145. Is Godliness a “means to financial gain”? The Wordplay in 1 Timothy 6:5-6 porismos

As Paul concludes his first letter to Timothy two themes occupy his attention. He instructs Timothy to “teach and exhort these things” (v.2), perhaps with reference to the entirety of his advice in this letter. Then he warns Timothy again about “those who teach differently and falsely” (vv.3-5), creating confusion and friction, but who expect to make money (porismos) through their harmful religious activity (v.5). He in contrast indicates that “piety with contentment is great porismos” (v.6). This leads him into a discussion about the proper perspective about wealth that Christians should have (vv. 7-12). As Paul will warn “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (6:10).

Paul used a wordplay in 1 Timothy 6:5-6 to emphasize his concern about inappropriate motives regarding religious piety. The term porismos often means financial gain, money earned to support life. This probably is the sense in v.5. However, there are other kinds of “gain” and this metaphorical sense is used in v. 6 to encourage the pursuit of proper piety “with contentment,” and Paul argues that this offers believers “the greatest gain.” A similar word play occurs in 1 Timothy 4:8 where the “little/temporary benefit (ōphelimos)” of physical exercise is contrasted with the “complete benefit (ōphelimos)” of piety which promises eternal life.

This word porismos only occurs in the New Testament in 1 Timothy 6:5-6. In New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, vol. 4 (p.169) reference is made to an inscription from Ephesus dated to 44 A.D. It has to do with financial arrangements between the Artemision and the city during the time when Paullus Fabius Persicus was the proconsul. He criticizes those who have benefited financially from use of the temple’s assets. “Whenever more joyful news comes from Rome they misuse it for their own gain (porismon), and making the appearance of the divine, building a cloak [cf. 1 Peter 2:16] (for what they do) they sell priesthoods as though at an auction;…” This sense parallels Paul’s usage in 1 Timothy 6:5.

The Letter of Aristeas was written around 150 B.C., probably in Alexandria by a Hellenistic Jew. When discussing the greatness of Jerusalem, the speaker notes that large cities attract people from the country for various reason, which impoverishes agricultural activity in the region. He notes that the same occurs in Alexandria and for this reason Ptolemy wisely has decreed that “judges of assizes with their bailiffs sit in every district so that the farmers and their agents might not, while seeking profits (porismon), diminish the city’s granary, I mean the produce of agriculture” (sect. 111). Here again the sense is the same as its occurrence in 1 Timothy 6:5.

The Wisdom of Solomon is the only Septuagint book that employs porismos. This is an original Greek composition prepared in Alexandria perhaps in the late second century B.C. In an extended critique of idolatry the writer incorporates porismos. In the first instance (13:19) he mocks the person who “for means of livelihood (porismou) and work and success with his hands…asks strength of that which has no strength at all in his hands.” Similarly in 14:2 he criticizes the person who builds a ship from wood and then crafts from that same wood a god to whom he prays. He goes on to say that “it was longing for gain (porismon) that planned” the ship. In both contexts the term refers to “livelihood,” i.e. the financial means necessary to sustain life.

Philo employs this term many times in his extensive writings. Usually it occurs in contexts where he describes activities that enable a person or animal “to gain the necessities of life” (On the Creation 167.8; On the Giants 29.4; On Abraham 91.5; On the Decalogue 117.2). Tradesmen “arm themselves with many different means of gaining money (porismōn)” (On Rewards and Punishments 11.2; cf. Moses 2.211, 219; On Flight and Finding 33.2). In his discourse On The Contemplative Life 66.7 Philo describes one of the festal occasions celebrated by the Therapeutae. Before they partake, they lift their eyes and hands to Heaven, “hands in token that they are clean from gain-taking and not defiled through any cause of the profit-making kind (porismon).”

The secular uses of this term in Classical Greek authors cover the same semantic domains.

So in 1 Timothy 6:5 the author impugns the motives of the false teachers, accusing them of engaging in this harmful religious activity as a means to gain a livelihood or to make some financial profit. He reduces their actions to a common business venture. Paul makes the same accusation in Titus 1:11. Those who seek to be leaders in the church must not be greedy for gain (1 Timothy 3:3,8; Titus 1:7; cf. 1 Peter 5:2). However, Paul still insists that those dedicated to wise spiritual leadership in the church are worthy of receiving financial support.

Paul then proceeds to describe the “greatest gain” (porismos megas) or the most profitable activity in life (1 Timothy 6:6). He contends that “godliness with contentment,” i.e. being satisfied with food and clothing (v.8), procures the greatest good. Those obsessed with acquiring money and possessions “fall into temptation (peirasmon)” (v.9), which probably is another wordplay (porismon/peirasmon).

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