A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Saturday, November 30, 2013

What Did Paul Write and When Did He Write it?

Concerning the authorship of the so-called disputed letters of Paul (Colossians, Ephesians, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), Tom Wright in his new two-volume epic saga, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, states the following:

Arguments from style are clearly important in principle. But they are hard to make in practice. We have such a tiny sample of Paul's writing, hardly an adequate database for definite conclusions about authorship. Those who have done computer analyses of Paul's style come up with more 'conservative' results than we might have expected. In fact, if it's stylistic differences we want, the most striking are, in my opinion, the radical differences between 1 and 2 Corinthians. The second letter to Corinth is much jerkier; its sentences are dense and convoluted, bending back on themselves, twisting to and fro with language about God, Jesus Christ, and Paul's ministry. The organization of the material is much less crisp. There is a far greater difference between those two Corinthian letters that there is between Galatians and Romans on the one hand and Ephesians and Colossians on the other; yet nobody for that reason cast doubt on 2 Corinthians. As John A.T. Robinson pointed out from personal experience a generation ago, a busy church leader may well write in very different styles for different occasions and audiences. The same person can be working simultaneously on a large academic project with careful, ponderous sentences and a short, snappy talk for Sunday school. It has not be unknown for senior biblical scholars to write children’s fiction [in fn.135 ...Among NT scholars who have written children's fiction we might mention C.H. Dodd and R.J. Bauckham]. More directly to the point, it has recently been argued strikingly that Ephesians and Colossians show evidence of a deliberate 'Asiatic' style which Paul could easily have adopted for readers in Western Turkey. I regard the possibility of significant variation in Paul's own style as much higher than the possibility that someone else, a companion or co-worker could achieve such a measure of similarity. Other historical examples of that genre do not encourage us to suppose they would have been so successful. –Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Vol. 1, pg. 60 (HT: Craig L. Adams, et al)

Interestingly enough, I raised the same question with Scot McKnight during dinner last week in Baltimore at AAR/SBL. Scot stated the following in a subsequent email that he gave me permission to post.

Once one recognizes how fluid and flexible writing was -- notetaking, discussions with Pauline companions, drafts, use of sermons, and then the hiring of an author/scribe -- the whole issue of authorship is shifted from common assumptions -- one author, one style, one sitting, consistency -- into enough permutations that proving someone did not write something is well-nigh impossible.

I must say that I resonate with Wright and McKnight on this matter. Over the years, I have become agnostic on the question of Pauline authorship of Colossians, Ephesians, and the pastoral epistles. One big reason is that I personally don't believe I know enough to draw such conclusions (even though I have in the past). Now, I would not suggest for a moment that because I am not qualified to make such decisions, no one else is. Indeed, I have more than a few friends who are quite capable and competent New Testament scholars who know far more than I do. So, in the midst of my authorial agnosticism, I must allow for the possibility that others can shine a more decisive light on the matter.

Having said that, however, I truly think that our lack of knowledge of the various contexts in which these ancient letters were written, and keeping in mind the various audiences and their culture and geography, and also not knowing how fluid and flexible the situation was from the writing of one letter to the next, warrants a little humility when conclusions about authorship must be drawn.

I know that as a pastor and an academic, I am conscious of the audience to whom I write. My doctoral dissertation on Colossians is not written in the same style and vocabulary as a sermon on Colossians. Would someone reading the sermon and the same amount of material from my dissertation conclude that each is the product of a different writer? Moreover, I can also see a noticeable difference in my writing over time. The passing of time and the wisdom that comes only from age changes one's writing style and content as well.

Personally, it matters not to me whether Paul wrote the two letters to Timothy we have in the New Testament. The New Testament canon has been given to us by the church, and that canon includes First and Second Timothy and the other disputed Paulines, and that is sufficient for me. When I write something of a scholarly nature about these letters, I will address the authorship question because in such a context it is necessary; and I will likely offer a tentative position on my part. But when I preach on these letters, I will offer them as a word from St. Paul to the church in the twenty-first century. I don't want historical dilemmas to mute theological reflection.

To quote Forrest Gump, "That's all I have to say about that."


James McGrath said...

I would have thought that we could at least agree that he didn't write the Gospel of Jesus' Wife in Coptic... :)

Allan Bevere said...

Oh... James... causing trouble again! lol......