You don’t go through seminary long before you hear the phrase “seven genuine letters.” That would be the seven genuine letters of Paul – the ones that have nearly unanimous support as actually being written by the author they claim, the Apostle Paul.
The seven genuine letters in canonical order are:
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- 1 Thessalonians
That leaves six disputed letters, of which three are truly in dispute; scholars disagree about their authenticity:
- 2 Thessalonians
And three that are almost universally considered inauthentic, written by someone else using Paul’s name:
- 1 Timothy
- 2 Timothy
Hebrews once was considered a Pauline epistle, but it’s written anonymously, and no one anymore thinks Paul was the author (I can say that with confidence because even the ultraconservative tradition in which I was raised taught that Paul didn’t write Hebrews).
The nine letters of Paul to the churches (plus Philemon) are arranged by length, which makes it hard to truly see the evolution of Paul’s style and theology over time. I highly recommend reading them chronologically – starting with the Thessalonians, then moving through Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Romans, Philemon, Colossians and Ephesians, and ending with the Pastorals. It will be much easier to see why the last five are in such dispute.
That’s because they either don’t sound as much like Paul (Colossians, Ephesians and 2 Timothy) or they don’t sound anything like him at all (1 Timothy and Titus). Our textbook and professor both come down on the conservative end of this argument. Luke Timothy Johnson argues for the authenticity of all the letters ascribed to Paul. Our professor is more cautious on the Pastorals but argues, “I don’t know that Paul didn’t write them.”
I find myself inordinately interested in authorship issues, despite the fact that they arguably don’t matter all that much. If we’re not about to remove 2 Peter or Jude from the canon, we’re certainly not about to dismiss Titus or Ephesians. Nevertheless, here’s a brief summary of the case against each disputed letter and my thoughts about each:
- 2 Thessalonians: The eschatological outlook is so contradictory to the first letter that it’s difficult to believe they could come from the same author. Defenders of Pauline authorship argue the difference between 1 and 2 Thessalonians is no greater than the difference between two of the undisputed books of Paul. I think that’s overstated. I also think it’s difficult to fit the order of events – Paul writes 1 Thessalonians from Corinth, sends it, they read it, overreact to his teaching about the coming of Christ, word gets back to Paul, and Paul corrects the record by writing a new letter and sending it back – given the short time Paul was actually in Corinth and the slowness of the mail back in the first century. My professor acknowledged the turnaround time between both letters would have to be weeks. I’m not sure that’s enough time for such an overreaction to have grown enough to reach Paul’s attention.
- Colossians: The style of Colossians is somewhat different than the rest of Paul’s letters. Even in English, it sounds different – but it’s possible that’s simply due to Paul using a different secretary to record his thoughts. A compelling argument Johnson makes for the authenticity of Colossians is the existence of Philemon, which contains many of the same names as Colossians. Both letters seem headed for the same place, and it’s hard to account for the survival of such a small personal letter as Philemon unless it were attached to a larger, more important one such as Colossians.
- Ephesians: The problems are much greater with Ephesians. Remember that Paul spent at least two years in Ephesus, yet the letter contains no hint that Paul was ever even there; it’s the most general of the letters ascribed to him, it reads more like a boilerplate theological exposition, and he even writes, “I heard of your faith,” which is what he says when he writes to churches he’s not yet visited, such as those in Rome and Colossae. These problems go away, however, when we learn that the earliest manuscripts don’t address the letter to Ephesus. They simply leave it, “To the holy and faithful people in …” If this was a generic letter Paul wrote to be circulated among multiple churches, the difference in style and seeming incongruity of his address cease to be problematic. So I lean toward authentic authorship but inauthentic audience on this one.
So I lean against Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians and for it in Colossians and Ephesians.
That leaves the Pastorals, and the differences in style when we reach 1 Timothy are simply overwhelming. This doesn’t sound like even the Paul of Colossians and Ephesians. Further, his treatment of women is far less egalitarian than in Ephesians or Galatians.
Our professor argues modern scholars attempt to dismiss Pauline authorship of the pieces of Paul they don’t like. He’d rather people simply not like Paul than try to rehabilitate him by excising pieces of his thinking. I think that’s something of a strawman, frankly, and my argument would be something like this:
Paul was a product of two extremely hierarchical, male-dominated cultures (first-century Rome and first-century Judaism), and this is reflected when he writes about sex and gender. Nevertheless, given that culture, he is actually strikingly egalitarian when he speaks of “no more male and female” in Galatians and commands mutual submission from husbands and wives in Ephesians. The much-ballyhooed argument about women keeping silent in 1 Corinthians is the result of contextual circumstances that have been lost to time, and Paul is open and uncritical about women apostles (Junia in Romans 16) and women deacons (Phoebe in Philippi). He’s not egalitarian by modern American standards, but Paul is about as egalitarian as we’re going to find from a first-century Greco-Roman Jew.
That said, 1 Timothy is not egalitarian. Its argument about women (possibly wives) instructing men (possibly husbands), based on who sinned first in the Garden of Eden, is unlike anything Paul had written before – especially since his focus to that point had always been on Adam’s sin and the need for Christ to counteract it. The requirements in 1 Timothy and Titus that elders and deacons be “the husband of one wife” seem to contradict his acceptance of female leaders in previous books. His stereotyping of younger women in 1 Timothy 5 as “gossips and busybodies” is particularly odious to us today and seems even more a product of the culture than Paul’s work typically.
1 Timothy and Titus are closer in style to each other than to anything else Paul wrote. The character traits they find laudable are not the fruits of the Spirit from Galatians; rather, they are virtually indistinguishable from the positive traits tied to good Roman generals in imperial writings of the day. The Greek words for these traits – temperate, modest, reasonable – are not found anywhere else in the New Testament. Even the word today translated “godly” should actually be translated “pious” and was applied in Greco-Roman culture just as much to those who devoutly worshipped pagan gods as those who worshipped Jesus.
Further, they are heavily polemic – as angry and critical as anything else ascribed to Paul, but rather than simply a short burst, they sustain this polemical style throughout the texts. Finally, they specifically name certain heretics, something Paul never did when addressing his opponents in previous books.
I can’t buy 1 Timothy and Titus as Pauline epistles. There are plenty of other arguments, but those are the most convincing to me. Some scholars believe they were written in response to some radical egalitarian movements in the second century, perhaps captured in the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla – Thecla being a woman who canceled her wedding to follow Paul and preach with him. The cultural taboo against a woman choosing not to be married and instead teach others, including men, would have been extreme indeed. This is certainly an interesting theory, if not entirely convincing. Whatever the reason, I don’t see a way to put these works any earlier than the second century, well after Paul’s death.
2 Timothy is a different story. In style and structure, it’s much closer to actual Pauline writings. Further, it contains much more autobiographical information – and it reads as if Paul is writing to Timothy for the first time, a further strike against the authenticity of 1 Timothy. There are still some oddities to it, enough that perhaps it was written by Luke or a close follower of Paul’s, either with his blessing or shortly after his death, but the theology and style are much closer to Pauline, close enough that I think he could have written it, and that’s where I lean (Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s Paul: A Critical Life is where I first heard this idea, and I doubt I would have come up with it otherwise).
So if I had to split them up, I’d do so this way, in chronological order:
- Letters to Corinth (at least 3-4 contained within 1+2 Corinthians)
- Colossians and Philemon
- 2 Thessalonians
- 1 Timothy
Like I said, these last three books made it into the canon, and as such, I think their content must be “God-breathed and useful” in some way. But I’m a history nerd, and I think recognizing the historical problems we find in the texts helps keep us humble, perhaps guarding us against turning “God-breathed and useful” into “perfectly infallible.”