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Did Paul Write the Pastoral Epistles? Part III

December 11, 2011

This post is Part III in a series examining the problems scholars have identified with attributing the Pastoral epistles (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus) to Paul. For Part I click here. For Part II click here.

Lack of Substantive Debate

In Part II, we looked at the emphasis in the Pastorals on keeping “the faith”, which may indicate that the Pastorals were written after apostolic teaching had an opportunity to coalesce into a recognized body of doctrine. A corollary of this point is the manner in which false teachers are opposed in the Pastorals. When it comes to false teachers, the Pastorals are heavy on name-calling, but light on substantive debate.

Paul’s usual approach is to confront his opponents with reasoned debate and an authentic gospel. Consider, for instance, the epistle to the Galatians where Paul spends several chapters developing his argument against the Judaizers (who taught that gentiles must adhere to the external signs of the covenant).

The author of the Pastorals, on the other hand, is content simply to denounce false teachers. There is no apparent need to mount any lengthy argument against the false teaching. It is sufficient to point out that the impugned teaching is at odds with established teaching. The opponents have “departed from the faith” (1 Tim. 6:21) and little more need be said.

We should be familiar with this kind of approach because we hear it all the time. Those who view themselves as faithful and orthodox Christians will condemn a particular viewpoint, not on its merits, but on the ground that it is contrary to the creeds or the “fundamental truths of the faith” or “the historic teaching of the church.” There’s nothing inherently wrong in making an argument like this. But in order to make it, you must be living in a time when such traditions have already been established. Thus, scholars see the frequent appeals to tradition in lieu of substantive debate as a further sign that the Pastorals date to the post-Pauline era.

Presence of Gnostic Thought

Woven throughout the Pastoral letters are attacks on certain heresies. Some have observed that the false teaching the author is combatting appears to have elements of proto-gnosticism. The author’s opponents forbid marriage (1 Tim. 4:3), and get caught up in myths and genealogies (1 Tim. 1:4; Titus 3:9). They maintain that the resurrection has already occurred (2 Tim 2:18). Timothy is warned about “what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Tim. 6:20), gnosis being the Greek word for knowledge. Part of the repudiation of the false teachers is an explicit affirmation (contra gnosticism) of the goodness of the material world, “For everything God created is good” (1 Tim. 4:4).

Charting the origins and emergence of gnostic thought is notoriously difficult, but some scholars have suggested that these elements in the Pastorals suggest a date of composition towards the end of the 1st century or early 2nd century.

Developed Ecclesiology

The Pastorals’ emphasis on the roles of bishops, elders, deacons and widows is typical of the more developed ecclesiology of the late first century rather than Paul’s era. Concern about the roles and qualifications of church office holders is absent from the uncontested works of Paul. In those letters, church leadership has more to do with spiritual gifting/charisma than with a clearly defined system of offices.

James Dunn summarizes the argument from ecclesiology as follows:

The degree of church structure seems more developed than anything in the earlier Paul. A distinctive office of “overseer (bishop)” has emerged (1 Tim 3:1; Titus 1:7), as also that of “deacon (minister)” (1 Tim 3:8). These titles were already in use in Phil 1:1, but the concept of a formal office is more in evidence. Likewise, the office of “elder” appears in the Pauline corpus for the first time (1 Tim 5:17; Titus 1:5). It looks as though on this point the Pastorals share the hindsight perspective evident also in Luke’s account of Paul’s mission (Acts 14:23; 20:17), of which there is no trace in the earlier Pauline letters. It may also be significant, then, that the only use of the term “charism,” so central to Paul’s concept of the body of Christ (Rom 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:1), is limited to talk of Timothy’s charism given through the laying on of hands in the past (1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6).

Dunn, James D.G., The First and Second Letters to Timothy and the Letter to Titus: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections. 

Dunn goes on to caution, however, that the ecclesiology in the Pastorals is still emerging. It is not yet as developed as in the letters of Ignatius (circa 110 AD), which evidence a monoepiscopacy [try saying that word 5 times fast! – it means having only one bishop per city]. The important point is that the Pastorals reflect a degree of institutionalized church structure unknown in Paul’s day.

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In the next and final post in this series, we’ll look at the role of women in the Pastorals as well as some historical difficulties with the letters. On a personal note, I must apologize for the month-long hiatus in the middle of this series. I have just returned from a three week trip to South Africa during which I had rather limited internet access. As a token of my apology, I offer this irresistibly cute photo of a momma marmoset and her baby, taken in Hout Bay, South Africa. Sadly, I was not permitted to bring them home with me.

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4 comments

  1. Welcome home!


    • Thanks Jen. I’d say it’s good to be back … if it weren’t 3 degrees Celsius outside.


  2. I’m finding your argument intriguing. The lack of substantive debate is perhaps the most difficult to contend with, because patterns of thinking and expressing ideas are quite resilient, Paul really seems fond of debate. Unlike most people, Paul’s most rational thoughts seem to emerge when he was most incensed (Galatians and his handling of Peter, for example). It’s not just a preference but it’s actually a more effective teaching device. As you mentioned, he explains precisely what is wrong with the Judaizer doctrine, and does so in a way that is far more expansive. He lays out general principles with which one could evaluate and reject other false teachings. By contrast, these epistles’ encouragement to “remain in the faith” and assorted ad hominems are much less instructive.

    There are reasons the author may omit the arguments, since it is a letter from one “professional” to another.

    Still, it seems somewhat out of character for Paul. One would think the Paul of Galatians and Romans would leap at the chance to skewer gnosticism by exposing its absurdities. After all, this is the pattern that Jesus used with the Pharisees (“how can Satan cast out Satan?” “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s”) and that Peter later followed (Acts 4 for example – “we are being called on today [to court before the Pharisees] to give an account for an act of kindness…”).


    • Good thoughts, Jim. I should clarify that I don’t mean to suggest that the author of the pastorals is combating full-blown gnosticism. It’s not really clear who his target is, but what does seem clear is that the opponents of “the faith” are no longer the same Judaizers against whom Paul argued in his early letters (eg. Galatians).



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