 Timothy 6:20 as a reference to Gnostics (see, Herzer 2014). Although identifying the opponents in 1 Timothy as Gnostics is still influential, it is less popular today among scholars than it once was (Towner 2006, p. 111 n. 34).
It is more common today to argue that the “myths and endless genealogies” refer to a problem arising from Judaism, frequently identified as speculations on the “Old Testament” or various noncanonical Jewish writings.10 However, there is nothing in this verse or in the immediate context to suggest that these “myths and endless genealogies” had any connection to Jews or Judaism. How, then, is the connection made between 1 Timothy 1:4 and Judaism? This interpretation comes through importing ideas found in Titus to 1 Timothy. Titus, like 1 Timothy, contains references to “myths” (1:4) and “genealogies” (3:9), and in Titus, the myths are specifically labeled “Jewish” (Ἰουδαϊκός). The major difference between the use of these terms in 1 Timothy and Titus is that in 1 Timothy they appear together, whereas in Titus, they are distantly separated. Further, the myths in Titus are called “Jewish” and are mentioned in a context that has already mentioned Jews (1:10). First Timothy, on the other hand, has no descriptors attached to the “myths”.
Scholars frequently appeal to the reception of 1 Timothy 1:4 in order to bolster their identification of the opposition as either Gnostic or Jewish. The entry on γενεαλογία in the lexicon of Bauer et al. is indicative of these appeals: “since Irenaeus 1 praef.; Tertullian, Praescr. Haer. 33, it has of[ten] been interpr[eted] as referring to Gnostic teachings, esp. groups of Aeons … The interpr[etation] which holds that the errors in question have a Jewish background and involve rabbinical speculation begins w. Ambrosiaster and Jerome” (Bauer et al. 2000, s.v. “γενεαλογία”). Examining the reception of 1 Timothy 1:4, however, exposes two major problems with such a statement. The first is that the interpretation of this passage as referring to Jews begins slightly earlier with the writing of Athanasius. The second is that it oversimplifies using ancient receptions of 1 Timothy 1:4 for understanding the meaning of the text. The authors show more complex uses of 1 Timothy 1:4 that are used for building group identity in light of the perceived needs of their present. Thus, in the following, I will examine the reception of 1 Timothy 1:4 by Irenaeus, Tertullian, Athanasius, and Chrysostom. I will not discuss Ambrosiaster because his identity is unknown, and thus it is difficult to understand his historical situation. Additionally, his interpretation of 1 Timothy 1:4 is not substantially different from that of Chrysostom. Further, I will not discuss Jerome as he did not comment on this verse. It seems that, as George Knight indicates, the entry in Bauer et al. should have read Chrysostom rather than Jerome (Knight 1992, p. 73).

4. Reception of 1 Timothy 1:4

The use of social memory theory has had little impact upon the study of the Pastoral Epistles. David Aune, in his article “Jesus Tradition and the Pauline Letter”, first applied Pierre Nora’s insights to the Pastoral Epistles and showed that they functioned as lieux de mémoire, affecting communal memory and identity (Aune 2013). Although a watershed in the use of memory theory in the study of the Pastoral Epistles, Aune did not elaborate on or develop his suggestion that they are lieux de mémoire. Benjamin White, however, makes extensive use of memory theory in his book Remembering Paul (White 2014). In this work, White shows that the Pastoral Epistles served as a site of memory for the early Jesus movement in developing their picture of Paul. Few other works have applied memory theory to the Pastoral Epistles, leaving much to be explored in the theory’s application to these documents. In the following, I will use the memory theory developed above to examine the reception of 1 Timothy 1:4.

4.1. Against the “Gnostics”

Although the circumstances described in 1 Timothy 1:4 are difficult for modern readers to recover, early Christians used this text in ways that suited their social contexts. In the early reception of 1 Timothy 1:4, authors were concerned with using the text against groups such as the Valentinians.11 The group descended from its eponymous founder, Valentinus, who in the early to mid-second century moved from Alexandria to Rome and became quite prominent among the Christian community there (Lampe 2003, p. 294; Smith 2020, p. 1). Valentinus produced a large literary oeuvre and gained extensive influence (Smith 2020, p. 9). Two of his students, Heracleon and Ptolemy, would become important leaders within Italian Valentinianism, with both founding their own schools (Lampe 2003, p. 296). The teachings of Valentinus and his followers would become a source of widespread controversy for the following two centuries, with authors such as Irenaeus and Epiphanius (in addition to Tertullian) attempting to refute Valentinian teachings (Smith 2020, p. 3). In this section, I will analyze the use of 1 Timothy 1:4 by two authors, Irenaeus and Tertullian, and show that both of these authors were concerned to marshal this text against the so-called Gnostics.

4.1.1. Irenaeus

Irenaeus was born in Asia Minor ca. 130 CE and became a student of Polycarp (Behr 2013, p. 67). Irenaeus likely accompanied his teacher to Rome in ca. 154 CE (Behr 2013, p. 67). In Rome, Irenaeus would have encountered many diverse Christian practices and beliefs, as teachers such as Marcion and Valentinus (both important in Irenaeus’s writings) were active in Rome during the mid-second century (Behr 2013, pp. 25–57), and it is against the Valentinians (which he describes as adapting “Gnostic” teaching, Adv. haer. 1.11.1), Marcionites, and other “heretics”, that Irenaeus dedicates his Adversus haereses (Adv. haer. 1.Pr.2).
In the preface to Adv. haer., Irenaeus cites 1 Timothy 1:4 to introduce his argument against the Valentinians. He says, “Certain people are discarding the Truth and introducing deceitful myths and endless genealogies, which, as the Apostle says, promote speculations rather than the divine training that is in faith”.12 This quote is the first sentence of the preface, which as Benjamin White has convincingly argued, frames the work as a whole (White 2014, pp. 153–58). Citing the literary theorist Gérard Genette, White notes that paratextual features (e.g., titles, prefaces, notes, etc.) work to condition the reader to understand the text in line with the author’s intended purpose (White 2014, pp. 149–50). Thus, Irenaeus attempts to condition the reader to understand the ensuing “heresies” he exposes through the lens of 1 Timothy 1:4.
Ben Blackwell goes so far as to suggest that “Irenaeus claims that the heretics repeat the same errors that Paul warned about in 1 Tim. 1.4” (Blackwell 2011, p. 192). While Blackwell’s interpretation is enticing, Irenaeus is not clear that he understands his opponents as propounding the same issues the author of 1 Timothy encountered. It seems more likely that Irenaeus was not necessarily concerned with the identification of the opposition behind 1 Timothy 1:4 but instead understands this passage as useful for applying to his own situation.
By applying 1 Timothy 1:4 to his opponents, Irenaeus uses this text to draw a boundary delineating the extent of his group’s identity. The teachings of the “heretics” are beyond this boundary, placing those that hold to these teachings firmly within the out-group. In so doing, Irenaeus evinces that for him 1 Timothy 1:4 was an important site of memory, or lieu de mémoire, as it was a text that contained the memory of the group and was used to buttress the group’s identity. In Irenaeus’s case, 1 Timothy 1:4 was useful as a site of memory against the Valentinians and other “heretics”.

4.1.2. Tertullian

A similar use of 1 Timothy 1:4 to Irenaeus’s is found in the writings of Tertullian, a Christian living in Carthage in North Africa in the second and third centuries CE (Dunn 2004, pp. 2–3; Wilhite 2013, p. xviii). Having converted to Christianity from paganism (Dunn 2004, p. 3), he became the first significant theologian writing in Latin (Wilhite 2013, p. xviii). However, he was not a presbyter (Dunn 2004, p. 4). He appears to have been well educated and spent his literary career writing polemic treatises against “heretics”, pastoral works, and apologetic tracts (Wilhite 2013, pp. xviii–xix). Tertullian’s works were quite influential in the Early Church (Wilhite 2013, p. xix).
Tertullian exhibits two significant uses of 1 Timothy 1:4, one of which is found in his De praescriptione haereticorum. Geoffrey Dunn describes this text as “one of [Tertullian’s] most important treatises with regard to the interpretation of the Scriptures” (Dunn 2006, p. 141). As Dunn’s description would suggest, Praescr. is concerned with correct interpretation of scripture and distinguishing that from heretical uses (Dunn 2006, p. 141). Using 1 Timothy 1:4, Tertullian says (Ferguson 2013, p. 33),
[W]hen he mentions “endless genealogies”, Valentinus is recognized, according to whom some Aeon or other of a strange and shifting name produces Sense and Truth out of its own Grace; and these in like manner generate from themselves Word and Life; while these again produce Man and Church; from which first ogdoad of Aeons come ten others, while twelve Aeons besides with wondrous names make up the entire fiction of the Thirty.13
In this passage, Tertullian quotes a series of texts from Paul, e.g., 1 Corinthians and Galatians, against a number of heresies, e.g., Marcionism and Ebionism. Earlier, Tertullian refers to Galatians, where he describes the problem Paul addresses in his discussion of following the law and circumcision as Ebionism. Thus, it appears that Tertullian draws a distinction between the Ebionites,14 a group connected with maintaining Jewish practices, and the Valentinians, a group deriving from Valentinus—a second century “Gnostic” teacher (Refoulé 1957, p. 14; Layton 2021, p. 278). This distinction would indicate that Tertullian is not using 1 Timothy 1:4 against Jewish interpretations of the “Old Testament” but instead against the complex systems of Aeons found within the Valentinian system. Although it is important to note that due to the genre and purpose of Tertullian’s work, it is not possible to know exactly Tertullian’s position on the historical context of the passages he cites (Dunn 2006, p. 141). Regardless of questions of Tertullian’s understanding of the original referent behind 1 Timothy’s “myths and genealogies”, it is evident that Tertullian sees its use against Valentinian Gnostic thought as a valid application.
In another work, Adversus Valentinianos, Tertullian cites 1 Timothy 1:4 again against the Valentinians. He says,
To take another instance: if someone knowledgeable in our faith comes to these tales and immediately finds so many names of Aeons, so many marriages, so many offspring, so many dooms, so many adventures, joys, sorrows of a scattered and fragmentary godhead, will he hesitate then and there to call these the “myths and endless genealogies” which the apostle’s inspiration had already condemned even then when these heretical seeds were sprouting?15
Here again, Tertullian interprets 1 Timothy 1:4 as a prohibition against the Valentinian system. He finds the multiplicity of aspects of the Valentinian mythology to fit well within the description of “myths and genealogies”, and he claims that the apostle himself condemned it even “when these heretical seeds were sprouting”.
Thus, it can be seen that Tertullian applies 1 Timothy 1:4 to a particular “heresy” present in his own time. He returns to 1 Timothy 1:4 as a text to reinforce the identity of the group by drawing a definite boundary. The Valentinians are beyond that boundary and outside the group. Those inside the group, therefore, do not hold to the teaching of the Valentinians. In this way, 1 Timothy 1:4 was an important site of memory, or lieu de mémoire, for Tertullian to use in his own situation to define the identity of his group.

4.2. Against the Jews

In later centuries, there was a shift in the use of 1 Timothy 1:4. As far as the extant data indicate, the shift began to occur in the writing of Athanasius, who was bishop of Alexandria from 328–373. Before his consecration as bishop, Athanasius had attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 and eventually became one of Nicene orthodoxy’s most ardent supporters. Athanasius’s tenure as bishop of Alexandria was tumultuous, with Athanasius being exiled from the city on five separate occasions (see, Gwynn 2012, pp. 19–52).

4.2.1. Athanasius

As was common in the fourth century, Athanasius presents a decidedly anti-Jewish stance within his works (Gwynn 2012, p. 135; Löhr 2011, p. 120). He claims that Jews allied with pagans to attack his followers, burn a church, and assault his own church (Athanasius, Epistula Encyclica 3–5; see, Gwynn 2012, p. 32; Löhr 2011, p. 120). It would be no surprise, then, for Athanasius to apply 1 Timothy 1:4 into a polemic against Jews, which he does in Historia Arianorum. In this text (written early during his second exile 356–362), Athanasius explains and refutes the Arians (Flower 2016, p. 24). In 66.4, Athanasius compares the Arians to former “heresies” in order to portray the Arians as the worst of all “heresies”:
The Hellenes, as the apostle said, attack with elevated and persuasive words and plausible sophisms, while the Jews, who abandoned the divine scriptures, conduct their wrangling from now on in fables and endless genealogies, as the apostle said. Along with them the Manichaeans and Valentinians and the others corrupt the divine scriptures and invent fables from their own false texts (66.4).16
Athanasius understands “Paul” to have Jews in view when he condemned “myths and endless genealogies”. It is not only to Jews, however, that Athanasius applies 1 Timothy 1:4—he also understands the Valentinians as transgressing the apostle’s teaching. All of these groups are beyond the boundary Athanasius draws around his group, and thus, Athanasius uses this text to support the identity of his group.
In his understanding and application of 1 Timothy 1:4, Athanasius presents a similar use as seen in Tertullian and Irenaeus along with an innovation. Much as his forebears, Athanasius attacks the Valentinians with this text. However, he innovates in using it to attack Jews. He shows that 1 Timothy 1:4 functions as a lieu de mémoire because it is a site to which Athanasius returned to retrieve the memory he needed to support the identity of his community. Although he preserved the former memory attached to the text concerning the Valentinians, Athanasius shifts this memory in line with the (perceived) needs of his group.

4.2.2. John Chrysostom

The next author on which I will concentrate is John Chrysostom, who, in the late fourth or early fifth century, preached a series of sermons on 1 Timothy. Chrysostom was born and lived much of his life in Antioch in Syria (Mayer and Allen 2000, p. 4). Soon after completing formal schooling at age eighteen, he converted to “orthodox” Christianity and changed course from pursuing a secular career to life in the church (Mayer and Allen 2000, p. 5). He soon began serving the bishop and after some time became a lector, after which he spent six years as an ascetic in the desert (Mayer and Allen 2000, p. 6). He returned to Antioch and little is known about his life in this period before his time in Constantinople, other than that he was very active in preaching (Mayer and Allen 2000, p. 6–7). In 398 CE, Chrysostom was consecrated bishop of Constantinople and spent the next five and a half years in this post (Mayer and Allen 2000, p. 8).
It is likely John preached his sermons on 1 Timothy during his period in Constantinople (Nägele 1935). In his first sermon on 1 Timothy, Chrysostom describes the historical framework he uses to interpret 1 Timothy. Drawing upon 1 Tim 1:3, he describes the letter as being written by Paul to Timothy, who was in Ephesus (Chrysostom, Hom. 1 Tim 1). Critically, he says that there were “false apostles of the Jews” in Ephesus at this time, and Chrysostom connects this situation to other instances where Paul refuted the Jewish teaching (Chrysostom, Hom. 1 Tim 1). This reconstructed situation of the letter allows Chrysostom to make the following claim regarding the “myths and endless genealogies” of 1 Timothy:
By “fables” [i.e., myths] he does not mean the law; far from it; but inventions and forgeries and counterfeit doctrines. For, it seems, the Jews wasted their whole discourse on these unprofitable points. They numbered up their fathers and grandfathers, that they might have the reputation of historical knowledge and research. “That thou mightest charge some”, he says, “that they teach no other doctrine, neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies”.17
In this passage, Chrysostom understands the reference to “myths and endless genealogies” as a referent to “false” Jewish teachings. Thus, unlike Irenaeus and Tertullian, Chrysostom takes 1 Timothy 1:4 in an anti-Jewish direction.
Although Chrysostom likely delivered his sermons on 1 Timothy in Constantinople, Chrysostom’s formative years as a priest before his elevation to the bishopric of Constantinople were in Antioch (Kelly 1995, p. 83). During his tenure in the city, Antioch had a vibrant Jewish community that attracted many Christians to participate in various Jewish practices (Kelly 1995, pp. 62–63). Chrysostom notes in his Adversus Judaios that some in his congregation participated in the Jewish festivals and fasts (Chrysostom, Adv. Jud. 1.1.5.). He found it particularly important to denounce Judaism in order to spur his congregants toward an exclusive commitment to Christ and away from any attraction to Judaism. The presence of this Jewish group sheds light upon Chrysostom’s use of 1 Timothy 1:4. Chrysostom accessed this text in line with the interpretation of Athanasius and understood the opponents as steeped in Judaism, which happened to have important resonances with his contemporary circumstances. Thus, in a similar way to Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Athanasius, John Chrysostom interpreted 1 Timothy 1:4 in light of his current needs.
For Chrysostom, 1 Timothy 1:4 was a site of memory or lieu de mémoire against the Jews. Chrysostom used this text to draw a boundary around his group, signaling that Judaism and Jewish practices were outside acceptable group practices. This text continued to be a site to which Christians returned to receive the memory imbedded within it to reinforce their group identity; however, Chrysostom shifts the memory associated with this text. Just like Irenaeus and Tertullian, Chrysostom applies 1 Timothy 1:4 against his opponents, but instead of the opponents being “Gnostics”, they are Jews. In this way, Chrysostom adapted the memory associated with 1 Timothy 1:4 to the needs of his situation.

4.3. Analysis

There is a trajectory in the understanding and use of 1 Timothy 1:4 across the writings of the above authors. The text is first used against Valentinians and other “Gnostic” groups in Irenaeus and Tertullian. This understanding is also seen in Athanasius’s work, but he shifts the focus from the Valentinians to the Jews. Then, Chrysostom and later authors use this text against the Jews.
As argued above, the use and understanding of 1 Timothy 1:4 shifted in order for authors to apply it to the present needs of their groups. Valentinians were a widespread and highly visible expression of Christianity in the second century when Irenaeus wrote and Tertullian lived (Thomassen 2006, pp. 492–504). In the third century, the visibility of the Valentinians, as far as the extant sources indicate, waned considerably (Thomassen 2006, pp. 504–5). Einar Thomassen suggests that the Valentinians were no longer perceived as threatening as they were during the time of Irenaeus and Tertullian, leading to the Valentinians’ lack of visibility in the extant sources (Thomassen 2006, p. 505). The evidence for Valentinians drops to such a degree in the fourth century that Thomassen notes that it is often no longer possible to tell with much accuracy whether mentions of Valentinians represent actual Valentinians or that the name had become “ossified” as a heretical category (Thomassen 2006, p. 506). The last definitive evidence of the existence of Valentinians comes from Ambrose of Milan in 388 (Thomassen 2006, pp. 506–8; Ambrose, Epp. Extra coll. 1 a = Maur. 40). When the Valentinians were a highly visible “threat” to their expression of Christianity, Irenaeus and Tertullian used 1 Timothy 1:4 against the Valentinians. As their visibility and influence waned, the Valentinians were perceived as less of a threat, so that Athanasius activated this text against the Jews, a more salient perceived threat to his group. However, the memory against the Valentinians was still attached to the text during the time of Athanasius, such that he still mentions the Valentinians in connection with 1 Timothy 1:4. By the time of Chrysostom, the connection with the Valentinians was absent from 1 Timothy 1:4. Throughout these authors, 1 Timothy 1:4 acted as a lieu de mémoire as it was an important site to which groups returned in order to stabilize their identity. As a lieu de mémoire, the memory attached to 1 Timothy 1:4 did not remain static but instead shifted in line with the changing needs of the groups.

5. Conclusions

Analyzing the reception of 1 Timothy 1:4 through the lens of social memory theory has shed important light upon the dynamics of employing this text in the Early Church. Irenaeus, Tertullian, Athanasius, and Chrysostom all interpreted and deployed 1 Timothy 1:4 in light of their present needs in order to “other” a group in service of developing and maintaining their group’s identity. These interpretations and uses of 1 Timothy 1:4 were social and historically conditioned and contextualized. Because these authors understood and used the passage in light of their present needs, it is problematic to appeal to them to reconstruct the historical referent of “myths and endless genealogies” in 1 Timothy 1:4. The interpretation of 1 Timothy 1:4 shifted over time as different groups were identified as being a more salient “other”. Thus, although problematic for interpreting 1 Timothy 1:4 in its historical context, analyzing the reception of this passage shows how it was an important lieu de mémoire within early Christianity and therefore aided in constructing and supporting certain conceptions of early Christian identity.


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Conflicts of Interest

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In addition to the studies in the previous note, see, e.g., (Hwang 2006; Zamfir 2008; Tinkle 2010; Dupont 2011).
See, (Smith 2023, p. 38), who uses the plural to provide a critique of the “classic” historical-critical method.
Describing the origins of an idea or method is always a fraught endeavor. One can easily find antecedents to historical critical methods prior to the nineteenth century—even pushing back into antiquity. Scholars seem to locate the origin of historical critical methods in the work of various scholars, such as Salomo Semler, Reimarus, John David Michaelis, Johann Gottfried Eichhorn, etc. However, the nineteenth century (or slightly before) in Europe seem to be a fairly commonly cited milieu for the advent of historical criticisms. (Kurtz 2023, pp. 21–25).
For a discussion of reception historical studies on the New Testament, see, (Shedd 2021, pp. 16–20).
(White 2014, pp. 95–96; Nora 1989, p. 12). “The defense, by certain minorities, of a privileged memory that has retreated to jealously protected enclaves in this sense intensely illuminates the truth of lieux de mémoire—that without commemorative vigilance, history would soon sweep them away”.
For this critique along with an analysis of the critique, see (Keith 2015, p. 363).
Καθὼς παρεκάλεσά σε προσμεῖναι ἐν Ἐφέσῳ πορευόμενος εἰς Μακεδονίαν, ἵνα παραγγείλῃς τισὶν μὴ ἑτεροδιδασκαλεῖν μηδὲ προσέχειν μύθοις καὶ γενεαλογίαις ἀπεράντοις, αἵτινες ἐκζητήσεις παρέχουσιν μᾶλλον ἢ οἰκονομίαν θεοῦ τὴν ἐν πίστει.
Plato, Timaeus 23b. Although he does not use the term γενεαλογία, he uses the cognate verb γενεαλογέω, which conveys the idea of relating genealogies.
For further uses of these terms, see, (Kidson 2020, pp. 125–26).
(Towner 2006, p. 110); (Marshall and Towner 1999, pp. 355–56). These two interpretations—gnostic and Jewish—are not necessarily mutually exclusive. There are a number of mediating positions between them. For a discussion of several mediating views, see, (Thornton 2014, pp. 38–39).
The earliest reception of the Pastoral Epistles is difficult to determine and highly contested. See (Looks 1999).
Translation: Dominic J. Unger, trans., St. Irenaeus of Lyons: Against the Heresies, vol. 1, revisions by John J. Dillon (Unger 1992). Although this work is only fully extant in Latin, there is a Greek fragment of this portion of the preface. Ἐπεὶ τὴν ἀλήθειαν παραπεμπόμενοί τινες ἐπεισάγουσι λόγους ψευδεῖς καὶ γενεαλογίας ἀπεράντους, αἵτινες ζητήσεις μᾶλλον παρέχουσι. (SC 264).
Tertullian, Praescr. 33. Translation: Thomas Herbert Bindley, trans., Tertullian on the Testimony of the Soul and on the “Prescription” of Heretics (Bindley 1914, pp. 80–81). Sed et cum genealogieas indeterminatas nominat, Valentinus agnoscitur, apud quem Aeon ille nescio qui noui et non unius nominis generat ex sua Charite Sensum et Veritatem; et hi aeque procreant ex se Sermonem et Vitam, dehine et isti generant Hominem et Ecclesiam de qua prima ogdoade Aeonum exinde decem alii et duodecim reliqui Aeones miris nominibus oriuntur in meram fabulam triginta Aeonum. (SC 46)
See (Bauckham 2003). For a discussion of the Ebionites in Tertullian’s writings, see, (Klign and Reinink 1973, pp. 21–22).
Tertullian, Val. 3. Translation: Mark Timothy Riley, “Q. S. Fl. Tertulliani Adversus Valentinianos: Test, Translation, and Commentary”, (Ph.D. dissertation, Riley 1971). sed qui ex alia conscientia venerit fidei, si inveniat tot nomina Aeonum, tot conjugia, tot genimina, tot exitus, tot eventus felicitates infelicitates dispersae atque concisae divinitatis, dubitabitne ibidem pronuntiare has esse fabulas et genealogias indeterminatas quas apostoli spiritus, his iam tunc pullulantibus seminibus haereticis, damnare praevenit?
Translation: Flower, Imperial Invectives against Constantius. Καὶ Ἕλληνες μὲν, ὡς εἴπεν ὁ Ἀπόστολος, ἐν ὑπεροχῇ καὶ πειθοῖ λόγων καὶ σοφίσμασι πιθανοῖς ἐπιχειροῦσιν· Ἰουδαῖοι δὲ, ἀφέντες τὰς θείας Γραφὰς, λοιπὸν, ὡς εἶπεν ὁ Ἀπόστολος, ἐν μύθοις καὶ γενεαλογίαις ἀπεράντοις ἔχουσι τὴν ἔριν· Μανιχαἶοι γὰρ καὶ Oὐαλεντῖνοι σὺν αὐτοῖς, καὶ ἄλλοι, καπηλεύοντες τὰς θείας Γραφὰς, τοῖς ἑαυτῶν ἐπιπλάστοις λόγοις μυθολογοῦσιν. (PG 25:772).
Chrysostom, Hom. 1 Tim 1 (NPNF 13:410) Μηδὲ προσέχειν, φησί, μύθοις καὶ γενεαλογίαις ἀπεράντοις. Μύθους οὐ τὸν νόμον φησὶν, ἄπαγε· ἀλλὰ τὰς παραποιήσεις καὶ τὰ παραχαράγματα καὶ τὰ παράσημα δόγματα. Εἰκὸς γὰρ τοὺς ἐξ Ἰουδαίων ἐν τοῖς ἀνανήτοις τὸν πάντα λόγον ἀναλίσκειν, πάππους καὶ προπάππους ἀριθμοῦντας, ἵνα δῆθεν ἐμπειρίας πολλῆς καὶ ἱστορίας δόξαν ἔχωσιν. Ἵνα παραγγείλῃς τισὶ, φησί, μὴ ἑτεροδιδασκαλεῖν, μηδὲ προσέχειν μύθοις καὶ γενεαλογίαις ἀπεράντοις. (PG 62:504).


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