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First Timothy chapter 4 is often used to denounce veganism as being anti-Christian and even demonic. This is a favourite theme for many hard-line fundamentalists, but it is also used by right-wing conspiracy theorists. In contrast, I argue that a closer examination of the passage in question, and its context, shows that Paul is clearly not referring to anything similar to contemporary veganism but to a very harsh form of asceticism based on an unbiblical view of creation. In fact, after analysing the King James Version of the Bible it becomes apparent that much of the confusion over this matter is simply linked to the use of ‘meats’ in 17th century English, which does not mean ‘animal flesh’ like its present-day equivalent.

Far from denouncing veganism I maintain that Paul is actually upholding the creation account given in Genesis chapters one and two. His polemic was and is against those who deny the incarnation of Christ, the goodness of God’s creation, and promote dualism and severe forms of asceticism as a means of union with God and sanctification. Paul contends that harsh bodily mortification is useless and that Christians should be seeking true inner godliness instead. I see the misreading of 1 Timothy 4, ultimately, as an example of how the Bible can be used in order to help perpetuate worldviews and traditions which are beginning to be questioned in society; it also underlines how Scripture can become a pretext to promote false ideologies. Sadly, as is the case with much poor exegesis I argue that 1 Timothy 4 has been excluded from its:

 

1) Immediate context: both linguistic and conceptual

2) The general context and message of 1 Timothy 

3) The rest of the New Testament

4) The overall teaching and direction of Scripture

5) Common sense and knowledge from other fields of learning

 

 1. Creation and Gnostic Myths

 

From the book itself we can understand that the letter of 1 Timothy was written by Paul to Timothy in order to help his young pupil who was stationed in the church in Ephesus. Timothy was young (4:12), and apparently fearful.[1] Paul at the start of the Letter immediately underlines the purpose of his writing:

As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion,desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions (1:3-7).

Paul wants Timothy to stop certain false teachers ‘who devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies’.[2] These teachers also seem to act as if they are teachers of the ‘law’, even though their interpretation of the Law of Moses is particularly heterodox: the Hebrew Scriptures appear only to be a starting point — and were normally turned upside down — from which they developed their convoluted theories and stories.[3] Many scholars agree,[4] and the internal evidence in the letter point to a form of proto-Gnosticism as being the error that Paul is attacking;[5] in fact, Paul directly mentions proto-Gnosticism at the end of the letter. This is not so easy to understand from the English translation but is seen clearly in the Greek: ‘O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge” [gnosis]’. The word for knowledge is gnosis, from which the word ‘Gnosticism’ is derived. The errors mentioned in the letter fit perfectly with what we know about Gnosticism, even though this would develop fully only in the next two centuries.[6]

While being a philosophy that encompassed various positions and contradicted itself in many doctrines, Gnosticism was essentially an esoteric and dualistic view of the world that believed that the physical creation was made by an inferior demiurge.[7] This lesser ‘god’, whom the Gnostics identified with the Jewish God of the Old Testament, had trapped human beings in the inferior material creation. At the same time a more spiritual god had sent Lucifer to aid humanity by opening its eyes and helping it to escape the bondage of the material realm. As can be seen, the Gnostic account of creation, which could actually be extremely complex and utilised long convoluted genealogies, contradicted almost completely the Biblical view of creation. The Gnostics also believed they possessed special ‘knowledge’ that helped them escape the earthly realm of existence, and which would bring about their salvation. Despite their controversies Gnostics tended to have four main areas of agreement:

First, they believed in one God who is wholly transcendent, spiritual and far removed from the fallen, material universe, which he did not create. The physical universe was created by an evil or demented lesser god (a “demiurge”). Second, human beings are sparks (or droplets) of the same material substance that God is and have somehow become trapped in physical bodies, which are like tombs to be escaped. Third, Gnostics all agreed that the “fall” that led to sin and evil is identical to the fall into matter. Creation and fall coincide. As long as spirits are trapped in physical bodies and materiality, they will be subject to sin, which is caused by ignorance of their nature and home. The fourth common feature of Gnostic belief was their vision of salvation. All Gnostics agreed that salvation is to escape from the bondage of material existence and travel back to the home from which souls/spirits have fallen. The possibility is initiated by the great Spirit, God, who wishes to draw back to himself the stray bits and pieces. God sends forth an emanation of himself — a spiritual redeemer — who descends through layers and layers of reality from pure spirit to dense matter and attempts to teach some of the divine sparks of Spirit their true identity and home. Once awakened, they are able to begin the journey back. Salvation is by knowledge — self-knowledge. Finally, all of the Gnostics (so far as anyone knows) considered themselves Christians and regarded Jesus as the human vehicle for this heavenly messenger, “Christ”. All rejected the idea of God becoming incarnate, dying and rising bodily. Such beliefs were considered unspiritual and against true wisdom because they entangled spirit with matter.[8]

As mentioned earlier in the first century Gnosticism was not the fully developed kind we find in the second and third centuries and it would be more appropriate to talk of proto-Gnosticism. At the same time, many of the features of later Gnosticism are already present. The dualistic worldview of Gnosticism led to the opposite tendencies of extreme licentiousness and harsh forms of asceticism: this was because the body was of limited importance and had been transcended through special spiritual knowledge. Whereas letters like 1 John, 2 Peter and Jude — together with parts of 1 Corinthians — lambast the libertine version of Gnosticism, 1 Timothy and Colossians appear to address the more legalistic and especially the Gnostic tendencies that brought about self-mortification. And yet it would seem that libertine tendencies, and profound greed, may have been present even in the church of Ephesus and that Paul addresses some of them in 1 Timothy.[9] Various Gnostic tendencies, whether legalism, asceticism or libertinism often coexisted in the churches as mixtures or in opposition to each other: many Gnostic sects and movements were actually often an amalgam of legalism and asceticism as in the case of certain Gnostics in the church of Colossae.[10]

Stay tuned for Part Two coming soon!  For those who want to read the entire article:

1 Timothy 4 and Veganism- A Closer Look.


[1] 2 Timothy 1:7.
[2] See also Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy. The New Jerome Bible Handbook (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1992), 277-283.
[3] Their teachings appear to have little to no resemblance to traditional forms of Judaism, and are often the complete opposite of the way these Scriptures were interpreted, with the addition of elaborate elements.
[4] Kenneth Barker, ed., The NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 1834, 1840; See also Richard Clark Kroeger and Catherine Clark Kroeger, I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1992), 59-66, 117-125.
[5] Myer Pearlman, Through the Bible Book by Book, Part IV Epistles and Revelation (Springfield MO: Gospel Publishing House, 1935), 48-53.
[6] Terrance L. Tiessen, “Gnosticism as heresy: the response of Irenaeus,” Didaskalia 18, no. 1 (2007): 31-48.
[7] Edward Moore and John Turner, “Gnosticism,” in The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity, ed. Lloyd Gerson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 174-196.
[8] Roger Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 37-39.
[9] 1 Timothy 6:5.
[10] Colossians chapter 2.


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