The inspiration of scripture: 2 Timothy 3:16

Rembrandt’s painting of the biblical character Timothy with his grandmother teaching him from the scripturesAlmost all Christian discourse about inspiration eventually loops around to 2 Timothy 3:16–17, “Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good” (CEB). This series wouldn’t be complete without some attention to this verse, and to its use of the term “inspired.”

Three details (already known to many Higgaion readers) about the grammar and form of 2 Tim 3:16 demand our attention up front. Before I go much further, I should freely confess that I am no New Testament scholar. My command of Greek is weaker than I’d like, and barely even on the same scale as my facility with Hebrew. If in this post I go too far astray in my handling of the Greek text, I trust that colleagues who are better Hellenists than I will gently guide me back to the right path. Also, I admit that the importance of each of these facts might not be immediately evident, but I’ll strive to clarify everything by the end of the post.

First, 2 Tim 3:16 actually has no verb in it; a more wooden translation using the CEB’s vocabulary would read, “Every scripture inspired-by-God and useful for education, refutation, correction, instruction of character.” Greek syntax allows for verbless copular clauses; in other words, in English we must say “S is P,” but in Greek you can just say “S P,” implying the is. Therefore, the CEB and most other English translations have solid syntactical reasons for translating πᾶσα γραφὴ θεόπνευστος καὶ ὠφέλιηος (pronounced pasa graphei theopneustos kai ōphelimos) as “Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful …,” even though the Greek text doesn’t explicitly have an ἐστίν (pronounced estin) there. However, the classic Blass-Debrunner-Funk grammar notes that “Omission [of the copular verb] is less frequent in simple assertions” than in proverbs, impersonal constructions, questions, and exclamations. Therefore, while there’s nothing syntactically wrong with translating 2 Tim 3:16 in a way that results in an is or two in English, we shouldn’t assume that that’s the only way to handle this phrase. We can legitimately perceive two null copulas in the verse (“Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful …,” CEB), one null copula (“Every scripture inspired by God is useful …,” ASV), or none at all. (The Vulgate, by the way, follows the Greek closely and does not insert any copular verbs into 2 Tim 3:16a.)

Second, the earliest New Testament manuscripts have either no punctuation at all or only rudimentary punctuation, and standardization of the punctuation in the manuscripts took several centuries to achieve. Even today, the critical editions of 2 Tim 3:15–16 don’t use the same punctuation at the end of verse 15. For example, the 27th edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament places the equivalent of a period at the end of v. 15, while the SBL edition places the equivalent of a (semi-)colon in the same position. This means that the syntactic relationship between v. 15 and v. 16 remains somewhat indeterminate, and we shouldn’t assume that a new sentence or even a new clause begins in v. 16. (Remember, too, that the verse numbers were very late additions.)

Third, readers depending on English translations of 2 Tim 3:15–16 might assume that the word translated “scriptures” in v. 15 is simply the plural of the word translated “scripture” in v. 16, but this is not the case. Verse 15 uses the word γράμματα (pronounced grammata), the plural of γράμμα (pronounced gramma), a word that refers to a broad range of written documents. Verse 16 uses the word γραφή (pronounced graphei), which according to the Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich lexicon is used in the New Testament only for sacred writings, though it can be used for other types of writings in more general Greek usage. The shift from γράμμα to γραφή might be nothing more than stylistic variation—the author not wanting to repeat γράμμα so soon—but we should also consider the possibility that the shift is meaningful. Since γράμμα is usually the more general of these two terms, an obvious possibility is that the author shifted terms in order to move from general to specific.

Now let’s draw these observations together. I realize that most English translations don’t read 2 Tim 3:15–17 the way I’m about to, and I realize that the translators responsible for those translations are better Hellenists than I am. I’m also not really familiar with the commentaries on 2 Timothy, and I didn’t do a lot of research for this post. (It’s a blog post, not a scholarly article!) Nevertheless, I’ll go ahead and think out loud. The lack of an explicit copular verb in v. 16 doesn’t mean that the translation “Every scripture is inspired by God” is wrong, but it’s curious that the author does use an explicit copula in v. 17: “so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped,” where “can be” is the subjunctive form of the copular verb. Our author isn’t particularly shy about using εἰμί; the word appears in 16 of the 83 verses in the book, if you want to count things that way. So let’s consider the possibility that v. 16 has no copular verbs because the author didn’t want any there. This would further imply that the beginning of v. 16 is not the beginning of a new sentence. Within v. 15 itself, the syntactical function of the phrase translated in the CEB as “that help you to be wise in a way that leads to salvation through faith that is in Christ Jesus” is clear; that whole phrase, which in Greek begins with a noun rather than a relative pronoun, stands in apposition to the word γράμματα. In other words, the whole phrase τὰ δυνάμενά σε σοφίαι εἰς σωτηρίαν διὰ πίστεως τῆς ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ (pronounced ta dunamena se sophi’ai eis sōteirian dia piste’ōs teis en Christō Yeisou) specifies which γράμματα the author has in mind. I suggest that the phrase beginning “every inspired scripture” likewise stands in apposition to γράμματα, giving additional specification to the more general phrase ἱερὰ γράμματα. If the CEB translators had followed this suggestion, they would have come up with something like:

Since childhood you have known the sacred texts—[I mean] the ones that help you to be wise in a way that leads to salvation through faith that is in Christ Jesus, that are inspired by God, and that are useful for teaching …

Yes, I still ended up adding copulas for the sake of smooth English, but notice that those copulas join “sacred texts” to descriptions thereof. In short, I tend not to read 2 Tim 3:16a as an assertion about scripture, but as an identification of which writings the author is talking about. This specification is not irrelevant; the letter’s audience (whether Timothy himself or the “real” audience if “Timothy” is a pseudonym) would surely realize that other “sacred texts” existed besides the Jewish scriptures, and the specifications narrow down the range to those that this particular writer considers to be holy. I realize that the majority of modern translations go a different direction here (though the Vulgate reproduces the Greek’s verbless syntax), but I think my suggestion merits at least brief consideration. At the very least, if my reading coheres syntactically, it should warn us against building a doctrinal edifice on such an uncertain foundation as one sentence with ambiguous syntax. I fear that, all too often, Christian discussions of inspiration start with 2 Timothy 3:16, then set the Bible aside and proceed based on what the discussants think the English word “inspiration” entails. This entire series has really been about mapping the territory that any doctrine of inspiration must embrace in order to be “biblical”—and you can’t get it all from 2 Timothy 3:16.

I’m not through with 2 Timothy 3:16; we still need to bring the word θεόπνευστος to the forefront. But that must wait for the next post.

שָׁלוֹם עָלֵיכֶם

  • Tim Bulkeley

    It is surely dangerous to base any doctrine on one sentence or short passage, if we start on that road I’d better book my next few weeks for baptisms on behalf of all my dead ancestors whose eternal state is less than clear to me! (1 Cor 15:29)

  • Robert Hinson

    This entire study has been an excellent examination of the real sources of scriptural inspiration! The thing about this 2 Timothy ‘proof-text’ that has always bothered me is the blanket statement that it covered all of the documentation we call the Bible. Clearly this could not have been the case since the NT writers had no idea we would collect their writings (some of which appear to have not been written at the time of this statement) and elevate them to the status of the Law and the Prophets of the OT writing. This seems to only be an issue to the crowd that is worshiping the scripture instead of the God it is about.

    I am looking forward to the next installment!