Civilized Piety

The Rhetoric of Pietas in the Pastoral Epistles and the Roman Empire

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T. Christopher Hoklotubbe
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , September
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


According to T. Christopher Hoklotubbe, the author of the Pastoral Epistles employs the Roman value of pietas for his Christian audience as a means of constructing a “Christian identity that embodies what it means to be a civilized, honorable, and loyal participant in the Roman social order” (206). The starting point for Hoklotubbe’s examination is the frequent but seemingly intentional references to “piety” in the Pastoral Epistles, a word that occurs ten times in the Pastoral Epistles but nowhere else in Paul’s letters. Hoklotubbe suggests that pietas carried significant social capital and was thereby employed by the Pastorals to not only give shape to the author’s theological vision and values but to also respond to those non-Christian outsiders who viewed the movement as a pernicious and superstitious cult, to provide solidarity and identity formation for the Christian assembly, and to distinguish between the pious and the unorthodox dissidents.

Hoklotubbe’s argumentation is clear, well-written, and deeply attuned to the social and political values of the ancient Mediterranean world. He moves deftly between the meanings of piety as it pertains to Roman emperors, benefactors and gift-giving, and Hellenistic and Roman philosophers, and as these social and political uses of piety inform the meaning of a variety of passages in (primarily, but not exclusively) 1 Timothy.

Hoklotubbe’s study investigates the imperial, civic, and philosophical rhetoric of piety as the context for understanding the meaning of piety within the Pastorals. For example, Hoklotubbe presents a host of evidence that demonstrates how Augustus, Trajan, and Hadrian advanced their persons and roles as embodying piety in order to legitimate their own rule. So too the author of 1 Timothy uses the language of piety to present the assembly as conforming to the values of the empire. Thus their community is submissive to and prayerful for their rulers, appropriates the gender-specific values of a good and orderly household, and avoids the teachings of rabble-rousers who forbid marriage. In short, the author’s vision of piety for his community “assumes both distinct Christian commitments and Roman imperial values” (67). Hoklotubbe further examines how a host of virtues are connected to the practices of benefaction, including the virtue of piety. So too the author of 1 Timothy emphasizes the richness of piety and seeks to encourage wealthy benefactors “that their generosity is recognized by God and that their donated wealth is accruing for them an even greater treasure in the eschatological age to come (1 Tim 6:10)” (142). Finally, Hoklotubbe notes how the author of the Pastorals speaks of “the mystery of piety” before advancing a christological summary or hymnic encapsulation of his teaching (1 Tim. 3:14-16). Greek and Hellenistic philosophers had frequently made the same connection between “piety” and “mystery.” But what counted for them as the mystery of piety was simply a correct knowledge about the divine, a knowledge that steered clear of superstition. In other words, the philosophers often connected “piety” with “mystery” as a means of persuading others of the “superiority of their expertise over against claims made by other priests, mystagogues, and philosophers” (160). The author of 1 Timothy draws upon the same practice as he portrays “the mystery of piety” as consisting in his correct teaching about the divine. He further uses this motif as a way of contrasting his correct teaching about God which produces piety with “the vulgar myths that promote misguided and superstitious practices, which comprise the teaching of the inscribed opponents” (184).

Civilized Piety is a model study for those who would wish to situate the New Testament’s Christian discourse within its ancient Mediterranean setting. I found the study to be immensely illuminating, enjoyable to read, and usually persuasive. As is often the case with studies of this nature, some will wonder whether Hoklotubbe emphasizes enough the ways in which the Pastorals may not only appropriate imperial language but also use it to disrupt or critique specific aspects of the Roman imperial order. I myself might have emphasized more critique and disruption, for example, when discussing practices of benefaction in 1 Timothy 6. Along these lines, while Hoklotubbe’s study is devoted to the social practices of the Christian assemblies, his study raises the question of how the author’s theological/christological vision of rule and power intersects with Roman claims about gods and rulers.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua W. Jipp is Associate Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
February 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

T. Christopher Hoklotubbe is assistant professor of religion at Cornell College, Mount Vernon, Iowa. He is a former Louisville Institute Postdoctoral Fellow and a Postdoctoral Faculty Fellow in Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA. Hoklotubbe has been recognized as a Society of Biblical Literature Regional Scholar for 2017, having been nominated by the New England and Eastern Canada Region.


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