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The Epistles of Paul

Our main sources regarding Paul in the New Testament are the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline epistles.

The Authentic Epistles of Paul

There are thirteen letters or epistles in the New Testament today that are attributed to him. Another epistle, the epistle to the Hebrews used to be attributed to him as well but is no longer accepted today by most Christians as a Pauline work. [1]

Of the thirteen epistles accepted by tradition as Pauline, the opinion among scholars are divided as to their authenticity. The question of authenticity is not a straightforward one for its considerations include intangibles such as style, form and content. Fundamentalists, who cannot accept anything else, assert that all the thirteen epistles attributed to him by the New Testament are genuinely his. And then there are scholars of a more skeptical bent that accept only four of the thirteen epistles are being actually written by the historical Paul. Most scholars stand somewhere in between.

As the arguments in this chapter will be taken only from those epistles accepted as genuine by most scholars, it is important to present the reasons why these epistles are accepted as such while others are rejected as authentic. The first is to list out the documents which we have no reason to assume to be unauthentic. These would generally include the Romans, I and II Corinthians and Galatians. So when it is argued that some of the other documents are not authentic Pauline, what is meant is that the differences in style, form and content give us strong reasons to believe that they were written by someone other than the person who wrote Romans, I and II Corinthians and Galatians.

As a detailed example of the arguments of authenticity we will look at the Epistle to the Ephesians, which is not accepted by most scholars as an authentic Pauline document. The first reason involves the form of the letter. All the genuine Pauline epistles normally end with the usual greetings. Here are a few examples:

Romans 16:20-23
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Timothy, my fellow worker, greets you; so do Lucius and Jason and Sosip'ater, my kinsmen. I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord. Ga'ius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Eras'tus, the city treasurer, and our brother Quartus, greet you.

I Corinthians 16:19-24
The churches of Asia send greetings. Aq'uila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord. All the brethren send greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss. I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. If any one has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. Our Lord, come! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen.

The Ephesian documents ends abruptly, without the conveyance of greetings such as the above. This is how the epistle end:

Ephesians 6:21-23
Now that you also may know how I am and what I am doing, Tych'icus the beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord will tell you everything. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are, and that he may encourage your hearts. Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

This short ending is even more suspicious when we find out that Paul spent about three years in Ephesus (Acts 18:18-19:1; 19:8-10). We would expect him to be on more familiar terms with the Ephesians. Moreover, while the beginning of this epistle is given in most modern New Testament editions as thus:

Ephesians 1:1
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God. To the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus.

A substantial number of old manuscripts actually lacked the words "in Ephesus". This gives good reason to believe that the whole document was originally not an epistle at all but a tract, written by an unknown early Christian author, to explain Pauline teachings.

The second reason involves content. All of the genuine Pauline documents contain discussions on eschatology. This is noticeably absent from Ephesians. The epistle’s description of the Christian church as being “built on the foundation of the apostles” (Ephesians 2:20) is certainly incompatible with what we see in Galatians. [a] The allusion the existence of heretical sects (Ephesians 4:14) point to a period after the death of Paul. Furthermore key technical phrases are found to be used in marked different senses here than in the authentic Pauline documents.

The third involves style. Paul's style is generally volatile but this particular epistle has a sluggish and ponderous one. [2]

Table A below summarizes the bulk of present scholarly opinion about the authorship of these epistles.

EpistlesConsensus of Scholarly Opinion
Romans
I Corinthians
II Corinthians
Galatians
Generally accepted by scholars to have been genuinely written by Paul.
EphesiansGenerally accepted as a non-Pauline work;i.e. not written by Paul. Reasons for this include:
  • Absence of normal Pauline greetings at the end of the epistle
  • No discussion of eschatology in the letter
  • Style is sluggish and ponderous, unlike Paul’s volatile style
  • Anachronistic references to the existence of heretical sects
  • Use of key technical phrases differs from the genuine Pauline epistles.
PhilippiansGenerally accepted by scholars to have been genuinely written by Paul.
CollosiansControversial. Authenticity disputed. The majority of scholars say that it is very probably not Pauline due to the difference in vocabulary, style and general slant. Some scholars still believe in the possibility that Collosians could be an authentic Pauline document. .
I ThessaloniansGenerally accepted by scholars to have been genuinely written by Paul.
II ThessaloniansGenerally believed to be non-Pauline due to:
  • Tone of the letter. I Thessalonians shows a feeling of close fellowship between Paul and the readers, yet the second epistle has a formal tone.
  • A contradiction between the two Thessalonian epistles about the manner of Christ’s second coming (I Thessalonians 4:11-53 and II Thessalonian 2:1-12)
  • A large bulk of the second epistle seems to be a direct copy of the first.
I Timothy
II Timothy
Titus
The “pastoral” epistles are generally accepted as non-authentic. All internal evidence points to a date of composition of early second century AD:
  • The existence of a highly organized church which simply did not exist in Paul’s time (I Timothy 3:15)
  • The presupposition of the existence of definite creeds (I timothy 4:6; II Timothy 1:13) and the gospels (I Timothy 6:3,13) which appeared some decades after the death of Paul.
  • Paul insistence that he is not lying when he claims apostleship (I Timothy 2:7) is itself highly suspicious as Timothy would have been most familiar with Paul’s authority.
  • The theology of the pastorals are significantly different from the genuine Pauline epistles. The former call for acceptance of dogma is the way to salvation while the latter have always emphasized salvation by grace through faith.
PhilemonGenerally accepted by scholars to have been genuinely written by Paul.
Table A: Authorship of the Pauline Epistles [3]

The introduction of the main icon of modern technology-the computer- into biblical research had lent further support to the general scholarly consensus. These computer studies were initiated during the early sixties. Its use was based on the assumption that while the style of the author may vary to a certain extend (depending on his mood, intentions etc.), the habits of the author cannot be so easily changed. Here we are talking about the tendency of the author to use words such as "and", "but" and other small words, the length of his sentences and other unconscious practices in his writings or dictation.

Using the epistles to the Roman, Corinthians and Galatians as the input defining the literary habits of Paul to the computer, the other epistles are analyzed. These results confirmed the results shown in the table above. For instance, the epistle to the Ephesians was not considered by the computer to be a genuine Pauline document. [4] Perhaps the most conclusive results of these computer studies is that the so-called Pastoral Epistles (I & II Timothy and Titus) are definitely non-Pauline. [5]

We will therefore be accepting the general consensus as depicted in Table A above. Our subsequent discussions will only be drawn from documents that we have strong reasons to believe are authentic.

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Dating of the Genuine Pauline Epistles

The next question would be regarding the actual dating of the genuine documents. We can begin at setting the upper limit of their composition. There is a strong, and very likely authentic, tradition that Paul died in the Neronian persecution of Christians in AD64. [6] It is therefore reasonably certain that the genuine epistles must all be written before, or at the latest in, AD64.

If we assume the general reliability of the chronology of the Acts of the Apostles, we can set the lower limit. Based on internal evidences, the earliest Pauline epistle is the first epistle to the Thessalonians.

We can connect some statements found in this epistle with some events depicted in Acts. In chapter seventeen of Acts we are told that Paul's visit to Thessalonika was not without trouble. Paul and his followers had fled from there to Berea, another town in the province of Macedonia (See the map below).

map of the mediterranean in NT times
The Mediterranean in New Testament Times


Again trouble brewed in Berea and Paul left for Athens, leaving his followers, Timothy and Silas behind. We find Paul recalling this incident in the epistle:

I Thessalonians 3:1-2
Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God's servant in the gospel of Christ, to establish you in your faith and to exhort you,

After leaving Athens, Paul went to Corinth (Acts 18:1). It was here that Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia [b] to join Paul:

Acts 18:5
When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedo'nia, Paul was occupied with preaching...

In the epistle, Silas and Timothy was already with Paul when he was writing it:

I Thessalonians 1:1
Paul, Silva'nus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalo'nians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.

According to Paul, Timothy had just joined him:

I Thessalonians 3:6
But now that Timothy has come to us from you...

We can therefore say with some certainty that this epistle was written while Paul was in Corinth. [7] Around this time, according to Acts 18;12, Gallio was proconsul of Archaia. Based on an archaeological discovery (an inscription found in Delphi), Gallio's administration can be dated accurately to AD51-52. [8] The earliest extent Christian document, the epistle to the Thessalonians, was therefore written around AD51 or 52; this means that it preceded the earliest gospel, Mark, by at least two decades. We can conclude that all the Pauline epistles were written between AD51 and 64. Using similar deductive methods, by tying the chronology of Acts to the content of the epistles, the other genuine Pauline documents can also be dated. Given below is the summary of the dates:

EpistlesDate of Composition
Romans
I Corinthians
II Corinthians
Galatians
Philippians
I Thessalonians
Philemon
57
55
56
53 [c]
61-62
51-52
62
Table B: Approximate Dates of the Pauline Epistles [9]

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Notes

a.See “Paul and the Apostles” for a fuller discussion on Paul’s opinion and relationship with the apostles.
b.Thessalonika is a town in the province of Macedonia.
c.Some scholars put the composition of Galatians in AD57.

References

1.Davidson & Leaney, Biblical Criticism: p283
2.Davidson & Leaney, Biblical Criticism: p307-308
Rhein, Understanding the New Testament: 266-268
3.Armstrong, The First Christian: p42-43
Davidson & Leaney, Biblical Criticism: p283-286, 307-308
Howell-Smith, In Search of the Real Bible: p81-83
Rhein, Understanding the New Testament: p197-199,266-268, 283-284
Riedel, et.al, The Book of the Bible: p528
4.Ibid: p284
5.Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence: p131
6.Davidson & Leaney, Biblical Criticism: p283
7.Asimov, Guide to the Bible: p1134-1135
Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p385
8.Davidson & Leaney, Biblical Criticism: p282
Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence: p115-116
9.Armstrong, The First Christian: p182
Hugh J. Schonfield, The Original New Testament, Firethorn Press, London 1985: p271-411

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