The Function of the Public Reading of Scripture in 1 Timothy 4:13 and in the Biblical Tradition -- By: Philip H. Towner

Journal: Southern Baptist Journal of Theology
Volume: SBJT 07:3 (Fall 2003)
Article: The Function of the Public Reading of Scripture in 1 Timothy 4:13 and in the Biblical Tradition
Author: Philip H. Towner


The Function of the Public Reading of Scripture in
1 Timothy 4:13 and in the Biblical Tradition

Philip H. Towner

Philip H. Towner is a translation consultant for the United Bible Societies. He received his Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Aberdeen. Dr. Towner has published numerous books and articles and is currently working on a commentary on the Pastoral Epistles in the New International Commentary on the New Testament series.

Most commentators agree that the three activities listed in 1 Timothy 4:13—the public reading of Scripture, exhorting, and teaching—were typical features of a worship meeting.1 However, beyond linking the emphasis on activities related to Scripture to the presence of heretics in the community, little attention has been paid to the actual function performed by the public reading of Scripture in the believing community. It is this question that this article will seek to explore in an introductory way.

Even a cursory reading of 1 Timothy 4:13 immediately suggests that getting behind the instructions will require investigating backgrounds—first, the broader background of Scripture reading in Judaism and the early church, second, some parallel situations in Greco-Roman society, and third, the specific situation in Ephesus that gave rise to the instruction. The reference to “reading” is not accompanied by any helpful elaboration. In fact in the instruction, “Until I arrive, give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching,” as the Greek text shows, the three activities, reading, exhorting, and teaching, are mentioned without explicit reference to their object. Almost all agree that the understood object is “the Scriptures” (hai graphai). And on this assumption, we turn first to other texts that might shed light on the activity envisioned in the instruction along with its social and theological meaning.

Antecedents of the Church’s Public Reading of Scripture

Public Reading in Judaism

There is little doubt that the formative background of the activity enjoined in 1 Timothy 4:13 is the practice in Judaism of public Scripture readings in the synagogue.2 The New Testament gives us practically nothing in the way of information about the activity as it was carried out within the Christian communities.3 But the close relationship between worship in the synagogue and the worship of the early Christians, especially in the Diaspora, cl...

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