What does Paul mean when he says

They want to be teachers of the Torah, but they understand neither their own words nor the matters about which they make such emphatic pronouncements.

-1 Tim 1:7 (CJB)

What does he mean by this (in context), and who/what is he specifically refering to?


4 Answers 4


The author(s) of the pastoral letters only provides a few details about his opponents, including:

  • They believe 'myths', 'irreverent, silly myths', and 'Jewish myths' (1 Timothy 1.4; 4.7; Second Timothy 4.4; Titus 1.14)
  • They speculate and have vain discussions (1 Timothy 1.4,6)
  • They desire to be teachers of the law/Torah (1 Timothy 1.7)
  • They forbid marriage (1 Timothy 4.3)
  • They require abstinence from certain foods (1 Timothy 4.3)
  • They teach false knowledge (1 Timothy 6.20)
  • They teach the resurrection already happened (2 Timothy 2.17-18, cf. 1 Timothy 1.19-20)

These are vague hints, but when taken together they all may be seen as reference to the sort of gnosticism of the Sethians, possibly lumping them together with other early gnostic groups. (The Greek word for 'knowledge' in 1 Timothy 6.20 is, in fact, gnosis.)

References to gnosis ("knowledge"; 1 Tim 6:20), "myths and genealogies" (1 Tim 1:4), ascetic tendences (1 Tim 4:1-3; Titus 1:15), and realized views of eschatology (2 Tim 2:18) could all be explained by [a Gnostic] framework.

or perhaps more properly

an admixture of Jewish (Judaizing) and Gnostic (or Gnosticizing) elements.1

In this context, for the author to accuse his opponents of wanting to be 'teachers of the Torah', this could be a reference to the type of thought as represented by the Sethians' focus on the early chapters of Genesis, such as in their text Hypostasis of the Archons.

1 Philip H. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus (2010), p.42.

  • What evidence do you have that the Sethians existed at the time when 1 Timothy was composed? The earliest reference to Sethians is in Irenaeus (late second century).
    – fdb
    Jul 11, 2014 at 17:17
  • I accept the general critical opinion that Paul did not write the three pastoral letters, and that internal evidence suggests they were composed sometime in the late first, or early second century. The Sethians certainly existed before Irenaeus came along, probably by a few decades. (Irenaeus was from Turkey, while the Sethian literature we have was in Egypt.) But I did overstate my point, so I'll clarify my answer.
    – user2910
    Jul 11, 2014 at 18:11
  • I commend your position with regard to the "deutero-Pauline" epistles. Still, I think the polemic in 1 Timothy is too vague for it to be tied down to any one of the many so-called "gnostic" sects described by later authors.
    – fdb
    Jul 11, 2014 at 18:16
  • I agree what the author says is vague. This is pointed out in my answer.
    – user2910
    Jul 11, 2014 at 18:30

You might be interested to know that 1 Tim 1:7 says “teachers of the law” (νομοδιδασκαλοι). The translation “Torah” is one of those “interpretative” renderings which mar most of the modern Bible translations. νομοs is the very ordinary Greek word for “law” in all periods.


In wide brush strokes, the Christian New Testament depicts two extremes of errant believers. On the one hand, the errant proselytes of Paul tended toward antinomianism, since their background was Gentile and therefore secular; and, conversely, the errant proselytes of Peter (plus James and John) tended toward legalism, since their background was Jewish and therefore religious. The graph, below, provides the illustration.

Paul was called to minister to the uncircumcised, while Peter was called to minister to the circumcised (Gal 2:7-8). The epistles of the Christian New Testament therefore address the extremes of the other; viz., Paul tended to lean against legalism, which was the exaggeration of what is religious, and Peter (plus James and John) tended to lean against antinomianism, which was the exaggeration of what is secular. The following contrasts between PAUL and JAMES provide one example.


Romans 3:28 (NASB)
28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.
Romans 4:2-3 (NASB)
2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”


James 2:22-24 (NASB)
22 You see that faith was working with his [Abraham's] works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.

That is not to say that Paul advocated what was antinomian, for which he was accused (Rom 3:8) or that Peter (plus James and John) had advocated legalism (Gal 2:12), but that their respective (but errant) proselytes had biases toward these two respective extremes, for which Paul and Peter et al. had pushed back, respectively. Thus the "teachers of the Torah" mentioned by Paul in his first epistle to Timothy are those whose religious background had eclipsed the Gospel message with legalism. These individuals tended to be the errant proselytes from the Peter (James and John) camp.

In summary, the Apostles of the Christian New Testament are "on the same sheet of music," which is the message of the Christian Gospel. However, the errant proselytes of Paul and Peter (plus James and John) had tended to gravitate to one of two extremes, respectively.

  • What you have written, Joseph, is complete speculation without any basis in historical facts.
    – fdb
    Jul 11, 2014 at 17:07
  • @fdb - Thank you for holding me accountable; I have added more information (to include some Biblical references) to back my suppositions. Thanks!
    – Joseph
    Jul 11, 2014 at 18:00
  • 1
    I still fail to see why you connect antinomianism with gentiles and with secularism. The Roman gentiles were a decidedly law-abiding people.
    – fdb
    Jul 11, 2014 at 18:26
  • @fdp - I use antinomianism in context of the Christian New Testament (for example, fornication or drunkenness), which were not "unlawful" by the standards of Roman Law.
    – Joseph
    Jul 11, 2014 at 19:59

We only have Paul’s understanding that he was the apostle of the Gentiles and Peter of the Jews, Luke’s story regarding Cornelius in Acts rather disputes this. And Luke was a convert by Paul!

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