Authorship of Paul’s Letters

Since we’re getting into Paul’s letters in “Come Follow Me” and the authorship of Paul’s letters is sometimes a point of contention, I am going to share two quotes from excellent scholarly works that basically agree with my own views. I could write my own post, but these two authors do a much better job than I could:

[First off, though, Paul most likely did not write Hebrews. These quotes apply to all the other Pauline epistles. Hebrews never identifies its author, and even the early Christians weren’t sure who had written in. Paul was basically a wild guess that kind of sort of stuck as the popular opinion, but there’s basically no evidence he wrote it. Joseph Smith did refer to Hebrews as written by Paul, but he seems to have just been following the popular designation; he never presented it as official revelation]

  1. From Luke Timothy Johnson, . The Writings of the New Testament. [Fortress Press].

“The composition of Paul’s letters involved a complex process, which affects how we understand his authorship of the various epistles ascribed to him. Paul “authors” all his letters, in the broad sense that they were composed under his authority and direction. But it is sometimes difficult to determine the exact nature of his role in the writing process. There are several considerations.

Since writing on parchment or papyrus was awkward and physically tedious, particularly in the case of letters as long as Paul’s, the job of writing was often given to a trained secretary (amanuensis). Cicero, for example, often dictated his letters to Atticus (see, e.g., VII.13a; VIII.13; X.3a; XI.24; XIII.25). We know that Paul also used a secretary for at least some of his letters. The scribe appears explicitly in Romans, “I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord” (Rom. 16:22). At other times, Paul indicates that he is penning the greeting in his own hand, which indicates that he had dictated the rest (see 1 Cor. 16:21; Col. 4:18; 2 Thess. 3:17; and possibly Gal. 6:11). In fact, only in Philemon does Paul explicitly state that “I, Paul, am writing with my own hand” (Phlm. 19). This phenomenon is important to note because skilled and trusted secretaries were sometimes given considerable latitude in the actual composition of letters. Given the main point to be made, they could work up an appropriate treatment consonant with the author’s thought and often his style as well. We have no direct evidence for this happening in Paul’s correspondence, but the wide variety of styles within the Pauline corpus forces us at least to consider the possibility seriously. Many of Paul’s letters were also cosponsored. He did not write in his name alone, but also in the name of Timothy (2 Cor. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:1; Phlm. 1), of Silas and Timothy (1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1), of Sosthenes (1 Cor. 1:1), and of the “brethren with him” (Gal. 1:2). Only Romans, Ephesians, and the three letters to his delegates Timothy and Titus are sent out in Paul’s name alone. . .

These literary forms and the evidence from the nature of the composition of the letters, combined with the presumed social contexts for such activity, together suggest the existence of a “Pauline school,” a form of intentional and prolonged contact between master and students. Paul’s “school” was operative in the production of his letters even during his lifetime. Although Paul authorized each of the letters that bore his name, it is highly probable that many hands and minds contributed to their final composition. The social setting for the Pauline correspondence is as complex as for his ministry. . .

Since there is a significant range of style and content even within the undoubted letters, clearly the criteria are largely subjective: they appeal to the reader’s sense of what constitutes acceptable deviance from a presumed norm. Statistical analyses, sometimes invoked as support for this appeal, are completely unreliable, since the sample is too small and cannot take into account the most critical factors determining style in ancient writing: genre, topic, audience, and occasion. The discussion of authenticity has thus been distorted by doubtful premises. Even within the undoubted letters it has yet to deal satisfactorily with the complexity of the composition process, a complexity that suggests the activity of a “school” during Paul’s lifetime. It has also failed to reckon with the great variety of style and theme within the undoubted letters. Moreover, it seldom notes that the very act of isolating three similar documents—for example, the Pastorals—then comparing them together against the corpus as a whole, already predetermines the result. Indeed they are different. But the differences are magnified because the three are compared not with all the letters but with an already reduced “authentic” core. The result might be quite different if, for example, 2 Timothy were compared with Philippians, or 1 Timothy with 1 Corinthians. Ephesians, likewise, is rarely compared with the other twelve letters to test its style, but with the seven already determined to be authentic. If 1 and 2 Thessalonians were isolated and compared as a set with the remaining corpus, they would be found inauthentic on stylistic and content grounds—even though on its own 1 Thessalonians is considered authentic.

In other words, prior formulations of epistolary relationships skew the results, predetermining—in effect—the conclusions. . . The reader may be surprised at my bias for the authenticity of all the letters. It is based on the persuasiveness of their literary self-presentation, the ability to find plausible places for them in Paul’s career, and a conviction that the whole Pauline corpus is one that Paul “authored” but did not necessarily write.”

2. From N.T. Wright, N. T.. Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God 4) [Fortress Press.]

“In addition – it is hard to say this, but perhaps it needs to be said – there is the matter of fashion and prejudice. Just as in Germany in the late nineteenth century you more or less had to be a follower of F. C. Baur, and in Oxford in the mid-twentieth century you more or less had to believe in the existence of Q, so in North America today you more or less have to say that you will regard Ephesians and Colossians as post-Pauline – unless, like Luke Timothy Johnson [author of the above excerpt], you have so massively established your scholarly credibility on other grounds that your acceptance of the letters as fully Pauline can then be regarded, not as a serious scholarly fault, but as an allowable eccentricity. This has come about partly because, again with a certain irony, the question has become bound up with a quite different debate, the ‘conservative’ versus ‘liberal’ question about the Bible itself. There are, of course, ‘conservatives’ who think Paul wrote everything the Bible says he wrote (though most balk at Hebrews, despite the heading in the King James Version), and a test of ‘liberal’ orthodoxy (which is of course just as fierce, and carefully policed, as any other sort) is not only how many sayings of Jesus you regard as inauthentic but how many letters of Paul you hold at bay. The irony emerges when those same ‘conservative’ readers allow Ephesians to be by Paul for reasons to do with their commitment to a particular view of scripture, but are careful not to let it affect their view of Paul lest they be forced to admit, not only a higher ecclesiology than they have usually wanted, but also the fact that Ephesians seems to offer rather a clear vindication of the ‘new perspective’ (these two points are not unrelated). The same irony in reverse emerges when the still-ruling ‘liberal’ orthodoxy embraces all kinds of political and sociologically ‘relevant’ readings of Paul, without noticing just how much help they would receive in such matters from Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians. The prejudice against Ephesians and Colossians has grown so strong in some circles that it has reached the point where young scholars are warned against using them in the study of Paul lest they be thought unscholarly. This is one of those dogmas that have taken the place, within the western study of the New Testament, of the older doctrinal tests which used to characterize seminaries: instead of checking out students (or indeed would-be professors) on the Trinity or the Incarnation, interviewers now enquire cautiously whether they are sound on rejecting Pauline authorship of Ephesians! The multiple ironies of these positions should in themselves already suggest that it is time for a rethink. I am reminded of Clifford Geertz’s ironic remark, that it is almost more of a problem to get exhausted ideas out of the scholarly literature than it is to get productive ones in. At least, as Robert Morgan suggested in a different context, let us put the chess pieces back on the board from time to time and restart the game.

Arguments from style are clearly important in principle. But they are hard to make in practice. We have such a tiny sample of Paul’s writing, hardly an adequate database for a serious stylistic analysis such as would support definite conclusions about authorship. Those who have done computer analyses of Paul’s style come up with more ‘conservative’ results than we might have expected. In fact, if it’s stylistic differences we want, the most striking are, in my opinion, the radical differences between 1 and 2 Corinthians. The second letter to Corinth is much jerkier; its sentences are dense and convoluted, bending back on themselves, twisting to and fro with language about God, Jesus Christ and Paul’s ministry. The organization of material is much less crisp. There is a far greater difference between those two Corinthian letters than there is between Galatians and Romans on the one hand and Ephesians and Colossians on the other; yet nobody for that reason casts doubt on 2 Corinthians. As John A. T. Robinson pointed out from his personal experience a generation ago, a busy church leader may well write in very different styles for different occasions and audiences. The same person can be working simultaneously on a large academic project with careful, ponderous sentences and a short, snappy talk for the Sunday school. It has not been unknown for senior biblical scholars to write children’s fiction. More directly to the point, it has recently been argued strikingly that Ephesians and Colossians show evidence of a deliberate ‘Asiatic’ style which Paul could easily have adopted for readers in western Turkey. I regard the possibility of significant variation in Paul’s own style as much higher than the possibility that someone else, a companion or co-worker, could achieve such a measure of similarity. Other historical examples of that genre do not encourage us to suppose they would have been so successful.”

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About Ivan Wolfe

Ivan Wolfe teaches rhetoric at Arizona State University. He has a PhD in English from the University of Texas - Austin, and a BA and MA in English (with minors in Classical Greek, Music, and Philosophy) from BYU. He has several credits on various Christmas albums aimed at the LDS market, several essays in Open Court's Popular Culture and Philosophy series, and various book reviews in academic and popular venues. He also competes in Scottish Highland Games and mud run/obstacle course races, and he can deadlit over double his bodyweight (his last PR was over 500 pounds). He is currently married to Lisa Renee Wolfe. He has six kids and four stepkids.