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by Al Maxey

Issue #862 -- February 24, 2023
The superstition in which we grew up, though we
may recognize it, does not lose its power over us:
Not all are free who make mock of their chains.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing [1729-1781]

Pondering Jannes and Jambres
Paul's Reflection on a Confrontation betwixt
Hebrew Deliverers and Egyptian Deceivers

There is no denying the tremendous power superstition wields over a people. Those who surrender to it become its slaves, and they live in a depth of fear that is hard to comprehend by those free of it. The Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) observed, "Superstition is engendered, preserved, and fostered by fear." Voltaire (1694-1778) stated, "The superstitious man is to the rascal what the slave is to the tyrant." There are always those of evil nature who are more than willing to enslave and tyrannize others through mysticism and superstitious religious ritualism. These are powerful deceptions, and are often, strangely enough, equally loved and feared. Little wonder, therefore, that Mark Twain (1835-1910) should declare, "Let me make the superstitions of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws." Clearly, the former hold far more sway over men than the latter, and most men never truly become free of these fears that enslave them (as noted in the quote by Gotthold Lessing at the top of this article). So, what exactly is superstition? Notice a couple of definitions: "A belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation; an irrational abject attitude of mind toward the supernatural, nature, or God; a notion maintained despite evidence to the contrary" [Merriam-Webster Dictionary]. "Any belief that is inconsistent with known facts or rational thought, especially such a belief in omens, the supernatural, etc.; any action or practice based on such a belief" [Webster's New World Dictionary and Thesaurus]. Its primary synonym is "fear."

Within any religion, whether primitive or modern, Christian or non-Christian, one will find a number of powerful superstitions, as well as those whose lives are negatively impacted by them. When a people live in fear of their religion and its leaders, one can be sure that superstitions of one sort or another are involved, for it is often by these that the few exercise power over the many. As Paul prepared himself for his imminent execution, he sought to prepare others for the difficult times that were coming upon them. People were turning away from "sound/healthy doctrine/teaching" and from "Truth," and were seeking out teachers who would cater to their personal desires and fill their minds with "myths" (2 Timothy 4:3-4). Such persons were "lovers of self" and of personal gain and pleasure, rather than lovers of God, and their "form of godliness" was devoid of any power from above (2 Timothy 3:1-5). Such persons, who should be avoided at all cost, would utilize any tool (including superstition) to manipulate the people of God into serving them, rather than serving God. "For of this sort are they which creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts" (vs. 6). I like the way The Message renders verses 6-8: "These are the kind of people who smooth-talk themselves into the homes of unstable and needy women and take advantage of them; women who, depressed by their sinfulness, take up with every new religious fad that calls itself 'truth.' They get exploited every time and never really learn. These men are like those old Egyptian frauds Jannes and Jambres, who challenged Moses. They were rejects from the faith, twisted in their thinking, defying truth itself."

There are many things in these passages by the apostle Paul that are most certainly worthy of further examination, and I have addressed a number of them in my following studies: "Self-Inflicted Blindness: Our Lord Reflects upon Those Who Refuse to See and Hear" (Reflections #381) ... "Atrophied Power of Comprehension: Always Learning, But Never Understanding" (Reflections #774) ... "'Beloved, Test the Spirits': Distinguishing Deceivers from Disciples" (Reflections #137) ... "The Figureheads of Falsehood: Hymenaeus, Philetus, and Alexander" (Reflections #599) ... "'Sound Doctrine' Sectarianism: Perverting Paul's Pastoral Perspective with Unhealthy 'Uncertain Soundism'" (Reflections #700). In this current issue of my Reflections, however, I want to focus on a couple of individuals whose names appear nowhere else in all of Scripture. Paul mentions two men by name: Jannes and Jambres, and he indicates that these men are the perfect types of the scoundrels of which he speaks in his letter to Timothy. He further indicates that these two men "opposed Moses" (2 Timothy 3:8). Although most English translations use the word "opposed," others say these men "withstood," "resisted," "fought against," "were hostile to," "rose up against," and "challenged" Moses. This is the Greek verb "anthistemi," which simply means "to stand against." We find it again in Acts 13:8, "But Elymas the magician was opposing them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith." In 2 Timothy 4:14-15, Paul says, "Alexander the coppersmith did me much harm, ... for he vigorously opposed our teaching."

As noted in 2 Timothy 3:8, Paul tells Timothy that these two men (Jannes and Jambres) stood up against Moses, seeking to defy and/or defeat him in some way. Paul goes into no detail on this charge against these two men, thus leading us to assume that Timothy knew who they were and knew what they had done. Our problem is that these two names never appear anywhere else in the Bible. Nowhere in Scripture do we find them mentioned by name as being opponents of Moses. So, who were they? What did they do? And just where did Paul get his information? Clearly, he did not get it from the OT writings. Thus, it must have come from a source outside of, or other than, the known Scriptures of that time, which raises the question in the minds of some scholars: How reliable is the information obtained from extra-biblical sources, and why would Paul, or any other "inspired" writer, utilized such an "uninspired" source?! Such usage by Paul and other biblical writers has proved problematic to some over the centuries, although I personally don't believe it should. I dealt with this matter in a couple of articles titled, "Quoting Non-Canonical Texts: Is it a Sin to use Extra-Biblical Texts in our Preaching and Teaching?" (Reflections #575) and "From Biblicism to Bibliolatry: Have We Made the Bible an Idol?" (Reflections #829).

As for Paul's knowledge personally, most feel it came through his studies at the feet of Gamaliel. Paul was an exceptional student, and many feel he was likely being groomed to become one of the leading rabbis of his day (perhaps even, one day, Gamaliel's successor). "I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city (i.e., Jerusalem), educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers, being zealous for God" (Acts 22:3). "I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions" (Galatians 1:14). As part of that Jewish tradition, he would have learned that it was believed that Jannes and Jambres were two of the magicians, wise men, and sorcerers of Pharaoh who were summoned to oppose Moses and Aaron when they came to request the release of the Israelites from their Egyptian bondage (Exodus 7:11; cf. Genesis 41:8, 24). Although none of these men summoned by Pharaoh are named in Scripture, yet Jewish tradition declares the two leading men among them to be Jannes and Jambres, a tradition with which Paul would have been very familiar (and with which many of his fellow Jews would have been as well). "Although the names do not occur in the OT, Philo, or Josephus, they are common in late Jewish rabbinical traditions" [The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 2, p. 966]. These were men skilled in the use of sorcery, drugs, charms, magic, and religious superstitions. They were called on frequently by the Egyptian pharaoh to interpret dreams, predict future events, deal with medical ailments, provide advice and guidance, and to represent the Egyptian gods in conflict with opposing gods. It was primarily in the latter case that they were summoned to go "head-to-head" with Moses and Aaron, trying to match them miracle-for-miracle (Exodus 7f) - Egypt's gods against Israel's God.

"The licentious play of fancy which meets us everywhere in the superstitions about magicians throughout the two centuries before and the two centuries after Christ, is responsible for the variegated and contradictory legends about Jannes and Jambres. ... All these legends are in the style of the Midrash, pious but groundless, and serve only to illustrate the mind of the period in which they rose and took form. ... We can only conclude, therefore, that all that is certain about Jannes and Jambres is that they were the names of two men who were believed in the Apostolic Age to have been the leaders of the magicians who withstood Moses, and that they have been made the center of pious legends and the cause of much critical ingenuity" [Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, vol. 1, p. 633]. I agree. Some scholars, however, refuse to dismiss these various and varied legends as "untruths." Indeed, they insist that many of them constitute absolute fact. "This tradition preserved a number of correct facts that were not embodied in the Old Testament record. ... The Holy Spirit governed the New Testament writers so that they took only facts from this source and no fictions" [R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul's Epistles to Timothy, p. 828]. Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann agrees: "By inspiration of the Spirit, St. Paul here changed tradition into history, thus supplementing the Old Testament account" [Popular Commentary of the Bible: The NT, vol. 2, p. 411]. I personally do not favor this view of biblical inspiration and inerrancy, but I will leave it to the reader to make his/her own determination on the matter.

In the end, whether Jannes and Jambres were actual historical figures, or whether they were simply the product of speculation and legend, is really not that important. It is what they represent in the context of Paul's teaching that is spiritually significant. Drs. Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown quote the English theologian and Greek scholar Henry Alford (1810-1871), who pointed out that Jannes and Jambres were "the prototypes in ancient times" of all subsequent "opponents to the Truth" [Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 1379]. Whether real or fictional, they represent those persons who employ deception, superstition, false piety, and flattery to gain power over others so as to further their own perverse agendas. Jannes and Jambres "opposed" Moses and Aaron by seeking to imitate the miraculous acts of the latter two men, who were representatives of the one true God. Through trickery, or sleight of hand, or some form of magic, or even by tapping into demonic powers, they hoped to defeat not only Moses and Aaron, but the God of Israel. They were ambassadors of darkness rather than of the Light. The English pastor Frederick Brotherton Meyer (1847-1929), a good friend of D.L. Moody, wrote, "The devil has always set himself to counterfeit God's handiwork. ... Thus, the Egyptian conjurers repeated the miracles of Moses by resorting to sleight of hand. So there is a pure gospel and a specious mimicry of it" [Through the Bible Commentary, e-Sword]. "It is the ambition of false teachers today to imitate and if possible outrival the preacher of the gospel" [The Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary, e-Sword].

Paul speaks of "false apostles and deceitful workers" (2 Corinthians 11:13) who seek to capture and enslave others. J. B. Phillips, in his translation of the text, has Paul declaring that these persons are "those who profess to be Godís messengers on the same terms as I am," yet "they are counterfeits of the real thing, dishonest practitioners." Jannes and Jambres sought to present themselves before Moses and Aaron as being on equal terms with them: as genuine representatives of Deity, yet every aspect of their work, as well as their motivation, was false; a deceitful imitation. Paul warns of "the coming of the lawless one," which will be "according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders, and with unrighteous deception" (2 Thessalonians 2:9-10). Yes, Paul warned Timothy of those who were "slithering and creeping and worming their way into households" of God's people, especially those who were gullible, and captivating them by their many deceptions (2 Timothy 3:6). These men were not different, Paul says, than Jannes and Jambres, who sought to keep the people of Israel enslaved in Egypt, when God sought, through Moses and Aaron, to bring them into a state of freedom! These were no different, says Paul, than the "false brethren (those people masquerading as Christians) who had been secretly smuggled in (to the community of believers); they had slipped in to spy on our liberty and the freedom which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might again bring us into bondage" unto law and religious regulation (Galatians 2:4, Amplified Bible). Paul's point is that the teaching of such men enslaves; such teaching never sets men free! "Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage" (Galatians 5:1, NKJV). J.B. Phillips' translation renders it this way: "Plant your feet firmly therefore within the freedom that Christ has won for us, and do not let yourselves be caught again in the shackles of slavery."

We must always guard ourselves and others against those who seek, in the spirit of Jannes and Jambres, to keep us under the yoke of bondage to religious regulation. Legalism is an institutional curse with deadly consequences. We are free, and we must never surrender it to "false brethren" and "deceitful workers" who slither and creep in among us to bind us to their many rigid sectarian dogmas. Martin Luther (1483-1546) wrote, "For, where God would build a church, there the devil would also build a chapel, ... In such sort is the devil always God's ape." Wherever freedom loving disciples of Christ gather, one can be sure that legalists are never far away!! Just as enemies sow tares among wheat (Matthew 13:24f), so does our enemy sow imitation disciples among genuine disciples. One of the greatest threats to true faith is fake faith, and the latter abounds among us. Paul told Timothy (and by extension us as well), "Even though they will make a show of being religious, their religion won't be real. Don't have anything to do with such people" (2 Timothy 3:5, CEV). These "Jannes-and-Jambres" types love to argue and debate and engage true believers in endless sectarian wranglings. Don't fall for it. I agree completely with Dr. Gary W. Demarest, who wrote, "It appears that Paul is willing to conclude that it's best to direct one's energies elsewhere than in endless arguments with such folks. ... It's possible to take some people and things much too seriously. To spend too much time and energy contending with those I believe to be false teachers may give them more credibility than they deserve. The folly of their teaching will sooner or later become clear. In the meantime, I choose to pursue the truth that centers in Jesus Himself" [The Communicator's Commentary - 1 & 2 Timothy, p. 278-279].

The apostle Paul says that the "folly" of these "Jannes-and-Jambres" type imposters will soon become evident to all (2 Timothy 3:9). The word that is translated "folly" in several versions is actually a much stronger word; a word that only appears twice in the NT - here and in Luke 6:11. It is the Greek word "anoia," which actually refers to "madness; mindless rashness; deprived of reason." Drs. Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown write that this word is "literally: dementation," from which we get our word "dementia" [Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 1379]. When Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, the Jewish legalists lost their minds!! "They were filled with madness; and communed one with another what they might do to Jesus" (Luke 6:11, KJV). When you break the rules, legalists literally become demented, which can quickly lead to acts of violence against those they dementedly deem to be "digressive." These demented fake disciples, these men "who resist the truth, who are corrupt in mind, worthless in regard to the faith" (2 Timothy 3:8, HCSB), are nothing but a grating noise in the midst of a beautiful symphony, seeking to drown out the grandeur of the latter. In his Table Talk, Martin Luther spoke of hearing a nightingale singing sweetly near a pond full of frogs, who, by their constant croaking, seemed as though they wanted to silence the melodious bird. Luther wrote, "Thus, 'tis in the world; Jesus Christ is the nightingale, making the gospel to be heard; the heretics and false prophets are the frogs, trying to prevent His being heard" [The Biblical Illustrator Commentary, e-Sword]. May God preserve us from the incessant croaking of the "Jannes-and-Jambres" bullfrogs that have hopped in among us, for their demented croaking diminishes the beauty of the Gospel message of our freedom in Christ Jesus!


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Readers' Reflections
NOTE: Differing views and understandings are always welcome here,
yet they do not necessarily reflect my own views and understandings.
They're opportunities for readers to voice what is on their hearts, with
a view toward greater dialogue among disciples with a Berean spirit.

From a Minister in Ukraine:

Dear Brother Al, Greetings from Ukraine. As always, thank you for your writings! I think I remember you had an article in the past where you showed the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Could you please remind me of which article that is, or send me a link to it? Thank you very much in advance. And thank you for keeping my country in your prayers!!

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Hello, Al. I believe that years ago I was subscribed to your Reflections, but time, life, and multiple emails have caused me to lose touch with that subscription. I have always appreciated your view on subjects. Having been raised "Church of Christ," I had subsequently studied myself out of the normal CENI approach to Scripture, with all of its attached "doctrines," and that was when I found your Reflections many years ago. I have preached some over the years, and I still attend a traditional "Church of Christ," but I have also attended congregations that were more progressive, like the Woodmont Family of God in Nashville. The first time my wife and I worshipped with instruments, we realized the power of that type of music and how it can enhance worship (not take away from it). We have landed back in a traditional "Church of Christ," but I am struggling as I enter my mid-50's to understand what I need to do with my true beliefs without causing trouble and hardship within a congregation (which I will not do). I am also very convicted with regards to baptism and why we do it, and that has kept me in the "Churches of Christ." I continue to study and pray that God will show me where He wants me, and also how He wants me to be more forthcoming with the true message that is found in His Word. Thank you again for your inspiring and knowledgeable Reflections, and please resubscribe me to them.

From a Reader in Colorado:

What a blessing all your years of study and work are to me and many others! Thank you, Al Maxey! I began my journey of reading the Bible with open eyes thanks to you!

From a Reader in Alabama:

Al, when Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He addressed the Father only one time, Al. Al, many of the men I hear pray in this area repeat "Father" many, many times during their prayer, Al. Al, this is a distraction to me, Al. Al, it probably is to others also, Al. Al, even some preachers do it, Al. Al, how should I deal with this distraction, Al? Al, should I talk to a leader in the congregation, Al, or should I try not to let it distract me, Al? Al, I hope this example has not distracted you, Al.

From a Reader in Maryland:

Dear Al, back in the early 1980's, I was an officer at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, and I got to know you and Shelly, as you were preaching at the military/DOD congregation there in Kaiserslautern. I am now retired, following my last posting at the Pentagon. I hope you and yours are well. By God's grace, all is well with my family, friends, and myself. I have followed your writings over the years, and purchased one of your books, and love your logical approach to so many Bible subjects and the clarity you bring to them. Your writing style resonates with my spirit. Thank you, and I also thank God for you! Today, as I searched my thoughts for a study on slavery in the Bible, you came to mind. If you have written anything on, or related to, slavery, I'd like to acquire it from you, as there are some here with whom I'd like to share it. Please let me know what you have available that might help me to help them gain a better biblical insight into the topic of slavery. Many thanks in advance.

From an Author in Arizona:

Al, just a short note on your article "Mystery of the Garden Snake: Eve's Encounter in Eden with Evil" (Reflections #861). I've evaluated most of your interesting column, and might have missed a thought or two. However, Greek and Hebrew scholars Thayer and Strong write, " artful malicious person, especially Satan - serpent." I'm inclined to believe it was Satan in the form of a "serpent" - not necessarily a "snake," as such, and not even similar to a snake as such, but a sly, sneaky, treacherous creature, which, of course, would include Satan. It is my understanding, after researching Satan's origin, that he was/is a rebellious fallen angel who was "kicked out of Heaven" and cast away from God's presence even before the genesis of creation, and that he was somehow "self-deposited" on planet Earth when no sin or deceit was yet present. The bottom line, of course, is that the Genesis event is one among many mysteries found in God's revelation to His human creation: mysteries that will no longer be mysteries when we are transformed and transferred to Heaven itself. Bless you, my brother!

From a Reader in Montana:

Al, I really enjoyed your article "Mystery of the Garden Snake." As you say, the liberty to see things differently is necessary. I've always thought it was literally a serpent/snake. It always made sense to me that women were/are afraid of snakes. I postulated in my head (not out loud) that when someone liked snakes, then they had overridden God's instilled dislike somehow (how crazy is that?!). One of the things you mentioned that does make sense in my head is the idea that the serpent/snake may have been beautiful in the eyes of Eve. Many times, temptation is dressed up beautifully (or as everything you ever wanted, and offered as a nice shortcut). Thanks for this study, Al. Also, I'm a big fan of what I call "living resources," so when someone asks for "resources" on understanding the Bible, here are mine: Al Maxey, Bobby Valentine, Matt Dabbs, and Patrick Mead. You four guys are truly the best at what you do! Again, thank you.

From a Minister in Arkansas:

Al, I enjoyed your article about the Garden of Eden snake. I don't believe, however, that the combined words "Lux Fero" ("Lucifer" in English) refer to Satan. "Lux" is "light," and is a term used in metric units as a measure of illuminance. "Fero" means "to bring." The Greek equivalent is "Phos Fero," from which we get the English word "phosphorus." The Lord spoke to the self-deception of Nebuchadnezzar in seeing himself as the Morning Star or Day Star, which is the planet Venus. He then promptly crushes the ungodly king with graphic language about his destiny. The true Day Star is Christ our Lord, which is declared clearly in Revelation 22:16. The problem is that so many have used the term "lucifer" for so long as a name for Satan that they never give the topic any thought. As I recall, this issue was first brought to my attention by Bro. Hugo McCord when I took his course on Isaiah in about 1975. Bro. McCord strongly disagreed with using the term "lucifer" as a name for Satan. When he brought this to our attention, the lights came on, so to speak. Also, I found Adam Clarke's belief that the deceiver in the Garden of Eden was an orangutan to be fascinating. Many years ago, we lived in Singapore and Malaysia for a time. The native folk in Malaysia and Indonesia speak a language called Bahasa. Orangutan is from two Bahasa words: "orang," which means "man," and "utan," which means "jungle" - hence: "jungle man." These are the only two Bahasa words to be adopted into English. We found this very interesting! Blessings, brother.

From an Author in California:

Bro. Maxey, I have been reading Dennis Prager's commentary on Genesis. It is an extraordinary commentary by an orthodox Jew. I am a big fan of his, and I have read most of his books. Anyway, on the issue of the serpent, he says, "If there is a God who created the universe, He could surely create a serpent who could communicate." As he concludes this discussion, he wrote, "So the question of whether this story is literal history or divine parable has never vexed me. In either case, I believe the Torah to be a divine text. What matters is what God wants us to learn from the story."

From a Reader in Ottawa, Canada:

Al, I've read "Mystery of the Garden Snake" with interest because others have also pointed out some strange things about this tale. One of my favorite teachers, Rabbi David Fohrman, has authored an intriguing book that asks the difficult questions and tries to provide logical answers to them. In this book titled "The Beast that Crouches at the Door - Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Beyond," Rabbi Fohrman seeks the details of God's interaction with Adam and Eve, and he asks all the glaring questions that we should be asking if we paid closer attention and didn't treat the story like an oft-heard fairy tale. Discovering the writings of Rabbi Fohrman gave me impetus to look at the biblical text with new eyes. Learning about the Jewish roots of our faith has been life-giving for me, and I'm deeply grateful for the challenges and rewards this rabbi has led me through in developing my passion for the text. Thank you also, Al, for your continued devotion to teaching Truth. Blessings to you in Christ, and to all you hold dear.

From an Author in Kentucky:

Al, I very much appreciate your scholarly analysis of the "Mystery of the Garden Snake." I am wondering about the last part of that article, especially the part about Adam Clarke's theory about the tempter being an orangutan. This brought to my mind the question of a pre-Adamic or pre-Genesis creation, and about the fossil evidence of prehistoric hominids. They definitely were more apelike than present humanoids, yet there was a definite resemblance. Like Clarke, though, I would not be dogmatic about this - just curious.

From a Reader in Georgia:

Excellent diagnosis, Dr. Maxey! It's so difficult to go back thousands of years and try to present a perfect definition of almost any Hebrew word. As varied as the definitions were/are, it's difficult to understand how anybody knew what anybody else was talking about unless they were holding it in their hand and pointing to it (LOL). As bad as I dislike snakes, I think I'll stick with that metaphor. I'm writing a personal study of Job that some folks will find challenging, but it'll be good for generating discussion. I find that one of the reasons Job seems to blame God for everything (once he runs out of "patience") is that he is seemingly completely unaware of Satan's existence! Nobody brings him up at all. I'm of the opinion that "leviathan" was in fact one of those "double meanings and applications" that you referenced, and that perhaps God was beginning to introduce Satan to man. Thanks for all that you do, Al. You're a blessing to many, brother!

From an Author in California:

Dear Al, I just wanted to send a note to say hello and to thank you for the good article on the garden serpent. I would also like to say that if you are ever out walking in the desert around Alamogordo, and a snake comes up and says to you, "Snakes don't talk," it is lying to you! (LOL) Some years ago I read Adam Clarke's explanation that the tempter was an ape, and not a snake at all. I am personally not convinced, but it is one theory, and, as you rightly pointed out, he at least displayed a good attitude about it.

From a Reader in Mississippi:

Dear Al, I loved your response to Elbert Peters regarding baptism in your article titled "Respecting Our Differences: 'I Agree with You, Except for This'" (Reflections #859). One thing I would add, that stands out to me when reading the Bible, is that God's people are referred to as believers, NOT "the circumcised" nor "the baptized."

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