Friends and coworkers send me biblical questions on a fairly regular basis. Some of these questions are helpful for others as well. So, as I have a chance, I will put my answers here as well.
This morning, a colleague asked me, “How old do you think Timothy was when he started with Paul and at the writing of 1 Timothy? I’m seeing most people say he got picked up between the age 16-21 and was somewhere between 30-40 when he received 1 Timothy. Are there any textual clues so that we can know?”
There are three things that help us known Timothy’s age: (1) the Pauline chronology as it relates to Acts 16:1-3 and 1 Timothy and (2) 1 Timothy 4:12 where Paul commanded Timothy, “Don’t let anyone despise your youth” (CSB), and (3) indications from Acts 16:1 and Roman culture about the minimum age Timothy could have been when he joined Paul’s team.
The Pauline Chronology
For the sake of simplicity, I am going to refer to Eckhard Schnabel’s Chronology of Early Christian History that appears in the introduction to his commentary on Acts. In that chronology, Schnabel said Paul received Timothy on his team in 49-50 AD. This event occurs in Acts 16:1-3 when Paul picked up Timothy from Lystra. Schnabel said that Paul wrote 1 Timothy in 64-65 AD. For this date, Schnabel assumes that Paul had a first Roman imprisonment during which he wrote Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon. After the captivity described in Acts, Schnabel argues that Paul was released and had another period of ministry, during which time he wrote 1 Timothy and Titus. Then Paul was arrested again. During this second arrest, Paul wrote 2 Timothy shortly before his death.
Therefore, for determining Timothy’s age, we can assume that he had been a companion of Paul for about fifteen years by the time Paul wrote 1 Timothy to him.
1 Timothy 4:12 and Timothy’s Youthfulness
Paull called Timothy a “youth” in 1 Timothy 4:12. We should ask ourselves what the Greek term for “youth” meant in the context of the ancient Roman world. The Greek term is neotes, which is a cognate of the Greek term neophyte. The only other times that that neotes occurs in the New Testament is in reference to the rich young ruler who claimed to follow God’s commands “from my youth” (Mark 10:20; Luke 18:21) and Paul who referred to “my manner of life from my youth” in his defense before Agrippa (Acts 26:4).
Here are two clues from ancient texts that show how youth was understood in Roman times.
- “The Relics of the Elders that states “But that the age of thirty years is the prime of a young man’s ability, and that it reaches even to the fortieth year, every one will allow.”
- Irenaeus’ (c. 130-202 AD) Against Heresies referred to Jesus as a youth *Gr. neophytes). “On completing His thirtieth year He suffered, being in fact still a young man, and who had by no means attained to advanced age. Now, that the first stage of early life embraces thirty years, and that this extends onwards to the fortieth year, every one will admit; but from the fortieth and fiftieth year a man begins to decline towards old age” (2.2.5).
In these texts, a thirty-year-old man is at the peak of his youth. A man can also be considered a youth until the age of forty. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that Timothy was up to forty years old when receiving 1 Timothy.
How young could Timothy have been in Acts 16?
Another question that we should ask is how young Timothy could have been when Paul took him along as a companion in Acts 16:1-3. Here are two indications from ancient Roman culture.
- Roman men would marry as young as sixteen.
- Youth in their teens (or younger) were often given as apprentices to learn trades to begin earning for their families. For example, Lucian (c. 125-180) wrote about the family decision to have him become an apprentice to a sculptor. He wrote, “As soon as I finished elementary school, since I had now reached my teens years, my father discussed with his friends what training he should now give me. To most of them, higher education seemed to require much labor, considerable time, no small expense and an illustrious position, while our family fortunes were small and needed some quick assistance.” Thus, as a teenager, Lucian was sent away from his home to become an apprentice to a sculptor.
In the same way, Paul was taking Timothy along as an apprentice missionary. From a cultural perspective, it is not unreasonable that his parents would have sent him away with Paul as a teenager.
However, there are a few textual clues that indicate a minimum age for Timothy as well.
- Timothy was literate. We know this since he was listed as a co-author of six of Paul’s letters. It is doubtful that Paul provided this education. Therefore, it is likely that Timothy had significant education before he joined Paul’s team. In the first century, literacy was not assumed. To be helpful as a co-author of the epistles means that Timothy had more than a basic education.
- The believers in Lystra and Iconium spoke well about Timothy (Acts 16:1). This means that Timothy received a commendation from these local churches as being a good candidate to join Paul’s team. The fact that the churches in two cities spoke well of Timothy is significant. These two cities were 60 miles apart. The fact that believers of both cities spoke well of him as a potential missionary apprentice implies that he had travelled back and forth and had probably played some local ministry role before joining Paul’s team.
Summarizing all of these indications from the text and from ancient Roman culture, it is very doubtful that Timothy was younger than sixteen when he joined Paul’s team. Considering the fact that he was known in both Lystra and Derbe and may have been involved in local ministry makes it seem likely that he was older than sixteen.
We have three pieces of information.
- Timothy had been traveling with Paul for fifteen years by the time he received 1 Timothy.
- In 1 Timothy 4:12, Timothy was referred to as a youth. This means that he was probably younger than forty when he received this letter.
- It is doubtful that Timothy was younger than sixteen when he joined Paul’s team.
Considering these three pieces of information, the most likely age ranges are that Timothy was 16-24 when he joined Paul’s team and 31-39 when he received 1 Timothy.
Why is this significant? This means that Paul modeled the power of missionaries taking young men onto their teams to train. Over years, Paul poured his life into Timothy. By the time he wrote 2 Timothy, Paul was ready to give his entire ministry to Timothy. Paul was willing to give substantial authority and responsibility to a young man who had good character when he joined Paul’s team. This is a great example for us today for leadership development.
 See William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 258. I have been unable to locate the ancient source, The Relics of the Elders that Mounce referenced.
 Jo-Ann Shelton, As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History. Second Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 31.
 Ibid., 112.