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Authorship of the Pauline epistles

A picture of Paul of Tarsus
A 19th century picture of Paul of Tarsus
Pauline Epistles

The Authorship of the Pauline epistles is frequently debated; the Pauline epistles comprise a large portion of the New Testament.

When the first ever list of New Testament Canon was created, the creator of the list (Marcion, the 2nd century founder of Marcionism, similar to gnosticism) listed only the Gospel of Luke, and the epistles by Paul. However, in the list of Paul's epistles, the pastorals (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus) were not mentioned. The author of Ephesians itself draws on most of Paul's epistles in its style but seems to lack any reliance on 2 Thessalonians or the pastorals. For these reasons, authorship of many of the epistles traditionally attributed to Paul have been in doubt for many centuries by many critical scholars.


Undisputed epistles

In the order they appear in the New Testament, the epistles that are indisputably attributed to Paul are:

The other epistles have had various arguments and counter-arguments raised concerning whether Paul is their author.


Many scholars consider that Colossians was not written by Paul. One group of arguments against Paul's authorship relate to differences in vocabulary and style. However, the epistle does use many idiosyncrasies that are used in several of the epistles, which lends weight to Paul's authorship, for example, phrases such as en christo and en kurio are used in the same manner as elsewhere.

Other arguments rely on the polemical content of the letter, certain concepts, and false-teacher arguments, not expressed by other Christian writers until the end of the first century, making an appearance in Colossians.

The situation of the letter also supports the idea of Paul as author, matching the personal friendships expressed in Philemon, making many greetings relating to personal aquaintances. Those who contest Paul's authorship state that such parallels are merely due to a careful forger, deliberately introducing unnecessary additional greetings for the purpose of making the text appear more genuine. (disputed )

The extensiveness of the development of the theology in the epistle compared to that of other epistles has led many scholars to the opinion that if it is genuine, then it must be very late. However, due to the apparent consideration of the letter as genuine by the author of the Ephesians, then most scholars think that if Colossians is forged, it is very early.


For Pauline Authorship

It seems that there are few doubts in the early church that Paul was the author of the letter to the Ephesians. Early church fathers with authority use quotations from this letter in their writings. Examples can be seen in the writing of Tertullian (Against Marcion 5.22.17) , Clement of Alexandria ( Str 4.65) and St Irenaeus (Her 5.2.3). It is unlikely that such figures in the early church would have quoted the letter without believing that it carried the weight of Pauline authorship.

Against Pauline Authorship

However the majority, although not all, of recent scholarship would seem to point to a different author. These arguments can be summarised into four main areas.

Firstly, the considerable different style and vocabulary of the letter when compared to authentic Pauline writing. What is outstanding is the length of the sentences. There are 50 sentences in the letter, 9 of which contain more than 50 words. The closest comparison we can make is the letter to the Romans which consists of 3 sentences of comparable length amongst a total number of 581. Coupled with this stylistic anomaly we can also find 116 words that donít appear in what is accepted to be authentic Pauline writing.

Secondly, the theological viewpoint presented in the letter is markedly different to the other letters. The word Ekklesia is used for the first time to refer to the universal church rather than the local churches that Paul had founded. More significantly, the eschatology in the letter is very different to what we can normally see in Paul. The absence of the expectation of Christís imminent return, and a mention of future generations and concern for social order seem contrary to Paulís belief stated in Romans and Corinthians that the end is very close.

Thirdly, the image of Paul in the letter is very strong, he is presented as being the prisoner for Christ, an exclusive use of the definitive article which seems to place Paul above any other persecuted Christian. Also there is, unusually for Paul, no mention of any other disciples or helpers. This clashes with the self understanding of Paul of being a co-founder of the Christian Tradition with the other apostles. This clash is more pronounced if it is taken in to consideration the disputed status of Paul as an apostle, and his own acute awareness of his role in the early persecution of the Church as Saul. This exclusive portrayal of Pauline authority seems to belong more much to the vision of someone wishing to promote this after his death.

Finally, strong evidence of the reliance on the authentic Pauline Letter to the Colossians , seems to indicate that this is a letter written after his death, intending to restate and develop some of his theology.

Over 40 areas of the text can be identified in Colossians which Ephesians reproduces, expands upon them and adding. (disputed ) It is for this reason that Ephesians is considered to be an edited and reworked reproduction of Colossians, though whether this is due to Paul seeking to emphasise particular meanings, or whether it is down to a forger trying to alter perception of Paul's teachings, is a matter of dispute. (disputed )

The Second Epistle to the Thessalonians

Udo Schnelle has shown that 2 Thessalonians is significantly different in style from the undisputed epistles, being whole and narrow rather than a lively and abrupt discussion on a range of issues. Neither does 2 Thessalonians have significant open or deep questions, unlike much of the remainder of Paul's writing. Moreover, Alfred Loisy has argued that it seems to reflect knowledge of the synoptic gospels, which had not been written when Paul wrote his epistles. Bart Ehrman has noted that the insistence of genuineness within the letter, and the strong condemnation of forgery at its start, are ploys commonly used in forged documents.

Another issue often raised is that of context; for example, Norman Perrin claims that in the time of Paul, prayer usually treated God (the Father) as ultimate judge, rather than Jesus (a focus on Jesus did not become popular until the end of the first century); since 2 Thessalonians states may the Lord direct your hearts to ... the steadfastness of Christ (3:5) in contrast to 1 Thessalonians' may establish your hearts unblamable ... before God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus.... (3:13), this supposedly implies it was written sometime after Paul's death.

The main theological difference between the two epistles, according to these scholars, is that in 1 Thessalonians, the day of Christ is nigh, wheras the main body of 2 Thessalonians seems entirely dedicated to showing that it is not, and in fact many things must happen first. They think the reason for the appearance of 2 Thessalonians was due to there not having been a second coming before Paul died, and that 2 Thessalonians has no other purpose.

The pastoral epistles

The pastoral epistles were first cast into doubt by the knowledge that Marcion, in his compilation of the first known list of New Testament canon, in selecting only the epistles by Paul and the Gospel of Luke, did not make mention of them. Tertullian expressed his astonishment at Marcion's omission. Later attempts to settle the issue centred on textual criticism and comparison with the other pauline epistles, the severity of the differences between these causing such technical matters to be the main thrust of the argument against Paul's authorship of the texts. Such issues are usually assigned by supporters of the view that Paul is the author to human variability.

The vocabulary used in the pastorals is distinctly at variance with that of the other epistles, to the extent that it matches texts from general hellenic philosophy more than any of the other pauline epistles. Although statistical analysis never provides concrete argument, over 1/3 of the vocabulary is not used anywhere else in the pauline epistles, and over 1/5 is not used anywhere else in the New Testament. However, the vocabulary is similar to that of 2nd century Christian writers, although Paul was a 1st century writer, for which there is much less similarity to the general vocabulary.

The style in which the vocabulary is used also differs, for example rather than having faith used on its own, faith becomes part of the body of Christian faith. Also, the pastorals are noticeably meditative, and quiet, which is characteristic of literary hellenistic Greek, rather than the dynamic Greek with dramatic arguments with outbursts and opponents that are used in the remaining epistles attributed to Paul.

However, the situation in which Paul is set in the pastorals is one towards the end of his life, so these variations could be due to the change from middle age to an older man. Norman Perrin has pointed out that this situation cannot be fitted into any reconstruction of Paul's life or works as determined from the other epistles or from Acts. Harnack, Lightfoot and others have suggested hypothetical scenarios that would have these epistles written near the end of Paul's life without contradicting biographical information in the other epistles or Acts.

In terms of theology, most scholars perceive that the pastorals reflect more the characteristics of 2nd century (non-gnostic) church thought, than those of the 1st century. In particular, whilst in the 1st century the idea of Christ's time being immediate was current (as also described in the non-pastoral epistles), in the 2nd century it was seen as more distant, matching the choice of the pastorals to lay down instructions for a long time after the passing away of the apostles.

The pastorals in particular lay out church organisation, and how offices such as bishop and deacon should be run, a feature which the church would have found remarkably convenient, particularly against the more gnostic side of Christianity who neither supported formal structure, nor forbade any position to women (since gnostics viewed the body as the esoteric prison for asexual re-incarnatable souls). Also, the pastorals lay out a peculiar ecclesiastical office, that of the widows (prayer connected to chastity); most scholars believe that this office only appeared in the later 2nd century, rather than the time of Paul.

Another peculiarity is in regard to false teachers, which the pastorals seem particularly devoted to, in particular condemning hellenic mysticism and gnosticism. Rather than engage in theological debate with the false teachers (as Paul describes doing in the other epistles attributed to him), the pastorals merely suggest quoting scripture. Scholars such as Kummel suggest that if the lack of debate with false teachers were only due to them not being worth contradiction, then there would be no necessity to warn people of them in the first place. Thus scholars of this view suggest that the church faced a serious threat from such teachers, as the prior epistles either supported or accepted their view, and thus the church fabricated the pastoral epistles to support their case.

Scholars now generally agree that these epistles were known by Polycarp and Ignatius of Antioch, and may have also been known by Clement. These would place the pastorals no later than the early second century or late first century.


The Epistle to the Hebrews does not explicitly name its own author, although church tradition held it to have been Paul. However, since the style is so different, the authorship was distinctly disputed even in ancient times; early church authorities even went so far as to acknowledge the distinct appearance of a different author. Attempts to resolve this issue whilst holding on to the idea of Paul's authorship, in order to give the text authoritative weight, produced the argument that the difference was due to Paul having been assisted, for example by Luke or Clement of Rome.

However, other ancient authorities, such as Tertullian, noted the extremely different manner in which the theology, and doctrine, of the epistle appear. This variance led many to name other candidates for authorship, such as the fellow traveller of Paul called Barnabas (favoured by Tertullian), a follower of John the Baptist called Apollos (favoured by Martin Luther and several modern scholars), as well as less likely candidates such as Silas. Origen suggested that the answer would remain unknown, except to God.

See Also


  • The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture - Bart Ehrman
  • The Gnostic Paul - Elaine Pagels
  • An Introduction to the New Testament - Richard Heard
  • The History and Theology of the New Testament Writings - Udo Schnelle
  • The New Testament: An Introduction - Norman Perrin
  • Introduction to the New Testament - Werner Kummel
Last updated: 06-02-2005 12:25:14
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