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“Healthy” or “Sound” - 1 Tim 1:10 (Monday with Mounce 168)
ὑγιαίνειν, “to be healthy,” occurs twelve times in the NT, all but four in the PE (Luke 5:31; 7:10; 15:27; 3 John 2, all denoting physical health). This corresponds with BDAG’s first meaning: “to be in good physical health, be healthy.”
The other meaning of ὑγιαίνω, according to BDAG, is “to be sound or free from error, be correct,” and this is where BDAG and many translation see the word’s meaning in the Pastorals, using a term like “sound” (ESV, NIV, NASB, HCSB, NRSV, KJV, NET).
True, sometimes ὑγιαίνειν is used to emphasize the fact that the gospel is correct and true (Titus 2:1, 2; 2 Tim 1:13), in which case there is a rational component. However, this is an unfortunate interpretation in other verses and misses several important points in Paul’s message to Timothy and Titus.
What alerted me to the issue was an excellent article by Malherbe, A. J. “Medical Imagery in the Pastoral Epistles.” In Texts and Testaments: Critical Essays on the Bible and Early Christian Fathers, ed. W. E. March. San Antonio, TX: Trinity UP, 1980. 19–35 (reprinted in A. J. Malherbe, Paul and the Popular Philosophers [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989] 121–36). He argues that the word can also carry the meaning of “healthy,” (BDAG’s first meaning).
If I may be permitted to cite from my commentary: “Other times in the PE the healthy (ὑγιαίνειν as ‘to be healthy’) gospel stands in contrast to sin and the sick and morbid cravings of the Ephesian heresy (1 Tim 6:4) that was spreading like gangrene (2 Tim 2:17; cf. 1 Tim 1:10; 6:3; Titus 1:9, 13; 2 Tim 4:3; cf. ὑγιής, ‘healthy,’ Titus 2:8). Malherbe’s argument is that medical language was common in the philosophical rhetoric of the moral philosophers and Cynics (cf. Spicq, 1:115–17), in which opposing philosophical positions were characterized as ‘sick’ and ‘diseased,’ and his documentation is convincing.… Paul says that in contrast to the wrong and sickly heresy being taught by the false teachers, the gospel is correct and is spiritually healthy, perhaps recalling the spiritual goal in v 5. The term is not found elsewhere in biblical expression with reference to spiritual health although this use of a metaphor regarding health is consistent with Paul’s metaphor of the church as the body of Christ. Malherbe also suggests that the description of the opponents as being ‘conceited’ (τετύφωταὶ 1 Tim 6:4) can be understood as mental illness (124 n. 7), and ‘constant irritation’ (διαπαρατριβαί; 1 Tim 6:5) as infectious abrasions—additional medical imagery.”
There is of course no way to bring both nuances of “correct” and “healthy” into one consistent term; some may suggest “sound” does this but I think it loses too much of the medical imagery.
Perhaps I want to emphasize this strongly is because of my view of the authorship of the Pastorals. I believe a strong case can be made for Luke being Paul’s amanuensis — as strong as any case can be made for something like this — and hence some of the differences in style with Paul’s other letters. The pervasive use of medical imagery is one of the stronger arguments, and parallels Luke’s use of the term in his gospel for physical health cited above.
Metaphors are difficult. They are so easily lost in translation, especially when the truth of words can be buried in thick commentaries and obscure journal articles. It is so easy to flatten out a word’s fuller meaning, but the language of the Bible is so often rich and deep and has many sides to it.
True biblical teaching brings health, spiritual health. It nourishes the soul and strengthens the mind. False teaching is a disease that permeates the bones and tissues of people, eating and destroying whatever good it can find. Biblical truth is not just true; it gives life, true life, the life that matters.
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and is the general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV. Learn more about Bill at BillMounce.com, and visit his other blog on spiritual growth, Life is a Journey, at BiblicalTraining.org.
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