How Did Paul Learn about Jannes and Jambres?

By Wayne Jackson

“In his second letter to Timothy, Paul referred to two men who ‘withstood’ Moses. He cites their names as Jannes and Jambres. Supposedly, these were the ‘magicians’ referred to several times in the book of Exodus (chapters 7-9). Since their names are not mentioned in the Old Testament, how could Paul possibly have had that information?”

In the first place, the fact that the names of the magicians that opposed Moses are not recorded in the Old Testament does not mean that they were unknown. There are many instances in the ancient record of antagonists whose names were not mentioned explicitly. There certainly is no literary rationale that would demand such.

The fact is, however, there are references to these names in the literature of antiquity. Albert Pietersma has noted that the two names “appear frequently in Jewish, Christian, and pagan sources extant in Arabic, Aramaic, Greek, Hebrew, Latin Old and Middle English, and Syriac” (The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, New York: Doubleday, 1992, Vol. 3, p. 638).

Since Paul had a broad education in both Hebrew tradition (Galatians 1:14), and in secular literature (cf. Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12), he might very well have supplied the names from his own reservoir of knowledge (Acts 26:24) — under the supervision of the Holy Spirit of course. It is not inconsistent with a lofty concept of inspiration that a sacred writer might incorporate information from various sources into his narration. This is the very point that Luke made in the opening remarks of his Gospel account regarding Jesus.

“Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to draw up a narrative concerning those matters which have been fulfilled among us, even as they delivered them unto us, who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having traced the course of all things accurately from the first, to write unto you in order, most excellent Theophilus, that you might know the certainty concerning the things wherein you were instructed” (Luke 1:1-3 ASV; emphasis supplied).

The participle rendered, “having traced,” carries the idea of “pursuing, or investigating a matter” (Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964, Vol. I, p. 215).

Professor Norval Geldenhuys, who taught at both Princeton and Cambridge, described Luke’s research as follows.

Through long periods (during his travels along with Paul and also at other times) he made thorough researches concerning the Gospel stories so that he was able to set forth the actual course of events. He collected and studied all available written renderings of words and works of Jesus; wherever the opportunity was presented to him he discussed the Gospel stories with persons who possessed firsthand knowledge concerning Him. . . " (Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956, p. 53).

If then, the Spirit of God could guide Luke in the selection, organization, and recording of materials appropriate to his Gospel account, he similarly could have led Paul to incorporate the names of Jannes and Jambres into his letter to Timothy, from whatever source they were derived — be it oral or written.

Dr. Henry Thiessen once noted, regarding this particular point, that “the Holy Spirit supervised the selection of the materials to be used and the words to be employed in writing. [He] finally, preserved the authors from all error and from all omission” (H.C. Thiessen, Introductory Lectures in Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949, p. 107).

The fact is, the names of Jannes and Jambres could have been revealed directly to the apostle, had God so chosen, though this may not be the most likely theory of what happened.

It simply is sufficient to say, it constitutes no problem that the names are not found in the Old Testament, but are present in Paul’s letter to Timothy.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.