OLD WIVES’ FABLES
By David R. Kenney
The apostle Paul gave Timothy some guidance that we need to heed in our day: “But reject profane and old wives’ fables, and exercise yourself toward godliness” (1Timothy 4:7, NKJV.) I was asked in Bible Class exactly what Paul meant by “old wives’ fables”. Resisting the temptation to go into stereotypical humor, I decided the wiser course was to state that I needed to do more research before answering. Paul was not opposed to women of any age. For example, remember what Paul wrote to Timothy: “when I call to remembrance the genuine faith that is in you, which dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am persuaded is in you also” (2 Timothy 1:5, NKJV.) What does the term “old wives” mean?
The words “old wives” is one word in the Greek. The term only occurs here in the Greek New Testament which makes a precise definition difficult. The Greek word is graṓdēs [G1126] which also means “old womanish”. One source states of this term: “characteristic of old women” (BDAG, p. 167). The term was used in philosophical debates: “It is the sarcastic epithet frequent in philosophical polemic that conveys the idea of limitless credulity.” (NLEKGNT, p. 494) Notice that the word “fables” is modified by not one, but two, adjectives—“profane” and “old wives” combined with the conjunction “and”. The term translated “profane” [G0952, bébēlos] means unhallowed, ungodly, or common. The term translated “fables” [mythos, G3454] is clearly related to our English word mythology. The term mythos refers to fiction, an invention, a falsehood that is being presented as factual.
Remember, one person’s mythology may be another’s theology. When my wife and I were listening to a presentation about primary school curriculum, the presenter stated no offense was intended by the use of the term “mythology” in reference to Zeus, Odin, Thor, etc. I asked the person afterwards why the disclaimer. There had been those in the audience on prior occasions who still actually worshipped Odin and other figures of what we consider mythology. We have had life relatively easy in these United States when the majority believed God existed, Jesus is His Son, and the Bible is His Word. Perhaps we need to recall the audience the apostle Paul faced at Mars Hill, Mars being a reference to the mythological Ares? These were the gods of pagan polytheists in Paul’s day, false gods that we commonly call mythological; so one person’s mythology was once (or may still be) another’s theology. Recall that Paul and Barnabas were thought by some to be Zeus and Hermes—"‛The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!’ And Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. Then the priest of Zeus, whose temple was in front of their city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, intending to sacrifice with the multitudes” (Acts 14:11-13, NKJV.) A charge which both Paul and Barnabas vehemently denied and corrected. We need to recall the command of the apostle John—“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1, NKJV.)
If you think that mythology is no longer a part of our society, have you looked at the horoscope? It is based on mythology and ancient paganism. I am sure you will find some offended by the use of mythology in relation to the New Age Movement which is old paganism re-tooled for a modern unsuspecting society. Whether or not Paul had a list of fables in mind when he wrote these instructions to Timothy or not is not revealed; however, there was no shortage of supply in their day, and there is no lack of fables in our day too.
Bauer, Walter, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and Frederick W. Danker. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
Rogers, Jr., Cleon, and Rogers, III, Cleon. The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.
Spicq, Ceslas, and Ernest, James D., Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1994.