Paul’s two letters to Timothy and his letter to Titus have been described from earliest times as “pastoral letters” because they are written to pastors of the churches of Ephesus and Crete respectively. They contain a series of rules and recommendations for the good government of those young communities, whose members mostly were of Gentile background.
Around the year 66 Paul wrote from Macedonia his first letter to Timothy and the letter to Titus. Worried about the damage being done by false teachers, he wanted to do what he could to help these two pastors carry out their serious responsibility.
Sometime later, during his imprisonment in Rome, he wrote the second letter to Timothy. He senses that his end is approaching and feels the need for Timothy’s help. It is not, therefore, his first imprisonment (61-63), from which he obtained release and probably was able to make his planned journey to Spain (cf. Rom. 15:24-28), going on later to the East, which would have been in 65. His second captivity would have been shortly before his martyrdom in the year 67. This letter, therefore, is his last and can be regarded as his spiritual testament.
Some critics have questioned the Pauline authorship of these pastoral letters (an attribution confirmed by tradition and by the magisterium of the Church) on the grounds of their literary style and doctrinal content, arguing also that the Church’s organization evidenced in the letters is much more advanced than that to be seen in other letters of the apostle. They also point out that the frequent references to “sound doctrine” (1Tim. 1:10, 2 Tim. 1:13) or the advice he gives about guarding “the truth that has been entrusted to you” (1Tim. 6:20, 2 Tim. 1:14) do not seem to fit in with Paul’s style.
These objections disappear if one bears in mind that the differences of style–the style is simpler and less rich than that of other letters–fit in with Paul’s being already an old man, as can be deduced from internal textual evidence. The new teaching which these critics see in the letters–the apostle puts special emphasis on good works–can also be explained by the practical or pastoral character these letters have. If he makes much of the need for “sound doctrine” and for guarding the deposit of faith, it is because he realizes that his end is near and he wants to put Timothy and Titus on their guard again erroneous and very dangerous new doctrines which threaten to make “shipwreck of their faith” (1Tim. 1:19).
There is no sign here of Gnostic teachings which would appear much later on, in the second century. It is, rather, a matter of “a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words” (1 Tim. 6:4), favored by certain Judaizing Christians, the result of influences emanating from hellenized Judaism and syncretism, which Paul had to deal with years before, as he says himself in his letter to the Colossians.
The teaching he gives in these letters is rich and abundant, though he does focus particularly on practical or pastoral.aspects. He was evidently very concerned about matters internal to those young communities. One of the basic points that needs attention is precisely the way the hierarchy should be organized. Far from implying–as some suggest–that Church structures have reached an advanced stage (which would be the case in a later period), these letters reflect an organization structure which is only incipient, in which, for example, the designations “bishop” and “elder” are not yet defined and even sometimes seem to mean the same thing (Titus 1:5-7), as was the case years earlier (cf. Acts 20:17-18).
But the fact that the descriptions are not distinguished does not imply that there was confusion about the role of or about the levels in the hierarchy, for both Timothy and Titus were in fact bishops and acted as bishops: It is they who ordain the elders or presbyters (1 Tim. 5:19-22; Titus 1:5-7). What initially had to do with the specific mission of the apostles was little by little being passed over to those they chose to be their successors. This was done by means of episcopal ordination and consecration. For example, Paul will say to Timothy, “what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men” (2 Tim. 2:2). The mission which Timothy received on the day of his episcopal ordination was one of passing on everything to do with the deposit of faith, which was the charge Paul himself received from the Lord. This passage indicates the critical importance of the role oral tradition played in the instruction of the faithful.
The letters to Timothy and Titus reflect precisely the period of transition when the apostles’ authority—the episcopacy established by our Lord—was being passed on to immediate successors of the apostles. Very soon after this, in the second century, the term “bishop” would become the established way to describe one who held the fullness of the priesthood, governing the college of presbyters and the other members of the faithful in a particular community, thus clearly differentiating the three levels in the hierarchy: bishops, priests, and deacons.
These three letters also bring out the central points of Christian dogma–faith and hope in Christ, the mediator between God and man; the redemption and God’s desire that all men be saved; the Church as God’s household and the pillar and ground of truth: one, holy, universal, that is to say, catholic in the sense that everyone is called to belong to it, irrespective of race, language, or nation.
The consequence of this is that, while it is on earth, the Church is composed of all kinds of people, unfaithful as well as faithful. In this one piece of material (Rom. 9:21), some are saints or at least on the way to becoming saints, and others are not, because their infidelity prevents grace from acting in their souls. Paul in this way says it is wrong to think that the Church has room only for saints and sinless people; no one should be scandalized when he sees evidence of Christians’ human shortcomings. Hence the need to pray for everyone, living and dead; hence also the necessary part played by good example if any effective apostolate is to be done and the dangers inherent in the active life if interior life and the pursuit of virtue are neglected. Everything Paul recommends echoes what our Lord taught his disciples and what the magisterium of the Church also teaches today.