Did Paul Write the Pastoral Epistles? Part IV

December 13, 2011

This will be the final post on the topic of the authorship of the Pastoral epistles. Follow these links for Part I, Part II, and Part III. We’ll wrap up by examining two apparent conflicts between the Pastorals and other NT writings by or about Paul. These conflicts raise further doubt about whether Paul is the author of the putative letters to Timothy and Titus.

Historical Difficulties

The Pastoral epistles describe travels of Paul that bear little resemblance to what we know of his journeys from Acts and other Pauline letters. They have Paul ministering in Crete and leaving Titus to continue the work they had begun. They have Paul wintering in Nicopolis (Western Greece). They have Paul leaving Timothy in Ephesus when he departs for Macedonia (seemingly contrary to Acts 20 which says that Timothy was Paul’s companion on his journey from Ephesus into Macedonia and Greece).

There is no external evidence for any of these trips and no easy way to reconcile them with the chronologies provided by Acts and the undisputed Pauline epistles. Recognizing this, some have suggested that these journeys must have occurred after the time frame covered by Acts. In other words, maybe Paul managed to survive his Roman imprisonment, was released, and returned to the Eastern Mediterranean to complete the journeys mentioned in the Pastorals.

The first problem with this suggestion is that there is simply no evidence of it.

Second, the idea that Paul survived his Roman imprisonment and went on to complete further missionary journeys is at odds with passages in Acts that give the clear implication that Paul would meet his end in Rome.

In Acts 20:25, Paul bids a tearful farewell to the elders at Ephesus:

Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again.

The author of Acts gives us no indication that Paul was mistaken about this. Rather, at verses 36-38 he continues:

When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again.

Did Paul surprise everyone (including himself) by surviving his imprisonment in Rome, returning to the Eastern Mediterranean and launching a new work in Crete? I suppose this is possible. But the more likely explanation (particularly in light of all the other evidence pointing away from Pauline authorship) is that the historical details don’t fit because someone is writing these letters in Paul’s name at a later time. The author has sufficient knowledge of Paul’s travels and companions to include personal details that sound plausible, but insufficient knowledge to do so in a way that doesn’t conflict with our more reliable records.

The Role of Women

Scholars have noted that the Pastorals’ teachings on the role of women in church life seems at variance with Paul’s view. Would the Paul who provided instructions on how women should pray and prophecy in I Corinthians (11:4-6) also tell Timothy that women must learn in silence (1 Tim. 2:11-14)? Would the Paul, who frequently commended prominent women in the church (eg. Phoebe, Priscilla, Chloe) and who described Junia (a female name) as “outstanding among the apostles” (Rom. 16:7), now forbid women from teaching or exercising authority over men?

There are several clues throughout the Pastorals that the author is motivated by a desire to reduce tensions with those outside the church, such that Christians might enjoy “peaceful and quiet lives” (1 Tim. 2:1-3). We know from ancient sources that the early church was criticized for the prominent role afforded to women and for teachings that were seen as disruptive to the household.

An extreme example of the sort of teaching that was raising eyebrows is found in the mid-2nd century AD text, The Acts of Paul and Thecla. This early Christian novel portrayed Paul as teaching a strict form of asceticism that forbade marriage and sex. The heroine, Thecla, takes Paul’s message to heart and refuses the marriage arranged for her. She preaches, baptizes herself, narrowly avoids death … it’s all very exciting. But to encourage women to carry on in such a fashion was, to a Roman audience, scandalous.

5-6th century fresco of Paul, Thecla (left) and her mother (right)

The Pastorals may be, in part, an attempt by followers of Paul to counter such interpretations of the Pauline message and alleviate tensions with those outside the church. The message: Paul was no enemy of traditional Greco-Roman family roles. Rather, women should strive for propriety, quiet submission and salvation through childbearing (1 Tim 2:15), i.e. by fulfilling their traditional role in the household. [For more on this point, be sure to listen to Professor Phil Harland’s podcasts 1.11 and 1.12 at Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean.]

In sum, the Pastorals appear to teach a more restrictive role for women than do the undisputed letters of Paul, possibly as a reaction against interpretations of his message that were bringing the church into disrepute.


Taken in isolation, one might be able to mount a cogent rebuttal to each of the arguments canvassed over the last four posts. But the case against Pauline authorship is a cumulative one. Considered together, the various pieces of evidence make it difficult to resist the conclusion that Paul did not author the Pastoral epistles — a view shared by most mainline scholars.

What does this means for 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus? What does it mean for the Bible as a whole? Must we “throw the whole thing away because it’s not trustworthy,” as suggested by Aaron Armstrong? I certainly haven’t cut the Pastorals out of my Bible. Nor should you. They represent an important record of how early followers of Christ interpreted the message of the Apostle Paul as it had been passed down to them.

The presence of pseudonymous writings in the NT does, however, raise some interesting questions about whether the privileged position given to canonical texts is always warranted. For my part, I would tend to give greater weight to something found in the undisputed Pauline corpus than to a teaching unique to the Pastorals. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.


  1. These are really intriguing issues – particularly the points about the attitudinal change to women that we see in the the Timothies and Titus as opposed to the other epistles. Paul has, of course, been thoroughly denounced over the past century or so for the supposedly misogynist views expressed in the pastoral Epistles, although I am always very hesitant to condemn “sexist” behaviors or ideologies in pre-modern texts. But the possibility that he didn’t even write them offers us a way of understanding his extant corpus of work without constructing over-stretched excuses for his apparent shift in perspective. I kind of feel like we’re always trying to excuse Paul for his take on women – to make him legitimate (as if he needs us to do this). Poor Paul.

    Having said that, I don’t really see why undisputed Pauline writings should, de facto, always be privileged over pseudo-Pauline writings (for lack of a better term). Certainly there may be reasons to do so, but they need to be carefully considered. We value “true” authorship in a way that is unique to us, as modern readers in an age of copyright and mass literary production. Someone writing from Paul’s perspective may well have considered themselves to be carrying on a legacy and sharing a message rather than committing a kind of fraud. If it’s true that the pastoral epistles were authored by someone else, that person *does* seem to share much of Paul’s core theology and certainly offers a glimpse of the early church’s reception and understanding of Paul’s message (and how that message was incorporated into the growth of the church as an organization or hierarchy). And if we’re talking about divine inspiration, it’s difficult to say that this anonymous author was wrong and uninspired because he (or she) was not Paul. Whether or not these books were Paul’s, they contain principles that align with apostolic teachings – there’s good stuff there, misogyny notwithstanding. And as another apostle tells us, every good and perfect gift comes from above.

    Now that I’ve finished writing this novel-length response (can you tell I’m relieved to be thinking about something else other than marking?), do you have any more cute monkey pictures from South Africa?

    • All valid points. One could probably argue that the closer you get to the original apostles, the closer you’re getting to authentic Christian teaching – that as time goes by and generations pass the message begins to change, to evolve, to become corrupted. But that assumes that authentic Christian faith is defined by the beliefs of its first adherents. And that may not be a safe assumption. It really depends on where you look for authority.
      My understanding is that the early church used apostolic authorship as their primary criterion for inclusion in the canon. If we agree that this was the right standard for determining which texts are authoritative, then the presence of pseudipigraphy is problematic. Because it means the early church used the right standard but applied it wrong. On the other hand, maybe there is no reason to privilege the writing of an apostle over the writing of a non-apostle, to privilege the early over the late, or to privilege the canonical texts over the non-canonical.
      We love the convenience of a canon – one stop shopping for all of our theological questions. If it’s in, it’s authoritative; if it’s out, it isn’t. But this may be little more than a comforting fiction.
      And yes, I’ll look for excuses to include more cute primates in future posts🙂

  2. The struggle and tension will always be between what Jesus said and did, how he lived, and what Paul had to say about it. Which wasn’t much.

    Also, Paul wrote mostly about Christology, whereas Jesus talked mostly about “the way to live”.

    Just because, though, Paul had moved onto a religious way of understanding “Jesus” as saviour, and his letters made it into the canon, doesn’t mean we need to give his teachings weight, does it?

  3. Must we “throw the whole thing away because it’s not trustworthy,” as suggested by Aaron Armstrong?

    No. But I think it helps to solidify the notion that the Bible, as an anthology, is not some sort of “Word of God.” I think removing the Pastoral Epistles makes a more cogent gospel, just as separating the genuine Pauline Letters, the gospels, and the other letters make more solid Christianities. I see no need to treat the anthology as a text with a single, unified, non-contradictory message.

    • I definitely agree with that last sentence. Most people make demands of the Bible (such as univocality) that they would never make of other anthologies.

  4. This seems to be the kind of question fundamentalists are afraid to ask… Possibly for good reason? It gets you thinking about a long series of questions. Like if Paul didnt write them, why should we consider them Gods word? But then even if something were written by Paul, how do we know the very first archived transcription accurately copied him? Or ven if every word in the accepted epistles were Pauline, would that make them Gods word anyway? Why should we trust the account of a person who didnt know Jesus before his death who lived 2000 years ago any more than the account of someone nowdays? And if thats the case, why should we accept the Gospels if we dont know who wrote them? Its a long and winding chain of uncertainty people are uncomfortable with…

  5. thanks for this article. I have always had a sentimetal attitude towards hierachy in the body of Christ (Canonly) unlike what Jesus’s teachings on whosoever wants to be a leader to be the servant of all.. and all that..

    For me, the former breeds religiousity, performances for others to see them so they could be elected and all that.. all these in my experience breeds spiritual abuse, manipulation, deceit, false teachings, control. I believe the gospel of Grace, the ministry of reconciliation as taught by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 simply nails it. we are all competent royal priects, chosen generation, saints just because of the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross. I follow this way as my narrow navigation into the bible. this article just gives me personally more believe in how the writer thinks about the pastoral epistles.


    grace and peace abundantly.

  6. The case against Paul’s authorship is cumulative but also the refutation of that case is and the case for Paul as the author is pretty convincing if analysed in detail.
    How could you take Paul and Tecla 2 Nd century text and say that Paul afforded women with scandalously anti societal role? Paul’s understanding of women, based on the Old Testament, but enlightened by his Christology is so befitting the Greko-Roman notion of the role of the decent wife as it is today.
    She is caring for her husband and children, she is supportive and helps her husband come through challenges, “she brings good and not evil to her husband (and family) all her life” …

    Paul never came back to Ephesus but he appointed Timothy, left him to his task, to lead a church which had great potential but had its problems needing special care and attention.

    The book of Acts is not an exhaustive outline of Paul’s life or ministry. The epistles and Acts augment each other do not contradict each other.

  7. I think it’s wrong to assume from these points that Paul could not have written the Pastoral epistles.

    Even though we have Acts and the other ‘undisputed’ epistles of Paul, truth be told, we actually know little about the man’s life and personality in the broader sense. We have a ‘peep’ into his 1st century AD life.

    Do we really believe that Acts is a complete biography of Paul’s whole life? And do we really believe that one can comfortable say that they know Paul’s mind well enough to claim that he would not have agreed with the teaching in the ‘Pastoral’ epistles?

    I believe that there are far too many assumptions made in this area of research which has unnecessarily harmed the faith of many.

    To quote Paul – ‘As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.”‘

    I choose to just believe.

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