In 1 Timothy 5 and Titus 2 Paul provides guidance to his protégés, Timothy and Titus, about their responsibility to care for senior ladies, many of whom would be widows, in the church. According to Titus 2.1 this is teaching that “is appropriate to sound doctrine (i.e., healthy teaching).” The first aspect Paul addresses is described as “reverence in the way they live (NIV; en katastēmati hieroprepeis).” In this construction hieroprepeis is a predicate adjective which is modified by the prepositional phrase en katastēmati. This is the only use of this third declension adjective in the New Testament. The Classical Greek Dictionary by Liddell and Scott define it as “beseeming a sacred place, person or matter.”
This adjective has a long history of usage in Greek literature. In the fifth century B.C. Xenophon describes a priest as “outshining your predecessors in the splendour of your priestly office (hieroprepestatos – superlative form) in the festival” (Symposium 8.40,6). Plato describes the name Theages (“god-guided”) which someone gives to his son as hieroprepes, i.e., fitting for a sacred purpose or person (Theages 122.e.1). Philo describes the words of God as thesmoi hieroprepestatoi (“most sacred ordinances”) (Leg. 3.204,6). He calls virtue “holy to look upon” (hieroprepestaton autēs katanoēsas) (Sacr. 45.3). According to his understanding of spirituality Philo thinks that the wise “are borne upward insatiably enamoured of all holy (hieroprepestatōn) happy natures that dwell on high” (Plant. 25.3). So he applies it to heavenly beings. He also describes certain festivals celebrated by his Jewish ancestors as “most holy” (hieroprepestatēn) (Plant. 162.8). In Her. 110.2 the three human faculties of mind, communication and sense perception are dedicated to God in a “sanctified (hieroprepes) and holy way.” It can describe hymns and songs as sacred (Somn. 1. 256.3; 2.269.3). The legislation given by God is viewed as a sacred thing (Mos. 2.25). In Strabo’s Geographica various places are described as “sacred,” using this adjective (Geo. 2.14,1; 3.1,42). In these contexts this adjective is applied primarily to things, activities, and events, but rarely to people.
According to C. Spicq (Theological Lexicon of the New Testament 2, 215) this adjective is “apparently unknown in the papyri” but he does note that it occurs in several inscriptions. In the Priene Inscription (2nd century B.C.) the Panathenian religious procession is described with this adjective (similar to the use in Philo to describe Israel’s religious feasts and fasting). Dittenberger, Syl. 708, 23 speaks of pompais hieroprepesin (“solemn/sacred processions”). Around 160/159 BC Eubolus of Marathon, a priest of Dionysius, carries out ritual functions “in a decorous (hieroprepōs) and pious fashion.” Dio Chrysostom 56.46 describes tribunes as officials “whose persons were sacrosanct” (hōs kai hieroprepeis ontes). Finally, in 4 Maccabees the oldest brother in his martyrdom is characterized as ho hieroprepēs neanias (“a saintly young man” NETS).
In these last sources (Dio Chrysostom, 4th Maccabees which roughly are contemporary with Titus) we see the adjective employed to characterize individuals involved in specific roles, particularly to define their behaviour in a positive way. It is suitable and appropriate to people or things associated with sacred tasks, i.e., priests, rituals, processions, thoughts, etc. When Paul applies this term to the senior women in the house churches on Crete, he urges them to a state or condition that reflects high religious and moral standards. Although the adjective and cognate adverb can describe a priest or priestess in their officiating, we should not assume that Paul is assigning a priestly role in the house church to these women. Rather he specifically limits its application with the phrase en katastēmati, “in mental state or behaviour.” In the context of their daily lives they think/act in ways appropriate to sacred persons, i.e., people devoted to God.
It is interesting that Paul does not choose a term cognate with eusebeia (see Titus 1:1; 2:12) which means “devoutness, piety, godliness” and used frequently in the Pastoral Epistles, or one linked with the concept of hagios (“holy, sanctified, consecrated”). In other words he had other options, but chooses a term that identifies these women as those committed to sacred ideas and actions appropriate to their confession. In the NT the adjective hieros (“holy”) characterizes the Jewish Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:15) as well as the actions of Jewish priests serving in the Jerusalem temple (1 Corinthians 9:13a “those who do the sacred actions (ta hiera)”).