A “Bastard” in a Fatherless Age … (Part 1)

Today, I want to continue our discussion of youth and ministry by looking at a seemingly harmless little passage at the beginning of Acts 16.  Read with me for a moment:

“[Paul] also came to Derbe and to Lystra.  A disciple named Timothy was there, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but whose father was a Greek.  The brothers in Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was Greek.  As they went through the towns,they passed on the decrees that had been decided on by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the Gentile believers to obey.  So the churches were being strengthened in the faith and were increasing in number every day.”

Now, are you ready for the story behind the story?  Here’s how it works.  When you and I read this account, we see some odd biographical details that don’t mean a whole lot to us.  We know that Timothy is part Greek, so we know that he has not been circumcised and we know that Paul, for reasons we will not discuss today, needs for him to be circumcised.  We also know that after this, Paul travels around with Timothy, and that the churches are growing stronger every day.  And that’s as far as most of us in the 21st century get because we don’t understand the ancient Jewish culture.

So today, I’m going to unpack a bit of that ancient culture for you; and to make sure that I have your complete and total attention, I’m going to put this in words that you understand.  Assume for a moment that you are an African American kid.  How would you feel if I said to you:

“Your Mama’s nothing but a two-bit whore!  And you – you’re nothing but a nigger! Now get out of here, you little bastard!”

Offended yet?  Good!  You should be!  “Nigger” is an offensive word.  It’s a word that is filled with hate!  It’s a word that should have no place in our culture.  It’s a word that spits on the “image of God” that is placed in hundreds of millions of people around the globe.  Now how about someone calling your mama a “whore?”  Are you comfortable with that?  How about being called a “bastard?”  How does that feel?  How does that sit with you?

You see, in order to really understand what is happening at the beginning of Acts, you need to understand what the author is saying when he tells you that Timothy’s mother was a Jew and that his father was a Greek.  In the ancient world, this means that Timothy is a mamzer (From the Hebrew word: ממזר‎).[1]  But what does that mean?  If I had tried to explain the meaning of that word using “clean” English, it would have meant nothing to you.  But when I tell you that this word mamzer has all the power of the hatred that filled my example above, you can begin to truly understand the remarkable nature of this passage.

So what did it mean for Timothy to live as a mamzer in his society?  Well, for starters, it meant that everyone around him viewed his mother as a prostitute.[2]  It meant that every one around him saw him as “defective,” “corrupted,” and “spoiled” by “strange, alien” DNA.[3]  He was a half-breed in a society that lamented half-breeds; and he was a bastard child with no legitimate father willing to call him his own.  In a world where the Jews were wrestling with what it meant to be “outsiders” themselves, Timothy was the ultimate “outsider.”

  • Unlike other Jewish children, Timothy wasn’t circumcised on the eighth day of his life because he really wasn’t part of the community.  (Genesis 17:12)
  • Unlike other Jewish children, Timothy wasn’t allowed to go to the Tabernacle or the Temple because mamzers were forbidden.   (Deuteronomy 23:2)
  • Unlike other Jewish children, Timothy was cut off from his people because his mother’s failure had left him on the outside of the covenant.  (Genesis 17:14)
  • And lest Timothy think that things would somehow get better for his children, he lived with the knowledge that this status would be passed on to his children for 10 generations to follow.  (Deuteronomy 23:2)

Yes … Timothy was the ultimate outsider, reviled by a religious community whose leadership had called down curses upon those who were inter-marrying and giving birth to mamzers (Nehemiah 13:23-27).   So what do you think it meant for him, when he first heard the words of the Apostle Paul:

“For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith … There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female– for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  (Galatians 3:26-28)

What do you think, reader?  What does this mean for us as Christians?  Are we to be looking for the ones that conform to our expectations?  Or are we to be looking for the ones that are broken, and marred with jagged scars?  Do our youth ministries make a place for kids like these?  Or do we want them to “get better” before they come to us?  Are we ready to deal with the ramifications that come from ministry to kids with pain?  Are we ready for the disruption? Or do we simply want to do life with a little interruption as possible?

[1] Mamzer is also sometimes spelled mumser based upon the Yiddish variation.

[2] The Greek Septuagint translated ממזר as the “son of a prostitute” (from the Greek: ek pornes), while the Latin Vulgate translated it as de scorto natus meaning “born of a prostitute.”

[3] According to the Brown Driver Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, mamzer is derived from the root m-z-r, meaning “spoiled or corrupted.”  As per the Talmud, mamzer is a blended noun that joins mum (meaning “defect”) and zar (meaning “strange” or “alien”)

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8 Responses to A “Bastard” in a Fatherless Age … (Part 1)

  1. You mentioned this a little bit in class, but I never knew that Timothy’s background was that rough! Galatians 3:26-28 must have been a life-changing verse for him. I’m sure Timothy wasn’t the only “Jew and Greek”, so were other people with the same ethnicity treated that way? And also, is that one of the reasons why Paul reaches out to Timothy so much in his lifetime (including the letters of encouragment in 1 and 2nd Timothy)? Was Timothy treated like that during the time when Paul was in jail talking to him as well? -Rebecca

  2. Hey Friend … So here’s the deal. The way people would have treated Timothy is no different than they would have treated others who were of mixed heritage. Remember, Timothy lived in an age just after the Maccabean Revolt and just before the Bar Kockba revolt. So on either of him are the massive cultural battles being fought, in which the Jewish people were desperately trying to hang on to their heritage and ethnicity. So to have a mixed lineage at this time would have been fantastically hard – arguably much harder than it is in our own society (which is still quite difficult!).

    As for your other questions, I think that’s the reason the author tells us that “the brothers in Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him.” On either side of that statement, we are told that his father was a Greek. It’s as if it wasn’t enough to say it once. But in between those statements, it tells us that the “brothers” (read that as “Christians”) spoke well of him. In other words, life in the Kingdom was already changing Timothy’s world. Outside of the church, he was ridiculed and put down. But inside, people spoke well of him and believed he had a place at the table.

    It’s just another awesome picture of life in the Kingdom of Christ.

  3. Ah, I see…thank you very much! 🙂

  4. Christopher says:

    Hey Mr. Bryant! Quite an intriguing post. It definately pays to take a deeper look into seemingly “unimportant” details. I must say I never thought about how Timothy would have been considered an outcast, but that makes sense. Jesus says to go and make disciples of all nations, not just the ‘tidied up’ ones – and Paul was doing just that. Thanks so much for this insight!

    • Welcome to the discussion Chris. If you liked this post, I think you’ll like the rest of what you see in this short series. Timothy has long been a favorite of mine; and I truly look forward to talking with him some day. Blessings.

  5. Rich Bennema says:

    Based on your description, it reminded me of Jephthah. It’s the same story of outcast to leader. There is a Redeemer! I don’t think I would have put those two together before, but now I’m not sure I’ll be able to separate them.

    And I know you are working your way through the NT, but the story only gets better. After a lifetime of “your mamma is so [insert creative insult here],” imagine how encouraging it must have been for Paul to tell Timothy, “your mother is so faithful.”

    P.S. Hey, Doug (I know you’re reading), what do you think? Possible WLS 2012 topic? I don’t know of anyplace else that will have more “that are broken, and marred with jagged scars” that have potential to become the next Timothys.

  6. Morning Rich … I’ve been thinking about this issue from the fatherless perspective, but I think your dead on. Can you imagine the conversations Paul must have had with Timothy as they journeyed from town to town? Can you imagine the feelings Timothy had to process given the fact that it was likely his mother’s choice (assault is the only other option) that had led to his status as a mamzer. To hear that his mother has been “faithful” from the Rabbi that is teaching and walking with him … that had to be an awe-inspiring moment for this kid. Cool insight.

    P.S. It’s kinda funny you mention WLS, because I had the same thought as I was writing. In fact, I had actually given some thought to contacting Doug after I was finished this four-part series to discuss the possibilities of ministering with him sometime in the future.

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