Did Paul Write The Pastoral Epistles? Part II

November 15, 2011

In my last post, I discussed some reasons for being cautious about accepting 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus (the Pastoral epistles) as genuine writings of the Apostle Paul. In this post, we begin considering some of the evidence that has moved scholars from mere caution to downright skepticism.

Vocabulary & Style

The vocabulary of the Pastoral epistles is different from that of the undisputed letters of Paul. Of all the letters attributed to Paul in the NT, the Pastorals have the highest proportion of words appearing nowhere else in the Pauline letters. Many of those words are more characteristic of 2nd century writing than of Paul’s.

Norman Perrin explains the data as follows:

… [O]f 848 words (excluding proper names) found in the Pastorals, 306 are not in the remainder of the Pauline corpus, even including the deutero-Pauline 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians. Of these 306 words, 175 do not occur elsewhere in the New Testament, while 211 are part of the general vocabulary of Christian writers of the second century. Indeed, the vocabulary of the Pastorals is closer to that of popular Hellenistic philosophy than it is to the vocabulary of Paul or the deutero-Pauline letters.

 The New Testament: An Introduction, pg. 264

Some will argue that differences in vocabulary may be attributable to Paul writing to a different audience for a different purpose at a different time. I agree that an e-mail I send to my wife will probably use different vocabulary than a brief I draft for court. I get that. But the fact that over 1/3 of the words in the Pastorals are absent from Paul’s other letters in combination with the presence of over 200 words typical of 2nd century Christian writing … it all just seems awfully suspicious.

One example of a significant difference in vocabulary is the word “Savior”. Christ and God are frequently called “Savior” in the Pastorals (10 times, by my count). Paul, on the other hand, tends to refer to Christ as “Lord”. The descriptor “Savior” is never used of God and only once of Christ in the undisputed letters of Paul. The sole usage is in Phil. 3:20:

But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ,

[I find it fascinating that Paul’s only use of the word “Savior” in the undisputed letters is in reference to a role that Christ has yet to fulfill, but that’s a topic for another day.]

The argument from vocabulary gets even stronger when you consider Paul’s syntax. In their NT commentary, Achtemeier, Green and Thompson explain:

Most telling of all, some nineteen participles, conjunctions, and adverbs that characterize the undisputed Pauline letters are absent from the Pastorals; an author tends to use such words automatically, and their absence betrays an author other than Paul.

Achtemeier, Paul J., Joel B. Green, and Marianne Meye Thompson, Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and TheologyGrand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001, pg. 461.

But it’s not only the words; it’s how Paul uses them. Perrin describes the distinction between the literary style of the Pastoral epistles and Paul’s style:

Paul writes a characteristically dynamic Greek, with dramatic arguments, emotional outbursts, and the introduction of real or imaginary opponents and partners in dialogue. The Pastorals are in a quiet meditative style, far more characteristic of Hebrews or 1 Peter, or even of literary Hellenistic Greek in general, than of the Corinthian correspondence or of Romans, to say nothing of Galatians.

 The New Testament: An Introduction, pg. 265

To accept the Pastoral epistles as authentically Pauline, one must accept that Paul’s style, vocabulary and syntax all underwent a discernible change at some point in his letter-writing career. That’s not impossible. But a pseudonymous author is a far simple explanation.

The Emphasis on Keeping the Faith

Even when the author of the Pastorals uses Pauline vocabulary, there is a subtle shift in the meaning of some words – a shift that may betray the fact that the author is writing in the post-apostolic era.

In the undisputed letters, Paul does occasionally refer to Christian belief as “the faith” (eg. 1 Cor. 16:13), but usually the word “faith” refers to trust in God.

In the Pastorals, the expression “the faith” takes on greater significance. Again and again, the phrase is used as a shorthand for the established body of Christian teaching from which one should not depart. Many people are said to have wandered from, abandoned or denied “the faith”. (1 Tim. 4:1; 1 Tim. 5:8; 1 Tim 6:10; 1 Tim 6:21) Deacons must be those who hold to the “deep truths of the faith” (1 Tim. 3:9). Timothy is to be “nourished on the truths of the faith” (1 Tim. 4:6). One gets the clear sense that, by the time of the Pastorals, “the faith” is a thing unto itself. Some parameters of orthodoxy have been established (within this author’s community, at least) and the author’s aim is to encourage adherence to that orthodoxy.

In the Pastorals, the object of faith has begun to shift. It is not merely fidelity to the gospel of Christ that is encouraged, but fidelity to the apostolic teachings about the gospel. This suggests that the audience is living in an age in which the apostolic traditions have had a chance to coalesce into a recognized body of belief.

In a similar vein, the Pastorals employ a construction foreign to the undisputed letters that seems aimed at emphasizing the pedigree of particular teachings. The Pastorals frequently describe a particular truth claim as pistos, a Greek word meaning trustworthy or faithful.

1 Tim 1:15 “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance …”

1 Tim 3:1 “Here is a trustworthy saying …”

1 Tim 4:9 “This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance.”

2 Tim 2:11 “Here is a trustworthy saying …”

Titus 1:9 “He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.”

Titus 3:8 “This is a trustworthy saying.”

Outside of the Pastorals, pistos is used to describe faithful people or a faithful God, but only in the Pastorals is it used to describe the soundness of particular points of doctrine. This continual appeal to trustworthy or faithful Christian teaching fits nicely with the theory that the author is a later adherent of Pauline Christianity calling his readers back to authentic apostolic teaching.

Titus 1:9 (quoted above), in particular, implies a concern for continuity: this message was passed on to you, now you must pass it on faithfully to others. This aim of securing the long term integrity of the message seems unlikely to have come from the pen of Paul, who was possessed of a rather imminent expectation of the parousia (see, for instance, 1 Thess. 4:15–17).

In the next post, we’ll consider further the problematic relationship between the content of the Pastorals and their claims to Pauline authorship.


  1. Great stuff! Thanks for this series — it’s something I’ve not done a lot of research about, but have been interested in for some time.

    • Thanks Steve. I find it really interesting too. Kind of forces you to rethink your notions of canon and inspiration. Hope you find it helpful.

  2. fascinating stuff and crazy implications for fundamentalists! I’m intrigued by this, though it’s hard for me to argue either way since I’m so far from a scholar

  3. Bart Ehrman’s massive volume Forgery and Counterforgery (2012) on pseudonymity in early Christianity would support the idea that this was a widespread practice. Most modern Christians fail to grasp the fact that people were writing epistles in some Apostle’s name left and write (pun intended).

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