Keeping money or other treasures safe in antiquity was a challenge. Banks and ‘safety deposit boxes’ did not exist. As Jesus indicates in the parable of the Hid Treasure (Matthew 13) people sometimes buried their most valuable property in order to protect it. Another common practice was to ‘deposit’ funds in a temple, placing it under the protection of the deity, with formal contract defining the terms of the deposit and conditions for its return. Hopefully the sacredness of the temple precinct would act as a deterrent to potential thieves. The author of 2 Maccabees tells the story of Heliodorus, the agent of Seleucus, and his attempt to rob the Jerusalem temple of its deposits. He failed because of divine intervention. The writer says that God “had given the law of deposits (ton peri parakatathēkēs nomothetēsanta) that he should keep them safe for those who had deposited (tois parakatathemenois) them” (3:15). This included “some deposits (parakatathēkas) belonging to widows and orphans and also some money of Hyrcanus, son of Tobias” (3:10).
Over time there developed legal principles and the “law of deposits” governed this practice. C. Spicq1 cites two papyri dated to 33 A.D. that illustrate how such deposits were made. A person would select a trusted friend and a written contract would define the amount deposited, the responsibilities of the one receiving the deposit, and the absolute commitment to return the deposit whenever the owner desired. “As for the two thousand drachmas of the deposit, Primus acknowledges that he must return them to Heraclides whenever Heraclides chooses, without recourse to legal action or judgment or any other delay of any sort or any subterfuges. If he does not turn it over in accord with what is written, he must pay Heraclides double the deposit in accord with the law of deposits.”2
In Jewish literature of that era the idea is applied to the oral transmission of sacred teaching. God’s word is a sacred deposit entrusted to people who have the responsibility to keep these “sacred mysteries” intact. Philo, for example, comments that “not every person can guard aright the deposit (parakatathēkēn)3 of divine rites.”4 When expounding Moses’ teaching about the way that judges must act, he affirms that judges are stewards of judgment. “As a steward he is not permitted to give away his master’s goods, for the best of all things in human life is the trust (parakatathēkēn) he has received from the hands of One who is Himself the best of all.”5 He employs this term metaphorically, emphasizing the commitment made by the one who receives the trust, to keep it safe and maintain its complete integrity. In defining the importance of memory in enabling a wise person to be a guardian and teacher of sacred things, Philo urges that commiting holy things to memory “is to commit a fair deposit (parakatathēkēn) of knowledge to a trustworthy guardian.”6 The notion of guarding something entrusted is an essential part of this notion. Philo states that “the most sacred of all the dealings between man and man is the deposit on trust (parakatathēkē), as it is founded on the good faith of the person who accepts it….So then he who repudiates a deposit (parakatathēkēn) must be assured that he acts most wrongfully.”7 Philo here is commenting on the laws expressed in Exodus 22:7(8), 10(11) concerning the theft of a neighbour’s deposit (parakatathēkēn in the Greek translation) and how the one entrusted with the deposit must act in order to exonerate himself from accusation of wrongdoing.8
In one other discussion Philo urges human beings to recognize “soul, speech, and sense” as something “the Maker of all that lives has given into thy trust (parakatetheto).”9 Accountability is critical but unfortunately “small is the number of those who guard the trust as something holy and inviolable. These have dedicated these three, soul, sense and speech, to God…”10 Here we come very close to the concept that Paul incorporates into the Pastoral Epistles.
Paul is the only writer in the New Testament that used the term parathēkē (1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:12,14). He also used the cognate verb paratithemi (1 Timothy 1:18; 2 Timothy 2:2), along with other writers. He begins in 1 Timothy 1:18 by “entrusting (paratithemai) this command” to Timothy, “holding on to faith and good conscience.” Here Paul seems to reference the command to love mentioned in 1 Timothy 1:5 and by extension the content of the Gospel. At the end of this epistle Paul reminds Timothy to “guard what has been entrusted (parathēkēn) to your care” (6:20). Conversely he must actively reject “opposing ideas” by which some have wandered from God. Paul always used the verb “guard” (phulassō) with this noun parathēkē. According to Paul someone has placed in Timothy’s care a precious deposit, with all the legal entailments for care, safety, and return. Either God himself or Paul as God’s apostle has made this deposit with Tmothy and Timothy now is urged to responsible accountability. Paul invokes the “law of deposits” to help Timothy understand the nature of the Christian’s calling and the special value and significance of that which God has entrusted to each believer. It must be guarded.
Paul twice used this noun in his last letter, 2 Timothy. They both occur towards the end of his introductory section (1:12,14). Timothy must have experienced considerable opposition both within and without the church. So Paul reminds him that the Spirit of power, love and self-control is now resident within him. There is no need to be ashamed either of the Gospel or the Lord’s representative, Paul, even though he is imprisoned and faces imminent execution. Even though some believers are deserting Paul and his Gospel, he believes that Timothy will stand firm.
In the midst of his suffering and faced with impending death, Paul still remains confident and victorious because he “knows whom [he] has believed [or trusted] and [is] convinced that he [God] is able to guard what [he] has entrusted (tēn parathēkēn mou) to him [God] for that day.” For Paul this deposit includes his mortal life, as well as personal significance and identity. He has entrusted God with everything. He knows that God is both willing and able to return his ‘deposit’ fully and with complete integrity.
He then turns his attention once again to Timothy. He requires him to “guard the good deposit (kalēn parathēkēn) that was entrusted to you – guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us” (1:14). In the previous verse this “good deposit” is characterized as “the pattern of sound teaching” which Timothy has learnt from Paul. The Gospel then is this deposit and Timothy, having been mentored by Paul, has the responsibility to keep this deposit safe, i.e. prevent it from being perverted, refrain from using it for selfish ends, and communicate it well and completely. Just as Philo urged the wise person to guard the deposit of heavenly wisdom and use it well, so Paul does the same with Timothy. The resources of the Holy Spirit are at Timothy’s disposal to assist him in this work.
Finally, Paul requires Timothy to “entrust (parathou) to reliable (pistois) men11 who will also be qualified to teach others….the things you have heard me say…”(2 Timothy 2:2). Timothy is to replicate Paul’s careful transmission of the Gospel to him, by teaching this Gospel to “reliable people” and depositing it with them.
Paul admits to two different deposits. He has made a deposit with God, committing his very life to accomplishing God’s purposes and trusting completely God’s promises in Christ. God in turn has deposited with Paul the great treasure of the Gospel, to communicate it accurately and truthfully in accordance with God’s purposes. These reciprocal deposits form two axes which define the entire framework of Paul’s life. The Holy Spirit resides squarely in the midst of this construction, guaranteeing God’s promises and enabling the believer to guard the deposit of the Gospel. Every believer then lives in the same nexus of reciprocal deposits. God promises full security for what we deposit with Him. Are we able to promise the same to God for what He has deposited with us?
Even today we hear stories of people who have accepted people’s financial wealth with promises to guard it and multiply it, only to abscond with it. Paul urges Timothy not to treat God’s deposit fraudulently.
- are you so sure of God that you will suffer for Him and not feel any shame? Can you name the things that you are trusting God for? Are you confident that He will and can deliver? If so, give thanks to God for his guardianship of your trust (1 Peter 1:3-5). God will deliver;
- do you recognize the nature of the treasure God has deposited with you – the Gospel? Are you prepared to protect and preserve it whole, speaking its truth in the face of false teachers, cynics, and distorters of the truth? Will we speak the Gospel to honour God, rather than for personal gain?
- at the end of the day will we be able to say with Paul “I have kept the faith?”
- 1C. Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament. Volume 3 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994): 24.
- 2P.Lond. 298 (vol.2, p.206).
- 3Parakatathēkē is an alternative form of parathēkē.
- 4Philo, De Sacrificiis Abelis et Caini 60.
- 5Philo, De Specialibus Legibus IV.71
- 6Philo, Quod Deterius Potiori Insidiari Solet 65.
- 7Philo, De Specialibus Legibus IV.31-32.
- 8Josephus, Antiquities IV.285 comments on this same text, warning the depositary not to lose the deposit entrusted to him, because this is a “sacred and divine object” and God is aware of each transaction.
- 9Philo, Quis Rerum Divinarum Heres 106.
- 10Ibid., 108.
- 11Paul used the generic anthrōpois and may mean “reliable people” of either gender.