When I got to seminary, I found out a lot of people think Paul didn’t all the letters attributed to him in the New Testament. Actually, it’s not just that some people don’t, but rather it’s the dominant position in non-conservative academia, and even many conservative scholars adopt it. The idea is that letters like Ephesians, Colossians, the Timothys, Titus, and 2 Thessalonians are later compositions, pseudepigraphal, either by an imposter, or a devoted disciple that claim Paul’s name and authority. Depending on how conservative you are, you might say that the earliest recipients would have, of course, known this, and so there really wasn’t fraud being committed, but rather this would have been seen as an acceptable instance of a very common practice. Or, you might just call it lying.
While I can’t get into all of the details, one of the main arguments against their authenticity is the alleged difference in style and vocabulary. When you compare and contrast the undisputed letters to the others, you apparently find different vocabularies employed, special terminology missing or in use, sentence construction and so forth.
Now, I have to admit, when it comes to the Pauline epistles, I’ve never found this sort of argumentation all that convincing. Actually, I said as much in a footnote in one of my papers in seminary:
I’ve never been very impressed with arguments like that. “Paul couldn’t have said this, because he never says this kind of thing, as far as we know.” But what if he just said it in the passage? Then it would be the kind of thing he would say. I find this to be especially problematic given the contextual nature of these letters. It strikes me as kind of like saying, C.S. Lewis couldn’t have written The Space Trilogy because he never talked about aliens in The Chronicles of Narnia and the former is written for adults and clearly the latter is for children. Or it’s like saying “Oh, Bob could never have talked about that with his girlfriend Gina. I know that because I know what he talks about with his mother.” Barring a demonstration of contradiction or of unacceptably different conceptual backgrounds, these arguments often-times are simply an elevated exercise in question-begging that don’t take seriously issue of the way contextual concerns dominate the theology of Paul’s letters and the topics he chooses to address.
Now, you could easily chalk that up to a young, conservative student’s incredulity towards disturbing scholarship. Sometimes I’ve been tempted to. Imagine my delight, then, when I found out that N.T. Wright agrees with me!
Wright dives into the issue of authorship in his first volume of Paul and the Faithfulness of God (yes, I started it and a couple hundred pages in it’s great) in order defend his use of Ephesians and Colossians as source material instead of simply sticking to the undisputed seven letters. While he has a fascinating section dealing with the theological motives in play for doubting the letters I’d love to get into (in the early days, the problem was that the general epistles sounded too “Catholic” for modern liberal Protestants to stomach, nowadays it’s more from postmodern egalitarians who don’t like what Paul has to say in the household codes), it’s his short (for Wright) little section on the style issue that I found worth highlighting:
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
So then, style matters, but it isn’t everything. If a NT scholar can write children’s lit, and someone as limited in range as me can write about epistemology and dating tips, then we ought to be wary about these sorts of judgments, when you’re dealing with a versatile thinker like Paul who’s doing ministry on multiple fronts across a series of decades.
And that’s just one of the dozens of nuggets worth sharing out of Wright’s PFG.
Soli Deo Gloria