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Did Paul Write the Pastoral Epistles?

November 13, 2011

Over at New Ways Forward, Mason Slater has two recent blog posts (Part 1 and Part 2) on the question of Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus). In his second post, Mason responds to this piece by Aaron Armstrong at Blogging Theologically. Aaron is clearly of the view that to admit that the Pastorals are not authentically Pauline is to deny inerrancy. This would be disastrous, he maintains, because without inerrancy, the whole edifice of Christian belief crumbles.

Aaron’s blog post reminded me of the frequent refrain from Al Mohler’s blog. In response to evidence that challenges biblical inerrancy, Mohler seems invariably to move directly to an argument from adverse consequences: X can’t be true because, if it were, undesirable consequence Y would follow. This is what frustrates me most about apologetics. Its practitioners decide in advance upon a set of non-negotiable conclusions that must be defended. They then work backwards, accepting or rejecting evidence, not on its merits, but on the basis of how it comports with their preordained conclusions.

Now, to be fair, Aaron isn’t saying we shouldn’t ask the question or consider the evidence. But when you start with hand wringing about the terrible consequences that will befall the faith if any pseudepigraphy is found in the Bible, you have hopelessly prejudiced your analysis before you even begin.

So what is the evidence that 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus were not authored by Paul? Turns out, there’s quite a bit. I’ve decided to break this up over several blog posts. I’ll start today by explaining why there are valid reasons to question Pauline authorship and then proceed, in the blog posts that follow, to delve into the specific pieces of evidence that are often cited in answer to that question.

The Unreliability of the Epistles’ Authorship Claims

1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus each explicitly identify the Apostle Paul as their author. The reason that these authorship claims cannot simply be taken at face value is that pseudepigraphy was a real problem in the first several centuries. Pseudepigraphy was the practice of putting one’s own words into the mouth of a reputable figure, usually from the past. And we have reliable evidence that some early Christians were using Paul’s name to add legitimacy to their writings.

The second century Muratorion fragment (ca. 170 A.D.) condemns two circulating Pauline letters (one addressed to the Laodiceans and the other to the Alexandrians) as Marcionite forgeries.  3 Corinthians is another example of a letter penned in Paul’s name that is known to be inauthentic. Even our own canon contains a warning in 2 Thessalonians (2:2) of false letters claiming apostolic authorship (an ironic warning, given that the authenticity of 2 Thessalonians is itself much in doubt).

The take-away point is that pseudonymous writing was a problem during the nascent years of Christianity. Thus, the fact that the Pastorals bear the label “Paul, an apostle” is no more determinative of authenticity than is the label “Rolex” on a watch from China.

We have to inspect the letters more closely.

Late Attestation & Mixed Reception

A second factor that should give us pause before uncritically accepting the Pastorals’ authorship claims is the evidence we have about how and when these letters were received by the early church.

The first known attempt to canonize certain writings as authoritative scripture was undertaken by Marcion circa 140 A.D. His canon contained 10 Pauline epistles. He included all of the putative Pauline epistles in our canon (plus a couple extra). Notably absent, however, are 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus.

Papyrus 46 (Image from Wikipedia)

Similarly, Papyrus 46, a codex of Pauline epistles from about 200 A.D., although damaged, appears to have contained all of the letters traditionally attributed to Paul, except for the Pastorals.

Tatian in the mid-second century accepted Titus, but rejected 1 & 2 Timothy.

We must be careful not to stretch this point too far. Other early Christian writers do appear to have accepted the Pastorals as authoritative. Polycarp, for instance, in his Letter to the Philippians (ca. 110-140 AD) uses language at several points that may be lifted from 1 & 2 Timothy. Irenaeus quotes them explicitly, though not until ca. 170 A.D.

What can be said is that the Pastorals do not appear to have received the same early, widespread acceptance within the early church that the uncontested Pauline epistles did. As such, caution is warranted.

In the next post, we’ll start examining some of the data relating to the texts themselves — data that has led most scholars to concluded that the Pastoral epistles are indeed pseudonymous. Stay tuned.

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3 comments

  1. People underestimate the complexity of pre-modern textual editing (as I recall each time I teach medieval lit). Pseudonymous writings attributed to Augustine, Aristotle, Dionysius (a Pauline disciple), and others had a huge influence on theology and scholasticism in the high medieval period; it certainly wasn’t a problem limited to the end of the classical period. The difficulty of collating different versions of the same text combined with the instability of attribution in the medieval and classical periods make it difficult for me to accept that the modern Bible as we now have it is exactly how it was “meant” (whatever that means) to be. It’s sort of comforting to think that God ordained all the decisions at, say, the Council of Nicea, but it seems foolish to ignore the possibility that politics and human fallibility played a part as well.

    This turned into a long response. Suffice it to say that I find the process of editing these kinds of texts fascinating and I look forward to reading more about it in your future posts.


    • Noelle, I quite agree. I didn’t meant to imply that pseudonymous writings are to be found only in the first couple centuries AD. Just that the practice was occurring in the time frame in which the Pastorals were written.
      I was always uncomfortable with the pat answer that the canon was precisely as it should be because the Holy Spirit guided its compilers. How did we know this? It was one of those niggling questions I shoved to the back of my mind. Trying now to answer those niggling questions has driven me to blogging. Welcome along :)


  2. […] the canonical New Testament (see Chris Massey’s good overview of the scholarship behind this here). Many letters attributed to Peter, incongruously, were especially accommodating to Pauline […]



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