The strange case of Jannes and Jambres
3rd April 2020
We don’t have to sweep tricky phrases from Scripture under the carpet, says Christopher Ash. In many cases Bible scholarship can help us make sense of them.
You are preparing to preach, or to lead a study, on 2 Timothy 3, when you come across Jannes and Jambres. Who are they? When and why did they oppose Moses? How is their opposition to Moses similar to (“just as”) what the false teachers are doing in first-century Ephesus? You search your Bible and can’t find them anywhere. You try a different translation and still can’t find them. You try varying the spelling — still no joy. Ah well, you say to yourself, maybe I’ll just skim over that verse and hope nobody notices. But all the time you have this nagging feeling you shouldn’t.
“Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men oppose the truth...”
— 2 Timothy 3:8
Aha! You find they have a Wikipedia entry. What more do characters need?! Wikipedia says that “In Jewish and Christian traditions” these are “the names given to magicians in the Book of Exodus.” When you dig a bit deeper — and consult some scholarly sources — you find that these names appear in the literature from the Qumran community (the Dead Sea Scrolls), in several other Jewish sources, and even in the Latin language writers Pliny and Apuleius. They seem to have been names given to the sorcerers who worked for Pharaoh at the time of the Exodus. When Moses began to work miracles and call down plagues on Egypt, Pharaoh “summoned the wise men and the sorcerers, and they, the magicians of Egypt, also did the same by their secret arts” (Exodus 7:11 and then again 7:22; 8:7). These magicians or sorcerers could mimic the plagues of blood and frogs; but for some reason they were defeated by gnats (8:18) and could do no more. I don’t know why they couldn’t manage gnats, but their failure signaled their defeat. And their defeat anticipates the final frustration of Pharaoh in his attempt to keep the Hebrews in slavery.
They opposed Moses because they were on the side of the enslavers, the oppressors; they wanted to use their power to keep the Hebrews under the cruel burden of slavery. There is a pregnant parallel with the false teachers in Ephesus. Paul has just said that these people “creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:6,7). (Incidentally, that doesn’t mean that all women are weak, but just that in the Ephesus of Timothy’s day some were. The false teachers seem to be men, and they are a despicable group. So it’s not an anti-women comment.) The point is that the message of these false teachers enslaves. It takes people with troubled consciences, “burdened with sins”, and it never sets them free. The Gospel redeems, sets free, rescues us from slavery to sin. But false teaching enslaves; it leads to burdened people who can learn and learn and learn but will never know the truth that sets them free. It is all so like the confrontation between Moses the redeemer and the enslaving magicians. That is why it is so appropriate for Paul to compare the conflict in the Ephesus of his day with that ancient conflict in the Egypt of the Pharaohs.
But it raises a question: why do we need information from outside the Bible to discover who Jannes and Jambres are? Does this not compromise our ideas about the clarity and sufficiency of the Bible? There are, I think, two opposite mistakes we can make. On the one hand, biblical scholars have sometimes given the impression that Christians desperately need their scholarship and that without it they cannot be saved. The guild of biblical scholarship sets itself up as a new priesthood; only through them can we have access to God. This obscures the wonderful truth that any man or woman with a decent translation of the Bible can read it, hear it, believe it and be saved.
But there is an opposite mistake. If we insist that we need only the Bible to understand the Bible, we run up against some pretty serious difficulties. For a start, we need scholarship to give translations and we need scholarship to point us towards the original text of Scripture. Otherwise we will be reduced to reading the Old Testament in Hebrew (or Aramaic) and the New Testament in Greek, and even then we won’t be sure which is the most accurate manuscript to consult. So there are some pretty basic reasons why we should be grateful that God has given us reliable scholarship. And when it comes to Jannes and Jambres, the fact is that we do know that these names were used of Pharaoh’s magicians. It’s not essential to our salvation to know this but it makes perfect sense of the way Paul uses them in 2 Timothy 3, supposing his first hearers would also have known this (as seems likely). And it adds depth and poignancy to what Paul says, when we see the false teachers as in league with these ancient enslavers. How wonderful that the Gospel of redemption is stronger than Jannes and Jambres!