In his final letter to Timothy Paul acknowledges that godly living attracts persecution even as “evildoers and imposters (goētes)…go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Tim. 3:13NIV). Paul describes an escalating, negative relationship between those determined to live in Christ and those who pursue the deception of evil. The term (goētes) he uses to describe these “wicked people (ponēroi…anthrōpoi)” only occurs once in the New Testament. It obviously has negative connotations and is associated with deceptive activity. But what kinds of activities does it describe and why does Paul choose it to describe these “wicked people” at this juncture in his letter?
One of the earliest occurrences of this word is found in Euripedes’ play Hippolytus 1038 (fifth cent. B.C.). Theseus accuses his son Hippolytus of having an illicit relationship with his mother. Hippolytus denies this, in part by swearing an oath of innocence to Zeus. Theseus responds by calling him “a chanter of spells and a charlatan (epiōidos kai goēs).” Theseus claims that Hippolytus is deceiving the court by pretending to be something that he is not. Herodotus Hist. 4.105.7 claims that the Neuri are “magicians (goētes)” because once a year they turn into wolves for a few days (cf. Herodotus Hist. 2.33.4). In a surviving fragment of Hellenicus, the historian, we find goētes used alongside pharmakei (“sorcerer”).
Plato Respublica 598d.3 describes the kind of person who thinks he is “all-wise” as “a simple fellow, who apparently has met some magician (goēti)…and imitator and has been deceived (exēpatēthē) by him.” Plato also includes this kind of person among the general class of “sophists” (ton pantōn tōn sophistōn megiston goēta) (Politicus 291c.3). In his Symposium 203d.8 Plato describes Love as “a skilful trickster and magician, and sophist (deinos goēs kai pharmakeus kai sophist).”
Demosthenes, the orator, in one of his speeches (De corona 276,4) claims that his opponent is falsely accusing him of deceiving the audience, “calling him clever and a trickster and sophist (deinon kai goēta kai sophistēn kai ta toiaut’ onomazōn).” In another speech, De falsa legatione 109,7, he characterizes Philip of Macedon as “untrustworthy, a trickster, an evil person (apistos, goēs, ponēros)” and warns the Athenians not to trust the legation which he has sent. Another orator, Aeschines, for his part attacks Demosthenes (In Ctesiphontem 137,3) and accuses him of being an evil person, “an imposter and trickster (magos kai goēs).”
Within Classical Greek writers goēs is invariably a disparaging term employed when someone wants to deceive, or defame or attack the integrity of another person. It has the connotation of trickster, manipulator, charlatan. The other terms with which it frequently is associated connote ideas of magic, sorcery, untrustworthiness, imposter.
Among Jewish Greek writers both Philo and Josephus, contemporaries of Paul, use goēs. In De Specialibus Legibus I.315 Philo describes a false prophet as a goēs (“imposter”) because “his oracles and pronouncements are falsehoods invented by himself.” In another essay Philo claims that “delusion or conceit (tuphos) is “the imposter (goēs)” who deceives people through idolatry (De Praemiis et Poenis 25).” Josephus Antiquities 20,160 describes Judea during the governorship of Felix as “infested with bands of brigands and imposters (goētōn anthrōpōn) who deceived (ēpatōn) the mob.” Their actions seem deliberate and destabilizing. In Bell. 1,261 Josephus introduces “the Egyptian false prophet (pseudoprophētēs)” who led thirty thousand Jews in a failed revolt against Rome. Josephus describes him as “a trickster (goēs) and one with the reputation of a prophet,” but those who followed him were deceived. In one other instance Josephus tells how Titus was bringing the battering ram to bear on Jerusalem’s walls. As this occurred a Jewish rebel named Castor appealed to Titus for protection, which Titus granted. However, Castor was just seeking to delay the assault upon Jerusalem. Josephus calls him “a certain man, a trickster (goēs) from the Jews” (Bell. 5,317).
When Philo and Josephus employ goēs, we see that occasionally it describes false prophets, i.e. people who pretend to be Yahweh’s messengers but in fact are not. They are then tricksters and imposters. In most cases some sort of deception occurs among those affected.
Returning to 2 Timothy 3:13, we note that Paul consistently has warned Timothy about false teachers and those who provoke disputes. In a concluding summary he contrasts those who are truly pious, because they are willing to suffer for the sake of Jesus and his Gospel, with those who are evil people and tricksters. These people are deceived themselves, but also are deceiving others. They pretend to speak for God and give divine guidance, but in fact are charlatans and religious frauds. The translation “imposters” provided in the NIV is a good rendering, but perhaps we need to add an adjective which qualifies the nature of their fraud, i.e. religious imposters, people who say they speak for God but in fact misrepresent him.