Any careful student of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus will eventually raise an important question: When did the Apostle Paul write these letters? Or did he? These questions represent a major puzzle of New Testament history and chronology. They deserve to be explored.
Since the eighteenth century, a good number of biblical scholars have concluded that the historical references in these letters—sometimes called the Pastoral Epistles—are simply contrived and inaccurate. In this post, I won't take up the impressive linguistic evidence against the Pauline authorship of the Pastorals. But I do want to sort out the biblical text and other evidence which come together to shape the classic solution to the historical problems.
In 1 Timothy 1:3, Paul points back to a time when he departed for Macedonia, urging Timothy to “remain on at Ephesus” (NASB). It’s obvious that this letter was written sometime later. But when was that?
We do know that Paul once traveled from Troas to the province of Macedonia. He was responding to his vision of a man pleading, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9). However, there's no record in Acts 16 of Paul leaving Timothy in Ephesus. In fact, at that time, Paul could not have left Timothy to continue the mission in Ephesus, because he had not yet begun his work there. Ephesus was the most important city in the Roman province Asia, and Acts 16:6 tells us that Paul and Silas were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.”
As an alternative, someone might say that 1 Timothy 1:3 points back instead to Acts 20:1. That verse tells us that Paul “left to go to Macedonia.” But in this case as well, Paul could not have left Timothy in Ephesus. Acts 19:22 says that while he was in Ephesus, Paul sent both Timothy and Erastus into Macedonia. The next time we meet Timothy, he is with Paul in Corinth (Acts 20:4). So there’s simply no point in the timeline of Acts when Paul went to Macedonia, leaving Timothy at Ephesus. But that is what 1 Timothy 1:3 implies that Paul did.
A similar problem presents itself when we read the letter to Titus. There we learn that Paul has evidently gone to the island of Crete and has left Titus there (Titus 1:5). But where do we read about this in the Book of Acts? We don't.
Finally, we come to Second Timothy, the only one of these three letters written from prison. At first glance, it might seem as though Paul wrote this letter during his confinement recorded at the end of Acts. But again, the picture in the letter and the picture in Acts do not agree. For one thing, Acts 28:30 speaks of Paul living in a rented house or apartment. Verse 31 says that he was able to receive and teach anyone who came to see him.
What’s more, Paul fully expected to be released. For example, during this time he writes to the Philippians, “I know that this shall turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ” (1:19). A few verses later he says “I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith, so that your proud confidence in me may abound in Christ Jesus through my coming to you again” (1:25-26). In his letter to Philemon (v. 22), Paul requests that a place be prepared for him to stay once he arrives.
How different that is from the Paul we hear in 2 Timothy. There the Apostle is not expecting to be released so that he can travel to Philippi and other places. In 2 Timothy 4:6-8, Paul looks to his heavenly home. He clearly expects to be martyred for the sake of Christ and the gospel.
William Barclay sums it up well when he says that the so-called Pastoral Epistles "show Paul engaged in activities for which there is neither place nor room in his life as we know it from the book of Acts" (The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, rev. ed. [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975], p. 12).
The Classic Solution
All of this moves us towards a single conclusion: when we read Paul's letters to Timothy and Titus, we are dealing with a time after the history reported in Acts.
The first few words of Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon add support for this view. All three letters were apparently written from Rome during the time recorded in Acts 28, and each one reveals that Timothy was with the author at the time. By contrast, when Paul wrote 1 and 2 Timothy, his protege was obviously not with him in Rome. Instead, Timothy was hundreds of miles to the east in Ephesus.
So if we again ask the questions, When did Paul depart for Macedonia, leaving Timothy in Ephesus? When did he preach on the island of Crete and leave Titus to carry on the mission there? And when was he imprisoned at Rome with little hope of release? the best answer is, It seems to have been some time beyond the life of Paul that we know from Acts.
What this means is that Paul must have been released from the Roman captivity we know from Acts 28. This matches up well with the positive sense that Paul had when he wrote the so-called Prison Epistles (I prefer the term Captivity Letters). It also means that, after his release, Paul made further mission trips during which time he wrote 1 Timothy and Titus. Eventually, Paul was arrested again, taken to Rome, and finally executed there.
But is there any evidence, other than the silence of the biblical text, that supports this view? There is.
The Extra-Biblical Evidence
A strong point in favor of this reading is a statement by Clement of Rome. Clement’s letter to the church at Corinth is the earliest available Christian document outside the New Testament. Writing in about the year A.D. 95, Clement says of Paul,
seven times he was imprisoned, he was exiled, he was stoned, he was a preacher in both east and west, and won great renown for his faith, teaching uprightness to the whole world, and reaching the farthest limit of the west, and bearing a martyr's witness before the rulers he passed out of the world and was taken up into the holy place, having provided a very great example of endurance (1 Clement 5:5-7, as translated by Edgar J. Goodspeed, The Apostolic Fathers [London: Independent Press, 1950], pp. 51-52).
Since Clement pens these words from Rome, his reference to "the farthest limit of the west" must mean Spain, the edge of the Roman Empire. Interestingly enough, Spain was Paul’s intended destination according to Romans 15:24-28.
A second important piece of evidence from the ancient world is the so-called "Muratorian Canon." This fragment of a manuscript dates back to as early as the year 180 and contains a partial list of the apostolic writings which were read by the contemporary church at Rome. (I'm aware that a newer theory would date the Muratorian Fragment much later and give it an eastern origin. But for reasons offered by C.E. Hill, for example, I am unconvinced and prefer the traditional view). Concerning the Book of Acts it says:
The Acts of all the Apostles, however, were written in one volume. Luke described briefly 'for' excellent Theophilus particular [things], which happened in his presence, as he also evidently relates indirectly the death of Peter and also Paul's departure from the city as he was proceeding to Spain (translation by Daniel Theron, Evidence of Tradition [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1957], p. 109).
Clearly then, Christians living in Rome at the end of the second century considered Paul's trip to Spain a fact from history.
At this point someone might ask, If Paul was released from his confinement in Rome at the end of Acts, how do we account for his being in prison as he writes Second Timothy? How was it that Paul stood before the Caesarean court, was acquitted, but was later arrested once again? If we had good reason to believe that, following his trip to Spain, Paul was brought back to Rome and martyred there, it would make more sense. Again, extra-biblical history provides that reason.
The Great Fire and Persecution
On the night of July 18/19, A.D. 64, fire broke out and spread through the city of Rome. The flames raged for nine days. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, most of Rome was either destroyed or seriously damaged. Although the emperor Nero was not in Rome at the time, many of the people believed that he was responsible. He had ordered the city to be burned, they thought, so that he could rebuild Rome according to his dreams.
Needing a diversion from the damaging rumor, Nero blamed the Christians of Rome, a misunderstood and despised group (compare Acts 28:22). And thus began a deadly persecution against the believers. Some of the Christians were sewn up in animal skins and fed to vicious dogs. Others were fastened to crosses and burned alive. Depraved Nero opened his fabulous gardens to the people of Rome who gathered for public executions (Tacitus, Annals, 15.38-44).
It is entirely probable that at this time the Romans arrested Paul. If ordinary Christians were being persecuted, then surely Paul, an Apostle of Jesus Christ, would be seized and brought back to Rome. Perhaps the authorities reasoned that if they merely destroyed Christian foot soldiers, they would win only a battle. But if they destroyed Paul, a leading general, they could win the war against Christianity.
Whatever the circumstances, it seems clear that because of ignorance and hatred, Paul, a well-known leader among the early Christians, was returned to Rome where he gave his life because of his stand with Christ. It was just before his martyrdom that Paul wrote 2 Timothy. Picture him sitting in a dungeon, not knowing the time of his coming execution. Winter approaches and he has no coat to keep him warm. As the hours and days pass, he wishes he had his books and parchments (2 Timothy 4:13-21). Still, his words exude a patient trust:
For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing (2 Timothy 4:6-8, KJV).
Not long after he wrote those words of assurance and peace, Paul was required to pay the ultimate price for his faith. May each Christian grow in faith and in the knowledge of the wonderful Savior whom Paul so loved and trusted even in death.
Note: A version of this post first appeared in the Gospel Advocate magazine for August 2006.