By Pat Lowinger
Within modern Christianity there remains pervasive misunderstandings regarding the date(s), authorship and transmission of various portions of the New Testament. One of the most prolific New Testament authors was the Apostle Paul. Of the fourteen Epistles credited to Paul, the current mainstream consensus among scholars is that no more than nine are authentic. The remaining five, some would argue seven, are known forgeries- falsely attributed to the Apostle Paul.
Origin and Acceptance of Paul’s Letters:
Current scholarship dates the earliest of Paul’s Epistles (First Thessalonians) to around 50 CE and the latest (Romans) at some point prior to 60 CE. This isn’t to imply that there isn’t some room for debate. For example, some scholars would argue that First Thessalonians wasn’t authored until 52 CE, but generally it’s excepted that the authentic letters of Paul were authored during the sixth decade of the 1st century CE. As such, Paul’s Epistles are generally accepted as the earliest known Christian writings.
Paul’s works were utilized in varying degrees by early Christian sects. For example, the Marcionites rejected all non-Pauline writings, with the sole exception of a highly edited version of the Gospel of John. This stands in sharp contrast to the Ebionites who completely rejected all of Paul’s works as heretical. As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, the popularity of Paul’s pro-Gentile teachings grew. From the 3rd through 5th century CE, the Pauline Epistles became increasingly authoritative and widely adopted- assuring their later incorporation as canonical texts as detailed in the Decretum Gelasianum (c. 520-550 CE).
Modern scholars are faced with the same challenge which plagued their early Christian counterparts. Namely which apostolic works are authentic? In his own analysis, Origen of Alexandria (c. 185- 254 CE), appears to have rejected the authenticity of the Second and Third Epistles of John, while accepting The Shepherd of Hermas as a divinely inspired religious text. Fortunately for us today, scholars and forensic specialists have developed sophisticated techniques for analyzing the stylistic, structural and grammatical cues which can be utilized to distinguish fraudulent documents from authentic ones. While largely unquestioned until the early 20th century many historians and an increasing number of theologians are undertaking detailed examination(s) of the New Testament to determine the authenticity of its traditionally accepted authors.
As mentioned before, seven of Paul’s Epistles are excepted as authentic by an overwhelming majority of New Testament scholars. This statement should not be construed as some sort of argumentum ad populum or appeal to the masses, but is in fact limited to a select group of highly specialized scholars, who continually examine, affirm or discount the assertions of their colleagues in peer-reviewed literature. With that said, the following seven Pauline Epistles are regarded as genuine, and having been personally authored by the Apostle Paul during his Christian ministry: Romans, First and Second Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon and First Thessalonians.
After withstanding intense academic scrutiny, each of these texts have displayed internal consistency in style/form and vocabulary (Greek)- as well as sentence structure. While an author can undoubtedly vary in one or even two of these factors over the course of their entire lifetime- in the decade in which Paul wrote his Epistles, only slight to moderate variations would be expected. This examination is complicated by the fact that no original versions (first generation) of Paul’s works survive from antiquity. Some apologists would say this fact alone invalidates any examination, and while it does require additional scrutiny to be sure, it does not make the task untenable. When examined internally and against each other, these seven Epistles withstand considerable scrutiny. This analysis holds true even when comparing the earliest (First Thessalonians) and latest (Romans) of Paul’s Epistles.
There are currently five Pauline Epistles which are known frauds: First and Second Timothy, Hebrews, Ephesians and Titus. These texts are known as pseudepigraphical- falsely claimed (assigned) authorship. Each of these Epistles have their own issue(s) which demonstrate their status as forgeries. By way of a short example, both First and Second Timothy contain structure(s) and language not found in any of Paul’s other letters. These internal clues have led modern scholars to date these texts to the late 1st and/or early 2nd century CE (c. 90-130 CE). Attempts to place either of these works within the decade of Paul’s genuine writings are unconvincing. In the case of Hebrews, no extant copy of the text attributes its authorship to Paul. Even in antiquity, the author of Hebrews was generally considered unknown (anonymous) by early Church scholars (Fathers), such as Origen, Tertullian and Hippolytus. The assignment of authorship to Paul was rooted in tradition and the increasing popularity of Paul’s other works. It wasn’t until the late 4th century CE, when St. Augustine pushed vehemently (and successfully) for the authorship of Hebrews to be assigned to Paul- despite little or no evidence to support it.
The authorship of two remaining texts are still the subject of much academic debate. Modern New Testament scholars remain divided on Paul’s authorship of Second Thessalonians and Colossians. Both of these works suffer from significant challenges to their authenticity- not the least of which are highly divergent language and structure. If these two texts are retained as genuine works of Paul, they should serve as a ‘maximal’ range of acceptable variance by which the previously mentioned Pauline forgeries should be compared/contrasted.
The Future of Forgeries:
The authorship of the Pauline Epistles is an interesting and complex question for historians. When viewed through the lens of Early Christian Studies actual authorship matters significantly less than how these works were viewed and utilized in antiquity. Irregardless of their authorship these forgeries remain useful- as pseudepigraphical sources for historical reference and inquiry. Why were these forgeries made in the first place? It’s quite possible these ‘Letters From Paul‘ where written to emulate/expand on Paul’s original writings, combat emerging heresies and/or honor Paul’s ministry after his death. It’s also possible that more nefarious intentions were at work. All speculation aside, the world may never know the motivation(s) of the forgers… whoever they might have been.
This is not a question about theology. It’s simply one of authorship. Whether or not these demonstrably non-Pauline texts should be preserved within Christian canon is a question best answered by theologians. Not historians. Even so, those Epistles of dubious origin should be correctly footnoted as such. Those charged with accurately crediting authorship of Paul’s genuine letters should demand no less.