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No More Itch (2 Tim 4.3)

  • Matthijs den Dulk (a1)
Abstract

The majority of translations and commentaries render the phrase κνηθόμενοι τὴν ἀκοήν in 2 Tim 4.3 as ‘having itching ears’ (or something to the same effect). Many commentaries and lexica claim, furthermore, that this figure of speech expresses curiosity. The present study demonstrates that the phrase found in 2 Tim 4.3 is an idiom that occurs quite frequently in first- and second-century ce literature. Contemporary usage of this expression suggests, first, that the translation at 2 Tim 4.3 should be ‘having their ears tickled’, rather than ‘having itching ears’, and, second, that the idiom refers primarily to the experience of pleasure rather than curiosity. This translation and interpretation of κνηθόμενοι τὴν ἀκοήν fits the context of 2 Timothy better than other commonly proposed readings and is significant for how we understand the author's portrayal of his opponents and their appeal to the believers.

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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
References
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1 BDAG 550; Lampe, G. W. H., A Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon, 1961) 759; Montanari, F., The Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2015) 1143. It is often difficult to decide between ‘to scratch’ and ‘to tickle’ in any given context; the present study focuses on whether ‘to tickle/scratch’ or ‘to itch’ is to be preferred in 2 Tim 4.3.

2 Exceptions to the most common translation ‘having itching ears’ include the NASB (‘wanting to have their ears tickled’). This rendering finds support especially in German-language scholarship. See e.g. Hasler, V., Die Briefe an Timotheus und Titus (Pastoralbriefe) (Zürich: Theologischer Verlag, 1978) 76; Merkel, H., Die Pastoralbriefe (Das Neue Testament Deutsch; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1991) 79; Oberlinner, L., Erster Timotheusbrief, zweiter Timotheusbrief (Herders theologischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament; Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2002) 151. Holtz, G., Die Pastoralbriefe (Theologischer Handkommentar zum Neuen Testament; Berlin: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1965) 191 and Brox, N., Die Pastoralbriefe (Regensburger Neues Testament; Regensburg: F. Pustet, 1969) 264 suggest that the ears are both itching and being tickled. More recently, Engelmann, M., Unzertrennliche Drillinge? Motivsemantische Untersuchungen zum literarischen Verhältnis der Pastoralbriefe (BZNW 192; Berlin/Boston: de Gruyter, 2012) 400 claims, ‘Eine eindeutige Entscheidung ist hier nicht möglich.’

3 Marshall, I. H., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles (ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1999) 803.

4 Johnson, L. T., The First and Second Letters to Timothy: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 35A; New York: Doubleday, 2001) 429.

5 Bassler, J. M., 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996) 170. For other examples, see e.g. Lock, W., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles (I & II Timothy and Titus) (ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1924) 113; Ridderbos, H., De pastorale brieven (Commentaar op het Nieuwe Testament; Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1967) 235; Brox, Die Pastoralbriefe, 264; Knight, G. W., The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text (NIGTC; Grand Rapids/Carlisle: Eerdmans/Paternoster, 1992) 455–6; Towner, P. H., The Letters to Timothy and Titus (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006) 604–5.

6 BDAG 550.

7 Ibid.

8 My translation of the Greek text in Stählin, O. and Früchtel, L., Clemens Alexandrinus, vol. ii : Stromata, Buch ivi (GCS; Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1960). Non-biblical Greek and Latin texts and translations in the remainder of this article are taken from the Loeb Classical Library, unless otherwise noted.

9 Ritschl, F., Thomae Magistri sive Theoduli Monachi Ecloga vocum atticarum (Halle: Orphanotropheum, 1832) 198.

10 In the English translation of the commentary on the Pastoral Epistles by Martin Dibelius and Hans Conzelmann, which appeared in the Hermeneia series (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972), the final part of Clement's phrase is translated as ‘ears which are plagued with itching’ (120). This is an indefensible translation of γλίχομαι (which means ‘cling to, strive after, long for’ (LSJ s.v., Lampe s.v.)) and presumably originated out of a misunderstanding of the figure of speech in 2 Tim 4.3. On the (incorrect) assumption that itching is in view in 2 Tim 4.3, the decision was made that this was also what Clement must have meant, which then necessitated a translation of γλίχομαι that has no basis. Cf. Marshall, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, 803 n. 122.

11 Seneca uses a form of the verb scabo, which like κνήθω can mean ‘to scratch’ or, as the Loeb translation renders it here, ‘to tickle’.

12 Malherbe, A. J., ‘Medical Imagery in the Pastoral Epistles’, Texts and Testaments: Critical Essays on the Bible and Early Church Fathers (ed. March, W. E. and Currie, S. D.; San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1980) 1935 ; reprinted in Malherbe, A. J., Light from the Gentiles: Hellenistic Philosophy and Early Christianity. Collected Essays, 1959–2012 (ed. Holladay, C. R. et al.; NovTSup 150; Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2014) 117–34.

13 Karris, R. J., ‘The Background and Significance of the Polemic of the Pastoral Epistles’, JBL 92 (1973) 549–64; idem, ‘The Function and Sitz-im-Leben of the Parenetic Elements in the Pastoral Epistles’ (unpublished Th.D. thesis: Harvard, 1971).

14 This is true also of the passage from Clement quoted above, who associated the tickling of ears with the ‘babbling’ of the sophists.

15 In On Being a Busybody 14 (Moralia 522D), Plutarch speaks about the ‘tickling/scratching of curiosity’ (ὁ τῆς πολυπραγμοσύνης γαργαλισμός), which seems to suggest that curiosity is comparable to an itch that one cannot help but scratch. No ears are mentioned in this context, however.

16 Another possible comparandum is a passage in Lucretius, in which he contrasts a serious interest in the truth with the enjoyment of ‘fine-sounding phrases’. The latter ‘prettily tickle the ears’. In other words, they are enjoyable to listen to, but mislead the hearer into accepting as true what is really false. ‘Therefore’, Lucretius writes, ‘those who have thought that fire is not the original substance of things, and that the whole sum consists of fire alone, are seen to have fallen far away from true reasoning. Of these Heraclitus opens the fray as first champion, one illustrious for his dark speech rather amongst the frivolous part of the Greeks than amongst the serious who seek the truth. For dolts admire and love everything more which they see hidden amid distorted words, and set down as true whatever can prettily tickle the ears (quae belle tangere possunt auris) and all that is varnished over with fine-sounding phrases’ (De rerum natura 635–44).

17 Lucian is a good example of someone whose position on the intellectual spectrum between philosophy and rhetoric is hard to pin down. He studiously avoids consistency on the topic of his personal views. Like others in this period, he seems to have experienced a ‘conversion’ of sorts from rhetoric to philosophy, but what exactly took place is unclear. For discussion, see e.g. Hall, J., Lucian's Satire (New York: Arno, 1981) 35–8, 155–65; Jones, C. P., Culture and Society in Lucian (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986) 1214 .

18 Translation: Behr, C. A., P. Aelius Aristides: The Complete Works, vol. ii: Orations xviiliii (Leiden: Brill, 1981) 173–84.

19 A passage in Fronto, who writes to his (former) pupil Marcus Aurelius, is also potentially relevant. He states: ‘Herein lies that supreme excellence of an orator, and one not easily attainable, that he should please his hearers without any great sacrifice of right eloquence, and should let his blandishments, meant to tickle the ears of the people (quae mulcendis volgi auribus comparat), be coloured indeed, but not along with any great or wholesale sacrifice of dignity: rather that in its composition and fabric there should be a lapse into a certain softness but no wantonness of thought.’ The verb rendered ‘to tickle’ in the Loeb translation is mulceo, which more commonly means ‘to stroke, touch’ or ‘to soothe, delight’ (Lewis and Short s.v.; cf. OLD s.v. 1). Fronto also associates this sort of thing with entertainment (‘pleasing his hearers’). For Fronto, however, this is not necessarily a bad thing; as an orator, he sees value in ‘pleasing his hearers’. At the same time, it is evident that Fronto thinks one can go overboard: ‘tickling/stroking the ears’ is appropriate, but ‘any great or wholesale sacrifice of dignity’ in the process is not. In spite of his different perspective on ‘tickling/stroking the ears’, Fronto, no more than any of the philosophical authors, associates it with curiosity or its relief. Quintillian also attacks those who, ‘as well as the other vices of life, are slaves to the pleasure of listening to sounds that stroke their ears wherever they are’ (et sunt quidam qui secundum alia vitae vitia etiam hac ubique audiendi quod aures mulceat voluptate ducantur (trans. LCL, adapted)). Again, it is clear that such ‘stroking’ of the ears (mulceo, as in Fronto) is viewed disapprovingly and that it is connected to the experience of pleasure (voluptas).

20 In place of the simple verb κνάω, a number of passages use the more intensive compound form ἀποκνάω (ἀποκναίω in post-classical texts), which means ‘to scrape, rub off’ and is used in the sense of ‘wearing out the ears’ (LSJ s.v.; cf. Montanari, The Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek, 253). Plutarch, for instance, complains about people who ‘actually wear out our ears by their repetitions (οἱ δ’ἀποκναίουσι δήπου τὰ ὦτα ταῖς ταυτολογίαις), just as though they were smudging palimpsests’ (On Talkativeness 5 (504D)). Plutarch's use of ἀποκναίω in this context is perhaps a pun on κνάω: these people try to ‘tickle (κνάω) the ears’, but end up ‘wearing out (ἀποκναίω) the ears’. Philo of Alexandria may be employing the same pun in his relatively frequent references to ‘wearing out the ears’ (see Detr. 72, Post. 86, Agr. 136, Migr. 111, Mut. 196–7). Many of these passages draw a direct connection with the sophists, who sought to tickle their audience's ears with their oratorical displays.

21 Translating the phrase correctly does not guarantee an accurate understanding of the idiom, however. Donald Guthrie, for instance, correctly translates ‘having their ears tickled’, but then he suggests that it expresses the idea that ‘what they heard merely scratched their eardrums without penetrating further’ (The Pastoral Epistles: An Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957) 179). Such an interpretation finds no support in contemporary literature's usage of this phrase.

22 Spencer, A. B., 2 Timothy and Titus: A New Covenant Commentary (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2014) 137.

23 On the function of the polemic of 2 Timothy as ‘providing a contrast to the ideal Christian teacher’, and thus essentially paraenetic, see Johnson, L. T., ‘2 Timothy and the Polemic against False Teachers: A Re-examination’, JReSt 6–7 (1978–9) 126 ; reprinted in idem, Contested Issues in Christian Origins and the New Testament: Collected Essays (NovTSup 146; Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2013) 331–61.

24 The adverb ἀκαίρως (‘untimely’) likewise suggests that it should be of no concern to the ideal teacher whether the audience finds the message pleasant or not. On εὐκαίρως ἀκαίρως, see Malherbe, A. J., ‘“In Season and Out of Season”: 2 Timothy 4:2’, JBL 103 (1984) 235–43; reprinted in Malherbe, Light from the Gentiles, 187–96. Cf. also Marshall's critique of Malherbe's interpretation (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, 800–1).

25 Compare the sections on the composition of mythoi in Aelius Theon (72–8), Pseudo-Hermogenes (1–4); Aphthonius (21) and Nicolaus the Sophist (6–11).

26 2 Tim 2.16 warns against καινοφωνία according to a few late manuscripts, but the reading κενοφωνία is much better attested and widely adopted by scholars. Johnson, The First and Second Letters to Timothy, 399–400 renders 2 Tim 2.22 as ‘[f]lee cravings for novelty’ (τὰς δὲ νεωτερικὰς ἐπιθυμίας φεῦγε), but this requires, as Johnson himself recognises, an unusual understanding of νεωτερικός, which more commonly means ‘youthful’. Finally, the ζητήσεις that are to be avoided according to 2 Tim 2.23 could refer to ‘investigations’, which would imply some level of curiosity, but the meaning ‘controversies’ or ‘disputes’ is also possible and may fit the context better (see especially the immediately following phrase εἰδὼς ὅτι γεννῶσιν μάχας; cf. also 1 Tim 6.4 and Tit 3.9).

27 In classical Greek, the circumstantial participle only rarely expresses purpose in the present (more commonly, the future tense is used; see e.g. Goodwin, W. W., Syntax of the Moods and Tenses of the Greek Verb (Boston: Ginn & Co., 1890) §840 (335)). But BDF §418 notes that in such cases ‘in the NT … more commonly the present participle is used’ (215); cf. §339 (2c) for several examples from related literature. Similarly, Moulton, J. H. and Turner, N., A Grammar of New Testament Greek (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1963) 11.3e (3:157).

28 It is of course possible to assume that the people in question wish to have their ears tickled because they are suffering from an itch. The comparanda collected here, however, do not offer any clear evidence in support of this hypothesis; in contemporary texts from the first and second centuries ce, we have found little to suggest that those who want to be tickled are suffering from an itch. The point of the figure of speech is that they want to experience pleasure, not that they are seeking a cure for something troubling.

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New Testament Studies
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