As Paul concludes his first letter to his protégé, Timothy, he urges him to keep the command “without spot or blame” in anticipation of the return of Jesus Christ which God will accomplish “in his own time.” He then continues with a wonderful description of God “who alone is immortal and dwells in unapproachable (aprositos) light” (1 Timothy 6.10). That God “inhabits light that is unapproachable” picks up other biblical images that associate God with light, as well as the fact that humans cannot approach God. Yet the term Paul uses here (aprositos) is unusual and is not found elsewhere in Scripture to describe God or his dwelling. Did Paul coin this term or has he chosen it for some express reason?
It may be that Paul was reflecting traditions associated with God’s self-disclosure at Sinai where Moses ascended the mount and God revealed the Ten Commandments. Philo, a Jewish contemporary of Paul, says that Moses “by God’s command…ascended an inaccessible (aprositon) and pathless (abaton) mountain, the highest and most sacred in the region….”(Moses II. 70). Josephus similarly describes Sinai as “the highest of the mountains in those regions, having proportions so massive and cliffs so precipitous as put it not only beyond men’s power to scale but even to contemplate without tiring the eye; still more did the rumour of God’ sojourning thereon render it awful and unapproachable (aprositon)” (Antiquities 3. 76). Josephus also used the term to describe other geographically challenging heights such as Masada, “being inaccessible (aprositoi) to the foot of any living creature,…” (War 7. 280). The sight of Masada today gives vivid clarity to the sense of the term. From a human perspective this term affirms that one lacks the capability of ascending and thus drawing near to the summit.
Metaphorically this adjective was used by Plutarch, a 1-2nd cent. AD writer to describe the kind of outrageous commendations that people in the audience might shout out in response to a lecture, terms such as “theiōs” (divine), or “theophorētōs” (inspired) or “aprositōs” (unapproachable) (Moralia. De Recta Ratione Audiendi 45F). The adverbial form would describe the lecture as being so extraordinary as to be unparalleled in its content and delivery. In another short essay he describes “good fortune as altogether inaccessible (aprositon) and impregnable to admonition” (Moralia. Quomodo Adulator 68E). Although Plutarch writes about half a century after Paul composes the Pastoral Epistles, his usage probably represents well how this language was being used in the Greco-Roman world of the first century AD.
This adjective aprositos is an alpha-privative formation. To the adjective prositos “approachable” the Greek letter “alpha” is added, aprositos, which reverses the meaning. This is common word-formation technique in Greek. However, it does encourage us to consider whether the adjective prositos might have been used in Paul’s day to describe gods as approachable.
Josephus used prositos to describe the approaches to Herod’s fortress as Machaereus as a rocky eminence that “nature had further contrived to render it inaccessible (mēde prositos)” (War 7.167). Used with a negative conjunction this adjective becomes synonymous with aprositos and describes a place that is “not accessible.” Similarly when Josephus describes the location of Jerusalem during the Hasmonaean period, he says that “the precipitous cliffs on either side of it rendered the town nowhere accessible (prositon oudamothen)” (War 5.141; cf. War 5.259). Josephus also used this term to describe the geographical features that made the city of Jotapata so impregnable. “On the north side alone, where the town has straggled sideways up a descending spur of the mountains, it is accessible (prositē)” (War 3.158; cf. 3.162). This term has associations with geographical accessibility, at least in Jewish writings, and often with some relationship to military defense.
The closest parallel to Paul’s words, however, comes in a context where Clement of Alexandria quotes a fragment of Aristobulus, a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher dated to the second century B.C. Clement describes the theophany at Sinai. He explains that “that so-called descent of God upon the mountain is an appearance of divine power to the entire universe, making disciples of and heralding the inapproachable light (to phōs to aprositon)” (Strom. 6.3.32; my translation).” He then goes on to quote from Aristobulus. It is unclear whether these words employed by Clement reflect those which Aristobulus used or whether they are Clement’s own paraphrase, perhaps reflecting Paul’s terminology. The Aristobulus material quoted in Eusebius Praep. Ev. 8.10.1-17 does not use this same terminology. What it does indicate is that this terminology is associated in the early church with the Sinai theophany where pre-Christian Jewish sources are being engaged.
Within Jewish literature contemporary with Paul the adjectives aprositos and prositos (when modified by a negative) describe geographically inaccessibility, often with reference to Yahweh’s theophany at Sinai and the challenge Moses had in ascending the mount to meet with God. In this way then God becomes literally and also religiously inapproachable. If Clement is reflecting Aristobulus’ terminology in the expression to phōs to aprositon then this becomes another example where this terminology describes God as “light” in association with the phenomena marking God’s descent at Sinai.
When Paul describes God as “dwelling in/inhabiting light inaccessible,” he probably is referencing Jewish descriptions of Yahweh’s self-disclosure at Sinai (Exodus 19-20) with its accompanying remarkable displays. God makes himself known, but severely limits human accessibility. Light is associated with the radiance of God’s glory and when this glory appears humans know instinctively to keep their distance. Normally speaking God is inaccessible to humans, but what is remarkable to Paul is that God through Jesus Christ has made himself approachable and also shared with believers his immortality.