Historical Understanding of I Timothy 4:1-5
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
In I Timothy 4:1-5, Paul warned us about a false teaching that would infiltrate Christianity. In these verses, he wrote:
“1 The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. 2 Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. 3 They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. 4 For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”
Note: The Greek phrase translated as “last days” can also mean “latter days” or in the days after his writing.
The hypocritical teaching that Paul foretold would have two main errors: 1) forbidding marriage and 2) forbidding clean animal meat.
The first historical fulfillment of these verses occurred in the second century AD. This is among the proofs that the Pastoral epistles were written in the first century by Paul. If this heresy started while he was alive, then he would have described the heresy as existing in his day.
The past few months we have reviewed the false teachers and false doctrines that arose in the second century. Marcion was the most famous of these. But there were other false teachers who began their destructive heresies at a similar time frame. Like some of the others we described, they were Gnostics.
In this same letter, Paul warned Timothy: “Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge…” (I Timothy 6:20). Most Gnostics viewed the material world as evil but the spiritual world as good. To this end, they rejected marriage because reproduction made more material beings. They were lax in their morals since the material world was already evil. They focused highly on knowledge, but neglected Biblical precepts relating to lifestyle.
Basilides and Saturninus were two of the men who began to spread heresy during the time of Hadrian (117-138 AD) and continued to do so into the reign of Antonius (138-161 AD). Below we have four quotes from contemporary authors who describe the leaders who practiced and taught the heresy of I Timothy. 4:1-5.
“…They declare also, that marriage and generation are from Satan. Many of those, too, who belong to his school, abstain from animal food, and draw away multitudes by a feigned temperance of this kind” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, bk 1, ch 24, sec 2).
“But one Saturnilus, who flourished about the same period with Basilides, but spent his time in Antioch…And he affirms that marriage and procreation are from Satan. The majority, however, of those who belong to this (heretic’s school) abstain from animal food likewise, (and) by this affectation of asceticism (make many their dupes)…” (Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, bk 7, ch. 16).
“49. There are some who say outright that marriage is fornication and teach that it was introduced by the devil…60. But those who from a hatred for the flesh ungratefully long to have nothing to do with the marriage union and the eating of reasonable food, are both blockheads and atheists, and exercise an irrational chastity like the other heathen…102…They say: Man became like the beasts when he came to practice sexual intercourse…And if the serpent took the use of intercourse from the irrational animals and persuaded Adam to agree to have sexual union with Eve, as though the couple first created did not have such union by nature, as some think, this again is blasphemy against the creation. For it makes human nature weaker than that of the brute beasts if in this matter those who were first created by God copied them….104. Furthermore they wish to maintain that the intercourse of man and wife in marriage, which is called knowledge, is a sin; this sin is referred to as eating of the tree of good and evil, and the phrase ‘he knew’ signifies transgression of the commandment….” (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, book 3, ch 17, sections 49, 60, 102, 104).
“We must now encounter the subject of marriage, which Marcion, more continent than the apostle, prohibits. For the apostle, although preferring the grace of continence, yet permits the contraction of marriage and the enjoyment of it, and advises the continuance therein rather than the dissolution thereof” (Tert, Against Marcion, 5:7).
In these quotes, especially the one from Clement of Alexandria, the heretics had some strange reasons for rejecting marriage. Some of them thought that the serpent beguiled Adam and Eve to have relations with each other; they claimed that this was eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This is totally inaccurate and relies on a highly allegorical interpretation of Genesis chapter 3.
These false teachers were partially motivated by dualist Gnosticism, which we will review in an article next month.
While this heresy started in the second century, it would manifest itself again in later times. Centuries later, the Roman Catholic Church would adopt the policies of forbidding priests from marrying and forbidding food on certain days of the week (such as Friday and Saturday).
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org