Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.04.30 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.04.30

T. Christopher Hoklotubbe, Civilized Piety: The Rhetoric of Pietas in the Pastoral Epistles and the Roman Empire.   Waco, TX:  Baylor University Press, 2017.  Pp. xi, 252.  ISBN 9781481307215.  $49.95.  

Reviewed by Mary R. D’Angelo, University of Notre Dame (

This revised dissertation exemplifies significant shifts in the scholarly study of the New Testament, shifts shared with, and frequently learned from, classicist colleagues. These include attention to material culture, or at least to art, architecture, and epigraphy as resources for understanding the context, and with that, greater cognizance of the Roman political and social world of the first two centuries. Questions have also changed along with the contextualization. Instead of asking whether the early Christian authors depended on or were influenced by specific Jewish or classical texts, scholars have turned from questions of source or origins toward broader and denser accounts of the cultural interactions in which they were engaged. “Where does it come from?” has given way to “what work does it do?” 

The Pastorals are widely (though not universally) read by scholars as letters produced in the early second century by an unknown author (or authors) in the persona of the long-dead Paul, whom I will cite as the Pastor. They are particularly well-suited to displaying the imperial context; already the commentary produced by the early-twentieth scholar Martin Dibelius and revised by the mid-twentieth century scholar Hans Conzelmann highlighted the letters’ promotion of “good citizenship” and the imperial context of their soteriological imagery. 1 Rather than the construct “good citizenship,” Hoklotubbe has chosen to focus on the virtue pietas/eusebeia, a staple of Roman moral nostalgia reformulated in the self-promotion of Augustus. Piety not only has a long history in Greek and Roman politics, but can safely be designated a “hot topic” of the first and second centuries. 

Civilized Piety consists of six paired chapters; an account of the functioning of piety in a specific ancient context is followed by an investigation of analogous functions in the Pastorals. These are preceded by a brief introduction subtitled “The Politics of Piety in the Pastoral Epistles.” Here “rhetoric” and “politics” are synonymous; Hoklotubbe’s focus is on the verbal and visual discourses and strategies that communicated duty and devotion to the gods, the princeps and the imperial family, as well as to one’s own household and origins – all relations that created obligation. The introduction lays out the work of the Pastorals as addressing two problems: first, external perceptions of early Christians as infected with an uncivilized and perverse superstition, and second, internal divisions among believers over doctrine, practice and organization reflected in the letters themselves.

Chapter one, “Piety in Caesar’s House” gives an account of the ways that the virtue pietas was deployed by the imperial household from Augustus to Hadrian. Special attention is devoted to the propaganda of Augustus, which set the pattern for succeeding emperors, and to Trajan and Hadrian, whose reigns are the likely setting for the writing of the Pastorals. He then delineates Roman suspicions of foreign forms of worship, tracing the early second-century characterizations of Christians as carriers of foreign and barbaric superstitions antithetical to the piety that was the origin and foundation of the Roman order. New Testament scholars of the later-twentieth century who began to explore Roman politics tended to depict early Christian writers as either engaged in anti-Roman polemic or as preaching accommodation to Rome (especially in the case of the Pastorals). Hoklotubbe rejects these alternatives and adopts the more judicious approach of understanding interactions as the process of negotiation.

His second chapter, “Piety in God’s House” begins by analyzing the work of piety in Josephus, whose position in the empire was both privileged and precarious. Josephus deploys Jewish piety (arguably the inspiration of the disastrous revolt of 66-73) and the moral rigor of Jewish familial and sexual morality to counter the disparagement of the Jews as steeped in barbaric superstition and immorality. This discussion provides an analogy to the context of the Pastorals, especially to 1 Timothy, with its plea for prayer for the emperors and all in authority (2:1-7) and its intense focus on the practice of virtue and the control of all members, especially women, within the structures of the patriarchal household (2:8-3:14, 5:3-16, 6:1-2; 2 Tim 3:6-7; Tit 2:2-10). Hoklotubbe suggests that the Pastor negotiates a position within the Roman order by “constructing a hybrid Christian subject that assumes both distinct Christian commitments and Roman imperial values” (67). This construction displays the Pastor’s vision of sound moral teaching both to dispel Roman suspicions and to confound the “opponents” - believers whose moral and perhaps doctrinal teaching the Pastor finds wanting. 

Chapters three and four examine piety in the context of wealth and benefaction. Chapter three, “Honoring Piety in the City” analyzes inscriptions from Ephesus that laud the piety displayed by one C. Vibius Salutaris, a Roman eques of the late first and early second century who was made a citizen of Ephesus, an honor that may have been bestowed in return for his spectacular donation and endowment of the cult of Artemis commemorated by the inscriptions. Hoklotubbe observes that the memorialization of Salutaris’ pious benefactions and the philotimia 2 that inspired them provided attestation that he deserved to hold the citizenship of Ephesus. Further the inscriptions assured his place in the competition of honor among his peers. Other inscriptions from the period similarly promote the piety and competitive generosity of their honorees. In chapter four, Hoklotubbe turns to “Honoring Piety in the Ekklesia.” Exploring the intersection of wealth, honor and piety in 1 Timothy 6:3-10, 17-21, he notes that the Pastor’s warnings against those who seek a living from piety and his strictures on the love of money depict rival teachers in the terms used to disparage the sophists. The Pastor insists that a double honor is owed to the elders who preside well, especially in teaching (5:17-21). Hoklotubbe suggests that these instructions are formed by patterns of patronage exemplified by Salutaris; the Pastor aims to control the influence of men and perhaps especially women who were affluent enough to be capable of some degree of patronage over early Christian teachers.

Chapter five and six turn to the use of the mysteries as metaphor. “The Mystery of Philosophical Piety” argues for the centrality of piety in first- and second-century philosophy, tracing the metaphoric use of the language associated with the mysteries in Plato and Philo and in Plutarch’s “On Isis and Osiris.” In chapter six, “The Mystery of Pastoral Piety,” Hoklotubbe brings into focus the Pastor’s identification of the Christian confession as “the mystery of piety” (1 Tim 3:16, cf. “mystery of faith,” 3:9). Along with the letters’ engagement with the virtues celebrated in contemporary philosophy and the language of epiphany and salvation (see especially Tit 2:11-12, 3:3-7) he discerns an effort to enlist the cultural prestige of philosophy and of the rites and technologies of the mysteries to claim the civilized character of the Christian communities. More tentatively he speculates that these motifs may have resonated with Ephesian audiences as competing with the prestige of the pious Kouretes of Ephesian Artemis (198-200).  

The conclusion reiterates Hoklotubbe’s commitment to examining the sociopolitical work done by piety, and points the reader forward to the apologetic use of piety in the later second century.

Civilized Piety offers fresh insights into the Pastorals for most, perhaps all, readers. Scholars of the New Testament and Christian origins and historians of early Christianity will probably find more new data than classicists. The Salutaris inscriptions are fascinating. While the metaphoric use of the mysteries has long been familiar, it has been overlooked as a context for 1 Tim 3:16. The treatments of Philo, Josephus and the Pastorals offer historians of the early empire and of Greek and Roman religion a new take on this material. 

Hoklotubbe understandably avoids such well-worn topics as pseudonymity, comparison with the undisputed letters of Paul, genre and characterization of Paul and Timothy. But some attention to the last might have enhanced Hoklotubbe’s case; the choice to cast the Pastor’s advice as letters of instruction from a spiritual father to student-son not only dramatizes the work of piety, but also evokes ties to philosophical counsel. There are a few minor grammatical errors in the Greek, some of them probably typographical. Hoklotubbe makes good use of the many excellent studies of Augustan and post-Augustan promotion of virtue, especially pietas and familial probity. Although the bibliography for material so thoroughly studied cannot be exhaustive, it is substantial and provides excellent access to the literature on everything discussed; for example. he engages with feminist scholarship on the New Testament too frequently ignored. While the comparative material is by no means restricted to the first two centuries CE, Hoklotubbe’s work is the more convincing in that he prioritizes such figures as Josephus, Plutarch and Salutaris, all close contemporaries to the letters’ probable date of composition. The prominence of Ephesus in his discussion is an interesting echo of the inscribed destination of the letters to Timothy.

The intense focus on each of the three contexts of piety is essential to evoking their work in the Pastorals, but less helpful in seeing the whole. It is easy to forget the imperial context in the discussion of benefactions or the mysteries. But the connections are there. The imperial statues demonstrate not only Salutaris’ but also the empire’s piety toward Artemis; more, they appropriate her authority in support of the Roman order. At the same time, the statues display Salutaris’ pietas toward the emperor and Rome, while the sojourn of the emperor and empress in his house displays the propriety and sanctity of his household (114 and n. 8).

In conclusion, Civilized Piety recommends itself not only for its explication and analyses of the material, but also for the avenues it opens to further research.


1.   Martin Dibelius and Hans Conzelmann, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972 (German 1966).
2.   Hoklotubbe uses the orthography of the inscriptions: philoteimia.

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