And even as Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses, so do these also withstand the truth. Men corrupted in mind, reprobate concerning the faith (2 Timothy 3:8).
As we investigate the Scriptures, there are times when we pass over certain details without much notice. There are times when we see certain details, find them interesting or perplexing, and move on anyway. There are times when we note certain details and are spurred on to learn more about them. And there are details for which we go through all three processes at different times.
The mention of Jannes and Jambres in 2 Timothy 3:8 could be one such detail. Paul talks about them in terms of Moses, so we know that they refer in some way to some story somewhere in Exodus through Deuteronomy. They are in opposition to Moses; Moses had a lot of people opposed to him, so that is not too surprising. We broadly understand the basis of the reference: just as they opposed Moses, so there will be some in the “last days” who will oppose the truth, ungodly people, corrupted in mind, reckoned as reprobate in the faith (2 Timothy 3:1-8). Ultimately, these sinful people will be exposed for who they are, just as Jannes and Jambres were (2 Timothy 3:9).
But if we perhaps dwell a moment on the detail, we might get perplexed a bit. Those names do not sound familiar. If we do some research and investigation, we discover that the only references to Jannes and Jambres is right here in 2 Timothy 3:8! Who are Jannes and Jambres, anyway? Where can we learn about them? Or is Paul just making stuff up?
Among the “pseudepigraphal” texts, religious yet uninspired books generally written just before, during, and after the life of Christ, there are references and stories regarding Jannes and Jambres. We learn about them from references in texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls along with “Jannes and Jambres,” a text of which a few fragments have been preserved. All of these texts and traditions consider Jannes and Jambres to be the two Egyptian magicians who stand in opposition to Moses in Exodus 7:1-8:19.
In Exodus they are considered as unnamed “magicians,” able to turn their staffs into serpents, turn the Nile to blood and to bring frogs upon the land. Nevertheless, they were not able to match the plague of the gnats, nor of any of the later plagues which God brought upon the Egyptians through Moses. They confessed that the plague of the gnats demonstrated “the finger of God” (Exodus 8:19). The magicians would later no longer be able to stand before Pharaoh when the plague of boils came upon them (Exodus 9:11).
These other texts, particularly “Jannes and Jambres,” suggest that the magicians were two brothers, and they stood up in opposition to Moses even though they knew that through Moses came the power of God. The story suggests that Jannes dies soon after because of his opposition, and after their mother died, Jambres, through necromancy, conjured the spirit of his brother who confessed the just nature of his death as a penalty for opposing the power of God and warned his brother to turn from his behavior. The fragmentary nature of the texts we possess means it is difficult to say much more about the story.
What we see in these texts and traditions does seem to reconcile well with Paul’s statements in 2 Timothy 3:8-9. Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses; their folly was made evident to all men.
Does this mean that “Jannes and Jambres” is inspired? No; we have no reason to think that. What we do see is that there is this tradition regarding the names of at least two of the Egyptian magicians who opposed Moses as Jannes and Jambres. As with all sorts of Biblical characters, additional stories were told about them, and more than likely those stories do not bear much relation with anything that really happened to the actual Biblical characters. But they do exist; Paul is not making up stuff.
Jannes and Jambres, therefore, provide an illustration and a warning. There always will be people who oppose the truth, thinking they act in the service of a cause they do not know is lost. They may be able to “work their magic” and deceive for a time, but a moment will come when their foolishness will be evident to all. God will obtain the victory; truth will be victorious, and error will be exposed for what it is. Opposition to God can only go so far.
Jannes and Jambres is a small detail easily overlooked when studying in 2 Timothy. It requires some investigation to understand Paul’s referent and why he makes it, but the effort is worthwhile in the end. As in the days of Moses, so it is in our own day: God’s truth stands firm, opposed to error, and will have the victory. That which is false cannot hide in the shadows forever, and it will be exposed for the fraud it is. Let us be wise and not foolish; let us stand firm in the truth of God in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry