Some Thoughts on 2 Timothy 3:16–17

For many Christians, the meaning of 2 Timothy 3:16 is clear and uncomplicated. They insist that the creator of this text was stating that the sixty-six books that comprise the Protestant Bible are the only books that are inspired by God and that inspiration assures God’s initiation, engagement, and oversight of the authorship, transmission, canonization, and translation of these texts for three millennia! That is quite a lot to determine from this one passage and especially from what is the very brief, but most important, phrase to evangelicals in this passage.

When most evangelical and fundamentalist Christians read 2 Timothy 3:16–17, the most important phrase is “πᾶσα γραφὴ θεόπνευστος”  (pasa graphe theopneustos), which is most often translated as, “all Scripture is God-breathed.” Yet, if we truly strive to understand this brief statement—found only here in the New Testament—in its historical and literary contexts, much of what is taught and understood about it is seriously brought into question.

To What Does “all Scripture” Refer?

Most evangelical and fundamentalist Christians have been taught that the author of this passage was referring to, at least, the thirty-none books of the Protestant Old Testament, and by implication, the entire sixty-six books of the Protestant canon. Even if it is granted that Paul wrote this passage to Timothy—though most modern biblical scholars have concluded that assumption is likely incorrect—how is it possible to know what exactly constituted “all Scripture” in Paul’s understanding? There was no “the Bible” during the life of Paul, who died in the mid-60s CE. Also, three centuries later, our three oldest biblical codices are different in content in both the Old Testament, and even in the New Testament, than the thirty-nine books of the Protestant Old Testament and the twenty-seven books of the Protestant New Testament.[1]

Since there was no established and closed Jewish Scripture canon until at least after the Second Jewish War (i.e., post 135 CE) and no established and closed Christian canon until at least the late fourth century CE, it is clearly anachronistic to read “all Scripture” as the sixty-six books of the Protestant canon, which was established during the Reformation some fifteen centuries later. At the very best, no one can say with certainty which books the author of 2 Timothy had in mind when he wrote this passage, especially if it was Paul, but even if it was a later disciple of the apostle.

What Does “God-breathed” Mean?

First, it is important to note that the Greek word, θεόπνευστος, is a hapax legomenon, which means that it appears only once in all biblical literature. In fact, I cannot find where it is used in any of the Classical and Hellenistic Greek literature we possess, up to and including that of the earliest Church Fathers (i.e., the Apostolic Fathers, 75-150 CE).

It seems to be a word created by the author of 2 Timothy by combining the word for “God” (θεός) and an undetermined form of the word for “to breath” (πνέω). Thus, it is best translated as “God-breathed” and not as “inspired by God.” Yet, what does it mean (or involve) that any writing is “God-breathed?” Many have taken this to mean that something is virtually dictated by God to the authors of “all Scripture” to ensure that what they wrote was “the word of God.” Modern evangelical biblical scholars love this word and take this passage, along with a few supporting texts, as the be-all, end-all of God’s involvement in the production of the so-called, but lost, autographs. This understanding is so foundational to Gregory Boyd’s “Cruciform Hermeneutic” that it can be found 35 times in the first 105 pages in his 1500-page magnum opus, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God.  Regarding his understanding of “God-breathed,” Boyd states,

“For this reason, the church throughout history has traditionally confessed that all material within the canon of Scripture is “God-breathed.” Without going into the multitude of disputed issues that surround how God “breathed” Scripture—issues that I will in a moment argue are as unnecessary to unravel as they are impossible to resolve—I will begin to flesh out my understanding of this confession by simply registering my agreement with the historic-orthodox tradition that this “breathing” entails that God is, in some sense, the ultimate author of all canonical works.”[2]

Firstly, it is a huge and unproveable assumption that “the church throughout history has traditionally confessed that all material within the canon of Scripture is “God-breathed.” He does so without any citations whatsoever. The lack of citation is not surprising in that the church had no established canon for at least 350 years following Jesus’ life, and especially given that Boyd’s sixty-six book canon of Scripture is the result of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. In fact, the term Boyd (and other evangelicals) so favour is not even used in, at least, the first 150 years of Jesus movements, with the lone exception of 2 Timothy. Secondly, Boyd introduces a very vague statement on what “God-breathed” entails: “that God is, in some sense, the ultimate author of all canonical works.” What does “the ultimate author” mean? In the remainder of his monograph, Boyd obviously believes that every word in the sixty-six books of the Protestant canon is approved by God for “publication.” God allowed the authors to write what they did, and God had a purpose in allowing them to do so.

But is that really what the author of 2 Timothy is getting at? What does “God-breathed” mean in its literary context, which involves at minimum 3:14-17? While almost every English version translates “πᾶσα γραφὴ θεόπνευστος,” as “all Scripture is God-breathed” or “all Scripture is inspired by God,” these are not the only grammatically possible translations. As the footnote for 2 Timothy 3:16 in the NRSV notes, “Or Every scripture inspired by God is also…”. Given the overall context, this is the better translation. What the author is emphasizing with his audience is that not only are the “sacred writings…able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus”, but also that “every God-breathed scripture is also useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and training in righteousness.” The stress here is not on establishing the divine origin of “sacred writings”/ “God-breathed scripture” but on what these writings are able to do and are useful for, with the ultimate goal that “the person of God may be proficient, equipped for every good deed.” That is why the author urges Timothy to “preach the word…in season and out of season.”

This does not minimize the importance of seeing the writings as “sacred” or “holy” and the Scripture as “God-breathed.” In fact, it establishes that sacred, God-breathed writings “are able” and “useful.” However, this passage does not tell us either what “holy” or “God-breathed” means or involves nor exactly which “writings” or “Scriptures” the author had in mind.  Boyd, along with so many evangelical and fundamentalist authors, provide anachronistic and unfounded answers to these vital questions and then use their answers as foundational for how to read their canon of Scripture.

In Summary

Firstly, no one knows, or can know, for certain which texts this author had in mind in the late first century CE. To state that the author was thinking of the books that comprise the Protestant canon is presumptuous and anachronistic, and unfounded by all the evidence we possess regarding the late dates for, and pluriformity of, the canons of Scripture. Secondly, no one knows, or can know, for certain what the author meant when he created the word, θεόπνευστος. Until its usage in 2 Timothy 3:16, I am not aware that this word appears in any ancient Greek (Classical or Hellenistic) literature to which we have access. Θεόπνευστος, at the time of this usage, is what is known as a hapax legomenon—a word or form occurring only once in a document or corpus of literature. Finally, there is another grammatically legitimate way to translate the Greek of 2 Timothy 3:16-17, which better fits the overall context (vv. 14-17), with the emphasis on what God-breathed writing can do, rather than what its contents and nature are: “Every God-breathed writing is also useful for instruction, for rebuke, for correction, for righteousness, so that the person of God might be fully ready, made complete for every good work.”[3]

[1] McDonald, The Biblical Canon, Table B-3: Old Testament Lists from Important Unical Manuscripts, and Table C-4: New Testament Lists from Biblical Manuscripts of the Fourth and Fifth Centuries, 442, 450-451.

[2] Boyd, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, 4-5.

[3] My translation of 2 Timothy 3:16-17.

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