So we may orient ourselves appropriately we will start with Bart’s bold conclusion on p. 114.— “the majority of scholars acknowledge that whereas there are seven letters in the New Testament that Paul certainly wrote, , six others are probably (or for some scholars, certainly) not by Paul…” I have already warned in these posts against Bart’s penchant for making out-sized and unwarranted large claims to back up his assertions and this is one of them. If by ‘majority’ Bart meant something like the ‘majority of German commentators in 1970’, then a statement like this could probably stand.
As it is, it is completely erroneous if we are talking about worldwide Biblical scholarship in 2011. But let us suppose we are only talking about scholarship in the English speaking world and commentaries and monographs written in English. Even here, this conclusion would be erroneous and leaving a completely false impression. In fact the majority of English speaking commentators and specialists on documents such as 2 Thessalonians, Colossians and Ephesians think these documents also should be attributed to Paul, whatever scribes he may have used to produce them. I ought to know. I have researched and written commentaries on all these books. How many commentaries on books of the New Testament has Bart researched and written? None. Not one. And he should not be taken as a reliable guide on what the majority of commenting scholars think about these matters.
It is then only the Pastoral Epistles which are much more heavily debated by scholars, and understandably so as their style and vocabulary are different from the earlier Paulines. But even here, at the point of my writing this, there are probably only a slight majority of commentators and specialists who think it more likely Paul didn’t write these documents than that he did. And if we are talking about trends, increasingly the tendency even in very non-traditional commentaries is to be less dogmatic about asserting these can’t possibly be by Paul. For example, have a look at the introductory discussion in Luke Timothy Johnson’s detailed commentary work on the Pastorals, and see the many, and good reasons why no one can afford to simply say these documents must be forgeries any more.
Bart, is actually swimming against the tide of the scholarship, even on the Pastorals. And here I must register a big complaint. Look at the footnotes to Chapter Three. Do we find any evidence at all that Bart has even read a broad and representative sampling of commentaries on Paul’s letters, or even on the Pastorals? No, we do not. Maybe he has, but his views only match up with a sort of cherry-picking approach to the scholarship, highly selective in character, and tendentiously favoring only the more radical or controversial commentators on Paul. It is also worth noting that he relies heavily on the older scholarship of A.N. Harrison or N. Brox or the eccentric work of D. MacDonald. But this older scholarship has long since been critiqued, and largely discarded as inadequate. Bart however trots it out as if: 1) it was news, and 2) such conclusions would go unchallenged today by the majority of scholars. Wrong, and wrong. With these preliminary remarks we are now ready to deal with the particulars of Chapter Three.
To begin with, Bart is certainly right that Paul has had an appalling number of phony stories, unhistorical stories, penned about him. Not surprisingly, Bart begins his discussion (pp. 81ff.) with the ‘Acts of Paul’ in particular ‘ the Acts of Paul and Thecla’ a second century narrative, which, while it may have some historical features (e.g. the physical description of Paul has sometimes been thought to be accurate, though it appears to be more likely to be a typical character description in the form of a physical description— e.g. large forehead equals wise man), it is overwhelmingly likely to be a work of fiction. Here, Bart and I would agree. The question then becomes whether it was a recognized novella, or a deliberate attempt to deceive some public about Paul, claiming to be some sort of eyewitness account. This latter question can actually be debated. Ancient Christians knew about novella, fictional works often about famous persons, and so it is appropriate to ask if ancient Christians created their own versions of Harlequin romances. I think in some cases the answer is clearly yes, and that the audience would have known this. The charming stories about St. Paul and the baptized lion or St. John and the bed bugs are probably not intended to make historical claims about these figures, they are moralizing tales meant to teach moralizing lessons based on lives of the saints. In other words, they are forms of fictionalized hagiography about real historical persons. The question then becomes does a document like ‘the Acts of Paul and Thecla’ fall into this category?
Last summer, I was given the special privilege of visiting the cave church of Paul and Thecla, have on a hill hovering over Ephesus. There are famous wall paintings in this church of both these figures. There can be little doubt that at some point in the pre-Constantinian era the stories of Paul and Thecla had caught the imagination of early Christians, and some of them probably believed various of these tales were true. Otherwise, why make them wall paintings in a cave church? The term legend is applied to stories that gestate over a long period of time, and have a kernel of historical substance, but are embellished in various ways as the tale is retold. It is possible the story of Paul and Thecla is like this, but there are some reasons to doubt the substance of the story in various particulars. For example, the element of extreme asceticism in the story, attributed to Paul, probably involves a rather serious misreading of what Paul says about such things in 1 Corinthians 7.
Bart then is quite right to point out on pp. 81-82 that the preaching of Paul in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, about sexual abstinence as being a necessary part of holiness, is quite at odds with the typical preaching of Paul in the NT. This red flag must be taken seriously. Indeed, in this story Paul even forbids sex within marriage, quite the opposite of what he says in 1 Cor. 7. An important element in this story which is grounded in the actual ministry of Paul in the first century, is having women as Pauline co-workers who taught or proclaimed the Gospel. There is clear historical evidence for this both in Paul’s letters and in texts like Acts 18, so here is an element in an otherwise fictional story that would be recognized to be true to the ministry of Paul. But the story reflects a very different ethos than the one of Paul in the mid-first century. In the second century and later in Christianity we have the rise of extreme asceticism, asceticism of a form that sexual abstinence is seen as a key to being holy at all, much less be a holy man or woman proclaiming God’s Word. This certainly did not characterize the lives of the earliest Christians, especially not the Jewish Christians, and reflects the growing dominant Gentile ethos of the church in the second century and thereafter. Unfortunately this deficient view of the goodness of human sexuality and sexual expression in the right context has continued to infect and affect large portions of the church ever since then. So here it needs to be stressed— sexual asceticism has nothing to do with the NT ideas about holiness, except if we mean by that sexual abstinence in the life of an unmarried person. The church sadly has long proclaimed a mixed and oxymoronic message about sex—- the message I was given in MYF in junior high school was basically—- ‘sex is dirty, save it for the one you really love’. The Acts of Paul and Thecla sadly perpetuate that sort of view, and go beyond it, even calling for abstinence within marriage.
One of the more helpful distinctions Bart makes in his study is between forgery and fabrication. In this case, a fabricator is a person who makes up stories about Paul, a forger is one who usurps the name and voice of Paul. I think this is a helpful distinction, and on these terms ‘the Acts of Paul and Thecla’ could be called a fabrication. Bart gives us the famous story of Tertullian about the book saying it was a fabrication by an elder in the church in Asia Minor who was disciplined for writing it. If true, it suggests that the book was not seen as a harmless moralizing fiction. It was seen as seeking to make some historical claims about Paul and women (see p. 83). Tertullian of course was indeed a misogynist. He had a dog in this fight, and he wanted to repudiate the idea that Paul had female co-workers. But Tertullian’s axe to grind does not obviate the probably truth that this document was simply fiction masked as an historical account— not a recognized and harmless novella, but a fabrication, hence the disciplining of the elder in question.
Pp. 84-92 present us with forgeries in the name of Paul, such as 3 Corinthians, or the work of Marcionites, or the famous letters of Paul and Seneca. It is widely agreed these documents were not written by Paul, and so on Bart’s terms, are forgeries. I don’t have an argument with the case he lays out in these pages, the pressing question is not addressed until page 92— are there forgeries in the NT canon of Paul’s letters? There is however one point made on p. 90 that deserves correction. In fact, Paul uses the term sarx in various texts simply to mean our physical skin or body. There are texts where it is simply interchangeable with the use of soma. R. Bultmann was wrong about this, and so is Bart. Yes, there are also places where sarx is used by Paul in a loaded moral sense— to mean our sinful inclinations generated by our fallen bodies or desires. But in texts like 1 Cor. 15— ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom’ especially the pairing with the term blood makes clear Paul is simply using sarx in a mundane sense there. Thus, it is quite impossible to use Paul’s varied uses of the term sarx as a litmus test to prove that later documents like 3 Corinthians must be forgeries because they confuse the Pauline uses of flesh and body, and assume they can be seen as synonymous. There are other reasons for seeing 3 Corinthians as a forgery, but this is not one of them.
Notice again how Bart’s modus operandi and rhetorical strategy is to trot out first documents widely agreed to be forgeries or fabrications, thus gaining momentum for the conclusion that there must be such documents in the canon itself, since it seems to have been a widespread Christian practice. The problems with this sort of approach are numerous, not the least for the reasons I have already given— the social situation in the first century in which Jewish Christians were in the majority, and the movement was just beginning to establish itself, and the apostles and eyewitnesses were still around to correct attempts at forgeries and fabrications is a very different social situation from that in the middle of the second century and later.
So the anachronistic attempt to read back into the first century later conditions is fraught with peril, and should not be allowed to stand as good historical reasoning. Were the social conditions in Nazi Germany in which all sorts of propaganda supporting the Third Reich was churned out, identical to the situation fifty years earlier in Germany before WWI? No of course they were not, and indeed it is not an accident that the Nazi propaganda did not much need to fear contradiction in the way it interpreted the era before Kaiser Wilhelm. The people of that earlier generation were by the 1940s dead, or forced into silence by oppression and persecution. The proper methodological for a historical study like Bart is undertaking is to work forwards, from the earliest Christian documents and situations in life, and take care to make sure one doesn’t read into later periods conditions only prevalent in earlier ones, and vice versa. We cannot reasonably assume that because there are forgeries and fabrications in the second and later centuries there must have been in the first century as well and some of them must be in the canon. This is an assumption that must be proved, not simply asserted, and Bart does not offer any compelling proof.
Firstly, Bart makes the mistake of trying to compare these letters, which come as close to being personal letters as any in the Pauline corpus, to letter written to whole congregations (e.g. 1 Corinthians). This is a mistake. If there is an authentic Pauline letter it should have been compared to in terms of its form, it is Philemon. And if there is a letter it should have been compared to because the shadow of death overs over these letters as Paul is either under house arrest or in jail, particularly when 2 Timothy is written, it is Philippians, the latest of the so-called capital Pauline letters. When we compare the Pastorals to Philemon what do we learn? First of all, we learn that it is not true that Pauline churches were purely pneumatic in their order or leadership structure. This is not even true in 1 Corinthians which rightly refers to Stephanus and his household (1 Cor. 16.15) who are to be listened to and served, as leaders in Corinth. So the attempt to contrast the Pastorals with a definite hierarchial leadership structure with the earlier genuine Paulines does not work. Indeed, it especially does not work when we compare Philippians to the Pastorals, for in the prescript to Philippians we hear about elders and overseers/bishops who are specifically addressed in this letter. It seems clear that the leadership structure in the Pauline churches develops over time, and what we find in the Pastorals is simply the latest stage of such a development, not a departure from Paul’s genuine and earlier practices. And indeed, it is totally believable that Paul, on the verge of being executed would be concerned about leaving the churches in the hands of good leaders like his co-workers— Timothy and Titus.
The second old chestnut trotted out and retreaded by Bart in these pages is that Paul, like Jesus, blessed their hearts, thought Jesus was coming back necessarily within decades, and therefore couldn’t have been very interested in church structure or the long haul or encouraging marriages or the like. What’s the point if the world is definitely coming to a screeching halt soon? Unfortunately, this too is a caricature of Paul and Jesus, as I have made very clear in my book, Jesus, Paul, and the End of the World, (IVP). Bart is simply retreading the old arguments of A. Schweitzer, and they have been shown to be deeply flawed many times over since Schweitzer wrote in the early 20th century. Both Jesus and Paul talk about the return of Christ coming at an unknown and surprising time like a thief in the night—it could be sooner, it could be later, but no one can be certain it will definitely be sooner. Paul himself in 1 Thess. 4-5 does not claim Jesus is certainly coming back in his lifetime. He believes it is possible, and when there are two unknowns, namely the date of one’s own death and the date of Christ’s return it is quite impossible for Paul to say ‘no we who are dead when Christ returns….’ The only category he can put himself in when those two dates are unknowns is in the category of the living. Thus, the attempt to take that passage as proof Paul thought Christ’s return was necessarily imminent must be said to have failed.
Is Paul opposed to marriage in 1 Corinthians 7? Certainly not. He simply says that the single life gives one more time to serve the Lord and less anxieties, and he is surely right about both of those things. In fact, he encourages people to marry in 1 Cor. 7 if they don’t have the ‘charisma’ or grace gift for remaining single. In short, there is nothing in 1 Cor. 7 that is at odds with advice to leaders in the Pastorals that they should be ‘the husband of one wife’. It should be noted that this is not advice to get married. It is rather advice about a person not being married multiple times or to multiple women at one time—they are to be monogamous. It is not really difficult, and it does not take that long to show the flaws in Bart’s logic when it comes to the Pastorals.
But I want to return briefly to the issue of vocabulary, grammar and style. Stephen Wilson, sometime ago wrote a very helpful book entitled Luke and the Pastoral Epistles. What he showed is that there is a remarkable amount of unique vocabulary in the Pastorals, including phrases and ways of referring to things, that are found nowhere else in the NT except in Luke-Acts. This is in fact so extensive in these three little letters that Wilson concluded Luke wrote these little letters, perhaps even as the sequel to his Acts. Now, I think the latter conjecture is unnecessary, but the former point needs to be taken seriously. These letters have enough of a unified style and vocabulary that it does seem likely one person wrote them all. And so, I have argued that Luke, who in 2 Timothy is said to alone be with Paul at the end, is responsible for the writing out of these letters from things Paul has said to him. When Paul had a long time trusted colleague, he might well do what many writers, including Cicero did, not feeling the necessity of dictating word for word, but having the trusted colleague or co-worker do the composition. And in the case of 2 Timothy, there was good reason for this— Paul was likely in the Mamartine prison and quite unable to do dictation or composition. Luke, then, in his own words, preserved the last will and testimony of Paul for his closest long time co-workers and church leaders encouraging them to carry on. The hands that composed these documents are Luke’s but the voice is the voice of Paul.
In Bart’s discussion of 2 Thessalonians (pp. 103-08) Bart continues to assume that Paul had preached the definite imminence of the return of Christ, and that now he must write the Thessalonians and say— not so fast, that’s not quite what I said. The Thessalonians are worried about their fellow believers who have recently passed away. In fact all Paul had suggested was the possible imminence of the parousia in 1 Thess. 4-5, used as an eschatological sanction and reassurance, but perhaps some of his audience had misunderstood. Bart then trots out the old argument that 2 Thessalonians 2 obviously flatly contradicts 1 Thess. 4-5 because the former text talks about preliminary events that will precede the return of Christ. While is a common enough argument, that doesn’t make it a valid one. Why not? Because if you bother to read both early Jewish and early Christian eschatological texts, they frequently juxtapose remarks about the possible imminence of an event with discussion of the events that will precede it. While to a late Western mind this might seem to be a contradiction, obviously it wasn’t for early Jews and early Christians. And in the case of Paul, it wasn’t for him precisely because he was not asserting the definite imminence of Christ within his lifetime. I have dealt with this supposed contradiction at length in my 1 and 2 Thessalonians commentary (Eerdmans), and you are welcome to seen the extended argument there. In short, once again Bart is wrong in his assumptions, instead trotting out views that have been critiqued and shown wanting for a long time.
In addition, we have on p. 108 the odd argument that the reference to Paul signing his name to a document as a telltale sign of a forgery. Really? Isn’t this exactly what Paul says in Galatians 6.11, and wasn’t it a normal practice for letter writers to sign their documents giving an assurance of authenticity— yes, and yes. But all too typically Bart doesn’t bother to actually deal with Gal. 6.11. And since this is a book for lay people, the failure to deal with well-known counter evidence may go unnoticed. But this is not just sloppiness, it is tendentiousness. When you fail to fairly deal with counter evidence, especially when it is considerable, you may be a successful rhetorician with the unlettered, but you will hardly persuade those who know the evidence as well or better than Bart does.
Moving on to Ephesians, on p. 109 Bart once again makes the claim— the majority of scholars think Paul did not write Ephesians. This is simply a false claim. If by the majority you mean the majority who are actual experts in Ephesians, have written commentaries or monographs on Ephesians, then no, this is not true. Don’t take my word for it, look at the massive Ephesians commentary by Harold Hoehner and the long and definitive list of scholars writing on Ephesians he is able to produce. His listing takes us up to 2002, and one can compare my commentary list since then. This is simply a factual mistake on Bart’s part, and it’s the kind of mistake he keeps making. Let me be clear that I am not even counting devotional commentaries, commentaries written by ministers, or commentaries written by uncritical or precritical or fundamentalist Bible teachers. I am only counting scholars who are members of societies like the SNTS and the SBL. Even on this showing, Bart is wrong.
It is not clear to me whether or not Bart knows much about Greco-Roman rhetoric, and in particular about Asiatic rhetoric, a rhetoric in which great orators like Cicero were trained. If he does know something about that, then he should have recognized that Ephesians, unlike earlier Pauline letters is written in the style of Asiatic rhetoric, noted for its long sentences and hyperbolic speech, and on top of that it is an epideictic discourse focusing on the praise and blame of certain things in the present. The reason it differs from earlier Pauline letters is not because it isn’t by Paul. It’s because this is a circular letter written to the very region where Asiatic rhetoric was most popular, in Asia Minor, and reflecting the conventions of that species and kind of rhetorical discourse.
Again, on p. 110 we have to deal with caricatures. Paul in the genuine letters does not talk about doing good works, or salvation apart from good works. He is always contrasting salvation with works of the Mosaic law. Really? Always? And does he never have a good word for good works? In fact, this is false. It does not account for all sorts of material in the ethical sections of Paul’s earlier letters in which Paul talks both about the importance of work and good works. See for example Rom. 12-15, Gal. 5-6, Philippians 4, and the discussion of work in 1-2 Thessalonians. Sorry Bart, once again, that dog won’t hunt. Paul does not contrast faith and works of the Mosaic law in all the undisputed Paulines. And as for themes that are crucial—the urging to ‘seek the welfare of the city by doing the good’, a theme explored at length by Bruce Winter on the basis of the undisputed Paulines, is simply ignored here. And the claim that the genuine Paul never uses the term ‘save’ to refer to the present condition of Christians is simply astounding and absurd— take for example 1 Cor. 1.21— God saves people (now) through the foolishness of Paul’s preaching, or 1 Thess. 2.16 where Paul complains that Satan is hindering his ability to speak to the Gentiles so that they may be saved (in the present) and I could go on. Notice that in Phil. 2.12 Paul talks about believers working out their salvation which God is already working in them to will and to do.
Bart then makes the argument that Paul does not talk about having resurrection life spiritually in the here and now as Ephes. 2.5-6 suggests. He points to Rom. 6.1-4 as evidence that Paul always talks about resurrection as something believers will experience in the future. I think this is in the main a valid point, but there is a very good reason why in Ephesians Paul would focus on the present benefits of Christ for believers. This is the very nature of epideictic rhetoric, to focus on what is now true and can be praised. The case that Bart makes for Colossians being unPauline is even less credible. A good writer in Greek is perfectly capable of varying his style, but Bart is right that there is a clear connection between Colossians and Ephesians, the latter based on some of the former. For this reason, he should have dealt with Colossians first, which the majority of Colossians scholars do indeed think is by Paul. See the arguments for example in the recent commentary by J.D.G. Dunn or my Colossians, Ephesians, Philemon, (Eerdmans). In other words, there is an answer to every single one of Bart’s assertions and arguments he wants to make about these various canonical Pauline letters.