(2 Tim. 3:8-9) Who were Jannes and Jambres?

CLAIM: Paul refers to “Jannes and Jambres” who “opposed Moses” (2 Tim. 3:8). However, the OT never refers to either of these men. Who were they?

RESPONSE: While these two men are not recorded in the OT, Jewish tradition,[1] the Qumran community,[2] Pliny,[3] and Origen[4] all refer to Jannes and Jambres. According to the Targum of Jonathan (an Aramaic paraphrase), these two men were thought to be magicians in Pharaoh’s court in Exodus 7:11.

Paul cites these names to compare how Pharaoh’s court magicians rejected Moses, and how the contemporary false teachers chose to “oppose the truth” (2 Tim. 3:8). While these two figures were not mentioned in the OT, the NT authors are permitted to quote extra-biblical sources under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (for additional comments on this subject, see Jude 9). This is particularly likely when the false teachers in Ephesus had a “fixation with Jewish myths and genealogies (1 Tim 1:4).”[5]

In our view, Paul is citing the names of these men from an extrabiblical source because these were the common names attributed to Pharaoh’s magicians in Paul’s day. Thus, this would be an easy way for Timothy to identify the people from the historical, biblical account (Ex. 7:11). Paul is not making up historical people; these people existed in reality (Ex. 7:11). Rather, he is citing the common names attributed to these historical persons.

We see no problem with using the common names at the time to identify a historical person in Scripture. In a similar way, the “rich man” in Luke 16 is anonymous (like the magicians in Pharaoh’s court). However, Christians often refer to this person as the story of “Dives and Lazarus.” In Latin, the word dives means “rich man.” Since the Latin Vulgate, people have often referred to this story as “Dives and Lazarus,” turning this word into a proper noun. In our view, Paul is doing something similar by referring to Jannes and Jambres—using the conventional and contemporary names of two historically anonymous persons.

[1] Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Exod 7:11.

[2] Zadokite Document (also called the “Damascus Document”) in the Dead Sea Scrolls mention Johana (Jannes) as an opposer of Moses (5:17-19).

[3] Pliny, Natural History 30.2.11.

[4] Origen, Against Celsus 4.51.

[5] William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, vol. 46, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2000), 549.