Evangelical (read: fundamentalist) Christians have all sorts of litmus tests for determining if a person is Bible-believing enough for them.
The “do you use the word ‘inerrant’ to describe the Word of God?” is a foundational test, but there are others like the “do you believe in a literal Adam and Eve?” test and the “do you think that Jonah was swallowed by a real whale?” test. But when you get into conversations with the most educated and sophisticated of conservative Christians, inevitably this question arises:
“Do you believe that Paul wrote the pastoral letters?”
And if you don’t, then surely you are a heathen liberal who has no regard for the sanctity of Scripture.
Well, call me a heathen liberal if you like, but I have a high enough regard for the Bible to have dedicated my life to studying it. Scholars describe the pastoral epistles (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus) as disputed or deutero-Pauline and I am apt to agree with my predecessors on this. However, it is worth recognizing that Pauline authorship of the pastoral letters is impossible to prove or disprove. We certainly should not make assent to Pauline authorship of the pastoral letters a key component of our theology. Here are some reasons why determining Pauline authorship is so difficult:
- Secretaries complicate matters: Letters in the ancient Greco-Roman world were very rarely penned by the people named as the author. Most of the time, a professional scribe called an amanuensis wrote letters for people. The role of these ancient secretaries varied widely—some of them merely wrote down what the authors dictated to them word for word, some rewrote previously composed letters, some had some input into the letters they penned (choosing words or smoothing out phrases), and some composed whole letters from bits of information given to them. We can verify that Paul used amanuenses—Tertius identifies himself as the letter writer of Romans in 16:22—but we don’t know how many he uses or if the level of input for the scribe changes from letter to letter. What this means is that we really can’t compare vocabulary from Galatians (considered the most Pauline of Paul’s letters) to vocabulary from 1 Timothy to determine if Paul wrote the pastorals.
- Genre introduces more complexity: The New Testament letters belong to the genre of epistolary literature (or epistles) and this genre is occasional in nature. Letters were written to particular people or groups on specific occasions and addressed subjects that were pertinent to that audience at that time. So, the subjects, theological focus, and tone of a letter written in 50 CE to Thessalonica could be completely different from one written by the same author to Corinth in 54 CE. This context-specific composition makes it difficult to determine common authorship by comparison and contrast. To complicate matters further, none of the New Testament letters are dated, so we are not even sure what the time context of each epistle is (I mean, would it have killed them to put a date down?). There are just too many unknown variables involved in this genre to nail down authorship of disputed letters by laying them next to the undisputed ones.
- Ancient authorship—it’s not what you think it is: In our contemporary context, we have separate categories of authorship. If someone writes a book, she is the author. We have co-authors and ghost writers, but we try to be clear on who wrote what. If someone pens an idea or a sentence from someone else, we cry plagiarism. Not so in ancient letter writing. There were several levels of authorship considered authentic in the first century—the author could dictate or commission a letter for an amanuensis to write (as discussed above), there could be co-authors either named or unnamed (which is the case in several Pauline letters), a disciple could write in a teacher’s name with or without the permission of the teacher, or an admirer or later disciple of a person could write a letter in the style of that author and use his name (often posthumously). Any of these levels of authorship could have been considered authentic—it is much more complex than “if it says it’s from Paul, then Paul must have written it.” Christians who claim that Paul must have written the letters because the Bible says so (and the Bible is inspired) haven’t considered that ancient authorship was much more flexible than it is today. We can’t use modern definitions for ancient texts and contexts.
- Clues don’t add up to certainty: People who argue for or against Pauline authorship of the pastorals will often use historical or theological clues as evidence. Those who are “for” Pauline authorship will say that the people, places, and convictions mentioned in the letters match what we know of Paul’s ministry. Those who are “against” will say that the church structure mentioned in the letters is too late for Paul’s lifetime, or that the vocabulary and theological themes are too developed for the mid-first century. In both of these cases, the evidence is not solid. Corresponding names, places, or theological positions are not proof of common authorship. Also, there is much we don’t know about the development of churches and theology in the first decade of the Jesus movement. We can hypothesize that the language of the pastorals points to a late first-century dating but we can’t prove it one way or the other.
- A funny thing happened on the way to canonization: There are loads of other complicating factors, but I will mention just one more. Some conservative Christians claim that the early Church would not have included letters that were “forgeries” or “inauthentic” in the New Testament canon. However, it is not that simple. Canonization was a 300-year process that involved fluid criteria. Church leaders considered the widespread use of a text (is it read in a variety of churches?), its alignment with the teaching handed down (does it fit with our rule of faith?), and its apostolic origin (was it written by an apostle or someone related to an apostle?). This last one was more flexible than we imagine it to be. The book of Hebrews made it into the canon on the suggestion that it was associated with Paul even though Origen said that only God knew who wrote it. It is not farfetched to assume, considering what I said earlier about ancient authorship, that the pastoral letters made it into the New Testament merely because Paul’s was named in them. If they proved helpful to churches in the first centuries of the Church, direct authorship may not have been assumed or required. This would not make it a forgery; the church Fathers just had different ideas about what authentic meant than we do.
So, like I said, it is much more complicated than, “Well, if the Bible says it’s from Paul, then it must be from Paul.” Evangelicals may balk at the idea that the pastoral letters were written by someone other than Paul and scholars may overwhelmingly agree that the letters do not originate in Paul’s lifetime, but the truth is we just don’t know. Because of the uncertainty and complexity of the issue…
We should never make Pauline authorship of the pastorals a litmus test for faithfulness.
Important side note: we also shouldn’t continue to exclude women from ministry because of a couple of verses in these puzzling letters (but that is another blog post entirely).
What we should do is admit the limitations of our knowledge and focus on what we can know about the pastoral letters—that they are a witness to some of the issues that a handful of churches were likely facing in the first century. They provide a narrow but fascinating glimpse into the diverse and developing tradition that would later become Christianity. And that makes them valuable—whether Paul wrote them or not.
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