When he is in prison in Rome awaiting trial before Nero, Paul writes Timothy who is working as a Christian leader in the church at Ephesus. One of Paul’s major concerns in this letter are people associated with that church who “pay attention to deceiving spirits and teachings of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1) and as a result are “departing from the faith.” The word he uses for “departing” comes to be used in English as “apostasize.” Paul used some strong language to describe the spiritual condition of those teaching a corrupted Gospel. So Paul pulls no punches in his description. A quick read of Galatians shows how contemptuous he is of such pretense.
I think Paul struggles to understand why people who have responded positively to the Gospel would, as he says in Galatians 1:6, “so quickly defect from the one who called you in the Messiah’s grace to another gospel.” His answer to this question in Galatians 3:1 is that someone “has bewitched them” or cast a spell on them! However, the analysis he provides in 1 Timothy 4:2 is more precise. He claims that these “liars have been cauterized or branded (kekaustēriasmenōn) in their personal conscience.” Why does he choose this term and what does it say about the spiritual condition of these false teachers?
The verb kaustēriazō was not a widely used term in Paul’s day and only here does it occur in the New Testament. A contemporary of Paul’s, the geographer Strabo (1st century B.C. to 1st century A.D.), is the only secular Greek writer to use it (Geographica 22.214.171.124) prior to Paul as far as current records indicate. Strabo tells the story of a special breed of horses called “wolf-breed”, whose owner “branded (kautēriasai) all the mares with a ‘wolf.'” The verb was employed to describe the branding of animals.
The cognate noun kautēria, “hot irons,” describes instruments of torture. (As an aside please note that forms of this root are sometimes spelled kaust– or kaut-. The meaning is the same as far as we can determine.) According to 4 Maccabees 15:22 one of the instruments used by the minions of Antiochus Epiphanes to torture the seven brothers was “hot irons.” 4 Maccabees was composed about the same time as 1 Timothy.
Diodorus Siculus, a first century B.C. Hellenistic historian, in Bibliotheca historica 126.96.36.199 describes the siege of a city named Utica. The attacker, Agathocles, placed captured citizens on his siege equipment as human shields, forcing the defenders either to kill their fellow-citizens or surrender. Diodorus comments that in doing this he “applied branding irons as it were to the souls of those within the city” (tais psuchais tōn endon hōsper kautēria tina prosēgen).
Branding of humans occurred in antiquity for a variety of reasons. In some cases it marked ownership of slaves or identified prisoners. Sometimes devotees of specific gods would brand themselves with selected symbols, somewhat akin to tattooing practiced today. Paul uses the term stigma, “brand mark,” to describe the physical effects of the persecution he received as the agent of the Messiah (Galatians 6:17).
In the case of 1 Timothy 4:2 the branding or cauterizing that occurred is not a symbol of prestige, but a harmful event that has affected individuals’ ability to make appropriate moral and spiritual decisions. It impairs their spiritual discernment. This is where the example from Diodorus is helpful. He uses the concept of “branding the psuchē” to describe the moral pain that affects the defenders of Utica as they struggle to define what the right thing to do would be — defend their city and kill their fellow-citizens or surrender and risk death and enslavement. It generated a torture-induced pain that exceeded anything physical that the enemy might apply. I do not think Paul is speaking of “torture induced by branding” in 1 Timothy 4:2, but Diodorus does show how the action of branding could be used to describe psychological or moral effects.
Paul used the perfect passive participle kekaustēriasmenōn in 1 Timothy 4:2. This indicates that from Paul’s perspective the act of branding or cauterizing had been completed in the past, but it created a current condition or state of “brandedness or cauterization” in the people thus affected. Exactly what this previous action might have been, Paul does not define. The result, however, is clear, namely “apostasy” and “being influenced by deceptive spirits and demons’ teaching.” Earlier he referred to Hymenaios and Alexander as examples of believers who had sailed their faith onto the rocks and experienced spiritual shipwreck (1 Timothy 1:20) and as a result committed blasphemy. Again Paul does not describe exactly what they had done, but 1 Timothy 1:6 tells us that some believers had “turned aside to meaningless discussions” and thus deviated from the way. The other question related to this perfect passive participle is who is the agent responsible for this branding or cauterizing? The passive voice usually involves an explicit or implied agent responsible for the action experienced by the subject. Again, Paul does not express this, but we might imply from his reference to “deceiving spirits” and “demons” that malevolent spiritual beings are responsible, even as they might act through human agents.
The result is that for these individuals their personal consciences are in a condition or state of “being branded,” i.e. marked as being owned and controlled by demonic beings, or “cauterized,” i.e. damaged so that they no longer respond to the spiritual guidance of God’s Spirit and the teaching of the Gospel. Either sense fits the context. The outcome is clear — they distort the Gospel into a legalistic doctrine that opposes God’s intent. Rather they are caught up with “profane fictional tales, the kind that preoccupy elderly women” (1 Timothy 4:7). I do not think Paul here is stereotyping elderly women, but he uses a cliche that is well-known from Greek philosophical literature that contrasts the disciplined logic and discourse of the philosophers with the informal, insignificant prattle that tended to preoccupy uneducated, elderly women in antiquity.
Perhaps Paul’s teaching in1 Timothy 4:2 applies today within Christian circles to false teaching or the kinds of speculation that divert people from the fundamental truth of the Gospel. Confused and tantalized they become enamored of these ideas, abandoning the training that promotes true godliness (4:8-9). Or perhaps it is a series of moral choices made by people who confess to be Jesus followers and which bind them into sinful actions. They become deaf to the teaching of the Gospel and the guidance of the Spirit.The result in either case is abandonment of the true Gospel.