Scholarly Consensus on the Pastoral Epistles? Ben Witherington vs. Bart Ehrman

Scholarly Consensus on the Pastoral Epistles? Ben Witherington vs. Bart Ehrman April 8, 2011

Ben Witherington has been blogging about Bart Ehrman’s recent book Forged. While Ehrman’s book is by no means above criticism, Witherington’s suggestion that that Ehrman misrepresents the scholarly consensus about the Pastoral Epistles seems to me to be off target. But this is perhaps an excellent opportunity to ask that perennial question: How does one gauge the scholarly consensus on a particular matter?

I found myself pondering this issue as I read Foster’s book on the The Gospel of Peter. Foster actually suggests at one point (pp.37-38) that the consensus of scholars might be something different than the viewpoint that is expressed most frequently in publications on the subject. I suspect that in the case of works like the Gospel of Peter, there may be far more people who teach about it and have thought about it than published about it. Perhaps the same can be said about the Pastoral Epistles, and if so, then Foster’s point may have more to be said for it than initially appears.

What do others think? How does one gauge the scholarly consensus on a particular subject? My own inclination, when it comes to a matter such as the authorship of the Pastoral Epistles, would be to look at (1) textbooks, (2) introductions to the New Testament, (3) the treatment of authorship in commentaries, and finally (4) scholarly monographs specifically on this subject.

My sense is that the consensus on the Pastoral Epistles is that they are not authentically Pauline. And I suspect that deep down, Witherington knows this. If someone were to write a scholarly book or present a conference paper, and assumed the Pastoral Epistles are not Pauline, they would not even need to mention the point explicitly. If they wanted to claim that they are authentically Pauline, they would have to argue the case strenuously.

Perhaps that more than anything else gives a clear sense of what the scholarly consensus is on a topic – what you can genuinely take for granted without discussion or dispute when writing a book, article, or conference paper?

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  • I think you are right James. This does seem to be a good gauge of scholarly consensus. But I know of no other way to determine what may be taken for granted than by examining the types of sources you mention. One important resource might be journals like Currents in Biblical Research.Here is another question, how might scholars use technology to help with this? I think we would need something more than a Facebook page scholars could "like" if they were in favor. I wonder how the emerging technologies many of us have been discussing regarding publishing might help with this.

  • I suppose it depends on whether you define "scholarly" in the phrase as "scholars" or "scholarship."Harold Hoehner make a similar argument about Ephesians in his commentary (though he also took the time to do you what you stated: he also argued the case strenuously.

  • James,While I think the Pastoral Epistles are authentically Pauline I would agree with you that the consensus seems to be that they are not. I would further agree that the burden of proof seems to be on whoever affirms Pauline authorship, not necessarily because the arguments against it are so overwhelming, but because they are so commonly held.

  • Isn't Ben Witherington an inerrantist?

  • I think the phrase "scholarly consensus is" reveals more about the speaker than it does the universe of scholars.Every person, by necessity, speaks from a self-centered universe. Thus it's apparent from your penultimate paragraph, if it wasn't before, that you move in different circles than Ben.I don't suggest that there aren't some things that are universally factual. It's just that scholarly consensus is seldom one of them.

  • I agree with you on the issue of consensus too. for all intents and purposes we can assume the pastoral letters are fakes, to treat them as genuine in a work should be qualified with an mention that they are not regarded as such by most scholars and perhaps a a reference to an argument for them being genuine. It would be irresponsible scholarship to just assume them as genuine, as some people(who shall go nameless) like to assume that there is no evidence that Nazareth exited in the first century. It is intellectualy dis-honest.

  • James, the issue extends beyond biblical studies. The same issues surround my field – envrionmental science. If one were to take a sample of published paper findings, one might conclude a different % of agreement on certain topics than a face-to-face survey of practicioners or researchers would provide. That's why I always throw a little salt on research programmes that "aggregate" journal publications.

  • Luke Timothy Johnson has done an excellent job pointing out the sort of logical fallacies that pervade discussion of the authorship of the Pastoral Epistles. That said, I think the biggest problem with the PE is that people always interpret the evidence together. Each book needs to be considered on its own, and a very strong case can be made that most of the arguments that apply to 1 Timothy and Titus do not apply to 2 Timothy. In short, there are intelligent scholars driven by scholarly examination of the text that quite reasonably doubt all or part of the "consensus."

  • Anonymous

    Two points.One, in every field of study but the New Testament, all those who research the topic are free to go where they find logic and evidence lead them. Some who work on the New Testament have taken a pledge that they will not go wherever logic and evidence seem to lead them. They promise not to find against certain conclusions. How are these evidence-free conclusions to be weighed?Second, in the field of philosophy, a well-designed survey has asked professional philosophers where they stand on a couple of dozen central issues in the field. Such a survey could be conducted in religious studies as well, and would provide another sort of evidence for or against assertions like those Witherington has advanced.

  • When there is new information in literature, besides the finding of archeology or cultural studies, doesn't one have to make a case within a certain "group". The conservative groups (inerrancy biblicists) aren't known to be open to "other information" that does not support their assumptions of value. These scholars uphold the text and tradition, as a value.The other side argues that the text is not above any other text in being evaluated or critiqued. There is a much more open stance toward information that is not pre-judged as "off limits" before it informs the scholar. This text holds the scholar to all other informing disciplines that would impinge upon the text.One holds to tradition to maintain "biblical standards", while the other looks at the text as a door into the ancient world and its thinking. The biblicist would find much to affirm the value of Christianity, while the other looks at the larger social/political/historical world that underwrote the text.

  • My own sense is that commentaries generally are written by more conservative scholars and this is the basis for Witherington's claims. Rightly we should consider other academic sources to establish a "consensus" claim. Scholarly articles that address the issue should also be included in McGrath's list.

  • Yme Woensdregt

    I wonder if one can ever claim to have a scholarly consensus in general. There may be one consensus among conservative scholars, another consensus among more liberal interpreters, another consensus among progressives, etc etc.In the light of that, isn't it time to put talk of a "general scholarly consensus to bed altogether? It would be more intellectually honest, and much more helpful to pastors who must by definition be generalists, to know which group a scholar aligns her or himself with.

  • I'll confess that I hardly know what the word "consensus" means any more. The books that sell right now, the teaching institutions that sell right now, they are not the cold, hard, "objective" ones. Ideology is in. Ideology sells. It feels like objective researchers in our area are tucked away in dinky classics and religious studies departments.Someone told me yesterday that Albert Vanhoye secretly suspects that Paul wrote Hebrews. The end is nigh.

  • MyView

    What Ben is doing may have the veneer of scholarship but it is really apologetics aimed at defending the inerrancy of the Bible. His starting point is the Bible in inerrant in what it says. Since critical scholarship can never definitively prove or disprove anything Ben feels free to adopt any explanation however unlikely it may seem even if there are other explanations that are more likely. At least thats my take from reading some of his book reviews.

  • Ken,Wouldn't you rather be in the back of some classics religous department and maintain intellectual integrity, than be rich and famous? I certainly wouldn't want to further some irrational passion at the costs of self respect. And I don't think fanning such ideological flames makes for a sane society.

  • Anonymous

    Ehrman's pretense to being "objective" is willfully misleading.He has an agenda, and it is just the flip side of his fundamentalist upbring…heck, he even rehashes the story of his deconversion in his latest book.Still Not Sure What To Do…

  • I don't like the term "consensus" because there's an unfortunate ambiguity as to whether the term means unanimity or merely that the opposition is insignificant. When it is discovered that there is a dissenting opinion, which in scholarship there inevitably seems to be, the argument over "consensus" threatens to devolve into a "No True Scotsman" situation as to who is the real scholar.Fortunately, neither Witherington nor Ehrman used the term "consensus" in the linked to article. In fact, both acknowledged that a "majority" of scholars where against Pauline authorship of the Pastorals, though Witherington was characterizing that majority as "slight."

  • Stephen,Then the question boils down to whether one believes that "myth" holds value and to what extinct. Is it ethical to use such texts and for what ends? Some believe the Church has "a right" above and beyond the individual. These tend to be theists. Others believe there are other means to the ends of educating humans. The question then become what makes for the ethical use of the text? Surely, if there is consent, it can be of value, but not if there isn't consent.Consent is of importance to the question about the context of Ehrman, who teaches in a secular institution and Witherington, who teaches in an evangelical institution has much to do with how they "term" and use the text. The "consent" of the student in a secular institution is much more open to "other ways" of viewing the text, than an evangelical one. An evangelical institution would value the text for the Church's ends. Then, one has to ask the question whether one personally values such utilitarian ends to the text's "use"?Personal questions of value are dependent on whether one wants to promote the Church's ends, or supernatural ends, or not. And can one promote such "ends" with intellectual/ethical integrity.Such questions have to do with how much one values honesty, or the institution of the Church.

  • I noted that Ben Witherington also believes that the case for 2 Peter as a forgery is not strong, though he admitted it was the strongest case of all (see his blog entry on ch. 2 of Ehrman's book). Nonetheless, it seemed like his attack on Ehrman was that he hasn't studied the subject enough. Considering that there is a majority of scholars against the Pastorals and 2 Peter, Ben's apparent bullying tactic is rather unbecoming. As for his statement that the tide has turned in favor of the deutero-Pauline letters since the 1970s, could that be more because of the increase in evangelical literature on the subject rather than a change in majority academic opinion? I don't know.As to the question of consensus, going by the number of papers/books may not be good since few will write to uphold a position most scholars agree to while papers are more likely to be written to push at the consensus. When was the last time a biblical scholar argued that Paul wrote any of the letters attributed to him rather than none? I think the only way to really know what the position is in academic circles is a poll. The philosophers have recently done just that, for example.

  • Gilgamesh, you make a really good point, that the number of publications trying to argue against something may indicate something's stability as a consensus rather than the converse.Coleman, will you make a Facebook page for this? Would finding out the consensus of scholars who are on Facebook be enough? 🙂

  • Boz

    James F. McGrath, this is a serious issue for me, as a non-expert. My method for accepting claims is to accept the claim with confidence equal to the level of consensus of experts, under the scientific method. But I have no idea how to discover a non-obvious consensus!I have no idea how a book or conference paper would be received. All I have is Wikipedia, or blogs/forums like this. But I have no basis to trust this blog instead of the blog down the road. I could ask several experts, but that takes many days and is not a representative sample. And I have no idea which experts can talk authoritatively on which questions, or where there is overlap, or which fields have primacy. I am stuck with no prospect of escape!James and Readers, you have any suggestions on how a layperson can discover the strength of consensus?

  • I'm quite surprised Witherington's comments are read as an 'attack', 'bullying' or 'a defense of innerrancy', since the nub of his argument is about Ehrman's ignorance of *facts* about practices of writing and scribes in the first century, which seem to me to be rather important scholarly points. Given Ehrman's own background, he appears to be writing against a view which he used to hold and no longer does, and he appears to think all 'evangelicals' hold. This might be true of those at the fundamentalist end in the US, but there are very few UK evangelicals who hold the kind of 'verbal inspiration' theory that he is against.On the question of 'consensus', there are some hints here questioning whether the idea has much value in an arts subject like theology, as compared with a science discipline. As Richard Bauckham has argued in relation to the assumptions of form criticism of the gospels, a generation of scholars might repeat uncritically what someone has proposed as a theory, but unless it has been scrutinised carefully, such a 'consensus' isn't worth much.

  • Boz, that is indeed a great question. I wonder whether even something as simple as consulting a textbook that is widely used would not itself be a good way to go about this. Even if such a textbook offers perspectives of the author which differ from the consensus, I would expect the author of the book to argue the case because her or his is not the accepted view, and this would stand out, assuming a reader knew what to look for. Articles in reference volumes (e.g. the Anchor Bible Dictionary) also tend to present the consensus rather than argue for an idiosyncratic viewpoint.Ian, consensus is hard to achieve, and is rightly resistant to criticism. It is up to Bauckham (or me, when I disagree with the consensus) to make the case. The fact that Bauckham has offered criticisms of widespread views does not settle the matter. It is just one step in the scholarly endeavor. As for me, in some cases I thought Witherington made some valid criticisms of Ehrman's book (I reviewed the book a while back as well), while in others (such as the subject of this post) I was less impressed.

  • I guess it isn't enough for you that someone might disagree with consensus opinion. You must think they are lying. What an utterly unfair and ridiculous comment.

  • Jeremy, I must confess that I am not sure what your comment is supposed to mean, coming as it does several weeks after the last one. Can you please clarify what you meant, and whom you were addressing? Did you perhaps misunderstand what I wrote?

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  • Edwin Woodruff Tait

    Witherington’s argument, I believe, is that most of the people who study the Pastorals specifically conclude that they are Pauline, while most general writing on the subject in NT scholarship concludes otherwise. But I may be remembering the argument wrongly.

    • If Witherington were to suggest that the scholars who have written commentaries, articles, NT Introductions, encyclopedia articles and other scholarly works on the Pastorals had not studied them “specifically,” that would be reprehensible dishonesty on his part. And so I trust that you are misremembering what he said.

  • Daniel Fisher

    There are conservative textbooks, commentaries, NT Introductions, and scholars that support Pauline authorship of the Pastorals. I fear one can only conclude “consensus” only if it has already been decided – a priori – that conservative perspectives on the topic are de facto not worthy of consideration. It starts to look like one is saying, “all the scholars with whom I agree are unanimous….”

    Perhaps it might be more fair to say that the consensus of critical scholarship is that the Pastorals are not authentic?

    • I would point out that the conservative viewpoint is a minority in the academy as a whole, and that if you think that one can have scholarship that is not critical in the sense of serious systematic analysis of evidence then we aren’t talking about the same thing. Conservatives who engage in critical scholarship contribute a great deal to the overall scholarly endeavor. F. F. Bruce would be my top example of this par excellence, but there are plenty of others. Not all conservatives silo themselves off, and just because their view is not the majority viewpoint does not invalidate either their efforts or the overall scholarly process that leads the majority of academics to draw a different conclusion from them.