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“But know this, that in the last days grievous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, haughty, railers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy.... And like as Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses, so do these also withstand the truth; men corrupted in mind, reprobate concerning the faith.”—2 Tim. iii. 1, 2, 8.

In the first chapter the Apostle looks back over the past; in the second he gives directions about the present; in the third he looks forward into the future. These divisions are not observed with rigidity throughout, but they hold good to a very considerable extent. Thus in the first division he remembers Timothy’s affectionate grief at parting, his faith and that of his family, and the spiritual gift conferred on him at his ordination. And respecting himself he remembers his teaching Timothy, his being deserted by those in Asia, his being ministered to by Onesiphorus. In the second chapter he charges Timothy to be willing to suffer hardships with him, and instructs him how to conduct himself in the manifold difficulties of his present position. And now he goes on to forewarn and forearm him against dangers and troubles which he foresees in the future.

376 There are several prophecies in the New Testament similar to the one before us. There is that of St. Paul to the Ephesian Church some ten years before, just before his final departure for the bonds and afflictions which awaited him at Jerusalem. “I know that after my departing grievous wolves shall enter in among you, not sparing the flock; and from your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts xx. 29, 30). The Epistles to Timothy show that this prediction was already being fulfilled during the Apostle’s lifetime. There is, secondly, the prophecy respecting the great falling away and the revealing of the man of sin, which is somewhat parallel to the one before us (2 Thess. ii. 3–7). Thirdly, there is the similar prediction in the First Epistle to Timothy (iv. 1–3). And besides these three by St. Paul, there are those contained in 2 Peter ii. 1, 2 about the rise of false teachers, and in the First Epistle of St. John (ii. 18 and iv. 3) about the coming of antichrist. Those in 2 Thessalonians and 2 Peter should be compared with the one before us, as containing a mixture of present and future. This mixture has been made the basis of a somewhat frivolous objection. It has been urged that the shifting from future to present and back again indicates the hand of a writer who is contemporary with the events which he pretends to foretell. Sometimes he adopts the form of prophecy and uses the future tense. But at other times the influence of facts is too strong for him. He forgets his assumed part as a prophet, and writes in the present tense of his own experiences. Such an objection credits the feigned prophet with a very small amount of intelligence. Are we seriously to suppose 377 that any one would be so stupid as to be unable to sustain his part for half a dozen verses, or less, without betraying himself? But, in fact, the change of tense indicates nothing of the kind. It is to be explained in some cases by the fact that the germs of the evils predicted were already in existence, in others by the practice (especially common in prophecy) of speaking of what is certain to happen as if it were already a fact. The prophet is often a seer, who sees as present what is distant or future; and hence he naturally uses the present tense, even when he predicts.

The meaning of the “last days” is uncertain. The two most important interpretations are: (1) the whole time between Christ’s first and second coming, and (2) the portion immediately before Christ’s second coming. Probability is greatly in favour of the latter; for the other makes the expression rather meaningless. If these evils were to come at all, they must come between the two Advents; for there is no other time: and in that case why speak of this period as the “last days”? It might be reasonable to call them “these last days,” but not “last days” without such specification. At the present time it would not be natural to speak of an event as likely to happen in the last days, when we meant that it would happen between our own time and the end of the world. The expression used in 1 Tim. iv. 1 very probably does mean no more than “in future times; hereafter” (ἐν ὑστέροις καιροῖς). But here and in 2 Pet. iii. 3 the meaning rather is “in the last days; when the Lord is at hand.” It is then that the enemy will be allowed to put forth all his power, in order to be more completely overthrown. Then indeed there will be perilous, critical, grievous times (καιροὶ χαλεποί). The Apostle treats it as possible, or even probable, 378 that Timothy will live to see the troubles which will mark the eve of Christ’s return. The Apostles shared, and contributed to produce, the belief that the Lord would come again soon, within the lifetime of some who were then alive. Even at the close of a long life we find the last surviving Apostle pointing out to the Church that “it is the last hour” (1 John ii. 18), obviously meaning by that expression, that it is the time immediately preceding the return of Christ to judge the world. And some twenty years later we find Ignatius writing to the Ephesians “These are the last times (ἔσχατοι καιροι). Henceforth let us be reverent; let us fear the longsuffering of God, lest it turn into a judgment against us. For either let us fear the wrath which is to come, or let us love the grace which now is” (Eph. xi.). Only by the force of experience was the mind of the Church cleared so as to see the Kingdom of Christ in its true perspective. The warning which Jesus had given, that “of that day or that hour knoweth no one, not even the angels in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father,” seems to have been understood as meaning no more than the declaration “in an hour that ye think not the Son of man cometh.” That is, it was understood as a warning against being found unprepared, and not as a warning against forming conjectures as to how near Christ’s return was. Therefore we need not be at all surprised at St. Paul writing to Timothy in a way which implies that Timothy will probably live to see the evils which will immediately precede Christ’s return, and must be on his guard against being amazed or overwhelmed by them. He is to “turn away from” the intense wickedness which will then be manifested, and go on undismayed with his own work.

379 “Like as Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses, so do these also withstand the truth.” The Apostle is obviously referring to the Egyptian magicians mentioned in Exodus. But in the Pentateuch neither their number nor their names are given; so that we must suppose that St. Paul is referring to some Jewish tradition on the subject. The number two was very possibly suggested by the number of their opponents:—Moses and Aaron on one side, and two magicians on the other. And on each side it is a pair of brothers; for the Targum of Jonathan represents the magicians as sons of Balaam, formerly instructors of Moses, but afterwards his enemies. The names vary in Jewish tradition. Jannes is sometimes Johannes, and Jambres is sometimes either Mambres or Ambrosius. The tradition respecting them was apparently widely spread. It was known to Numenius, a Platonic philosopher of Apameia in Syria, who is mentioned by Clement of Alexandria (Strom., I. xxii.), and quoted by Origen and Eusebius as giving an account of Jannes and Jambres (Con. Cels., IV. li.; Præp. Evang., IX. viii.). In Africa we find some knowledge of the tradition exhibited by Appuleius, the famous author of the Golden Ass, who like Numenius flourished in the second century. And in the previous century another Latin writer, Pliny the Elder, shows a similar knowledge. Both of them mention Jannes as a magician in connexion with Moses, who is also in their eyes a magician; but Pliny appears to think that both Moses and Jannes were Jews.9393   Est et alia Magices factio a Moyse, et Janne, et Jotape Judæis pendens (Plin. Hist. Nat., XXX. ii.).
    Si quamlibet emolumentum probaveritis, ego ille sim Carinondas, vel Damigeron, vel is Moses, vel Jannes [al. l. Johannes], vel Apollonius, vel ipse Dardanus, vel quieunque post Zoroastren et Hostanen inter Magos celebratus est (Appul., Apologia, 544, p. 580 ed. Oudendorp).
It is highly improbable 380 that any of these writers derived their knowledge of these names from the passage before us; in the case of Pliny this would scarcely have been possible. His Natural History was published about A.D. 77, and at that time the Second Epistle to Timothy must have been known to but few, even among Christians. The author of the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus very possibly did derive his knowledge of the names from St. Paul; yet he may have had independent sources of information. He represents Nicodemus as pleading before Pilate that Jannes and Jambres worked miracles before Pharaoh; “but because they were not from God, what they did was destroyed.” Whereas “Jesus raised up Lazarus, and he is alive” (chap. v.).

One of the ablest of English commentators on these Epistles remarks upon this passage, “It is probable that the Apostle derived these names from a current and (being quoted by him) true tradition of the Jewish Church.” And in a similar spirit a writer in the Dictionary of the Bible thinks that it would be “inconsistent with the character of an inspired record for a baseless or incorrect current tradition to be cited.”

Let us look at the phenomena of the case and see whether the number and the names appear to be trustworthy or otherwise, and then consider the question of inspiration. To drag in the latter question in order to determine the former, is to begin at the wrong end.

That there should be a pair of brothers to oppose a pair of brothers, has been pointed out already as a suspicious circumstance. The jingling pairing of the 381 names is also more like fiction than fact. Thirdly, the names appear to be in formation, not Egyptian, but Hebrew; which would naturally be the case if Jews invented them, but would be extraordinary if they were genuine names of Egyptians. Lastly, Jannes might come from a Hebrew root which means “to seduce,” and Jambres from one which means “to rebel.” If Jews were to invent names for the Egyptian magicians, what names would they be more likely to fasten on them than such as would suggest seductive error and rebellious opposition? And is it probable that a really trustworthy tradition, on such an unimportant fact as the names of the enchanters who opposed Moses, would have survived through so many centuries? Sober and unbiassed critics will for the most part admit that the probabilities are very decidedly against the supposition that these names are true names, preserved from oblivion by some written or unwritten tradition outside Scripture.

But is it consistent with the character of an inspired writer to quote an incorrect tradition? Only those who hold somewhat narrow and rigid theories of inspiration will hesitate to answer this question in the affirmative. No one believes that inspired persons are in possession of all knowledge on all subjects. And if these names were commonly accepted as authentic by the Jews of St. Paul’s day, would his inspiration necessarily keep him from sharing that belief? Even if he were well aware that the tradition respecting the names was untrustworthy, there would be nothing surprising in his speaking of the magicians under their commonly accepted names, when addressing one to whom the tradition would be well known. And if (as is more probable) he believed the names to be genuine, 382 there is still less to surprise us in his making use of them to add vivacity to the comparison. Nothing in God’s dealings with mankind warrants us in believing that He would grant a special revelation to an Apostle, in order to preserve him from so harmless a proceeding as illustrating an argument by citing the incorrect details which tradition had added to historical facts. And it is worth noting that nothing is based upon the names; they occur in what is mere illustration. And even in the illustration it is not the names that have point, but the persons, who are supposed to have borne them; and the persons are real, although the names are probably fictitious. Still less are we warranted in believing, as Chrysostom suggests, that St. Paul by inspiration had supernatural knowledge of the names. As we have seen, the names were known even to Gentiles who cannot well have derived their knowledge from him; and why should he have received a revelation about a trifle which in no way helps his argument? Such views of inspiration, although the product of a reverential spirit, degrade rather than exalt our conceptions of it. The main point of the comparison between the two cases appears to be opposition to the truth. But there is perhaps more in it than that. The magicians withstood Moses by professing to do the same wonders that he did; and the heretics withstood Timothy by professing to preach the same gospel as he did. This was frequently the line taken by heretical teachers; to disclaim all intention of teaching anything new, and to profess substantial, if not complete, agreement with those whom they opposed. They affirmed that their teaching was only the old truth looked at from another point of view. They used the same phraseology as Apostles had used: they merely 383 gave it a more comprehensive (or, as would now be said, a more catholic) meaning. In this way the unwary were more easily seduced, and the suspicions of the simple were less easily aroused. But such persons betray themselves before long. Their mind is found to be tainted; and when they are put to the proof respecting the faith, they cannot stand the test (ἀδόκιμοι).

There is nothing improbable in the supposition that St. Paul mentions the magicians who withstood Moses as typical opponents of the truth, because the false teachers at Ephesus used magic arts; and the word which he uses for impostors (γόητες) in ver. 13 fits in very well with such a supposition, although it by no means makes it certain. Ephesus was famous for its charms and incantations (Ἐφέσια γράμματα), and around the statue of its goddess Artemis were unintelligible inscriptions, to which a strange efficacy was ascribed. The first body of Christians in Ephesus had been tainted by senseless wickedness of this kind. After accepting Christianity they had secretly retained their magic. The sons of the Jew Sceva had tried to use the sacred name of Jesus as a magical form of exorcism; and this brought about the crisis in which numbers of costly books of incantations were publicly burned (Acts xix. 13–20). The evil would be pretty sure to break out again, especially among new converts; just as it does among negro converts at the present day. Moreover we know that in some cases there was a very close connexion between some forms of heresy and magic: so that the suggestion that St. Paul has pretensions to miraculous power in his mind, when he compares the false teachers to the Egyptian magicians, is by no means improbable.

384 The connexion between heresy and superstition is a very real and a very close one. The rejection or surrender of religious truth is frequently accompanied by the acceptance of irrational beliefs. People deny miracles and believe in spiritualism; they cavil at the efficacy of sacraments and accept as credible the amazing properties of an ‘astral body.’ There is such a thing as the nemesis of unbelief. The arrogance which rejects as repugnant to reason and morality truths which have throughout long centuries satisfied the highest intellects and the noblest hearts, is sometimes punished by being seduced into delusions which satisfy nothing higher than a grovelling curiosity.

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