What is the debate about the authorship of Paul’s letters to the early church?
THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:
The New Testament includes 13 letters (“epistles”) from Christianity’s first decades that name the apostle Paul as the author, or Paul with colleagues Silvanus, Sosthenes, or Timothy. The earliest is 1 Thessalonians, written just a couple decades after Jesus’ crucifixion. In the traditional view, Paul produced the others during the next 15 years or so before his execution.
As early as the 2nd Century, Paul’s 13 letters formed a defined collection that was widely recognized and later incorporated into the New Testament. That’s where matters stood till modern times. Today, scholars say Paul certainly wrote Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. But questions are raised about these six: Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, and the “pastoral epistles” of 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus.
The Religion Guy can only provide glimpses of this intricate discussion. Some of the doubts involve writing style, word choice, and such, lately examined via computer. Others concern whether the contents fit the context of Paul’s lifetime.
Would pseudonyms undercut the Bible’s credibility? Anti-Christian writers say yes, and Fundamentalists agree. But moderate critics think even if Paul wasn’t the author a letter remains authoritative Scripture with authentic “apostolic” substance. For instance, Donald Hagner says writing in another’s name was “a morally acceptable way of a disciple transmitting and adapting the teaching of his master for a new situation,” and “there’s little to lose” if a few letters possibly originated that way.
Those supporting Paul’s authorship offer a straightforward case: The oldest and best manuscripts of all 13 name Paul as writer. The early church checked carefully before accepting the 13, and rejected others in his name as spurious. The varied styles are explained by the letters’ differing topics, purposes, and recipients, as well as the participation of those named co-writers and especially secretaries (“amanuenses”) who worked with Paul — see Romans 16:22. Finally, conservatives propose ready answers to the assorted objections about context.
The problem areas raised by scholars are typified in two surveys that make judicious use of modern “higher criticism”: 1) “An Introduction to the New Testament” (Doubleday, 1997) by the late Raymond Brown, an influential Catholic. 2) “The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction” (Baker Academic, 2012) by Hagner, an evangelical Presbyterian [full disclosure: a personal friend]. A brief rundown:
1 and 2 Timothy and Titus face the heaviest challenge. In 1913 the Vatican’s biblical commission pronounced Paul’s authorship as “certain” based on early and universal church tradition. But Catholic scholars have lately joined Protestant doubters, especially on grounds that church structures the letters depict wouldn’t have been so developed during Paul’s lifetime. The three letters weren’t part of the oldest surviving manuscript collection of Paul’s writings, “Beatty Papyrus II” from around A.D. 200. However, all three were named alongside the other 10 in the “Muratorian Fragment,” the oldest surviving list of accepted New Testament books. That text can be dated by mention as a contemporary Rome’s Bishop Pius I, who died in A.D. 157.
Hagner fairly surveys conservative arguments but concludes that while we can’t be certain “extensive differences” with the undisputed Paul letters “cannot be denied.” A secretary could account for the style variation, he thinks, but not “the difference in atmosphere and perspective.”
However, he adds that it’s obvious “the Pastorals contain materials that go back to Paul,” and Brown likewise said scholars mostly see “some continuity with Paul’s own ministry and thought.” If some colleague compiled Paul’s thinking after his death, Luke is a possibility due to 2 Timothy 4:11. Brown favored the theory that 2 Timothy was a “farewell testament” by a close colleague soon after Paul’s death, with 1 Timothy and Titus produced in Paul’s name later, but still in the 1st Century,.
Ephesians, a beloved and influential letter, is the second-most challenged. Doubters say it feels quite formal and lacks the usual personal greetings, and three verses imply the recipients didn’t know Paul though he’d worked in Ephesus. Conservatives reply that this was a circular letter to be shared across a wider region where many never met Paul, and note similarities with undisputed letters, especially 1 Corinthians. Brown though it “plausible” that a disciple wrote this to portray “Pauline thought.” Hagner deems the content “very Pauline” but sees a “slight probability” a disciple compiled the letter in his master’s name.
Colossians faces somewhat less questioning. Hagner, for one, thinks Paul was “probably” the author, working with a secretary he granted unusual editorial freedom. Brown, however, concluded arguments “tilt toward” authorship by a “Pauline school,” not Paul himself. One argument against Paul is that the letter combats the Gnostic heresy that arose in the 2nd Century. However, conservatives say there’s increasing evidence of an early form of Gnosticism during Paul’s lifetime, and argue that there are no theological inconsistencies with Paul’s undisputed letters.
2 Thessalonians again raises style issues, plus there are some different emphases about Jesus’ Second Coming compared with the undisputed 1 Thessalonians, especially the added “man of lawlessness.” Chapter 3:17 says “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the mark in every letter of mine; it is the way I write.” That suggests he personally autographed the end of the manuscript with the rest in his secretary’s handwriting.
Both Thessalonian letters cover the end-times theme, and conservatives say it’s hard to figure why someone else would have devised this second letter following up the undisputed first letter. They also argue that chapter 2:4 indicates the Jerusalem Temple was still standing and it wasn’t destroyed till A.D. 70, though liberals regard the temple as symbolic. Brown said “I cannot decide with certitude” about the writer and Hagner concludes the doubters haven’t proven their case so nobody “needs to be dogmatic.”