Paul and the Pastorals

On Facebook yesterday someone asked me if I wouldn’t mind recounting my journey away from affirmation of Paul’s authorship of the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus). So here goes.

First, the freedom to pursue the question was instilled in me through my pro-inerrancy education at Westminster Seminary (though one going to WTS now would not be given the same freedom). At the time I went, there was a flourishing tradition of carefully distinguishing between the commitment to inerrancy and particular hermeneutical and/or critical conclusions.

This tradition was embodied in the title of a 1988 faculty collection, Inerrancy and Hermeneutic (ed. Harvey Conn). In that collection, Moises Silva says that even the issue of who wrote a letter, which may seem in some ways to be the most obvious conclusion to draw from an “inerrant” Bible (I mean, if you can’t believe the “From” line of the letter, what can you believe?), is an issue that must be decided based on historical evidence. And, if a letter is found to be pseudepigraphical, then our understanding of what it means to affirm an inerrant Bible must be shaped so as to allow for that.

This is reflective of an important factor that drives a lot of my work: that no theology worth holding is going to so exert its control over our reading of the Bible that it will forbid us from saying what good exegesis of the passage demands that we say.

In this case, I don’t find persuasive that there is much theologically at stake for recognizing that Paul did not write these letters. They are scripture and therefore we have them as part of the canon, the rule of the church’s faith and life.

There are a couple of standard arguments against Pauline authorship of the Pastorals that I do not (or, did not) find persuasive:

  1. The difference between the free-form churches of Paul and the highly organized and therefore presumably later churches of the pastorals. The introduction to Philippians addresses the letter to those at Philippi, “including the overseers and deacons.” Paul’s churches seem to have had some organization.
  2. The place of women was not persuasive at first. This has come to bear more weight for me, but I think that the things Paul says in 1 Cor 11, the thing Paul may or may not have said about women in 1 Cor 14, etc. give some room for differentiation of roles in the church, or ways to articulate male-female relations that are not categorically different from the Pastorals. I see the differences as somewhat more significant now, but this was not a major factor for me.

On a few other issues, the differences between Paul’s letters and the Pastorals began to make their weight felt. The weight of these arguments became greater to me the longer I sat with Paul’s letters, not merely doing more in-depth research but getting more familiar with the texts themselves. I don’t think I would feel the weight of these so much if I hadn’t read through Paul’s letters dozens of times in Greek and memorized all thirteen in English. I’m not saying you have to do either of these to argue with me, but in my own story that’s how it worked.

  1. Most importantly for me, the arguments work differently. The way that Paul theologizes is from the Christ event to God, to the community, to himself, to scripture, etc. The death and resurrection/reign of Jesus (and imminent return) shape all of Paul’s theology. But this is not how 1 Timothy and Titus argue. They appeal to principles, trustworthy sayings, etc. I think 2 Timothy has better claims to Pauline authorship on precisely this ground: the resurrection of Jesus shapes a tremendous amount of the letter’s theologizing.
  2. Paul’s letters and the Pastorals talk about God and Jesus differently. Uses of words such as “savior” differ; the idea of whether salvation is primarily seen as past-tense-received or present-progressive-and-future-tense-in-store differs.
  3. The Greek is different. An early twentieth century study (I can’t remember by whom, E. P. Sanders had me read it when I was at Duke) researched the coincidence of the vocabulary from Paul’s letters and the Pastorals, finding that the vocab of the latter that is not found elsewhere in Paul’s letters tends to be found in other Greek manuscripts that date to the 2d century, whereas Paul’s vocabulary corresponds with other Greek writings from the first. This study puts some specifics on what reading the letters in Greek communicates: they not only feel different argumentatively, but they also reflect a different stock vocabulary.
  4. Theologically they are different, especially the ways that 1 Timothy and Titus reflect on the Law and Judaism.

Finally, I don’t think that 1 Timothy and Titus can fit into the chronology of Paul’s life. Typically, fitting the Pastorals into Paul’s life requires creating a new chapter that includes a release from Roman prison, another set of missionary work, a new arrest and then death in Rome. I find this an unnecessarily cumbersome hypothesis, one likely to be false.

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