Did St. Paul write all 13 letters that the Bible credits to him?


RACHAEL ASKS: What is the debate about the authorship of Paul’s letters to the early church?


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:

Continue reading "Did St. Paul write all 13 letters that the Bible credits to him?" by Richard Ostling.

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